Woodworkers and DIYers use different kinds of nailers for various applications, and two of the most commonly used ones for finish carpentry are the brad and finish nailers.
While many novice or inexperienced woodworkers will use the two indivisibly and interchangeably, they are two different tools that are designed for different applications.
The brad and finish nailer are quite similar in appearance which explains why many woodworkers use them interchangeably. But, if you know how they differ and what each is best for, you can create better pieces and also do much more with this tool.
Below we highlight the key differences between the two. And we also explain what each is best for to help both novice and pro woodworkers get the most out of these amazing power tools.
Brad Nailer Overview
Brad nailers are specially designed nail guns meant for delicate work. These nail guns will shoot brad nails which are small nails that are perfect for holding delicate materials without splitting them.
The brad nails are short, thin and with a small head which means they will only leave a small hole on the workpiece which in most instances does not require any filling because varnish or staining is enough to cover it.
While there are still a few other options, the 18-gauge and 21-gauge brad nailers are the two most popular options. But many woodworkers will often choose the 18-gauge brad nailer as it provides greater hold power than 21-gauge nailer which shoots pin-size brads.
Also, almost all brad nailers will work with a wide range of nail lengths, and the most common ones will range between 5/8 and 2 inches long. And you can classify these nailers into two broad categories which are pneumatic and electric nailers.
Finish Nailer Overview
Finish nailers are generally more powerful and larger than the brad nailers, and this is because they will also shoot longer and thicker fasteners.
You will typically get finish nailers that shoot 14, 15, or 16-gauge nails which can be up to 2.5 inches long. Because of the thicker nails and the fact that these nailers are more powerful you are less likely to bend the fasteners when driving. But, they also leave larger nail holes that require filling with putty.
The larger nails mean that brad nailers will provide greater hold power, but this greater hold power also makes them less suitable for delicate tasks and materials.
Finish nailers are generally more versatile tools that will be handy for a variety of applications, and they will come in two main types which are the pneumatic and cordless models. And they will either have sequential or bump mode of operation, but some models have both.
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Table of Comparison
18 and 21-gauge
14, 15 and 16-gauge
5/8 to 2 inches
1 to 2.5 inches
Softwoods, thin and delicate woods, and other non-MDF woods
Hardwoods, MDF woods, plywood
Less strong bonding strength between workpieces
Greater holding power and durable workpiece attachment
Pneumatic and electric
Pneumatic and cordless
Some gauges and models can be quite pricey
Brad Nailer vs. Finish Nailer Comparison
While brad and finish nailers might sometimes be used interchangeably by inexperienced woodworkers, they differ in several aspects. Here is a more detailed breakdown of their key areas of departure.
The gauge of the nails that these nailers shoot is one of the key things that make them different and perhaps the easiest way to tell them apart.
Brad nailers will shoot thinner gauge 18 or 21-gauge brads which will typically be headless to ensure you can sink them on the workpiece without leaving a significant hole. The 18-gauge is slightly thicker than the pin-size 21-gauge, and so they will provide greater hold power.
Finish nailers are built for finish carpentry, and so they will typically shoot thicker nails which are in most cases either 14, 15 or 16-gauge. 14-gauge nails are the largest and will provide more holding power, but they can split some materials. The 15 and 16-gauge nails are the more popular options because besides providing great hold power they are also highly versatile.
Given the different applications, they are designed for brad and finish nailers will also shoot different nail lengths.
Brad nails are typically shorter than finish nails as they are meant for use on thinner and more delicate materials which will not require you to sink the brads very deep.
Typical brad nailers will be anything from 5/8 to 2 inches long while the finish nailers are relatively longer as most will range between 1 and 2-1/2 inches in length.
Brad and finish nailers will be ideal for use on different kinds of woods. Generally, brad nailers are ideal for more delicate woods while finish nailers work great for harder woods.
You can use brad nailers when working on non-MDF, softwoods, thin woods, and any other delicate wood type. The finish nailers, on the other hand, are perfect for MDF woods, hardwoods, plywoods and softwoods that are not too delicate.
When it comes to the bonding strength and durability of the connection, finish nailers beat the brad nailer hands down as they will provide way much more holding power.
Brad nails are thin and shorter which means that besides not sinking very deep, they are not big enough to provide significant hold power. In some instances, they are only used to hold two workpieces together as the glue sets.
With finish nailers, on the other hand, you can be confident of superior bonding power whether you are using 14, 15 or 16-gauge nails. And in most instances, these nails will be headless which means they are not designed to be removed and are meant to keep the pieces together for a long time.
Price is always a factor when buying any power tool and when choosing between the brad and finish nailer, it will also have an effect on which one you buy first.
Overall the finish nailers are pricier than brad nailers. You can get a brad nailer for anywhere between $40 and $100 while a typical finish nailer will cost upwards of $150.
Also, note that several factors will determine the price from the brand to features, and so it is possible to find several brad nailer models that cost way much more than standard finish nailers.
Brad Nailer Summary
If you are still trying to make up your mind on whether to buy a brad nailer, here is a checklist and summary to help you out.
What We Like
- It attaches thin and delicate wood without splitting
- Leaves a tiny hole that hardly every needs filling
- Brad nails are excellent for crafts and small projects like picture frame making
- You can use the brads to attach things temporarily as glue sets
What We Do Not Like
- Does not provide a lot of holding power
- Not ideal for heavy-duty tasks
Who Is It Suitable For?
- Woodworkers that deal with delicate materials a lot
- Craftsmen and DIYers into home improvement projects
- Anyone that wants to hold two pieces together as glue sets
Finish Nailer Summary
Still not sure whether you need a finish nailer? Here is a checklist to help you make up your mind.
What We Like
- Great for holding thicker and heavier wood like baseboards and cabinetry
- Creates a permanent and highly durable hold
- Highly versatile nailer that works great on different materials and surfaces
- Nails are often packed in long strips to minimize the frequency of reloading
- Nails are less likely to bend as they are thicker and stronger
What We Do Not Like
- Can easily split soft and delicate woods
- Leaves larger holes that often need filling
- Relatively pricier than brad nailers
Who Is It Suitable For?
- Finish carpenters that deals with heavy and thick material a lot
- DIYers and craftsmen doing heavy-duty projects that require more holding power and strength
Brad and finish nailers are some of the most popular nail guns for both DIYers and professional woodworkers, and you can expect to get them in most workshops and garages.
If you are serious about DIY or woodworking and deal with different kinds of materials and projects, the wise idea is to have both as you will need each for different situations.
However, when you can only afford to buy one at a time, the kinds of projects you do often or the materials you use a lot should guide you when making up your mind.
For those that deal with soft and delicate materials a lot, the brad nailer is the ideal choice while the finish nailer will be more appropriate for heavy-duty applications that involve thicker and tougher materials.