Nail Guns: Weapons of Mass Construction

GROWING UP, WE HUNG OUT IN Dad’s shop a lot. While he was busy building, repairing and usually swearing, we would tinker on our own projects, invariably getting in his way (this may or may not have been at least partly responsible for his profanity).

Dad recycled everything. So he always had an old 3-pound coffee can filled with bent nails that had been extracted from various projects.

If we really wanted to drive Dad crazy, we’d pass the time by picking up a hammer and randomly driving some of those nails into his work bench.

Dad’s 5 boys turned into men and each one of them got pretty good at driving those thin slivers of wire into various types of lumber. (For the record, so did one of his daughters.) By an early age, we knew our 6-penny (or 6d) box from 8d finish, our “galvies” (galvanized) from common. And we could identify our hardwoods from soft.

All that nail pounding paid off. During my college years, I worked on and off in home construction. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a very satisfying feeling sinking a 16d through some fresh Douglas fir 2 by 4s, especially if you can do it in 3 strokes.

I still own my Estwing framing hammer from those days.

My kind of gun

SO IT WAS with some ambivalence a few years ago that I joined the modern world and updated to using a nail gun. Dad had never used one, so I guess I probably figured these things weren’t for those who were truly serious about their woodworking craft.

You can pick up a plug-in electric nail gun for about the price of a hammer these days.

What you discover almost immediately is that nail guns are addictive. They are so easy to use that assembling things made of wood becomes, well, child’s play. Sherry and I had amassed a nice collection of these tools, and a decent air compressor to drive them.

Then we decided to sell everything and travel the world.

Now that we have resettled into a sedentary life (home ownership will do that to you), it was time to start rebuilding our shop. I decided to see how good the electric nail guns are in comparison to the pneumatic models that we had previous used.

Since I’m not working a construction site, I did not need the portability (and expense) of a cordless (battery) powered gun. I picked up a plug-in model for about $60.

A little mail carrier I knocked out with some scrap
wood and my new nail gun. Needs paint!

These lower-end models utilize “brad” nails, very thin gauge wire, but very adequate for building small things. It’ll drive a 1.25 inch (31.75mm) nail and in my testing, will work just fine on hardwoods as well as softwoods. They also drive staples, which is essentially a horseshoe shaped nail, which are great for a variety of uses.

Fun facts

Before the Industrial Revolution, nails were made by hand. They were so valuable, that in Colonial America, buildings were sometimes burned to the ground to recycle those precious pieces of metal.

Nails have been around for 5 thousand years, dating back to ancient Egypt.

The nail gun was invented by Morris Pynoos to help build Howard Hughes’s infamous “Spruce Goose” plane. By the 1950s, it was a common tool in home construction.

The U.S. uses at least 2.5 Trillion nails a year, according to my calculations.

The oldest U.S. nail manufacturer is in Massachusetts, and still churning out this commodity on equipment that is almost 200 years old.

The entire world except for the United States uses the metric system for nail sizes.

In the U.S., the system is based on old English measurements. The “d” designation stands for “penny.” The “d” is derived from the Latin word “denarius” for a Roman coin.

Why “penny” though? It is thought that at one time it meant the number of nails you could buy for a “pence” or penny. Now, of course, it specifies the length. A 2d nail, for instance, is one inch long, or 25 mm, a 6d is 2 inches, or 51 mm, 60d (a railroad spike) is 6 inches long, or 152 mm.

There are pneumatic and electric (both plugged and unplugged) nail guns. But did you know there is a nail gun that uses gunpowder in a .22 caliber shell to force the nail into concrete? And yes, they are lots of fun to use.

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