Last updated November 22, 2013


What's new

Introduction to date nails--this page
What is a date nail?
How date nails were used
Brief history of date nails
Frequently asked questions
Acquiring date nails
Ads from collectors

Resources page
The book:  Date Nails and Railroad Tie Preservation  (for errata click here)
The Booklet:  Railroad Date Nails:  Collecting for Fun
The Texas Date Nail Collectors' Association
Octave Chanute Exhibit
The upcoming date nail show
The e-mail newsletter Nail Notes
The date nail discussion forum
Other pages
Photo Album
Photos of nails
Table:  History of railroad tie preservation

Screw Dowels on the Santa Fe
Book Review:  The Wood Crosstie
Stubby Shadow Set--Solved?
Spikes, Ties & Rails:  A Review
The Chanute letters

Visits since April 2, 2001 

What is a date nail?

    Briefly, a date nail is a nail with the date stamped in its head.  For example, a nail with a "41" is from 1941.  They are usually 2 1/2" long, with 1/4" shanks.  Date nails were driven into railroad ties, bridge timbers, utility poles, mine props, and other wooden structures for record keeping purposes.  I concentrate primarily on the nails used by railroads.  For a good site on date nails from poles, go to Scott Weed's site:

    Most date nails are steel, though many are copper, aluminum, malleable iron, or brass. Lengths run from a paltry 3/4" up to 3", with shank diameters running from 1/8" up to 5/16".  The nail heads can be round, square, diamond, pentagon, as well as other rarer shapes.  Over 2,000 different date nails were used by North American railroads which show the year.  Add to that the nails which tell wood, treatment, and other information, and toss in all date nails used in poles and other timbers, and the total number of different nails from this continent easily exceeds 3,500.

A typical date nail.  This one was manufactured to be 2 1/2" long (it was cut a little short), and is made from steel wire 1/4" in diameter.  The date 18 (1918) is stamped in the head.  Note the crude, somewhat faint diamond on the shank to the left of the anchor markings.  It might look more like a horizontal blob on this nail.  It indicates that the nail was made by American Steel & Wire Co.

    There is a standard notation to describe date nails.  The 18 pictured above is:  2 1/2  x  1/4  rnd I          stl (07) 18.  It is 2 1/2" long, 1/4" in diameter, rnd = round head (& shank), I = indented figures, stl = steel, (07) = code for American Steel & Wire, 18 = the date.
(These and all other photos of single nails on these pages were taken by Tom Meyer.)

    For a photo of a date nail in a tie in the track, click here.  The date nail is outside the rail, at the bottom of the picture.  It is a 62 (unreadable in the photo) from the Florida East Coast.  Go to the Photo Album for more pics of nails in ties.

How date nails were used

    Date nails were manufactured by steel companies on high speed machines, even in the early years.  If a railroad wanted to use date nails, they would order the kind of nails they wanted (for instance, a 2 1/2" x 3/16" steel nail, round with raised numerals "34").  Then the nails were driven into ties either at the treating plant, to indicate the year of treatment, or at the track, to indicate the year the tie was laid.

    When a rotted or mechanically damaged tie was removed, the date on the nail was noted.  Ties were never removed because of age, so date nails did not tell section foremen when to replace ties.  In fact, some railroads found that dated ties lasted longer than usual because the men took special care of them.

    In the first decade of the 20th century railroads which used date nails drove them into every treated tie.  Some lines found the record obtained by this method to be a failure, so beginning 1909 some railroads concentrated their record in special test sections.  For these companies keeping track of only a few thousand ties was far more economical and accurate than tracking several million ties.  By the early 1920's, however, most of these railroads had returned to the practice of placing nails in every treated tie.

    Each railroad conducted its own experiments, so the nails used on one railroad will not be like those on other lines.  For example, compare the Lehigh Valley with the New York Central:

The LV 11 is the same style nail as the NYC 11:  square head & shank, indented numbers.  In other years the nails differ. The NYC stuck primarily with square nails while the LV used round nails.  Neither company was loyal to a single steel company, either.  The NYC bought its 1910-1913 nails from American Steel & Wire Co., its 1914-1915 nails from Jones & Laughlin, its 1916 nails from American Casting & Manufacturing, etc.

    Some railroads never used date nails at all, like the Southern RR.  Still others used them for a short time (Monon:  1908-1910) and others for a long time (Santa Fe:  1901-1969).

    Often the shape of the nail head has some significance.  For example, on the El Paso & Southwestern round nails were driven into zinc chloride treated ties while diamond nails were driven into creosoted ties.

Brief history of date nails

    Western Europe suffered a timber shortage much earlier than North America, which is why railroads in France, England, and Germany were chemically treating ties long before companies here.  Date nails were in use in France by 1870, possibly as early as 1859.  Wherever treated ties come into use, date nails are not far behind.  Railroads need a way to monitor their investment in treating, and date nails became the most common method of this record keeping.

    When North American railroads began to experiment with treated ties in the second half of the 1800's, it was not known which chemicals, treatment methods, or woods were most economical.  They needed some method of keeping track of the lives of ties, so like their European counterparts, they decided to mark them.  Early methods included:

By the late 1800's American railroads settled on the use of date nails.  The oldest known North American date nail is a 97 from the Mississippi River & Bonne Terre.  It was in 1899 that major railroads begain using nails to date ties with nails:  that year the Chicago & Eastern Illinois, the Great Northern, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, and the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie began nail use.  Others soon followed.

    By the 1920's nail use was the norm. It peaked in the early 1930's with over a hundred different railroads using date nails in 1931. The depression, then the second world war adversely affected nail use, and from 1950 to 1970 the number of railroads using date nails steadily declined so that for the past thirty years virtually no railroad has used them. The newest date nail in a tie in North America is an aluminum 01 (2001) from a U.S. Navy track in New Jersey (thanks to George Oliva for tracking this down). The decline in the use of date nails can be attributed mainly to two things: the perfection of treatment techniques, and to the reliance of stamps in the ends of the ties for records.

    To properly understand the history of date nails, you have to become familiar with the history of railroad tie preservation.  My book is devoted to both subjects.  For some tie preservation tidbits, click here.

Frequently asked questions

  • Did the nails hold anything down?

  • No. Date nails were used only to date the tie.  The nail was driven in the upper face of the tie away from the rail. Date nails are much smaller than railroad spikes, which secure the rail to the tie.
  • How can I tell what railroad used my nails?

  • The railroad name is NOT on the nail.  No railroad put its name, initials, or monogram on a date nail.  We know pretty much which nails were used by which railroads becuase collectors have walked the tracks for the past thirty years and have recorded their finds.  This information is compiled in the book Date Nail and Railroad Tie Preservation, so given a handful of date nails you can compare them with the book to find out who used them.
  • Does the nail always show the date?

  • No.  By far most date nails show the date, but many railroads used nails to indicate the species of wood, the kind of treatment, the length of the tie (at switches), among other things.  Nails from utility poles can show the class (diameter), height, or ownership.
        Some nails have letters instead of numbers.  A "B" from the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh, for example, was driven into a Beech tie.  Another example:  on the Santa Fe the nail "OZ" was used in oil-zinc chloride treated ties.
        Beware of single digit nails:  some are dates (i.e. a "4" is from 1904), but many are code nails.  The Southern Pacific used code nails 0 through 9 to number bridge pilings. The Louisville & Nashville used single digit code nails to number switches.  Other railroads used code nails to number ties in test sections.
        The Union Pacific and the treatment company Southern Wood Piedmont drove nails into the ends of overlength ties at switches to indicate tie length.  On most UP nails these were clearly not used to date the ties:  A nail will read 8FT  over 6", or 12'.  But those used by SWP will have 9 over 6, 10, 10 over 6, 11, and so on.  A 16 in this series will look like a 1916 date nail.  See the photo of the SWP 17 on the photo page.  One seller on eBay thought his 9 over 6 was an 1896 date nail!  It was driven into a 9 1/2 foot tie, and probably dates from the 1970's or 1980's!
        Pole height nails often cause confusion.  They look just like the nails used to date timbers, reading 35, 40, 45, 50, and so on in increments of 5.  A 35 was used in a pole 35 feet high, for example.
        My book makes all these distinctions clear.  If you have a nail, you can look it up in the photo section to see if it is a date or if it is a code for something else.  If it is a code nail I include information on what the nail was used for (when that info is available).
  • Isn't pulling date nails illegal?

  • Yes, it is, if you don't ask for permission. By wandering on to an active line and pulling nails you are trespassing, vandalizing, and stealing, though railroads in general not only do not care about the nails, they are no longer aware they are even there.  If you ask for permission first, you will almost always be given a positive nod to go ahead.
  • Where can I find nails?

  • Either you can pull them yourself, or you can get them from other collectors by buying or trading.  See Acquiring date nails below.
  • Are you the only nut who does this?

  • No!  There are about 190 members of the TDNCA, and subscribers to my Nail Notes, most of whom are NOT in the TDNCA, number over 300. Over 350 copies of Date Nails and Railroad Tie Preservation have sold so far.
  • How can I clean my nails? Should I clean them at all?

  • Some collectors prefer nails with their rusty patina intact.  If you like shiny new-looking nails, let them sit overnight in a jar of vinegar. Don't use any really abrasive method of cleaning, like sandblasting or muratic acid, and don't paint, varnish, or plate your nails.  To protect them from rusting over again, one collector sprays them with WD-40.
  • How can I display my nails?

  • First, ask you wife (assuming you are male and married) if she WANTS these old ugly things displayed.  Once you have been relegated to the basement, an easy method is to take a piece of pegboard, drill the holes bigger (say to 7/16") and put it in a wooden frame of your construction.  The nails fit nicely in the holes.  I have some old maple drawers whose bottoms I replaced with pegboard.  Now these hang vertically on the wall so the nails are plainly visible.
  • I just want to sell my nails!  How do I do it?

  • Here are your possibilities:
            (a) Put them up for bids on eBay.
            (b) I will put a free ad for you on my e-mail newseltter Nail Notes,  Over 300 people subscribe currently.
            (c) You can put an ad in the quarterly newletter Nailer News, publised by the Texas Date Nail Collectors' Association.
    Before you do one of the three, it is best to know what railroad (or utility company) used your nails, and you should have a way to describe them accurately (a photo is nice).  The more you know about your nails, the better they will sell.  Contact me for more info.  And remember that I do not buy, sell, or trade nails myself.
  • How do I find out more about date nails?

  • Buy the book and read it!  It is the best deal on a well-researched railroad topic you can find. 560 information-packed pages for only $30!  Also, join the TDNCA and read the quarterly Nailer News which comes with membership.  Lastly, subscribe (for free) to my e-mail newsletter Nail Notes.
  • I have a nail with an "X" on the head.  What is it?

  • Both the Santa Fe and the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh used "X" nails to indicate a substandard tie or timber.  Many ties, after leaving the treating plant, are found to be sub-standard.  Some have a little premature rot, while others suffer from checking (splitting) in the ends.  Often these ties are still fit to be used, so the railroad would drive an "X" nail to indicate that they did not want them counted in the annual statistics.  The BR&P used a nail with an indented X from ca. 1911 to 1932.  The Santa Fe began using a raised X sometime 1926-36, and they stopped perhaps about 1959.
  • I have a nail which reads "PK" on the head.  What does it mean?

  • This is not a railroad nail.  PK stands for Parker-Kalon, and PK nails are used by surveyors to mark points in their work.  They drive them into poles, trees, fenceposts, ties, or whatever timber is available.  Do not pull any more of them---otherwise you may cause them extra work in recalibrating their positions!

    Acquiring date nails

        There are two ways to get date nails:  (1) Pull them yourself from ties, or (2) Buy or trade for them.  I will briefly describe each of these.

    Pulling nails.

    These days there are two problems with walking down a railroad track and pulling nails:  First, railroads are quite a bit more intolerant of people walking the tracks as they once were, and second, there just aren't many nails out there in active track anymore.  The best way to get nails "from the source" depends on your location.  In most parts of the country you should do the following:

            a.  Find out which railroads near you used date nails in abundance.  My book will help at this step.  consult old maps which give the names of the railroads as they were a half century ago or so. New maps often label rail lines "Conrail", "Norfolk Southern", or other modern post-nail railroads.
            b.  Pick, if possible, an abandoned branch, and walk the right-of-way.  Look for ties cast off the embankments when the railroad was in operation.  Keep an eye out for ties re-used as fenceposts, in driveways, old buildings, etc.  Railroads which ran through wooded, hilly areas are best.  If you only have main lines around, crisscross the railroad in your car and keep an eyeout for tie fenceposts.  People who live in desert aras have good luck dragging magnets in the ballast and in burn pits.  In some areas metal detectors help.
            c.  This one is important:  KEEP A WRITTEN RECORD OF WHAT YOU FIND!  You might think "Oh, I'll remember where I got these nails."  You won't.  I have corresponded with five dozen date nail collectors, and ALL have rusty memories!  Beginners can make real contributions in this hobby because I have had to rely on these recollections for some of the information in my book.  Let me know what you find!

    Buying or trading nails.

            a.  Keep an eye out at railroadiana & antique shows/malls, flea markets, yard sales, etc.  Lots of good nails turn up this way.
            b.  Contact other nail collectors.  This is the best way to get lots of nails quickly.  Most experienced collectors have thousands of extras lying around, and beginners are always willing to trade.  You can join the TDNCA and/or subscribe to my Nail Notes to get names and addresses.
            c.  Buy nails through eBay or other auctions.  I monitored eBay continually from 1999 to 2001, and here are some important tips for the beginner:
                    i.  I saw only a few rare nails on eBay.  When sellers use the word "RARE" in their description they often know nothing about how rare their nails really are.  Disregard the advertizing fluff.
                    ii.  Some lots are misidentified.  Someone will write, for example, "15 B&M nails" when in fact some are from the New Haven, from poles, or elsewhere.  This problem was far worse in 1999 than it is now.  If in doubt, write to me and I will tell you if the lot is listed right.  In nearly all cases the seller just does not know where the nails are from---the attribution is either a guess or the seller was told bad info.
                    iii.  As of 1999 there were many common lots selling for several dollars per nail---way too much!  Things settled down by mid 2000.  Still, occasionally common nails sell for too much while better lots go unnoticed.
                    iv.  One way to tell how much nails sell for is to search for "dat* nail*" (without quotes) on eBay, then click "search completed auctions" to view lots which have sold.
                    v.  At nail shows you can buy nice condition nails---many of them rather scarce---for a nickel apiece.  But you have to GET to a show to do this.  Nails are commonly offered at roughly dollar each at railroadina and antique shows.  Nice, properly attributed common nails from your favorite line are worth about dollar each, but don't offer a lot more unless you know you are bidding on rare nails.  And do find out what shipping & handling will cost before you bid.

    See the Frequently Asked Questions above for info on cleaning and displaying nails.

    Back to Faculty page