How To: Use a Nail Gun

Speed through any carpentry project with these tips for using the best-suited power tool: the nail gun.

How to Use a Nail Gun Properly (and Safely)


Whether you’re looking to add shiplap, install trim, or tackle one of the hundreds of other carpentry projects, a nail gun (also called a “nailer”) will speed up the project and improve nailing consistency. We’re not downplaying the role of the lowly hammer and nail, but the sooner you can complete a project today, the sooner you can move on to the next one—or enjoy a little downtime for recreation and relaxation. Nail guns are powered by electricity, compressed air, or combustible gas and, like many other power tools, can be dangerous if used improperly. If you’re new to this tool, keep reading to find out how to use a nail gun safely and correctly.

Safety First

Don’t skip the manual.

Too often, DIYers buy a new tool only to flip through the manual’s illustrations and then toss it aside, but that’s not a good idea. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nail gun injuries are responsible for around 37,000 visits to emergency rooms annually. The more familiar you are with your tool, the safer you’ll be.

How to Use a Nail Gun Safely and Correctly


Stay in sequential firing mode.

Many nail guns, both large and small, feature a couple of different firing modes—“sequential” and “bump.”

  • Sequential Mode: This firing mode requires the user to complete a sequence of steps before the gun will fire the nail. The sequence involves depressing the safety nosepiece (a spring-loaded tip that retracts when the gun is pressed against the material) and then pulling the nail gun’s trigger to fire a nail. This two-step process is the safest way to use a nail gun.
  • Bump Mode: Some nail guns allow the user to save time by switching from sequential mode to bump mode. In the latter, the user can hold the trigger down and then move the nail gun to a new spot, and every time the safety tip is depressed, a nail will fire. You may have seen professional roofers quickly shooting nails to attach shingles one right after another with less than a second in between using bump mode. Unless you’re a professional construction worker, you should probably stay out of bump mode—that type of speed is rarely required from DIYers and craftsmen, and there is a greater potential for mishaps in inexperienced hands.

Protect your ears and eyes.

Some nail guns, especially the larger ones intended for framing, can be quite noisy, ranging from around 90 to over 100 decibels—in some cases, nearly as loud as a gunshot—so wear earplugs while you work. In addition, when a nail misfires, it can send chips of material flying, so you should wear protective eyewear at all times.

Disconnect the nail gun’s power source before loading nails or removing a nail jam.

While today’s nail guns are designed to be as safe as possible, there’s still a risk of a nail misfiring when the gun is being loaded or when you’re removing a nail jam. The best prevention: cut the power. Unplug a corded nail gun, remove the battery from a cordless nail gun, or disconnect the air hose from a pneumatic nail gun before you load nails or remove a jam. Similarly, if you use a less-common type of gun powered by butane cartridges, remove the cartridge before loading more nails or trying to remove a nail jam.

Keep your free hand out of the line of fire.

One of the most common nail gun accidents occurs when the user is holding two pieces of wood together while firing a nail near his or her hand. If the nail goes all the way through the material and comes out the bottom, or if, instead of the nail going in straight, it bends and shoots out the side of the board, it can puncture your hand. Use clamps when necessary to hold pieces of wood together to keep your free hand out of the way.

Keep yourself (and others) out of the line of fire.

It’s not unheard of for a nail to go completely through the material being nailed, so ensure that no part of your body or others are standing on the other side in the line of fire.

Don’t lower your nail gun by the hose.

If you’re ready to climb down a ladder or scaffolding after a completed job, resist the temptation to lower a pneumatic nail gun by the air hose connected to it. When a nail gun is in bump mode and it inevitably swings and bumps the ladder or a nearby object, the safety nosepiece can depress and the gun will fire a nail.

How to Use a Nail Gun

Now that we’ve gotten all the safety issues out of the way, let’s load that new nail gun and get to work!

MATERIALS AND TOOLS Available on Amazon
Hearing protection
Protective eyewear
Nail strips or nail coils (to fit your specific nail gun)
Nail gun
Air compressor (if using a pneumatic nail gun)
Scrap wood

How to Use a Nail Gun with One of Two Types of Nails


STEP 1: Load the nail gun.

While nail guns have slight differences, the most common type—the slide type—loads by pressing a magazine release and then sliding the magazine (the long, narrow case that holds the nails) backward. You will not be able to pull it all the way out—just far enough to drop in a strip of nails with their tips pointed down. Push the magazine back into place, making sure it clicks securely into place.

The second type of nail gun—the coil type—holds coils of nails rather than strips. These are often reserved for professionals, such as roofers, so they don’t have to load their nail guns as often. If you have this type of nail gun, open the cylindrical case that holds the nails (usually via a release button), and then position a coil of nails facing downward in the case. You’ll need to position the first nail of the coil into the slot that feeds the nails into the gun. Close the case. If the case doesn’t close easily, you don’t have the nails positioned correctly; check your manual and try again.

STEP 2: Connect the power source.

Once the nail gun is loaded, you can connect the power source, whether that be a battery, an electrical cord, an air hose, even a butane cartridge.

STEP 3: Position the tip of the nail gun and shoot a nail.

Hold the nail gun perpendicular to the surface of the wood so you don’t shoot at an angle, and press the gun firmly against the wood to depress the safety nosepiece. While holding the nail gun steady, pull the trigger.

Pro Tip: Until you get a feel for how your nail gun operates, practice shooting nails into a piece of scrap wood, keeping the above safety tips in mind.

How to Use a Nail Gun on Cabinetry


STEP 4: Adjust the depth of the nail.

In some instances, such as when you’re attaching sheathing to the exterior of wall studs or you’re framing a wall, it’s not imperative that every nail head is sunk below the surface of the plywood. In these cases, you can just load your nail gun and shoot without worrying too much about nailhead height. When you’re constructing a project that will have a smooth surface, however, such as a cabinet or bookcase, you’ll want the head of the nail to be flush with the surface of the wood or slightly countersunk, and your nail gun has an adjustment for this. This button or knob is usually located close to the trigger—check your owner’s manual if you can’t find it. Turn the depth selector until your gun shoots a nail to the depth you want.

Troubleshooting Tip: If the nail you shoot is crooked or the head sticks up even after you’ve adjusted the depth selector, it could be because you’re lifting the nail gun as you shoot. Be sure to keep the gun pressed firmly to the surface of the wood until after you’ve fired the nail.

STEP 5: Remove nail jams as needed.

Nails typically jam when they hit something hard, such as a knot in wood or another nail, and is now jamming the nail gun. You’ll know when your nail gun jams because it won’t fire anymore when you pull the trigger.Disconnect the power source and then release the magazine as described in Step 1. It’s important to release the magazine because you don’t want it putting pressure on the rest of the nails. Then, flip open the safety cover on the front of the nail gun and use your fingers or pliers to remove the jammed nail. Close the cover. Reinsert the magazine, reconnect the power source, and you’re good to go again.