Woodshop Wednesday: A Tale of Two Nail Guns

You may recall that we broke a nail gun within the first week of the job, and immediately bought a new one. Subsequently, Terry fixed the older gun. The result is that two of us can operate nail guns simultaneously, which just about doubles our productivity when everybody’s working on walls (like right now). I’d like to take this chance to compare and contrast the two guns, as well as talk about how nail guns work in general.

Old nail gun | New nail gun

Old nail gun | New nail gun

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say the nail gun revolutionized construction. To sink a nail using a handheld hammer, even a skilled carpenter requires five to ten seconds and expends considerable physical effort. A nail gun does the job in BLAM less than half a second. Firing a nail into solid lumber three inches deep requires a lot of power, which is provided by compressed air. Thus, a nail gun doesn’t need a power cord, but it does need an air hose, the other end of which connects to a source such as a compressor. We typically regulate the pressure at 80 to 100 psi… too little pressure and the nail only goes partway in; too much and the nail goes too deep, weakening the connection.

Another thing to monitor is the type of nails we’re using. If we’re nailing lumber to lumber, we use framing nails, which are long and smooth. If we’re nailing plywood to something, we use sheathing nails (also known as ring shanks), which are shorter and have ribs that fasten the plywood more effectively. Sometimes I need to switch frequently between framing and sheathing, like when I’m paving a roof, so I carry several nail clips of each type and reload as needed. Both nail guns work just fine for framing as well as sheathing.

Framing nails | Sheathing nails

Framing nails | Sheathing nails

On our site, everybody prefers the new nail gun. It’s slightly lighter than the old gun (but still weighs about 12 pounds), and it has an ergonomic grip, as well as a handy hook to hang it out of the way when not in use. It fires more consistently and with less recoil. It’s easier to reload (you put the nails in and then cock it, rather than vice versa) and it holds four full clips of nails (either kind; they both come in clips of 25) instead of three.

At work with the nail gun.

At work with the (new) nail gun.

Nail guns are dangerous. A sharp-tipped metal nail traveling 400 miles per hour penetrates skin no problem, and by firing hundreds of them every day I constantly risk puncturing myself, or someone else. Happily, the guns never misfire by themselves. Each of our guns requires two simultaneous actions to fire: you hold down the trigger, and you press the barrel firmly against a surface (i.e. lumber). In other words, you can’t fire a nail gun into midair like a rifle. But a nail gun does have the same sharp recoil associated with other guns, and if you’re not careful the recoil can cause you to miss your mark or double-fire. Also, the nail might hit a knot and pop out a different direction than you expect, or break off the edge of the lumber and fly through the air. Every shot creates numerous opportunities for an injury to occur, and it can happen in BLAM the blink of an eye.

So please, respect the nail gun! Make sure you have a good grip, double-check that the barrel is pointing the right direction and won’t slip, keep your other hand clear, and pull back quickly so you sink one nail at a time. It’s pretty fun once you get the hang of it.

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