In the old days it was easy to pick out the better finish nailer because cool features like depth adjustment, no-mar caps, and swing-out noses for clearing jambs were few and far between. Now these features–and more–are pretty much standard on most pro-grade nailers, and the definition of a "good" tool has narrowed to designs that best combine these features with nail-driving dependability and jobsite toughness.
I like straight-magazine finish nailers for interior trim in large part because I can switch out nails quickly between applications–or even during the same one. I did a full-on test of 10 pneumatic tools: Bostitch FN16250K-2, Craftsman 18175, Hitachi NT65M, ITW Paslode T250-F16, Max NF352, Maxus MXN064, Porter-Cable FN250B, Ridgid R250SFA, Senco FinishPro 32, and Spotnails XB1564.
Separately, I did a thorough but less comprehensive evaluation of the two 16-gauge straight-magazine hoseless tools currently in production in this category: DeWalt's DC616KA and Paslode's 16-gauge straight finish nailer. This category is too small for a full-throttle Tool Test, but it's growing fast and new models from different manufacturers look like they'll be ready to launch throughout the year.
To get a real feel for both tool types all over a trim site, I installed pre-hung doors, trimmed windows and doors, and set base, crown, wainscoting, chair rail, and shelving. Because most of that millwork was pine and poplar, I also set up a power test back in the shop driving nails into 1-by oak stock. I also looked carefully at nail change-out and size identification, depth adjustment, lockout, jam clearing, ergonomics, triggering, and any other advanced features the tools had.
A nailer isn't much good if it can only sink 2-1/2-inch nails into softwood. To test power and dependability in hardwood, I used 3/4-inch oak stock to form long corners, then shot hundreds of nails along the corners using the longest nails that the nailers would accept. My compressor was set to kick on at 80 psi and I set the regulator at 100 psi. All of the nailers are rated to operate at that range. While some can operate at a little lower and some a little higher, all of them successfully and regularly set the nails.
What's Really Important
Nail Changing and Size Identification. Other than the nailer being able to drive the fastener correctly, the most important thing to me is being able to easily identify and switch fasteners. When I hang and trim a door I'll switch fastener sizes three times–2-1/2-inch nails through the jambs, 1-1/4-inch through the casing into the jamb, and 2-inch through the casing into the wall. This may seem like a lot of work, but using the best nail for each location really prevents blowouts and damaged trim.
Trimming a window, I use two sizes: 1-1/4-inch through the casing into the window jamb and 2-inch through the casing into the wall. I often use two nailers when I'm alone, but with a few carpenters on the job that quickly adds up to a lot of extra equipment and hoses all over the place.
The side-load magazines on the Max and Bostitch are nice because they not only let me switch sizes easily and quickly, but I could also keep different sizes at the ready–inside the magazine. Bostitch took their design a step further by incorporating a magnetic strip inside the track to help prevent nails from spilling out during changes. Max's track is only tall enough to take up to 2-inch nails; since I really want 2-1/2-inch nails for door jambs, that's a problem for me.
The Craftsman, Maxus, and Paslode tools have tracks that also make it easy to identify fastener size. Craftsman and Maxus tracks have nice windows that let you see what size nails are in there. It's a little tougher to make out sizes on the Paslode because only the bottoms of the nails are exposed in the track.
The Porter-Cable, Ridgid, and Spotnails models have locking catches and relatively loose tracks that enabled the nails to slide back and out easily for quick changes. Unfortunately, none of these have easy size identification markings, so I had to take the nails out to identify their lengths.
Switching nails in the Senco was difficult. The puller didn't latch back and the nails didn't slide out easily. Spotnails' puller is better suited for lefties, and I found it awkward. It was also difficult to change nails quickly and easily with the Hitachi.
Most of the tracks completely cover and protect the nails, except for the Porter-Cable and the Paslode, which leave the bottom 1/2 inch or so of the 2-1/2-inch nails exposed. I'd rather see the nails protected, because the exposed points on the nails can catch clothing or get damaged, which can cause jams.