All Nailers Great and Small

Since 1950, when the first pneumatic nail gun was introduced on the market, nailers have grown in popularity among professionals and DIYers to the point where the hammer is fast becoming a museum piece.

Unlike the real custom nail gun in the photo above, real nail guns come in a variety of calibers, better known as gauges.  Let’s cover the various types of equipment using nail gauge as a guide, and along the way we’ll learn the features and applications of each one.

A digression:  Like all tools, not all nail gun brands are created equally reliable and durable.  I went through two – count ’em – two Bostitch 18 gauge brad nailers before realizing the problem I experienced was somehow tied to the flawed design of this tool.  Right out of the box, each of these new nail guns misfired, that is, when the trigger was pulled, no nail came out.  Usually this can occur in older, well-used guns due to wear on the so-called driver.  The driver is moved down onto the nail head by pressure when the trigger is pulled.  If it’s metal shape is worn from countless up-and-down trips in its guide, the driver can “miss” the nail and skip off.  This shouldn’t happen with a new tool.  On the other hand, I have had excellent service life and durability with both Porter Cable and Senco equipment.  I looked up the replacement parts list for a typical 18 gauge Bostitch brad nailer like the ones I owned, and, interestingly, part number 5 on the exploded diagram (an O-ring in the driver mechanism) wasn’t even listed in the parts list!  O-rings are easily replaceable, but they have to also be available!

(How funny!  I just searched “Stanley Bostitch BT1855K” and looked at “Customer Reviews:”

  • “‘This gun consistently won’t fire.’  (5 reviewers made a similar statement.)”
  • “‘…this one was so frustrating to use.’  (4 reviewers made a similar statement.)”
  • “‘I am going to return it…’  (1 reviewer made a similar statement.)”

‘Nough said.  Read my article on tools for more sage advice…)

Framing Nailers

The biggest guns used for construction and framing actually don’t have a “gauge,” per se.  Generally, they can use nails of more than one shank diameter, unlike smaller nailers that are limited to a particular gauge.  My Porter Cable framer can fire nails ranging from .113 inches to .148 inches in diameter, and 2 to 3 and 1/2 inches in length.  The nails typically come in a sleeve (stick or strip) of 25 or so individual nails held together (“‘collated”) by a plastic band.  Loading any gun is the same:  Pull back the spring-loaded feeder, drop in the strip of nails (pointy end down…) and release the feeder.

Collated nails come angled (20°-34°) or straight depending on the design of the magazine.  Wikipedia says, “Shank styles include plain, ring annular, twisted, etc. and a variety of materials and finishes are offered including plain steel, galvanized steel, sherardised steel, stainless steel, etc. depending on the pull-out resistance, corrosion resistance, etc. required for the given application.”  In case you are wondering:  sherardising is a form of galvanizing for resistance to rust.  (I was…)  Other construction nails come in coils to reduce the frequency of reloading; this is especially helpful in high volume tasks like roofing.

Another (brief) digression:  Nail guns, whether powered by air pressure, electromagnetism, flammable gas or gunpowder are a leading cause of injuries related to tool uses.  Between 2001 and 2007, nail gun injuries among workers and consumers (DIYers) doubled, according to the CDC and NIOSH.  Much of the blame can be traced to rapid fire “bounce firing” in which the gun fires when the trigger is pulled and then the nose piece contacts the work, versus a “sequential-trip” firing mechanism requiring the nose piece to contact the work first before the trigger is pulled improving control.  (Senco actually offers free replacement parts if the trigger type you have is not to your liking.)  Be informed and be forewarned:  Nail gun injuries are horrific.  Don’t be a statistic!

16 Gauge Nail Guns

Known as finish nailers, 16 gauge tools use smooth nails with a minimal head to allow the head to be countersunk below the surface of the wood. This is accomplished in two ways.  In air tools, the pressure from the air compressor should be set roughly between 70 and 120 pounds per square inch (psi); there should be no need to readjust this once set as the compressor will bring itself up to pressure when the pressure falls below its set point.  The depth of the nail head is controlled by a depth adjustment on the tool.  Again, once trial and error determines the correct adjustment, no further adjustment is required.

Finish nails come in variety of lengths ranging from 5/8 inch to 2 and 1/2 inch.  These are used to fasten interior trim molding, window sills, jambs and headers, door frames, crown molding, etc.  A wise old carpenter once told me, “Remember:  you have to fill all those holes with putty,” so less is more.  If you strive to hit the stud behind the drywall at each point, fewer nails can be used.  Techniques to accomplish this include laying out a tape on the floor and noting every 16 inches (or so) there is a stud location; and using a stud finder.  Don’t do what an extra laborer did on one job I was on:  He marked the location of each stud on the stain grade base molding with ball-point pen!  Buy ’em books and buy ’em books and all they do is eat the covers…

Finish nails are also used to fasten sub-tops and underlayment when you don’t want a nail head protruding proud of the surface.

Protruding nail heads (called “shiners”) can be set with a couple of sharp blows with a hammer on the right size nail set.  Then the fun begins:  puttying all the holes…

18 Gauge Nail Guns

Known as brad nailers, 18 gauge tools do the same jobs as finish nailers with one advantage:  the holes are smaller requiring less putty.  They are harder to see from a distance and therefore add to the clean look of the new decor.  Brad nailers come in lengths similar to finish nails, so can be used for the same tasks generally.  A wise old drywaller once told me, “You know 18 gauge nails will hold that trim just as well as those 16 gauge spikes, and the holes are smaller…”  I didn’t immediately mend my ways (because I didn’t think of it first), but eventually came to see the wisdom of his advice.

Further, smaller brad nails are ideal for fastening thin material like screen molding and 3/16 inch finished panels.

23 Gauge Nail Guns

At one time I disparaged this size gun, known as a pin nailer or “pinner,” as a toy more suited to building little wooden do-dads and thing-a-ma-jigs.  Then a wise old contractor (who was paying my contract) suggested I use one of these little gems to affix rope trim to a flat spot on the crown molding I was installing on some kitchen cabinets.  The issue was the rope trim was fragile, and larger nails caused it to split and blow out.  The tiny headless pin nails are ideal for this application.  Each is about the size of a sewing needle; available lengths are limited due to their small diameter, which can take only so much driving force before bending.  I now own this little baby of my family of nail guns; I use it for rope trim, beading, screen molding, drawer box construction (with glue), repairs, veneer, and a bunch of other tasks where a larger nail won’t do.

The best part:  The nail holes are essentially invisible, filled or unfilled.

As I said, I own at least one of every size of common nail gun known to man or woman.  There are just no substitutes for the efficiency and utility of the various sizes and features.  (Try driving a 1 inch, 2d common wire nail with a hammer; you’ll be screaming obscenities after hitting your hand on the first or second blow…)  Other types of nail guns are more specialized:

Hardwood flooring nailers take the work (and there’s a lot of it) out of installing floors.  Activated by air pressure and a sharp blow with a rubber hammer, these tools drive and set flooring nails through the tongue of the boards at the proper angle and depth.   A job that could take many days only takes a lot of days.

Powder actuated tools are used for driving hardened nails into concrete and other tough substrates for fastening wall plates and brackets to other-than-wood surfaces. A sharp blow to the loaded tool fires a cartridge to propel the fastener home.

Staplers are handy when fastening non-electrical wire, wood edging on plastic laminate counter tops and other tasks (like sheathing) where an extra-firm grip is required and the staple wire won’t show or it doesn’t matter.

Palm nailers are compact tools that “hammer” (40 hits per second) nails into wood.  The nailer straps to the hand, and is air-powered.  The advantage is their usefulness in tight spaces.

Most nail guns are pneumatic and require an air compressor to use.  Buy a good one, because they go through repeated cycling during use to keep the air pressure at the optimal level.  Compressors are usually oil filled, so maintenance is paramount for a long service life.  Drain the condensed water from the pressure tank(s) regularly to avoid internal corrosion.

What more to say, but that a wise old…

Oh, forget it.