The Cheney Nailer is legendary amongst carpenters. Sometimes known as a one-arm-man’s hammer, its nail holding feature allows the user to drive nails with a single hand. Henry Cheney was famous for his nail holding hammer — US Patent 116,553 issued July 4, 1871 . But did you know that his patent was for a completely different nail holding hammer?
The better known, much later, Cheney Nailer is based on US Patent 1,621,761 issued March 22, 1927 — almost fifty years after Henry died. Not only that, but the Henry Cheney Hammer Company itself was not formed until three years after Henry’s death.
It is likely that this confusion was created very purposefully by Elmer Mulford, who took over management of the company in 1925, when it was purchased by the Prentiss Vise Company, and ran it until it ceased operations in 1954 — when it was purchased by the Collins Company of Collinsville, Connecticut. It was under Mr. Mulford’s watch that Cheney Hammers were marketed as “World’s Standard Since 1836.” Henry would have been all of 15 years old in 1836. It’s possible, but doubtful that he actually started making hammers then. But it certainly makes a company seem substantial when they can claim to have been in business for nearly a century...
There are two major differences between Henry’s Patent Nail Holder and the later Cheney Nailer. The first should be obvious to students of U.S. construction history. Henry’s Patent Nail Holder was designed to hold cut nails. Wire nails didn’t become widespread in the United States until the 1890’s — twenty years after Henry’s patent was issued. Another twenty years later, in the 1910’s, wire nails became dominant. Thus the Cheney Nailer was designed to hold wire nails. The second difference is that Henry’s design held the nail beneath the claw while the Cheney Nailer holds a nail above the claw. The true genius of both designs is that they hold the nail near the center of mass of the hammer — unlike many later designs which hold the nail in line with the top of the hammer, increasing the chance of a glancing blow.
Henry’s Patent Nail Holder was available with a plain (Nos. 35-0, 35, and 36) or bell (Nos. 32, 33, and 34) face. Cheney Nailers were available with plain (Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7), bell (Nos. 937, 938, 944, and 958), or octagonal (Nos. 980, 981, 982) faces.
As mentioned earlier, the Cheney Nailer was based on US Patent 1,621,761. This patent was granted on March 22, 1927 to Arthur E. Taylor of Elyria, Ohio. He assigned half of the patent to Scott Hinman, also of Elyria, Ohio. The application for this patent was filed on August 2, 1925. In 1926 the T&H Tool Company of Elyria, Ohio advertised a Woodpecker hammer for sale in 16 oz. and 20 oz. sizes. Thanks to Russ Bartlett for digging up this nugget!
Thanks to Charles Hegedus for these pictures.
Chuck pointed out that the Woodpecker uses pointed pins rather than ball-bearings for the nail holding mechanism. It also has a neatly rectangular shape to the crossbar of the T-shaped slot.
This hammer is currently for sale.
Below are advertisements for the Cheney Nailer from 1927-1929 issues of Popular Science. Note the cross-marketing with Prentiss Vises.
Only $1.50 east of Mississippi! No mention of the price west of Mississippi... Nor north or south...
That would be equivalent to about $20 in 2012.
Henry also held US Patent 66,298 for a process of brazing or welding a malleable iron socket [adz-eye] to a wrought-iron or steel hammer head. In this patent, Henry declares:
“Hammers are generally made of cast iron, but wrought-iron hammers are far superior, and in greater demand than any other kind. But it is not only very difficult to form the socket on a wrought-iron hammer, but also to find sound enough iron to form the socket on.”
By 1904 Cheney Hammers were advertised to be manufactured from crucible cast steel. Note that this refers to the process of producing the steel rather than the process of manufacturing hammers. Cheney hammers were always forged, not cast — even if they were forged cast steel.
Timber-Frame Tools has additional information about the Cheney Nailer.
And now, the Cheney Nailers...
This is a bit of a mystery. The 1 lb. 12 oz. No. 3 is listed in the 1904 catalog. Clearly it was offered, without the nail holding feature, for many years. The same is true of the Nos. 37, 38, and 44. However, when those models were offered with the nail holding feature they were given new 900-series model numbers — Nos. 937, 938, and 944 respectively. So why didn’t they change the model number on this hammer?
This might have been due to the fact that they continued to offer the Nos. 37-0 (24 oz.), 37 (20 oz.), 38 (16 oz.), 38 1/2 (13 oz.), and 39 1/2 (7 oz.) or some portion of this series — without the nail holding feature — as “Finishing Hammers.” While the Nos. 2 (32 oz.), 3 (28 oz.), 4 (24 oz.), 5 (20 oz.), 7 (16 oz.) were only offered with the nail holding feature after it was added.
This style of poll is sometimes referred to as “Plain” or “Round” face.
Cheney Nail Holder (Instruction Decal)
Frame 2 is the best. Who doesn’t wear a Fedora and necktie to drive nails? Roll up your sleeves and get to work! And check out that wicked back swing!
Notice the difference in the shape of the nail holding slot. Where the slots of the Nos. 937, 938, 944, 958, 980, and 981 have a flat top 'T', the No. 3 has a slightly cruciform slot. It has been speculated that this was to accommodate rose-head nails.
This hammer was manufactured during WWII.
On May 1, 1943 the company published Price List No. 26 which introduced new 800-series model numbers for the “Government Black” versions of the hammers they were offering in accordance with War Production Board Limitation Order No. L 157. It also lists the “Old” model numbers for reference, e.g. No. 838 was the wartime equivalent of the No. 938. At that time a dozen 16 oz. Cheney Nailers sold for $17.
Thanks to Alan Van Dyke for this fine example. Given its unique “PROP OF US GOVT” markings and near mint condition, it may have been a sample submitted to the War Production Board.
Probably the second most common Cheney Nailer — after the 16 oz. No. 938.
Most Cheney Nailers have distinctly curved claws. So much so, that they can be balanced on their claws with the handle extending horizontally. Not so with the next example. It’s claws are pretty much straight. It seems that this would greatly increase the chance that the claws would come in contact with the surface when driving a nail using the nail-holding feature.
It may be a little hard to read, but the handle is marked:
Pride of the Tool Chest
The next example is another Silver King Cheney Nailer, which at first glance appears identical to the previous example, albeit with a bit more... patina. However, there's a very interesting difference in this hammer, which may provide a evidence that production of Cheney hammers continued beyond July 1954. Notice the difference in the markings. The handle appears to have the same "Silver King Cheney Nailer Pride of the Tool Chest" markings. However, the head has distinctly different markings. Markings that do not include the words on nearly all Cheney hammers — “Little Falls, NY”. This might be proof that production did continue in Collinsville, CT, possibly until 1966! It's not as pretty as the one above, but every bit as interesting!
They also offered No. 980 (20 oz.) and No. 982 (13 oz.) versions of this hammer.
Thanks to ToolDigger for this fine example. Unfortunately the handle is not stamped with the model number. It most closely resembles a No. 981, the only difference being a round rather than octagonal face. It is not listed in catalog No. 25. It could be a different model number or a variation of the No. 938.
On 23 Apr 2014 this hammer sold for $161.02.
This may be the murkiest part of the company history. Most of the material found proudly indicates that Cheney hammers were made in Little Falls, NY and “exported to every civilized country in the world.” However, as seen in the example below, some Cheney Nailers were clearly produced in Australia. Thanks to Ray Elbourne for the evidence!
The Australian-made Cheney hammers may have been produced under license by Cyclone Forging, which appears to be defunct, while Cyclone Industries remains in business. Cyclone Forging sold a nearly identical hammer branded as a “Nailmaster”.
This is even more puzzling. A Cheney Nailer made in England by Cheney. In this case the style of lettering suggests that it may have been produced by C.W. Cheney & Son Ltd. of Birmingham, England. This firm was better known for producing brass military uniform buttons and small latches and locks — famously used on Fender guitar cases. Thanks to Doog for the pictures!
Thanks again to Russ Bartlett, we now know that the Cheney Nailers made in England were produced by Brades Steel Works, which was also located in Birmingham. According to Wikipedia, the Brades brand of hand tools was begun in 1782 by William Hunt and Sons and continues to this day while William Hunt and Sons was liquidated in 1965 along with Henry Cheney Hammers England Limited.
Note the shape of the nail holding slot on this example. It’s much tighter than most examples and closely matches the illustrations in the ads.
Russ also mentioned that Cheney Nailers were also produced in India. We’ll have to do more digging in this area...
The thoughtful people at Brades included the model number and head weight in the markings on the head of the hammer. And included the model number in the markings on the side of the handle. These are undoubtedly the best marked Cheney hammers.
Today the German tool company, Picard, sells a hammer very similar to the Cheney Nailer under the “Stirrup Brand” label.
The first place I learned that there was a Cheney hammer was in the 1986 book This Old House Guide to Building and Remodeling Materials (ISBN 0-446-38246-9). On page 36:
The Cheney hammer has spring-loaded ball bearings on the shaft behind the claw to hold the nail. This gives you a free hand for positioning the lumber.