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by Slim Price


One of the commonest sideshow devices is the “nail bed,” and is relatively easy to build and perform. It will be very heavy if made right and my own preference for several reasons is “coffee table style” that is, on a low elevated base. This makes it easier to get on and off of in my opinion and looks more professional. An added benefit is it’s easy to add a couple of small wheels at on end so as to make it into a hand cart for moving.


The nails should be set very firmly, and a typical bed is very heavy.


While the variations seem to be endless, these guidelines will make a useful, practical board.


The base is so simple it is not necessary to detail it. The legs need only to be about four inches high, or whatever you think comfortable. Two by fours, ideally with mitered joints will make it look good and if you choose to add a couple of wheels, it will be substantial enough.


The base can be a sheet of three quarter plywood, a standard cut of two feet by four feet. Most any lumber source will have this cut or will cut it for you. Three quarter inch might seem heavy but you need it to provide a solid support for the nails. At the same time, acquire a matching sized piece of one-quarter inch masonite or other hardboard. This will back up the nails.

The nails: Here there be variables. More or less the standard nail bed uses 6” nails, but 8” spikes make a more dramatic appearance, and do not make a difference with the performance. There are aluminum, copper, stainless steel , and iron nails, all of which can be used. Obviously the price varies and you will need about 800 (or more) nails. The bigger spikes are also called gutter nails. A little tip. The burrs on the nails can tear your skin making for a little blood and a lot of chance for infection. Take your nails to a place that tumbles and polishes fabricated metals and let them do the work of de-burring


The “rules” for making a bed of nails aren’t “writ in stone,” these are just guidelines based on experience. Now to the meat.


Given a two by four foot base. Allow a margin of two inches on each side, giving a nail area twenty inches wide. You really don’t need more then this and it saves weight and nails. It will also be a bit safer if you want to support someone on your chest. Lots of injuries occur with a spectator stepping on or off of your lovely body. At the top of the board, again, two inches is good. ,for symmetry.


At the bottom end of the board, (bad pun?) it’s a good plan to cheat and leave an area to sit while laying back on the board and getting back up, to avoid looking awkward. Some padding can make your board look like you mean business. Here again it’s necessary to make a choice.


With a forty-eight inch board, minus two inches at the top, you now have forty-six inches to use up. If you use a ten inch “sitz-pad,” you have a thirty-eight length of board for nails. Very respectable. (I know this is very wordy, but if I get everything covered, you can fill in your own ideas with a running start.)

Hmmm, twenty by thirty-eight inches to fill….


More or less the optimum space between nails is one inch, (More about that in a minute.) So a little arithmetic gives us 20x38 =760 nails.


Time to go to work. Lay out every thing with care. If you are going to do all this work anyway it might as well be as perfect as it can be. Just a little mistake looks very conspicuous on stage. Misplaced or crooked nails take away a lot of the effect, and can even cause problems. When you lay out the board, measure carefully, and center punch your holes. After the first forty or so holes it gets tiresome and when errors creep in, sloppy shows. Make every effort to drill the holes as perpendicular to the board as you can. This is hard with a hand drill but you can do it. If you have a drill guide made to force you to make holes straight in, use it. One nail askew can look really bad, several is worse. The other side of that coin is making a rough looking, more menacing board.


Measure the exact diameter of the nails and use this as your drill size. Bigger or smaller won’t work, to have a stable board, you should need to push the nails through the holes. When drilling. It’s a good idea to drill into a back-up piece of scrap. Especially with plywood, if you skip this the underside of your board will be pretty ragged and make the under layer (masonite) harder to join. Once the holes are all drilled, sand the board and paint it, and spend enough time to seal the edges well.


Here’s where you get creative. Elegant, carny looking, scruffy or other, the look of the board needs to reflect your personality, or that of your show. Once the board and other parts look satisfying let it dry thoroughly.. Now start setting your nails. Just a push or a tap will be enough if you did it right. Pay attention to the height of the nails, depending on quality and the vagaries of manufacture there may be some differences in nail length. You want the “nail-point” surface as uniform as possible.


When you get it just right, bond the under board to it. Glue or screws will do it, just make it firm.


The nail bed works by supporting your weight over a lot of space. But there is a little more to it. The back is one of those areas with fewer nerve endings, so it is overall less sensitive to feeling. Test this yourself by getting behind someone who cannot see what you’re up to, and touch their back with one. two, or three fingers. You will find that they cannot tell the difference.




There is not a lot you can do with the bed, other than the obvious, but here are a few ideas...When you first show the board show it vertically. A flat bed is not as dramatic unless you show “The Menace of the Nails.” Let someone from the audience test the nails for sharpness, and then throw an apple or an orange at the Board, it will give you a satisfying “squnch.”


. (I have a way with words). Lay on the board. Actually, how you get on the board depends on your style. If you have a sitpad, it’s easy, if you don’t you will approach it more gingerly, as only a small part of the board is supporting your weight. Trust me, you will learn quick. (At this writing. I know of at least 4 people, one age fourteen, who are using boards with four nails, and planning on even fewer.. When you lay back, you may have to wiggle a little to get a good position, where your skin is not being pinched. When everything is right, the board is actually comfortable and some, like me, enjoy it as a therapy.


Now for the reasons for leaving an edge on the board. First, it allows you to make a cover for the nails while you transport the board, (You can use the cover for a glass-walking tray) and it will allow you to readily have someone step up on your chest or belly. Further , you can use your forearms to steady yourself. Try it offstage before you do this to find where you can stand the weight best.


Who ever you choose should be barefooted and assisted to prevent off-balance situations. This is the cause of many injuries.


 If you have a trusted assistant you can do the breaking of a cinder block or patio blocks on your chest. A nine pound sledge-hammer is about right for this, but make the point of impact as near the center of the block as you can. The block spreads the blow, and while you’ll know it’s happening, it isn’t at all hard to do. When the block shatters it will throw shrapnel so take care to protect your face. When done as you get up off the board, you’ll probably feel the nails releasing from your skin. Show your back, and take a bow.


Slim’s extra!


An addition of a sheet of metal between the nail heads and the lower sheet of Masonite will allow you to add (and combine) The Human Dynamo act… I’d use the board vertically to do the Dynamo act. Just have the girl lean back on the nails and do the Dynamo, and then drop the B o N to horizontal to do that half of the act.. Then laying on the bed will let you add "sparks" to the Bed of Nails...


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