Grex, Porter Cable and Hitachi 23 Gauge Pinners – Say Hello To My Little Friends

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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.

porter cable hitachi and grex 23 gauge pin nailers
Say hello to my little friends!

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.

23 gauage pin nailers get the “least likely to split any kind of wood award”, including these matchsticks

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.

23 gauge pinner cases
Cases for your little friends

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!

porter cable PIN138 nosepiece
The easily removable nosepiece of the Porter Cable PIN138

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.

hitachi np 35a
Hitachi NP 35A sporting its orange no-mar tip

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.

23 gauge matchstick test
The grueling HomeFixated matchstick test

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.

PIN138 safety
The trigger and safety trigger on the Porter Cable PIN138 was our favorite for ergonomics

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 p635 pin nail window
Grex had the widest “pinmunition” window

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).

Grex swivel air hose connection

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.

For the color-coordinate pinner – the Grex P635 and Flexzilla air hose

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 Grex P635 23 Gauge Headless Pinner is available at right around $200 via our sponsor Rockler. The 1-3/4″ P645 and 2″ P650 are also available at $278 and $308 respectively on Amazon.

The Porter Cable PIN138 23 Gauge Pin Nailer is available at a reasonable $137 on Amazon or around $149 via our sponsor Rockler.

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:

Photo of author

About Marc Lyman

Marc grew up under a brave single mom who "encouraged" home improvement on the family home. Early toddler gifts included a tool set, and even a cordless Bosch drill when cordless drills first came out. In grade school (give or take a few years), Marc's mom said, "We need to cut down some trees. . . . here's a chainsaw." A father figure also involved Marc in many home improvement projects, including a summer of home remodeling in Palo Alto, CA. Toss in some Obsessive Compulsive personality traits researching everything home improvement related. The end result: a genetically pre-disposed, socially sculpted home improvement machine! For his complete profile, please visit our About page. Really, it's worth it.

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15 thoughts on “Grex, Porter Cable and Hitachi 23 Gauge Pinners – Say Hello To My Little Friends”

  1. I work in the glazing trade and use a senco pinner for wood stops on windows. It works great and hasn’t failed to securely hold any size piece. The hole left is so small that touch up paint is enough to fill and cover them up. Also a warning, don’t use cheap nails like from harbor freight. They aren’t made with consistency and can jam the gun due to being curved or warped. Using these are the only time my gun jammed and when I went back to name brand I never had another problem since.

    • Thanks for the feedback and nail quality tip Morgan! Generally, my rule of thumb is if the accessory or tool requires precision, Harbor Freight is probably not the best option. 🙂

  2. As mentioned, I bought the Porter Cable. It works very well, and so far has no trouble sinking the pins into hardwood. I especially like the oiless operation. My Hitachi 18g brad nailer (an excellent tool) requires oil, which means you have to be careful to direct the exhaust stream away from anything that might stain.

    As for 23 g, pins in general, I’m disappointed. After reading many articles, I hoped that by driving pins at opposing angles, the pins would be secure enough to hold moldings and such. They aren’t. I suppose it all depends on your idea of how securely they need to be fastened, but the pins IMO are not close to adequate until you get a lot of them in, and with delicate or detailed molding you can and do see the marks.. I would use pins with glue, but not alone. I was also expecting, as mentioned above, the pins to be, as many articles claim, nearly invisible. I’ve only used my pinner on red oak, but the pins were far from invisible.

    I suppose overall the 23g pinner is useful, but don’t believe that 23g pins are going to be an invisible means of securely fastening trim by themselves.. If it sounds too good to be true… be sure to use some glue!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Andy! Glad the Porter Cable pinner has mostly served you well. Your point on oil-less operation is a good one. And there’s definitely a reason why people don’t use these to fasten heavier material. . . .as you pointed out they can only secure so much. I have used them on very small window trim and the trim has stayed in place securely for quite a while now. As to lack of visibility, I guess it’s all relative. Compared to any other pneumatic nailer I’ve used, I consider the 23 gauge pins to be very unobtrusive. Part of that depends on the color of the wood too. I have some really dark stained wood, and the silver of the pin is noticeable, but far less so than other larger gauge nailers in my opinion. The 23 gauge pinner isn’t for everything/everyone, but for select detail work I think they’re fantastic. Thanks again for your feedback!

  3. Great article, very informative and has given me a little extra insight on tools to buy. Some I didn’t even know of!

  4. Like Ethan, i came here looking for reviews detailing how well these three stack up when driving pins into various woods. I’ve read that some of them – porter cable included have a hard time fully pinning in hardwoods when using the longer pins – if you consider 1 3/8 ” long. This detail is more important to me than just about everything else other than reliability. Still looking but leaning towards my first ever Hitachi.

    • Hi Peter and Andy. Thanks for your comments, and sorry the review didn’t address your particular concerns. We no longer have all those pinners on-hand so retesting isn’t currently an option. How much pressure you dial-in on your compressor will effect the depth of drive on most pinners too, so factor that in if you do any testing yourself. From our experience with the pinners we reviewed, we didn’t run into issues with the pin not driving fully, but then we also didn’t test 2″ pins into hardwoods (as you pointed out). My guess is they can handle it (but I obviously can’t say for sure without actually having tried it). Stay tuned and maybe someone who has worked directly with that length of fastener on hardwoods specifically will chime in at some point. Thanks again for both your comments.

      • Thanks for your reply, Marc. I’ve found that my other nailers are very sensitive to air pressure – especialy my Senco framing nailer – so I’m not surprised that the pinners behave similarly. It can get to be a problem with the framer when driving a lot of nails quickly on a smallish compressor, as the line pressure can sag and leave the longer nails a bit proud of the surface. But I would think that the nature of pin guns and pinning would cause the line pressure to sag far less. With all my nailers, I tend to run them at the max recommended pressure to try to avoid or at least minimize the problem..

        I decided to give the Porter Cable 1-3/8 a try, since I found it online for a very attractive price. As soon as it gets here, I’ll test it out and report back as to how well it sinks the 1-3/8 pins in hardwoods.Hopefully owners of the other brands will chime in with their results as well.

  5. I was hoping to read about how well the three pinners tested will sink the longest pins into very hard woods. Because these are often used for securing finished trim, it’s a potential serious problem when a pin ends up slightly proud of the surface. While you mentioned the depth adjustment, you didn’t comment on how well the three do in sinking the longest pins in very hard material.

  6. This is a really comprehensive review! Bravo!

    I’ve used a pin nailer for trim work around some kitchen cabinets, bathroom cabinets and transition strips on my hardwood floors. I was really amazed at how well they hold, even with foot traffic.

    My only experience has been with a Campbell Hausfeld pin nailer. I don’t use it extensively but it’s always worked well- consistent drive, undetectable nail hole and no jams. It’s a no frills nailer but that’s all I need.

  7. Hey Marc,
    Nice rundown on some good pin nailers! I posted a pretty similar response on another tool blog that shall remain nameless but it definitely applies here as well. I was recently in the market for a 23 gauge pinner for some stain grade trim work and did a lot of research on my options. I considered the Cadex and the larger Grex gun. While a 2″ 23g pin seemed almost crazy, I’ve never regretted going with the tools that give me more flexibility. I wanted something with dry fire lockout (a window on the left side of the gun doesn’t do much good when you’re left handed). But the good options for a 2″ pinner out there were pretty limited, the high end Cadex and Grex pinners seemed to be the only options. And while Cadex had a great reputation for quality their customer service was reportedly pretty bad. The Grex pinner seemed good but expensive and unable to fire slight head brads. My research brought me around to this Fasco pinner. The fit and finish is excellent, machining is top notch, it hasn’t failed to sink a pin yet, and on Amazon it’s quite a bit less expensive than the competition. I’ve been really really impressed with it. It has all the features of the Grex (dryfire lockout, dryfire override, rear exhaust, etc..) AND it can fire slight head brads (the Amazon listing calls both the Cadex and the Fasco headless pinners but if you look at their manuals they both give specs for slight head brads). The only feature the Fasco doesn’t have vs. the Cadex is the built in blow gun. My only complaint is that the Fasco’s manual is pretty bad, but it functions like most other 23g pinners on the market so it’s easy enough to figure out. The only weird thing that too me a little while to figure out was the dry-fire lock-out override (say that 5 times fast) on the side of the gun. The blow molded case is OK, but the pinner is awesome. Fasco also makes a 1-3/8″ pinner that looks pretty sweet too. P.S. Nice photoshop work on that image at the top there. 😉

    • Hey Ethan! Wow, a very thorough commentary! I’m not familiar with Fasco, so thanks for bringing it to everyone’s attention. Here’s a link to the Fasco 23 Gauge Pinner on Amazon for anyone wanting to check it out. Great info Ethan, thanks again for sharing your 23 gauge pinner research and experience, much appreciated!


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