How to Remove Nails from Wood?

Nails have a lot of advantages, they’re cheap, easy to fasten, and have excellent shear strength. One thing they’re not, though, is easy to remove.

If you’ve got buried nails that you need to remove from a piece of wood, then there are quite a few ways to go about this. The best way to get the job done will depend on how exposed the nail head is, if you have access to the nail point, and whether or not you need to preserve the surface of the wood you’re extracting it from.

Some of the methods I’ll get into don’t require much more than basic tools everyone has in their toolkit. There are also specialized tools designed specifically for removing nails, but you typically won’t need these.

Let’s take a closer look at how to remove nails from wood.

Tools & Materials

  • Claw hammer
  • Prybar
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Cat’s paw
  • Pneumatic nail puller
  • Eye protection and gloves

How to Remove Nails from Wood – Guide

A note about safety:
Pulling nails from wood has a tendency to send the nail flying through the air. Safety goggles are a good idea to keep your eyes protected, while work gloves will prevent you from cutting up your hands.

Method 1 – Claw Hammer

This method is one of the simplest methods out there for removing an embedded nail from a board. Plus, nearly everyone has an old claw hammer lying around the house somewhere.

It may not be the most efficient way to pull a nail, but if you’re already driving nails, then you should have a hammer within reach.

Note that claw hammers are actually better at removing nails from wood than larger framing hammers with their flat-shaped claws. The curved claws of a claw hammer are better suited to pulling nails with minimal damage to the wood surface.

Step 1: Get the Claws under the Nail Head

If the nail is completely embedded, and the head is flush with the wood surface, then you’ll need to work a little to get the claws under the nail head. You can try to slide the sharp, flat end of one of the claws underneath the nail head, and apply a little pressure until the nail starts to come free.

If you can’t do this, then one way to get the nail loose is using a prybar behind the piece of wood to pull the board and nail loose. Pry until the board comes loose, and the nail juts out from the wood surface.

Another you may be able to do if the nail point is exposed is simply tap on the point of the nails a few times until the head pops free from the wood board.

When this is accomplished, simply slide the nail head between the two claws on the back of the hammer.

Step 2: Pry the Nail Free

There are two ways you can go about pulling the nail free, each with its respective strengths and liabilities.

The first way is prying directly backward, as in pulling the handle directly back towards your body. This takes a bit more effort and you may need to rock the hammer back and for the multiple times before the nail comes free.

pulling nail with claw hammer
A claw hammer makes a better nail puller than a framing hammer.

This method also tends to make the nail go flying when it comes free. It also has less of a tendency to mar the wood, as the hammer’s curved head is pressured against the wood.

The other method is prying the nail sideways, which will give you better leverage making it easier to pry the nail free. It will bend the nail more, rendering it completely useless. It also had more of a tendency to mar the wood.

Method 2 – Pry Bar (Wonder Bar)

This next method is a good method for extracting large and deeply embedded nails that would be more challenging to extract with other methods. A prybar (sometimes called a wonder bar) is a fantastic demolition tool and is essentially a flat mini crowbar designed for pulling nails and prying boards apart.

prybar in use
A prybar is a highly versatile tool for all kinds of prying and levering tasks.

A pry bar will have three different nailing pulling slots. One on the flat end, one on the curved end, and a cutout slot in the center of the bar.

The different nail pulling slots give you a lot of versatility when it comes to pulling nails in difficult and awkward locations. The flatter end is better at getting the nail started, while the curved end will give you increased leverage so you can really pop the nail free.

The slot in the center of the pry bar makes pulling particularly stubborn nails easier, as it gives you advantageous leverage over other nail-pulling tools.

pulling nails with prybar
Using the center slot to pull a nail.

This tool can be tricky to use unless the nail head is already a little exposed. The next method is ideal for a deeply embedded nail.

Method 3 – Cat’s Paw

cats paw toolThe cat’s paw is a similar tool to the pry bar described above, but is designed specifically to remove nails from wood, and is less of an all-around demolition tool. It gets its name from the curved end of the tool that looks like a cat’s curved paw.

The tool is designed to be used in conjunction with a framing hammer and is a commonly used tool found in most framing carpenter’s tool belts.

As this tool is designed for framing, it’s going to mar the surface of your wood to some degree.

It’s also useful for nails embedded in tight spaces, as the curved end can access hard to reach spots.

Step 1: Drive in the Flat End

The first step is getting the flat end of the tool underneath the nail’s head. To do this you’ll need to use a hammer to drive the head into the wood directly next to the nail.

Line up the flat end of the cat’s paw directly to one side of the nail, holding the tool almost perpendicular to the wood surface. Strike the curved end of the tool with your hammer until the other edge penetrates the wood.

At this point, you want to flatten out the tool as much as possible, as this will get the claws under the nail’s head.

Step 2: Strike the Shank of the Tool

Once the claws are firmly in place, you’ll want to give a good whack with your hammer against the other end of the tool. This should result in the nail popping out of the wood.

Step 3: Pull the Nail

At this point, you can use a variety of methods to finish pulling the nail. You can swap over to the other side of the cat’s paw and use it similarly to the way you would a normal nail puller. Y

You can also use the claws of your hammer to finish pulling the nail if you have one handy.

Method 4 – Reciprocating Saw

A great option if you need to get rid of multiple nails embedded in a piece of wood is the trusty old reciprocating saw. Slap a metal cutting blade inside a reciprocating saw and you’ll be able to cut through old nails like a hot knife through butter.

reciprocating saw, hammer, chisel, and prybar
Reciprocating saws make excellent nail removers.

A reciprocating saw is great when you want to get rid of old nails that are sticking out of a piece of wood. If you’re not bothered about the rest of the nail remaining embedded inside the board then a reciprocating saw can be an amazing tool.

Step 1: Prep the Saw

First off, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got a sharp metal-cutting blade mounted inside the saw. A metal-cutting blade has more teeth per inch than a wood-cutting blade, which makes it cut a little slower, but will make a more refined cut.

Also make sure you have a pair of safety goggles on, as cutting through nails can send shards of metal flying and you don’t want those ending up in your eyeball.

Step 3: Make the Cut

Next, line up the blade flat to the board and a half-inch from the nail. Squeeze the trigger to start the motor and then slowly bring it in contact with the nail(s).

The saw will make quick work of multiple nails, so it’s great for demolition work.

After the nails are cut, there may still be a small amount of metal protruding from the wood. You can clean this up with a grinder or a few whacks with a hammer.

Method 5 – Use a Pneumatic Nail Remover

If you have a lot of nails you need to remove from wood, say if you’re taking apart a pallet, then a compressed air nail remover is a fantastic tool for the job. If you find yourself doing this frequently, then picking up one of these is the way to go.

These tools can push nails out from a variety of soft and hardwoods and are capable of de-nailing a large pallet in less than a minute.

Check out the air locker AP700 nail puncher for a great way to rapidly de-nail a variety of wood projects.

Denis Gardner

I've loved tinkering and fixing things for as long as I can remember. So, naturally, I gravitated towards DIY and home improvement when I bought my first home. Nowadays you can find me writing about my passions or messing around with my newest tool!

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