By Michael Davis

Publication Date: November/December 2002

Rookie framers always get stuck with the worst work, like cutting out doorplates and knocking down braces. They also get stuck doing work that's just plain miserable, like nailing off joist hangers. Anyone who's ever been sent into the dungeon to back-nail hangers knows what I'm talking about: trying to drive tiny nails in a confined space over your head. Pneumatic nailer manufacturers, however, seem to have heard our prayers (and curses), and are building tools that make the task of installing framing hardware faster and easier.

Test Criteria

We tested the Hitachi NR65AK, Paslode 5250/65S PP, and the Senco SN60MC. We also tested a prototype nailer from Stanley-Bostitch, the N88RH-2MCN. We looked at power and performance while working in tight spots, how well the tools located the nail hole in the hanger, and how each model worked when we were off balance. The fasteners these tools fire are important at inspection time, so we studied those, also. Here's what we found in our field tests.

Finding the Fastener

Making a nailer shoot joist hanger nails looks easy: modify a framing nailer's magazine and shorten the nose and you're in business. The bigger challenge seems to be getting those little nails into those tiny holes. The first hanger nailers were designed to work with special joist hangers with raised nail holes that helped the nailer locate the hole. The system worked pretty well, but forced you to buy a special tool, nails, and hangers. It was expensive and the hanger selection was limited, which meant you'd end up hand -- or palm -- nailing lots of hangers anyway.

Today's tools work with readily available hardware (that doesn't have raised holes). To accomplish this, manufacturers designed their tools to identify holes either with a probe on the tool or with the nail itself. The probe slides into the hanger hole, allowing the tool to rest there. As you discharge the nail, the probe withdraws and then quickly re-sets itself to locate the next hole. Other tools use the nail as the probe: The nail about to be shot extends beyond the tool's nosepiece and the nail tip locates the hanger hole.

. The Paslode and the Stanley-Bostitch prototype use a metal probe to locate the nail hole. Paslode's probe is highly visible, protruding from the tool's nosepiece. Even in positions where you can't quite see the probe, you can feel it as it slides over the surface of the hanger and slips into position in the hole. This system works extremely well. Even in awkward positions, you can still place nails easily and accurately. The Stanley-Bostitch uses a similar probe, which works well, but the configuration of the N88RH-2MCN makes it a little difficult to see. The engineers at Stanley-Bostitch know this and have plans to correct it on the production tool.

Nail Probe. The Hitachi NR65AK and the Senco SN60MC use the nail tip as the placement probe. The Hitachi is slim and compact; you can see the nail tip easily, even from an awkward position. The tool holds the nail solidly and the system works well. The Senco tool is bulky and it's difficult to see the nail tip when you're in an awkward position. This is a problem, but where the SN60MC really falls down is that it doesn't support the nail the way it should. The nail is loose and moves when you apply pressure, causing the nails to shoot in at an angle. While a little sticker on the tool warns you not to push the tool forward while nailing, this isn't a realistic user expectation. When we tested the tool on the workbench, it fired nails consistently and straight, but when hanging upside down through rafters trying to reach a hanger a foot below our feet we weren't so lucky. Because it's difficult to control the nail's direction, this issue worries me, to say the least.

Fasteners

Every time there's a disaster like an earthquake or hurricane, the call for more survivable building design goes out. Inevitably, the result is more framing hardware. In the old days, carpenters built multi-story buildings with only nails and lumber. Pressure blocking and proper nailing did the trick. Today, every large frame structure gets three truckloads of lumber and one truckload of joist hangers, strap ties, rafter ties, and tie downs. Engineers specify the hardware and specific fasteners for these connectors.

Paslode, Senco, and Hitachi all offer a full range of fasteners from 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches and in .131, .148, or .162 gauges, all of which are available in bright or galvanized finishes. The Stanley-Bostitch listed only a .148 nail in either 1-1/2- or 2-1/2-inch sizes, but the company plans to have a full set of fasteners in all the standard sizes when it rolls out the finished tool.

So how does an inspector know you've used the right nails? He makes you pull a few out and show him -- even if they're way up in ridge beam rafters. Hitachi and Paslode eliminate nail-pulling by marking their nails so that they can be identified after installation. Paslode stamps a code into the head of each nail; this is a great system, but you have to get pretty close to read the markings. Hitachi uses a color code. With their Tracker system, you can identify the fasteners in ridge beam rafter hangers 16 feet overhead, which saves climbing and squinting and may get you through your frame inspections a little quicker.

Ergonomics

Size and Weight. A nailer's weight really becomes a big deal when you have to work with it in awkward positions. The Paslode tool, weighing in at a full 9 pounds without nails, is beefy. A day spent working between joists with this tool means you've earned your money. The Stanley-Bostitch prototype is the largest tool in the group, but surprisingly weighs only 7.9 pounds, a weight comparable to the more compact Senco SN60MC, which weighs in at 7.7 pounds. My wrist's favorite tool, however, is the feather-light Hitachi. With the full-size magazine it weighs only 6.2 pounds; it's even lighter with the short clip.

Mobility. Senco's tool is short and compact with a stocky body and a short, one-clip magazine. In contrast, the Stanley-Bostitch prototype is a full-size framing nailer -- you can get the Stanley-Bostitch between joists, but there will be lots of times that you'll wish it were on a smaller frame and/or had a shorter magazine. The Paslode also is big, but it works so well, you can forgive some of its girth. The Hitachi, especially when fitted with its optional one-clip magazine, is the slimmest, lightest nailer in the group. Its streamlined body is only 3-1/4 inches thick at its widest point and its compact size and clean lines make all the other tools in this group look dated.

Dependability

All four tools in this test appear rugged enough to handle the jobsite. The Stanley-Bostitch prototype is an adaptation of the company's tried-and-true N88RH full-head framing nailer (interchangeable nosepieces allow this tool to do double duty as a framing nailer and hardware nailer). We ran lots of nails through all the tools during our test and didn't have a single breakdown. Mechanically, these are all very sound nailers.

Winners

In the final tally, we think the Hitachi NR65AK is the best tool in the group. It's a pleasure to use -- light, compact, and consistent. It's also got great color-coded nails. Second on our short list is the Paslode 5250/65S PP. If you already use Paslode for your framing nailers, the 5250/65S PP will be a great addition to your lineup and its code-stamped nail heads can save you from pulling nails during inspection. We liked the Stanley-Bostitch N88RH-2MCN Prototype; it performed well. The idea of a dual-purpose tool makes good economic sense, but because the tool we tested is still a prototype, we need to reserve judgement until we see the finished product. Nevertheless, Stanley-Bostitch seems to have a very good idea on its hands. The Senco SN60MC needs work. I like Senco tools a lot, but the nail placement system on this model was a problem.

Michael Davisis president of Framing Square, a large framing, siding, and trim company in Albuquerque, N.M., and is a contributing editor to Hanley-Wood's Tools of the Trade.

Tools of the Trade has arranged with the companies in this test to donate their tools to Habitat for Humanity.

This article is reprinted courtesy of Tools of the Trade