Look for a stick nailer with
plenty of power,
good balance, and an effective nosepiece for
by Eric Borden
Gather together a room full of carpenters and eventually the
conversation will turn to tools. This is only natural, since
most contractors are always looking for anything that will make
their work faster, easier, and, hopefully, safer.
My own rule has always been to get the latest technology and
learn how to use it. I bought my first nail gun back in 1988. I
learned quickly that nail guns aren't necessarily any safer
than hand-nailing but that used properly, they're the only way
to compete in today's business climate.
Recently, I was looking to replace my 12-year-old framing
gun and was wondering which tool to buy. Researching this
article gave me a perfect opportunity to find out. I've geared
the review toward the tradesmen who are what I call
single-truck companies. They work with one or two employees at
the most and do a variety of work, from renovation to new
homes. Builders like this will spend as much of their year
trimming and siding as they will framing. Many companies start
with a single gun and may add a dedicated sheathing gun in the
future, but will probably add a trim gun before a second
What to Look For in a Stick
Since that first nail gun purchase, I've had plenty of time to
reflect on what makes a good framing nailer, and have also
learned that everybody's opinion of the perfect tool is
different. For this article, we limited our testing to stick
nailers, and judged them by the following criteria.
Weight. The nailer should
be as light as possible so that it can be used comfortably for
Balance. This is probably
the most subjective of the criteria. Each user will have his or
her own idea of the right balance.
Size. Ideally, the gun
should fit in between two joists spaced 16 inches on-center. In
my wistful moments, I'd like one to fit into the space between
Nail capacity. Both
magazine capacity and the range in nail length are
Nosepiece. One thing that
really slows down a framing gun is a poorly designed nosepiece.
If the teeth don't bite into the wood easily, toe-nailing is
frustrating at best and dangerous at worst.
Durability. Any tool manufacturer who thinks
we're not going to occasionally smack lumber into place with
these tools or accidentally drop them out of the rafters is
Controls. Given the
number of times a day you'll have to squeeze the trigger,
adjust the depth-of-drive, reload nails, or stop the exhaust
from hitting you in the face, these things count for a lot.
Reliability. The gun should require little
maintenance and be able to handle the rigors of the job on a
daily basis. It should also be able to work with several
different manufacturer's nails. Jams should clear easily and
safely. If you do need to replace parts, they should be
reasonably priced and readily available.
Power. The ideal gun
should have plenty of power to drive a nail into engineered
lumber, but it should also have a depth adjustment so that you
can nail sheathing without driving through the top lamination.
Ideally, depth adjustment should not require tools. If you need
a tool to change the depth it will probably be too much trouble
to retrieve it from the truck, so the guys will most likely use
the gun as is and drive the sheathing nails through the
The Tool Testers
to give the results as much validity as possible, I decided to
enlist several of my associates to help with the testing of
Troy Rivas, of Timberbuilt Construction, is primarily a
residential custom builder with 20 years of experience. He has
two employees in the field, and they build from frame to
finish. Troy currently owns a Senco Frame Pro 600 and really
wants to know why Senco discontinued the 325 framing nailer.
Troy tested the clipped-head nailers and used them for five
weeks during the framing of a 2,500-square-foot custom
Jeff Robinson is lead carpenter for Robert Monetti Custom
Builder; he used the clipped-head nailers during the framing
and renovation of an existing home. Jeff has 19 years in
residential construction, and currently uses a Senco Frame Pro
Jeff Van Schoick, Steven Heinz, and Bruce Jedry are
independent custom home builders who teamed up to frame an
11,000-square-foot residence. Bruce currently uses a Senco SN60
and was overheard on several occasions bemoaning the loss of
his old Senco 325. Steve uses a Paslode, and Jeff has several
Senco SN60s. They saw most of their action on the round-head
My company, ESB Contracting, specializes in new custom homes
and renovation. Lead carpenter Scott Robinson used the
clipped-head nailers during the construction of a new home.
Scott spent 17 years as a custom framing contractor before
joining our company. Our current nailer is a 12-year-old
We all used
these guns through several jobs over four months to find out
what we liked and disliked. The clipped-head nailers were
broken up into three groups and rotated to a new crew about
every three weeks. This gave everyone a chance to really work
them out on everything from headers to sheathing to interior
block-out before picking a favorite in each group. They were
used from October through January in all types of weather from
60°F days to 5°F days, in sun, rain, and snow.
During this time, we fed the guns a steady diet of whatever
nail we happened to be using at the time. They shot Senco,
Paslode, Hitachi, Duo-Fast and several types of generic
fasteners. Through this, certain guns seemed to stand out, and
this will be reflected in the comments found in each
description. After all this work, I can tell you that we came
to a definite agreement about the nailers: We agree to
disagree. The argument will go on until the end of time.
For a fairly
objective test, I introduced the guns to "The Pincushion." This
little item is a leftover 7x16x28-inch block of Parallam that
you could now pick up with a magnet. I set the regulator on my
Devilbiss 5-hp 20-gallon compressor to 110 psi, which is the
normal working pressure that we use on site. I then connected
each gun in turn to a 25-foot hose and shot 20 Paslode
3-1/2-inch-long .131-inch-diameter nails and 20 Interchange
Brand 3-inch-long .120-inch-diameter nails into the block and
recorded the results. As expected, all of the guns handled the
3-inch nails well, but not one of the guns was able to sink all
20 of the 3-1/2-inch-nails. Most of these guns are listed as
3-1/2-inch-capacity nailers. Is it too much to ask them to
drive a 3-1/2-inch-nail flush into a Parallam?
of the nailers with contact-trip triggers had a disturbing
tendency to "double tap" (one nail on top of another) when
nailing into hard material or used in an awkward position. The
only ones that didn't were the guns equipped with the
sequential-trip (single shot) triggers. Sequential-trip nailers
need to have the nosepiece safety released and depressed with
each pull of the trigger.
All of the full-head nailers had a nasty habit of dropping
the last nail of the rack from the gun. This is not only
annoying, it is something to be aware of for safety reasons, as
it increases the rate of misfires.
Also, the full-head nailers use a plastic collation, so they
dispense plastic shrapnel that exits the gun on the sides. This
can be dangerous and safety glasses are especially necessary
when using these guns.
The full-head nailers all tend to be a little larger than
their clipped-head counterparts because of the spacing
necessary in the collation of the nails, and to allow their
overall capacity to equal the clipped-head nailers. The average
capacity of all of the nailers is 70 nails either clipped-head
question that often comes up with nail guns concerns collation
angles and interchangeability of nail brands. The discussion
seems to happen more with clipped-head nailers, which have
three basic configurations: 28-degree paper collated, 28-degree
wire collated, and 31- through 35-degree paper collated. Most
of the clipped-head nailers fall into the 31- to 35-degree
As for interchangeability of nails, the tool manufacturers
typically specify a nail for their particular tool.
In my experience, the better-quality aftermarket nails
designed to fit a variety of guns in the 31- to 35-degree range
perform reliably. None of the guns using the 30-35 degree nails
will shoot the 28-degree nails. Only a few guns are designed
for 28-degee collations, and they will not shoot the 31-degree
I was unhappy with several of the 28-degree guns, not from a
reliability standpoint but because of the nail collation
angles. Mostly this is a supply issue. If you can't easily buy
the nails you need, the tool isn't going to be much good to you
no matter how well it works. And why set yourself up to carry
two types of nails for two different guns? Murphy says that you
would always have the wrong nails with you.
All of the
tools tested will do an adequate job of nail placement and have
plenty of power to get most jobs done. None of the tools failed
miserably. It all depends on what you expect from your nail
gun. I expect a lot and am willing to pay for it so I would not
hesitate to buy one of the guns with the better features. I
also want to know about nails that are available in my area and
where I have to go to get parts and service, if needed. None of
the guns required any service during the time we tested them.
Most of the major players have service outlets all over the
country but some, like Fasco, ISM, and Interchange, may be a
little harder to find. I would do a little research for your
area of the country before committing to a specific tool.
What We Would Buy
final request I made of the testers was to rate their top three
favorite guns. In the full-head category, the Makita was a
walkaway. Everyone loved the gun and it was the first on the
job every day. Second was the Hitachi NR90AC. It had a feel
that everyone liked, and a good depth adjustment. Third was the
Senco SN60, with the Porter-Cable close behind.
In the clipped-head category the favorite was again the
Makita, but with the Paslode and Max tied for a close second.
Third place went to the Sencos.
All in all, it was an interesting experience to review these
guns. Are any of the testers going out and replacing their
current guns with the Makita? No, but Troy Rivas said that if
the gun had been available last year when he replaced his Senco
325 with a Senco FP600 he would have gotten the Makita
What am I going to do about replacing my 12-year-old
Hitachi? I'm leaning toward the Max, because I like the
trigger, the depth adjustment, and the overall feel. Scott is
petitioning heavily for the Paslode, and I still like the Senco
Before you buy any of these guns, check out the nail
distribution and service available in your area. Try as many
guns as possible. You may make a different choice than we did;
if it's the one you like, it's the best.