We Tried The Cheapest Nail Gun At Lowe's. Here's How It Went

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Sometimes you buy a tool with a sense of dread. Maybe you just need it for a single project and you can't afford or justify a better option. Maybe it's lacking some common features that you've convinced yourself you can live without. Maybe the reviews have given you reason to believe it will fail before you get even that single project done. Maybe it's simply that it costs less than half the price of brand-name competitors. Maybe all of those things are true at once — and sometimes, perhaps most of the time, in situations like this your fears are justified.

All of these warning signs apply to the Numax 2-in-1 18-Gauge Pneumatic Brad Nailer from Lowe's. But, dedicated as we are to the proposition that all cheap things are created to be reviewed, we ordered it for $35 online and crossed our fingers. What could really go so wrong, after all? The Numax brad nailer is sold all over the place, from Lowe's to Home Depot, Walmart, and Amazon. How bad could it really be?

An overview of reviews

Consumer reviews are endlessly fascinating, not least because they sometimes make no sense. Buyers are inconsistent in their criteria for a successful purchase, to say the least. So we have all learned heuristics by which we try to cut through the noise and find the signal, like never buying anything under 4.5 stars, and nothing with more than 10% one-star ratings. Marketing services like Bazaarvoice confound these strategies by providing real but overwhelmingly positive reviews for companies like Lowe's, using sources like manufacturers and consumers who are rewarded with free products.

This brings us back to the Numax nailer; it seems like a gem on the surface. It has a shorter feature set than competitors, but at less than half the price of many ($27.60 at Amazon and Home Depot) and with 4.3 to 4.5 stars all over the internet. Among negative reviews, the most common are about the brad nailer's tendency to jam frequently, and its consistent marring of the workpiece surface by the mechanism that strikes brads and staples. "Don't buy this If you want to see the beauty of the wood," writes one Amazon reviewer of the marring problem, "unless you also want to see the beauty of wood filler. That said it's handy for sitework as long as you're planning to paint." Others complained that the gun stopped working soon after purchase. Several more complained that they seemed to have received a used or refurbished unit.

Testing the complaints

We devised our tests based on the complaints and at least one Numax boast. The tendency of the gun to mar the workpiece surface was evident to us the first time we fired a brad, so we attempted to figure out which settings and habits contribute to this problem; we monitored the effect of the depth adjustment wheel, pressure applied by the user, and air pressure. We drove many lines of brads and decreased the depth setting about a quarter-turn with each new row until the marks disappeared, then looked at how that corresponded to the depth of the brad itself.

We also examined the precision of the depth adjustment by running more columns of brads and noting when they were left proud of (that is, above) the work surface. In this case it was ½ inch of engineered hardwood flooring blank. Then we repeated the tests on a scrap of finished engineered hardwood.

Regarding the failure and jamming, we simply pounded nails into boards as quickly as we could, and then had a 6-year-old and an 11-year-old (sternly trained in safety matters and closely supervised) do the same. The 6-year-old, not overly concerned with finesse or consistency, will quickly find a way to jam a nail gun if it can be done at all. We also had adults shoot brads as fast as humanly possible to test Numax's claim that this tool can sink 100 brads per minute at 90 psi, which seemed unlikely.

How the Numax 2-in-1 brad nailer performed

Whatever shortcomings the Numax 18-gauge brad nailer has in terms of features and design, it didn't miss a beat in actual use. We tested it with various sizes of brads and staples, and at various angles, and had no issue driving and fully seating any of the fasteners. For purposes of comparison, we ran it alongside a Porter Cable 18-gauge nailer that's about $90 at Home Depot for a newer model. The Numax didn't jam even once, while the Porter Cable jammed several times. And other than some fairly minor features, the experiences of using the two nailers were extremely similar.

Regarding the 100 fasteners/minute speed claim, we did two rounds of timed testing and both times we ran out of brads before the minute was up. The remaining time let us calculate rates of about 136 and 164 brads/minute, which means Numax's claim is quite modest and probably only reflects the gun's capacity limit of 100 brads, rather than actual speed.

The depth control wheel was remarkably consistent. We tested it by driving two series of 1-½-inch brads into ½-inch engineered hardwood flooring blanks laminated to a 2x4. We set the gun at maximum depth and adjusted out ¼ turn with each brad we drove. In both cases, the brads started showing proud of the wood's surface after 2-¼ turns. Unfortunately, the reported issues with the driver blade denting the wood or finish are a real concern.

The Numax has a self-destructive streak

If this were a framing nailer, the surface marring wouldn't be worth mentioning. But the entire raison d'être of a finish nailer for some is to minimize the visibility of fasteners in trim work. Instead, Numax has made their presence five or six times as prominent as the brad heads alone.

The size of the marring owes to the fact that the nailer does dual duty as a brad and narrow-crown staple driver. The unsightly indentations are the width of the driver blade, which is in turn the width of the ¼-inch staples used by the gun. When we ran the depth adjustment tests, the deepest brad depth, .071 inches, was just beyond Wood Magazine's recommended 1/16th of an inch (.0675 inch) for brad heads. The indentation's depth was .048 inches. Assuming that difference holds for shallower settings and other factors, it means you can only back out the depth a tiny amount (.023 in.) to make it ideal, at which point you will still have an indentation from the gun.

On the other hand, if you're not interested in filling the brad holes and are okay with the brad heads being flush to the surface, we did manage to find settings that accomplished that while leaving no larger mark. However, it requires dialing in exactly the depth setting that leaves the brad flush, while consciously preventing yourself from pushing the nailer too hard into the workpiece's surface.

Other problems, but no deal-breakers

There's always a list of things that could be better about a $35 power tool. Some of them are important to some people, but mostly they're just unmet preferences that you shrug at. A few users bemoaned the absence of a "bump fire" feature by which the nailer can be repeatedly tapped on a surface to fire quickly while pulling the trigger only once. But the Numax does have a "Sequential Fire Mode" that allows you to fire it repeatedly so long as you don't lift the work contact element (WCE) from the workpiece surface.

Because of the way the Numax handles multiple trigger pulls (as long as the WCE is retracted, the gun will fire repeatedly), a user with a light trigger finger can occasionally double-fire. This happened a few times with the 6-year-old, but no one else had this issue ... though some reviewers did.

One consistent annoyance was the fact that the WCE — being positioned in front of the driver blade where you tend to look when using the nailer — gets in the way of seeing where the brad will be fired. (The Porter Cable's WCE is behind the blade, and so it doesn't have this problem.)

Others complain that it doesn't come with a carrying case (most competitors do); it happily dry-fires when the magazine is empty; it requires a hex wrench to clear a jam (most don't); and (unlike competitors) it doesn't come with a belt hook.

A recommendation or two

Ultimately, based on our experience, the decision about buying the Numax 2-in-1 18-Gauge Pneumatic Brad Nailer comes down to this: Can you live with the surface marring caused by the wide staple blade? If you're installing decorative trim, the answer is probably no. But if you're using the nailer for hidden brads (as when making picture frames or pre-assembled moldings) or using hidden brads to hold pieces together until glue dries (as many woodworkers do), the marring might not matter. In that case, we heartily recommend it ... based on our experience.

It remains troubling how consistent the complaints of jamming and premature failure were, especially since we only used the Numax for a few days. It's still possible that it will fail soon, or start constantly jamming. But we can only write about what we experienced.

Interestingly, the product manual includes this warning: "Do not discard the packing material until you have carefully inspected and satisfactorily operated the tool." However, our tool didn't come with any packaging at all inside the box — not even a plastic bag. Other buyers remarked on this as well, with most concluding they were buying a returned and perhaps refurbished product. It's also possible some percentage of guns gets damaged in shipping because of the lack of packing materials. Fortunately, ours wasn't in that number. We got a lightweight, ergonomic brad nailer with an adjustable exhaust, a reload indicator, a super-quick firing rate, and a ridiculously low price.