Disclaimer: Tools First supports our readers with thousands of hours of research to help you find the right products for your needs and make your life easier. You support us through our carefully chosen links that may earn us a commission.
Brad nailers and finish 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’re very different tools and should be used for very different jobs.
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.
Table of Contents
What Is a Brad Nailer?
For finishing touches like trim or wooden accents, a brad nailer is your best bet. The main reason is that they shoot small 18-gauge brads. When it comes to nail size, remember this: the higher the number, the smaller the gauge. 18-gauge brads are pretty thin. In fact, if you tried to use them with a regular hammer, they would just bend. As for length, they range from 5/8 to 2 inches. That’s a pretty wide range so you’ll find a lot of ways to use a brad nailer.
One of the best things about them is they don’t leave large holes and, depending on the material you’re using, you may not even need to fill it in with wood putty before painting.
Brad nailers can either be pneumatic or electric. They’re both effective but there are some things to think about. First of all, if you’re worried about cost or are trying to stick to a budget, here’s something to keep in mind. Obviously, pneumatic brad nailers need an air compressor to work. So, while it may appear that they’re the more cost-effective option, just remember you have to account for the cost of the air compressor. If you already have one for other pneumatic tools, that’s great because you don’t have to worry about buying one. If you don’t, be sure to include the cost of the air compressor when you’re trying to decide on a brad nailer. Electric brad nailers are a little more expensive, but they’re also more powerful.
- Small nail holes mean little to no wood putty. Because the brads are so thin, the nail holes are tiny. You can usually get a finished look without having to spend a lot of time puttying and sanding.
- 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.
- Even thin wood won’t split. Larger, more powerful nail guns are equipped to work with delicate, thin materials for this reason.
- The nails are perfect for small projects, like making jewelry boxes, picture frames, or attaching decorating trims and edges to cabinetry.
- 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.
What Is a Finish Nailer?
Finish nailers use larger nails than brad nailers. Remember, brad nailers use 18-gauge while a finish nailer uses 14- to 16-gauge. They’re a little longer, too, at 1 to 2.5 inches long. Most finish nails are headless so they sink completely into the wood. They do leave noticeable nail holed behind and you’ll have to fill them with putty before you do any painting on the finished piece. The nails come loaded in strips of about 50 to 100 nails which means that you can work pretty fast since you don’t have to worry about reloading very often.
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.
Brad nailers also come with both sequential and bump mode. Sequential mode is for when you want to place each brad more precisely. Bump mode is for when you want to work fast. In bump mode, the nailer shoots a nail everytime the surface comes in contact with the nailer. This is a great way to get jobs done quickly since you don’t have to worry about placing the nailer exactly or pull the trigger to insert each and every nail.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
Whether you should buy a brad nailer or finish nailer depends on the work you’ll be doing, but one thing’s for sure: they’re very different tools. Because of that, they’re not interchangeable. If you like doing a variety of projects, you might need to consider getting both a brad nailer and a finish nailer.
If you’re still trying to figure out whether you want a brad nailer or a finish nailer or if you want to know more about the best finish or brad nailers, we put together some great buying guides to help. You’ll learn the pros and cons of different products as well as see photographs of the tool you’re looking at.
In our finish nailer guide, we cover the top 10 products available and get into more detail about gauge, angles, nails, and the extra features that make these guns so useful. We also explore the benefits of both air and battery power.
Our brad nailer guide is pretty comprehensive, too. We compare the top 6 products available. We also get into more details about things like depth of drive as well as a more in-depth comparison on air versus battery-powered options.
Picking the right tool for the job will make things go a lot smoother and allow you to work more efficiently. Once you’ve determined which kind of nailer is best for you, dig through our buying guides and learn more about the top models. That way, you’ll know for sure that the nailer you pick is the best one for the job.