Best Flooring Nailers in 2019
Installing flooring has two major factors you’ll want to take into account: it can be a real pain and oftentimes the materials are expensive enough you don’t just want to take a hammer and nails to it. That’s where framing nailers come in handy since they’ll allow you to ensure that you have exactly what’s needed to make the job easier and keep your flooring materials from getting damaged by a missed hammer or slipped nail.
The First Question: Staples or Cleats?
The first thing you’re going to need to ask yourself is if you plan on primarily using cleats, which are small nails with a T or L shape, or if you’re planning on using staples.
Staples are becoming more common these days, and for good reason. They provide a great hold since you’re driving two points directly into the flooring, but this hold is really only better in a best case, humidity controlled scenario.
What you have to remember about hardwood flooring is that it will expand and contract with both humidity and heat. This initial hold can often weaken over time. Even worse, it can break the tongue of your boards with extreme fluctuations.
Staples are also a poor choice for exotic woods. These high-end woods tend to be quite expensive… and brittle. Their brittle nature means that the double hold of staples can damage them as time goes on and they can cost three to four times to replace per plank when compared to less expensive options.
For the most part, we recommend cleats. In the case of softer engineered woods, however, staples can still be a good option. We just think that the long-term hold of cleats ends up being much better than staples and the risk of damage to the flooring is too high to justify the initial tighter hold.
Our favorites will let you use whatever you want, however, which is always the best option for professionals who may need to install more than one type of flooring regularly.
If you’re on the fence about what to use in the final portion of the job, then you may want to check with the manufacturer of the flooring you’re using to see what they recommend.
One last point: the choice of T or L cleats makes absolutely no difference. In the end, they’ll hold in an identical way and you’re most likely to just end up using whichever one fits in your nailer and is available.
Manual vs. Pneumatic Flooring Nailers
There are two main types of flooring nailers.
Pneumatic nailers require an air compressor but do most of the work for you. Since air drives the cleat or staple you don’t have a whole lot to worry about when it comes to physical labor. Ergonomics thus becomes one of the most important factors provided that you go with a tool which will last through the job you’re currently doing.
The only real problem with them comes from requiring a compressor to get the job done.
Manual nailers, on the other hand, place the nail where it needs to go, you crack the piece with a mallet or hammer, and it sets the nail exactly where you need to go. It’s definitely a step up from using a center-punch and hammer but you’ll still want to make sure you’re in good enough shape to use one before you commit.
There are also a few electric models out there, but they can be hard to trust since they often don’t give quite the same amount of power and you may have just spent a bunch of money on a fancy nail setter and still have to go over each individual nail manually after you’re done.
We opted to only review pneumatic nailers for this guide, since manual ones are rarely in operation anymore. While they used to be a cost-saving factor, one quick look at a commonly recommended manual floor nailer and you’ll see where we’re coming from.
Other Factors in Our Selection
When it came time to test our flooring nailers, we had the subflooring ready in an old house. We decided to drag them out and test them just to see what we could do. All of our tests were done with ¾” domestic oak flooring, so you may want to keep that in mind when going through our reviews.
We did test with some engineered wood and a few planks of cherrywood afterwards, but for the most part, the serious testing came during the room.
As we worked with them we learned a few things:
- Pneumatics are much faster and easier to use. Just make sure that you have hearing protection since you’re likely indoors with a compressor.
- Manual models take a lot more work, but for someone who’s in shape and already engaged in DIY, it’s not going to be an overly exhausting task unless you’re planning on doing a whole home in a single weekend.
- Durability wasn’t really a factor with any of the ones we tested out. If you go away from our list be careful, especially with manual models, but in the short testing we did there were no issues.
- Consistency is a key factor. That means a magazine which feeds well and a depth adjustment that stays at the right depth throughout the job.
- Staples varied much more than cleats in their overall quality. We found this a bit disconcerting as we had gone with cheap versions of both for testing.
Due to their simple nature, there really isn’t much to take into account other than the handle, depth settings, and overall build-quality of your flooring nailer. There are some extremely minor quality of life features which we’ll note as we go over them in just a bit but honestly you’ll be well served with any tool which doesn’t fall apart during the job.
One thing: many of our favorites were capable of using both cleats and staples. Because of this, we ended up only doing this article on nailers at the moment although most of our picks were capable of using both.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at how our tested products performed.
Our 6 Top Flooring NailersAll of the ones which we selected ended up being rather robust tools. We’ll note which ones are best for professionals, but we couldn’t see any of these breaking down doing only a couple of homes. In the end, as far as we’re concerned, they’re all winners. Especially overdoing things the old fashioned way.
Best Overall Flooring Nailer/Stapler
NuMax SFL618 3-in-1 Pneumatic Flooring Stapler/Nailer
The first thing we noticed about the NuMax SFL618 was that we could load pretty much anything into it and have it fire off reliably. That’s a big bonus for professionals, although it wasn’t quite as robust as the Bostitch or DeWalt models which we tested out.
It also came in at a great price. Remember to factor in the cost of the compressor if you don’t already own one when you’re picking it up. We’ll recommend a good compressor at the end of these reviews.
Our favorite part about this one is undoubtedly its consistency, however. We didn’t experience any jams and as long as we were running a constant air pressure there was nothing stopping us from repeatedly hitting the tongue and watching things go in nice and smooth.
The main problem we found was with the handle. It seemed to want to slip after the first twenty or so nails, but a bit of duct tape wrapped around it held it in place nice and tight for the rest of our testing. We’d also strongly recommend applying oil between magazines, which may have been why we didn’t have any issues with jamming.
Best for Exotic Wooden Flooring
Freeman PF18GLCN 18-Gauge Cleat Flooring Nailer
When we saw the price tag on this one we were a bit floored, but we also wanted to make sure that we had something which was specialized for more exotic woods to offer you. The expense is well worth it for those who are putting down bamboo, teak, or cherry wood. You’ll end up spending more replacing broken planks than you would if you decide to use something cheap.
This one only drives L cleats, so keep that in mind when you’re loading up for your project. On the other hand, when we tested on the cherry wood flooring we had around it performed quite admirably. Nothing broke and they stayed well fastened to the thick plywood which we used as an approximation of the subflooring.
Our favorite feature was how light of a touch was needed on the trigger. While some of the pneumatic models we tested still needed a firm strike, the fiberglass mallet which came with this one went straight in with no issues.
Apart from the expense, there’s really not a lot wrong with it for its intended purpose. It drives 18 gauge L cleats cleanly and accurately, and it even came with three different base plates for different sizes of planks rather than the usual one or two.
Best Professional Flooring Nailer
DEWALT DWFP12569 2-N-1 Flooring Tool
Anytime we talk about tools, it’s likely that DeWalt is going to show up. While they may not do anything the best they do just about everything great. Their tools also have a reputation for toughness, which makes them perfect for everyday use in a professional capacity.
That’s why we weren’t surprised when it impressed in field use. In addition to being able to be used with both staples and L-cleats, it was undoubtedly the toughest of the pneumatic models which we ran through our testing process.
It’s a relatively simple device, with less quality-of-life features than could be found in more specialized models like the Freeman products we reviewed, but that actually ends up working out pretty well. In the end, it will be a lot more durable and last for longer than most of those that made our list.
It is rather expensive for someone who only plans on doing a room or two in their home and letting it collect dust in the garage, but overall it still made the list. We just recommend going with our favorite for those who are only looking to do their own floors.
Best 3-in-1 for Professionals
Freeman PFL618BR 3-in-1 Pneumatic Flooring Nailer
3-in-1 magazines offer a lot more options than you get with most nailers. That’s a pretty awesome deal, but we found this one was probably too expensive for the average household’s usage. If you’re a professional who works with others and never wants to get turned down for cleats or staples it’s a great option though.
If we’re being honest here, Freeman seems to make some of the best floor nailers on the planet. That’s why you’re going to keep seeing their name come up as this article goes on. We’re not sure if they’re quite as tough as a DeWalt or Bostitch, but they’re reliable and tend to come in specialized configurations.
The entire thing is constructed of high-grade aluminum with a steel base plate. We did find one flaw: the steel used in the base plate is a bit softer than we’d have personally used and it scratched up while we were doing some repeated tests with the engineered wood used.
On the other hand, it still comes in at quite a bit less than the DeWalt we reviewed. It also had a bit more recoil than we expected, so make sure to hold it tight before you try ramping the air up too much.
Best Cleat Driver
DEWALT DCN680B 20V Max XR
Bostitch is basically royalty when it comes to any kind of nailer, and their high-end MIIIFN is probably the best L-shaped driver we tested. It’s high-quality, it can take a hit, and it required the lightest touch of all of the flooring nailers we tested.
It’s hard to compare the build-quality on this one to anything but the DeWalt option which we tried. While all of the ones we tested were fairly rugged, the extra care that’s gone into this one is pretty impressive. It’s also prohibitively expensive for the average DIYer and even professionals might have some trouble justifying the cost.
This is one of those tools which you may want to consider just renting if you don’t have a need for it on a daily basis. You won’t regret it if you do, however, since Bostitch is still the industry standard. It’s also easily repaired due to only having a few moving parts.
Oddly, it did have the least comfortable handle out of those we tested. On the other hand, we’re not quite sure how long the usual foam-covers would actually last in the field and the hardened rubber sitting atop this model might be just the thing for a professional.
Most Ergonomic Floor Nailer
Freeman PDX50C 3-in-1 Flooring Cleat Nailer
If you’ve got a bad back or knees, but still insist on using a flooring nailer yourself, then you may want to take a closer look at the PDX50C. It was the lightest and best “feeling” of the models we tried.
It’s built up to the standard of the other Freeman models which we reviewed but has a taller handle and is more lightweight, making it easier to move around all day. Flooring can be hard work, but if you’re willing to make sure you have the right tools then you’ll be good to go.
Like all of the Freeman floor nailers we took a look at, this one is backed by a 7-year limited warranty. That’ll keep you protected in the case of a failure on the part of the manufacturers. It’s really the skeletonized frame that we loved the most though.
By skeletonizing the high-grade aluminum frame they’ve successfully created one of the lightest floor nailers on the market. The handle also makes it easier to push it down and keep things rolling along since the recoil can cause problems if you’re not firm.
There is one bigger issue: there are two “steps” on the front of the tool. This caused us to accidentally fire a nail into the face of an oak board. If you’re careful and aware of the issue you should be able to avoid this, however.
Using Your Flooring Nailer
Flooring nailers are fairly uncomplicated tools. What can be a bit complicated is using them without making any errors.
As we noted in the introduction to this guide: staples and cleats have slightly different uses. We’re still big fans of cleats for the most part, but staples definitely have their uses. Always contact your supplier if you’re not sure which is best for the wood you’re using.
The biggest mistake which most new DIYers will make is hitting the wrong side of the boards. You’ll have to make sure that you drive into the tongue side of the board instead of the grooved side.
The other big problem we had with our novice tester during our testing was that they didn’t strike firmly enough. Pneumatic nailers, like the ones we reviewed, still rely on some of the force being initially generated by the included mally. You don’t need to try and hammer it, but you will have to give it a good whack.
You’re also going to need a finish nailer in order to do the sides of the room, so keep that in mind when you’re investing in your flooring nailer.
Flooring Nailer FAQ
So now we’re here, we’ve gathered some of the most common questions from across the web in order to answer them for you. Make sure you read all the way through if you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for just yet.
Q: How do I determine what length of cleats or staples to use?
A: For the most part, you can simply add an inch to the thickness of the boards. This assumes, of course, that you have a subfloor or have laid down plywood which is at least ¾” thick.
Q: Can I use a flooring nailer directly over a concrete slab?
A: You can, but it will require significantly more work on your part. You’ll need to install some sort of subflooring. Most people without serious DIY skills would be better served gluing their boards directly to the vapor guard placed on top of the concrete. If you do choose to install your own subfloor then make sure that it’s at least ¾” thick and has a vapor guard of some sort placed over it.
Q: What kind of compressor do I need for a flooring nailer?
A: We recommend a cheap, 2-3 gallon compressor. Most people will be hard pressed to “outrun” a compressor in this size range, and it will run less than a 1 gallon which some people recommend. Something wheeled is also preferred. We’d recommend the Campbell Hausfeld FP209499AV for those who aren’t planning on painting or performing other air intensive tasks in the future.
Q: How do I find the best cleats? What about staples?
A: Most cleats are fairly simple affairs. If you’re really concerned then buy a name brand like Bostitch which is known for their high-quality brads, nails, staples, and the like. Staples usually run about half the cost of cleats, making them tempting for many people on a tight budget. There is a catch there never use cheap staples. They already don’t hold as well as cleats in the long run.
Q: How far apart do I place cleats or staples when installing flooring?
A: Every six to ten inches, depending on the width of the board. For boards which are significantly wider than average, you may even want to place them every four inches. If you’re in doubt call the supplier of your flooring.
Q: Where do you recommend learning how to install hardwood flooring?
A: Unless we choose to write a guide on it in the future, we recommend this video on YouTube to get you on the right track. It’s a very complete guide to the whole process and focuses on using a floor nailer.
Q: Do I need any other tools to install a hardwood floor?
A: In addition to your nailer you’re going to need to make sure that you have the following: a non-marking mallet, a finish nailer, and the cleats and staples you’ll need. All of the ones which we reviewed came with a mallet suitable for the task. A simple flooring kit should get you anything else you may need other than the nailers.
Q: What should I do if a cleat or staple doesn’t sink?
A: Carefully remove it from the wood. A pair of needle nose pliers is great for this, although in harder woods you may need to use a pry bar or the back of a claw hammer. In any case, try to pull as straight as possible to avoid damage.
Q: How many cleats or staples do I need?
A: That’s actually almost impossible to tell you without seeing the wood you’re using. For instance, random-sized flooring will still require at least two nails per board even if it’s only 4” long, but longer flooring requires less. It also depends on the width. You’ll also need to cut them to make them fit the room in most cases. We’d say go with more than you think you’ll need by about 15% just in case.
Make Your Next Floor Job Easier
Your next flooring job doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Investing in the best flooring nailer you can find is the best way to make the tedious job of flooring much easier. Remember to get your compressor as well, so that you can get going as soon as you can.
If the purpose of tools are to make our lives easier, then a flooring nailer is a prime example. Pick yours up today and get ready for your next project.