a nail in a plank getting nails out

Nine ways: Getting nails out, even when buried

Sometimes you need to remove the nails holding a piece of wood rather than just pulling the whole thing off in one violent go. Getting nails out first allows you to carefully remove a whole piece of wood, without damaging any surrounding planks.

a nail in a piece of wood
A buried nail, not the easiest to get out.

It’s best to just show you with an example, I think. This morning I had to remove the bottom few rows of some ‘double lap’ or shiplap type cladding because it was past its best. But I wasn’t taking it all off so I had to be careful not to damage the thin, fragile bottom edge of the last board I was leaving in place.

If I just put a bar behind the cladding and wrenched outwards, it would break off the lower tongue and then I’d need to remove that one as well. That could go on right to the top lol!

There are several ways to avoid breaking stuff when removing nailed timber (this works to remove stripped screw heads as well). Here are nine ways I could think of…

Nine ways to get your nails out

Getting nails out the easy ways first…

Method One: Already exposed nail heads

When nails are asking to be pulled out…

This method is relevant if the Gods of DIY are smiling on you. Sometimes the weather and seasonal expansion and contraction causes nails to inch their way out over the years. Making it easy to remove the nails and lift out the piece. On my little job one or two were already sticking out a little so I hooked the pry bar or claw hammer behind them and pulled them out (this is common on decades old wood which has moved around over the years).

Method Two: Lever a little

lever out wood to expose the nail head
Gently lever out, you don’t want to break the wood.

I removed some nails by placing the bar behind the cladding and pulling it forward just enough to pull the nail head out a little. When I let go of the bar, the wood goes back and it leaves the nail sticking out just enough for me to pull it out. Be careful though, pull it too far and you’ll risk breaking the aforementioned tongue.

nail head sticking out
Let go of the bar and the wood goes back but hopefully the nail stays out.

If the nail goes back in with the wood, try levering the wood out as before and then slide something up the back of the wood to hit the nail (on the part behind the wood). A bolster or the claw from your hammer works well for this. Hitting the shank of the nail puts a kink in it and often stops the nail going back in when you release the bar pressure.

Then there were some nails at the top of the cladding, next to the piece I was leaving in place. Putting the bar under the bottom edge didn’t move these nails at all. Time to get a little more aggressive.

Getting stubborn nails out…

Method Three: Wood chisel

chisel out around nail head
Chisel just above and just below the nail (to protect your chisel edge).

I use my ‘No. 2’ chisel (don’t use your best one, you’ll chip the edge for sure) to chisel or break out a shallow chip next to the nail head, hammer in the chisel about an inch or 25mm to the side of the nail, towards the nail, go once above the nail and once below the nail.

exposed nail head in cladding
You can see the nail head now.

Now you can see the nail head in the wood. Take your pry bar (I like thin, flat bars) and hammer the “V” into the wood around the nail. I hope the pics make this clear. I really need to get into video lol!

grab the nail head with your wrecking bar, thin types work best.
Hammer the head of the wrecking bar into the wood around the nail head (thin type bars work best).

Method Four: Rotten wood/ straight in

Sometimes you don’t even need the wood chisel mentioned above. The wood is so soft around the nail that you can drive the wrecking bar straight into the wood around the nail like this…

Easy work when the wood is as old as this…

Method Five: The nail punch

This method is only suitable for the brave and stout of heart because it’s real easy to hurt yourself. You’ll need a grip of steel and nerves to match!

Using a heavy nail punch, simply drive the nail into the board and keep going until it’s all the way through to the framing. I said it was brutal! Obviously, the larger the head on the nail, the harder this method is going to be.

Method Six: Special hand tools

For those taking this seriously or those who just love new tools, there are of course special tools made just for grabbing nails and pulling them out.

Used a lot in the reclaimed wood furniture business these are useful if you need to remove nails on a regular basis.

Pry bars designed to dig in around the nail head

These bars do the job of the chisel and pry bar I talked about above, all in one action. Click the image to see them on amazon (I get a tiny commission too!). Just hammer the point of the bar into the wood around the nail head.

pry bar for nail removal

Tool designed to grab the nail head

These are an old design and are very adept at getting nails out. They work best on horizontal surfaces, but with a bit of practice it’s possible to use them anywhere (click the image to see them on amazon and support this site).

old style nail remover

Method Seven: Multisaws

Another special tool. Using a Fein type multi saw you can run the small saw blade around each nail or using the larger blade run across the top edge of the last board you want to remove and cut the tongue off which disappears under the upper board/first board you want to keep.

What to do if you must save the workpiece

Someone just asked me what to do if you absolutely must save the wood (special profiles or unavailability etc.). It is possible with a tiny bit of extra work. There are a couple of ways actually, and both require little work to do on the workpiece before it’s ready to refit.

Method Eight: The homemade core drill

homemade core bit out of a pipe
Rough, but good enough for removing a few nails…

First grab yourself a thin metal pipe, with an internal diameter just bigger than the nail head. Take your hacksaw and saw a few shallow cuts into the end of the metal pipe, angle a bit if you like. Imagine you’re trying to cut some ‘teeth’ into the end of the pipe. You can even twist the ‘teeth’ slightly with needle nose pliers etc.

The teeth don’t need to be brilliant, just good enough to chew the wood out around the nail shank.

holesaw in drill chuck
Make sure the pipe you choose fits into your drill chuck…

Position your brand new ‘hole saw’ over the nail head at a slight angle, fire up the drill and touch the edge of the hole saw onto the wood just in front of the nail or screw you want to remove. Hold the drill firmly to stop it pulling away.

holesaw without a centre drill bit
Don’t try to start the hole flat like this, it will ‘walk’ all over the surface…

Again, be careful when you start up the drill and touch the workpiece because it will try to jump around. Core drills usually have a centre guide drill bit you see.

Once started, tilt the drill bit up till it’s in line with the nail and drill around the nail head and through the wood until you feel it exit the back (there is often a tiny jump as it goes through the back and hits the timber behind). Here is a rough video of a mock up I did to demonstrate…

removing nails core bit or holesaw
Results after cutting around and getting the nail out, or rather getting the wood out from off the nail, you still need to pull out the nail with your wrecking bar!

Method Nine: Chain drilling

Almost exactly as above in method eight, but without the metal pipe. Use a small drill bit (1/8” or 3mm) and drill a series of tightly spaced holes around the edge of the nail head. Keep going around and around using the drill bit as a kind of ‘milling’ tool to get as much wood fibre out from around the nail shank as possible. Be careful and watch for the drill bit snagging on the nail shank as you drill.

Repairing damage after getting nails out with method eight and nine

Okay, so you now have your wood off the framing, largely intact. Now what to do with the gurdy great big holes in it?

The easiest way is to drill a further, bigger hole through the damage and glue a piece of dowel into it. Saw, plane, chisel or sand down the excess once the glue has dried.

On high end work, you’ll need a plug cutter to cut and glue a matching plug to go into said hole. This has the benefit of keeping the wood grain all going in the right direction. If the workpiece is thick enough, you can cut a plug from the back of it, this way the grain matches exactly.

Okay, in conclusion

Repeat which ever method works for you as necessary to get your nails out. Some are crude methods for sure, but they are all quick and they guarantee the violence goes into the wood you don’t want and thus protects the pieces you are keeping.

Getting nails out first is a much safer way of dismantling smaller, or delicate jobs (see pic below). Going at stuff hammer and tongs creates damage which you then need to repair as well. Plus the resulting waste wood is already de-nailed and safe.

All finished with new cladding in place, screwed on this time lol!

I hope you find these authentic job examples useful. I also hope you can take the example and apply the tips to a job you might be thinking about.

Happy hammering 🙂

Okay, that’s all. Let me know in the comments if I’ve forgotten something (it happens lol!).
Stay well


Comments 4

    1. Post
  1. Hi Ian,not sure why but I cant see any pictures on this page except for the video where you drill with the pipe ? this includes a big black square at the top,other that that good advice ;0)

    1. Post

      Hey Howie,
      Thanks for letting me know. I’ve been having some trouble lately with some plugin or other on the website. I think I fixed it now. Unfortunately I’m not as good at fixing ‘code’ as I am at fixing houses, cars and stuff lol!

      Glad you liked it anyway, and you didn’t have to suffer the indignity of looking at my crude homemade core bit 😉
      Cheers again

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