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6/5/2007

Porter Cable FR350A Full Round Head Framing Nailer Review


Porter Cable FR350A Full Round Head Framing Nailer Review
By Dean Bielanowski, OnlineToolReviews.com
4/14/2005

NOTE: Click the link above to view image references.

When a job calls for a "big" nailer, the full round head framing nailer is one of the biggest available. It's name is suggestive of its intended use and these frame nailing guns can be found on just about every house building, house extension or renovation project site. The "big daddy" of framing guns drives the big nails needed for such construction tasks.

You will probably not find one of these guns in the fine woodworker's workshop. In fact, you may only find a brad nailer, or perhaps a pneumatic stapler. The fact is, these types of nail guns are used more by builders and carpenters than fine woodworkers, where they have little application. But when it comes to structural nailing and building tasks, the framing nailer can save you a lot of time and effort.

Full Round Head vs Clipped Head nails
There is plenty of debate as to whether clipped head nails (with a nail head shaped like a "D") provide as much holding strength as traditional full round head nails. The consensus seems to be that they are just as adequate, however, in some states and areas, only full round head nails are certified as being sufficient for building and renovation tasks, so you might like to check with your local authority before choosing between a clipped head or a full round head framing nailer. One advantage the clipped head nailers have is that they can generally hold more nails in the magazine, so less refills are required.

The Porter Cable FR350A Framing Nailer
Ok, regardless of the clipped head vs full round head debate, we have the Porter Cable FR350A Framing Nailer here to review. As the title of this reviews suggests, it is a nail gun that uses the full round head nail, so we have nothing to worry about with the building regulators. Full round head framing nails are available in a wide variety of types, sizes and finishes. From smooth to ring shank, hot dipped to stainless steel, you will be able to find the nail you need to suit the task relatively easily. There are many manufacturers of collated framing nails, and you can even interchange between different nail brands very easily, as long as they have the same specifications and are within the specs listed in the tool's manual, or on the tool itself.

The FR350A ships in its own molded plastic carry case, and comes pre-fitted with a 1/4" air fitting which is, conveniently, the same brand/style as the quick connectors on my compressor. You can easily change the fitting if it does not suit your existing attachments. The supplied fitting also comes with a dust cap to prevent dust from entering the air inlet. As a general rule, you should keep all your air tools away from airborne dust sources, either in a cabinet with closed doors or the supplied plastic case (a good argument for retaining and using the carry case).

Specification Discussion
Let's run through the basic specifications of the product, with a small discussion on each item...

Weight - The FR350A weighs just over 8lbs (3.7kg). There is no denying that it is a heavy tool, but most frame nailers are. It will cause fatigue with extended use, but you won't be holding it during every second of your project, so weight is not an overly large problem in my book. In fact, the extra weight helps to dampen the recoil a frame nailer produces as it drives the nail. Driving these large nails with a light tool could create excessive recoil which would probably cause more fatigue than the weight of the tool alone.

Dimensions - Length 21" (53cm), Height 14.25" (36cm), Width 4.6" (12cm). These are fairly self-explanatory but do give you a rough idea of the size of a framing nailer. Most framing nailers are of similar size, the FR350A is perhaps slightly smaller than some on the market but not the smallest I have ever seen.

Operating pressure - The FR350A will drive nails well at anywhere in the 70 - 120 PSI range. It will run off almost any sized compressor that has a tank, even the small pancake compressors can drive a framing nailer, although they may cycle a little more often. I have a 2HP, 6.3 gallon (24L) compressor and it has no trouble at all. The FR350A ideally suits my compressor as my unit will cut out at 120 PSI and start refilling when the tank drops to around 80 PSI, so with the FR350A, all I do is attach the air line and away I go. No worrying about pressure adjustments. Nailing at less than 70 PSI is not recommended. It won't have the power to fully drive the nail.

FR350A Features
Starting from the bottom up, we have the air inlet (mentioned above). You will need a 'male' threaded adaptor if the one supplied does not fit your current air line setup. Wrap a little thread sealing tape around the adaptor before you fit it to seal the connection from air loss or leaks. The fitted adaptor is already sealed. Take note of the text inscribed on the base of the handle just above the air inlet. "OIL DAILY", which means placing about 5-6 drops of air tool oil (a small plastic container of oil is provided in the package) directly into the air inlet before you start work for the day. If you are using the tool heavily throughout the morning, you may want to add an extra drop or two before you return to nailing in the afternoon, just to make sure all internal parts are well lubricated.

Connecting the bottom of the handle to the nail magazine is an aluminum bracket which also has a placeholder for the removable no-mar rubber tip that can be found on the nose of the driving head/safety release assembly of the tool. Moving up the handle, we have the main hand hold section which has a rubber grip for non-slip use. You don't want to slip and lose your grip when driving a frame nail.

Next we come to the trigger assembly. One of the great features of this tool is not just its ability to be able to select either a restrictive trigger mode or contact actuation mode (often called 'bounce firing' mode), but the ease in which you can switch between the two. On some nailers you need to replace the whole trigger itself to switch modes. On the FR350A, the process is much simpler. On the trigger itself is a small red wheel dial which is spring loaded. You need to release the dial from its socket by pushing it out from the other side of the trigger, and then you can freely turn it to either activate the restrictive or contact actuation mode - a very quick and efficient mode changing system indeed.

With restrictive fire mode you have to first depress the nose of the tool/safety release into the workpiece and then pull the trigger to fire a single nail. With contact actuation, you hold the trigger in, and then every time you push the nose (or bounce it) onto the workpiece, a nail will be fired. The difference is in speed. Contact actuation mode allows nails to be fired quite rapidly, although it is a little less accurate in positioning the nail. Personally, I prefer to use the restrictive fire mode. It is only a little slower but is a much safer method, in my opinion, and when it comes to safety, you can't compromise, particularly with nail guns. I am sure many of you have seen x-ray photos from emergency departments where users have imbedded nails into their skulls, and various other body parts. Not a pretty sight at all. Almost all of these incidents could have likely been avoided with proper care in use, and a healthy dose of respect for the power of these tools.

The trigger is well mounted on the nail gun and lacks that 'loose' feeling you can find with triggers on some models. When using the trigger, you have a pretty good idea of the threshold point where the trigger will create a response and fire a nail. I find a solid and firmly mounted trigger to add just a little more safety and remove a little more doubt in nailing tasks.

Moving up we have the main body of the tool. At the rear of the main driver housing is an adjustable air exhaust port. When you fire a nail, a puff of compressed air exits from this port at rapid speed. Naturally, you do not want this rush of air being directed at the user or anyone else close by, so you can angle the exhaust air away from you. On the FR350A, you can adjust the exhaust without use of any tools. You simply use your hand to move the exhaust to any direction within its 360 degree range of motion, however there are 8 detent angles within the range at 45 degree increments, i.e. 45, 90, 135, 180, and so on. The back housing cover can also be removed for maintenance if needed. After years of use, some of the nail gun's internal components need to be replaced, including sealing o-rings. Most manufacturers also make a 'rebuilding' kit for their nail guns for this very purpose. If you look after the tool, you will get many years of frequent use out of it before it needs to be "rebuilt."

Moving to the nail magazine itself now... It is made of anodized aluminum, and is quite tough. The magazine has a capacity of 64 nails. The FR350A uses full round head, plastic collated nails. The magazine is set at 22 degrees to the drive axis, which means that you need to use 22-degree plastic collated nails. The FR350A is capable of driving nails from 2" to 3-1/2" in length (50mm to 90mm) and with a width of .113" to .148" (2.9 to 3.8mm) and head diameter of .263" to .295" (6.7mm to 7.5mm). Most framing nails you can buy will fit these specifications. I actually have a box of 21-degree collated nails, but these will work fine with the FR350A. The bottom of the magazine actually indicates that nails from 20-22 degree should be suitable. With a little shopping around, I was able to find suitable plain, smooth shank nails that came in at under 0.8c each (4,000 box) but stainless steel nails or other types can cost up to five times as much, and for far less quantity. The particular nails I purchased come in 25 nail strips, so I can load two strips at a time into the magazine. In the nail holding channel of the magazine at its bottom end is an angled nail stop which prevents nails from falling out of the bottom of the tool as you load them. You can push this stop down to unload unused nails at the end of the day or end of the job quite easily. The part which actually pushes the nails up into the head of the magazine is called the "follower". It is spring loaded so it keeps the nails feeding into the drive channel as you use the tool. Basically, you load a strip (or two) of nails into the magazine. You then pull the spring loaded follower down the magazine until it passes the last nail in the strip and release it. It springs back behind the last nail in the strip with a small feeder notch and keeps the nails feeding upward in the magazine under the spring pressure. The follower has a latch mechanism which can release the feeding notch to draw nails back down and out of the magazine if needed.

Moving up to the forward nose of the tool, we find the safety release mechanism. During normal restrictive firing mode, you must depress the nose of the tool (spring loaded) into the material you wish to drive a nail into before the trigger will initiate a response and drive a nail. As mentioned before, the nose has a removable rubber no-mar tip, which is useful if you do not wish to mark/scratch the surface of the material you are nailing. For most tasks a framing nailer is used for, you will probably not need this tip. When it is removed, it exposes several sharp triangular non-slip points. These are what you want to work with for most framing tasks. The points dig into the material slightly and help provide stability and prevent slipping as you fire the nail. Most framing nailers have a similar tip design. The no-mar tip is an added extra that you may or may not use. If you choose not to use it, you can store it on the tool in the attachment between the heel of the handle and the magazine.

Depth of drive adjustment controls are located just behind the nose of the tool. The wheel dial with hard detents allows you to positively control depth of drive in incremental steps. When you use the nail gun on different materials, you may need to adjust depth of drive for the material's density. If the nail is not being driven all the way in, adjust depth of drive and retest (on similar scrap pieces if needed) so the nail is driven flush, or slightly below the surface of the material for best results. For whatever reason, you may like to keep the nail head just above the material's surface. The choice is yours. You can see from my test image in the right column the effect of singular, successive depth of drive adjustments when nailing into hardwood. The results are quite good and you have good control over driving depth using this feature.

In Use
So how does this tool perform in use? Let me first say that these frame nailers give a bit of recoil when you drive the nail so be prepared for it. You should actually allow the tool to recoil off the material. Hold the gun fairly firmly so you do not let it slip when you pull the trigger, but not so firmly that you do not allow it to naturally recoil away. Adorn the safety glasses and good hearing protection also... Emitted sound can cause ear damage. The manual lists the weighted sound impulse level at 105 dBA for the FR350A and 98 dBA for the emitted sound pressure level. That's quite a shock for your poor eardrum to handle over and over without ear protection.

In the hand, the FR350A is front heavy. Don't worry. Almost all frame nailers are, but it does cause some wrist fatigue if you are not used to carrying a large heavy tool like this around. Loading nails and all adjustment features are intuitive and easy to use. We have had only a single nail jam since we began using this tool about 7-8 weeks ago now. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to clear a nail jam on this tool. Generally you need to remove all nails from the magazine and either extract the jammed nail using pliers, or if it is stuck between the nose casting and the driver itself, use a hammer and 1/4" diameter punch to force the driver blade back to its starting position and then clear the jammed nail. Sounds a little excessive with the punch trick, but this is actually recommended in the user manual. It worked fine for us when we had the nail jam at least.

Nailing operations in both restrictive and 'bump' fire mode seemed consistent, with rapid firing in bump mode delivering close tolerances in nail drive depth. Regardless of compressor tank pressure (always kept in the range of 80-120 PSI) nail driving capability remained reliable. Remember to exercise caution if angle nailing studs or frames for extra strength. You do not want that nose slipping when firing, nor do you want to fire at such an acute angle that the nail could exit out of a material surface more easily. Think safety, then think safety again, before you drive any nail.

There is not really a lot more to say about this tool except that it performs its task very reliably, is as comfortable to use as framing nailers can be, seems to be built with quality reinforced parts that should prove durable in the long run, and that it has enough power to drive into many types of softwoods, hardwoods and composite materials. If you are using a frame nailer on an everyday basis, it does pay to spend that little extra to buy a good name brand tool. Most Porter Cable nail guns are very reliable and deliver good results. The FR350A seems to display the same quality as most other Porter Cable nail guns that the company offers.