A close-up photo of a nail set tool, showcasing its metal construction, cylindrical shape, and different-sized tips designed for driving and setting nails precisely into wood or other materials.

What Is A Nail Set? A Comprehensive Guide

Do you ever find yourself wishing there was an easier way to drive nails below the surface of wood? If so, you need a nail set in your toolbox. A nail set is a must-have tool that allows you to countersink nails for a smooth, finished look.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: A nail set is a tool used to drive nail heads below the surface of wood for a smooth finish. It has a concaved tip that sits around the nail head and transmits hammer blows from the top of the set to the nail.

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know about nail sets. We’ll discuss what they are, why you need one, the different types available, how to use a nail set properly, and tips for achieving the best results.

What Is a Nail Set?

Definition and Purpose

A nail set is a simple yet handy tool used to drive nail heads slightly below the surface of wood. Also known as a nail punch, a nail set allows you to countersink nails in order to fill over them for a smooth finish.

Using a nail set prevents marring of the wood surface and reduces the risk of snagging furniture or skin on an exposed nail.

Nail sets come with a concave end that neatly fits over nail heads to strike them down into the wood. They come in a range of sizes to accommodate different nail head sizes. Most nail set sizes range from 5/32 inch to 1/4 inch in diameter.

Mini nail sets with smaller tip sizes are also available for smaller nail gauges.

Benefits of Using a Nail Set

  • Creates a smooth finished surface – Using a nail set allows you to fill and sand over nail heads for flawless woodwork.
  • Reduces snagging and injuries – Countersunk nails prevent exposed sharp edges that could catch on clothing or scratch skin.
  • Hides imperfections – Driving nail heads down hides any hammer marks or minor wood splits around nails.
  • Saves time and effort over pulling and re-nailing – Rather than removing mis-struck nails, you can simply drive them down with a nail set.
  • Versatile functionality – Nail sets can be used on all kinds of trim carpentry and woodworking projects.

With benefits like safety, efficiency, and quality workmanship, nail sets are a small woodworking must-have. Keeping a few sized nail sets in your toolkit ensures you have one ready when needing to countersink nails for a flawless finished project.

Types of Nail Sets

Cone Point Nail Sets

Cone point nail sets, as the name suggests, have a cone-shaped tip that tapers to a point. This allows for precision placement of the nail head to countersink it below the surface of the wood. The cone point concentrates the hammer strike force onto a small point to efficiently set the nail.

These are good for most general woodworking applications. The cone tip can reach into corners and tight spaces. Most nail set kits include a selection of cone point nail sets in various sizes to set different nail head sizes from small brads to large framing nails.

Flat Point Nail Sets

Flat point nail sets have a flat, chisel-type tip instead of a sharp point. The flat tip distributes the hammer strike force over a wider area instead of concentrating it on a point.

This helps prevent the nail set from leaving visible indentation marks around the nail head in delicate and thin materials like veneers or wood overlays. The flat tip also provides more controlled countersinking depth.

Dogleg Nail Sets

Dogleg nail sets have an offset, Z-shaped shaft instead of a straight shaft. This allows you to set nails in areas close to walls or obstructions where a straight nail set would not fit.

For example, you could use a dogleg nail set to set finish nails along the inside corner of a picture frame or inset panel where there is no clearance for a straight shaft. The dogleg bend provides the required clearance for the hammer strike.

Nail Set Kits

Nail set kits contain a selection of nail sets of different types, shaft lengths, and tip sizes. Most kits include:

  • A range of cone point nail sets
  • 1 or 2 flat point nail sets
  • 1 or 2 dogleg nail sets

This provides everything you need to set different nail sizes in varying applications. Some kits also include extras like a handy case, strike cap, or bonus tools.

For example, the CRAFTSMAN 16 Piece Nail Set Kit includes 6 cone point, 2 flat point, 1 dogleg nail set, 5 veneer nail sets, strike cap, and a plastic case.

How to Use a Nail Set

Step 1: Drive the Nail

First, drive the nail most of the way into the material with a hammer or nail gun, leaving just a small part of the nail head exposed. Make sure to drive the nail straight and at the desired depth, leaving just enough of the head protruding to grip with the nail set.

Typically you’ll want to leave about 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch of the nail head exposed.

Step 2: Place the Nail Set on the Nail Head

Next, place the concave tip of the nail set directly over the exposed nail head. Apply firm downward pressure so the tip cradles the nail head securely. This helps prevent the nail set from slipping off the nail as you strike it.

Step 3: Tap the Nail Set with a Hammer

Then, keeping the nail set firmly in place, use gentle taps with a hammer to drive the nail the rest of the way in. Let the weight of the hammer do the work; you should not need to swing forcefully. Continue tapping until the nail head rests slightly below the surface of the material.

Tips for Proper Use

Here are some handy tips when working with a nail set:

  • Choose the right size nail set for the nails you are working with. Using too large or small a tip can lead to slipping or damage.
  • Hold the nail set perpendicular to the surface for the best transfer of hammer force straight down onto the nail.
  • Use a hammer with a slightly rounded face designed for tapping nail sets. The roundness helps prevent marring the wood or other material surface.
  • For fragile materials, consider substituting a rubber mallet for the steel hammer to cushion the tapping force.
  • Take care not to strike the nail set too forcefully as that can damage both the nail set and the underlying material.

Properly driving nails just below the surface with a nail set results in a professional finish. It tightly fastens the pieces without leaving ugly protruding heads or causing splits in surrounding materials.

Mastering use of this basic tool takes some practice but allows quality results on all sorts of nailing projects.

Benefits of Using a Nail Set

Using a nail set offers several key benefits for various construction and woodworking projects. Here are some of the top reasons to keep a nail set handy:

Creates a Professional Finish

One of the main advantages of using a nail set is that it allows you to create a smooth, professional-looking finish on your projects. When you hammer a nail flush to the surface, it often leaves small dents or marks surrounding the nail head.

A nail set allows you to countersink the nail slightly below the surface, then fill the tiny hole with wood filler. Once sanded and finished, the surface will appear flawless.

Sets Nails Precisely & Consistently

A nail set allows for precision accuracy when setting nail depth. The tool is designed to consistently set each nail to the same inset depth in one tap. Without a nail set, a hammer or other improvised tool would likely result in uneven setting depths.

The consistency achieved with a nail set leads to better-looking results.

Prevents Damaging Surrounding Material

Trying to use a hammer alone to drive nails below the surface runs the risk of marring and denting the surrounding material. The narrow punch tip of a nail set concentrates the hammer strike directly onto the nail head without damaging adjacent wood or other finish materials.

This helps preserve the quality of the materials being worked on.

Access Tight Spaces

The compact size of most nail set tips allows reaching into confined areas that do not have enough clearance for hammer swinging. For example, setting finish nails to hang door trim or other narrow moldings is made easy with a nail set.

The tool can precisely set nails in tight spots for an expert finish.

Prevents Accidental Injuries

Exposed nail heads pose risks of cuts and scratches for those working on projects or using finished items. From puncture wounds to snagging clothes, exposed fasteners can cause painful injuries. Using a nail set to sink nails beneath the material surface effectively eliminates these risks and creates a safer end product.

With benefits like a flawless finished look, precise nail setting, tight space accessibility, and increased safety, nail sets are a versatile must-have for workshops and job sites. Keeping one on hand makes projects turn out better and go more smoothly.


What size nail set do I need?

The most common nail set sizes are 1/32″, 1/16″, 3/32″, 1/8″, 5/32″, 3/16″, and 1/4″. The size you need depends on the shank diameter of the nails you are using. As a general guideline:

  • Use a 1/32″ nail set for brad nails
  • Use a 1/16″ or 3/32″ nail set for trim nails
  • Use a 1/8″ nail set for common nails
  • Use a 5/32″ or larger nail set for framing and flooring nails

So first determine what type and size of nails you are working with, then select a nail set that matches the shank diameter. Having multiple sizes on hand is useful when working with different nail types.

How do I choose the right nail set?

When selecting a nail set, consider the following criteria:

  • Material: Steel nail sets are durable and economical. Carbide tipped sets last longer but cost more.
  • Grip style: Closed-end sets are best for precision work, while open-end sets allow for hammering at an angle.
  • Size and profile: Choose the size that matches your nail shank diameter. Conical or rounded profiles reduce marring.
  • Impact cap: Cushioned caps absorb shock and prevent mushrooming of the tip.

The Stanly 7-piece nail set kit is a good starter option with multiple sizes and a comfortable grip. Investing in higher quality individual sets like the Irwin steel hand nail set is worthwhile for frequent use.

Can I use a nail set on hardwoods?

Yes, nail sets are safe and effective for setting brad nails and finish nails in wood trim, molding, cabinets, furniture, and other fine woodworking projects. The key is to:

  • Use a nail set sized for the nails you drive into the hardwood
  • Select a nail set with a smooth, rounded, or conical tip to prevent marring the wood surface
  • Use light, precision taps instead of forceful hammering
  • Place a wood block underneath to avoid denting the surface

According to a survey from Woodworkers Guild of America, over 80% of woodworkers reported using nail sets on hardwoods without issue. Just exercise care and patience when setting trim nails or brads in oak, cherry, maple, and other fine wood species.


A nail set is an indispensable tool for any DIYer working with wood. Learning how to use one properly allows you to sink nails below the surface for a smooth finish. With the right nail set, you can achieve professional-looking results on all your woodworking projects.

Now that you know what a nail set is and how to use one, you can add this tool to your toolbox. Look for a quality nail set made of hardened steel that will stand up to heavy use. With practice and the tips in this guide, you’ll be driving nails like a pro in no time!

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