A lot of people ask me, “What is the difference between a brad nailer and a finish nailer?” And the reason that it is such a common question is that they are very similar tools. They both look similar and do a similar task.
The real difference between the two is size. And I’m not talking about the size of the gun itself (although brad nailers do tend to be a bit smaller on average), but the size of the fixing they fire.
Although you’d be forgiven for thinking so, brad nailers (or brad nail guns) don’t actually use nails, they use brads (makes sense, huh?) And although a brad is essentially just a smaller nail, we call them brads so that we can easily distinguish between the two and use them for the correct tasks.
Let’s now take a more in depth look at the difference between these two tools and talk about which tasks we should be using them for.
What Is A Brad Nailer
As mentioned above, a brad nailer is a tool that fires small gauge nails – called brads – into wood. Brads are almost exclusively 18 gauge, meaning they are very thin fixings and would prove quite difficult to drive in using a regular hammer. Brads commonly range in length from 5/8 up to 2 inches and have a small head when compared to a typical nail.
Brad nailers themselves are found in both electric and pneumatic varieties. Both varieties work well and it comes down to personal preference and specific use when deciding between the two.
Electric brad nailers tend to be a little more expensive but they are also more powerful. And if you don’t already use pneumatic tools, keep in mind that you are going to need an air compressor to run a pneumatic brad nailer. If you don’t already have one, it will more than likely end up costing you more for the pneumatic nailer and compressor combined than it would purchasing an electric nailer from the outset.
When it comes to electric nailers, there are cordless and corded models available. And while the cordless models are more convenient to work with, the corded models will have more consistent power and, of course, you don’t need to worry about keeping the batteries charged.
The best thing about brad nailers is that they leave such a small entry hole in the wood or frame you are working with. Most of the time, the holes are so small they don’t require finishing with wood putty. A great time and money saver.
What Is A Finish Nailer
You are probably more familiar with this type of nailer as they tend to be seen and used more than the smaller brad nailers. Finish nailers (or finish nailguns) use the more common 14 to 16 gauge nails that are also usually a bit longer than brads – typically around 1 to 2.5 inches in length.
Although finishing nails usually have very small heads, their larger gauge means that you’ll usually need to fill the hole left behind with wood putty or something similar. These larger nails will give a much stronger hold than brad nails so they can be used to attach heavier components such as cabinets, crown molding and baseboards.
Like brad nailers, they come in both pneumatic and electric models and the differences between them are pretty much the same as brad nailers. The pneumatic nailers tend to be cheaper but they will require a separate air compressor to run them.
When it comes to electric finish nailers, cordless tend to be far more commonly used than the corded varieties. They come in especially handy when doing jobs on roofs or up top of ladders, where a power cord or compressor hose could easily get in the way. This can be both annoying and dangerous.
Pros And Cons Of Using A Brad Nailer
- You can work with thin material as the thin gauge of the brads won’t split or damage thin wood.
- Little to no wood putty is needed to cover the small nail entry holes. Saves you both time and money by giving you a finished look straight away.
- Great for using as temporary holds while gluing. Brads can be easily removed once the glue has dried and the holes left behind are barely visible.
- This makes them perfect for use when making small and delicate projects such as picture frames, jewelry boxes or attaching trims and edging.
- Thin gauge brads are weak. Cannot be used on thicker wood
- Extra cost of air compressor if using pneumatic nailer.
Pros and Cons Of Using A Finish Nailer
- Larger gauge and longer nails will hold and join heavier and thicker wood.
- Great for use in cabinetry, molding, and installing baseboards
- Extremely versatile and practical as they can be used on a wide range of surfaces and materials
- Create a strong and permanent fixing in wood joins.
- Nails come in long strips of 50 to 100 nails, meaning you’ll need to spend less time reloading the nailer.
- Bigger nail entry holes that will usually require filling with wood putty.
- Nails are too thick to use with thinner, more delicate material. The larger gauge and power of impact mean that smaller wood and material will most likely split.
- Again, if you want to use a pneumatic nailer, you’ll need to have an air compressor on site.
When To Use a Brad Nailer
Whether you require a brad nailer and a finish nailer comes down to the task itself. It all depends on which type of fixing is best to use for that particular job – a brad or a fixing nail.
A brad nailer should be used for smaller and more delicate tasks, such as:
- Small-scale home repairs and DIY work. Use a brad nailer to fix and secure loose trim and edges on cupboards, cabinets and small crown moldings.
- Securing surfaces together while gluing. Brad nailers are great for holding small bits of wood together while you wait for the wood glue to set. They can either be left in at the end of the project or used as a temporary fixing and removed after the glue has dried. Their small size means that the nail holes that are left behind probably won’t require any filing or if they do, won’t require much wood putty and are very simple to fill.
- Small-scale craft projects. Brad nailers are great for doing a load of small-scale DIY projects at home. Anything from making picture and art frames, to jewelry boxes, small letterboxes and birdhouses.
- Brad nailers also work well to get some extra hold when installing interlock flooring systems.
When To Use A Finish Nailer
Finishing nailers are for the bigger stuff that brad nailers can’t handle. They are the best all-round option and probably the most common household nailer you’ll see. When doing bigger jobs, repairs and DIY projects around the house, you’ll need a finish nailer to create permanent fixings and joins between stronger and heavier material.
Common uses for finish nailers include:
- Larger crown molding
- Joining large pieces of wood
- Attaching MDF and plywood to frames
- Door casing
- Chair rails
Basically, a finish nailer should be used when you need to guarantee strong structural integrity and bonding between heavier materials. The main focus of a finish nailer is function over aesthetics.
There are, of course, some jobs that are in a kind of mid-point between sizing and you might be unsure of whether you should use a brad nail gun or a finishing nail gun. There’s no clear answer in this case, however, I would say that if the focus of the task is the strength of the join, and the material is big enough to allow for it, you’d be better of using a finish nailer. At the end of the day, just rely on your best judgment and think about the task at hand.
Most of the time, these two tools aren’t interchangeable and are designed to do different and specific tasks. Because of this, it’s very important that you take the time to think about what tasks you will be performing and therefore, which tool you need for the job.
If it was up to me, I’d tell you to get both but I know that isn’t always a feasible option due to cost, storage space and the amount of use that the tool is going to get.
Just keep in mind that if you try to use a finish nailer on material that is too small and delicate, you are most likely only going to split and damage the material that you are working with.
At the same time, using a brad nailer on bigger projects that require strong fixings and joins will not work, as the thin gauge brads just don’t have the strength required to hold larger materials together.
Like always, you need the right tool for the job and it just doesn’t pay to cut corners. Using the right tool will save you precise time, money and a hell of a lot of stress.
And for those of you interested in purchasing a new brad or finish nailer, check out our guide to the best finish nailers available for purchase today.