Download PDF version (488.2k) Log In or Register to view the full article as a PDF document.

  

Look for a stick nailer with plenty of power, good balance, and an effective nosepiece for toe-nailing

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 framing nailer.

What to Look For in a Stick Nailer

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 long periods.

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 doubled joists.

Nail capacity.

Both magazine capacity and the range in nail length are important.

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 dreaming.

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 plywood.

The Tool Testers

In order to give the results as much validity as possible, I decided to enlist several of my associates to help with the testing of these guns. 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 home. 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 600. 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 nailers. 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 Hitachi NR83A.

The Testing

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.

Power Counts

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?

General Observations

All 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 or round-head.

Collation Angles

A 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 range. 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 nails reliably. 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.

Conclusion

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

The 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 instead. 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 FP600, too. 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.