Operation of Nail Guns

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Air-Powered Nail Guns

Some nail guns can shoot nails at a speed of 1,400 feet per second.
Photo credit: Hitachi Power Tools

The most commonly used nail gun is the air-powered nailer. In these machines, the force for hammering comes from compressed air, which is usually generated by a separate gas-powered air compressor. A conventional air compressor operates on the same principle as a water pump. It contains one or more piston cylinders that draw in air from the atmosphere on the upstroke and push it out to the gun on the downstroke. This creates a constant supply of compressed air, which flows through a hose into the gun’s air reservoir.

An air-powered nailer uses a hammer similar to a solenoid nailer: it has a sliding piston that drives a long blade. When the air pressure above the piston head is greater than below it, the piston moves downward. When the air pressure below the piston is greater than above it, the piston remains in its position. The trigger mechanism channels the flow of compressed air to alter this balance.

For instance, a movable valve plunger (a) is positioned above the piston head (b). When the trigger is in the released position, compressed air can flow to both sides of the valve plunger. It flows directly through the air reservoir to a lip around the bottom of the plunger, through the trigger valve (c) and a small plastic tube (d), and then to the area above the plunger. Since compressed air flows to both sides of the plunger, air pressure balances out. However, the plunger is also attached to a spring (e), which pushes it downward. This shifts the pressure balance: when the trigger is released, there is always greater pressure above the plunger than below it.

Some nail guns can shoot nails at a speed of 1,400 feet per second. Discover more about air-powered and combustion nailers.
Photo credit: Hitachi Power Tools

This imbalance keeps the plunger pressed against the seal surrounding the piston head. With the plunger in this position, the compressed air flowing into the gun cannot reach the top of the piston to push it down.

Here’s what happens when you pull the trigger on an air-powered nail gun:

  1. The trigger valve shuts and opens a passageway to the atmosphere. With the trigger valve in this position, compressed air cannot flow to the area above the valve plunger.
  2. The pressure below the plunger is greater than above it. The plunger rises, and the compressed air reaches the piston head.
  3. The compressed air drives the piston and the blade downward, propelling the nail out of the chamber.
  4. As the piston slides downward, it pushes the air inside the cylinder through a series of holes into a return air chamber (f).

As more air is pushed into the chamber, the pressure level rises. When you release the trigger, compressed air pushes the plunger back into place, blocking the air flow to the piston head. With no downward pressure, the compressed air in the return air chamber can push the piston head back up. The air above the piston head is forced out of the gun, into the atmosphere.

Although pneumatic nail guns are effective in driving thick nails through tough materials, they can be quite bulky and require an external air compressor for power. However, in the following section, we will explore a nail gun design that is highly powerful and does not depend on an external power source.

For more information on combustion nail guns, please refer to the next page.


1. What is a nail gun and how does it differ from a hammer?

A nail gun is a tool used for driving nails into wood or other materials. It differs from a hammer in that it uses compressed air, gas, or electricity to drive the nail instead of manual force. This makes it faster and more efficient than using a hammer.

2. What are the different types of nail guns?

There are several types of nail guns, including framing nailers, finish nailers, brad nailers, roofing nailers, and pin nailers. Each type is designed for a specific type of job and uses different nail sizes and firing methods.

3. How does a pneumatic nail gun work?

A pneumatic nail gun uses compressed air to drive the nail. When the trigger is pulled, the compressed air is released, which pushes a piston forward and drives the nail into the material. The air is then released through a vent, allowing the piston to reset and the cycle to repeat.

4. How does a gas-powered nail gun work?

A gas-powered nail gun uses a small explosive charge to drive the nail. When the trigger is pulled, the charge ignites and creates a small explosion that drives the piston forward and the nail into the material. The gas is then released through a vent, allowing the piston to reset and the cycle to repeat.

5. How does an electric nail gun work?

An electric nail gun uses an electric motor to drive the nail. When the trigger is pulled, the motor rotates a series of gears that push the piston forward and drive the nail into the material. The motor then resets the piston, and the cycle repeats.

6. What safety precautions should be taken when using a nail gun?

Some safety precautions to take when using a nail gun include wearing eye and ear protection, keeping your fingers away from the trigger, and never pointing the gun at anyone. It’s also important to use the correct nail size and to never modify the gun in any way.

7. How do you load a nail gun?

The process for loading a nail gun varies depending on the type of gun. However, in general, you’ll need to open the magazine, insert the nails in the correct orientation and order, and then close the magazine. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

8. Can nail guns be used for any material?

No, nail guns are typically designed to be used on wood or other soft materials. They are not suitable for harder materials like metal or concrete.

9. How accurate are nail guns?

Most nail guns are very accurate and can place the nail exactly where it needs to go. However, it’s still important to be careful and make sure you’re using the right nail size and firing method for the job.

10. How do you maintain a nail gun?

To maintain a nail gun, you should regularly clean it and oil it according to the manufacturer’s instructions. You should also inspect it for any damage or wear and tear and replace any worn or damaged parts as needed.

11. Can nail guns be rented?

Yes, nail guns can typically be rented from hardware stores or equipment rental companies. However, you’ll need to provide identification and a deposit, and you’ll be responsible for any damage or misuse of the tool.

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