Tools for nailing through steel or into fully cured concrete used to be limited to PATs (powder-actuated tools), but gas-powered pinners are gaining popularity. And there are powerful pneumatics – some old and some new – that have been flying under the radar for some time even though they excel at shooting into these tough materials. We gathered all the tools we could find in the two categories and gave them to a commercial contractor in Wisconsin to see how they fared on the job. The most common commercial use for these tools is to pin steel drywall track down to a slab, but the 12 pinners in our test also got a workout attaching 1-by and 2-by furring (depending on their maximum pin length) to concrete. In addition, we staged side-by-side trials in Colorado, nailing into well-aged concrete at an altitude of 5,200 feet. These tests served to show how well the tools would work in high-altitude areas like Denver and Albuquerque – historically dead zones for gas-powered nailers.
A Word on PATs
To satisfy OSHA requirements, operators of PATs have to be trained, tested, and licensed separately for each brand of tool they use. OSHA also has strict disposal rules for unspent charges and can levy serious fines for charge strips found on the floor – or even in a dumpster. No such restrictions apply to gas tools and fuel canisters.
Because the action of powder tools is similar to that of firearms, their use is prohibited on certain sites with special security concerns. We know of a commercial electrician working in a hangar at an international airport (under the watchful eye of accompanying TSA guards) who was warned by the GC that he would be arrested if he used his powder tool at the facility.
Add to this their loudness, maintenance requirements, and high cost per shot, and you have a pretty compelling argument against using PATs – for most jobs. But with four to five times the maximum power of gas tools, powder tools still rule the day for tough jobs with harder concrete, thicker steel, or longer fasteners.
The seven gas pinners we tested all use pressurized butane fuel canisters and a battery to power their linear combustion engines. In brief, the battery provides a spark to ignite the air-fuel mixture above the cylinder, which in turn slams the attached driver rod against the head of the concrete pin. Most of the models then run a fan to exhaust the combustion gases and draw in fresh air to mix with the next dose of fuel – though our favorite in this category uses a simple piston-return spring to exhaust the spent air with a quick puff.
The growing popularity of gas tools is due mostly to the many advantages they offer over PATs – they're quieter, less costly, easier to maintain, and free of the training and licensing restrictions. And their hoseless mobility makes them a better choice than pneumatics on large or multistoried commercial sites where steel and concrete fastening is common. Fasteners are typically sold in boxes of 750 to 1,000 pins, with one fuel canister included; that way, users are ensured of having enough fuel for the fastener pack (and they're less likely to use another brand's compatible fasteners).
One limitation of gas pinners is their lack of power control. With pneumatics, if your fasteners are left standing proud of the surface, you can crank up the pressure; with PATs, you can use a stronger charge. But your only option with gas tools is to switch to a shorter or perhaps thinner pin – as long as it meets code approval for your application. The thick plastic collation scrap left on a pin acts like a washer and will hold tight if a fastener isn't all the way down. This is okay for steel drywall track or 2-by wall plate, but for furring strips or flooring underlayment, protruding heads are a deal-breaker. Smacking the head of a protruding pin with a hammer may bury it, but double-driving loosens the bond between the pin and concrete, and wastes time.
For residential work, pneumatic pinners may be your best option – for several reasons. First, this category includes numerous tool choices for shooting longer nails through wood framing; second, air hoses are easy to run in a home-sized job site; and finally, you can avoid the extra cost of fuel canisters – not to mention the smelly and toxic exhaust, which can really build up in smaller spaces. We had no real power problems with the pneumatics; you just crank up the pressure for deeper driving. The high-pressure tools require a special compressor, but the rest shot well at 120 psi. A few can handle much higher pressure if your compressor has the capacity.
The Hilti GX120 is the clear winner for the gas-tools category, outranking the competition by far in both performance and features. It is truly the most advanced tool in the class, with design improvements in virtually every aspect of its operation. The other tools were fairly close in performance, with the Simpson tool taking second place and the Powers C3 third. If we had to pick a fourth, the Ramset TF1100 would just edge out the Hitachi model, mostly because its fuel and fasteners are compatible with the previous two market-leading tools. The Ramset T3 worked fine on track, but its one-inch maximum pin size limits its versatility. And the extra-large Powers C4 is too big to use for just shooting track, but it's the only gas tool that can shoot into 2-bys.
For the pneumatic tools, size and capacity differences were great enough to keep us from ranking them head to head, but we know what we liked. We really liked the compact size, high-capacity pin coils, and powerful punch of both Max high-pressure pinners. These tools get the job done with minimum heft – but buying into the expensive high-pressure tool, compressor, and hose system will appeal mostly to guys who do a lot of steel and concrete shooting. For more occasional use, we recommend the standard-pressure tools. The lightweight TyRex tool handles just like a framing nailer and is the way to go for pins up to 1-1/2 inches. For attaching 2-bys or for more overall power capacity, we suggest the weighty Hilti. The ET&F has monstrous power, but its odd configuration and need for accessory parts make it less convenient for job-site use.
Commercial contractor Brad Caspari of Hunzinger Construction in Brookfield, Wis., and contributing editor Michael Davis contributed to this test.
The leg at the rear of the strip-magazine tools serves two purposes. First, because its height is level with the pinner's nose, it can be used to help guide the pin in at a 90-degree angle instead of at a dangerous glancing angle. And second, it supports the weight of the tool – and, during firing, a lot of the user's weight.
Since these tools are most often used for shooting into the floor, they are typically dragged instead of lifted from shot to shot – usually spaced 16 to 24 inches. To keep the tool from skating away if your reach is not straight down, it helps to have a grippy point of contact against the smooth steel track or concrete. The gas Hilti pinner (center right) has a soft rubber foot that provides superb traction. The Hitachi has a soft plastic nose cap designed to achieve the same thing, but the tool isn't as sure-footed. This nose cap also reduces the depth of drive a bit, which may interfere with fastener penetration in tough applications.
A few of the pinners with plastic feet have metal glides, like the Ramset (far right), or replaceable insert screws, like the Simpson (near right) and TyRex. These add wear resistance. The Hitachi and Powers tools have unshod plastic feet, and the pneumatic Hilti a sturdy steel foot. Only the coil magazine Max tools have no feet.
Any time you shoot into hard concrete and steel, pins will periodically bend and cause a jam. Pinners with noses that open are usually faster to clear than models that require the magazine to be removed. The Powers tools (below left) have pop-open latches, and the Max, Simpson, and TyRex (below center) have hinged "gates" at the nose. The nosepiece of the ET&F pinner drops out when you pull a locking pin.
The Hitachi and Ramset tools (TF1100 below center) have magazines that you detach by unscrewing a single knob; the pneumatic Hilti has to be disassembled with tools.
The gas Hilti (below right) trumps them all with a nosepiece that drops out with the push of a button and a magazine that pulls out with the flip of a lever.
The Max pinners rely on a high-pressure air compressor and hose to deliver surprising power for their compact size. Both tools really pack a punch – in both directions. The lightweight tools will recoil sharply if you use more pressure than you need, especially when shooting 2-1/2-inch pins with the HN120 (below). The left side of the compressor has two connections for standard-pressure tools with a range approaching 200 psi. (AKHL1050E compressor: $1,300. 50-foot hose: $99. 100-foot hose: $125.)
Batteries and Fuel
Gas pinners rely on batteries to provide an ignition spark, and all but the Hilti have motorized exhaust fans that require 6- or 7.2-volt rechargeable batteries. Depending on how often you use them, the rechargeables should last for about 3,000 shots. It's a good idea to disconnect the battery when the tool is sitting idle; leaving it in the tool can run it down over time. The Ramset T3 (right) has a unique feature that holds the battery securely in the tool even when it is disconnected.
Fuel canisters contain at least enough butane fuel to shoot the box of pins they come with (750-1,000 count), as long as they are used by their printed expiration date. The cans have a short shelf life due to the inevitable leaking of their propane propellant. The fuel cans (and fasteners) for the most popular tools (Powers C3, Ramset TF1100, and Simpson) are cross-compatible. The Ramset T3 has an unobtrusive fuel-can location that allows its hand grip to be positioned further forward than on most tools, greatly improving balance.
Belt/hanging hooks are nice for keeping the tool off the floor. None of the pneumatics have them, but all the gas tools – except the Hitachi – do. Only the Hilti, Ramset T3, and Simpson hooks will easily fit over the railing of a mobile lift platform.