What is it for?

The single biggest advantage of the nailer is its capability of driving a huge number of nails in a very short space of time, far in excess of what can be achieved with a conventional hammer.

Safety

Nailers are among the more dangerous power tools if not used with care, and in fact quite a number of serious accidents will make the news headlines each year! Frequently however the person injured is not the user of the nailer, but a bystander or someone else working near by.

The term nail "gun" is frequently used, and this is not overstating the case, even relatively low-powered nailers will be able to launch a nail at a similar velocity to that of a bullet fired from a gun! If you treat a nailer with the same respect you would award a firearm, then you probably have the correct mind set for safe working.

For starters many nailers use a supply of compressed air, this in itself can be highly dangerous if not used carefully. Always ensure that airlines are in good condition, and that couplings are correctly made. Take great care when making and breaking connections.

Unlike a hammer, nailers will drive a nail into the wood with a single blow. This means the force of the hammer blow is many times greater, and also there is no opportunity to correct a mistake. So when something goes wrong there is more potential danger. All nailers will include safety features designed to stop the nailer from being fired when not in contact with a surface, however the foolhardy can easily override many of these! The nailer also has no knowledge of what the surface is made out of, so if you try to fire a 3 inch framing nail into a thin sheet of plywood with nothing behind it, the nail will fire straight through the surface, and continue on the other side as a projectile looking for a target.

Alternatively the nail may bend and exit the surface at an unexpected angle or position. Hit something hard and the point can curl round and pop straight out of the top of the surface you are nailing into. Hence it is important to keep your fingers well away from the location where you are nailing.

Eye protection is absolutely required at all times! In many cases ear protection should be worn as well since the noise when the nailer fires can be very loud.

With a pneumatic nailers beware of the exhaust port, since this is where the waste air will be discharged. It is very easy for this to blow grit or other debris in your face and eyes.

Take care when working close to flammable substances since the forces involved when driving nails can easily generate sparks which could start a fire.

Type of propulsion

Method

Comments

Mallet Not really the type of nailer being discussed in this FAQ, but included for completeness. A few nailers are actually driven by a hammer or mallet blow. The type used for hidden nailing in tongue and grove floorboards is often like this. The purpose of the nailer is to position and angle the nail accurately rather than drive it itself.

Electric Nailer

Electric nailers come in two forms: mains and cordless. Most of them are designed to use the smaller gauges nails, typically with lengths of no more than 30 mm. These are typically used for tacking and finish or pinning applications. Also good for some arts and crafts. Some cordless nailers are also available in larger sizes for second fix nailing.
Pneumatic Nailer

Pneumatic nailers require a supply of compressed air to work. This is almost always supplied by compressor. Nailers do not generally have a huge requirement for free air delivery, hence a relatively small compressor (i.e. 1hp / 25 ltr) will drive most nailers with ease.

There is a very wide selection of pneumatic nailers to choose from, with models to cope with all sizes gauges of nail.

Pneumatic nailers are also very cheap to run.

The main disadvantage of pneumatic nailers is the requirement for the airline and compressor. This means there is a large amount of baggage that needs to be taken with you when you want to use the nailer, and a suitable power source must also be available.

Pneumatic Hammer Not strictly speaking a nailer a such, the pneumatic hammer is probably worth a mention. This is a small tool driven by compressed air which is held in the palm of the hand and features a small hammer like nose. The user simply pushes this nose against an ordinary nail, and a percussive action is used to drive the nail home. Cheap and simple, and has the advantage of using just about any old nail you may have available. However very much slower than a proper nailer, and not exactly automatic.
Gas Nailer

The gas nailer (made famous by Paslode), gets round most of the disadvantages of the pneumatic nailer. Power to drive the nails is derived from a small canister of flammable gas which is drawn into a cylinder and detonated rather like in an internal combustion engine. The nailers also typically have a battery which is used to ignite gas.

Gas nailers are highly portable since they don't require a compressor or airline.

They are however far more expensive to run the since new gas canisters have to be purchased. In addition the nails are usually only available from the same manufacturer has the nailer (and often come with the gas canister). There is also a much smaller choice in types and gauges of nail and nailer. However if you are in the middle of a field making a fence it may be your only option!

Cartridge Nailer

Similar in a way to the gas nailer, but using a small explosive cartridge to provide the motive power. These nailers really are a type of gun!. Cartridge nailers (such as those made by Hilti in their "direct fix" of DX range), are available for a multitude of specialist applications. These include special nails and a fittings for cable, conduit, and trunking fixing, roof sheet fixing, grate and tray fixing.

Cartridge nailers consume one explosive cartridge per nail or fixing fired, and so are more expensive to run than most other types of nailer. However they are free from flexes and airlines so truly portable.

Cartridge nailers are also hugely powerful (when required, the actual power per shot being dictated by the power of the cartridge used - most makers offer a range of powers to suit different applications) and are frequently used to drive fixings into steel and concrete. Applications include fixing timbers to RSJs, fixing screens, mesh and checker plate to masonry and brickwork, or driving threaded connectors into masonry for later fixing of via a conventional nut and bolt type of arrangement. All without the hassle of pre drilling or resin bonding of the threaded stud.

 

Types of nailer

Type

Used For

Headless Pinner For small narrow-gauge nails with no head. Ideal for fixing fine trim and mouldings when furniture-making, and for adding support a small wood items while glue is drying. The nails are almost invisible once driven home.
Brad Nailer

This is a common gauge of nail used by many budget nailers. Most nailers will handle nails up to 30 mm in length. Some will handle nails up to 50mm. Brads are thin, but quite tough. They can be used for many tacking and holding tasks.

A number of brad nailers it will also handle narrow crown staples. Whilst models that handle staples are a little more versatile, they have the down side that the firing pin is wider than that used in a nailer that just fires nails. This means if the firing pin marks the surface of the wood, it tends to leave or wider slot mark, rather than smaller hole.

Narrow crown staples are handy for upholstery work, fixing expanded metal lath to surfaces, and many other jobs that need more holding power than a nail.

Finish Nailer Finish nailers usually use 16 gauge nails. They will frequently have a non marring nose so that they can be used for applications where the finish will be visible and hence no damage to the surface is acceptable. Ideal for many cabinet and furniture-making activities. can also be used for second fix carpentry.
Second Fix Nailer

Second fix nailers frequently use 15 gauge nails which are slightly thicker and heavier than the 16 gauge described above . Note however that there is a good deal of overlap in the different ranges of finish and second fix nailers.

This type of nailer is ideal for a many carpentry and joinery tasks such as fitting architraves and skirtings, fixing doorstops and fixing beading and trim during general building activities.

They can also be good for some fencing and decking tasks.

Many nailers of this type have a nail magazine which is swept back at an angle to enable skew nailing into corners.

Framing Nailer

The daddy of nailers!

Framing nailers tend to be amongst the biggest guns available. They drive heavy gauge nails up to 90 mm long. These make very short work of building studwork for walls, and roof construction including fixing rafters, hip beams, and tile batten. One man on a sliding mitre saw and another with a framing nailer can erect studwork at a awesome pace! (several studs a minute including noggins)

Ideal for fencing and decking and any other task that requires substantial nails driven in quantity.

All nailers of this type have a nail magazine which is swept back at an angle to enable skew nailing into corners.

Special Purpose Nailers There are also a variety of special purpose nailers designed for flooring, roofing and other building tasks. There are also some nailers designed for fixing into masonry or asphalt.

Consumables

Item

Description

Firing Pin

The firing pin is the part of the nailer that actually drives the nail into the wood. As result of this, it leads a very hard life and should be treated as a consumable.

If purchasing a budget nailer, make sure that replacement firing pins are available - otherwise when it breaks you will be needing a whole new nailer!

Nails

Nails are available in many types. Most are galvanised. Often there is a choice of smooth or ring shanked (the ring shanks are harder to drive, but also harder to pull out and so good for tasks that use nails in tension rather than shear). Different head shapes are also available. Some of the nails designed for nailers with magazines swept back at an angle have "clipped" heads. These are like round heads on traditional nails, but with a semi circle take out of the circumference. This allows the nails to be tightly packed in a strip and not have problems with one nail catching on the head of its neighbour when it is fired. Most nails have a chisel like point, although some of the larger ones have a traditional point. Flooring nails have a cut type of point to minimise board splitting.

Types of nail

Nails are typically supplied in either a strip or a coil (which you need depends on your nailer), additionally strip nails are available either straight or swept, again the type that you require (and the angle of sweep) will depend upon your nailer.

Nail

Description

Brands and Pins

From 7 to 55mm with chisel point. Brads are usually 18 gauge and pins are finer still at 23 gauge

Finish and Second Fix Nails From 25-65mm with chisel point. In 15 or16 gauge Available both in swept and straight strips.

Framing Nails

From 50-90 millimetre with a point. Heads clipped or round (depending on angle of sweep usually). Sweep angles to suit nailers with 20, 28, and 34 degree magazines. Note that nails for a different angle magazine are not interchangeable since the nails will only be pointing in the correct direction at one angle!
Flooring Nails From 40 to 50mm with a "T" or "L" shaped head and a cut point.

In Use

Most nailers can be used in two ways: single and "bump" fire. When using single fire the nailer is placed against the work and the operator pulls the trigger. This fires a nail and reloads the next nail. The operator will need to release the trigger and pull it again to fire another nail.

In bump nailing the operator keeps the trigger held down (the safety interlock prevents it firing win free space). The nose of the nailer is then bumped against the work. This disengages the safety interlock and the nail fires and reloads. Bumping again fires again. It is possible with some nailers to get multiple fires in rapid succession if this is not done correctly.

Bump nailing is more risky since you will be positioning the nailer with less accuracy, and possibly at a more variable angle and distance from the surface. However it is quicker and handy in assembly line applications.

Note that not all nailers that support bump nailing will do so "out of the box", you may need to purchase additional accessories from the maker to enable this facility.

Accessories

The are relatively few accessories for use with nailers, however one that can be quite useful (on pneumatic nailers) is a swivel coupling since this will help to stop you getting tangled up in air hose.

Features

None marring head. This is designed to be sure that the head of the nailer and the firing pin a lever no visible mark on the surface of the wood. This is required for any work which will be visible later.

Spiked or barbed head: this is useful on framing or second fix nailers and makes accurate positioning of skew nails very easy since it allows the head of the nailer to bite into the wood a little and hold it in position before firing.

Rotatable exhaust port, this keeps the exhaust port blast out of the operator's face regardless of the orientation of the nailer.

Depth adjustment, allows the nail depth to be adjusted without needing to tweak the compressor output regulator.

Quality indicators

Budget nailers frequently suffer from poor repeatability, in other words, slight changes in air pressure (on pneumatic nailers), or material density, will affect the depth that each nail is set to.

When choosing a nailer pay careful attention to how easy or difficult it is to disassemble the nailer to clear jams. Some are easy to take part without any special tools, while others require several different sizes of Allen key!

A note on compressors

For pneumatic nailing, ideally your compressor should have automatic stop-start, and should have an output pressure regulator (a not just a receiver pressure regulator). this will help ensure consistency of nailing.

Nailers require reasonably frequent lubrication (i.e. before/after each use), and an in-line oiler can help here (alternatively, a few drops of oil in the air inlet will do the trick).

A water separator can also be good for reducing the possibility of corrosion in your nailer.

Second hand tools

Nailers frequently turn up on eBay, however most of them are new budget models, rather than true second-hand units.

Be wary about buying second-hand units since unless you're sure the unit has been treated carefully during its life, you have no guarantee as to its safety. Note also that second hand prices for desirable nailers such as an second fix nailers and framing nailers are frequently not much cheaper than new prices!