The Testing

My crew and I tested these 10 tools for their ease and speed of cap and fastener loading, consistency of cap feeding and fastener driving, and overall performance. We factored in tool weight and balance, cap and fastener capacity, general usefulness on our jobs, and durability as far as we could determine in two month's use. Over the course of that time, we drove many thousands of cap fasteners into more than 100 squares of synthetic roofing underlayment, 30 squares of 30-pound roofing felt, and 11 rolls of housewrap.

We also used the tools while retrofitting two attics with radiant barriers, one with bubble-style membranes and the other with sheet-style membranes attached to the underside of the rafters.

None of our projects included insulated sheathing, so I shop-tested the tools with sheets of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam board without any driving problems. I figured that any material crushing or tool actuation problems would occur on the less dense EPS rather than on fiberboard, extruded polystyrene, or faced polyisocyanurate. And to determine if any tools were underpowered for use on dense substrates, like Southern Yellow pine plywood or high density OSB-type sheathing, I took sheets of both and blasted off a full load of fasteners with each tool.

Cap Staplers

Cap Loading. We cap-fastened roofing felt at 6 to 8 inches apart along the edges, and 24 inches apart in the field when drying in roofs. For housewraps, we drove fasteners between 16 and 24 inches apart, depending on the manufacturer's requirements, and shot in extras along the edges for good measure when it was windy. You don't realize how fast a tool can consume caps and staples until you start popping them off at this frequency, so the benefit of fast reloading times quickly became clear.

There are two types of cap-loading systems: barrel and coil. Because barrel systems use stacks of caps held together by a central string or wire or with edge-welds, they are faster to load than a coil system that requires you to guide a string of caps into a feed channel. The Spotnails is the only stapler with coil-collated caps. There are 200 caps in a coil, which means you reload half as many times as the 100 or 110 cap barrel loaders. But reloading takes a full 30 seconds, because if you rush, you'll tangle the coil. The trick with the Spotnails is to hold it on its side, so the magazine cradles the coil as you feed the caps along their channel. You then lift the feed lever to elevate the advancing teeth, so the caps slide forward easier.

The Bostitch and X-Cell tools have vertical barrel towers on the right and a feeding device at the bottom to deliver caps beneath the staple nose. You retract the pusher and drop in a plastic string-collated stack of 100 caps in the Bostitch, or hinge back the cap and insert a wire-collated stack of 100 into the X-Cell. The Bostitch system is much better; you can release the pusher after loading, and it'll hold the caps in place so you can rip out the string. You have to hold your finger over the X-Cell's barrel to keep the caps contained until you withdraw the wire, then close the hinged barrel cap and engage the pusher. Make sure to heed the warning on the X-Cell tool or the pusher spring will eject forcibly from the barrel.

The three 58 staplers and the Pneu-Tools 150 take two edge-welded stacks of 55 caps. The horizontal cap barrels are in line with the staplers' magazines, making them more compact than the Bostitch, Spotnails, or X-Cell models. The pusher has a nice, big finger hook that you draw back to the end of the barrel cap, which hinges open. The cap clusters drop right in–just be sure not to put them in backwards, or the tools will only spit staples–then you can hinge the end cap closed, and the pusher will slide into place.

We had races to see who could reload the staplers the fastest, and one guy could reload consistently in 3 to 5 seconds, including the staples.

Carrying a supply of caps is an issue. The Spotnails coils are tricky; when they begin to fall apart, they become a tangled mess. The Bostitch and X-Cell strings and wire-collated stacks were easiest to carry as they rarely broke apart, even when stuffed into a jam-packed toolpouch. The 58 staplers' cap clusters often snapped at the edge-welds. We found the solution was to empty the tools out of your nail pouch, and arrange the clusters in an organized fashion so they support one another.

Staple Loading. There's no science to loading staples. Just like other pneumatic staplers, there are two styles: top loaders and bottom loaders. The Bostitch, Spotnails, and Pneu-Tools 150 are top loaders, and the 58 staplers and the X-Cell are bottom loaders. In the case of the 58s, pay attention when you close the staple magazine. A yoke on the cap pusher has to engage the piston shaft guide correctly or the caps won't advance.

Balance and Weight. With these high-speed, high-production tools, balance is very important. When you're installing housewrap, you're stretching your arm out and up and down all the time. For roofing underlayment, you have your hand and arm extended in roughly the same position while you walk around. Without good balance, fatigue sets in fast, and accuracy and speed drop. The best-balanced stapler is the Spotnails, even though it tied as the heaviest stapler. It felt good while working off ladders and reaching, as well as while holding a consistent position for capping off roof felt. The 58 staplers are nearly a pound lighter and have good balance, but not the sweet feel of the Spotnails. The X-Cell is slightly front-heavy but still comfortable, while the Bostitch and Pneu-Tools 150 are decidedly front-heavy tools that tired our arms after extended use.

Driving Performance. If a tool can't sink every fastener that fits in its magazine, then it's not living up to its design. In our dense-sheathing test, the three 58 tools did well, fully sinking their staples except when we did super-rapid-bounce firing. But the X-Cell and Pneu-Tools 150 often left longer staple heads proud. They both sunk 1-inch staples pretty well, though. The Bostitch had no problem fully driving even their longest 1 1/2-inch staples, and we sometimes needed to dial back their depth-of-drive adjustment for the shorter staples because the caps curled up on the edges when the staples drove too deeply.

One issue of all the cap staplers–and even the cap nailers–is tool orientation when firing. You have to have the tool piston perpendicular to the work surface in all aspects to get consistent fastener setting. If you tilt the tool too far (approximately 10 to 15 degrees) forward, left, or right, either the contact trip mechanism won't activate a firing sequence, or the tool will fire and the fastener is left proud. The tools gave us immediate feedback when we were tilting too far, and we quickly adjusted our aspect.

Cap Delivery. It's amazing how fast you can bounce along with these staplers, especially the small ones, and how well all of the tools deliver caps to the nose with precision. They remind me of a seasoned blackjack dealer doling out cards to patrons with effortless motion. We did experience an occasional hiccup when the X-Cell and Bostitch tools didn't eject a cap. This was due to an accidental retraction of their spring-loaded pushers, which let caps get jostled loose and left some turned around. This was rare, but it can happen, and any inverted caps will stop the delivery systems cold. The 58 staplers and Pneu-Tools 150 didn't have that problem because the caps are welded together. And improper loading or debris in the magazine can cause the coiled caps of the Spotnails to occasionally break or jam.

We also found that at high rates of bounce-firing speed, all the tools except the Bostitch and Spotnails frequently drove the staples off center of the cap a little. This didn't seem to affect the cap holding power, and it was resolved by slowing down from lightning speed to just a blinding pace.

Durability. The cap barrel towers of the Bostitch and X-Cell, with their cap feeding mechanisms and exposed air hoses hanging off to the side, look like they'd snap right off, but they proved to be durable on the job. We didn't use them any more cautiously than the inline barrel staplers–the 58 models and the Pneu-Tools 150. The tools got slammed sideways against walls and roof decks, took a couple 3- and 4-foot falls, and were routinely bounced around in a pickup bed but showed no signs of damage or performance problems. The plastic coil magazine and hose on the Spotnails looked delicate but took all the regular jobsite punishment without a fault.

Maneuverability. This wasn't part of the criteria we set out to test, but maneuverability became evident when we had to sneak cap tools into corners: wall to wall, roof to wall, and around obstructions. Even though it looks large, the Spotnails with its rear cap magazine did well, we just had to twist our wrists a little to nudge the nose in close. The 58 models and the Pneu-Tools 150 did the best; the inline cap barrels made for a sleek profile that was easy to maneuver. The Bostitch and X-Cell staplers were right-side-challenged as their cap-feeding mechanisms kept the nose 4 inches away from anything. This wasn't a problem for left-side access, however; in the big picture, this limitation isn't a huge deal. We got used to positioning our bodies so we could attack corners head on with the X-Cell and Bostitch.