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A Guide to Nail Sets

Here are the different types, features, sizes of nail set tools and when to use them.

There's a reason most tool belts have narrow sleeves specifically designed to holster nail sets.

What is a Nail Set?

Nail sets are short, tapered bars of steel that serve as a companions to a hammer. They are used for the final few blows onto the exposed heads of finish nails, sinking them beneath the surface without collateral damage to the surrounding wood. Sometimes nail sets are also referred to as nail punch tool.

What Are Nail Punch Tools Used For?

Nail sets are essential for such jobs as installing decorative molding or face-fastening wood flooring; once a nail is "set," it only needs a dab of putty to make it disappear.

Though simple in appearance, a well-made nail set is sophisticated. Its shaft and tip must be hard enough to survive repeated collisions with nails, while its head has to be considerably softer so it won't chip or shatter when struck.

Engineers have even established performance standards for nail set manufacturers, to ensure that these tools do their job safely and effectively. That leaves one last problem to solve: how to avoid clobbering your hand when you miss the nail set. Don't worry, tool designers are working on that, too.

3 Types of Nail Set Tools

Parts of a nail set laid out.
To eliminate the chance of missing the mark, these tools have a hollow shaft that slides over the nail and rests on the wood. Striking the tool drives an internal pin against the nailhead; you can’t miss. One disadvantage: You have to lift the tool up to see how deep you’ve driven the nail. For nails up to 5d, use the Nail Driver (far left), $6, For nails up to 6d, use the self-centering nailset, $5,
Photo by Laura Johansen

1. Carpenter's Classic

When most people think of a nail set, they think of this version from Stanley, with a square head, knurled body, and cupped and chamfered tip. Color-coded grips indicates the sizes of the tips: yellow = 1/32 inch, gray = 2/32, red = 3/32. $7 for set of three,

2. Flooring Nail set

This 6½-inch-long tool has a 5mm (roughly 6/32-inch) tip for sinking big 12d to 20d finish nails or driving chunky flooring nails into antique floorboards. $7,

3. Two Sets In One

On this Japanese tool, the small, anvil-shaped head is actually a second nail set, meant for striking 8d nails in tight spaces. The 4/32-inch tip on the long shaft is flat, so hold it square to the nailhead and strike firmly to avoid a slip off. $6,

Four Nail Set Features

A nail set lined up in order of size.
From Top to Bottom: Handmade, Knuckle Protector, Hammer-Free, Set and Pull
Photo by Laura Johansen

1. Handmade

The rough surface of this Japanese tool still shows the hammer blows of the blacksmith who forged it. The head is narrow and slightly convex, but it will flatten and widen with repeated use. $12,

2. Knuckle Protector

A cushioned protector guards your fingers so you can concentrate on tip placement. The disk makes it harder to see what you're doing, but you don't have to guess about the tip size: It's clearly engraved in the head. $20 for a set of five (1/32 to 5/32),

3. Hammer-Free

To use this spring-loaded, "hammerless" nail set, you hold the bottom half in a tight pincer grip and pull the top half away from the nailhead. Letting go pile-drives the tip into the nail and the nail into the wood—after about a half-dozen hits. Handy when you encounter an unexpected nailhead, say, while painting. $8,

4. Set and Pull

The square-cut tip sets nails; the Japanese-style nail puller on the opposite end can dig them out, although the puller's claws will damage the surface whenever they extract an embedded nail. $9,

Depth Guide

1/8 inch, recommended depth to set a nail.

Size Guide

Nail sets are sized by tip diameter to match particular nail heads. If you don't know the size of a nail set or a nail, use a tip slightly smaller than the head of the nail you wish to sink.

  • Finish nail: 4d
  • Nail set tip: 1/32

  • Finish nail: 6d
  • Nail set tip: 232

  • Finish nail: 8d
  • Nail set tip: 3/32

  • Finish nail: 10d
  • Nail set tip: 4/32

  • Finish nail: 12d
  • Nail set tip: 6/32

Where to Find It

Stanley 58-930, 58-011
Stanley Works
New Britain, CT

Garrett Wade 77G01.02, 89E01.01
New York, NY

Noxon 32R42-1
Spokane, WA

Lee Valley Tools 44K13.01, 86K50.01
Ogdensburg, NY

Japan Woodworker 5/32 Kugishime
Alameda, CA

Shark 21-2301
Shark Corp.
Wilmington, CA

Special thanks to

Chris Woolley at Stanley Works
Petra Pope at Garrett Wade and Andrew Strome at Lee Valley Tools.