To the uninitiated, a nailer can be a rather intimidating tool. But once you understand how a nail gun works, you’ll quickly see why it’s one of the most popular tools among professionals, DIYers, and hobbyists. While a traditional hammer is fine for easy projects like building simple furniture or replacing door trim, using one for complex applications like framing a wall, installing floors and cabinets, or building a fence is tricky. Nail guns are an efficient alternative for these projects and many others.
These tools fire nails at an incredibly high speed, embedding them in your workpiece quickly and effortlessly. Capable of eliminating all the hard work from nailing, these are some of the most relied-on tools for any workshop. However, to see why these machines are ideal for construction applications, you need to understand how they work. In this article, we’ll discuss how these versatile tools can drive nails at impressive speeds and all the different models available.
Nail Gun Schematics
Most nail guns have a similar firing mechanism—a piston hammers down on a blade mechanism, propelling the nail into the target. The primary difference between the various types of guns is the origin of the force that propels the piston.
Nailers essentially have two tasks. First, they need to produce a staggering amount of hammering force with every pull of the trigger. Second, they need to reload new nails each time they fire one. To perform these two tasks, these tools feature a firing mechanism and a nail-loading mechanism.
For the firing mechanism, most nail guns use a similar design. When you pull the trigger, two things can happen. Either a piston will hammer down on a blade mechanism, propelling the nail, or two springs will compress and release, driving the nail into its intended target. While all nailers operate by using one of these features, the main difference between models is the origin of the force that propels the piston or compresses the spring. This source of power can be pneumatic, combustion-powered, or electric.
For the nail-loading mechanism, nailers feature a magazine that feeds into the barrel of the nail gun. Nails are glued together into a long strip – frequently called plastic-collated. A spring at the base of the magazine pushes the strip up into the barrel. When you press the trigger, the hammer comes down, separating the next nail from the strip, driving it into the wood. With the hammer cocked, the spring then pushes the next nail into the firing position.
An added benefit of glued nails is that when the nail enters the wood, friction melts the glue. As the glue hardens, it fuses the nail into the wood, lessening the risk of it falling out over time. Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s discuss how the three different nail gun models operate.
How Pneumatic Nail Guns Work
The most commonly-used nail gun is the pneumatic nailer. These powerful models use an air compressor as the propellant for the firing mechanism. The compressor attaches to the base of the tool with a plastic or rubber air hose. The compressor builds up air pressure by taking air from the atmosphere and compressing it to optimal pressure. You measure this in pounds per square inch or PSI. These compressors feature regulators to ensure the tool has the right amount of pressure. You can adjust the regulators to lower or raise the pressure within the compression unit.
This pressure feeds into the barrel of the nail gun and releases when you pull the trigger. This drives the blade forward, firing the nail into the wood at an incredibly high velocity. As you continue to use the nailer, the pressure level within the compressor will slowly drop. In order to prevent the operator from running out of pressure, the compressor will kick back on when the pressure drops to a certain point, building the level back up to the optimal level. This feature allows pneumatic nailers to deliver consistent, powerful results, regardless of the application.
While pneumatic nailer models can limit mobility due to the user’s need to maneuver with the air compressor and hose, they are ideal for heavy-duty projects. They provide more consistent firing power than the other two models.
How Combustion Nail Guns Work
Combustion nail guns are very similar to pneumatic models. They use a long blade attached to a sliding piston moved by an imbalance in atmospheric pressure. The difference is where this pressure comes from. As the name suggests, these models use internal combustion to generate the driving force that fires the nail. These models feature a combustion chamber located above the sliding piston.
Gas cartridges provide fuel for the chamber. A small battery or spark plug ignites this flammable gas, causing tiny explosions that generate the force needed to drive the nail. As a result, these models are capable of tackling heavy-duty projects and delivering solid performance. The added benefit is that the user doesn’t have to wrestle with an air hose or air compressor. The trade-off of these models is that, for large-scale projects, you’ll likely have to replace the gas cartridges fairly frequently.
How Battery-Operated Nail Guns Work
Battery-operated nail guns are the simplest models out there, making them perfect for most hobbyists and DIYers. Instead of using compressed air or combustion to generate driving force, these electric models use a rotating electric motor that compresses a powerful spring. The spring is suddenly released when you pull the trigger, creating the force needed to drive the nail into the wood.
The major benefit of these models is that they are cordless and offer a quick start-up. There’s no air hose, compressor, or gas cartridge to deal with. Instead, it relies on a rechargeable battery to power the motor. The drawback of these models is that they don’t offer the same impressive driving power as pneumatic or fuel-powered models, so they’re better suited for light and medium-sized projects.