Brad Nailer vs Finish Nailers – What’s the difference? [2023]

A lot of people get confused when it comes to brad and finish nailers.

Both nailers look very similar and you might even think they’re interchangeable.

In some ways, brad nailers do look just like smaller framing nails. The truth is, they have different application uses. So it’s important to choose the right one for the job.

To try to clear up some of the confusion, let’s examine these two tools to better understand them so you can be sure you pick the right one for the job.

Understanding Gauge

Before diving into the differences between these guns it’s important to familiarize yourself with nail gauge.

The common gauge sizes for nailers are 15, 16 & 18.

Simply put, the higher the gauge number, the thinner the nail.

The explanation for this is pretty simple…

The number stands for how many nails per inch. For example, an 18 gauge would have 18 pieces per inch which are going to be thinner than 16 gauge nails, which would have 16 nails per inch.

A Quick Comparison

  Brad Nailer Finish Nailer
Nail Gauge 18 gauge only 15 or 16 Gauge
Hole Size mm / inches 1.41 mm / 0.055″ 15 gauge: 1.69 mm / 0.066″
16 gauge: 1.58 mm / 0.063″
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

What Is a Brad Nailer?

The brad nailer was introduced after the finish nailer primarily to provide a gun that shoots thinner nails.

You will find that brad nailers are designed for 18 gauge nails.

You’ll want to use a brad nailer on the smaller applications where you are worried about splitting the wood or the size of the nail head.

As any nail head will leave a hole in the wood, you’ll obviously want a nail that won’t leave too big of a hole. An 18 gauge brad nailer will have a reduced hole size which leaves less of a mark in your woodwork. Depending on the material you’re using, you may not even need to fill it in before painting.

What is an 18 gauge brad nailer used for?

They are used for wood where splitting might be an issue or where you would want a thinner nail for less of a hole. They have many uses but they are most commonly used for:

  • Trim work
  • Paneling
  • Fastening decorative molding
  • Casing
  • Baseboard

Benefits of a brad nailer

  • Ideal for thin or more delicate wood that you’re worried about splitting
  • Leaves small nail head holes
  • Brads can be used to temporarily hold things in place when using glue. Simply remove them when the glue has dried and the nail holes are barely visible.
  • The nails are perfect for small projects, like making jewelry boxes, picture frames, or attaching decorating trims and edges to cabinetry.

Drawbacks of a brad nailer

  • Can’t be used with large, thick pieces of wood. These brads won’t penetrate thick plywood or even MDF.
  • If you choose a pneumatic nailer, you’ll still need to invest in an air pump.

Which is the best brad nailer to buy?

Our top pick is the DEWALT DCN680D1 Cordless.

DEWALT 20V MAX* Cordless Brad Nailer Kit, 18GA (DCN680D1)
3,066 Reviews
DEWALT 20V MAX* Cordless Brad Nailer Kit, 18GA (DCN680D1)
  • 100% battery power of the cordless brand nailer eliminates need for compressor, hose or costly gas cartridges
  • Brushless motor of 18 gauge brad nailer maximizes runtime and durability
  • Micro nose of the battery brad nailer improves line of sight and accuracy of nail placement (Compared to DEWALT DC608)
  • Tool-free depth adjustment for precise countersinking of nails
  • Tool-free jam release to quickly and easily clear nail jams
  • Multi-functional LED lights help to provide both workspace illumination and tool diagnostics

If you want the full list, then head over to our best list brad nailer guide.

What Is a Finish Nailer?

Many people get confused with the term “finish nailer”, as it can be used loosely for nailers ranging from 15 gauge down to 18 gauge in nail size.

The main difference between a finish nailer vs a brad nailer is the gauge of the nail. Finish nailers use a thicker nail of 15 or 16 gauge where brads use 18 gauge only. The terminology is not too important. It ultimately comes down to gauge size for the fasteners each tool is designed to run.

Finish nailers create a much stronger hold. You can use them to attach heavy baseboards, cabinets, and crown molding. These are jobs that you can’t do with a brad nailer. Another cool thing about finish nailers it that they come in both straight and angled designs. The big difference is that angled ones fit easily into tight spaces. So, depending on the kind of work you do, you might want to consider getting an angled one.

There are pneumatic and cordless versions of finish nailers available, too. Pneumatic ones are more powerful and significantly lighter. Again, if you already have an air compressor, a pneumatic finish nailer is a good option. If not, a cordless one will still definitely get the job done. If you’re planning to do a job that involves working on the top of a ladder, a cordless framing nailer might be a better option because you can climb up and down and use the tool without having to worry about dragging an air hose behind you.

What is a finish nail gun used for?

Finish nailers are used for heavier duty projects which will need a bit more strength and holding power. In this case 15 or 16 gauge nails are recommended. Typical jobs might include:

  • Installing crown and base moldings
  • Window and door casings
  • Chair rails
  • Cabinets
  • Exterior trim
  • Staircases
  • Hard and softwood flooring

Benefits of a finish nailer:

  • Can hold thicker, heavier wood. Because the nails are wider and longer, finishing nailers are great for baseboards, molding, or cabinetry.
  • They create a permanent hold. Once you use this to drive a nail, it’s not going anywhere.
  • Really versatile. You can use a finishing nailer with a range of materials and surfaces.
  • Nails come in long strips so you won’t have to reload very often.

Drawbacks of a finish nailer:

  • Not good with thin, delicate materials. The nails are wide and a finish nailer is really powerful so there’s a pretty good chance it will split thin materials.
  • Leaves large nail holes behind that will need filling. This adds a bit of time to the process.
  • If you prefer pneumatic nailers, you’ll need to invest in an air pump if you don’t have one already.

What’s the best finish nailer to buy?

Our top pick is the DEWALT DCN660B.

DEWALT 20V MAX* Finish Nailer, Angled, 16GA, Tool Only (DCN660B)
1,605 Reviews
DEWALT 20V MAX* Finish Nailer, Angled, 16GA, Tool Only (DCN660B)
  • This cordless finish nailer that is 100% battery powered eliminates need for a compressor, hose or costly gas cartridges
  • Brushless motor of the 16 gauge finish nailer maximizes runtime and durability
  • Tool-free selectable trigger for sequential or contact actuation modes
  • Tool-free depth adjustment for precise countersinking of nails
  • Tool-free jam release to quickly and easily clear nail jams
  • Multi-functional LED lights help to provide both workspace illumination and tool diagnostics

Want a full list? Head over to our best list of finish nailers to get the full rundown.

When to Use a Brad Nailer vs a Finish Nailer

Which nailer you use depends on the job. Brad nailers can’t use finish nails so you really have to make sure you match the right tool to the job. Here are some examples as to what tool to use for different jobs.

Use a Brad Nailer for…

  • Home improvements and repairs, such as securing loose trim to your cabinets or adding some baseboards or crown moldings. They’re also good for extra hold when installing interlocking floors.
  • Holding surfaces together for gluing. While you’re waiting for wood glue or other adhesives to set, a brad nail can hold things together temporarily. They’re even easy to remove if need be.
  • Small-scale crafting projects. Brad nailers are perfect for making picture frames, birdhouses, models.

Use a Finish Nailer for…

  • Attaching large, thick pieces of trim of molding.
  • Door casings.
  • Crown molding.
  • Chair rails.
  • Baseboards.
  • Any project where you’re relying on the nail for structural integrity rather than appearance.

So, it’s pretty clear that brad nailers are for small accents and delicate projects while a finish nailer is made for tougher jobs. But what about that middle ground? If you can use either for baseboards or molding, which one should you use?

Unfortunately, there’s no straightforward answer. It really depends. If you’re using heavy, thick material for your baseboards or molding, a finish nailer is probably a better choice. If you’re using lightweight, thinner wood, either will do, but you should still keep in mind that finish nails provide a more permanent hold. We recommend a finish nailer for most molding or paneling projects.

If you don’t currently have either one of these tools and are trying to figure out which one you need, the best thing to do is really think about the projects you’ll be working on. If you make small, delicate things like picture frames, jewelry boxes, or dollhouses, a brad nailer is perfect. On the other hand, if you’re doing larger projects, investing in a finish nailer is probably a good idea.

Remember that finish nails are longer and thicker. If you’re worried about building or putting together something that lasts, finish nailers are a better choice. One of the reasons for this is because the nails are so long, you can actually hit wall studs if you want to. This is ideal for heavier molding, chair rails, and other things that you want to affix to the wall permanently.

Can you use finish nails in a brad nailer?

No. Finish nails are made from heavier 15 or 16 gauge wire compared to the 18 gauge of brad nails. This means finish nails will be too thick to shoot through a brad nailer. You should always check the gauge of the gun and order the nails for it.

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