Brad Nailer vs Finish Nailer: Which is Best and When to Use Each

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When completing a wood finishing project for your home, you have a choice of using a brad nailer vs finish nailer. Both offer their own distinct advantages. It is important to be sure you have the right nailer for the job.

This will ensure your wood project stays affixed as it should. It will also provide the most finished look for the type of wood you are using for your woodworking application.

What is a Finish Nailer?

A finish nailer is a power nail gun that uses 14 to 16-gauge finish nails that are typically 1 to 2.5 inches long. These types of nailers provide strong holding power.

Finish nails can be used in larger-width wood pieces and provides a more finished look to your wood project.

Your finish nailer is an ideal tool for a variety of finishing work. It leaves relatively small holes when shooting into the piece of wood you are working with.

The head of your finish nails is larger than the nails that are used for a brad nailer. This allows finish nails to adhere to surfaces together with a stronger hold.

With a finish nailer, you will have the ability to quickly shoot finish nails into a piece of wood trim with relative ease. You can move quickly along a project, placing finish nails exactly where you need them to hold a structure in place.

While a great finish nailer allows for a smooth finished look to a wood piece, finish nails create a bit of a hole. You will want to fill this with putty for a more aesthetically pleasing look to the wood trim you are nailing.

Finish Nailer Highlights
  • ​Powerful nailer
  • ​Uses 14 gauge and 16 gauge finish nails
  • ​1″ – 2.5″ finish nails
  • ​Finish nails create very small holes
  • ​Large nailheads for better adherance
  • ​Fast and easy to use

When To Use A Finish Nailer

​In general, you want to use a finish nailer anytime you need to nail a lot of brad nails on a project. A finish nailer will allow you to make short work of any woodworking project, leaving you with a solid and secure finished product. Here are a few common brad or finish nailer situations you would use a finish nailer.

Trim

You will most often want to use a finish nailer when you are attaching trim work such as chair rails, baseboards or crown molding. When using a finishing nailer, you are able to adhere thicker trim to a surface like a crown molding or shoe molding with a stronghold to it.

​Cabinetry

A finish nailer is a good tool to use for cabinetry, baseboards or crown molding. A finishing nailer is also good for any type of finishing wood pieces that need to adhere to a surface that doesn’t offer a huge amount of holding power, such as drywall or other tight spaces. You will need to use putty to cover the nail head with a finish nailer, but the overall look will be pleasing.

While you can go with a finish nailer with thicker wood pieces, it is not recommended you use the nailer with thin pieces of trim. It could easily split from the force of the nailer. For this reason, a finish nailer is ideal for wood trim that is at least ½ inches thick or more.

Plywood

A finish nailer can also be used to adhere MDF or thicker plywood pieces together as the finish nail head used is strong enough to hold the pieces together. The nailer offers plenty of power to go through the wood.

What is a Brad Nailer?

brad nailer is a powerful nailer that is virtually similar in appearance to a finish nailer. Brad nailers are slightly smaller and use 18 gauge nails that are 5/8 to 2.5 inches long.

Brad nailers can also be used in finishing projects like picture frames because they use a smaller gauge nail. Brad nailers do not leave a large hole where the nail is placed.

The nice thing about a brad nailer is its ability to leave a small hole in your finishing trim. You can leave these nail holes unfinished as they are unnoticeable and will not affect the look of your wood piece.

Brad nails can also be removed from a woodworking piece quite easily. Brad nails are not as long, in most instances, as a finishing nail and therefore do not penetrate as deep into the wood.

Brad nailers are ideal for a wood project where you need a temporary hold to the piece or need to remove the wood after a short period of time for a more finished look, unlike a crown molding stapler.

A good brad nailer will allow you to quickly secure your wood to something. Brad nailers are convenient and powerful tools. Check this BOSTITCH 18GA Brad Nailer Kit.

BOSTITCH Brad Nailer Kit, 18GA, Smart Point,...
  • Smart Point Technology: The electric brad nailer features easy nail placement as a result of a...
  • 18 gauge brad nailer drives 18 GA brad nails from 5/8-inch to 2-1/8-inch length
  • Oil-free operation reduces the risk of oil stains
  • Tool-free jam release mechanism for easy nail removal
Brad Nailer Highlights
  • ​Precise nailer
  • ​Uses 18 gauge​ brad nails
  • ​5/8″ – 2.5″ brad nails
  • ​Does not create a nail hole
  • ​Best for finishing work
  • ​Fast and easy to use

When To Pick A Brad Nailer

You will want to opt to use a brad nailer vs finish nailer in the following circumstances:

  • A brad nailer is perfect when you have wood projects that need to be temporarily held in place as the glue dries like picture frames
  • Brad nailers are great for afixing trim or narrow trim, such as crown molding, as they leave very small holes and does not require wood putty to cover the nail in most instances.
  • Brad nailers are perfect for narrow trim work that would be too fragile for a finish nailer to handle.

Before operating brad nailers, make sure you know how to use a brad nailer.

While a brad nailer is powerful in its operation, it does not have the strength to drive through MDF or thick pieces of plywood with ease.

It is often not a permanent solution for adhering two wood pieces together and may not be a good solution for all your woodworking projects.

what's the difference between a finish nailer vs brad nailer

Brad Nailer vs Finish Nailer

When comparing a brad nailer or finish nailer, you may have some trouble distinguishing the two power tools from each other. Both have a virtually identical look to them, with the brad nailer being slightly smaller. Both come in pneumatic and cordless options and allow you to complete finishing work with ease.

Brad Nailer vs Finish Nailer: Similarities

  • Both include the ability to attach trim to a variety of surfaces quickly as a power tool
  • Both leave small hole sizes when shooting and provide a solid adherence on a variety of surfaces
  • Both offer the ability to walk along a long wood trim, driving brad nails into the wood as you go
  • Both a finish nailer and a brad nailer can be purchased as a cordless or pneumatic brad and finish nailers as well as with a angled or straight nailer preference. In either specification, you will have a durable power tool that will make quick work out of driving brad nails into trim work without issue.

Brad Nailer vs Finish Nailer: Differences

  • A brad nailer is not able to affix large width wood pieces. It doesn’t have the strength to go through MDF or thick plywood. It will, however, not split the wood that it is nailing through no matter how thin it is, which is a nice advantage of using this power tool.
  • You can select a brad nailer vs finish nailers on delicate wood pieces without worrying about damaging the integrity of the wood
  • Finish nailers are typically designed for more sturdy and durable trim pieces, where you don’t have to be concerned about splitting
  • Finish nailers with 15 or 16 gauge nails are ideal for finishing projects that use trim that is thicker in diameter. Because finish nailers use larger diameter nails for a 15 gauge finish nailer or a 16 gauge finish nailer, you are able to attach thicker pieces of wood to a surface other than wood with 16 gauge nail. It will, however, split a thinner wood piece, where you would be better off when you use a brad nailer vs finish nailers.
  • Finish nailers require you to apply a coating of wood putty to disguise the finish nail hole.
  • A brad nailer may require some putty, but in most instances can be used without the need to go back and putty the surface as the hole’s appearance is so small. This can save you time if you are trimming a large area.
  • Because finish nailers uses longer finish nails, it can be more difficult to remove them from a piece of wood while a brad nailer needs shorter brad nails which can easily be removed as needed.

Pneumatic Nailers

You can select your brad nailer or finish nailer with a pneumatic option. Pneumatic nailers use an air compressor and air hose to power your finish nail gun and give it its shooting strength.

An air compressor is powered by an outlet or motor drive and uses air pressure to create the driving power to pneumatically drive the brad nails into the wood surface you are working with.

A pneumatic nail gun also has air hoses which provide the airflow to the finish nail gun. These hoses may be constricting and limit how far from the air compressor you can travel as you work.

You also need to keep in mind that you do need a separate power source to operate these finish nail gun tools, which may be a challenge in some instances such as working outdoors.

You will be able to work as long as you desire with a pneumatic brad nail gun as long as your power source provides operation. A brad nail gun can allow you to work longer hours and complete the work you have on hand without interruption.

Pneumatic brad nail guns are a preferred way to operate and can provide plenty of power and durability for all your woodworking projects.

Cordless Options

You can also select to have your gun brad nailer or finish nailer in a cordless style. This eliminates the need for an external power source such as a compressor and uses battery packs to power the brad nail gun power tool.

cordless option for nailers
Photo credit: Mark Hunter on Flickr / CC BY

You are not confined by any air hoses with cordless brad nail guns but may find that it doesn’t offer all the power you are looking for with your brad nail guns as a compressor model would. Senco-5N0001N.

Senco 5N0001N Fusion Finish Nailer
  • This product is easy to use.
  • This product is highly durable
  • This product is manufactured in China
  • Rapid charge battery reaches 80% in just 15 minutes

It is, however, a convenient way to drive brad nails into wood pieces in close confines or in outdoor applications.

It is necessary to keep the power packs charged, and you will have a limited amount of time to use your brad nail guns before it runs out of power. If you have a large project, this may prove ineffective as you will need multiple battery packs to keep you operational.

But, it is highly versatile to be able to move around a project without having to preposition a compressor or worry about stepping or tripping on air hoses as you work.

18-Gauge vs 16-Gauge vs 15-Gauge

When using a finish nailer and a brad nailer, you need to understand the difference in the gauge of nails that you are using. With a finish nailer, a 15 gauge or 16-gauge brad nail is common. 15 or 16 gauge is a larger diameter nail, but it offers additional holding power.

15 Gauge and 16 Gauge Nails

A 15 gauge or 16-gauge brad nail has a larger head which allows it to adhere better than smaller gauge nails.

A 15 or 16 gauge nail leaves small holes as they shoot which are visible in trim work and does need additional finishing with putty to fill the gap.

18 Gauge vs 16 Gauge Nails

As you move down the spectrum, you will find that ​16 gauge and 18 gauge nails are smaller in diameter​. This nail size is also typically used in a 18 gauge brad nailer.

This type of brad nail provides a smaller nail hole when pounded in. Brad nails don’t offer as much holding power between two pieces of wood, which is why these nails are most often used in temporary wood projects.

Man holds different length brad nails

18 Gauge Nails

An 18-gauge nail has a smaller head than a finishing nail, but these nails can be easily removed from a wood surface. This is the typical nails size you’ll find utilized in a pin nailer.

These nails are typically shorter in length and have a fine diameter which leaves virtually no hole when driven into a wood piece.

Choosing the Right Nail Gauge Number

Choosing the right nail gauge is important as you need to ensure the nails are large enough to hold the two surfaces together easily without fear of coming apart at any time.

For this reason, you need to consider the type of wood you are working with as well as the surface you are adhering to and the nails you’re using.

Nails that are smaller in diameter such as 18-gauge will not work well with thicker wood surfaces such as plywood or MDF.

Conversely, larger diameter nails that are 15 or 16 gauge have enough strength and length to drive through both these wood types with ease.

Angled Nailer vs Straight Nailer

When selecting a brad or finish nailer to add to your toolbox, you have the option of going with an angled nailer or straight nailer. These nail guns styles also have unique advantages to them.

Angled Nailer

An angled nailer allows you to get nails into a tight space with ease. These guns are typically more expensive but offer a smaller head to get into corners and confined areas.

You can easily use an angled nailer to drive trim work in corners. Its small head and angled body are perfectly suited to this type of application and make it easier to reach these tight spots with ease.

Angled nail guns won’t feel as awkward or bulky as a straight nailer as it is more contoured to work in corners and can really get into those nooks and crannies that can seem impossible to nail using a brad nailer or a straight nailer.

angled nailer vs straight nailer
Photo credit: Mark Hunter on Flickr / CC BY

Straight Nailer

A straight nailer, on the other hand, is less expensive than an angled nailer but bulkier in size. It uses T-shaped nail vs the D-shaped nail of an angled nailer.

A straight nailer also shoots with less accuracy than an angled nail gun. But, they do shoot a thinner nail which can reduce the hold size that is left behind in your trim work.

You will want to consider using an angled nail gun when you have more precise trim work to complete that has a lot of cutting or corner work to it.

A straight nailer is better suited to work that does not require as much accuracy such as baseboard trim or chair rails that just needs to adhere to the drywall in a haphazard manner without a specific pattern to it.

Depending on the type of application you intend to use your nail gun for, an angled nailer or straight nailer may be more beneficial. You may want to lean towards a straight nail gun for your wood projects.

​If you can splurge on an angled nailer, you will benefit from its more agile capabilities and small diameter nailing head.

Final Verdict

When choosing a brad nailer vs finish nailer, you need to consider the wood application that you are working with.

In most instances, a finish nailer will provide you the best results overall. It will adhere better to drywall for most wood trim surfaces and provide a more finished look to the pieces of wood.

This goes the same for creating furniture pieces when a staple gun for upholstery isn’t available. You will be able to affix thick as well as thin wood surfaces with a finish nailer, giving you added versatility without limitation.

While you will have to use putty or a stainable wood filler to fill the nail holes after using a finish nailer, it is still a more flexible nail gun to own and one that you will find works well in your workshop and for your home projects.

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.