Photos by manufacturers; Illustration by Len Chruchill
While a pneumatic fastening tool isn’t a replacement for your hammer, it does provide a convenient and easy way to speed up the assembly process. Whether you’re making picture frames, installing moulding or trim work, assembling cabinetry, adding a bedroom, or building that much-longed-for workshop, one of these fastening tools will be your best friend.
There are a variety of pneumatic fastening tools on the market. Two of these, pinners and brad nailers, are likely to be of greatest interest to furniture makers and hobbyist woodworkers. Those involved in cabinet making, renovation, and carpentry work, along with avid DIYers, will also be interested in finish nailers and framing nailers. While pneumatic staplers may be less popular, they’re still a useful shop accessory, particularly for attaching upholstery and sheet goods.
Air tools do have a reputation for lasting much longer than their electric or cordless counterparts, as they lack motors, have fewer moving parts, don’t heat up very much and hardly vibrate. And, as with most power tools, you’ll find both consumer- and professional-grade air tools.
Most air tools operate at between 90 to 120 PSI, which virtually any compressor can supply. However, air tools do require different volumes of air, as measured by the SCFM (standard cubic feet per minute) they consume. Pinners, for example, consume very little air – about 1 SCFM, brad nailers around 2 SCFM – while large framing nailers can consume as much as 7 or 8 SCFM. If you already have a compact or portable compressor you’ll likely be able to use it with any pinner and brad nailer, and most staplers. If you’re looking to add a finish or framing nailer to your tool arsenal, check to see whether your compressor can supply an adequate volume of air for the tool. Otherwise, your compressor will have to work considerably harder, and you’ll likely have to wait for it to recycle after sinking even just a few fasteners.
A fastening tool is simply the vehicle for delivering a fastener – pin, brad, nail, or staple. The important thing is to know what types of fasteners you’re likely to use. Most air tools can use only one type of fastener, and at one gauge, though in varying lengths. A major advantage an air-driven fastener has over a hand-driven nail is that the fastener is less likely to split the material you’re working with, and you can sink a lot more of them, with greater accuracy, in a much shorter time period.
Fasteners are generally categorized by their width, which is usually expressed in a gauge size. The chart below shows these gauge sizes with approximate widths, and typical lengths. Staples are also classified by the width of their crown. Pins, framing nails, and some finish nails are round, while brads, staples, and some finish nails are rectangular in shape. It’s typical for pins, brad and 16-gauge finish nails, and staples to be glued together in strips. Fifteen-gauge and framing nails are usually bonded to strips of paper, tape, plastic, or wire.
Most fastening tools require a small drop or two of oil before each use. The advantage of oil-less tools is that they minimize the risk that oil droplets in the exhausted air will end up on your work, possibly contaminating any finish you later apply. However, if the exhaust is mounted on the rear of the tool you shouldn’t have any worries.
Brad, finishing, and framing nailers, along with some staplers, generally feature two ‘modes’ for firing fasteners – sequential (single-shot or restrictive) and contact (or bump). In sequential mode, the contact tip needs to be pushed against the work surface and the trigger then pulled in order for a fastener to fire. This is the safest way to use any air tool, as it practically eliminates the possibility of accidentally firing a nail.
In contact mode the air tool will fire when both the contact tip and trigger are depressed at the same time. This means you can hold onto the trigger, and repeatedly ‘bump’ the contact tip to shoot fasteners. It’s quicker, but has greater potential for double-firing or shooting a nail where it’s not supposed to go. Unless you’re into production work or you are a carpenter, there is little need to use contact mode.
You will notice that some tools have the handle at 90° to the magazine, while others have an angled head. An angled handle is designed to cause less wrist fatigue, which may be more relevant for those who expect to be using the tool for long periods of time during the work day.
All these tools use a sliding ‘magazine’ to hold the fasteners. They can be made of a composite-plastic material or metal. Because pins are so small, pinner mags can hold up to 200 fasteners. Brad and finish nailers tend to hold around 100 fasteners, while framing nailers usually hold 60 to 80 fasteners. A larger nail capacity will also require a longer magazine, and likely increased tool weight. Some finish and framing nailers have an angled magazine, ranging from 21–34°. This is primarily because an angled magazine makes it much easier to nail into tight spaces and corners.
Most magazines are fully enclosed so you can’t see the nails. To know when it’s time to reload the mag, a reload indicator (or window) is cut into the side of the mag.
You’ll almost always want the fastener set slightly below the work surface. For situations when you might want the fastener set flush or proud of the surface, some tools have a depth adjustment wheel (or lever), which repositions the contact tip up or downwards in relation to the work surface. You won’t find this feature on pinners. If you do need to sink the pins a tad deeper, try increasing the regulated air pressure on your compressor, but don’t exceed the maximum PSI rating for the tool.
The business end of any air tool is its nose. In general, a slim nose design will provide better line-of-sight, making it easier to place fasteners more precisely – especially important with pinners and brad nailers. This is something you’ll appreciate when installing trim work and working in tight corners. While not as critical when laying flooring or framing a wall, you still want a decent line of sight to ensure the fastener will go where it is supposed to go.
Better-quality air tools have a lock-out feature that prevents the tool from firing when there are only a few fasteners left in its magazine (aka ‘dry firing’). This helps prevent premature damage to the firing pin. Some pinners have a lockout override button – press it and you can fire those last few pins before reloading.
Occasionally a fastener can become jammed inside the nose of the tool. On some tools you need to unscrew the nose cap in order to remove the nail. This is typical for pinners, and not uncommon on nailers and staplers. A better system features a quick-release mechanism – just flip a latch and the nose moves outwards. You can then use needle-nose pliers to remove the fastener.
No-mar tips are indispensable for protecting fine wood surfaces. Depending on the task at hand you might occasionally remove the pad. Because of their size they can be easily misplaced, which makes it convenient to have on-board tip storage. It’s nice to get a spare tip as well, as sooner or later the tip will wear out. A pre-installed 1/4″ NPT coupler that swivels a full 360° makes it much easier to manipulate the hose so that you keep it tangle-free.
For occasional use in a workshop environment, a belt hook is not overly useful. However, on a job site or in a production shop, it is almost indispensable. Framing nailers often have rafter hooks for hanging the tool on a ladder, scaffolding, framing, or sawhorse. Also useful in this context are rubber side bumpers that provide protection for the piston head when you lay the tool down.
Twenty-three-gauge pinners (often called micro pinners) shoot the smallest pins, about the size of a sewing needle. While they leave the least discernible hole, they have the least holding power of any fastener. Twenty-one-gauge pinners shoot a larger pin that has a slight head, which gives them slightly better holding power, with only a marginally larger hole. I’ve found that on darker woods with pronounced grain, pin holes show up much less, and the finish further helps to obscure them.
Use pins when you need to get into really tight spots, for fine detail work on thin narrow stock, when you want to temporarily join pieces together, or to keep parts from moving during glue-up.
Most pinners employ a double-trigger safety system, where you have to depress a safety trigger before you can activate the firing trigger. Each time you pull the firing trigger it shoots a pin – there doesn’t have to be any contact with the work piece. Because the pins are so small in diameter, long pins tend to follow the direction of growth rings, so you want to be careful working close to the edge of stock, especially with longer pins.
Pins are very small and to ensure they consistently sink properly, and don’t jam inside the tool, the contact tip (driver blade) needs to be precisely machined. Look for a tip made of hardened steel, with a tolerance around .001″ or better.
Brad nailers are probably the most popular nailer among furniture makers, hobbyist woodworkers, and DIYers. They all use an 18-gauge nail, with either a slight or medium-sized head, which provides much better holding power than pins. They do leave a larger hole that you’ll want to fill if the nailed surface will be visible. Even though they are stouter than pins, longer brads are still apt to blow out the sides of material.
Use an 18-gauge nailer primarily for light-duty fastening, for quick assembly of jigs and templates, installing trim and mouldings, baseboards, door and window casings and for attaching ply backs to cabinets.
Finish nailers are used when you need greater holding power and shear strength than you can get from a brad nailer, and when you need to use nails longer than 2″. They come in two formats: 16-gauge nailers have straight magazines, while the magazine for 15-gauge nailers is angled, making it easier to use the nailer in confined spaces and in narrow corners.
These nailers are widely used for installing crown moulding, chair rail moulding, wainscoting, flooring, and for assembling cabinetry.
These are the nailers commonly associated with construction and renovation work – framing houses, building fences, installing decks, and the like – anywhere you need to use a nail that’s close in size to a conventional loose framing nail. The nails aren’t specified by gauge, but by length. They are available in bright, galvanized and stainless steel formats, smooth and ring shanked, and either with a full round head or a clipped head. Local building codes typically specify which head type to use for various applications. You’ll also find specialized framing nails, for engineered lumber, subfloor fastening, and for installing metal connectors such as joist hangers, tie straps, and truss connectors.
Staplers come in a surprisingly wide range of formats, and are typically designed by crown size, into narrow (up to 1/4″ wide), medium (up to 1/2″ wide), and wide crown (over 1/2″). For most woodworking applications a narrow or medium crown staple is adequate.
While staples offer excellent holding power, the impression they leave in a surface isn’t easy to cover. You’ll want to use them where the staple will be hidden. Narrow crown staples are suitable for light-duty cabinetry and for things like installing moulding, underlayment and soffit/fascia. Medium crown staples come in longer lengths and they provide more holding power for tasks like cabinetry, sheathing, sub-flooring, and roof decking.
Because brad nailers and narrow crown staplers are so popular among woodworkers and avid DIYers, several companies offer pneumatic fasteners that can shoot both 18-gauge nails and 18-gauge staples. Because there must be trade-offs in design and function, these products don’t work as well as their dedicated counterparts, but do offer some flexibility.
For those who don’t have an air compressor or don’t want to buy one, but like the idea of rapid fire nailing, there are ‘airless nailers’. Combustion gas finish and framing nailers have been around for some time, and deliver enough power to fully drive nails up to 3-1/4″ long. Power comes from a disposable fuel cartridge and a rechargeable battery. You can expect to sink about 1,200 fasteners per fuel cell. Senco’s Fusion line of brad and finish nailers employ a nitrogen cylinder and rechargeable battery system. Each cylinder delivers about 200,000 shots before it needs to be replaced. You get about 600 shots per battery charge.
These airless nailers are popular among renovators and carpenters because they don’t have to haul a compressor (and often a generator) back and forth to a work site, or from room to room on a job. Not having to drag a hose up and down ladders and scaffolding makes life a heck of a lot easier.
For shop use there are cordless brad and finish nailers – typically powered by the same type of 18V battery used for drill/drivers. The Ryobi AirStrike, for example, draws ambient air into the nailer, and then compresses the air, which in turn powers the driver head to sink up to 700 nails per battery charge.