In the words of Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface, “Say hello to my little friend!” Somehow brandishing a neon green Grex 23 gauge pneumatic pin nailer doesn’t have the same effect as a rifle-grenade-launcher. Weird huh? Plus my Cuban accent is really weak. And I am quite possibly the most gringo-looking Scarface you’ve ever seen. I’m also a bad actor. Oh, and I don’t live in a gilded palace, or have true Pacino-rage fueled on mountains of cocaine. On the plus side, I think I did frighten my family during the photoshoot. Anyway, to have been more accurate, I probably should have said, “Say hello to my little friends”, namely, The Grex P635, Porter Cable PIN138, and Hitachi NP 35A 23 gauge pin nailers.
Before we dive into our review and comparison of these three 23 gauge pin nailers, let’s first cover a couple basics on nail guns. As you likely know, pneumatic nail guns shoot a variety of ammunition. Framing nailers, roofing nailers and even cordless framing nailers all blast away some pretty serious fasteners. Tony Montana would approve. These nailers are commonly used for general construction. Going down in fastener size, we typically find the 15 gauge finish nailer and then the 18 gauge brad nailer. These less beefy nailers are used in finish carpentry, custom cabinetry, woodworking, etc. Finally, we enter the more esoteric world of 23 gauge pin nailers or “pinners.”
23 gauge is a niche in the pneumatic nailing world that people have usually thought of as reserved for fastening the tiniest pieces of wood. They’re super popular with the model railroad people, in case you roll with that crowd.
Many people who start using a 23 gauge pin nailer are finding the tool to be surprising more useful than expected. 23 gauge nails leave almost no visible signs of the fastener, and, in the majority of cases, they require no filling of nail holes. Pin nails are also the least likely fastener to split the material you’re working with (as you’ll see in our matchstick tests). The 23 gauge pin nailer can also be indispensable for holding material together while glue sets up, sometimes serving as a clamp for otherwise un-clampable material. Pinners are rarely used to intimidate intruders or kill off rival gang members though, so keep that in mind the next time your palace gets raided. If you’re looking for intimidation, the 23 gauge should not be your
weapon tool of choice.
One of my first tests for the pinners was to fasten some interior window trim. I was surprised at how well the 23 gauge pinners performed, easily attaching stained wood stops around some double hung windows I’ve be replacing. I honestly expected I’d be able to just yank the trim off with a slight tug, or that the trim would wiggle loose from use of the windows. Instead, I found the 23 gauge nails are deceptively strong, especially in some of the longer lengths they’re available in now (all three of the pin nailers we tested max out at 1- 3/8″). I also utilized a technique of driving some of the pins in at opposing angles, which helps maximize holding power. Best of all, I had no issues with splitting (despite the trim’s small dimensions), and the tiny nail “heads” were so unobtrusive I didn’t bother to try and fill or finish over them. I hate filling nail holes in stained wood, so no filling is a huge bonus.
Let’s get into our experience with these three particular nailers. First off, all three nailers include plastic cases. The coolest (and most compact) case award goes to Grex, followed closely by Porter Cable. Both appeared to have put some time and energy into designing a solid and even stylish case (for those of you with case-vanity issues). Hitachi’s case certainly will protect the tool, but it was the least solid feeling case. It’s also the case Tony Montana would have been most likely to call fugly, (but keep in mind he was a very profane man). Porter Cable and Hitachi both included safety glasses in their cases, which are a must-use with any nailer. Porter Cable also includes some pin nails to get you started, a nice touch.
According to Wikipedia, “about 37,000 people every year go to emergency rooms with injuries from nail guns.” Like any tool/weapon that fires metal projectiles, even the low caliber 23 gauge nailer should be treated with the utmost respect. Keep in mind, the mafia’s favorite execution weapon used to be the .22 caliber. Unlike Scarface, make sure you follow all safety procedures when using any nailer (not shooting people with it is a good start). In addition to using eye protection, keep your fingers (and any other body parts you don’t like perforated) well away from the tip of the nail gun. I’ve seen some nails do crazy things like make a U-turn and shoot out in unexpected locations. Read the manufacturers’ safety tips and don’t wind up in that 37,000 injured stat, we need you intact and reading this web site!
All three pin nailers have an onboard hex key (for clearing jams), and at least one no-mar tip (Porter Cable included two). Grex and Porter Cable both include belt hooks which can be handy depending on your work style and quick-draw needs. In terms of jams, we didn’t have any. We did however simulate a jam, and tested out removal of the front of the nosepiece to see how the three pinners compared. All three utilize two allen bolts to hold the front plate of the nosepiece in place. Both the Porter Cable PIN138 (shown here) and the Grex P635 have slots next to a larger hole machined into the plate. This enables you to remove the nosepiece cover without having to remove the allen bolts (they can simply be loosened). The Hitachi requires the complete removal of the allen bolts, making it more likely you’ll loose the bolts in the process of clearing a jammed fastener. Porter Cable and Grex both have a superior design in the clearing of jammed nails. Given our lack of jams, this may be a minor issue.
No mar tips can be found on everything from framing nailers (for those that are delicate with their 2×4’s), on down to finish and brad nailers. These pinners are no exception. Since 23 gauge pin nailers are so precise, I went into testing these with the assumption I might prefer using them without the no mar tips. When you’re dealing with fasteners this small, knowing exactly where the pin will go is a lot more critical than when using a framing nailer.
At the STAFDA trade show last year, Hitachi showed off their NP35A with a wood display you could nail toothpicks too. That’s right, toothpicks. We took inspiration from that and decided to do some accuracy tests (with and without the no-mar tips) nailing up matchsticks. We shot a total of 36 pins (12 per nailer) into 12 different matchsticks and only missed slightly once (on the Grex without the no-mar tip). Interestingly, we found the no mar tips actually improved our confidence aiming since the tips all have lines/arrows that provide a stronger visual reference than the metal nosepiece alone. As a result, our preference was to always shoot with the no-mar tips in place. The tips positively clip onto the nosepiece of each nailer, however they’re very easy to remove and store on the tool if you prefer.
Speaking of the nosepiece, one major difference between pin nailers and larger nail guns is that most nail guns use a nosepiece-actuated safety. This means traditional pneumatic nail guns won’t fire unless the tip is depressed onto something (hopefully a piece of wood and not your leg), and the trigger is pulled. Due to the precise nature of pin nailing, a nosepiece safety just isn’t practical. As a result, all three of the nailers we tested use a secondary safety trigger you need to depress before you can pull the main trigger.
These safeties take a little getting used to. Between the three, we found the Porter Cable safety to be the most comfortable and easy to use. Its safety trigger is a bit longer and flatter than the others, making it very easy to initially depress and keep depressed during tool use. Grex was the only pinner of the three that utilized all metal construction for both the safety and main trigger. While we’re on the topic of the Grex pinner, let’s have a look at Grex’s Raymond Wong walking us through their pin nailer at STAFDA:
All three pinners offer a window in their magazines to let you quickly see when you’re running low on ammo.
Grex had the most visible window of the three, followed by Porter Cable. Hitachi’s was the least visible, but an orange bar that shows when you’re running low on pin-munition makes up for the smaller window size. The magazine design varied on all of these as well. We liked Grex’s cutaway, compact magazine which made the P635 more maneuverable in tight spaces. Porter Cable had the most visible magazine release. Hitachi’s mag was the longest, meaning it stored the most pin nails, but also was the most bulky (if you can call anything on a tool this small bulky).
We found the Grex P635 to be our favorite in terms of maneuverability. This was partly thanks to the stepped magazine design, and also partly thanks to the swivel air hose connection. For a tool that is used so precisely, we’re surprised the swivel hose connection isn’t standard on all of these.
All three pinners have exhaust ports near the hose connection. We found it hard to make a objective evaluation of how well the exhaust ports performed. If you’re used to the exhaust blast that comes off a framing nailer, you’ll find the puff of air from these pinners to be quite wispy. Porter Cable’s PIN138 has the port located on the far side of the hose connection, which puts it furthest from where your nailing is occurring. This might give the PIN138 a slight edge in terms of not disturbing your work area (which is only a concern if it’s dusty). The sexiest exhaust port definitely has to be on the Grex P635. It looks more like a piece of gold jewelry that might have hung on a thick gold chain around Scarface’s neck.
If style is important to you, we’d recommend the Flexzilla 3/8 X 25 ZillaGreen Air Hose to coordinate with the Grex P635 (we’ll be reviewing the Flexzilla hose in an upcoming article as well). The bright green of the Grex also makes it very hard to misplace.
Controlling depth on pin nailers is largely done by adjusting to the right air pressure. It’s worth playing around with air pressure settings using some comparable scrap material so you can control the depth of drive. Make sure you’re using the same length fastener you plan to use, as that will also impact how far the nail is driven into the material.
In the interests of disclosure, all three manufacturers shipped their pinners to us, however we will be returning the Grex unit per their request. Which one should you choose? If budget is your primary consideration, then the Hitachi NP35A will likely serve your purposes well. In terms of overall design, features, and ergonomics, we think Porter Cable’s PIN138 is a great pinner for the money. I found the safety mechanism to be the most comfortable of all three nailers we tested. For professional use, or if budget isn’t a limiting factor, we highly recommend the Grex P635. They’re the grand-daddy of pin nailers and we loved their solid feel and performance. Grex seemed to favor metal usage just about everywhere possible on the tool, making us far more confident in its long-term longevity. Of course, there are also many other pin nailers that we didn’t haven’t have the opportunity to review. In particular, we’ve heard good things about some Cadex Pinners.
The Hitachi 23 NP35A Gauge Micro Pin Nailer was the least expensive of the bunch at $90.
Whatever you choose, please don’t brandish it. However we do recommend introducing it to friends or coworkers with the line, “Say hello to my little friend!”
In case you’re still craving a more convincing Scarface: