Should You be Using a Brad Nailer or Finishing Nailer?

If you have found yourself facing a project that will require you to drive multiple nails, you have likely considered picking up a nail gun to save yourself some time and frustration. If you have never used a nail gun, they can be intimidating, but after using one for just a couple minutes you’ll see they are actually kinda fun and a huge timesaver. If you have just begun to look at nailers, you’ve likely seen there are two types – braid nailers and finishing nailers. This vast assortment of options then lead to further questions and confusion, such as:

  • Where is it appropriate to use a brad nailer instead of a finish nailer?
  • Is there a time where I shouldn’t consider one or the other for my project?

This article will cover the details of both tools and will address both the common and unique uses of each. By the end of the article, you should have a clear understanding of the uses of both tools and where they respectively shine.

Pneumatic Nailer History

A quick history lesson starts this battle off, albeit for context. You may find it hard to believe that nails were first mass-produced in mid-1800, a primary driver of progress in the United States after the War of 1812. Both economic and industrial growth exponentially expanded due to the evolution of the railroads and canals all over the evolving American landscape.

More abundant material availability meant that building demands could more easily be met with greater speed. As an artifact of this growth, herds of early builders supporting the start of the Industrial Revolution found that swinging a hammer all day wasn’t the easiest or most efficient thing to do. It was here that the first inkling of an automatic nailer was born.

Unfortunately for those early builders, the first widely distributed use of hand-held automatic nailers would not be possible until the mid-1900’s. In fact, the first truly successful tool evolved around 1950 but really had a single application: its primary purpose was to nail roof deck boards before plywood was developed.

By the middle of that decade, other offerings became available with broader applications that in some way were still limited by technological advance. Many of these tools still required a hammer or some other manual force to project the nail and presented lots of recoil that complicated things. The main benefit came in the form of better accuracy in nailing applications, but overall speed increases weren’t felt in kind. In fact, nailer technology would evolve consistently through 1970, primarily to address power inadequacy, that harsh recoil and evolve a truly usable handheld nailer.

Fortunately, you live at a time when nailer technology has evolved into spaces smaller than the industrial scale. And, you live at a time when plywood is, ahem, a thing. Indeed, brad nailers and finish nailers are not at all relevant in any “industrial” setting. Rather, we are looking smaller here, a vastly improved and targeted technology since those first attempts back in the 19th century.

Brad Nailer vs Finishing Nailer: The Differences

Now that we have covered some of the history of how nailers came to be, what are the differences between a brad nailer and finishing nailer? This probably isn’t as wow-inducing as you might think:

  • Brad nailers use brads (18-gauge nails with small heads);
  • Finish nailers use 15- or 16-gauge nails;
  • Brad nailers are usually smaller than finish nailers.

It’s important to note, that when referring to the gauge (or size) of nails, a larger gauge number represents a smaller nail. Therefore, you’ll find that a 18 gauge nail is much smaller than a 10 gauge nail.

The biggest differences one can derive from this information comes down to the concept of holding power. If you were to blindly search out this phrase on the internet, you would be presented with results of financial, entertainment knowledge and legal themes in addition to woodworking results on page three. What we are referring to here is the strength of a union—withdrawal resistance—between two pieces of wood.

If we were to compare a brad nail’s holding power to that of a finish nail, we’d find that it’s naturally much less than that of a finish nail, simply due to its size. This is especially revealing in applications involving thick or heavy wood. Simply put, a brad cannot hold two thick pieces of wood together simply due to the size and tensile strength of the fastener.

Conversely, we’d find that a finish nailer might have too much holding power in many smaller projects that use lighter or less dense woods.

Choosing the Best Tool for a Given Application

Let’s use this concept of holding power to help guide when to use either a brad nailer or a finish nailer.

Brad Nailers

Brad nailers are the perfect tool for craft projects or decorative wood projects that use small or delicate wood pieces. This is due to both the size of the fastener and the speed with which it is projected into a piece of wood. Well, to be perfectly clear here, there is a possibility that a brad might be too big for some media. We will address this in the next section.

The head of the brad creates a smaller insertion point in wood than a nail, reducing or eliminating the need for wood putty to provide a smooth painted or stained finish. The biggest key here is that a brad nailer will typically be successful in applications where holding power is minimal to moderate. Brads can bend or in rare cases, break if used in media that is too hard or dense—often those requiring a greater holding power.

Finish Nailers

Most trim and crown molding applications benefit from the strength of a finish nail. The larger head on the nail—even a 16-gauge nail—presents greater holding power than a brad. Finish nailers are bigger than brad nailers; they can use greater force to project the nails as a result.

Often times, especially in crown molding applications, gravity increases the need for increased holding power within the frame of withdrawal resistance. The larger nail, and especially the larger head on that nail, give trim and molding applications the holding power they need to be successful and remain in place after nailing.

However, trim and molding aren’t the only relevant applications of a finish nailer. This tool is appropriate for most non-construction woodworking projects.

What is the difference between an angled and straight finish nailer? If you have started to research finish nailers, you have probably noticed there are two different types which are commonly referred to as “angled” and “straight” models. Angled finish nailers are primarily used for situations that you need to put nails into trim that are in tight or hard to access spaces. The angle of the guns allow you to get the head of the gun into the tight quarters to fire it.

Straight finish nailers operate similar to a staple gun. The entire bottom portion of the gun will rest on your wood and the nails will release from the head. These guns are as easy to get into tight quarters, however, they do typically hold more nails. They are also much cheaper than angled guns which is a reason they are more commonly found in the garages of weekend DIY’ers.

Which One do I Choose?

Admittedly, that last section probably introduced more questions than answers. Let’s put this together, shall we?

As we mentioned moments ago, the media involved is a key determining factor when trying to decide which nailer is appropriate for a project. Some woods are so dense that brads should not be used on them unless incredibly strong wood glue is also part of that project. In fact, brads cannot penetrate thicker plywood or MDF so in those projects, it’s easy to determine which tool is appropriate.

Really fine or delicate woods may be too thick even for brads. In that case, you’d need to look at the prospect of a pin nailer, which is unfortunately outside the scope of this discussion. We mention it, though, to highlight that there are other granularities to consider outside that of finish or brad nailers for really small project needs.

A finish nailer can split or otherwise damage wood used in smaller projects, even when projected at relatively slow speeds. The diameter of the nail absolutely is a limiting factor in smaller projects.

So, if we use a little bit of structure to support all of the above to guide the tool decision, it would look something like this:

  • If structural integrity is in some way a consideration, a brad is not appropriate for that project;
  • If the project or the media is small, a finish nail is likely too big for that application.
Do I Really Need Both?

The answer to that question truly comes down to a couple very unique things. Do you have a myriad of projects that require the use of different fasteners due to the media involved? Further, do you do enough projects to justify spending money on and maintaining two tools? Well, the truth is in that case, both a brad nailer and a finish nailer make sense for you in your project work.

But…

If you do a limited number of projects per year and of those, you really don’t do many tiny projects, you can likely get away with using a 16-gauge finish nailer and some wood putty for pretty much every project you do. The trick there is to tailor the length of your nails and the air pressure used to project the fasteners are commensurate with the size and density of the wood you are using.

Which nail guns are best?

Brad & Finish Nailer

Like any tool, there is not a single nail gun that is going to be perfect. There’s several good options on the market today. My primary suggestion to someone getting a nailer – don’t buy the cheapest option you can find. From my experience, you’ll get what you pay for when it comes to finish nailers. My biggest issue with the cheap nail guns are the frequency of jams. I’ve tried several of the sub-$50 guns only to find myself constantly having to stop to remove jams. It kills productivity and is highly frustrating.

For average do-it-yourself-er that is looking to get a nail gun to use for random projects around the house, I recommend getting the Bostick combo package that Amazon carries (click here to see it). This kit comes with everything you need. It comes with the air compressor, a finish nailer, a brad nailer and a staple gun. Bostick is an excellent brand that I have trusted for a long time. It will be very difficult to find a quality nail gun and compressor for much less than the price of this bundled kit. Highly recommend!

Cordless Nail Gun Options

Many people love nail guns, but they hate having an air compressor. Air compressors can be loud, heavy and take up a decent amount of space if you get anything bigger than a 3 gallon tank. In recent years, tool manufacturers have developed “cordless” nail guns that don’t require air tanks! These guns get their power from lithium batteries just like you find in other cordless tools.

I’ve only used a couple cordless nail guns, but the one that I was impressed with the most was the PORTER-CABLE PCC790LA (you can view it on Amazon by clicking here). I really like this model because it’s a good name brand but it’s not over-priced for what you are getting. Going this route will save you a bit of money versus having to buy a nail gun and a air compressor.

Screw Gun Options

Screw guns are an often over looked tool. I’ve never understood why these tools haven’t caught on more. They are a massive time saver over driving screws one at a time. I think many times, people just assume they should go with a nail gun because that’s all they know. But in many instances, a screw will work much better than a nail. A great example of this is when putting up an outdoor wood fence. Nails are almost always used, but screws will hold up much better over the long term.

My favorite screw gun is the Senco TV174274. You can check out the great price Amazon carries it for by clicking it here. The thing that sets this particular model apart from others for me is the fact that the screws are auto-fed similiar to how nail guns work. When I first tried it, I expected the jam rate to be higher than I liked. However, in the first box of 1000 screws, I think I only had 3 jams, and one was completely my fault. The time saving aspect was huge.

 

Related Information and Common Questions

Why won’t my nail gun fire? The two most common reasons that a nail gun won’t fire is that it isn’t getting enough air or a jam has occurred. Luckily, it’s easy to quickly determine which is causing your problem.

If you pull the trigger you don’t hear the gun trying to fire, then odds are that you aren’t getting enough air pressure into the gun. Do a quick check on your air compressor and make sure it’s powered on, full of air, and the dials that are used to regulate the pressure are correct.

On the other hand, if you try using the nail gun and you hear it trying to fire, but no nails are coming out, odds are you have a jam. When troubleshooting a nail gun that won’t fire, it’s very important to take precautions to avoid a misfire that could cause serious injury. Never point the gun at your face and always disconnect it from it’s power source (air compressor) when working to remove a jam.

To remove a jam, you’ll likely need to take your gun apart. This isn’t nearly as daunting as it sounds. In fact, once you look over your gun a bit, you’ll see there are likely several latches and screws near where the nail comes out that are easy to remove. If possible, get your manual out while when you go to take your nail gun apart. If you don’t have it, do a basic Google search of your nail gun’s model and you should quickly find it. Another great source is YouTube if you need help with a specific model.

Make sure when you start taking the gun apart, you have a set of needle nose pliers and small sized flat head screwdrivers. Both will come in handy when you get to the troubled nail that has caused the jam. You’ll likely have to pry it out of your gun. After it’s been removed, simply put the gun back together and you are good to go again.

Can I use a finish nailer on quarter round? Yes, you can use a finish nailer on quarter round. I would recommend smaller sized nails so it limits the possibility of any damage that might occur to your wood. In most cases, you’ll want to get a tiny bit of wood putty to place over the holes that are created when you shoot the nail into the wood. Be sure to do some tests to ensure your air pressure is correct. Otherwise you may end up firing the nail thru the wood and causing it to split.

Can I use a finish nailer for fencing? A finish nailer will not work for a fence. A wood fence will take a beating throughout the year from just the weather elements. Add to that, the beating it will take from kids and animals, it is highly recommended that you do not use a finish nailer on fencing. In order to hold the border securing in place, the nails used need to have a big head. The only way you can get that is by using a framing nail gun as they are able to hold longer nails with larger heads.

To go a step further in making sure your fence is secure, you could use a screw gun. These work similar to a nail gun but instead allow you to drive screws into your boards at a quicker pace than a normal drill would.

Can I use a finish nailer for siding? No, it is not recommended that you use a finish nailer for siding. Much like a fence, the siding will endure a considerable amount of wear and tear from the weather that it will face when outdoors. In addition, the temperature and humidity changes outside will cause the wood to expand and contract which will eventually cause it to “pop” past the head of the finish nail that you used. You should elect to go with a framing nailer or screw gun. Both of which can be rented from a local hardware store if you don’t want to purchase one. Please see the section above where I recommend my framing nailer and screw gun of choice.

Can you use a finish nailer for framing? Due to the weight that can be placed upon framing boards, it is not a good idea to use finish nails for framing. It’s important that nails be used with large heads that can withstand the weight of materials attached to the frames, otherwise the your structure could be at risk of a collapse.

Can I use a finish nailer for hardwood floors? Yes! You can use a finish nail gun on hardwood floors. There are specialized flooring nailers that are available, but a good finish nailer can do the job. Just make sure the nails you choose are long enough and good quality to avoid issues down the road.