Identifying Iron Nails in a Sea of Steel


Iron Nails are an important ingredient in many spells and rituals, yet many practitioners routinely ask if there is a foolproof method for identifying them.  This article discusses how steel nails differ from iron nails as well as the different methods you can use to determine which ones are iron.

Steel versus Iron, What’s the Difference

There are many differences between steel and iron; most are not identifiable with the naked eye.  For starters, iron is an element while steel is an alloy, which ironically contains iron.  An alloy contains at least two elements; usually more.  Steel items are usually smooth on their surface, while iron is rougher and porous.  Both iron and steel are magnetic, however some types of stainless steel may have additives which negate the magnetic attraction.  Iron is nearly impossible to weld, while steel is relatively easy.  Steel nails can be galvanized, which means they can be coated with zinc to increase their life span.  Iron nails cannot be galvanized without damaging the iron.  Both iron and steel will rust, but that trait comes from iron.  Iron is brittle while steel is ductile.

I Have Some Old Nails – How Do I Test Them ?

A good way to test a batch of suspected iron nails is to try and break one to see if it ruptures or deforms.  If it breaks then it’s iron, but if it only bends or deforms, then it’s steel or another alloy.   Cast iron is easier for metalworkers to pour into a mold, but because nothing else is added to improve the strength, it breaks easier on impact.

If you are experienced in metalworking, there is something called a spark test, that can also help you identify the differences.  Putting a piece of iron or steel in contact with a high-speed abrasive wheel will cause small particles of the metal to break free rapidly.  These red-hot fragments follow a pattern, which can be compared against standardized charts to allow for quick identification.

Almost all nails sold in hardware stores are steel or an alloy.  If you are interested in the history of nail-making, I suggest you take a look at The History of Nail Making. Many old nails are square shaped or some other non circular shape.  They may have large or non-traditional heads also.  Modern day masonry nails also come in the square shape configuration, but they are not iron, unless noted on the package.

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