Professional contractors, as well as do-it-yourself consumers, are presented with a wide array of nail guns to choose from. Nailers are incredibly useful, and continued innovation within the market has made them even more so. But inadequate training, risky use, and nailer malfunction present significant dangers to the construction community.
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 28,600 workers reported nail gun injuries in 2005 alone. Selecting the proper power source and nailer type for the job can have benefits far beyond the efficient completion of a project. In choosing a nail gun, your own safety should always be a primary concern.
Nail Guns: Types, Uses & Safety
As nailers have become more popular, manufacturers have sought new ways of differentiating themselves within the marketplace. You can now find multiple power and loading options, along with nail guns tailored to different uses, in every Home Depot and Lowe’s in America. So which nailer is right for the job? And, perhaps more importantly, do certain models have unique safety benefits?
Pick Your Power Source
A contractor’s first consideration is usually power. What method will the nailer use to actually drive the fastener into a work piece?
Pneumatic nail guns are the most popular, in part because they’re cheaper than other models. But they’re usually lighter, too, making for faster work and increased efficiency on the jobsite. Of course, they only work in combination with an air compressor, which supplies the compressed air that actually drives nails. The external compressor’s weight, and the fact that you have to lug it around with you, can make a pneumatic nailer’s lightness negligible in practice. And cords, like the one that connects the nailer to the air compressor, are never a good thing on the job.
Generally, gas powered, or combustion, nailers use butane, propane, or nitrogen gas to produce a small explosion inside the nailer. The force of this explosion drives a piston that shoots out the nail, similar to the mechanism used to power car engines. Some combustion nail guns have a built-in reservoir for gas, while others require disposable cartridges, but they’re all cordless. Without wires, gas powered nail guns are preferred for work on roofs and other places that are hard to access.
Powder-actuated tools are extremely powerful and their use is regulated in many countries, including the United States. Produced primarily by companies like Hilti and Ramset, these fasteners are essentially the same as guns, using a gunpowder-filled “load” to drive “pins,” a variety of hardened fasteners, into poured concrete and steel.
Electric nailers are less popular than their pneumatic cousins. Less powerful, slower and more expensive, electric nailers use extension cords or rechargeable battery packs to drive fasteners. Electric nail guns are also heavier, and some require two hands to use effectively.
Check out this great article on How Stuff Works to learn more about nail gun propulsion.
Function Meets Form: Nail Guns & Their Uses
Different jobs require different nails. In framing, creating a building’s support structure, larger nails are used because strength and durability are key. Where aesthetics are concerned, like in finish work, smaller nails are preferred. Most nail guns are only designed to accommodate a narrow segment of the wide range of nails out there, making them appropriate for certain tasks but unsuited to others.
Nail sizes are given in increments of “d,” like “16d” or “8d.” “D” in this case actually refers to “penny.” In speech, you would say “this nail is 16 penny.” This convention goes all the way back to Ancient Rome, where the primary coin was known as a “denarius.” The English adopted this word to refer to their own pennies. Most scholars believe that a nail’s length was related to its price. A nail of length “16d” would have cost around 16 pennies.
Framing nailers drive big, heavy nails and are used to “frame” buildings, creating an underlying structure out of wood or metal. Most framing nail guns are optimized for 16d nails, 3 – 1/4 inches. These nailers are also commonly used in sheathing, fastening plywood or laminates to fill in the “spaces” between a frame’s primary boards.
Common framing nailer models:
- Porter-Cable FR350A
- Paslode 501000 F350S
- Milwaukee 7100-20
Roofing nailers, as their name suggests, are designed specifically for fastening shingles to roofs. Shingles require shorter nails with large heads. Siding does, too, so roofing nail guns are also used to clad the outside of buildings with clapboard or siding shingles.
Popular roofing nail guns:
- Hitachi NV 45AB2
- Paslode CR175C
- MAX CN445R2
Flooring nailers, used to install hardwood floors, are very different from the other nailers we’ve discussed. For one, they’re at least partially manual. Flooring nailers still utilize pressurized air, but this time a worker has to manually strike a trigger pad to drive the fastener. They’re also large, cumbersome, and unsuited for most other jobs. In fact, nailing floors is such a particular task that many contractors decide to hire subcontractors to finish the project.
Common flooring nailers include:
- Bostitch MIIIFN
- Porter-Cable FCN200
- Porta-Nails 402P
Finishing nailers are commonly used to drive short, light nails in delicate, detail work like moulding and baseboards. Specialized producers, like cabinet makers, are likely to choose finishing nail guns for most of their work.
The most popular finish nailers include:
- Bosch FNA250-15
- Bostitch N62FNB
- Campbell Hausfeld CHN70600
Brad nailers are designed for the smallest, most detailed woodworking tasks, like fastening narrow trims that would split under the force of a larger nail.
Common brad nailers include:
- WEN 61720
- Dewalt DWFP12231
- Hitachi NP35A
Loading Your Nailer
Commercial and industrial nail guns use one of two methods for loading fasteners:
In a coil nailer, long, sheets of nails are loaded into a circular canister and “coiled” around a central axis. Coil nail guns can be loaded with hundreds of nails at a time, making them preferable for big, long jobs where efficiency is a concern.
For stick nailers, the operator loads nails much like a stapler, using a long “stick” of nails connected by wires or thin strips of plastic. Stick nailers are usually used for smaller jobs, because they can only hold around 50 nails at a time.
Common Nail Gun Brands
There are dozens of tool manufacturers, big and small, currently producing nail guns in America and abroad. You’ll encounter names like:
- 3 PRO
- Campbell Hausfeld
- Hitachi Kino
- Josef Kihlberg
- Pneu Tools
- Simpson Strong-Tie
- Stanley Bostitch
Defective nail guns are commonly recalled by their manufacturers after safety risks become apparent. Visit our “Nail Gun Recalls” page to find a comprehensive list.
Nail Gun Triggers
Nail guns pose a significant danger by their very nature. Rampant injuries within the construction sector have made this fact clear for decades. In an attempt to reduce the number of contractors and homeowners injured in nail gun accidents, manufacturers have begun to develop new, safer actuation mechanisms.
Nail guns equipped with sequential triggers will only drive a fastener when their two trips, a contact tip and manual trigger, are depressed in the correct order. Unlike the industry-standard contact trip trigger, sequential triggers virtually eliminate common, dangerous building practices, like bump nailing. They also dramatically reduce the risk of double fire.
A study released in the journal Injury Prevention found that 69% of all unintentional nail gun injuries could have been prevented, if sequential triggers had been in use.
You can learn more about the differences between contact trip and sequential triggers in our guide here.