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Nail Gun Buying Guide

Nail Gun and Crown Moulding

When you need to drive in a nail, nothing beats a hammer. There's even a convenient claw on the other end to correct any mishaps. But when you need to drive a lot of nails in a short amount of time, nothing beats a power nailer. A quality power nailer can sink thousands of nails a day consistently and accurately with a minimum amount of maintenance.

Nail Gun Types

Stick-style Nail Gun


Two basic types of nail guns are widely used today. They vary based on their magazine style and the nails they use.

Stick-style Nail Guns
Coil-style Nail Gun

Stick-style nail guns use nails that are collated, or held together, by strips of paper, plastic or thin wire. These nails form a long, slender stick that slides into an oblong magazine on the tool. Nail sticks vary in length from 20-inch to 40-inch nails.

Coil-style Nail Guns

Coil-style nail guns use long, flexible strings of nails joined with wires. The nails are stored in a round magazine on the tool. The magazine rolls the string of nails, allowing as many as 300 nails to be loaded at a time.

Applications for Nail Guns

Nail guns can be used in virtually any type of construction. Some models are designed for use in tight spaces, while others are large and powerful for high-volume applications.

  • Framing nailers are designed for fast, high-powered work in fastening large pieces of material.
  • Finish nailers are lighter weight, used for furniture, cabinets, trim and molding.
  • Staplers, tackers and brad nailers are also lightweight, used for precision work.
  • Roofing nailers are specifically designed to apply roof shingles.

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Pneumatic Nail Guns

The most common power nail guns are pneumatic nailers. These are powered by air pressure from a small compressor. When a nail is fired, a valve opens in the tool and air fills a cylinder. A piston in the cylinder moves rapidly downward, driving the nail in front of it into the material at the tip of the nailer. When the piston fully extends, the air from the compressor is released from the tool through an exhaust vent. The piston recoils while another nail is loaded.

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Air Compressors for Pneumatic Nail Guns

Air Compressor

Pneumatic nail guns require a constant source of compressed air. While no nail gun requires a specific compressor, each has specific air requirements. Nail guns operate between a range of pressures measured in pounds per square inch (psi). In addition to pressure, nail guns require a minimum volume of air for correct operation. This volume is rated in cubic feet per minute (cfm). Any restriction in the air hose will decrease the air pressure and volume. Hoses that are the wrong size, too long or contain a lot of moisture will decrease airflow, and cause premature wear and poor performance.

The psi and cfm ratings of your air compressor should be at least equal to or greater than the requirements of your nailer. If the compressor doesn't meet these requirements, the nail gun won't work correctly. Increasing the air pressure output of the compressor won't solve performance problems caused by low air volume.

If you plan to run other air tools in addition to a nail gun, make sure your compressor can handle the combined load.

Cordless Nail Guns

Cordless Nail Gun

While the basic function of a cordless nail gun is similar to that of a pneumatic nailer, the power source of a cordless nail gun is unique. Instead of using a supply of compressed air provided by a compressor, these nail guns use flammable gas to drive nails. The gas is drained from a disposable canister and injected into the combustion chamber above the piston. An electric charge from a battery ignites the gas, which explodes and drives the piston, dispensing a nail. The tool and power source are self-contained, so no cords or hoses are necessary.

The most modern cordless nail guns sink nails as quickly as the pneumatic models. They need to be cleaned more often than traditional pneumatic units but require very little startup time. They're well-suited for tight or obstructed areas, since there's no air hose. A cordless nail gun works best for lower-volume nailing, jobs in tight spaces or jobs with limited setup time.

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Power Nailer Features

Choose the features, power and nail capacity appropriate for the desired use.

Nail firing types offer variety in the way a nailer drives the fasteners.

  • One type lets the user hold down the trigger and then tap or bounce the tool on the material to drive a fastener. Each bounce releases a nail. This is a great choice for production-type work.
  • Putting the tool on the material and pulling the trigger can activate some nailers. However, nailers are so fast that they can easily drive two fasteners before the operator can lift it. You might need a little practice with this type of nailing.
  • For more precise nailing, a variation of the above is a simple trigger operation. Each pull of the trigger releases one fastener. A staple gun is the best example of a tool with this firing style.
  • Some models offer multiple trigger settings that allow the user to choose the firing style most appropriate for the task.

Directional exhaust plates allow the user to control where the tool's exhaust is channeled. This setting is valuable when nailing in a dusty area. Some shields require special tools for adjustment, while others can be adjusted by hand.

Jam clearing simplifies the maintenance of nailers, since fasteners occasionally jam in the nailing mechanism. Be sure the tool you select allows convenient clearing of jammed fasteners.

Adjustable depth allows the user to control the depth the fastener is driven into the nailing surface. Nailers can leave nails protruding, sink them flush or even countersink them depending on the depth setting. Some nailers require tools for depth adjustment, while others can be adjusted by hand.

Large triggers are easily used with gloved fingers and provide added comfort for the user.

Carrying cases protect the nailer from unnecessary damage and wear during transport. Consider adding a case when you purchase your nailer to keep it clean, dry and well-protected.

Swiveling air connectors cut down on air hose tangles. They also make reloading easier, allowing the air hose to be moved out of the way.

Protective guards keep parts of the tool safe from damage and protect the user from flying debris. Guards can wear out with use, so look for ones that can be easily replaced.

Easy-to-load nail magazines make loading nails a simple process. Make sure you can reload the nailer quickly and easily.

Nail size adjustment is important, since you may need to change nail sizes several times a day as you switch tasks. Nail size should adjust easily with few tools.


Nails for a Power Nailer

Nails used in power nailers are joined together with paper, plastic or wire. Many have clipped heads that allow the nails to sit closely together in a solid line. Others are secured together in long strands with flexible wire. Most have a layer of lubricant / adhesive. As the nail contacts the nailing surface, the compound heats and lubricates the nail. When the compound cools, it bonds the nail to the nailing surface, increasing the holding strength.

Each power nailer has specific requirements for nail styles. Never use nails that aren't approved for your power nailer. Though the nails must be specially packaged for power nailers, their composition and applications are the same as traditional nails. Make sure the nails you use in your power nailer comply with all necessary regulations and building codes.

Nail Gun Safety

All power tools demand attention to safety, and power nailers are certainly no exception.

  • Always inspect tools prior to use.
  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions for use, maintenance schedule and safety precautions.
  • Never alter a tool for any reason.
  • Wear OSHA-required safety glasses.