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Pneumatic Nailers – Safety & Use Tips

Pneumatic Nailers - Safety & Use Tips

I remember clearly the first day I used a pneumatic nail gun. My crew and I were working with a friend of mine who was a carpenter. He had recently purchased a used air compressor and a framing nail gun. The size of the gun astonished me. It appeared bulky and heavy. When I picked it up, my observations were confirmed. However, when I began to use it those feelings quickly vanished!

The Need for Speed

Pneumatic nailers do many things well. One of the most impressive is the speed with which they can drive nails or staples. I would venture to say that for every nail that I could hand drive on my best day, a pneumatic nailer would drive and set twelve! That is no exaggeration.

Although there is no need to go this fast, a reasonable speed would allow you to be 400 to 800 percent more productive. Nailing large subfloors and roof decks is a breeze. Hours worth of work becomes minutes. This means that contractors who use these tools can save you money. They are much more competitive.

Holding Power

The nails that are used by pneumatic nailers are precision made. Often they come in strips. They are held together by a resin/adhesive that coats the shaft of each nail and allows the nails to stick to one another.

This resin performs additional functions. When the piston drives the nail rapidly into the wood, it creates quite a bit of friction. The friction turns to heat which melts the resin. This melted resin acts a a lubricant helping the nail to penetrate the wood more easily. Within a matter of seconds, the resin resolidifies and becomes an adhesive! Pneumatically driven nails generally have up to twice the holding power of regular hand driven nails.

I can easily attest to this claim. Virtually every frame wall we built required bracing to hold it in place. We would nail a 2x4 diagonal brace to the top of a vertical wall stud until the structure was secure. Several days later when we removed the braces, the nails would pull through the brace as we hammered it away from the wall! In other words, the nails would not budge. They remained in the vertical wall studs!

The Many Uses

There is a nail gun that fits just about every need. The big ones will drive a 3.5 inch nail into a piece of oak with no effort. Or you can purchase a gun that fires roofing nails. Small brads (1/2 inch!) can be driven for picture frames. My favorite gun is one that fires trim nails for woodwork. I actually have two different trim guns. One fires nails up to two inches long, while the other can shoot a 2.5 inch nail. The first trim gun I purchased was so fantastic that it paid for itself within the first week of ownership.

The pneumatic nail guns that are used for trim work are especially handy. Have you ever goofed up and hit the wood instead of the nail? BINGO, a beauty mark! Or, you carefully drive the nail, begin tapping the nail with the nail set and oooooops!, the nail set slips and drives a hole next to the nail! This looks horrible on woodwork that is to be stained.

Nail guns don't make mistakes like this. They drive and set the nail in one motion! The only time they have trouble is when they hit a knot in a piece of wood. In these rare instances, the nail might bed or curl out of the trim. I'd say this happened to me maybe one in 5,000 times. I'll take those odds any day!

Safety - A Number One Priority

Pneumatic nail tools are powerful and dangerous. They must be treated with respect. I have hurt myself with pneumatic nail tools as well as hand driven nails. Every time I have injured myself, it has been a result of a lack of concentration and/or using the tool in a manner considered inappropriate.

For example, three years ago I was working in my basement. I was using a framing nail gun to toe nail a wall stud into a top plate. The gun bounced off the stud from the recoil and hit the top of my eyebrow. It knocked me off the ladder, bent my glasses, and caused me to see more stars than I can remember. After I got up from the ground I felt you-know-what flowing down my face. Fifteen stitches later I was as good as new.

I have seen photographs of x-rays where nails have entered heads, arms, legs, etc. In fact a fellow worker once nailed his big toe. He was in the hospital for a week after they surgically extracted the nail from his bone.

The point is this - the tools are wonderful, they produce lots of work, but you must be careful at all times.

Cost vs. Value

I have owned pneumatic nail tools for approximately 10 years. My first nail gun cost approximately $400. In addition, I purchased a gasoline powered air compressor. This compressor cost $500. Air hoses, nails, etc. brought the total to $1,000. Within a matter of years, I purchased three other guns. My total investment hovers near $2,300.

As for value, I can say that these wonderful tools enabled me to get jobs because I was more productive. My callbacks were less, especially regarding squeaking floors. I damaged less finish lumber. My guess is that the tools actually made money for me. Lots of it.


The mechanism of the gun is somewhat simple. A piston is charged by air. When the trigger and safety mechanism are engaged, the piston pushes a rod which drives the nail. Moving parts are minimal. If a nail jambs, a quick release feature allows you to fix this quickly.

Believe it or not, I have never had to take one of my guns in for service! That claim is incredible when you figure that my oldest framing gun has fired in excess of 500,000 nails.

Two Types

A huge majority of manufacturers make pneumatic nailers that are powered by compressed air. This means that you need a source of air. The air is supplied to the gun through a hose.

However, one manufacturer, ITW Paslode, makes a gun which does not require compressed air! It basically is an internal combustion engine of sorts. The gun comes with a spark igniter and a fuel cell. Each pull of the trigger causes the fuel to ignite and pushes a piston which drives the nail.

Each system has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, I use the air hose to lower my tool to the ground. It works great. But, there are many occasions where the air hose gets in the way. Many times I have covered my hands in mud while coiling my air hose at the end of the day. See what I mean!

Whichever type of nail gun you use, the results should be fantastic. Stay alert during use, do NOT horse around, never point them at something other than wood, and you should be in good shape.

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