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

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

When completing a wood finishing project for your home, you have a choice of using a finish nailer or a brad 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 nails that are typically 1 to 2.5 inches long. These types of nailers provide strong holding power. It 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 finishing nail is larger than the nails that are used for a brad nailer. This allows it to adhere to surfaces together with a stronger hold.

With a finish nailer, you will have the ability to quickly shoot nails into a piece of wood trim with relative ease. You can move quickly along a project, placing 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, it does 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
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    ​Powerful nail gun
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    ​Uses 14 gauge and 16 gauge nails
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    ​1" - 2.5" nails
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    ​Creates very small holes
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    ​Large nailheads for better adherance
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    ​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 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 situations you would use a finish nail gun.

​Trim

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

​Cabinetry

A finish nailer is a good tool to use for cabinetry. It 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. 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 use a finish nailer with thicker wood pieces, it is not recommended you use the nail gun with thin pieces of trim. It could easily split from the force of the nail gun. 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 nail head used is strong enough to hold the pieces together. The nail gun offers plenty of power to go through the wood.

What is a Brad Nailer?

A brad nailer, on the other hand, is a powerful nail gun that is virtually similar in appearance to a finish nail gun. It is slightly smaller and uses 18-gauge nails that are 5/8 to 2.5 inches long. This nail gun can also be used in finishing projects because it uses a smaller gauge nail. It does 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. They are not as long, in most instances, as a finishing nail and therefore do not penetrate as deep into the wood. This is ideal for a wood project where you need temporary hold to the piece or need to remove the wood after a short period of time for a more finished look.

A good brad nailer will allow you to quickly secure your wood to something. They are convenient and powerful tools.

​Brad Nailer Highlights
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    ​Precise nail gun
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    ​Uses 18 gauge​ nails
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    ​5/8" - 2.5" nails
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    ​Does not create a nail hole
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    ​Best for finishing work
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    ​Fast and easy to use

When To Use A Brad Nailer?

Using a brad nailer is best recommended when you have wood projects that need to be temporarily held in place as the glue dries. For example, you may use a brad nailer to drive holes in two pieces of wood that will essentially be held together by glue later on.  

This allows you to easily remove the nail without having to do any repair work to cover the small hole that has been left by the brad nailer.

You can also easily use a brad nailer for trim, as it leaves very small holes and does not require putty to cover the nail in most instances. A brad nailer is perfect for fine trim work that would be too fragile for a finish nailer to handle.

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

Finish Nailer vs Brad Nailer

When comparing a finish nailer vs brad 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 nail gun being slightly smaller. Both come in pneumatic and cordless options and allow you to complete finishing work with ease.

Similarities

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

​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 use a brad nailer on delicate wood pieces without worrying about damaging the integrity of the wood
  • A finish nailer is typically designed for more sturdy and durable trim pieces, where you don’t have to be concerned about splitting
  • A finish nailer is ideal for finishing projects that use trim that is thicker in diameter. Because this nail gun uses larger diameter nails that are 15 or 16-gauge sizes, you are able to attach thicker pieces of wood to a surface other than wood. It will, however, split a thinner wood piece, where you would be better off using a brad nailer.
  • A finish nailer requires you to apply a coating of wood putty to disguise the 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 a finish nail gun uses longer nails, it can be more difficult to remove them from a piece of wood while a brad nailer uses shorter nails which can easily be removed as needed.

Pneumatic Options

You can select your brad nailer or finish nailer with a pneumatic option. This uses air from a compressor to power your nail gun and give it its shooting strength.

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

A pneumatic nail gun also has air hoses which provide the airflow to the nail gun. These hoses may be constricting and limit how far from the 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 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 nail gun as long as your power source provides operation. This can allow you to work longer hours and complete the work you have on hand without interruption.

Pneumatic 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 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 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 a cordless nail gun model but may find that it doesn’t offer all the power you are looking for with your nail gun as a compressor model would.

It is, however, a convenient way to drive 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 nail gun 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 or 16-gauge nail is common. This is a larger diameter nail, but it offers additional holding power.

15 Gauge and 16 Gauge Nails

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

These nails leave small holes as they shoot which are visible in trim work and does need additional finishing with putty to conceal the gap.

18 Gauge vs 16 Gauge Nails

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

This type of nail provides a smaller nail hole when pounded in. It doesn’t offer as much holding power between two pieces of wood, which is why it is 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 can be easily removed from a wood surface.This is the typical size you'll find utilized in a pin nailer.

They 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

Choosing the right nail gauge is important as you need to ensure it is 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.

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

Conversly,  larger diameter nails that are 15 and 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 nailer or finish nailer to add to your toolbox, you have the option of going with an angled nailer or straight nailer. These nail gun styles also have unique advantages to them.

Angled Nailer

An angled nailer allows you to get 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.

An angled nail gun 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 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 that just needs to adhere to the drywall in a haphazard manner without a specific pattern to it.

Depending on your budget and the type of application, you intend to use your nail gun for, an angled nailer or straight nailer may be more beneficial. If you are on a tight budget, 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.

Related: How to Build Roof Trusses for a Shed

Final Verdict

When choosing a finish nailer vs brad 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 wood piece.

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.

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