Back when I was a rookie garage-builder, the lead carpenter warned me that driving a nail near a knot is a waste of time for three reasons: First, the nail will bend in the dense wood surrounding the knot before you can drive it home. Second, it'll be solidly wedged in the wood and tough to pull out. And third, you could break a hammer handle tugging at it.
I was stubborn and had to learn by experience. But I never broke a hammer handle, because I started out with an unbreakable all-steel model. By the time I graduated to a nicely balanced wooden-handled model, I'd learned how to pull nails quickly and efficiently enough to hardly break my nailing rhythm.
A hammer isn't the best nail-pulling tool, but since it's already in your hand, use it. Ram the claw into the nail shank as close as possible to the wood and rock it sideways (Photo 1). Then repeat the process, pulling the nail about 1/2 in. each time. You develop terrific pulling power, enough to extract even those tough cement-coated or galvanized nails, without straining your hammer handle or arm.
Because the hammer claw grabs the nail's shank, this method usually works even when the nail head has broken off. But it has a couple of drawbacks. The edge of the head will bite into and dent the wood. If you don't want to mar the surface, slide a 1/4-in.-thick piece of wood under the edge before pulling. Also, a worn claw might slip on the shank and not deliver any pull. And finally, the pulling power can be so great that the nail shank might break before the nail lets go. At that point, either clip it flush to the wood with a side-cutting pliers and leave it, or saw through it (Photo 5).
Shove a block of scrap wood under the hammer head to protect delicate surfaces, like the cedar decking in Photo 2. The block also gives the hammer claw better leverage, so you can often rock the hammer directly back on its head rather than sideways. But not always. Use this straight pull only on nails that come out fairly easily or aren't driven deeply. Otherwise you could break a wooden-handled hammer. Although you can yank a lot harder on hammers with a fiberglass or steel handle, you'll find it's a lot easier to use a sideways pull.
Buried nails are no match for a cat's paw, an essential tool to carry for all rough framing work. Emphasize “rough,” because you drive the claw under the buried nailhead and rock the handle back firmly (Photo 3). The short claw develops tremendous leverage and will pull almost any nail. A strong, steady pull works best. If you jerk the handle, you could pop the head off the nail, especially with 16d galvanized nails. You can use it for bent nails too. But you have to put a block under the cat's paw to develop good leverage, as in Photo 2, or slide your hammer head under it to shim it up.
Drawback: Even with a deft touch, the cat's paw digs up a divot of wood around the nailhead and leaves a distinct “paw print” behind when you rock it back. It's not a finish tool.
Finish carpentry sometimes calls for more refined tactics to avoid ruining a valuable piece of woodwork. You can pull most bent finish nails with the hammer-and- block technique shown earlier or with pliers.
But if you can't pry trim off without damaging it, drive the finish nails completely through the trim (Photo 4) and pop it off. You can use either a 1/32-in. nail set or a 1/16-in. pin punch (buy at home centers and hardware stores). They are especially handy for releasing window and door casings that have been cross-nailed to hold the miters together.
Drawbacks: Use the nail set for thin woodwork. Otherwise, you'll leave a fairly large round hole on the front side to fill later. And work carefully near ends, because the nail set can split the wood.
A reciprocating saw can cut through nails in a fraction of the time it takes to pull them (Photo 5). Plus it'll reach nails you can't get at any other way. Many all-purpose blades cut both wood and nails, but buy the 10-teeth-per-inch type because it cuts through hardened drywall screws as well. With a deft touch, you can also do delicate work, like reaching behind trim to cut nails, as well as screws and bolts, without marring the wood.
Drawback: Chances are that the blade will pinch while cutting tight spots, so push the saw guard tightly against the wood and hold the saw firmly.
Finish trim is expensive and worth salvaging whenever possible. If you can pry it off, pull the finish nails from the backside (Photo 6). They'll splinter the front if you drive them back through. A nippers works well, but so do slip-joint pliers and locking pliers.