How to Use a Concrete Nail Gun

Ramset Powder Actuated Nailer

Ramset

Overview
  • Total Time: 30 mins
  • Yield: One 8-ft. sole plate
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $30 to $120 (less for rental)

Any number of home remodeling projects may require that you attach wood framing members to concrete or masonry surfaces. For example, if you are building a new partition wall in a basement or on a concrete slab, you'll need to anchor the sole plate to the concrete floor. This can be a tedious process if you are driving nails by hand, requiring you to drill pilot holes with a hammer drill and masonry bit. But the task becomes exponentially easier if you use a powder-actuated concrete nail gun.

If you have more than a couple of concrete nails to drive—or if you just like using gadgets designed for specialized tasks—you should buy or borrow a nail gun designed for concrete. Officially known as a powder-actuated nailer, this tool goes under different names, including gun nailer, .22 nailer, power nailer, or by the trademarked brand name Ramset.

A concrete nail gun is a dead-simple tool consisting of a hollow metal barrel and a firing pin. Actual gunpowder from a modified .22-caliber shell propels specially designed nails through the wood and into the masonry. Either with a hammer blow or a trigger pull, a firing pin strikes the back of the shell, setting off a controlled explosion safely contained within the tool. Gas from the detonation escapes through the barrel and drives a nail that has been placed there.

There are several manufacturers of this tool, including Ramset, Dewalt, and Hilti. Some styles work by striking a hammer to the end of the tool, which sets off the gunpowder charge; others have a trigger that is pulled to fire the cartridge.

As a do-it-yourself homeowner, you may want this tool for:

  • Basement finishing, when you want to attach sole plates to the concrete floor to create walls
  • Attaching metal electrical boxes to a concrete wall
  • Securing metal or wood studs to concrete
  • Hanging cabinets to masonry walls
  • Attaching brackets to the mortar between bricks in order to hold shelves

Safety Considerations

While you are more likely to get hurt on a ladder or by electric shock, any tool that uses gunpowder warrants attention. 

  • Always load the nail first, then the cartridge. If you have the cartridge loaded before inserting the nail, there is a chance that the charge may detonate accidentally and fire the nail into you.
  • Treat the nail gun like any gun and keep the barrel pointed away from you and other people. The gun is designed so that it will only fire when the tip is pressed down against a work surface, but accidents have been known to happen.
  • When using a hammer-blow type of nailer, remember that significant force by a hammer is required to drive the firing pin. If you cannot provide that force in one decisive blow, a trigger-style tool may be a better choice.
  • Professional tools like the Ramset XT540 use a 10-shot strip of powder loads that automatically advances after each shot. As a do-it-yourselfer working on a limited scale, it may be better to choose a tool in which each shot is loaded individually.
  • Keep the nail gun perpendicular to the work material and never at even the slightest angle.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that most powder-actuated nailer injuries happen when a body part is placed in front of the barrel. The second most prevalent type of injury comes from blowback or projectile debris. Be sure to always use safety glasses. 
  • You will need hearing protection since the nail gun produces a very loud bang that can harm your ears.
  • OSHA requires that employees who use a concrete nail gun take a test and be licensed to use the tool. However, as a homeowner user, you do not need to be licensed. You should, though, carefully read the manufacturer's instructions and follow them precisely. And the OSHA guidelines offer good information for DIYers using this tool

Using a Concrete Nail Gun

Unlike when you manually drive nails into concrete, a concrete nail gun does not require that you drill a pilot hole. In fact, it is unsafe to fire into a pilot hole.

Beginners can find it tricky to get nails to penetrate to the proper depth. Either the concrete is too hard and the nail fires only partway into the material, or the masonry and workpiece are too soft, and the nail penetrates right through the wood. Remember that the depth of the nail will be controlled by several variables: the length of the nail, the thickness of the wood, the hardness of the masonry surface, and the size of the powder load.

Manufacturers offer several different powder loads to match different needs. Ramset has a simple-to-follow, color-coded set of guidelines that tells you which charge to use in conjunction with nail length and work material. One powder load manufacturer offers six different powder loads—gray, brown, green, yellow, red, and purple—in order of increasing power.

Although the method is not perfect, you can roughly gauge the penetration needed with this test: Hit a nail onto the concrete or masonry surface, then examine the point of the nail. If the point of the nail flattens, the material is quite hard and will require a more powerful charge. If it penetrates easily, the masonry is soft and will require a less powerful charge. Poured concrete is typically quite hard, requiring a powerful charge to sink the nail, while cinderblock or other forms of brick are relatively soft.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Powder-actuated concrete nailer
  • Hammer (if needed)
  • Safety glasses
  • Hearing protectors

Materials

  • Concrete nailer powder charges
  • Concrete nails

Instructions

  1. Load the Nail

    Wear safety glasses and hearing protection. With the powder-actuated nailer pointed downward and away from you, ensure that there is no powder load (cartridge) in the chamber.

    Slide the nail into the barrel of the nailer at the barrel end, not through the chamber as you do with conventional firearms. The nail will enter the barrel head-first. Push the nail until the pointed end of the nail has cleared the barrel end. Do not push it any deeper than this.

    Tip

    The nails used in a concrete nailer are special fasteners designed for use with this tool. Most have a plastic sleeve and/or washer designed to keep the nail from penetrating through the wood. Never try to use standard nails with a powder-actuated concrete nail gun.

    Insert Nail In Powder Actuated Nailer
    Lee Wallender
  2. Insert the Powder Load

    With the chamber open, place the powder load (shell cartridge) into the chamber. The narrow end of the load will be towards the barrel end of the tool. Slowly and carefully slide the chamber shut, as directed by the manufacturer. One manufacturer, Ramset, calls this the "semi-closed position." This means that the two reference grooves on the barrel are close to aligning but do not meet exactly.

    Insert Charge In the Nailer
    Lee Wallender
  3. Position the Tool

    Place the concrete nailer perpendicular (90 degrees) to your work material. Press down on the nailer until the two reference grooves on the barrel meet. The tool is now positioned so that the firing pin can strike the shell cartridge.

  4. Strike the Hammer

    With a one-pound hammer, deliver one sharp blow to the metal peg on ​the back of the tool. The tool will fire, discharging the nail into the material. If the nailer does not fire, try striking it again. If the nailer only partially fires, eliminate the charge and nail from the nailer. Dispose of the charge, and try again with a new charge.

    On some gun designs, the shell is fired by pulling a trigger, much the way a handgun is fired.

    Hit Back of Nailer With Hammer
    Lee Wallender