How Does a Nail Gun Work?

To the uninitiated, a nailer can be a rather intimidating tool but once you understand how a nail gun works, you’ll quickly understand 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 a simple piece of furniture or replacing a single piece of door trim, using one for complex applications like framing a wall, installing floors and cabinets, or building a fence is going to be inefficient and exhausting. But 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 virtually all the hard work out of nailing, these are some of the most relied on tools in any workshop. To understand why these machines are ideal for construction applications, it’s helpful to understand how they work. In this article, we’ll discuss how these versatile tools are capable of driving nails at impressive speeds as well as the different models available.

Nail Gun Schematics

Most nail guns have a similar firing mechanism: a piston hammers down on a blade mechanism that then propels 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. They need to produce a staggering amount of hammering force with each pull of the trigger while reloading new nails each time one is fired. In order to perform these two tasks, these tools are designed with a firing mechanism and a nail-loading mechanism.

For the firing mechanism, most nail guns use a similar design. When the trigger is pulled, either a piston will hammer down on a blade mechanism that propels the nail or two springs are compressed and released with enough force to drive 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 are designed with 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 and driving it into the wood. With the hammer cocked, the spring then pushes the next nail into the firing position.

An added benefit of these 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 pulling out over time. Now that we’ve covered the basic operation of a nail gun, 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 is attached to the base of the tool with a plastic or rubber air hose. The compressor builds up air pressure by taking in air from the atmosphere and compressing it to an optimal pressure, measured in pounds per square inch, or PSI. To ensure the appropriate amount of pressure is supplied, these compressors are built with regulators that can be adjusted to lower or raise the pressure within the compression unit.

This pressure is fed into the barrel of the nail gun and released when the trigger is pulled, the pressure above the tool’s internal piston drives the blade forward, firing the nail into 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 operating 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 no matter regardless of the application.

While pneumatic nailers 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 and 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 that is attached to a sliding piston that is moved by an imbalance in atmospheric pressure. The difference is where this pressure comes from. Like the name suggests, these models use internal combustion, just like cars, to generate the driving force that fires the nail. These models are designed with a combustion chamber that is located above the sliding piston.

Gas cartridges provide fuel into the chamber. This flammable gas is ignited by a small battery or spark plug, causing tiny explosions that generate the force needed to drive the nail. 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 and are 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. When you pull the trigger, the spring is suddenly released, creating the force needed to drive the nail into wood.

The major benefit of these models is that they are cordless and offer quick start-up. There’s no air hose, compressor, or gas cartridge to deal with, instead relying on a rechargeable battery to power the motor. The drawback of these models is that they don’t offer the same impressive driving power of pneumatic or fuel-powered models, so they’re better suited for light and medium-sized projects.

About the Author

Bob Robinson has been a tool enthusiast and lawn care expert for the past 11 years. First working with John Deere to reduce their impact on the environment, whilst building his love for writing in his spare time. Now, Bob runs the editorial team at BestofMachinery and tends to his garden in his spare time.

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