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Cap It Off! The days of simply stapling roofing felt and housewrap to sheathing are gone.
Here are 10 tools that meet today’s new standards.
By Mike Guertin
If you’re still using hammer-tacker staples alone to attach housewrap and synthetic roof underlayments, you haven’t read the instructions lately. Major manufacturers of these products have required capped fasteners spaced in specific patterns for the past several years. I know what you’re thinking: “Why go through the extra effort? Nobody else does it that way. I’ve been using hammer tackers for decades and never had a problem.” I’ve heard all the reasons installers give for not using capped fasteners, and 10 years ago, I was singing the same tune. After attempting to hand-nail caps on a few jobs in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions, I quickly looked for a better way. Back then I found a limited selection. Today there are more than a dozen staplers and nailers that deliver plastic caps with each bounce and at a rate that is almost as fast as hammer-tacker stapling.
There’s a good reason housewrap and underlayment manufacturers often require capped fasteners. The plastic cap greatly increases a fastener’s surface area and, thus, its holding power, so building fabrics are much less likely to tear out from under the fasteners, even after exposure to windy conditions for more than a few days. Even light breezes can puff up lightweight building fabrics and cause tears around medium-wire staples, leaving holes that will leak. Hammer tackers themselves can cause damage, too; the rim of the nose that you whack against the building often tears into the membrane.
The case for capped fasteners will grow in years to come as building codes recognize problems with inferior installation practices. For several years now, Florida has required ring-shank cap nails–not just staples–to be used in high-wind areas, and with a nailing pattern spaced 12 inches on center for roofing underlayments. And as more field inspectors check to see that products are installed according to manufacturers’ instructions, which often go beyond prescriptive code requirements, the less we’ll use hammer tackers on these weather-resisting barriers.
These tools don’t just fasten roofing underlayments and housewraps. Some of them can drive 1 1/2-inch staples or even longer nails so you can secure thick, soft materials such as rigid foam board and fiberboard with confidence. Over the past few years, I’ve also used cap tools to hang radiant barrier wraps on the underside of roof rafters for energy-saving retrofits, fan-fold foam over old siding, carpet padding, roof vent chutes, attic sealing membranes, and even jobsite signs.
I tested seven cap staplers and three cap nailers. The staplers are the Bostitch SB150SLBC-1, Grip-Rite GRC58A, Pneu-Tools RC-58 II and Rap-A-Cap RC-150 II, Senco BC58, Spotnails TCS6832, and the X-Cell XL376. The nailers are the Bostitch N66BC, Hitachi NV50AP3, and the Pneu-Tools RC-200.
Three of the staplers, the Grip-Rite GRC58A, Senco BC58, and Pneu-Tools RC-58 II, are clones, identical in features and performance and different only in color. Because of this and the fact that they all use “58” in their model numbers, I’ll call them the “58 staplers” collectively throughout this article.
Features. All of the tools tested feature toolfree exhaust positioning except for the Spotnails, which is not adjustable at all. The 58s, Spotnails, X-Cell, and Pneu-Tools 150 and 200 all have belt hooks. All the top-loading staplers have a toolfree latch for clearing jammed staples, and the bottom-loading staplers are openable from below. You can adjust the depth of drive on the Pneu-Tools 150, Spotnails, and X-Cell staplers by using a tool near the nose, but the Bostitch stapler and all three nailers have a convenient dial by their triggers for this purpose. Also, using a built-in switch, you can change the Spotnails stapler and Hitachi and Pneu-Tools nailers to single-fire mode.
My crew and I tested these 10 tools for their ease and speed of cap and fastener loading, consistency of cap feeding and fastener driving, and overall performance. We factored in tool weight and balance, cap and fastener capacity, general usefulness on our jobs, and durability as far as we could determine in two month’s use. Over the course of that time, we drove many thousands of cap fasteners into more than 100 squares of synthetic roofing underlayment, 30 squares of 30-pound roofing felt, and 11 rolls of housewrap.
We also used the tools while retrofitting two attics with radiant barriers, one with bubble-style membranes and the other with sheet-style membranes attached to the underside of the rafters.
None of our projects included insulated sheathing, so I shop-tested the tools with sheets of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam board without any driving problems. I figured that any material crushing or tool actuation problems would occur on the less dense EPS rather than on fiberboard, extruded polystyrene, or faced polyisocyanurate. And to determine if any tools were underpowered for use on dense substrates, like Southern Yellow pine plywood or high density OSB-type sheathing, I took sheets of both and blasted off a full load of fasteners with each tool.
Cap Loading. We cap-fastened roofing felt at 6 to 8 inches apart along the edges, and 24 inches apart in the field when drying in roofs. For housewraps, we drove fasteners between 16 and 24 inches apart, depending on the manufacturer’s requirements, and shot in extras along the edges for good measure when it was windy. You don’t realize how fast a tool can consume caps and staples until you start popping them off at this frequency, so the benefit of fast reloading times quickly became clear.
There are two types of cap-loading systems: barrel and coil. Because barrel systems use stacks of caps held together by a central string or wire or with edge-welds, they are faster to load than a coil system that requires you to guide a string of caps into a feed channel. The Spotnails is the only stapler with coil-collated caps. There are 200 caps in a coil, which means you reload half as many times as the 100 or 110 cap barrel loaders. But reloading takes a full 30 seconds, because if you rush, you’ll tangle the coil. The trick with the Spotnails is to hold it on its side, so the magazine cradles the coil as you feed the caps along their channel. You then lift the feed lever to elevate the advancing teeth, so the caps slide forward easier.
The Bostitch and X-Cell tools have vertical barrel towers on the right and a feeding device at the bottom to deliver caps beneath the staple nose. You retract the pusher and drop in a plastic string-collated stack of 100 caps in the Bostitch, or hinge back the cap and insert a wire-collated stack of 100 into the X-Cell. The Bostitch system is much better; you can release the pusher after loading, and it’ll hold the caps in place so you can rip out the string. You have to hold your finger over the X-Cell’s barrel to keep the caps contained until you withdraw the wire, then close the hinged barrel cap and engage the pusher. Make sure to heed the warning on the X-Cell tool or the pusher spring will eject forcibly from the barrel.
The three 58 staplers and the Pneu-Tools 150 take two edge-welded stacks of 55 caps. The horizontal cap barrels are in line with the staplers’ magazines, making them more compact than the Bostitch, Spotnails, or X-Cell models. The pusher has a nice, big finger hook that you draw back to the end of the barrel cap, which hinges open. The cap clusters drop right in–just be sure not to put them in backwards, or the tools will only spit staples–then you can hinge the end cap closed, and the pusher will slide into place.
We had races to see who could reload the staplers the fastest, and one guy could reload consistently in 3 to 5 seconds, including the staples.
Carrying a supply of caps is an issue. The Spotnails coils are tricky; when they begin to fall apart, they become a tangled mess. The Bostitch and X-Cell strings and wire-collated stacks were easiest to carry as they rarely broke apart, even when stuffed into a jam-packed toolpouch. The 58 staplers’ cap clusters often snapped at the edge-welds. We found the solution was to empty the tools out of your nail pouch, and arrange the clusters in an organized fashion so they support one another.
Staple Loading. There’s no science to loading staples. Just like other pneumatic staplers, there are two styles: top loaders and bottom loaders. The Bostitch, Spotnails, and Pneu-Tools 150 are top loaders, and the 58 staplers and the X-Cell are bottom loaders. In the case of the 58s, pay attention when you close the staple magazine. A yoke on the cap pusher has to engage the piston shaft guide correctly or the caps won’t advance.
Balance and Weight. With these high-speed, high-production tools, balance is very important. When you’re installing housewrap, you’re stretching your arm out and up and down all the time. For roofing underlayment, you have your hand and arm extended in roughly the same position while you walk around. Without good balance, fatigue sets in fast, and accuracy and speed drop. The best-balanced stapler is the Spotnails, even though it tied as the heaviest stapler. It felt good while working off ladders and reaching, as well as while holding a consistent position for capping off roof felt. The 58 staplers are nearly a pound lighter and have good balance, but not the sweet feel of the Spotnails. The X-Cell is slightly front-heavy but still comfortable, while the Bostitch and Pneu-Tools 150 are decidedly front-heavy tools that tired our arms after extended use.
Driving Performance. If a tool can’t sink every fastener that fits in its magazine, then it’s not living up to its design. In our dense-sheathing test, the three 58 tools did well, fully sinking their staples except when we did super-rapid-bounce firing. But the X-Cell and Pneu-Tools 150 often left longer staple heads proud. They both sunk 1-inch staples pretty well, though. The Bostitch had no problem fully driving even their longest 1 1/2-inch staples, and we sometimes needed to dial back their depth-of-drive adjustment for the shorter staples because the caps curled up on the edges when the staples drove too deeply.
One issue of all the cap staplers–and even the cap nailers–is tool orientation when firing. You have to have the tool piston perpendicular to the work surface in all aspects to get consistent fastener setting. If you tilt the tool too far (approximately 10 to 15 degrees) forward, left, or right, either the contact trip mechanism won’t activate a firing sequence, or the tool will fire and the fastener is left proud. The tools gave us immediate feedback when we were tilting too far, and we quickly adjusted our aspect.
Cap Delivery. It’s amazing how fast you can bounce along with these staplers, especially the small ones, and how well all of the tools deliver caps to the nose with precision. They remind me of a seasoned blackjack dealer doling out cards to patrons with effortless motion. We did experience an occasional hiccup when the X-Cell and Bostitch tools didn’t eject a cap. This was due to an accidental retraction of their spring-loaded pushers, which let caps get jostled loose and left some turned around. This was rare, but it can happen, and any inverted caps will stop the delivery systems cold. The 58 staplers and Pneu-Tools 150 didn’t have that problem because the caps are welded together. And improper loading or debris in the magazine can cause the coiled caps of the Spotnails to occasionally break or jam.
We also found that at high rates of bounce-firing speed, all the tools except the Bostitch and Spotnails frequently drove the staples off center of the cap a little. This didn’t seem to affect the cap holding power, and it was resolved by slowing down from lightning speed to just a blinding pace.
Durability. The cap barrel towers of the Bostitch and X-Cell, with their cap feeding mechanisms and exposed air hoses hanging off to the side, look like they’d snap right off, but they proved to be durable on the job. We didn’t use them any more cautiously than the inline barrel staplers–the 58 models and the Pneu-Tools 150. The tools got slammed sideways against walls and roof decks, took a couple 3- and 4-foot falls, and were routinely bounced around in a pickup bed but showed no signs of damage or performance problems. The plastic coil magazine and hose on the Spotnails looked delicate but took all the regular jobsite punishment without a fault.
Maneuverability. This wasn’t part of the criteria we set out to test, but maneuverability became evident when we had to sneak cap tools into corners: wall to wall, roof to wall, and around obstructions. Even though it looks large, the Spotnails with its rear cap magazine did well, we just had to twist our wrists a little to nudge the nose in close. The 58 models and the Pneu-Tools 150 did the best; the inline cap barrels made for a sleek profile that was easy to maneuver. The Bostitch and X-Cell staplers were right-side-challenged as their cap-feeding mechanisms kept the nose 4 inches away from anything. This wasn’t a problem for left-side access, however; in the big picture, this limitation isn’t a huge deal. We got used to positioning our bodies so we could attack corners head on with the X-Cell and Bostitch.
Cap Loading. As mentioned, we tested three cap nailers: the Bostitch N66BC, Hitachi NV50AP3, and the Pneu-Tools RC-200. I was apprehensive when I saw the size of the Hitachi cap magazine, which holds 350 caps on one reel, but it turned out to be easy to load. The side hinges along the bottom of the cap-feeding channel open up not just the round reel holder, but the entire channel. The cap reels are housed in sturdy paperboard, so there’s little chance of spilling and tangling. You just pull out 8 inches or so of the caps off the reel and feed them right into the channel. It takes about 8 seconds to reload and lasts longer than three times the loads of the other nailers. The Bostitch has the same side-mounted, 100-cap barrel system as it uses on the stapler, which only took 3 seconds to load. And the Pneu-Tools nailer shares the same inline, 110-cap horizontal barrel as its staplers and is another 3-second reloader.
Nail Loading. All three nailers have standard swing-out coil nailer magazines. The Bostitch has the longest nail capacity at up to 2 1/2 inches, while the Hitachi and Pneu-Tools models shoot up to 2-inch nails. The Hitachi coils have 350 nails to match their cap reels. The Bostitch and Pneu-Tools coils have 300 nails and, therefore, require you to reload caps three times for each coil of nails.
Balance and Weight. The Bostitch nailer feels much heavier than the Pneu-Tools or the Hitachi because of its very head-heavy balance. The balance wasn’t an issue when capping off roofing felt when our arms were below our shoulders, but when installing housewrap, fatigue set in after a couple walls worth of wrapping. The Pneu-Tools also was head-heavy, but not as noticeably as the Bostitch.
Driving Performance. The Bostitch had no trouble sinking 2 1/2-inch nails into dense sheathing. The Hitachi did OK but left a few heads proud driving 2-inch ring-shank nails. The Pneu-Tools had trouble driving consistently, even with the depth-of-drive adjustment at the deepest setting. However, the only time you’d need to use such long nails is when installing foam or fiberboard, so the power shouldn’t be an issue. We needed to back off the depth adjustments on all three nailers when shooting 1- or 1 1/4-inch nails.
Cap Delivery. The Pneu-Tools nailer is tricky to use for consistent cap fastening. When the tool is in forward motion and bounce-fired, the cap folds in half. The tool has to contact the sheathing either straight down or with a slight rearward motion. The Bostitch cap nailer delivered great placement with every nose plant, regardless of its motion. The same goes for the Hitachi; even at high speed, it spit out caps with perfect results. Durability. All three nailers performed well, and the mechanical parts appear designed and built to last. The Bostitch and Hitachi cap magazines seem to be their weakest link, but we really didn’t have any problems with either tool.
Maneuverability. The Hitachi and Pneu-Tools nosed into corners without wrist-wrenching bends, but the Bostitch nailer had the same side-mounted cap magazine awkwardness that we had to get used to with its stapler.
Overall, I was amazed. There wasn’t a real loser in the lot. But through our evaluations, the tools I preferred for the work I typically do rose to the top.
Staplers. Everyone on the crew agreed that the best tools for housewrap and underlayment attachment are the 58 tools: the Grip-Rite GRC58A, Pneu-Tools RC-58 II, and Senco BC58. They’re compact, lightweight, well-balanced, load quickly, and fire caps and staples consistently and well. The only meaningful drawback is the 5/8-inch maximum staple length, making the tools useless for thicker products.
The Bostitch stapler came in second, and would have been first if up to 1-inch foam board installation was common for me. The Spotnails came in third with good capacity and good balance, and the less-powerful Pneu-Tools 150 and X-Cell staplers rounded out the group.
Nailers. When it comes to cap nailers, the Hitachi is hard to beat. Augmenting its standout feature of great balance is the combination of easy loading, high capacity cap reels and nail coils, and a 2-inch capacity. The Bostitch nailer is the second choice with the longest capacity of 2 1/2-inch nails for thicker products, followed by the Pneu-Tools nailer.
–Mike Guertin is a Rhode Island-based builder and remodeler, frequent contributor to Tools of the Trade, and member of Hanley Wood’s JLC Live construction demonstration team.
When I first saw National Nail’s unique new cap-stapling hammer tacker, I knew I had to have one. The biggest complaint I hear from installers who use cap tools is that they’re tethered to a compressor. The Stinger changes that. It’s like a basic, stick-style hammer-tacker stapler but features a rear-mounted coil magazine and an underbody cap-delivery channel. You just squeeze a lever with your index finger to advance a cap, then whack as normal. It can take a new user a dozen or so tries to get the rhythm down–squeeze-whack, squeeze-whack–but it soon becomes automatic.
The angle of attack needs to be consistently flat enough to sink the staple through the cap and into the sheathing without it bending over. Loading the caps takes practice, too. I typically use the tip of a nail to coax the leading cap through the channel; still, it takes less than 30 seconds to reload staples and caps, so I can’t complain. The short, 3/8-inch staple legs don’t penetrate as deep as the pneumatic tools’ fasteners, so they don’t have a lot of holding power. In high-wind conditions, the caps and staples can pop right off, so don’t be stingy with the staples if your housewrap or roofing underlayment will be left exposed for an extended period. I often use the Stinger to tack down housewrap and roofing felt at 3- to 4-foot intervals instead of a risking damage with a hammer tacker. Then I go back with a pneumatic cap tool and fasten off the material to the manufacturer’s specs.
The Stinger holds 168 caps and 168 staples and weighs 2.6 pounds.
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