Choosing a Power Nailer

When you need to drive in a nail, nothing beats a hammer. There’s even a convenient claw on the other end to correct any mishaps. But when you need to drive a lot of nails in a short amount of time, nothing beats a power nailer.

A quality power nailer can sink thousands of nails a day consistently and accurately with a minimum amount of maintenance.

Power Nailer Types

Two basic types of nailers are widely used today. They vary based on their magazine style and the nails they use.

Stick style nailers use nails that are collated, or held together, by strips of paper, plastic or thin wire. These nails form a long slender “stick” that slides into an oblong magazine on the tool. Nails sticks vary in length from 20 – 40 nails.

Coil style nailers use long, flexible strings of nails joined with wires. The nails are stored in a round magazine on the tool. The magazine rolls the string of nails, allowing as many as 300 nails to be loaded at a time.

Different Applications

Power nailers can be used in virtually any type of construction. Some models are designed for use in tight spaces, while others are large and powerful for high volume applications.

  • Framing nailers are designed for fast high-powered work in fastening large pieces of material.

  • Finish nailers are lighter weight, used for furniture, cabinets, trim and moulding.

  • Staplers, tackers and brad nailers are also lightweight, used for precision work.

  • Roofing nailers are specifically designed to apply roof shingles.

Pneumatic Power Nailers

The most common power nailers are pneumatic nailers. These are powered by air pressure from a small compressor. When a nail is fired, a valve opens in the tool and air fills a cylinder. A piston in the cylinder moves rapidly downward, driving the nail in front of it into the material at the tip of the nailer. When the piston fully extends, the air from the compressor is released from the tool through an exhaust vent. The piston recoils while another nail is loaded.


Portable Air Compressor

Portable Electric Air Compressor

Pneumatic nailers require a constant source of compressed air. While no nailer requires a specific compressor, each has specific air requirements. Nailers operate between a range of pressures measured in pounds per square inch (psi). In addition to pressure, nailers require a minimum volume of air for correct operation. This volume is rated in cubic feet per minute (cfm). Any restriction in the air hose will decrease the air pressure and volume. Hoses that are the wrong size, that are too long, or that contain a lot of moisture will decrease airflow and cause premature wear and poor performance.

The air pressure (psi) and air volume (cfm) ratings of your air compressor should be at least equal to or greater than the requirements of your nailer. If the compressor doesn’t meet these requirements, the nailer will not work correctly. Increasing the air pressure output of the compressor will not solve performance problems caused by low air volume. For more on air compressors, read our buying guide.

Good idea: If you plan to run other air tools in addition to a nailer, make sure your compressor can handle the combined load.

Cordless Power Nailers

Cordless “Stick” Style Nailer While the basic function of a cordless nailer is similar to that of a pneumatic nailer, the power source of a cordless nailer is unique. Instead of using a supply of compressed air provided by a compressor, these nailers use flammable gas to drive nails. The gas is drained from a disposable canister and injected into the combustion chamber above the piston. An electric charge from a battery ignites the gas which explodes and drives the piston, dispensing a nail. The tool and power source are self-contained, so no cords or hoses are necessary.

The most modern cordless nailers sink nails as quickly as the pneumatic models. They need to be cleaned more often than traditional pneumatic units, but require very little startup time. They’re well suited for tight or obstructed areas, since there is no air hose. A cordless nailer works best for lower volume nailing, jobs in tight spaces or jobs with limited setup time.

Power Nailer Features Be sure to choose the features, power and nail capacity appropriate for the desired use. The chart below lists some of the features to look for.

Common Features of Power Nailers

Nail Firing Types offer variety in the way a nailer drives the fasteners.

  • One type lets the user hold down the trigger and then tap or bounce the tool on the material to drive a fastener. Each bounce releases a nail. This is a great choice for production-type work.

  • Some nailers can be activated by putting the tool on the material and pulling the trigger. However, nailers are so fast that they can easily drive two fasteners before the operator can lift it. You might need a little practice with this type of nailing.

  • For more precise nailing, a variation of the above is a simple trigger operation. Each pull of the trigger releases one fastener. A staple gun is the best example of a tool with this firing style.

  • Some models offer multiple trigger settings that allow the user to choose the firing style most appropriate for the task.

Directional exhaust plates allow the user to control where the tool’s exhaust is channeled. This setting is valuable when nailing in a dusty area. Some shields require special tools for adjustment, while others can be adjusted by hand.

Jam clearing simplifies the maintenance of nailers, since fasteners occasionally jam in the nailing mechanism. Be sure the tool you select allows convenient clearing of jammed fasteners.

Adjustable depth allows the user to control the depth the fastener is driven into the nailing surface. Nailers can leave nails protruding, sink them flush or even countersink them depending on the depth setting. Some nailers require tools for depth adjustment, while others can be adjusted by hand.

Large triggers are easily used with gloved fingers and provide added comfort for the user.

Carrying cases protect the nailer from unnecessary damage and wear during transport. Consider adding a case when you purchase your nailer to keep it clean, dry and well protected. Swiveling air connectors cut down on air hose tangles. They also make reloading easier, allowing the air hose to be moved out of the way.

Protective guards keep parts of the tool safe from damage and protect the user from flying debris. Guards can wear out with use, so look for ones that can be easily replaced. Easy-to-load nail magazines make loading nails a simple process. Make sure you can reload the nailer quickly and easily.

Nail size adjustment is important, since you may need to change nail sizes several times a day as you switch tasks. Nail size should adjust easily with few tools.


Nails used in power nailers are joined together with paper, plastic or wire. Many have clipped heads that allow the nails to sit closely together in a solid line. Others are secured together in long strands with flexible wire. Most have a layer of lubricant/adhesive. As the nail contacts the nailing surface, the compound heats and lubricates the nail. When the compound cools, it bonds the nail to the nailing surface, increasing the holding strength.

Finish nails collated with glue

Coil nails

Each power nailer has specific requirements for nail styles. Never use nails that are not approved for your power nailer. Though the nails must be specially packaged for power nailers, their composition and applications are the same as traditional nails. Make sure the nails you use in you power nailer comply with all necessary regulations and building codes.


All power tools demand attention to safety, and power nailers are certainly no exception.

  • Always inspect tools prior to use.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use, maintenance schedule and safety precautions.
  • Never alter a tool for any reason.
  • Wear CCOHS-required safety glasses.

Choosing a power nailer can seem complicated, but with some research, you can find the best tool for you project.

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