Brad Nailer vs. Finish Nailer: What’s the Difference

Almost all woodworking projects will require you to use a nailer at some point. But if you are doing some simple upgrades and renovation around the house, the finish or brad nailers are the two types that you are more likely to use.

For the untrained eye and novice woodworker, the brad and finish nailers look the same. However, in reality, these are two different tools that will be ideal for different applications. As a woodworker, it is always a great idea to have both in the workshop as they will be handy in different situations. But, the reality is that in most cases you can only by one first. If you have to pick between the brad and finish nailers, it will be important to first understand what each is all about, its capabilities and also both its pros and cons.

Brad Nailer

Sometimes you do not need a lot of holding power and this is more so when dealing with delicate trim or when you just want to hold pieces together for the glue to dry.  In such situations, the brad nailer can be a very handy power tool for you. Brad nailers get their name from the fact that they use brads instead of nails. And brads are thinner gauge fasteners for attaching the lightweight trim. The brad nailers will use 18-gauge brad fasteners that will in most instances be between 5/8 and 2 1/2 inches in length. This gauge means that they are thin fastener and with some small heads that will make them almost invisible in the wood trim.

Unlike what you get with the finish nailers, the brads will not leave any significant holes on the workpiece and so in most cases, you will not need to do any filling which saves you a lot of time. However, what many woodworkers like about the brad nailer or the brads that they shoot is that it can never split any trim.  Even when you are using it to attach thin and lightweight trim, you can always be confident that it will not split. And so these nailers can be handy for attaching thin trim to any wooden surface.

Also, some brad nailers will accommodate staples which further increases their applications and versatility. With the finish nailers, you can only use nails. Brad nailers are handy when you need to hold two pieces together temporarily) as the glue dries. And once the glue is dry enough you can remove the thin fastener with pliers or leave them as there are no visible nail holes. The brad nailer is a versatile power tool that will be handy for home renovation and repair projects. Also, the fact that they are ideal for use with delicate and thin materials also makes them great for crafts.

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Pros

  • Best for delicate trims. One of the greatest advantages of the brad nailers is that they will not split your delicate trims. And this is because they use thin fastener and staples that can go through thin and delicate trims with ease and without splitting them.
  • Relatively inexpensive. Although finish nailers are also quite popular, brad nailers seem to take the day in the popularity contest which means that they are more often sought after. Hence, they are readily available from different power tool manufacturers and also relatively less expensive.
  • Small nail holes. The thin 18-gauge nails with their small heads will not leave any significant holes in your workpiece. The tiny holes are almost invisible to the eye and so in most cases, you will not need to fill them as they should disappear once you stain or paint the surface. This is contrary to the significantly larger holes that you get when using the finish nailer.
  • Handy for gluing pieces. Brads are easy to remove with pliers and this means that the brad nailer will be handy when you just what to hold two pieces together as the glue sets and dries. The thin fasteners will not damage the trim and will also not leave any significant holes behind if you remove them.

Cons

  • Not much holding power. The brad nailer uses brads instead of actual nails, and so it will not provide any significant holding power. When you need more hold power the finish nailer is the best choice.
  • Cannot go through walls/heavy wood. Brads are not strong enough to go through walls and heavy lumber such as plywood and MDF. For this, you need the 14 to 16 gauge finish nails.

Finish Nailer

For projects that require more hold power or when you are dealing with heavy wood such as MDF and plywood, a brad nailer will not be very useful and so the finish nailer is always a much better option. These tend to be larger than the brad nailers, and they will also accommodate larger nails. In most instances, you will find 15 to 16 gauge finish nailers being sold that accept nails that are 1 to 2.5 inches in length. The nails that you use with these nailers are large to provide more hold power and in most instances, they will be headless to provide a nice finish as they disappear into the wood.

Although they leave some significantly larger holes than the brads on the brad nailer, you can easily paint over them without issues. But, in most instances, it is always better to fill the holes first with wood putty. These nailers will work on a variety of surfaces and materials including plaster, and they will hold nails securely even against a wall as they provide more nail strength and length.  Although finish nailers will also be handy for projects that involve baseboard attachment and crown molding, they are only not ideal when attaching them to a wooden surface. And this is because the finish nailers are more likely to split wood and result in an ugly finish.

And as their name suggests, they are great for finish projects and unlike the brad nailers, you cannot use them for temporary attachment of workpieces. The nails are non-removable and trying to do it will damage the surface and leave behind some large hole. Another thing worth knowing about finish nailers is that they are more versatile than brad nailers. When fitted with correct nails size they can do almost anything that a brad nailer does. Finish nailers are the better tool when you are attaching wide crown molding and baseboard to drywall, and also for cabinetry thanks to their greater holding power.

Pros

  • Greater hold strength. The larger 14 to 16 gauge nails that the finish nailer uses provide more hold strength than what you get when using the brad nailer. The nails are also longer than brads and hence great for holding larger workpieces together permanently.
  • More versatile. Since these nailers shoot actual nails they will be handy for more finish woodworking applications than the brad nailer. You can use finish nailers to attach almost anything from baseboard and MDF to plywood on various surfaces such as plaster and drywall. Some can even do almost everything that the brad nailer does if you have the right fasteners.
  • Best for heavy trims. Finish nailers have the holding strength that you need for attaching heavy trim pieces such as baseboards and crown molding. This is a significant advantage because the brad nailer will only help you with delicate and lightweight trim

Cons

  • Larger holes. The larger nails on the finish nailer will also leave large holes than what you get when using the brad nailers. And although for some projects you can just paint over them, in most instances the holes require filling with putty which means more work for you.
  • More likely to split wood. Although finish nailers are great for attaching crown molding and baseboards this is only true when attaching them to drywall.  They are not ideal when you want to attach them to a wooden surface as they are more likely to split it and create an unpleasant finish. The same is also true when dealing with delicate/thin trim as you are almost guaranteed that the finish nailer will split it.

Bottom Line

Ideally, you should have both the brad and finish nailers in the workshop as they will be handy for different projects. But as you are building up your toolkit, you will probably need to start with one. And so the right tool for you between the two depends on your projects. If most of your tasks entail attaching lightweight trim and other delicate pieces on wooden surfaces, the brad nailer is the best choice. Brad nailers are also the better option if you are looking for something that you will use often to hold pieces together as wood glue sets and dries.

But, for woodworkers that are on the market for a versatile finish power tool that they can use for a variety of applications, the finish nailer is by far the best thanks to its incredible hold strength. Also, make sure that you factor in other factors like the wood type you will be using more for the whole project because the finish nailers will not be ideal for delicate trim.

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