How to toenail ceiling joists without feeling stupid.

“Toenailing” simply means to drive a nail diagonally through a board, as opposed to “face nailing” which means to drive it straight through. You toenail something when the distance you would need to drive the nail to “face” nail it is longer than the nail itself. I’ve driven some screws diagonally for this project, but for the roof I’m switching to nails. There will be some heavier “shear” forces on these fasteners, and nails are much stronger in such a case. Also, there is a big old box of 10d framing nails in my parents’ garage and I am actually so cheap that this sways my decision more than one might expect. To the ends of the Earth to save a dollar…

Today’s mission was to nail some ceiling joists across the 8 foot span, on top of the double top plates. The joists are 5 1/2 inches deep, so toenailing them is the way. I set to work, and promptly split the crap out of both ends of the first joist. And the joist slid around all over the place as I tried to hammer a nail in diagonally while holding it in place. I couldn’t keep it on the mark at all. My work looked like shit, so I stopped. I cussed for awhile and retreated to the big house feeling frustrated and defeated.

Toenailing isn’t exactly the kind of action that is ever discussed in detail in books. It’s a basic operation, and it’s taken for granted that everyone can do it. Further explanation of toenailing would be like a detailed description of how to put your pants on in the morning. What’s to say? Just put on your fucking pants.

After several carefully targeted keyword searches, I found an article that made me feel like less of a moron. It wasn’t an easy article to find. The author outlined several helpful suggestions to keep D.I.Y. carpenters from killing themselves. The most important suggestion was to drill pilot holes. I’d actually tried this, and it didn’t help. The article specified wider pilot holes: using an 1/8th inch bit and drilling all the way through the first piece of lumber. The author then suggested clamping a piece of scrap wood behind the joist to keep it from moving as you drive the first nail. Experienced carpenters would probably have a painful eye-roll over this, but I’ll take all the help I can get. Maybe in 25 years I can spit nails into place like Popeye, too.

The next morning, I calmly returned to the building site. I followed the suggestions I had read, and before too long I had all of the ceiling joists installed perfectly. I did not split one more piece of wood and each joist fell squarely on its mark. I will live to cuss at something else tomorrow, but the morning air today was awash in accolades.


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3 responses to “How to toenail ceiling joists without feeling stupid.

  1. Chris! Recent events (ok, actually every day of my life up until: Now) have caused me to not drop by for awhile. I am sorry for that; after forty years of slingin’ nails as hired gun and ultimately general contractor I could have saved you a lot of late night anxiety. The forums are a dreadful thing. It never occurred to me that we might exchange carpentry advice for bicycle advice. I have been reduced to tears in the wee hours trying to find a concensus of opinion on everything from wheel bearing tension to handlebar angles, information I am sure you could spit out without thinking.

    Your house looks like it is coming along quite well. If you like, feel free to e-mail me anytime. The rafter concerns you had earlier could have been resolved with plywood gussets and a steeper roof angle. But set that aside. The things you have to do twice are the lessons best learned.

    The plywood (osb) sheathing placement is actually a HUGE part of structural integrity. And if I read correctly, these recent ceiling/floor joists were installed (toe-nailed) without a rim joist. That’s OK, but there are considerations you will want to address, I think. I would have to see some photos of where you are now to let you know.

    This is your project and your baby. I don’t want to butt in, only offer a little anxiety-relief, if I can. On that note, I don’t know if you are aware of it but for the last couple years I have been tearing apart and putting back together crappy forty-year old mobile homes that have survived several hurricanes in their day and any number of tropical storms, not to mention being inhabited by wild heathens that tend to take out their socio-economical grief on their dogs, spouses and dwelling places.

    Those mobile homes are still here (as are the heathens) and they were originally constructed apparently to self-destruct on the day the warranty ran out. My point is that what you have done so far is fine. Relax. It won’t implode or melt or blow away. With a few tweaks and a minimum of care it will probably still be here when you and I are gone.

    That is somehow an oddly comforting thought.


    trailerparkcyclist at g mail dot com
    If you want my phone number e-mail me. My son built his first house mainly with misappropriated funds and telephone instructions from dear old dad.

    • Also: “If it’s hard you’re doing it wrong.”
      “A detail skipped today will bite you on the ass tomorrow.”
      “A clean site makes for clean work.”
      “Once slow is faster than twice fast.”

      There are a bunch more of these. Just little maxim’s I found myself repeating to the new guys over the years.

      • sandwichbear

        I keep telling myself to be calm and do my reasonable best – it will be fine. It’s nice to hear it from someone else, though, so I know I’m not delusional. (Not in a dangerous way requiring immediate mitigation, anyway.)

        I did install the ceiling joists on the top plates without a rim joist. I hesitate to mention or even think about this, because I went to considerable trouble to remove perfectly good loft framing WITH rim joists in favor of brand new joists without. I re-used the previous ceiling joists as rafters, and promptly cut them too short. All of this is due to the over-thinking that occurs in the OCD brain of a novice.

        I might shoot you an email if I’m ever engulfed in self-doubt and need an inexpensive reality check. And on that note, please feel free to ask me about bicycle stuff. You are definitely correct that I can answer all of those bicycle questions with casual aplomb. But when it comes to aplomb bob, I’m hopeless. (I’m so fucking sorry that I just went through with that joke.)

        Thanks for assuring me that my house won’t crumble beneath me. I’ll try to remind myself that this is a learning experience and it’s going fine.


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