How to Use a Nail Gun

Yellow and black nail gun above wood with nails on the side

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Boasting speed, consistency, and accuracy, nail guns have a rightful place in the tool collections of many do-it-yourselfers. Nail guns fire nails and brads with the pull of a trigger—no hammer swings, bent nails, or swollen thumbs.

Once used only by professional roofers, framers, and carpenters, nail guns are now so inexpensive and simple that do-it-yourselfers use them for remodeling, building, repairing, or for hobbies and crafts.

What Is a Nail Gun?

A nail gun is a power tool that drives fasteners such as brads or nails into wood or other soft materials. A nail gun fires individual fasteners one at a time from a connected strip located in the tool's magazine.

Typical Nail Gun Uses and Projects

Nail guns have a wide variety of uses, from firing wire-thin brad nails into trim to sending fully-sized 3-inch nails into two-by-fours for major building projects. Common uses include:

Nail Guns vs. Hammers

Nail Gun
  • One trigger pull drives nail

  • Fastens light materials without dislodging them

  • Difficult to accurately place tip of nail

  • Longer work periods are possible because of battery or air assist

  • Estimating nail depth can take some adjustment

  • Requires a power source

  • Easily drives thin brad nails

  • Many strikes to drive nail

  • Strikes on light materials can change their position

  • Easy to position tip of nail on exact spot

  • Work periods limited by strength and conditioning

  • Easy and simple to drive nails to proper depth

  • No electricity needed

  • Brad nails difficult to drive by hand

If you own a nail gun, you'll probably still own a hammer. Hammers are so inexpensive, elemental, and all-purpose that nail guns will never supplant them. In fact, nail guns, for all their benefits, have a number of downsides that hammers don't—making hammers especially valuable to own.

Nail Guns

With nail guns, you can drive nails all day long, as long as your power source holds up. Pneumatic nail guns tend to be lighter and easier to hold than electric models, but both are easier to handle over the course of a long day than a hammer.

Nail guns require some adjustment. The depth gauge needs to be re-adjusted when you move from one type of material to another. Precisely targeting a certain spot can be tricky since the nose piece location doesn't correspond with the nail exit port.

Besides working all day long with little complaint, nail guns are good for fastening lightweight work materials that can be knocked out of position or damaged by multiple hammer strikes.

Using thin 18-gauge brads, nail guns fasten crown molding, baseboards, window and door trim, and other thin millwork. Certain types of nail guns even handle micro-sized 23-gauge pin nails, which practically disappear on the work surface.


Hammers will never go away. Anyone who owns a nail gun likely owns a hammer. But if you own a hammer, do you need a nail gun, as well? Hammers can do anything that nail guns do—in some cases, better. Hammers are far cheaper than nail guns, don't need air compressors or batteries, and are small and portable.

With a nail gun, after you pull the trigger, it's all or nothing. But with a hammer, you can ease in the nail, little by little. If you encounter a knot, wire, or pipe, you can pull the nail before it's too late and place it elsewhere. With nail guns, the nail keeps going and tries to force its way through or around the obstruction.

Pneumatic vs. Electric Nail Guns

If there's a need, there's a nail gun. You can find siding nailers, roofing nailers, flooring nailers, palm nailers, framing nailers, brad nailers, and many more. Yet all types of nail guns fall into two categories: pneumatic or electric.

Pneumatic Nail Guns

  • Limitless run time

  • Nail gun maintenance is simple

  • Nail gun is light-weight, easy to hold

  • Dependable, less prone to breaking down

  • Noisy

  • Bulky

  • Requires electric outlet or generator

  • Needs an air compressor

Pneumatic nailing systems have three main components: a nail gun, an air hose, and an air compressor. Plugged into an electrical outlet or generator for power, the air compressor's motor builds up pressurized air in its onboard air tank. The compressor is connected to the nail gun by an air hose.

When triggered by the nail gun, the tank releases a quick, high-pressure burst of air. The air travels through the hose and to the nail gun to drive a brad or nail from a strip.

Immediately, the motor starts up again to pressurize the tank and to simultaneously advance the strip of brads or nails in the magazine.


A complete pneumatic nailer setup starts at around $300 for a 6-gallon, 150 PSI air compressor, nail gun, and 50-foot hose.

With pneumatic nailers, you're always tethered to the air hose, and the compressor itself is tethered to an outlet. But air hoses of 50 feet long are common, which allow for movement around a house's exterior. You can even pull the hoses into the house.

Detaching the power source from the body of the nail gun has its advantages, though. This means that the nail gun is smaller, lighter weight, and less mechanically complicated than an electric nail gun.

Electric Nail Guns

  • Unattached to hoses, cords

  • No air compressor required

  • Portable and convenient

  • Quieter than pneumatic nailers

  • Heavy and bulky to hold nail gun

  • Runtime limited by battery

  • Slower firing rate than pneumatic nailers

  • Expensive batteries

An electric nail gun uses an onboard lithium-ion battery or power cord to drive brads or nails from a strip. All functions of the nail gun are contained within the nail gun itself. This leads to electric nail guns' biggest downside: size and weight.

Cordless electric framing nail guns can stretch up to 17 inches long, with bulky battery packs attached to the bottom. Weights can range up to 7 to 10 pounds.

Manufacturers do try to mitigate the weight and bulk by balancing the tool, with the hand as the center point. Still, no matter how well-balanced, a 7-pound tool can eventually wear on a user's arm and hand.

But long, continuous use isn't what electric nailers are designed for. Instead of tacking down shingles or siding all day, electric nailers are more about shorter-term jobs like putting up window trim, wall paneling, door casing, or for indoor crafts and projects.

Parts of a Nail Gun

All nail guns, whether pneumatic or electric, share a few key components:

  • Magazine: Linear strips of brads or nails fit into the magazine and are viewable through a magazine window.
  • Magazine Release Latch: This latch, located at the end of the magazine, opens the magazine to allow the insertion of a strip of brads or nails.
  • Nose: When the user rests the nail gun on the work surface, the nose compresses and allows the gun to be fired.
  • Release Mechanism: A door or release mechanism located near the nose allows the user to manually remove mangled or jammed fasteners.
  • Depth Gauge: Depth adjustment is a wheel or lever that sets the depth of the fastener in the work material.

Nail Gun Safety Considerations

Nail guns, like any tools, are inherently dangerous. But using built-in safety devices and following all safety recommendations should lead to safe usage.

  • Keep body parts away from the nose and firing mechanism.
  • Never bypass the safety tip at the nose of the nail gun.
  • Use nail guns only on surfaces allowed by the manufacturer.
  • Unless you are experienced, use the nail gun in single-shot sequential trigger mode and not in bump-firing mode. The sequential mode gives you better control. It's easier to accidentally fire a fastener in bump mode.
  • Always use personal protection gear, including safety glasses, steel-toe shoes, hearing protection, and a hard hat.
  • Disconnect or disable the power source from the nail gun when working on it or unjamming fasteners from the magazine or exit port.

How to Use a Nail Gun

  1. Load Magazine

    With the battery pack removed (electric) or hose disconnected (pneumatic), press the magazine release lever. Place the fastener strip in the magazine. Slide the magazine back in place until it locks.

    Nail magazine loaded into yellow and black nail gun

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  2. Adjust Depth Gauge

    Turn the depth gauge wheel or lever to a mid-range point to begin with. You can make finer adjustments later.

    Depth gauge wheel turned to adjust nail gun

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  3. Connect and Start up Power Source

    For electric nail guns, snap or slide the battery pack into place on the nail gun.

    For pneumatic nail guns, attach the nail gun to the air hose, then the air hose to the compressor. Plug in the air compressor, turn it on, and wait for it to pressurize the air tank.

    Battery pack clicked into bottom of nail gun

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  4. Press Nail Gun to Test Work Material

    Use a piece of test work material that is the same as the project material. Hold the nail gun at a 90-degree angle to the material. Press the nail gun firmly so that the nose completely retracts.

    Nail gun pressed into wooden block at 90-degree angle

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  5. Squeeze Nail Gun Trigger

    Gently squeeze the nail gun's trigger to fire the fastener. Remove the nail gun. Depending on the level of the fastener in the work material, you may need to readjust the depth gauge.

    Depth gauge wheel readjusted on nail gun

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Nail Gun Troubleshooting

Most nail gun issues can be fixed with minor adjustments to its controls or to its power source.

Nail Gun Jams

When the nail gun frequently jams, you may be using incorrect fasteners or damaged strips. Or, the magazine may be loose or not properly locked into place in the nail gun body. Also check to make sure that the magazine is clean. A dirty magazine impedes the fastener strip's movement.

Fasteners Sink Too Deeply

When nail gun fasteners sink too deeply, first adjust the depth gauge. Experiment with test material by firing at the highest and lowest depths to determine the total range, then adjust from there. With pneumatic nail guns, the air may be set too high. Lower the air pressure.

Fasteners Remain Too High

When you fire the nail gun and the top of the fastener remains above the surface, the depth gauge may be set too high, the fastener may be too long, or the nail gun's piston seal might be damaged. To fix, adjust the depth gauge, try shorter fasteners, or replace the piston seal. For pneumatic nailers, the air power might be set too low and should be slightly turned up.

Article Sources
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  1. Nail Gun Safety. Occupational Safety and Health Administration