Editor's note: Portions of this article were adapted from Carlson's self-published book: "The History of the Nailing and Stapling Business."
Ever since the mass production of wire-formed nails began in the mid-1800s there was a desire by users to have a faster and safer way of driving them than with manual “swing” hammers. Manual hammers trace their origin all the way back to the Stone Age. Mechanical nail drivers combine the functionality of a manual hammer with the speed and efficiency users were seeking. The nail guns we use today are a much more sophisticated version of the earliest mechanical nail drivers.
From Handheld Bulk-Driver to Pneumatic Nailer
There are two general ways mechanical nail drivers were developed. As a start, in 1862, Doig Manufacturing Company developed the first stationary machine that fed and drove bulk nails. These multiple headed nailing machines were used exclusively in industrial plants; they continued to develop and fulfill the need for mass production of pallets, crating and other wood products.
The development of the practical portable nailers as used today took a little longer to evolve from there —about 100 years! Preliminary attempts came in the early 1900s focused on creating hand-held nailers that fed and drove loose bulk nails. History shows there were at least three approaches. First was the Robinsdale, Minnesota Hand Held bulk nailer (see photo. You can see a later version restored and in use here.).
While this early version still required the use of a hammer, a pneumatic nailer emerged in 1944. History cites that the first pneumatic nailer is credited to Morris Pynoos, an engineer. Pynoos developed the nailer for Howard Hughes as a means for assembling wooden parts of the “Spruce Goose” aircraft. Unfortunately I haven't been able to locate any photos of this early pneumatic.
Bulk Nailers Take Hold in the 1950s
The most successful portable bulk nailer was the Nu Matic Nailer developed and commercialized in the early 1950s by Bill Burnison in Los Angeles, a true pioneer in the nailing business. It was for nailing wooden roof deck boards used prior to the introduction of plywood. Subsequently Burnison became a leader in the nail collating and in nail gun development.
Solving the need and desire for a lightweight nailer option, handheld portable nailers started to evolve in the mid 1950s from the various industrial air stapler manufacturers. They had the technical knowledge for making air staplers as well as the technology of collating staples into strips and coils. Hence they saw the potential to leverage their competencies to develop air tools to drive longer staples and, eventually, nails.
Recoil Was an Early Flaw in Pneumatics
The first pneumatic fastening tools, and hence, air nailers were the focus of great attention in the mid-1950s to 1970. The industry faced a very serious barrier in finding sufficient instantaneous “explosive” air power needed to drive any fastener longer than 5/8” without recoil. Simply porting air through a trigger valve (as used in small air tackers) was too slow to “fire” the drive piston.
Easier said than done! Based on their typical air stapler trigger value designs, the developed power was only sufficient to successfully drive staples arguably up to 5/8". The CHALLENGE was to invent a means for “explosive” air force to successfully and consistently drive longer staples subsequently collated nails completely and with minimal recoil. And doing so with a reasonably light, portable air tool.
To my knowledge and research there were primarily three stapler manufacturers at that time who designed four different approaches about simultaneously.
Powerline: Powerline attempted to overcome the recoil problem by developing a cylinder cap which had a spring-loaded clevis. There was a knob on top of the drive piston that would be held in place by the clevis until enough air was dumped on the piston to break the hold of the spring on the clevis. This system never worked very consistently, due to wear and durability of the springs.
Fas-Nailer: Fas-Nail, founded by Lauren Working (who was an ingenious salesman for Spotnails of Southern California), had their own unique solution to the problem, with a tool that was later developed by International Staple and Machine. Lauren’s idea consisted of welding 50 round head nails into a specially-stamped “ladder appearing” metal strip. His thinking was that when the trigger of the tool was pulled, air would push the drive piston and driver blade down, making contact with the nail held in the strip. When there was enough pressure the driver would shear the nail from the ladder and drive the nail into its position. Although very ingenious, his product failed because of the inconsistency in which it sheared and drove the nails. Since metal varies in hardness, the shearing process would be variable. Sometimes the nails would be counter sunk; sometimes the nails wouldn’t even shear out of the strip.
Spotnails: In 1957, Spotnails developed the model PEL, which drove 1/4" to 1-1/4" narrow crown 18 gauge staples. In an attempt to achieve the critical fire power to overcome recoil, it had a two-step trigger. As the operator pulled the trigger through the first step, air moved the drive piston and driver blade of the tool down until the driver made contact with a “sear” that held the driver and piston until the operator finished the pulling of the trigger, which then pulled the sear out of the way. While this approach did develop sufficient fire power to build up behind the piston to drive the staple, it was ultimately unsuccessful due to the erratic relationship between the driver and the sear. Drivers would wear or break; sears would wear or shear.
In about 1958, Spotnails came up with a breakthrough technology that they discovered in an unlikely way. Bill Beckman, chief engineer for Spotnails, gained his engineering knowledge having worked for the Duisenberg brothers in the car industry. Bill happened to be at an industrial design show in Chicago in 1957 and saw a demonstration of a “pop-it” type air system used in the pilot injection seats of fighter aircrafts. This special “pop-it” system was developed by Modernair Corporation of San Leandro, California.
Simply explained, the idea behind the “pop-it” system was to position a large upper piston on top of the drive cylinder to keep the surrounding compressed air from making contact with the drive piston in the tool until the upper piston moved out of the way and dumped (exploded) the air that was in storage in the tool handle into the cylinder to drive the piston. The upper piston was propelled upward and out of the way when you pushed the button or pulled the trigger on the tool, thus leaking the air from the tool. To this day, the “pop-it” principle is the key in the method used to overcome recoil and drive long fasteners. Initially, Spotnails commercialized this as a conversion kit for their mallet driver tools, but soon developed a fully integrated gun.
There may have been other technology breakthroughs elsewhere in the world I am not aware of although I have been very involved in the stapling and nailing industry since 1947. As often happens, technological developments in other industries, as in the case with the aviation industry, was adapted to fulfill a need and opportunity in other industries.