About 30 years ago, when I made the decision to start using framing nailers and their expensive collated nails, there wasn't much to choose from; there were only two big players. The tools themselves were basic, so I made the buying decision mainly on the price of nails and who could provide the best service for the tools. I favored round-head nails and have stuck with them ever since, having gone through about 1,000 nailers since that time in my production framing business.

Many people pick a nailer based on a favorite brand name, or how it feels in their hands at the supply house. Others use "wallet ergonomics" to find what suits their needs, or at least their budget. We found a better solution–we tested 20 of the latest, full round-head nailers in the shop and on the job.

Eighteen of the nailers are conventional, 20- to 22-degree magazine angle models. Those with a maximum nail capacity of 3-1/4-inch are the Amigo 8320, Hitachi NR83A2, Max SN883RH and Senco SN902XP. Most of the tools shoot up to a 3-1/2-inch nail, including the Bostitch F21PL, Craftsman 351.18178, DeWalt D51844, Duo-Fast DF350S, Grip-Rite GRTRH350, Hitachi NR90AE, Makita AN923, Milwaukee 7100-20, Pneu-Tools SN2190RH, Porter-Cable FR350A, Senco Frame Pro 502, and Spotnails NPR90. And then there are the 4-inch shooting Grizzly H7943 and Prebena 8F-RK100-S90.

While it's true that the 30-degree magazine Paslode PF-350S is configured differently, new offset, round-head, collated nails by Paslode made this clipped-head nailer an honorary member of the category. We also tested the high-pressure Max HS90, which is so unique, we couldn't really test it alongside the other models.

The venerable Hitachi NR83A has been the Western framers' tool of choice for years, and for this test, Hitachi sent the next-generation NR83A2. The NR83A has been so successful, we decided to include three "tribute" tools that it inspired in our review: the Amigo, Senco 502, and Spotnails models.

Nail Angles

Full round-head nails are allowed in some applications where clipped-head nails are not, such as for nailing shear wall sheathing; the nailers that shoot these are our tools of choice. The 21-degree, full round-head nail collation is an industry standard, but some nailers are listed as 20- or 22-degree models, and a few even refer to themselves as 20- to 22-degree tools. One great thing about these nailers is that they aren't too picky about their diet; plus or minus a degree doesn't matter much.

First, we tested each tool with fasteners of its listed angle, then stuffed them full of generic 21-degree nails. They all cycled without complaint. The 30-degree Paslode was only nailer we used that has its own brand of round-head nails.

Test Conditions

Before field-testing, we put the tools through their paces in our shop, where our high-quality air system ensured correct pressure for each test run. We ran each tool at its highest approved operating pressure, just like we do in the field, ranging from 100 to 120 psi, and fired the longest nail each could handle. To make sure we weren't losing airflow, we used a short, 3/8-inch interior-diameter air hose and standard 3/8-inch fittings.

We buried nails into Douglas fir, and then into engineered laminated veneer lumber. All the tools consistently sank nails into the test materials. For the larger tools, the Bostitch, Grizzly, and Prebena set the nails slightly deeper into the engineered lumber than the others.

The Max was a real standout among the smaller tools. Where the other 3-1/4-inch nailers might countersink in fir and flush-nail in the engineered lumber at the same air pressure, the Max would effortlessly countersink in both with each nail driven precisely the same as the last.

The Grizzly and Prebena can handle 4-inch nails, so we loaded them and nailed three pieces of Douglas fir together. The Prebena flush-nailed the 4-inch spikes consistently but with pretty strong recoil. At the same pressure, the Grizzly countersank the spikes and with less recoil, taking on the challenge a little better. While not always needed, 4-inch nails are great for attaching rough-sawn 2-by trim material, going through full 2-inch stock and 1/2-inch wall sheathing while still providing a solid 1-1/2-inch penetration into the structure. It sure beats drilling pilot holes and screwing it on.

After shop-testing each tool, we shipped them out to the field for full-on, full-crew testing, giving our team a chance to compare each model in jobsite conditions. Here's our evaluation of features and performance.

Features

Firing modes. Framing nailers operate in one of two basic modes: sequential-fire or bump-fire. Many of the nailers include a select-fire system to change modes. The best of these provide a tool-free transition via a switch, button, or dial that lets you make the change in seconds. These include the Craftsman, both Hitachis, Makita, Milwaukee, Pneu-Tools, Porter-Cable, and Senco SN902XP.

To make the change on the Duo-Fast and Paslode models, you must remove a small pin and shift the trigger up or down. Similarly, the Max has a small metal clip pinned into the trigger that you remove to let the tool bump-fire.

Some of the tools come with a sequential trigger and include a separate bump-fire trigger kit. The triggers are color-coded, so you can tell at a glance how the tool is set up. The installation is quick and easy, and lets you control how your crew operates the tool. These tools include the DeWalt, Grip-Rite, Prebena, and Bostitch. The Senco 502 and Spotnails tools come with a kit to modify, but not replace, the trigger assembly.

The Amigo and Grizzly tools do not come with a selective-fire option and are shipped in bump-fire mode, although you can order an accessory part for the Amigo.

If I need a tool with a selective trigger system, I'd go with one of the tool-free models. A switch or button I can handle, but if it has an extra pin or trigger assembly, it's a pretty safe bet that it will get lost. My favorites would be the Hitachi NR90AE, Craftsman, and Makita.

Depth of drive. I think tool-free depth-of-drive adjustment is a must for a good framing nailer. Nailer manufacturers have come up with some easy-to-use depth adjustments. The Craftsman, Duo-Fast, Grip-Rite, Hitachis, Makita, Max, Milwaukee, Paslode, Pneu-Tools, Porter-Cable, and Senco SN902XP have a wheel set near the nose of the tool. As you roll the wheel, the nose extends to flush nail or pulls back to countersink. Most of these work well, but some of the guys complained that these wheels become difficult to operate as the dust builds up on their threads.

We really like what Bostitch and DeWalt have done; a sliding bar passes through the contact trip on the nose and locks the depth adjustment into one of several positions. This feature does double duty on the Bostitch to let you completely remove the framing contact trip and slide its unique hardware-nailer nosepiece into place.

The Grizzly and Prebena both require a hex wrench to make a depth adjustment, and the Spotnails needs at least one regular wrench. This curiosity of an adjuster looks like a last-minute addition, with a small bolt and jam nut threaded through a coupling welded to the front of the nosepiece. Using the nailer at an angle renders the adjustment bolt useless, and defeats the purpose of even having a depth setting.

The Amigo and Senco 502 include no provision for depth-of-drive adjustment but do have optional flush-drive attachments.

Dry-fire lockout. If you've been framing long enough, you can hear the difference in sound between a tool driving a nail and one that's just shooting blanks. Nevertheless, I think a dry-fire lockout is a good idea. It can save unnecessary wear on the tool, and it helps avoid costly callbacks for floor deck that wasn't nailed properly because the kid shooting it down didn't realize he was out of nails 50 shots ago. The DeWalt, Duo-Fast, Grip-Rite, Grizzly, Makita, Milwaukee, Paslode, Porter-Cable, and Pneu-Tools include this feature.

Magazine styles. There are two magazine styles for strip nailers: top loading and rear loading. With a top loader, you pull the follower to the back and lock it into place, drop two strips of nails into the top of the track, and unlock the follower, which pushes the nails forward. With a rear loader, you insert two strips of nails from the back and pull the follower back to engage the nails. Almost everyone I work with (and myself) prefers the rear-loading system. I believe it's faster, and it feels more natural to let the weight of the tool tip forward, raising the end of the magazine up to accept the nail strips. I wouldn't rule out a tool because it is a top loader, but if all else is equal, I'd opt for the rear loader every time.

In our test group, the Craftsman, Grizzly, Hitachi NR90AE, Makita, Max, Milwaukee, Paslode, Pneu-Tools, Porter-Cable, and Senco SN902XP have rear-loading magazines.

Magazine features. A peculiar feature of the Bostitch magazine is a guide rod that you must remove to shoot nails larger in diameter than the standard 0.131-inch size. This is a quick, tool-free operation, and there's a space in the magazine to store the rod while you're using the larger fasteners. Craftsman's magazine features a hinged door near the front, similar to that of a coil nailer, so you can get at jammed nails.

The Max magazine has an innovative feature that reduces nail waste and jamming. When you get down to the last nail in the magazine, it often falls out of the tool or feeds crooked and causes a jam. Max's solution? A magnet to hold the last nail. Simply brilliant.

No-mar caps. Aggressive toenailing teeth are essential for framing with a nailer, but a no-mar cap to take the bite out of them is a great idea, too. If all you do is shoot walls together, you're not going to care, but the day you need to run a redwood deck or a little fascia, you're going to wish your nailer had a no-mar cap. The Bostitch, Grizzly, and Prebena come with one, and Craftsman, Grip-Rite, Milwaukee, Pneu-Tools, and Porter-Cable not only include a cap, but also provide onboard storage for it. I really like this idea; if I drop a cap into my nail pouch when I don't need it, it's sure to be lost. Then I'll be back to hand-banging that redwood while my high-dollar nailer takes it easy in the shade. Max has a storage clip, too, but the cap must be bought separately.

Adjustable exhaust. For a framing nailer, nine times out of 10, the exhaust air shooting out the front will be just fine. But if adjustable exhaust is important to you, take a look at the entries from Craftsman, Grip-Rite, Milwaukee, Pneu-Tools, Porter-Cable, Prebena, and Bostitch. These include tool-free adjustable exhaust. The Grizzly has an adjustable exhaust, but it requires a hex wrench. As far as I'm concerned, if I have to stop working to go find a tool to make an adjustment, it might as well not be adjustable at all. Give me tool-free, or give me dust!

Built-in air filter. The Max, Makita, Milwaukee, and Pneu-Tools each feature an air filter inside the handle at the air inlet. The filter lets air and oil enter the tool while capturing dust and other contaminants from the air supply. This helps keep the tool clean, reducing wear and maintenance. Unlike the others' simple pad of filter media, the Max has a cylindrical cartridge that is self-cleaning. When you unplug the air hose from the tool, back pressure inside the nailer blasts the dirt out of the self-contained filter, so it never needs cleaning or replacing.

Off switch. According to some safety instructions, you should unplug pneumatic nailers from their air hoses when they are being carried, such as when a worker is walking with one or hauling it up a ladder. These instructions are well-meaning but largely impractical–and ignored on the job. The lowly lock-off switch is the answer. Simply a mechanical trigger block, there is no reason every framing nailer shouldn't have one. We laud DeWalt, Max, and Makita for including this safety feature.

Ergonomics

This new generation of framing nailers has evolved from the clunky, arm-stretching beasts of yesteryear into sleek, highly engineered wonders. Without compromising strength and durability, manufacturers have greatly reduced the weight and size of their tools by increased use of materials such as aluminum, magnesium, and super-strong yet lightweight plastic composites. They've also put more attention on the tools' ergonomic aspects for comfort and balance. The angle, diameter, and shape of the grip as well as the overall weight distribution are factors that make a great-feeling framing nailer, and the rubber grips now found on every tool help reduce worker fatigue.

Weight. As we worked with these nailers, we quickly gravitated toward the lighter models. If you have to heft one of these tools all day, plus the nails and the hose, weight really does matter. The lightest of the group is the Max at a feather-light 7.2 pounds. The most massive is the Makita, weighing in at 9.3 pounds. The difference of 2.1 pounds may not sound like a lot, but it matters in how you feel at the end of a work day.

Size. A standard framing nailer test is to see if you could work with the tool in a 16 inch o.c. joist bay. With dimensional lumber, you only have 14-1/2 inches of clearance, and almost all of the nailers fit with an average tool height of about 13-1/2 inches. The Craftsman, Grizzly, and Prebena might scrape by at 14-1/2 inches, but the 14-3/4-inch Grip-Rite would be left out. The shortest nailers, the Max and Senco SN902XP, are very compact and maneuverable at less than 12-inches tall.

Recoil. All the nailers in our test recoil; you can't drive a 16d nail into a solid piece of lumber in one shot without some kick. However, none of them had such pronounced recoil that we thought we wouldn't want to frame with them. Our testing found the most recoil with the Amigo, Hitachi NR83A2, Senco 502, and Spotnails tools, and the least with the DeWalt and the Max.

Overall comfort. Adding up all the factors–weight, size, recoil, noise level, best feel–the tools that come out on top are the DeWalt, Duo-Fast, Hitachi NR90AE, Max, Milwaukee, Paslode, Pneu-Tools, and Senco SN902XP. They're all well balanced, easy on the arm, and fit into tight spots. We crowned the Max "king of ergonomics" as the lightest, most comfortable compact tool.

Top Five Models

This class of tools is so large, it's hard to list them all in order of performance, so we noted the top five here. Compare all comments and specs for yourself before deciding which one is right for you.

Our top choice is the Max SN883RH, an extremely well-engineered, 3-1/4-inch nailer that gets the job done–well. It fires nails effortlessly into the hardest materials and at less pressure than most of the competition. It's the most comfortable, one of the smallest, and at 7.2 pounds, it's the lightest. It has a lock-off trigger switch for safety, tool-free depth-of-drive adjustment, and an innovative air filter. The rear-loading magazine has an ingenious magnet that holds the last nail in place to prevent jams. The Max could use an easier-to-change, selective-fire mode and a dry-fire lockout, and a rafter hook and no-mar nose cap would be nice. But for what I need a nailer to do, the Max was the best.

Sharing second place are the Milwaukee 7100-20 and the brand new Pneu-Tools SN2190RH. From the same production line, these 3-1/2-inch nailers are nearly identical. As lightweight tools, they both have great balance and just feel good in your hand. They fire smoothly and have every desirable feature, making them quick favorites among the testers. Both have an easy-to-use select firing mode trigger, tool-free exhaust and depth-of-drive adjustments, rafter hooks that rotate out of the way, a rear-loading magazine, dry-fire lockout, and a no-mar cap with onboard storage. These are great tools and among the least expensive.

In third place is the brand-new Senco SN902XP. An exceptional 3-1/4-inch framing nailer, it is the shortest tool in the test and among the lightest. It features a tool-free select firing mode and depth-of-drive adjustments, and is rear loading. The SN902XP shoots nails fast and efficiently but has pronounced recoil. A rafter hook, no-mar nose cap, and dry-fire lockout would be welcome additions, but even without them, the SN902XP is impressive.

Fourth place belongs to the DeWalt D51844, a light and compact 3-1/2-inch nailer and the only highly ranked top loader of the test. It features an easy, tool-free depth-of-drive adjustment and dry-fire lockout. As much as we liked the DeWalt, it would have been better if it had a rafter hook and tool-free select fire trigger. This was a great showing by DeWalt's second-tier nailer; its premium model will be replaced by the new D51850, which was unavailable for testing.

The fifth place nailer, Hitachi's funky NR90AE, had a lot to live up to in the shadow of its legendary sibling–and it did just that. This 3-1/2-inch nailer is light, compact, and has a great feel, although some of the testers complained that the magazine is bulkier than it should be and can be cumbersome when working in tight spots. The NR90AE has an easy select firing trigger, a tool-free depth-of-drive adjustment, and is rear loading. It would benefit from a dry-fire lockout, a rafter hook, and a no-mar nose cap.

–Michael Davis owns Framing Square Inc. in Albuquerque, N.M., and is a contributing editor for Tools of the Trade.

PasloDE PF-350S

By using Paslode's RounDrive offset full-head nails, the new PF-350S–or any 30-degree clipped-head framing nailer–can now shoot round-head nails like the 20- to 22-degree nailers in this test. This opens up a whole new category of nailers for applications that require round-head nails. While rigid paper-tape nail collation is not new, the space between these steeply set nails is, and allows room for a larger, off-center head. An added benefit is the lack of plastic-collation's shrapnel effect when a nail is fired, resulting in a floor covered in plastic shards. Besides the magazine angle, the PF-350S is nearly identical to its sister tool, the Duo-Fast DF350S and shares the same specs except for a lighter weight of 7.6 pounds; a better, folding rafter hook; nicer toenailing teeth, and a price of $299. 800-222-6990. www.paslode.com.