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Roofing Nails; The Ultimate Guide

Roofing nails may seem like a small part of roof installation, but they’re actually one of the most important items for getting your project done right. If you use a smooth stainless steel nail where you should have used a galvanized ring shank, there’s a strong likelihood you’ll experience problems sooner rather than later.

Just as important as the type of roofing nails you use is how many per shingle, the length of each nail, and overall project coordination questions such as how many roofing nails you need to buy. 

Keep reading for a full rundown on all your roof nail questions, starting with the materials used to create the fasteners.

Most Common Roofing Nail Materials

The metal a nail is made from can make all the difference not only in how well it holds down a shingle, but also how long it lasts over time. The most common types of roofing nails are made from aluminum, stainless steel, galvanized steel, and copper. We do not recommend all of these types, but that doesn’t stop some contractors from using them.

Aluminum 

Aluminum nails for roofing are very common because of their cost. These types of nails are the “good enough” type used for simple roof projects in many parts of the country. 

It’s best to avoid the use of aluminum nails in coastal towns and counties because of the salty air. Salt can cause aluminum to quickly rust and deteriorate, which can then compromise the shingle hold and cause blowoffs. The last thing you want for your beach area house is to find missing shingles on a 5 year old roof, simply because aluminum was used instead of a more resilient stainless steel option.

Stainless Steel

The advantage of using steel nails over aluminum is that they’re less corrosive but not as expensive as the galvanized options we’ll list below. For this reason, some contractors prefer stainless steel roofing nails in areas where salt in the air can be a factor but project costs must remain low. 

Since they’re stronger, nails made of stainless steel are sometimes preferred for fastening harder roof tiles like slate and ceramic. Overall, stainless is a good but not great nailing option for your roof. Better than aluminum, but not as great as the next choice…

Galvanized Steel (Best Choice)

Galvanized steel roofing nails, often called “galvanized nails” or “hot dip galvanized roofing nails”, are made with a steel base then coated in zinc chemicals. The zinc coating creates an ultra rust-resistant nail that is the best nail for roof replacement in coastal regions, and in our opinion, the best nail for any roof you want to be covered under warranty.

On top of rust-resistance, the nail’s zinc exterior makes it stronger than both aluminum and stainless steel options. For all these reasons, galvanized steel is the best roofing nail material and one of the most popular choices for certified roofers that back their work with a reliable warranty. 

Copper

Copper is a higher-cost roof nail option that is appropriate for some but not most roofing projects. Copper roof nails are stronger than steel and are commonly used with slate roofing. 

Why are copper nails popular in slate roofing? Because they last longer than galvanized roofing nails, which can show signs of deterioration once the zinc coating starts to wear off. While this may not be a big deal for an asphalt shingle project, it is important for slate because slate roofs are expected to last for 100+ years. Slate roofing is also prone to damage, so in these cases, the copper spikes can be more easily removed without breaking the slate itself. 

Copper is a dark brown/ gold color, which is different from the materials listed above.

Popular Types of Roofing Nails

Besides the material, isn’t a nail a nail? 

Not quite…

The nail’s shape makes a big difference in how effective it will be for roofing, and how efficiently it can be used during the installation process. There are varieties to consider.

Smooth Shank

Smooth shank nails are the most common nail type you’ll find on construction sites, but not necessarily the most effective nail for roofing. They are the least complex of all shanks, making them the cheapest to manufacture. 

Smooth shanks are completely smooth and free of grooves, unlike the screw and ring shank style nails we’ll cover below. These factors make them very easy to drive with a hammer, which is why they’re favorable for framing, finishing, and other carpentry tasks.

Withdrawal Resistence (Smooth Shanks Are Bad for Roofing)

You shouldn’t use smooth shank nails for roofing because they do not have the hold needed for architectural shingles or any other type of tile. 

Contractors who use smooth shanks end up with unhappy customers down the road. In more technical terms, smooth shanks are not appropriate for roofing services because they lack the withdrawal resistance needed to hold a shingle in place. 

According to the Poo, McNatt, Lambrechts, and Gertner in the Forest Products Journal, “direct withdrawal resistance of nails and staples is the force required to pull imbedded fasteners from the wood.” In the group’s research, they reference direct withdrawal resistance as a measure of the nail’s holding power. High hold power is good! It means the nail will hold what it’s meant to hold under a wide variety of conditions. Conversely, low hold power is bad! 

When it comes to roofing, you want to avoid smooth shank fasteners because they have very low holding power. If you use them, they will not help a shingle hold up to the winds it will experience throughout it’s lifespan.

Ring Shank

galvanized ring shank roofing nail

According to the Skulteti, Bender, Winisorfer, and Pollack at the American Sociery of Biological Engineers, ring shank nails have approximately twice the withdrawal resistance of smooth shank nails with the same diameter. Given these facts, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are a preferred nail roofing product.

The long, pointed part of a nail is called a shank. Ring shank nails have small grooves around this shank that give it a ribbed feeling when touched. When driven through wood, these grooves help displace the wood’s fibers to create an uneven hold. This may sound undesirable, but it actually improves withdrawal resistance because the rings combine with the deformed wood to make removing the nail more difficult. As an example, let’s think about a nail vs. a screw in drywall…

If you use a smooth nail, you can pull the nail straight out of the wood with ease. However if you use a screw, it becomes far more difficult to pull out of the wall! A ring shank does not have as much resistance as a screw, but the example is still a good one to help us understand the advantageous wood displacement caused by the rings.

This effect explained above gives ring shanks much greater hold than smooth shanks when exposed to high winds. As a result, they are a popular choice amongst roofers all over the United States. So if you’re looking for a nail that’s great for fastening tiles of all types, we recommend the ring shank.

Screw Shank

screw shank roofing nails

Screw shank nails closely resemble screws, hence the name. Because they have the grooves of a screw, they are trusted as a superb fastening nail for home projects that require maximum hold. Screw shanks have the highest level of withdrawal resistence out of all the different classifications of nails out there, but despite being superior holders, screw shanks aren’t the most popular nails for roof replacement. There are two reasons for this: 

First, because screw shank-style nails are far more expensive than ring shanks. 

Second, because they are too difficult to nail into hardwoods due to the high density of hard wood. While a screw shank is an appropriate fastener for decking and flooring projects that require maximum hold regardless of cost, they do not make sense for most roofing jobs.

Ideal Nail Sizes; Length, Diameter, Guage

architectural shingle nailing using roofing nail gun

You can’t lock a shingle into place if you don’t have the correct length and size nail. Knowing the best dimensions for your roofing nails is critical before starting a project.

What size roofing nail should I use (diameter)

There are two ways to measure the size of a roofing nail; diameter and length.

Shank diameter

According to the International Building Code’s (IBC) 2018 Edition, “fasteners for asphalt shingles must be a minimum of a 12-gauge shank”. While it is common to find nails with a shank diameter of 13 inches, they cannot be smaller than 12 gauge (2.67mm) and still comply with the IBC.

Head diameter

According to the IBC, the minimum head diameter for a roofing nail that’s in compliance with IBC guidelines is 9.5mm. Like with shank diameter, you can find nails with a larger head width than 9.5mm, but smaller should never be used.

How long should roofing nails be?

The International Building Code does not specify specific lengths for shanks, but does state that the nail must “penetrate through the roofing materials” and “must not be less than ¾ inch (or 19.1mm) into the roof sheathing.” 

The guidelines for nail length are more vague than diameter, so you’ll find a greater variance of size depending on the shank type. Wood shingles require a longer shank than an architectural shingle and fiberglass shingles are the same as asphalt-style.

Purchasing & Project Planning

man fastening roof shingles using a nail gun

If you’re part of the do-it-yourself crowd, simply knowing the differences between the nail styles listed above is not going to be enough information for you to successfully re-roof your house. Below are some common DIY roofing project questions that will help get you off the ground.

How many shingle nails do I need to buy?

Quantity is just as important as quality and classification when it comes to roofing nails. If you don’t have the proper number on location, then you’re going to run into a problem towards the end of your project.

Nails per shingle

According to GAF’s asphalt shingles guidelines, you must use “secure with 4, 5, or 6 nails per shingle per GAF’s application instructions or local codes,” however, most of GAF’s shingle lines (and most local building codes) require 6 nails per shingle. 

You should use 6 nails per asphalt shingle to properly adhere all materials to the roof surface. The six nail requirement is especially important for high wind shingle application areas where a 5 nail per shingle pattern would not be sufficient.

Nails per roofing square

One square of roofing is about 100 square feet of roof material, and one bundle of shingles covers about ⅓ of a roofing square. With this being said, you’ll need three bundles of shingles per square. 

Each shingle bundle will contain about 28 shingles, so you can expect to have 84 shingles per square in total.

How many roofing nails per square? When using a 6 nail strategy during roof installation, you’ll need an average of 506 nails per square. Don’t hold yourself to this exact count because every brand is different, but this math can be used as a guide for your planning.

Nail Gun vs. Hammer

Are you going to use a nail gun or a hammer for your roof replacement? 

Both will do the job, but we recommend choosing your tool of choice before starting the project because it will affect your nail choice and how long it takes to replace your roof.

Nail guns are significantly faster than hammering nails by hand, of course. Especially with asphalt shingles where you’ll need to fasten at least six nails per shingle in order to qualify for any sort of warranty. 

The downsides of using a nail gun for roofing is the potentially higher price. You’ll either need to rent one from a local hardware store at a dollar amount per day, or purchase one from a big box retailer like Home Depot or Lowe’s. Either way, it’s going to cost you more money than a hammer.

If you go the hammer route, you’ll want to use 1.25’’ or 1.5’’ loose roofing nails. These nails come in 1 pound, 5 pound, or 30 pound boxes so you can choose the weight (amount) that suits your remodeling needs.

If you use a nail gun for your roof project, the same box sizes are available and you should look to purchase electro galvanized roofing nails for all nail guns.

Coil Roofing Nails for Nail Guns

If you choose to use a nail gun device, then you can’t just buy ordinary boxes of nails. 

Nail guns require special nails that come attached to each other in “coils” so they can be easily fed through the nail gun.

Can I use staples for roofing?

You can use staples for the underlayments as well as ice and water shield, but not specifically for shingle application. 

We repeat: do not use staples for roofing shingles! Doing so is a recipe for disaster as they have extremely low holding power compared to any shank length nail you could choose.

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