Nail guns work just like manual hammers, they apply force to drive nails into surfaces. However, they do so much faster and more efficiently than you would be able to do with a hammer. Instead of wearing out your arm driving dozens of nails to complete your work, the nail gun can do it for you in just a few minutes.
To use a nail gun, you have to load the magazine, set the air pressure dial according to your project’s needs, press the nosepiece perpendicular against the surface, and pull the trigger.
While it might sound easy to operate, nail guns are dangerous tools that should be used with care. We’ve put together this guide to help you learn the most important aspects of using a nail gun, from the safety considerations to how to select the right nails and load the magazine.
Let’s get started!
Nail guns are no joke. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), states that these tools are one of the main causes of injury among DIYers. With about 37,000 annual visits to emergency rooms, you need to know how to operate your nail gun safely. The most common accidents involve puncture wounds to the hands and fingers, but using a nail gun poses the risk of causing more serious injuries and even death.
This is not meant to scare you, but to make you aware of the importance of the first section of this guide.
It might sound like a no-brainer, but always read the nail gun’s manual before you start using it, especially if it’s your first time. No one can tell you how to operate your tool better than the person responsible for manufacturing it.
Wear your Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We’ve mentioned the risk of firing a nail on your hands or fingers, so wear work gloves to prevent that. Also, nail guns can be very noisy, especially larger ones, so you’re going to need earplugs as well. Finally, you have to protect your eyes from debris, splintered pieces of wood, or a nail shot from a mishandled gun by wearing protective eyewear at all times.
Whenever you need to hold two pieces of wood together, you should use clamps to secure it in place instead of your hand. If you don’t keep your free hand out of the way, you can easily puncture it by accident. In cases when the nail gun is not operated properly, the user could fire a nail that might go all the way through the material and come out the bottom, piercing their hand in the process.
Being familiar with the main components of the machine and understanding how they work is an important part of learning how to use a nail gun. Here’s a quick rundown of the anatomy of a nail gun:
- Safety tip — A piece that’s designed to retract into the nail gun when you press it against the work surface. The safety tip ensures that no nails will be fired unless you press it down, preventing any potential nail gun injury.
- Magazine — The component which holds the nail strip. The design of the magazine will determine the type of nails you can load it with.
- Magazine release — A part that allows you to remove the empty magazine when you’ve run out of nails.
- Trigger switch — The most straightforward part of the nail gun, which allows you to fire the gun and drive a nail into your workpiece.
How Does a Nail Gun Work
There are several types of nail guns, but the most common one is pneumatic, or air-powered. In these guns, a separate air compressor that can be powered by either electricity or gasoline supplies air to the machine, pushing it through a hose into the air reservoir in the nail gun.
The nail gun uses that pressurized air to apply force to the nail using a piston. This piston whacks a blade with enough force to drive the nail into the work surface. Another mechanism uses the air supply to compress springs and release them forcefully to eject a nail and drive it into the material.
The typical pneumatic nail gun uses a piston with a long shaft attached to it called a driver. The driver is what makes contact with the head of the nail and forces it into the work surface. The piston is located in a cylinder inside the main body of the nail gun. The air in the reservoir is held in place by a valve, which is located above the piston.
Battery-powered nail guns are better suited for lighter or smaller jobs around the home. They use a battery-powered, electric motor that provides the required force to drive the piston and the hammer to wack the nail.
Electric nail guns can be either corded or cordless (battery-powered). While they aren’t as powerful as the pneumatic version, they’re cheaper and allow you to get into tight spaces easily, as you’re not constricted by a compressor hose.
How to Load a Nail Gun
Grab the manufacturer’s guide and check where the magazine, the part that holds the nails, and the coupler, the hole to which you connect the compressor, are located. Some nail guns don’t need to be connected to a compressor to load nails, but if yours does, read the manufacturer’s instructions on how to connect it properly.
While there are different gun models out there, in most cases the coupler is typically located towards the rear end of the gun, surrounded by a metal sleeve. You’ll generally find the magazine at the front of the gun, connecting the handle and the tip.
Now that you know where everything is located, this is what you have to do to load a nail gun:
- Remove the pusher, that is, the spring that pushes the nails into the gun’s chamber, to check if there are any unused nails still left in the magazine. Use your fingers to remove them and discard them. Nails that are loose or not properly arranged for nail gun use should never be used. You don’t have to waste them, though, as you can use them with a hammer.
- Choose a nail strip that’s compatible with your nail gun. Using nails that aren’t the correct size for your gun will cause a malfunction, and there’s also the potential risk of damage to yourself or your tool. (Check the section titled “How to Select Nails for a Nail Gun” for more information.)
- Point the nail gun towards the ground and away from your body and other people. Unplug it or remove the batteries to prevent it from turning on suddenly and injuring you. If your gun has a safety mechanism, keep it on for further protection.
- Load the nails into the magazine, making sure that the sharp ends are pointing forward. Some nail gun models require a different angle and loading method, so check the manufacturer’s instructions just in case.
- Place the pusher back into the magazine to hold the nails in place securely. It should be touching the bottom of the nail strip. If you notice that a nail falls out of the nail strip, it’s recommended that you discard said strip and try a different one. It is not recommended to use a faulty nail strip because it could have other unseen defects.
Once your nail gun is loaded, you’re ready to learn how to use it!
Learning how to operate a nail gun is quite easy. Just make sure to pay attention to the safety considerations we’ve detailed at the beginning of this guide. If you follow our instructions carefully, you’re sure to nail it!
- Plug the nail gun in. If your gun is cordless, replace the batteries. Keep the safety on and your finger away from the trigger until you’re ready to use it.
- Adjust the air pressure dial to the density of the material you’re nailing. Very dense materials may require greater air pressure to fire a nail securely into place.
- Hold the nail gun perpendicular to the wooden surface, at a 90-degree angle, and press it firmly to depress the safety nosepiece. One of the main causes of nail gun accidents is not angling the tool correctly into the surface.
- Turn off the safety, and pull the trigger. Make sure to keep your free hand at least 12 inches (30 cm) away from the tip of the gun at all times while operating the nail gun. Avoid resting your chest or any body part on the tool for balance because the kickback can hurt you.
- Once you’re finished, turn the safety on, turn the nail gun off, and store it in a dry place to prevent any rusting and damage.
Most nail guns feature different firing modes, but our recommendation is that you stay in the “sequential” firing mode because it’s the safest way to operate a nail gun. It requires the user to complete a sequence of steps, hence the name, before the gun can fire the nail.
The process involves two steps that we’ve mentioned in the instructions above: depress the safety nosepiece, and then pull the trigger to fire a nail.
In the following video, you can appreciate the differences between the nail gun firing modes.
Are you unsure about which kind of nails you need for your nail gun? Let’s see the different aspects that you should take into account before buying a new nail strip.
The term “collated” refers to the way in which the nails are assembled. For nail guns, the nails are joined or collated into strips that hold a certain number of nails connected by wire, plastic, glue, or paper. These materials are the collation type, but there’s also the collation angle to consider. The angle at which the nails are collated is indicated in degree measurements such as 15°, 20°, 28°, and 35°.
So, the first step is to determine what type of collation and collation angle your tool is designed to handle.
The range of your nail gun determines the length and diameter of the nails it can work with. The tool will have a minimum and a maximum nail size that you have to stay within for it to work properly.
Nail length can be indicated either in inches or by the penny system, symbolized by a number followed by a D (10D nails, for example). The higher the number, the longer the nails. If you’re unfamiliar with the penny system, here’s a fun fact: it was originally an indication of the price for 100 nails in English pennies. Nowadays, it just designates nail length.
Nail diameter, on the other hand, refers to the thickness of the shank, and it’s specified by gauge number. Smaller gauges indicate shanks with a larger diameter. Conversely, a large gauge number indicates a narrower shank.
You’ll find that there’s a wide range of nails available for different applications, so consider whether you’re going to be finishing, framing, or doing other fixings first.
Brad nails are one of the most popular nail types for nail guns. They’re so small and thin, that they’re often referred to as wire nails. These nails can only be used with pneumatic- or gas-powered finish nailers to attach shoe moldings and small decorative parts on furniture, or to join delicate wooden parts together
Finishing nails are quite similar to brad nails, but, as their name suggests, they’re used to put the finishing touches on your workpiece. They leave a tiny hole that can easily be filled in or painted over.
Framing nails, on the other hand, are commonly used for, you guessed it, framing. They’re large and thick, making them suitable for larger projects as well as fixing walls, roofs, and sub-flooring.
Frequently Asked Questions
A nail jam typically occurs when the nail hits something hard, like a knot on a wooden surface. This will prevent your gun from firing when you pull the trigger, so you need to remove it if you want to keep working.
To fix a nail jam, you should unplug the nail gun or remove the batteries to, then, release the magazine. Open the safety cover on the front of the nail gun and remove the jammed nail with pliers or just your own fingers. Close the cover, put the magazine back into place, plug the nail gun in, and you’re good to go!
You should always make sure that there’s no rust on your nails because it compromises their integrity, and can cause jams or break in the gun. Use them with a manual hammer instead.
Check that your nails are not damaged, either. Discard any strips that look bent or damaged in any way.
Learning how to use a nail gun is not that hard, but it’s important that you take your time to do it and even practice on a piece of scrap wood before getting down to business if you need to. Avoid unnecessary risks that can cost you a trip to the hospital.
Nail guns are incredibly useful, though, so hopefully, you can now start using yours efficiently and safely to complete all of your woodworking projects.