Out West where I build, the Big Three of framing nailers are Hitachi, Paslode, and Senco; if you've shot a 12d nail here, chances are it's been through one of these. There is no shortage of companies making framers, as I found out in our test of 19 full round-head nailers last year, but an unexpected name just entered the field. After decades of making every other tool imaginable, Bosch has introduced its first nailers and compressors, with all-new designs from the air intake up.
The cornerstone of Bosch's nailer designs is a patented system the company calls Full Force Technology. Most other nailers are built with a return air chamber system: When the trigger is pulled, a burst of air is released into the cylinder behind the drive piston, forcing the piston down. As the piston descends, it pushes some exhaust air into a small return air chamber to create the back pressure that forces the piston back up the cylinder to reset it for the next cycle.
Bosch's design does away with the return air chamber. Instead, as the piston travels down the cylinder, all of the exhaust air ahead of the piston is released. When the piston reaches its full downward position, a second small air valve is activated, releasing a burst of air under the piston, which pushes it back up the cylinder to reset it for the next cycle. Because the resistance created by the buildup of back pressure is eliminated, the full force of the downward thrust is exerted on the driver – hence the term Full Force Technology.
Examining a tool's specific claims is a good way to start a tool test, so we began there. Bosch claims its framing nailers are 20 percent smaller than the competition, 10 percent more powerful, and 100 percent Bosch. We granted them the third quality right off but took a good look at the first two claims during our latest job in the Colorado mountains. A Bosch brochure revealed that the claims were based on comparisons with popular Hitachi and Paslode tools. My crew runs a lot of Hitachis, so we had the right model on hand for our evaluations.
To address the power, we ran the SN350-20F side by side with the Hitachi. It performed very well. Firing 12d nails into Doug fir and engineered lumber with the same air supply and nails, the Bosch consistently countersank nails deeper than our used Hitachi. I had no way to verify an exact percentage in the field test, but I can tell you the Bosch SN350-20F packs a punch.
Sizewise, Bosch claims the elimination of the return air chamber makes its nailer 20 percent smaller, but holding the two tools alongside each other showed only a slight difference. Not a laboratory-certified result – but after just an eyeballing, I'd have to say "No way." Upon reading the brochure's fine print, however, I discovered that the tool size was determined by measuring the internal volume of all the air chambers in the housing assembly – it wasn't based on visible external dimensions. So maybe the claim is true, but it's not too relevant to the user.
And as far as heft is concerned, the Bosch weighs in at 8.6 pounds – same as the Hitachi we weighed last year – putting it on the heavier side of framers. It doesn't seem all that heavy if you're just nailing walls together or shooting off floor deck, but when you have to do a lot of work overhead, you begin to feel the strain. Still, as with any heavy nailer, the extra weight resists recoil and therefore, says Bosch, prevents incomplete fastener-driving better than lighter tools.
In other specs, the SN350-20F shoots a wide range of 20-degree full round-head nails: anything from 2 to 3-1/2; inches in length and .113 to .148 inch in diameter. Its magazine is a top-loading design with a nice automatic lock mechanism for the follower. After you drop in the nails, a quick tug on the finger grip releases the follower; there's no need to fiddle with buttons or catches. It's a good top-load system, although my personal preference is for a rear-load magazine. I feel that sliding in sticks of nails and pulling the follower over them is much faster and more efficient than top-loading.
I was surprised that the SN350-20F has no dry-fire lock-out mechanism, especially since Bosch's new clipped-head framing nailer has one. This feature is a safeguard against missed nails, and something I'd expect on a high-tech tool.
Another necessary feature is a tool-free depth-of-drive adjustment. Bosch's dial on the nose of the nailer worked smoothly and held its setting well. With just a couple of turns of the depth adjustment, we could go from nailing engineered lumber to flush-nailing plywood sheathing without skipping a beat.
Toe-nailing was a breeze with the nailer's well-designed nose piece. The bottom toe-nailing teeth are accompanied by smaller teeth splayed out on each side, which really dig into the wood when you hold the tool at a steep angle to the work surface. The SN350-20F also comes with a no-mar tip, so you can use it to nail siding and finish decking. The tip is held in place by a metal keeper ring and works well, but there's no place to store it on the tool when you're not using it. Ours is already lost.
The Bosch has a generous rubber hand-grip area designed to keep your hand from touching any hot or cold metal, and the extra-large trigger is the only piece of plastic in sight on the tool. The trigger is uniquely designed to be used with two fingers, but hanging on to the nailer with the remaining two fingers is too strenuous to manage for long. There's a metal tab sticking out of the handle just beneath the trigger to keep your fingers from sliding in behind the trigger, and a couple of the guys complained that the tab rubbed on their middle finger and became uncomfortable by the end of the day.
I have large hands, so for me the tab wasn't the problem, but unless I adjusted my grip rearward quite often, the trigger would pinch my knuckle each time I fired the tool. If Bosch could move the hinge point of the trigger forward about half an inch and shorten it by the same amount, the arrangement would fit my hand pretty well. As it is, we didn't find the trigger very comfortable to work with. And my bias against plastic parts on a framer has me declare "Give me metal, or give me spares."
Most framers I know think "sequential fire" is what you're cast into if you've lived a bad life, rather than a nailing mode, and they'd probably never opt to use the feature – but the SN350-20F comes with an easy-to-use mode switch behind the large trigger. Making room to pack in this gizmo might be part of the reason the grip and trigger seem so awkward.
The Bosch SN350-20F has some notable extra features, and my favorite is the tool-free quick-release magazine. Flipping up a small lever tucked alongside the magazine pops the entire assembly right off the tool, so you can clear a jammed nail or even change out a damaged magazine in seconds. I would have been happy to use this feature, but to its credit, the Bosch never jammed during our testing.
Another welcome extra is the built-in self-clearing air filter. A simple foam screen just inside the air intake sifts out debris as air comes in. When the air hose is disconnected, the pressure released from the tool body purges the collected grit. This is a valuable feature that can reduce internal wear and add to a tool's reliability; I never understood why more brands don't include it.
The third added feature is not as well-executed. Back when I was learning to use a nail gun, if you heard someone bang a nailer against a board, the next sound you'd hear would be the boss yelling at the top of his lungs. But I guess beam-banging is acceptable now, because Bosch includes a thin steel strike plate on the top of its framing nailers for that purpose. The strike plate works pretty well if you have room to use the tool like a sledgehammer, but more often than not you're going to be working in a tight space and will end up striking with the side of the head. The top strike plate has little side extensions, but they're inset and far from the widest part of the head. Judging by the scratches and dings on our test tool, the side plates need to be repositioned to get in on the board-beating action. They look cool but have little practical use.
One feature we wish the SN350-20F came with was a rafter hook, like the one in photos of the tool on the Bosch Web site. In my opinion, the hook is a necessity for a framing nailer, and if I bought the nailer after reviewing Bosch's site, I'd sure expect to find one in the box. But I'd be greatly disappointed. The hook (part no. 2610004884) must be purchased as an accessory for about $20.
As for cost, the Bosch SN350-20F is in the upper price range for framing nailers, but I bet the cost will come down after the tool's been available for a while.
We were impressed with the Bosch SN350-20F nailer; it's a high-quality tool with some excellent features, especially the pop-off magazine. We liked the tool's power and versatility. It shoots a wide range of nails, and with its no-mar tip and adjustable depth-of-drive, it proved its worth on everything from nailing up LVL beams to running 1-by window trim. To improve the tool, Bosch should revisit the ergonomics of the long trigger and provide a standard-issue rafter hook and a dry-fire lock-out function.
The high-end production framing-nailer market is filled with quality competitors who've been proving their worth on job sites for decades. The Bosch nailer has what it takes to compete – and addressing its minor shortcomings could make it a true contender.
Michael Davis owns Framing Square in Conifer, Colo., and is a contributing editor for Tools of the Trade.
Check out our last full category test of framing nailers in the Tool Test section of toolsofthetrade.net.