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Should I get a brad nailer or finish nailer?


A nailer is a tool that makes it easy to drive nails into wood and other material. Instead of having to drill or hammer nails into wood manually, the nailer drives the nails automatically.

Nailers are also referred to as nail guns. They are commonly powered by highly flammable gases, an explosive charge, electromagnetism, or compressed air. A lot of people confuse a brad nailer for a finish nailer.

The two look similar to the extent that one would think they can be substituted. However, they are used differently and for different purposes. Before diving into the differences between a brad nailer and a finish nailer, it’s important to understand gauge sizes.

A nailer will typically have a gauge size of 15, 16 or 18. A 15-gauge nailer fits 15 nails per inch while an 18-gauge nailer fits 18 nails per inch. As the gauge number increases, the nails become thinner.

It’s highly important that you match each tool with the right job. A nailer with a lower gauge will have thicker nails that are ideal for heavy and thick material. This includes things such as moldings, baseboards, chair rails, door casings, and any project that puts emphasis on structural integrity over appearance.

A nailer with a higher gauge will have longer and thinner nails. These are ideal for small projects that involve the use of light and thin material. Projects here include home repairs and improvements such as fixing loose trims on cabinets and adding crown moldings and baseboards, and small crafting tasks such as making birdhouses, dollhouses, and other delicate things.

Brad Nailer Finish Nailer
Nail Gauge 18 gauge only 15 or 16 Gauge
Hole Size mm / inches 1.41 mm / 0.055″ 15 gauge: 1.41 mm / 0.055″
16 gauge: 1.68 mm / 0.066″
Nail Length mm / inches Up to 51mm / 2″ Both shoot up to 63.5mm / 2-1/2″
Recommended Uses Finishing lighter trim work Thicker finishing like baseboards

Brad nailer description

A brad nailer is a gun that drives thinner nails into wood and material. Most types in the market are available with an 18-gauge size. Brad nailers are used in smaller applications where there’s a high chance of splitting the wood.

They are also used where owners want less of a hole or are worried about the size of the nail head. A brad nailer leaves a smaller nail head once the nails are driven into wood. In most cases, this will barely leave a mark. You may not even need to fill the hole before painting.

Many brad nailers work with different nail lengths. This typically ranges between 5/8” and 2” long. When buying nails for your brad nailer, check to see that it is about three times thicker than the material you’re going to be working on. This will ensure that the nail is able to go through the material and secure it adequately.

The most common uses of a brad nailer include:

  • Paneling
  • Trim work
  • Casing
  • Fixing decorative molding
  • Attaching baseboards/skirting board

Strong sides

  1. Can be used to attach material temporarily. It’s easy to remove the nails once the material is glued together.
  2. The nailhead holes are normally very small.
  3. Brad nails are effective where there’s delicate or thin wood that is likely to split.
  4. The nails produced are ideal for smaller projects such as fixing picture frames and jewelry boxes or attaching decorative edges to cabinets.

Weak sides

  1. Brad nails are not effective where there is thick or large wood. They cannot penetrate MDF or plywood.
  2. If you buy a brad nailer that is driven by compressed air (pneumatic), you’ll need to buy an air pump.

Finish nailer description

A finish nailer is differentiated from a brad nailer by its gauge size. Finish nailers are available with the gauge sizes 15 or 16 while brad nailers come with an 18-gauge size. This means that finish nailers have thicker nails.

They are ideal for nailing material that is up to ¾ inches thick. Most of them will drive nails 2.5” inches long. The 16-gauge finish nailer is lighter and smaller than the 15-gauge nailer. If you’re ever shopping for a finish nailer, it’s best to get the 15-gauge type because thicker nails hold better than thinner ones.

Generally, finish nailers provide a more robust hold on materials and can be used to attach cabinets, crown molding, and thick baseboards. They are also available with angled and straight designs. Angled finish nailers can fit easier in tight spaces.

Finish nailers are also available in cordless or pneumatic versions. Pneumatic nailers require an air compressor. They are significantly lighter and produce more power when compared to other versions. Cordless nailers are ideal where you’ll need to climb somewhere to fix something. You do not want to drag an air hose along as you work on wood.

Finish nailers are ideal for jobs such as:

  • Door and window casings
  • Exterior trims
  • Soft and hardwood flooring
  • Staircases
  • Cabinets
  • Installing base and crown moldings
  • Chair rails

Strong sides

  1. Holds heavier and thicker wood better. The nails are longer and wider, making them ideal for molding, cabinetry and baseboards.
  2. Can be used on a wider range of surfaces and materials.
  3. Nails have long strips eliminating the need of having to reload them often.
  4. Holds are permanent. Nails are less likely to come out once they are driven into wood.

Weak sides

  1. Not ideal for delicate and thin wood. Finish nailers are more powerful and have wider nails that can split thin wood and material.
  2. They leave large nailhead holes behind that may need filling. This may add more work to the process.

Overview and conclusion

The decision to pick either a brad nailer or a finish nailer depends on the task at hand. Brad nailers are for delicate and small projects while finish nailers are for harder jobs that involve larger and thicker material.

If you’re wondering what to use in the middle ground, check the nature of the material you’re using. Heavier and thicker molding and baseboards will need a finish nailer while thinner and lightweight wood will need a brad nailer. If you’re working on several paneling and molding projects, a finish nailer is a good investment. Remember to check the gauge size every time you buy nails for it.

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