Battery-Powered 16-Gauge Finish Nailers
Is it time to retire your air compressor on trim jobs? We put four of these new 16-gauge finish nailers to the test to find out.
By Michael Springer
16-gauge finish nailers (also known as trim nail guns) are one of the fastest growing categories of tools going cordless – or more accurately, hoseless – since traditional pneumatic nailers connect to air hoses, not power cords. Available hoseless nailers can run on gas cartridges and even tiny onboard air tanks, but the latest battery-powered tools take convenience and portability to the next level.
Benefits of battery nailing
Nailing without the anchor of an air hose and compressor frees your ability to move, just as using a cordless drill instead of one with a power cord does. Reaching in and around obstacles is not hampered by dragging an attached hose, which can scuff finished surfaces. The grab-and-go nature of battery power gets you working faster, saving the time of setting up and moving around an air compressor.
There’s a considerable savings if you don’t have to buy and maintain an air compressor, and you’ll never miss its constant noise. The battery nailers sound quieter than do air nailers, and they do not include the exhaust air blast of pneumatics or the smelly combustion exhaust of gas cartridge tools.
Compared to traditional pneumatics, the trade-off for losing the hose is mainly some extra weight. A battery nailer can weigh twice as much as a comparable air nailer (not including the hose you are lifting). For production work all day in a shop or if you are using multiple boxes of nails per day, air power leaves you better off.
Why 16-gauge finish nailers?
Many trim carpenters rely on a 15-gauge nailer along with an 18-gauge brad nailer. The angled nose and long nail capacity of the finish nailer provides the reach, accurate nail placement and holding power needed for most applications, while the brad nailer is used where its thin fasteners are less likely to split the wood. Other trimmers prefer to use one tool for everything and choose 16-gauge finish nailers for their thinner nails than 15-gauge tools. Two major improvements have made 16-gauge finish nailers more popular: the ability to shoot 21⁄2-inch nails like 15-gauge tools, and the development of nailers with angled magazines – a format more appealing to Pros than straight magazines.
We tested 16-gauge finish nailers in the 18V/20V-max voltage platform from DeWalt, Milwaukee, RIDGID and Ryobi. The first two feature angled magazines, while the latter two are straight. Though these tools fit battery packs of different sizes and amp-hour (Ah) ratings, we tested them with compact battery packs to minimize weight and bulk. Each nailer can be purchased as a bare tool to use with battery packs you already have, and all but the Ryobi are available in kit form that includes a battery and charger. I used name-brand nails from Spotnails throughout the testing to eliminate the variable of different brands.
Different drive systems
To drive nails with an electric motor, the DeWalt spins a flywheel, delivering force to the driver after a short delay. In bump fire mode, its flywheel spins continuously for fast nailing. The Milwaukee uses a sealed nitrogen cylinder, which is pressurized after each shot so it’s always ready to fire instantly. It acts more like a typical air nailer in both single fire and bump fire modes. The RIDGID and Ryobi tools let in air, compressing it in a cylinder after the trigger is pulled, which creates a delay with every shot, whether in single fire or bump fire mode. The volume of air compressed can be controlled with the power dials to save wear and tear on the tools and user alike, and a light puff of air is exhausted through the top of the nailers.
While the Milwaukee shoots more like a pneumatic nailer, the delay in the other two driving systems takes a little getting used to since you have to hold the trigger down until it fires. This doesn’t represent any real performance compromise for the carefully placed nailing done with a trim nailer, though. In single fire mode, I recorded about 1⁄3 of a second trigger-to-shot delay with the Ryobi and only about 1⁄4 second with the DeWalt and RIDGID. In bump fire mode, the Milwaukee and DeWalt went as fast as I wanted, while the RIDGID and Ryobi had about 1⁄2 second cycle time per nail.
These finish nailers share a lot of common features with pneumatic framing nailers, such as a tool-free depth-of-drive setting you dial up or down, an easy-open latch at the nose to clear jammed nails, rubber pads at the tip to avoid marring your wood and plenty of rubber grip surfaces. They also have thin metal belt hooks that can be fitted to the right or left side of the tool, but it’s best to remove them when shooting baseboard to avoid scratching finished flooring.
Unlike most air-powered tools, battery-powered nailers add LED headlights, electronic firing-mode switches, and basic on/off switches. These nailers can be set to single fire (sequential actuation) mode or bump fire (contact actuation) mode.
Single fire mode is best for the pace and accuracy required for trim work and gives you the best chance of fully sinking a nail in tough applications. Avoid moving too fast in bump mode with these nailers because lifting the tool off the surface too soon can result in incompletely driven nails.
Balance and feel
With their onboard motors, batteries, and extra mechanical parts, these nailers are bulkier and heavier than comparable pneumatics; ergonomics suffer a bit as a cost of convenience. When held flat for carrying or nailing into a horizontal surface, the DeWalt, RIDGID and Ryobi are notably nose heavy, while the configuration of the
Milwaukee gives it a good neutral balance.
Holding the tools vertically when shooting casing or crown more or less evens out any differences in feel. Good balance matters the most when the tool is held sideways, as when installing baseboard. The weight of any components situated below the handle of the tool – such as those found along the magazine of the Milwaukee, RIDGID and Ryobi tools – becomes weight you have to support by twisting your wrist, which can be fatiguing.
In this position, I measured over 21⁄2 pounds of cantilevered weight from the RIDGID, 21⁄4 pounds from Ryobi, about 2 pounds from Milwaukee, and less than 1 pound from the DeWalt, giving it a real comfort advantage in use. This extra bulk can also hold the nose up off the floor when shooting baseboard. In this regard, the DeWalt tapered shape was a bonus.
Power and runtime
All of the tools performed typical jobs with ease. Attaching poplar, pine or MDF trim presented no challenge, nor did driving 2-inch nails through laminated bamboo flooring, thick MDF or 3⁄4-inch thick hardwoods backed with framing lumber. To find their limits, I had to use thicker hardwoods. Each nailer could countersink 2-inch nails through 11⁄4-inch oak, cherry and maple framing lumber, but the Ryobi had to be held down hard for consistent results.
The power limit of the Ryobi was reached with 2-inch nails into solid cherry, but the others were still going strong until I replaced the cherry with hickory. Only the Milwaukee passed that test. Similar results were found when shooting 21⁄2-inch nails into cherry.
The Milwaukee powered through, but the others left nails standing proud or bent and jammed in their noses.
When the Milwaukee shot into something too tough to fully sink a nail, it often sheared the top of the nail off into little pieces.
After a day of testing, shooting 300 or more nails in tough applications, most tools’ battery gauges showed plenty of charge left. One charged battery should see you through a workday, and you could probably never outpace two battery packs and a charger on the job. We tested the tools with the smallest compact packs; using full size packs is a sure way to boost the runtime if needed.
Results and recommendations
The all-around best 16-gauge finish nailers in this test are the DeWalt. The DeWalt finish nailers are the lightest by more than one pound and handles with a nimble, balanced feel. ADeWalt finish nailers is packed plenty of power and its great feature set is only lacking a dry-fire lockout.
If you need maximum power and/or want the instant firing action of a pneumatic nailer, the Milwaukee is the answer. It fully drove even the longest nails into everything put in front of it, but that power comes at a cost. Driving nails with such brute force transfers shock to the user’s hand and wrist, and the recoil becomes uncomfortable. The nailer would benefit from having some way to dial back the force when it’s not all needed.
The RIDGID is a strong performer and has a variable power dial which turns down the driving force and the recoil, which we really like. But it weighs the most and its old-school straight magazine lacks the versatility and reach advantages of the angled nailers.
The Ryobi is nearly identical in build, features and functionality to the RIDGID, but lighter. Its benefits include the best nail placement visibility and lowest cost; however, it lagged behind in power testing. This one keeps up fine in normal trim applications.
DeWalt XR DCN660D1 (kit)
Specs: Brushless motor, 20° angled magazine, 11⁄4- to 21⁄2-inch nails, 6.14 pounds. (Straight magazine model also available.)
2.0 Ah battery, 2 of 3 bars left on gauge after 300 shots.
Pros: Most comfortable tool; over a pound lighter than the others; superior balance in use; gentle driving feel; quietest; smallest safety tip with good visibility and smallest driver hole provide accurate and neat nailing in tight molding profiles; tapered body shape like an air nailer; shoots lower into baseboard; only depth-of-drive dial with indicator along adjustment range; handy lock-off button by the trigger; driver return lever snaps driver blade back up easily after a jam; angled magazine design.
Cons: Only tool without dry-fire lockout; nails jam in the tip frequently in tough materials instead of just standing proud like the others.
Milwaukee FUEL 2742-21CT (kit)
Specs: Brushless motor, 20° angled magazine, 11⁄4- to 21⁄2-inch nails, 7.25 pounds. (Straight magazine model also available.) 2.0 Ah battery, 2 of 4 bars left on gauge after 300 shots.
Pros: Strongest tool by far; instant trigger response; quick cycle time when bump firing; good balance when held flat; dry-fire lockout; angled magazine design.
Cons: Hard jarring feel when fired; no way to adjust nailing force; will fire before safety tip is all the way down, leaving nails proud if you don’t push hard enough,move too slowly or when raising the tool too fast during bump firing; widest safety tip; leaves large driver hole.
RIDGID HyperDrive R09892B (bare tool)
Specs: Brushless motor, straight magazine, 3⁄4- to 21⁄2-inch nails, 7.9 pounds.
Used 2.0 Ah battery, 3 of 4 bars left on gauge after 300 shots.
Pros: 9-position power dial; good power; dry-fire lockout.
Cons: Heaviest and bulkiest; notable trigger delay; loud; straight magazine design.
Ryobi AirStrike P325 (bare tool)
Specs: Conventional motor, straight magazine, 3⁄4- to 21⁄2-inch nails, 7.26 pounds. Tested with 1.5 Ah battery, 1 of 4 bars on gauge after 300 shots.
Pros: 7-position power dial; only headlight that lights where the nail goes; dry-fire lockout;
Cons: Least powerful; shortest runtime; longest trigger delay; loudest; straight magazine design.
Michael Springer is a tool tester and tool industry journalist in Boulder County, Colo.