As a framing contractor, I use nail guns just about every
day, so it's hard not to notice the way these tools have
changed over the years. Today's nailers work better than the
ones I've used in the past: They are smaller and lighter and
have features that make them easier to use.
For this article, my crew tested 11 stick nailers. We limited
ourselves to models that drive 30- to 34-degree paper-collated
nails, the fastener we normally use. (Clipped-head nails also
come with 28-degree wire or plastic collation, a Bostitch
standard that fits guns from a number of other
We tested tools from DeWalt, Fasco, Hitachi, Makita, Max,
Paslode, Porter-Cable, and Senco.
Durability and Power
The tools arrived in the summer of 2004 and we used them into
the fall. My crew is hard on tools, so the guns got a good
workout. We didn't use them long enough to evaluate long-term
durability, but during the time we had them they took all the
punishment we could give. In fact, I was surprised by how
well-made all these guns seemed to be. The only differences I
noticed had to do with small details, like the materials used
for rafter hooks and triggers.
Nail guns have had to become more powerful over the years,
mainly because the newer engineered materials are harder than
regular framing lumber. Some of the nailers we tested were more
powerful than others, but all of them had enough power to do
the job. For our company, that means being able to drive 3
1/4-inch spikes into LVLs. (Almost all of the guns will drive
longer fasteners, but 3 1/4-inch-long, .131-inch-diameter
spikes are about all we ever use.) We didn't use the guns to
nail off plywood, because codes in our area prohibit the use of
clipped-head fasteners for sheathing.
Paslode's gun (top) has a beefy
spring-loaded rafter hook that folds out for use. DeWalt's hook
(center) is made from plastic; it stows pretty well but is
still somewhat obtrusive. Senco's hook (bottom) folds neatly
out of the way when the gun is in use.
Size and Weight
Ideally, a framing gun should be light, powerful, and compact.
In reality, there are always trade-offs. Hitachi's NR 90AA
feels more powerful than the other guns, but at 8.8 pounds it's
also much heavier. Most of these tools weigh right around 8
pounds, though a couple are significantly lighter: The DeWalt
weighs 7.5 pounds and Hitachi's NR 90AD weighs only 7.0
Recoil. The first time I
picked up the NR 90AD, it was so light I expected to feel a lot
of recoil. But after using it for a while, I realized there was
almost no recoil. Likewise, the Makita produced remarkably
little kick. The other guns produced more recoil, but nothing
out of the ordinary.
Compact shape. All things
being equal, I prefer a more compact gun because it's easier to
get into tight spots. It's not an issue when we're nailing
walls together on the deck, but it does come up when we toenail
or work between rafters and joists. The Sencos and the
Porter-Cable are significantly more compact than the other
tools, mostly because they have shorter magazines. Even though
the Hitachi NR 90AD has one of the longer magazines, it feels
compact because it's not as tall as other models.
Framing nailers have two firing modes, sequential and bump. On
some models, you change modes by flipping a switch; on others,
you have to replace the trigger. This feature means very little
to me: Because none of our framers use sequential firing, there
is no advantage to being able to switch modes. If I like a gun
that comes with a sequential trigger, I'll buy it, change
triggers, and use the bump-fire mode from then on.
No dry-firing. Many of these
guns have a lock-out mechanism that prevents them from firing
when the magazine is empty. If a gun dry-fires, it leaves a
small indent in the lumber that looks like the head of a nail.
When you realize the gun is empty, you have to go back and look
for missing fasteners. I much prefer the models that won't
dry-fire. It's a bit maddening when the gun won't shoot those
last few nails, but it's much better than thinking you have a
wall nailed together when you really don't.
Figure 2.It takes a small wrench to adjust the
old-style depth-of-drive mechanism on the FramePro 601 (above).
The Paslode (right) uses an Allen wrench, which stores in the
back of the magazine.
Some guns load from the top of the magazine and others load
from the rear. As long as the gun is easy to load and unload
when we switch between standard fasteners and stainless or
hot-dipped-galvanized nails, it doesn't matter to me how the
Capacity. The more fasteners
a gun holds, the more work you can do without having to stop
and reload. The trade-off is a longer magazine, which can be
tough to maneuver in tight quarters.
Unfortunately, the manufacturers' specs make it difficult to
determine the magazine's effective capacity — the number
of nails the tool will hold if I load full strips. (Years ago,
I would break strips of fasteners to top off the load, but I
stopped doing that because it was a hassle to load the short
The specs may show a capacity that cannot be achieved without
breaking strips, or they may list a range of capacities (see
"Clipped-Head Nailer Specs," next page). For example, Paslode
says its gun holds 74 to 84 nails. This means it holds 74 of
the larger .131-inch fasteners or 84 of some smaller size. But
you could never drive 74 .131-inch nails without reloading,
because — as with all the other tools that prevent
dry-firing — this gun will not allow you to shoot the
last few nails.
There's no industry standard for the number of nails per strip,
but .131-inch clipped-head nails typically contain between 28
and 34 fasteners per strip. The nails I use come 30 to a strip,
and most of the guns I tested for this article hold two full
strips. Two of the guns, the Fasco and Hitachi's NR 83AA3, will
hold three strips.
Of course, all the guns hold more nails if you use smaller
fasteners — but that's not an issue for us, because we
use these guns only to fasten framing. We use a coil nailer to
drive the smaller round-head nails we use for sheathing.
When I first started framing, nail guns were simpler. There was
no such thing as a rafter hook, directional exhaust, or
adjustable depth of drive. The new guns have many more
features, but the value of any one feature depends on the kind
of work you do.
There are four carpenters on my crew. One guy does all the low
work, building headers, jacks, and walls, so to him a rafter
hook is no big deal. But he does want a directional exhaust
port because he doesn't like sawdust blowing up in his
Those of us who work up high really care about rafter hooks
because a hook makes it easier to put down the tool. We can
roll joists or haul up rafters without having to worry that the
gun will fall.
The DeWalt, Paslode, and Senco FramePro 701XP all have hooks. I
prefer Senco's hook because it's made from metal and folds
tight against the magazine when it's not in use (see Figure 1).
Paslode's hook is a substantial piece of metal, but the
spring-loading makes it awkward to retract with one hand.
DeWalt's hook is made from some kind of plastic; I'm concerned
that it will not hold up, especially in very cold
Depth of drive. These days, every framing nailer has an
adjustable contact element that can be raised or lowered to
change the depth of drive. With most models, you can change
depth settings without using tools, usually by turning a
thumb-wheel located on the nose or just below the trigger
(Figure 2). DeWalt's mechanism is adjusted by sliding an
indexed button below the trigger. The Senco FramePro 601 and
Paslode PowerMaster both require tools to change the depth of
drive (Figure 3).
In most cases, the front of the gun is less cluttered and the
mechanism is less likely to get banged if it's mounted away
from the nose of the gun. Still, the nose-mounted wheels on the
Max and Senco FramePro 701XP are less exposed than others
because they're tucked in fairly tightly.
Figure 3.The Makita (top) and Hitachi's NR 90AD
(center) have indexed thumb-wheels just below the trigger to
control depth of drive. The thumb-wheel that controls depth of
drive on the Senco FramePro 701XP (bottom) is cleanly
integrated into the nose.
Nonmarring tips. Many of these guns come with a plastic tip
that installs over the teeth of the contact element. The idea
is to prevent the teeth from marring visible surfaces. As a
framer, I have very few opportunities to take advantage of this
feature, though I have used it when nailing exterior deck
members that will be at eye level. On some models, the tip
stores on a clip on the magazine. It's a clever idea, but if
you do a lot of framing, the tip is likely to fall off and get
I normally use Senco nails because that's what the nearest
supplier sells. For this test, we also tried some generics to
see if that made any difference. It did: The guns seemed to jam
more with generic fasteners. The Hitachis — especially
the NR 90AD — seemed more sensitive to the type of nail
than the other guns did. They worked absolutely fine with
brand-name nails, but the generic fasteners tended to bend or
There was a time when my crew regularly used generic fasteners.
We stopped because it just wasn't worth it. We use about 100
boxes (3,000 nails per box) of fasteners per year. Even though
the generics are a few dollars less per box, the savings were
offset by the time spent clearing jambs and by fasteners that
were wasted because the paper collation broke.
When it comes to features, it would be hard to beat the Senco
FramePro 701XP. This tool has good power, it's compact, and it
won't fire when empty. The rafter hook is convenient for
working up high, and it folds completely out of the way when
you're not using it.
My next-favorite guns are the DeWalt D51823, Hitachi NR 83AA3,
and Makita AN942. I like the DeWalt because it's light and has
a rafter hook. The NR 83AA3 holds three strips of nails and
comes from a series that has a reputation for durability. The
Makita is comfortable to use because it's well-balanced and has
very little recoil.
John Harmanis a roof cutter and framing contractor
in Northumberland, Pa.
F5C HHN 31-90A
F5C HHN 31-90A
Pros: This is the second-lightest gun we
tested. It has a rafter hook, a trigger lock, and an
anti-dry-firing mechanism. It's well-balanced and fits into
tight spots because it's not very tall. The magazine pops off,
making it easy to clear jams.
Cons: The exhaust doesn't adjust and the
rafter hook is made from plastic. We didn't break the hook, but
I'm concerned about how well it will hold up over time. The
shape of the head makes it somewhat hard to see the tip.
Fasco F5C HHN 31-90A
Pros: The Fasco has good driving power, holds
three strips of nails, and is easy to load and unload.
Cons: There is no rafter hook, the gun will
fire when empty, and the direction of the exhaust does not
Hitachi NR 83AA3
Pros: The NR 83AA3 is an updated version of
the nailer I used 20 years ago. The earlier models in this
series proved to be very durable. This latest version has good
power and an adjustable depth of drive, and it holds three
strips of nails.
Cons: The gun is somewhat heavy and is less
compact than many models. There's no rafter hook, the exhaust
doesn't adjust, and it will fire when empty.
Hitachi NR 90AA
Pros: The NR 90AA feels more powerful than
any of the other guns. The adjustable exhaust port is indexed,
so it won't vibrate to another position.
Cons: This was the heaviest gun we tested;
after a day of using it my arm was really tired. A metal piece
over the magazine makes the tool harder to load and unload than
other models. The NR 90AA feels top-heavy and will shoot when
Hitachi NR 90AD
Pros: This unusual-looking gun is brand-new.
On first impression, it seemed like a toy, but after using it I
decided it was a very good tool. It's compact, powerful, and
extremely light. It's also comfortable to hold and has almost
Cons: There is no rafter hook, the gun
dry-fires, and the exhaust does not adjust. One of the reasons
this gun is so light is that it contains a lot of plastic,
which raises questions of durability. The NR 90AD worked fine
with brand-name nails but had trouble driving generic
Pros: The AN942 is well-balanced, has very
little recoil, and is easy to load and unload. A single knob
controls the firing modes and can be used to lock the trigger.
This gun does not dry-fire.
Cons: This tool is heavier than average and
does not have adjustable exhaust or a rafter hook. The magazine
is not quite long enough to hold three strips of nails.
Pros: This nailer is well-balanced and
comfortable to hold. Though it never jammed during testing,
jams should be easy to clear by opening a "door" on the nose.
The adjustable exhaust has indexed stops and there is a large
wheel for changing the depth of drive. The tool comes with a
swivel hose connection.
Cons: The Max doesn't have a rafter hook and
is a little more expensive than average.
Paslode PowerMaster F-350S
Pros: The F-350S is well-balanced, has a
substantial rafter hook, and won't fire when empty.
Cons: The oversized two-finger trigger is a
good idea but takes some getting used to. The spring on the
rafter hook is very stiff, so it's somewhat difficult to adjust
when you're in the air. You have to use an Allen wrench —
which stores on the tool — to adjust the depth of drive
and exhaust direction.
Pros: The FC350a is light, well-balanced, and
compact. It has adjustable exhaust, and the magazine is easy to
load and unload.
Cons: I know you're not supposed to use the
contact element to tap joists and studs into position, but
every framer does. When we did it with this gun, it bent the
nose piece. This tool does not have a rafter hook and the
trigger seems cheaply made.
Senco FramePro 601
Pros: The FramePro 601 is a relatively
inexpensive gun with good power, a cushy grip, and an
Cons: This is a watered-down version of the
FramePro 701XP (see below). There isn't a rafter hook, the
exhaust is fixed, and it requires tools to adjust depth of
drive. There's no reason for a pro to buy this gun — not
when you can get a 701XP for only $40 more.
Senco FramePro 701XP
Pros: The FramePro 701XP is powerful,
well-balanced, and compact. It has adjustable exhaust, an
anti-dry-firing mechanism, and a rafter hook that folds
completely out of the way.
Cons: This tool has a bit of recoil and holds
a smaller load than other guns.