Cool Tools: Electric Nail Gun

Why they are awesome

Basically, a nail gun will make nailing faster and better looking.

  • Saves a lot of time: is quicker and more precise than a hammer.
  • Won't leave ugly marks like a hammer can.
  • Will automatically sink your nail making it fast and easy to hide.
When purchasing a nail gun for DIY projects and hobbies, you have a lot to choose from: electric, cordless, and pneumatic.

I’ll look at pneumatic nail guns another time… this post will be about the electric nail gun.


Why electric?

Because they are the simplest, working with your household electricity, and I just got one for my birthday  :)  

Electric nail guns aren’t as powerful as pneumatic, but they are very convenient and affordable.  They are also quieter and don’t require oiling, two additional pros in my opinion.

Finally, cordless battery-operated nail guns are really expensive but I have heard that they are more powerful than the corded variety (which is a surprise).   
Do you use a cordless nail gun?  Does it work for you?

I’m going to focus on the electric nail guns that use brad and finish nails.  These usually only work with nails up to 1-1/4 inch long.  These electric nail guns are for light DIY.

In addition to driving thin nails deep where they can be easily hidden, these kind of nail guns have a padded contact foot that leaves no marks behind on the surface being nailed.

They are also usually smaller than other kinds of nail guns allowing them to be easily used in tight spots.

An electric nail gun is useful for
  • installing trim and molding
  • furniture building, cabinetry and making bookshelves.


Current Matters

Electrical power (current) is the key to the electric nail gun, and reviews often (really often) complain about underpowered guns, nails not going in all the way, and the gun quitting on them.  

Sometimes this is because the electric nail gun really isn’t as strong as you need (for example, MDF is very dense and you may not be able to nail through two sheets of MDF with an electric nail gun).  The higher amperage rating of the gun, the stronger it is.

Other times, it is because the user is not providing enough power to the tool…

AmperageAvoid using an extension cord, or use a heavy-duty (12 gauge) cord.  
Super simplified, amperage is the quantity of electricity an appliance uses.  It is important to provide the nail gun with the amperes it needs.  Household current will be strong enough to power your nail gun, but not if you use an extension cord that isn’t rated for the tool you are using.  The length of the cord matters too, since the current weakens over distance.  You must read this if you use power tools and extension cords (and who doesn’t?), it will change your life.

There is one more important factor…

Force.  The weight and strength you put behind the nail gun.
I laid my bookcases on the floor and placed my body weight directly over the gun to drive the nails entirely into the bookcase.  The more force (weight and strength) you can put behind the gun will  affect how deeply you can drive the nail.


Purchasing ($30-$120)

When buying any kind of nail gun, there are many important features to consider.

Power: Check the amperage requirement of the gun before you buy.  This is the best indicator of how strong the gun is, how deep it will be able to drive nails, and the hardness of the materials it will be able to handle.  My Arrow ET200 is 14 amps and handles soft and hardwoods very well, and even manages MDF well (provided I’m putting serious weight behind the gun).

Power Cord Length:  Because the electric nail gun won’t work as well attached to an extension cord, the length of the power cord is important.  Mine is 6 feet long, and I think it is too short.  10 feet would be much better.

Comfort: Get the lightest gun that still has the power you need.  Hold it in your hand.  If you’re like me and have small hands, this will be even more important.  Many nail guns are designed for men’s larger hands.

Nail Sizes:  You’ll get more use out of a gun that works with many different nail sizes.

Loading: Nail guns will use either strips of nails or a continuous coil of nails.  Strips are sometimes higher capacity, while coils will be able to handle nails with large heads.

Safety:  Most nail guns now come with sophisticated safety features.  Even so, they are one of the most dangerous power tools (tied with table saws).
  • dual-contact mechanism to prevent accidental firing
  • sequential firing mechanism is even safer, requiring the trigger be released before the gun is enabled to fire again
Extra features to look for are:
  • ability to adjust the depth that the nail is placed
  • ease of taking apart gun to remove a jammed nail

Safety Tips

  • always wear safety glasses and ear protection
  • unplug the gun before loading nails or removing nail jams
  • be certain that the nail you fire will not go all the way through the wood or wall and hurt you or someone standing on the other side
  • be careful that the gun (if it’s a very powerful one) won’t kickback and smack you in the face
  • hold the gun firmly and steadily, a slip could result in injury
  • use the proper nail for your gun and do not use rusty nails
  • don’t nail into the wall where there is electrical wiring
  • Keep out of reach of Children

Tips and Tricks and other Resources

Some nails are coated (labeled CC) with an adhesive that melts from the force of the nailer, making it easier to drive into the wood and then making the joint that much stronger.

The general rule – the nail should be 3x the thickness of the material you are nailing.  Choose the right brad nails for your projectThe differences between brad and finish nails.

Angling nails:  line up the gun with the angle you want the nail to take (point slightly toward the side that won’t be seen, so if the nail does pop through it won’t be seen).

Nail that has popped through:  Cut the protruding nail off with wire snips and use a nail set to hide the rest.

Avoid splitting:  with finish nails (15 or 16 gauge), keep nails 2 inches away from edges.  With brad nails (18 gauge), you can put nails as close as 1/2” from the end and 1/8” from the edge or just
use brad nails (the thinner nails) to finish near corners, because they are much less likely to split the wood than a finish nail.

Nails that stick out: even with the best nail guns, some nails won’t be driven all the way in.  If it stick out more than 1/4” cut it off with side-cutting pliers.  Otherwise use a hammer and nailset to hammer it the rest of the way in.

I know many of you love your nail guns… which nail gun do you have?

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CSI Project Top 10: Pottery Barn Inspired

Thank you CSI Project for choosing my PB Armillary KnockOff as one of the top 10 Pottery Barn-inspired projects!

To read the tutorial for making this easy and super cheap armillary, visit my guest post at Someday Crafts!

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Particle Board, Pros and Cons

Particle board (also called chipboard in some countries) is made from wood particles and glues much the same way MDF is.
It is weaker than solid wood and plywood and is primarily used when cost is the biggest factor as it is the cheapest composite wood product.

Though it is denser (and heaver) than solid wood, it is much lighter than MDF.

Particle board can be painted to match your current decor.  It is also very easy to find already coated in a melamine (a thin layer of plastic) or veneer.


Low cost, sheet form (large pieces are easy for tabletops for example), and easy to apply melamine overlay to.
There is an advantage over solid wood (when taking cost into account) when used in sidewalls for supporting countertops, for example.

Made from recycled timber or wood waste.


Weaker than solid wood.  
Needs special fasteners (confirmat screws).

Veneer or melamine coating can chip when cutting.  Scoring with a utility knife or covering the cut line with masking tape can help.

Damage is difficult to repair, and replacement will be necessary.  Damage usually occurs when the furniture is moved.

Very susceptible to moisture and should not be used outdoors or in moist environments.  Make sure any panels you buy are well-sealed.

Like MDF and plywood, particle board also contains formaldehyde.  Work with it outside or inside with a good dust collection system.

I’ve got some simple and cheap PB shelves in my garage (where no one will really see them), and they work just fine.

Most people hate particle board, how do you feel about it?

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Plywood: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

What It Is

Plywood is a type of manufactured wood made from thin layers (plies) of wood glued together. 
The veneer is the thin surface covering the face of the plywood.

There are many types of plywood, made from tropical woods, softwood (spruce-pine-fir also called SPF), and hardwood.

Softwood Plywood is graded A to D, A being the best.  Finally, the letter X means the plywood is made with scrap wood inside, it does not mean the plywood is exterior grade.  Softwood plywood is generally for home construction and not for furniture.


Hardwood Plywood

In contrast, Hardwood Plywood is a good option for furniture, and is graded with letters edge stamped (not face stamped).  The letter is the best side (usually A-C) and a number refers to the worst side (1 is best) The best hardwood plywood is sometimes called furniture-grade.  If you are planning to stain the veneer instead of paint, buy furniture (or A) grade plywood.

It is good for use in building cabinets, shelves, drawers and desks.  But unless you plan to trim your project with wood or veneer edging, it isn’t the best in applications where you’ll see the edge, unless you like that plywood layered look.

Hardwood plywood comes in 4 varieties:
  Poplar plywood (poplar all the way through)
  MDF core is hardwood veneer over an MDF center
  Veneer Core (VC), which is poplar plywood with a higher-cost hardwood veneer
  and marine hardwood plywood which is crazy expensive and only really necessary if you are building a boat…

The Good

Doesn’t weigh as much.

Has a nice wood face that stains nicely if you want a natural wood look. 

Plywood is much stronger than MDF, keep this in mind if you are building furniture that will take a heavy load (bed, bookshelf,…)

Shelves sag less than MDF

Has less discoloration, twisting, breaking and shrinking than dimensional lumber and is stronger than dimensional lumber (plain ‘ol wood lumber).

The Bad

Compared with MDF, plywood is much more variable in its quality.  Panels are rarely perfectly flat, can have warps and voids (open spaces in the plies).  The warps in plywood are one of the biggest problems with it.  Choose your sheet carefully, and work with it quickly – if you have it sit around awhile it may warp on you before you get to finish your project.

Just like MDF, plywood is usually made with formaldehyde, just not as much.

Costs more than MDF, but price varies considerably with quality.  With plywood, it pays off to buy better quality.

Is susceptible to water damage.

VC weighs less and is stronger, but MDF core has no voids and is consistent and smooth.  Oftentimes, MDF core provides the benefits of both MDF and hardwood plywood such as strength and consistency and the cheaper price.

The Ugly

Cheap plywood is ugly.  Sometimes it will be sold with the outer veneer partially sanded through showing the ugly interior plies.  Plywood comes pre-sanded, so do not sand it more.  If the plywood is dirty, clean it with denatured alcohol, but do not sand it.  If it is scratched, apply water, but do not sand it.  If the plywood panel looks like it needs sanding, buy a different panel, but do not sand it.  OK, if you have to sand, use a 320 grit paper on a block and sand by hand.  Sanding to even out a warped or non-flat sheet will only end in disaster.  If you do sand through the veneer, you can faux-finish the plywood.

The edges of plywood are layered, a striped look I particularly hate.  There are two fixes for this:

In my opinion, when plywood furniture is built with a judicious blend of solid wood parts and edging, it can be very lovely. 


I have it on authority that Baltic Birch is the best plywood you can buy… even so…

When you buy plywood, lay it on the ground and if it is twisted or doesn’t lie flat, don’t buy it.

Plywood 1/4” thick and thicker is available in 5 or more plies, the greater number the plies, the better the plywood.

Home Depot and Lowes don’t really have the high-end plywoods, and I’ve heard that their stuff can fall apart.  If you have the money for really good plywood, buy it from a lumber yard.

Have you built anything out of plywood?  What was your experience?

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Pros and Cons of MDF

Among cabinet-makers and woodworkers, the debate over using fibreboard (MDF), particle board, plywood and solid wood is fierce!  Since I'm not an expert I can only debate the pros and cons but can't tell you which is best (if there is such a thing).

All these products come in varying grades that impact the quality of the product and what it should or could be used for.

Fibreboard comes in low, medium and high density.  The most common for building is the medium density.

Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF)

I’m using MDF to build my built-in bookcases.  So far it’s working out well.  Even so, I might have used more expensive material if I could have afforded it.

MDF comes in sheets and is made of hard and softwood residuals (like sawdust) and glues pressed together to form a  panel more dense than plywood or particle board.  It can be used similarly to plywood in building cabinets, shelves, and other furniture.
These 4x8 foot sheets of MDF are actually 49 x 97 inches.

In an effort to be more environmentally conscious, MDF manufacturers are beginning to use less toxic glues and renewable materials such as recycled paper, bamboo, and  straw.

Here is a list of the pros and cons of working with MDF.  The decision of what material you use when building is yours and must factor in what you can afford, what you are building and the quality/grade of the materials available.


  • Cheaper(3/4" MDF is ~$32 a sheet, hardwood plywood is ~ $49) 

  • Straighter, with fewer warps and uniform throughout
  • Comes in a wide variety of thicknesses (1/4", 1/2", 5/8", 3/4", 1") 

  • Easier for beginners because it cuts and sands very easily.  It also takes paint  and holds screws well 

  • Edges can be exposed (they do not require edge banding like plywood does) 

  • Easy to apply veneers to  

  • BendyMDF can be formed into curved shapes


  • It’s about 3 times heavier than plywood.
    Solutions:  Have the sheet cut at the hardware store.  Get help moving or working with it.  Buy a panel handler, lift and accessories for you saw. 

  • Shelves sag more than hardwood plywood does.
      Solution: edge the front and back of the shelf with hardwood trim.

  • MDF has a tendency to “blow out” or split.

    • Predrill the entire length of your screw. 
    • Avoid fastening too close the edge (1.5” away is best).  
    • Use Confirmat screws.  These are screws specially designed for use with MDF.  I’m using these to build my bookcases, and they are working very well – I like them.  They require a special stepped drill bit, and a kit with screws and drill bit can be purchased from McFeelys.  
    • Use European style hinges with a cup in the door allowing the screws to hold the MDF without worry of fatigue.
Confirmat screw and stepped drill bit

  • Formaldehyde

    All pressed wood products contain a small amount of formaldehyde used in the adhesive.  Here in California, strict regulations control the amount of formaldehyde allowed in MDF, PB and hardwood plywood.  And by 2012, these limits will be the strictest in the world.  I personally do not worry much about using MDF, but I do welcome the stricter regulations that will lower the amount of formaldehyde that these products contain.
    Some people are more sensitive to formaldehyde off-gassing and should perhaps avoid it. 
    • painting the MDF will reduce the level of off-gassing.  
    • To prevent inhaling the fine MDF dust during cutting or sanding always wear a face mask.  
    • Work outside. 
    • Buy low or no formaldehyde MDF (Medex or MediteII)

  • Edges soak up paint
     Solution: Seal MDF edges prior to painting.  Use a good primer.

  • Swells when wet (though not as bad as particleboard will). 
      Solution: buy MDF laminated with a phenolic resin paper (Medex or MediteII)– it is much more moisture resistant.  If working outdoors, bring the MDF into the shed or garage at night.

In future posts I'll discuss:
Hardwood Plywood
Particle Board

Consumer Product Safety: Formaldehyde
CARB certification for formaldehyde
Fact Sheet on Respiratory Hazards and Pressed-Wood Products
MDF Passivating Primer
Formaldehyde free MDF

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Do You Want More DIY Posts for Beginners, Women, and Moms?

A few recent emails from a reader has inspired me to a series of posts for the beginner DIYer, the furniture builder/woman/mom.  As women, moms and beginner carpenters, we have our own special set of challenges and needs.  

These are topics that sorely need to be written on and a cursory search through the internet show a sad lack...

Here are some of the posts I'm proposing to write:

  • Using "Wood" Materials: MDF, Plywood, and Particle Board (A Pros and Cons post for each)

  • Power Tool Safety for Beginners 

  • Power Tools and Pregnancy

  • DIY Tips for Women (with emphasis on those caring for children while DIYing)

  • The Solo-DIYer (there are tools and tips that will help you when you have no other help)

  • A Beginner's Guide to The Home Depot (this is the store I know best - sorry Lowe's Lovers)

Let me know what you think...  Are there any other topic(s) you want to see?

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Why Build Your Own Furniture?

My Dad and Grandfather built the house I grew up in.  It’s a lovely house and was valued at $570,000 just a few years ago.  Very few people my age know how to build a simple bookcase, much less a house (I couldn’t build a house!)  And many kids don’t know that food comes from plants… we are losing our life skills to the supermarket and Pottery Barn. 

Times are tough, and money is tight.  I know… I’m trying to stretch my family’s budget too.  A few things can help.  In particular I like DIY.  Why pay someone to do something I can do myself?  (Especially since I’m unemployed right now.)  Why buy new when I can fix up something used or build it myself?

The levels of DIY furniture:

1. Refinishing or painting used pieces – the easiest DIY furniture of all time.

Check the garage sales, thrift store, even the sidewalk for well-made stuff that’s seen better days.  A coat of paint is the easiest and can make a huge difference.  If you’ve got a little more ambition and a sander, you can refinish just about anything. 

2.  Assembly.  Putting together IKEA bookshelves does count as DIY, and besides being cheap, some IKEA furniture is made from sustainable materials.

You can build your own furniture only needing these skills too.  At the hardware store or lumber yard, you can get them to cut your sheet goods for you.  At  Home Depot, the first 2 cuts are free, and $0.50 each after that.  Print out one of Ana’s fantastic plans and bring it with you.

Know what lumber you want, and tell the guy in the lumber section that you need something cut for you (say 3/4” MDF or cabinet grade plywood).  He should be able to unload and cut (using Ana’s cutting guide) it for you.  They should be able to help you load it in or on your car too.

Why is this a good idea?

For the beginner, this allows you to focus on just one thing, learning how to use your drill for drilling pilot holes and screwing.  The lumber is easier to get in your car, and lighter for you to carry (am I right ladies!)

3.  Carpentry.  This includes cutting your lumber in addition to gluing and screwing it together.  I love carpentry and all the power tools that go with it… you’ll hear a lot more on this from me, but I don’t want this post to become a dissertation :)


  So that finally brings me to the main question, should you build your own furniture?

Take this simple quiz to find out:

Do you need furniture that is a bit nonstandard (extra tall, narrow, wide, or short)?

Do you want furniture that costs the same as cheapo particle board stuff, but is quality in its looks and lasts?

Do you want to gain valuable life skills and a sense of accomplishment?


If you answered yes, then you are an excellent candidate for building your own furniture!

Visit Ana’s Knock-Off Wood or Rayan’s The Design Confidential for great furniture plans, check out my tutorials for power tools (beginner’s use tutorials coming soon!) and send an email if you need help!

You can do it!


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Cool Tools: Workshop Helpers, part 1

If you are going to do a job, it pays to plan ahead, prepare your workspace materials and tools and do the job right the first time.

Especially if it’s a job with expensive materials, or meant to be a permanent part of your home – like the built-in bookcases I’m working on right now.

P8150052 P8150053

So I thought I’d share with you some of the little “workshop helpers” that can make a huge difference on a project, and many can be made easily yourself.

Especially if you are working alone, the “helpers” can make a difficult task much easier!

Assembly Blocks

This assembly block is quick and cheap to make out of scrap materials!


Besides helping to ensure that my bookcase corners are square, it is like an extra set of hands!  After placing the MDF into the block, the boards stay in place, allowing me to grab my glue, drill and screws before squaring everything up and adding the corner clamp to the top.  I like using both the assembly block and corner clamp to hold everything in place!


I just used glue and screws on some scrap pieces of wood.  Make sure you set it up square with representative pieces of your material (3/4” MDF for me) before you glue and screw it all down.

Drilling Template

I need to whip one of these up out of acrylic or scrap wood, but a simple piece of paper works too!  I’ve marked on the paper where my pilot holes need to be drilled.  Then I just use an awl, pen or the tip of my drill bit to mark the wood before I drill.

P8150046 P8150054

Because MDF “blows out” so easily, it is really important to make sure your pilot holes are drilled into the middle of the board edge!  Without this guide I’m sure I would’ve put a hole to close to the edge!  This is also a useful tool if you want all your pieces to look uniform.

Something similar works wonders when attaching cabinet hardware.


See this post for instructions on building your own DIY adjustable height storage sawhorse.



Ripping and Cross-cut Table and Rip Fence

Not everyone will need an extra large surface for their table saw.  But since I’m using 4x8 foot sheets of MDF I needed this badly!  The instructions for the table and rip fence are here.  I also have a foldable table placed behind the saw to catch the output.

With the saw in this position, I can rip this long sheet of beadboard.  I just cut along one of the “beads”, but I could also have used my 8’ circular saw rip fence and some clamps as a guide.

For trimming off that extra inch, I use the table’s metal rip fence.

P8150037 P8150028
P8150031 P8150036

With the saw in this position, I can cross-cut my beadboard to fit the height of my bookcases. 

P8150040 P8150038
P8150043 P8150042

There are a few problems with this enormous table.  My saw is on its own stand, so the saw and the table move independently – this is very bad when using the 2x4 rip fence – the cuts can be inaccurate.  I have been pretty lucky and all my cuts have been fine, but if accuracy was really important, I would find a way to firmly attach the table to the saw and minimize the movement.

Also, the on/off switch is hard to reach.  This is a huge no-no as it can be dangerous.  I plan to built an emergency push bar stop that extends out past the edge of the table. (I’ll share that with you when it’s finished!)

This is only a tiny subset of the “workshop helpers” that you can use… there’s sure to be a few more posts like this one in the future!

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Adjustable Height Storage Sawhorse

What you’ll need (for 1 sawhorse):
Base Unit
2x4 (2- 20” stabilizing legs)
1x6 (1- 22.5” shelf, 2- 26” sides)
2x6 (1- 22.5” bottom)
scrap plywood (for top shelf, shelf sides, and dividers)
2- 1/4” carriage bolts (3.5” long) and 2 wingnuts
1/2” wide flat metal bar

Top Unit
1x6 (1- 24” top, 2- 22” sides)
2- 1/4” wingbolts (1.5” long), 2 washers and 2 Tee nuts

 If you want more storage use 1x8 and 2x8 instead of 1x6 and 2x6.
I cut 2 1x6s into 3 pieces.  22”, 24” and 26”.  The width of the sawhorse is about 24” (2 feet).  the height of the base is 26” and the height of the sliding top is 22”.  The top is 1.5” wider than the base so that the top can slide over the base.

The top slides up and down on routed grooves (1/2” wide) in the top unit that fits over a 1/8” thick metal bar screwed into the base.  A routed slot in the groove (1/4” wide) is for the wingbolts (which are screwed into the Tee nuts in the base).  Simply tighten the wingbolts at the desired height for the sawhorse.
The top has a handle routed into it.

Copy of P8090001



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House Tour, part 2

I’ll admit these pictures are a little old. 

They were taken before I started the built-in bookcases in the dining room – a project that makes the house a mess and will take (like everything) way longer than I expect!


My Living Room

Almost never looks this good… aren’t playrooms supposed to keep the toys corralled into one room?  Yet somehow they still end up everywhere.

I love genealogy and I have old family portraits on the wall of my dining room.  Some of the pictures go back more than 150 years.

Since these pictures were taken I’ve added a chandelier ($20 at the thrift store - I kid you not!) over the table.

And the tripod lamp I made is now in the corner.

We’ve got a great little opening between the dining area and kitchen.  Maybe you’ve noticed that I love plants…

This is the wall opposite the dining table, and the doorway leads into the nursery and master bedroom.  This space changes a lot.  Right now it’s getting ready for the built-in bookcases.

Here’s the other side of the doorway… also getting ready for the built-in bookcase.   That palm died not long after I bought it… anyone have any luck keeping palms alive indoors?

Ahhh, knotty pine… you will soon be gone…  I think I’ll paint these and put them somewhere else.

OK, that was my dining room.  It’s been a hard place to work with.  Big for a dining room, but not big enough to be more than a dining room.  A little seating area near the new built-in bookcases is in the plans though.

A chair rail might spice it up too.  What do you think?   

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