Recoil. I typically choose the lightest tool I can find. Call me lazy, but I just don't like lugging around any more weight than I have to. When you're working with material as hard as engineered lumber, however, lightweight tools like the Porter-Cable, Stanley Bostitch, and UNI/Apach models produce a more pronounced recoil than the heavier tools do. The Hitachi, Interchange, Makita, Senco, and Spotnails nailers are heavyweights that absorb a lot of shock.
Severe recoil makes nailing more tiring and dangerous. If your tool tries to jump out of your hand each time you fire, your nail placement might not be accurate. The Hitachi weighs in at a beefy 9 pounds, and it's got the softest recoil of any tool in our test group. A hard-hitting tool needs enough weight to cushion the recoil; the heavier tools in our test were the most pleasant to use. The Grex nailer is the exception to this rule. It has plenty of weight, but it didn't consistently sink the nails. When the nail drives only partially into the material and stops its forward motion, the remaining power comes back at you in the form of recoil. The massive shock kicks the tool up and off the partially embedded nail, resulting in a seriously scary experience.
All the tools we tested are strip nailers, not coil nailers. Nail strips come in three denominations: paper-, plastic-, or wire-collated. The paper- and wire-collated fasteners are D-head nails, and the plastic-collated nails tend to be full round head. Check your codes and your applications to see which nail type is right for your job. This may limit your choice of nailers. These tools typically will handle the full range of framing nails from 2 to 3 1/2-inches long and from .113 to .131 inches in diameter. The Hitachi nailer is a little more picky. The shortest nail it accepts is 2 3/8-inches, but it does go up to a 3 1/2 x.162-inch diameter nail.
If you run D- or clipped heads exclusively, pick the UNI/Apach, Senco FramePro, Paslode, or Stanley Bostitch nailers. They are clipped-head specific tools; all the others fire full-head fasteners, though Stanley Bostitch will soon introduce a full-round head version of its N88WW-1 nailer.
Safety. Plastic is a popular and cost-efficient way to collate nails. No doubt it's here to stay. But I think plastic-collated nails present more of a safety hazard than their paper-collated cousins do. Due to the way the spent plastic ejects from the tool, the risk isn't limited to the tool operator and extends to anyone in the immediate vicinity. Over the years I have spent way too much money having little chunks of plastic picked out of my employees' eyes.
Two-thirds of the nailers we tested use plastic-collated strips, so odds are you may very likely choose a tool that accepts them. With any nailer, you must insist that your people wear eye protection. With plastic collation, you have one more reason to make it a mandatory safety precaution for everyone on your jobsite.
We found Hitachi to be the best nailer in super-hard, high-density engineered lumber. It performed perfectly in the yard and on the job. Second place goes to the UNI/Apach, Makita, and Stanley Bostitch nailers. Next we'd recommend the Fasco, Paslode, Max, Senco, and Porter-Cable models. They had ample power and tolerable recoil. And finally comes Airy, Interchange, Jamerco, and ISM.
The Grex and Spotnails models are fine for most framing applications, but I wouldn't recommend them specifically for nailing engineered lumber. They didn't produce the power we need for the wide array of materials we encounter.
Michael Davis is president of Framing Square, a large framing, siding, and trim company in Albuquerque, N.M., and is a contributing editor to Hanley-Wood's Tools of the Trade.