How to Use a Nail Set

Nail set hammered into white baseboard

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

When face-nailing a finish nail into wood, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to drive the nail so that it is flush or slightly below the surface by using the hammer alone. 

Toward the end of the drive, the head of the nail will protrude as much as 1/8-inch. Further hammering beyond that point may result in strikes on the surface of the wood and inevitable damage.

Half-moon strike marks on delicate softwood baseboards, quarter-rounds, crown molding, and window and door trim are often the result of over-enthusiastic finish nailing. Damage can be fixed by filling in the marks with wood filler, then sanding down the filler and painting the patch.

Too much of this sort of damage means more patching and painting than is necessary. Plus, if the intended finish will be natural, unpainted wood, wood filler is not an option.

The solution is a simple, inexpensive device that should be in your toolbox: a nail set.

What a Nail Set Is

A nail set is a small metal tool that allows you to hammer the finish nail flush to the surface while keeping the hammerhead a safe distance away from the wood.

When held vertically, the lower pointed end of the nail set is round enough to fit in the head of a finish nail. The upper blunt end of the nail set is wide enough for a hammerhead to strike it.

How a Nail Set Works

Because the nail set is made of heavy tempered alloy steel, it will not bend or collapse upon impact. This material makes a nail set irreplaceable since no other tools have the same dimensions and heft necessary to accomplish this task.

Attempting to use an alternative (such as a 16-penny nail) demonstrates just how irreplaceable a nail set is. The nail does not have enough weight and density to transfer the kinetic energy from the hammer to the head of the finish nail.

Tools and Materials

  • Nail set
  • Hammer with milled or checkered face
  • Softwood work material

Safety Considerations

When the pointed end of the nail set has lost its round shape from repeated use, discard it or use it for tasks other than for setting finish nails.

Wear a glove on the hand that is holding the nail set. If you do happen to accidentally strike your hand, the glove will soften the blow. Always wear safety glasses and hearing protection when using a hammer and nail set.


Drive Finish Nail With Hammer

Drive the finish nail as far as possible into the wood with the hammer alone, without hitting the wood. This is usually about 1/4-inch to 1/8-inch away from the surface of the wood.

Ensure that you are driving the nail perpendicular to the surface of the wood and that the nail does not bend. If not, pull the nail and try again with a new nail.

Place Nail Set on Nail Head

Place the round, pointed end of the nail set on the head of the finish nail. Finish nails usually have a small dent on their heads to allow for placement of a nail set.

Make sure that the nail set is directly in line with the finish nail to avoid the nail set slipping off when you hit it with the hammer.

While not necessary, you may also find it helpful to switch to a hammer with a milled or checkered face for better contact between the hammerhead and the nail set.

Drive Nail Set Until Nail Is Flush

Gently tap the hammer on the blunt end of the nail set. Tap as lightly as is needed to drive the nail into the wood, increasing force only when necessary.

Keep driving the finish nail until the head is either flush with or below the surface of the wood, depending on your finishing needs.


Be careful not to drive the finish nail too far into the work material, as the nail will no longer have enough holding power.

Fill Nail Hole

If you intend to paint the wood, you may wish to leave the slight depression formed by the nail head unfilled. For an extra touch, though, filling the nail hole and sanding it down smooth yields a professional look.

Tips For Using a Nail Set

  • Avoid using the nail set for anything other than for setting finish nails. The pointed end of the nail set is perfectly rounded to fit in the head of finish nails. Pounding this end on other materials may blunt or otherwise distort it. When you next use it for finish nails, it may slip out.
  • Blunted nail sets can be turned upside-down for flattening down conventional nails that are difficult to bring down flush.
  • Electric nailers automatically sink finish nails. With the advent of inexpensive lithium-ion electric finish nailers, it is becoming far more affordable for homeowners to purchase these tools, which were previously used mostly by professionals. If you have a lot of finish nailing to do, you may want to consider buying an electric nailer.