How to Use a Nail Gun

Speed up your next home improvement project with a nail gun.

Manually driving nails with a hammer is no big deal—until you start a project that requires hundreds of them. Thankfully, nail guns exist. These handy power tools make it easy to drive a nail in a snap. They're a worthwhile splurge for an intensive wall treatment, baseboard installation, or other laborious projects. Plus, many home improvement centers let you rent a nail gun for a few days, so don't worry if a brand-new power tool isn't in your budget.

To use a nail gun, you'll need nail strips and safety glasses. A few pieces of plywood for practice are also a good idea. Ready to get started? Follow our instructions for using a nail gun.

What Is a Nail Gun?

A nail gun is a handheld tool that uses power, typically compressed air or electricity, to drive nails into materials at a high rate of speed.

How to Choose a Nail Gun

Choosing a nail gun mostly comes down to determining the best size for your needs, but the power source is an important consideration, especially if you already have other compatible tools like air compressors or batteries.

Nail Gun Power Sources

Most brands offer both pneumatic nail guns and electric nail guns. Both types have advantages and disadvantages that might make one better for your intended use.

Pneumatic Nail Guns: Pneumatic nailers are lightweight, strong, and reliable, making them perfect for big projects that require power on demand. The downside is the air compressor, which requires access to 110 volts, and the use of a cumbersome air hose that tends to get in the way.

Electric Nail Guns: The flexibility that comes with cordless power is undeniable, but with this perk comes an increase in tool weight, which makes a big difference during a long day of nailing.

Nail Gun Sizes

No nail gun is a one-size-fits-all tool. In fact, if you plan to swap out your hammer for a variety of tasks, you may find that you need several different nail guns. Nail guns are classified by the size of the nail they shoot, which is specified in gauges. The higher the gauge, the thinner the nail. Below are the most common nail gun options and their best uses:

  • 18-Gauge: This small nail gun is ideal for finish work like detailed trim and furniture building and repair.
  • 16-Gauge: An incredibly versatile option, 16-gauge nailers are great for a wide range of finish jobs and DIY projects.
  • 15-Gauge: Slightly larger than the 16-gauge, the 15-gauge nailers are the best option for thick trim pieces like baseboards.
  • Framing Nailer: A framing nailer is a tool you need for a heavy-duty framework. Most models can shoot multiple sizes of nails, from 8-gauge to 12-gauge.

Regardless of gauge, most nailers will shoot several different lengths of nails, allowing the user to change the nail length according to the needs of the project at hand.

glue and secure bottom ledge wit nail gun

Jacob Fox

What to Know Before You Begin Using a Nail Gun

Before attempting to use a nail gun, familiarize yourself with the tool's features. For the best results and safest practice, consult the manufacturer's instructions for your nail gun to understand the mechanics of the machine.

What Is a Nail Gun's Firing Action?

Some nail guns feature two different firing actions called sequential and bump fire. Sequential fire shoots a nail when the safety tip is depressed and the trigger is pulled, in that order. Bump fire shoots a nail every time the safety tip is depressed, so long as the trigger remains pulled. This firing action is highly efficient but can be dangerous for beginners.

Safety Considerations

A nail gun is extremely dangerous if operated carelessly. Always wear eye protection while operating and ensure those in close proximity do as well, as nails can be easily thrown off course. When loading and otherwise servicing the nail gun, always remove the power source beforehand and refrain from aiming the nail gun toward yourself or others.

How to use nail gun


How to Use a Nail Gun

The steps below outline how to safety and efficiently use a nail gun, including how to prep and load the nail gun.

What You Need

  • Nail gun
  • Nail strips
  • Corresponding power source
  • Scrap wood
  • Eye protection

Step 1: Load the Nails

Put on your safety glasses, then load the nail gun with a nail strip. To do so, slide the nail strip into your gun's magazine and release the spring-loaded tensioner.

Step 2: Practice Nailing

Connect the gun to its power source (compressor or battery). Get a feel for the gun by practicing shooting nails into a piece of scrap wood. Place the nail gun's tip against the material, depressing the sliding safety mechanism. This will disengage the tool's safety, which makes the trigger live. Pull the trigger to drive the nail. For nail guns equipped with a bump fire feature, each time the tip is bumped against material with the trigger already pulled, a nail will be fired.


If using a pneumatic nail gun, adjust the regulator on your compressor to match the air pressure range (typically etched on the side of the tool) before using the nail gun.

Step 3: Adjust the Nail Depth if Needed

If your nail gun is driving nails too deep or shallow, disconnect the power source and adjust the depth of the nail using the depth adjustment feature on the tool.

How to Keep Your Nail Gun in Good Condition

Clean the dust and grime off of your nail gun after every use, storing it in a hard case or toolbox. For pneumatic nailers, apply pneumatic tool oil if specified by the manufacturer's instructions. For electric nail guns, clear dirt and dust from the contact points as needed. Nail guns are tough tools, but they will last for years if handled with care and used only as intended.

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