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Brad Nailer vs. Finish Nailer: You’ll Know in 1 Minute

choose between brad nailer and finish nailer
It can be a tough choice, but you only need to answer one question, Clint.
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Brad nailers are for finishing touches, as opposed to the finish nailers which do the real trim carpentry work.

Our view:
You need both. There, we said it: a brad nailer will not tear delicate material and add a nice appearance but you will need a finish nailer to penetrate trim wood and hard materials. If you have to pick one first…choose this nail gun. A 16 gauge finish nailer, in our view, is the one to have if you just have to have one. We prefer power over looks.

Note: The US government has a pdf on Nail Gun Safety: excellent; 20pp.


FaceOff: Brad Nailer vs. Finish Nailer

As Dirty Harry said, “You have to ask yourself one question”…but it’s not yes or no, “I feel lucky”: This is multiple guess.

If you choose brad nailer, see the very bottom for an ultra-low-cost alternative.

The One Question: What will you do the most?

The main difference: Brads are smaller ‘gauge’ nails, with smaller heads (like the head of me, bradthepainter). Size matters, Brad. Trim nails are 14-, 15-, or 16-gauge. Brads are usually 18. Brad nailer are use for finishing touches, for power go with a finish nailer.

Gauge number? Just remember that if you can fit, let’s say 15 nails side-by-side in one inch, it’s 15 ‘gauge’.  Bigger number, smaller nail. Easy. Looking around the “internets”, we see that no other website has this info! Old school real. Nail gauge these days is just a word to most people. Our video look at this is at the bottom of the page.

—— Choose your weapon, then jump down to products and types ——

1. BRAD NAILERS GIVE YOU:

Available nail lengths: 5/8 to 2½ inches. (Different gun specs might be different).

Diameter nails: A brad nail gun shoot 18 gauge nails (smaller than finish nails).

Price: Brad nailers are more in demand so the competition drives down the price more than trim nailers. There are quality guns and budget guns (See my review of brad nailers for differeent budgets).

You can check here my favorite brad gun—an amazing tool.

Qualities: Brads are thinner spikes so the holes are tiny and are often left unfilled. But brads won’t penetrate thick plywood or even medium density fiberboard, MDF. Key: no splits when dealing with delicate materials.

Versatility: Some brad nailers often accommodate staples, unlike finish nailers. No brad nailers that we know of comes with an angled magazine, ( but it’s not really essential for small projects).

Uses: For finishing touches that add a nice appearance (more than for holding power), Hold while the glue dries: small things like wooden accents, jewelry boxes, or attaching decorative trim and edges to cabinetry.

Brad nailer for small trim: a finish nailer would split this
A powerful finish nailer would split this section of decorative trim
  • Small craft projects like picture frames, birdhouses, toys for children
  • Narrow trim and molding
  • Doorstops (not door frames)
  • Narrow crown molding
  • Paneling
  • Relatively small nail holes. only need to use little to no wood putty to fill the holes
  • Mistakes are much easier to pull out with pliers than with finish nails

Limits: Brad nailer will not punch through woods such as medium density fiberboard, MDF, and thick plywood. A brad nail does not have the same holding power as a finish nail.

What woodworkers do with them: 

Holding surfaces together for gluing. While you’re waiting for wood glue or other adhesives to set, a brad nail can hold things together temporarily. They’re even easy to remove if need be.

Small-scale crafting projects. Brad nailers are perfect for making picture frames, birdhouses, models. Use as a clamp when gluing.

2. FINISH NAILERS GIVE YOU:

Available nail lengths: 1 to 2½ inches long (Different gun specs might be different).

Our top brad gun is this Hitachi nailer

Diameter nails: Finishing nail guns shoot trim nails between 14-, 15-, and 16-gauge

Price: Finish nailers of all kinds are about 30% costly more than brad nailers in general, but as we’ll see, they can do a lot more. Electrics are pricey, but good ones are tools you leave your grandchildren. (see our list of the top finish nailers).

Qualities: Can attach substantial woodwork—create a permanent hold.

haning window with finish nailer impossible with brad nailer
Securing a window with a finish nailer. Impossible with brad nailer.

Versatility: Big plus (that brad nailers lack): they are made with two designs: both straight and angled magazines—angled is helpful to put a nail in a corner stud. Bigger plus: you can use a finishing nailer with a larger range of materials.

Uses: On any project where you need structural integrity, not just appearance. Strong enough to penetrate thick plywood or even cabinet grade medium density fiberboard, MDF.

  • Some cabinetry pieces
  • Chair rails
  • Wainscoting
  • Door casings
  • Baseboards
  • Trim work (window frames, etc)
  • Wide crown molding
  • Nails are more difficult to remove with pliers than brads

Trim/finish nailer holes are bigger, so you need to fill them with putty or spackle. Staining jobs require a stainable or pre-colored putty. That’s all covered in our Nailer Accessories post: it has everything.

Limits: You won’t be able to hold studs together, but finish nails are good for small framing pieces. Small decorative trim might split.

What woodworkers do with them: When installing baseboards or crown molding, etc., finish nails usually find the drywall which is not strong enough even with a long spike. Professionals try to hit the stud as often as possible without leaving too many nail holes for the painter to fill.


Which actual product to buy: Finish Nailer vs. Brad Nailer

Not sure if you want electric or pneumatic? Skip to the 2nd question, just below.

If you’ve decided on pneumatic or electric, your work here is done:

We have 5 posts on nail guns and accessories: you can tell I love them. I picked only top brands that you’ll put in your Will. We have…

  1. The top quality brad nailers: My parents did not name me “trim”.
  2. Review of finish nailers: surprisingly affordable.
  3. The top big boy toys: comparison of framing nailers.
  4. Smallest of all: a review of pin nailers (23 gauge).
  5. Nail Setting and Nailer Accessories.

Electric or Pneumatic? (Last Question)

There are some miscellaneous types (gas, etc) at the bottom, but most folks use either air or electric. (Most woodworkers are switching to electric these days even if they already have a compressor for other pneumatic tools.)

  • Oil: All pneumatics need pneumatic tool oil daily if using all day, and some electrics need a drop now and then.
  • Electric nailers are more expensive but cordless and still very powerful. But there’s the battery charging thing with the electric finish nailer and electric brad nailer.
  • Obviously, pneumatic nailers need an air compressor to work. So add the cost of the air compressor to the bill—a one time cost.
  • If you plan to accumulate the full range of nail guns, pneumatic is the least costly way—plus compressors are not really that expensive, and do more than drive tools.
  • All of the compressors we listed in our nail gun accessories post can run anything from one pin nailer up to two framing guns.
  • Working on a ladder with an air hose can drag you down…literally.
  • Most guns can shoot in two modes: sequential and bump mode…Read our posts on the nailers if you don’t know what this is.
Honorable Mention

There also exist a few brad and finish nailers of the gas canister type that we did not cover in our nail gun review posts:

  1. Gas canister finish nailer: cordless and light but you need to buy the propane cans. Popular on many construction sites. A great trim nail gun.
  2. A gas brad nailer is hard to find…but…If you just found three-hundred bucks in your drawer and don’t know what to do with it, grab the Paslode Gas Canister Brad Nailer. Like a beautiful freak of nature.

VIDEO: This gent has the best video on YouTube about the choice: Brad Nailer vs. Finish Nailer


Opinion:

You need both. You just do. Like having different screwdrivers.

But if you have to pick one first…

A 15 gauge finish nailer, (read my review) in my view, is the first to get. The 14 gauge finish nail gun is too big for some of the smaller jobs. With a 15 gauge finish nailer, you can do some of the things that a brad nail gun can do, but a 14 cannot.

Both these babies have a clean finish with no hammer marks (‘smiles’, we call them), and no damaged fingers. Brads are very hard to insert manually but not with a brad nail gun.

If you can afford it, a great idea is to buy a combo kit that instantly gives you versatility. (Combo kits and nailer extras page).

Safety tip: these guns are dangerous (37,000 emergency room accidents per year in the USA). Many makers of nail guns even provide safety glasses with the tool. Just covering their donkey? Yes, but it tells you something. It’s not the wood flying out of the hole you are worried about. It’s the nail. Think about it.


The results of a poll

I asked some woodworkers, carpenters, and handy-folks, what they would recommend to someone looking to buy only one gun brad nailer vs. finish nailer. Here is the unanimous result:

  • brad nailer vs. finish nailer for the homeowner………… Finish Nailer
  • For the amateur woodworker……………. Brad nailer
  • brad nailer or finish nailer for the professional woodworker…………….. Both
  • brad nailer vs. finish nailer as a gift to any of the above……….. Brad nailer

Beginner’s Corner:

How to use a brad nailer or finish nailer safely is really important to know. Good maintenance and safety practices are the main things the people forget. If you have used a hand-stapler, you can handle an 18 gauge brad nailer. I still get asked “what is a brad nail?”, and ‘how to use a brad nailer’.

Anyway, the brad is not special: just a simple 18 gauge nail you can disappear in wood. A brad gun makes it easy: brads are hard to work with by hand. One key thing is to practice looking at the wood grain. If you shoot across the grain, do you get splitting? What if you shoot into the end of the board?

Want to know how they work? Bingo. (how stuff works website)


 The Ultra Low-Cost Alternative:

Want to keep it simple? Just buy a combination gun: brad-nailer/stapler. Looks just like a staple gun…shoots crown staples like a staple gun but also shoots brads of various lengths: the only downside is that the power comes only from your muscle (a good thing if you like simplicity) so your hand will get tired if you are doing a lot. I review this baby in this video.

I love my Dewalt…Stamped right on the gun is a list of the other makers’ brad/staple model numbers for a refill. Confident much? Cool move, Dewalt.


Summary: the difference between brad nailer and finish nailer features.

We were asked to answer some questions: ‘what is a brad nail? What size nails for baseboard trim? What can a 16 gauge finish nailer do? What can the 18 gauge brad nail hold?’

That is our look at the battle between the Finish Nailer vs. Brad Nailer. Did we miss anything? Can you tell anyone what is a brad nailer now? We hope you like our look at the basic differences between the 18 gauge brad nail vs. 16 gauge finish nailer. It comes down to the actual power of the brad nail vs finish nail. The 18 gauge nail gun is not the nail gun for trim, but the trim nailer, a.k.a. finishing nailer (no difference between a ‘finishing nail gun’ and a ‘trim nailer gun’) is the best choice for any job up to framing a wall and bigger than a bread box!


Let us know in the comments what you like better between finish nailers vs brad nailers.  Thanks!

Two videos: this one is on my old power stapler, and shown below is about nail gauges. Enjoy.

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Question or Comment: Ask me anything!