One of many modern variations on age-old tools, nail guns are simplified versions of the hammer and nail system that has been in use for centuries. Nail guns are used in a variety of circumstances, ranging from framing houses to installing underlayment and nailing wood trim or other types of finish material. Any type of nail gun can be used with 2-by-4 material, with the only variation being the type of installation performed, which changes if you need a finish nailer or a rough-in nailer.
Framing nailers are specifically designed to be used with framing or roughing-in a house. They shoot longer nails, typically 3 inches, into the 2-by-4 material when framing a house. Framing is the internal structure that makes up the skeleton of a home, and it is not meant to be pretty or finished. These are usually stick type nail guns, which means the nails are loaded into a clip that looks like a clip for a hand gun.
Generally sold in coil format, which means the nails are loaded into a chamber on the nail gun in a coil, roofing nailers use shorter nails than framing nail guns. Usually these nails are about 1-1/2 inches in length and are most commonly used to install roof shingles, siding, underlayment for ceramic tile and natural stone or sheets of veneer on top of 2-by-4 material. These are not framing nails and are not meant to be used in load-bearing situations.
Similar to framing nail guns, finish nailers use a stick format, but rather than using large, rough nails, finish nailers are used in trim work. Trim work is any type of trim that is installed on top of the 2-by-4 material, ranging from baseboards to trim around windows, doors and ceilings. The nails are small, generally only around an inch in length, and have a very small dimension, making them invisible after they are sunk into the wood past the surface of the trim.
Pneumatic Versus Electric
Whether you use a pneumatic nail gun or an electric model depends on the job. Finish projects can rely on electronic power, either from a battery or an outlet, but for framing and for using roofing nailers you should use a pneumatic gun because it provides far more pressure. Trying to use an electric nail gun with rough-in framing and installing underlayment can lead to frustration, as the electric-powered nail guns usually lack sufficient power to continually drive the nails into the 2-by-4s with enough force. Instead, electric models are best reserved for finish situations.