Pneumatic Air Tools

Pneumatic (air-powered) tools save enormous amounts of time and physical energy, making them the mainstay of virtually every professional trim carpenter. But they have three other important advantages that lend well to amateur home-improvement enthusiasts:


You eliminate the need for repeated hammer blows that can throw an assembly out of alignment. You drive and countersink with one trigger squeeze, banishing unsightly hammer tracks caused by blows that miss the nail. There’s no more fumbling with individual nails — align the trim with one hand and trigger the nailer with the other.

Two pneumatic tools will handle virtually every interior trim job in your house. Adding a third optional driver will let you install even tiny moldings flawlessly.

The first is a finish nailer that drives fasteners from approximately 1-1/4 to 2-1/2 inches in length. This range covers many molding jobs as well as installation of doorjambs. Some less expensive nailers use 16-gauge fasteners, but the more robust 15-gauge nails in the better drivers have superior bend resistance. Another decision is whether you should choose the straight magazine (at 90 degrees to the head) or an angled design. Many finish carpenters believe that the angled design is easier to maneuver in cramped corners.


A brad nailer typically drives 18-gauge fasteners from approximately 5/8 to 1-1/4 inches. The brad nailer is considerably smaller than the finish nailer.

The third driver is a headless pinner, and it drives fasteners from approximately 1/2 to 3/4 inch. The absence of the head on the fastener reduces its holding power, but that is usually not a problem because it’s designed to hold small moldings, not structural components. On the plus side, the small gauge of the fastener rarely splits the wood and leaves a minute hole for you to fill.

Framing nailers and crown staplers

Rough-in carpenters rely on framing nailers to shoot headed fasteners up to 3-1/2 inches long to assemble the structural components of a house. If you’re starting with a stack of lumber to build your own home, purchasing a framing nailer makes sense. But for building an occasional partition wall, it’s a tough purchase to justify. Even renting this tool for a small job is a questionable proposition – you can probably nail the studs and plates by hand in less time than it takes to make a round-trip to the rental store.

A crown stapler produces excellent holding power because of the twin legs and the crown that bridges them. But this structural advantage comes with a serious drawback for trim projects — the crown produces a huge hole that will need filling. For that reason, a crown stapler works best in applications in which the fasteners will be hidden, such as attaching plywood backs to cabinets. A few pneumatic drivers combine a crown stapler and brad driver into a single unit.

How Big an Air Compressor Do I Need?

With an air compressor, big can mean any of four things: the volume of the storage tank, the size of the motor, the weight of the unit, or the price tag.

A 2-horsepower motor and a 4-gallon tank should comfortably supply plenty of air power for trim carpentry. If you have other pneumatic tools on your want list, consider those needs before you open your wallet. Choosing a larger motor will probably mean longer life, but larger compressors draw more power, leading to nuisance tripping of the 15-amp circuits that predominate in most houses. A larger tank means that the motor will start less frequently. (A large tank is more important for air-hungry applications such as spray painting.)

Before you buy a compressor, consider its portability. Just because it has a handle doesn’t guarantee you can actually carry it for any distance without strain. Wheeled models ease movement on level surfaces, but steps can be quite a barrier if you don’t have a strong helper.

Safety First: Set Up Your Driver for Single-Shot Operation

When you unpack a pneumatic nailer, you’ll probably find that it’s set up for both trigger-fire and bottom-fire operation. In the trigger-fire mode, you depress the nosepiece against the wood and then squeeze the trigger to shoot the fastener. But if you continue to hold down the trigger, you engage the bottom-fire mode, driving a fastener every time you depress the nosepiece against the wood. The bottom-fire mode is handy for repetitive jobs such as securing roofing shingles, where speed is more important than accuracy of placement. But for interior trimwork, you’ll probably use the trigger-fire method more often.

Many manufacturers offer a free conversion kit that allows you to change your gun to fire only in the trigger mode. This easy changeover also makes your gun safer by guarding against unintended firings.

Check Your Fastener Supply

Even with an empty fastener magazine, a pneumatic driver will punch a hole into wood, so you need a more reliable test to make sure the gun is loaded. Most tools have a visible fastener supply, so make a habit of glancing at it every time you pick up the gun. That way, you’ll avoid the problem of moldings without nails.

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