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How to use a nail gun

Date posted: 1 October 2015

There is no doubt that nail guns are a handy modern addition to the carpenter's toolbox, making jobs such as roofing, pallet making, shop fitting and workshop assembly tasks much quicker and easier. They do need to be used with care, however, in order to prevent accidental injury.

Nail guns use a piston that is driven at high speed onto the head of the nail or large staple, forcing the fixing into the timber in one punch. The nails that can be used with this device, held in strips in a magazine, range in length from about 15mm to 100mm.


There are three main varieties of nail gun for timber, distinguished by their power source:

  1. those using compressed air, often found in factories;
  2. those using  butane gas, often found on site (the butane mixes with air in a combustion chamber, and is ignited when the trigger is pulled, creating a spark); and
  3. lightweight models using an electric motor and spring to drive the piston, some of which are battery-operated.
  4. View our nail guns for hire

The five most common nail gun mistakes

Training is vital before workers are given a nail gun to use. It is vital that all operators understand how the tool should be used safely, and how accidents happen, covering all five of the key causes listed below. It is also important to decide on the level of supervision required on the basis of the age, ability, experience and attitude of each worker who is using a nail gun. 

To protect the operator's safety, before the nail gun can be fired by pulling the trigger, the gun's nose guard should need to be retracted enough to allow this firing mechanism to activate – in theory, only when the gun is pressed firmly against the timber. In reality, however, accidents DO occur despite this safety feature.

Incidents with nail guns occur when:

  1. The operator positions the gun so it is pointing towards their own body, resulting in them placing their torso right in the line of fire, and accidentally injuring themselves.
  2. The operator accidentally shoots him/herself whilst carrying out nail gun maintenance because they have failed to disconnect the power source (whether it's an airline, gas canister or battery).
  3. The operator carries the gun around whilst their finger remains on the trigger, then accidentally makes contact with their own or someone else's body, limb or head, etc.
  4. The operator positions their hand too close to the work piece and accidentally shoots their own hand.
  5. The operator acts irresponsibly and deliberately shoots another worker. It is hard to believe, but this really does happen in some workplaces. This is where it becomes important to assess the level of supervision required according to the worker's age and attitude, as well as their ability and experience!

Other issues to consider

  • The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) points out that accident analysis reveals that the vast majority of eye injuries caused by nail guns would have been prevented if eye protection had been worn. There is no escaping the possibility that a nail may be deflected during use; or that splinters could shoot towards the operator or those in the surrounding work space; or that exhaust gas could propel dust into the operator’s face. Always ensure everyone using a nail gun wears adequate eye protection.
  • Never try to modify a nail gun, for example to disable safety features that you believe reduce speed / productivity.
  • Nail guns produce a lot of noise, especially when used in a machine configuration such as when making fence panels. You can dramatically reduce noise levels by building an enclosure around the machine. You can also reduce the noise on some mobile pneumatic nail guns by upgrading the air exhaust muffle or silencer to more smoothly dissipate used air.

Safeguarding workers against repeat accidents

If any incidents or near-accidents do occur, always ensure that management investigates them thoroughly. This way you can find out exactly why they happened, and what you can do to further reduce risks and help to prevent a repeat accident in the future.

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