In the woodworking community, the great debate is on: the brad vs finish nailer.
Each have their own uses, and believe it or not, you can own both with perfect utility.
That being said, buying and maintaining both might get a bit pricey, so we’re here to settle the score and celebrate the differences.
Let’s take a peek at what separates them so much.
What is a Brad Nailer?
Brad nailers are smaller framing nail guns, and you’ll see some aesthetic similarities between these and finish nailers.
The primary difference is the nail gauge. Brad nailers tend to only use 18GA (gauge) nails. The higher the number in a gauge, the thinner the nails are.
This makes them perfect for smaller woodworking tasks that don’t need a huge, thick nail driven through the wood.
Smaller nails mean less split wood and stress on your lumber, so everybody wins. Brad nailers use an air compressor to send the nails out of the head, and may be corded or cordless.
Alternatively, there are also air compressor models out there.
Pros and Cons of a Brad Nailer
- Inexpensive: Brad nailers are just simply cheaper. They’re not used in heavy grade construction, just mostly in-home projects and woodworking
- Minimal Imprints: With a finish nailer, you have to use wood putty over the nail holes
- No Splitting: They’re thinner because they’re higher gauge, and don’t have as much immediate shock into the wood
- No Angles: It’s nearly impossible to get a 45° angle with a brad nailer
- Lighter Use: Depending on how thick the wood is that you’re working with, a brad nailer isn’t going to go all the way through
- Lack of Power: A brad nailer is usually a max of 20 V worth of power, so you’re limited with how much you can do
What is a Finish Nailer?
The proof is in the pudding: they’re here to finish the job.
It sounds like a pun, but it’s true. You’ll see these being used to send angled nails through baseboards and crown molding, as well as wall corners during construction.
Finish nailers are more expensive than brand nailers by a fairly big amount, because they’re designed for carpentry uses.
Finish nailers are usually hooked up to an air compressor to provide immediate access without having to pop a 20 V battery in there.
These are more common among construction, though they do have their place in the DIY and woodworking world.
Finish nailers are preferred by some simply because of their ability to angle nails without problem.
Pros and Cons of a Finish Nailer
- More Power: There’s a ton of power in a finish nailer, because it’s driving thicker, lower gauge nails through wood. You’ll also notice that they tend to be larger and have bigger air compressors onboard.
- Stronger Hold: They’re better to use on large projects, such as bunk beds or something that will undergo a lot of stress during its use. Benches, chairs, furniture in general can benefit greatly from finish nails.
- Paint Over: These are meant to be covered up with some wood putty and be sanded over. You’ll never even know that the nail was there in the first place, but with brad nails, sometimes you can see the nail heads.
- Pricey: They tend to come with higher quality components, so they should last you for years with basic maintenance care.
- Too Big: If you’re getting this for your woodworking shop, the gauges might be a bit too big. Smaller projects are going to require thinner nails.
- Prone to Jamming: Nothing is quite as infuriating as a nail gun jamming, and finish nailers are the worst of the lot. They’ll end up jamming more often due to the higher output to get each nail down the barrel.
Things to Look for In Both Nail Gun Types
Whatever you decide to go with, there are some features that you should aim for. They’re similar enough tools that you can find all of these features in some high-end nailers.
Dry Fire Lockout
Quite simply, this means your nail gun has run out of fasteners, and this feature prevents your nail gun from operating further.
It sounds like it would be a pain, but nothing is worse than going back through a project and trying to figure out where the nails actually went through, and where has yet to be nailed.
We wouldn’t say it’s a necessity, but it is surely nice to have.
Line of Sight
If you can’t see what you’re doing, then all is lost. This isn’t necessarily a feature so much as a design element that you should be looking out for.
A smaller nailer with a narrow point will allow you to see everything that’s going on.
Regardless of what brand you get, how good the nail gun is, and how well you maintain it, you’re going to encounter jams. It’s just part of the deal.
However, some nailers have a jam release option that help to unlodge those nails quickly and continue on with your day.
If those jam release options aren’t available, then you’re going to spend an awful lot of time fixing it throughout the day.
While this isn’t the first thing you should look for, you can certainly get a nice boost in visibility with a little light shining on you.
You don’t know all the conditions that you’ll be using one of these nailers in; you’re most certainly going to have a lot of unexpected uses for it over the years.
An LED light is going to come in handy in more situations that you might realize.
Runtime vs. Compressor
Some need air compressors, some need 20 V batteries. It’s important to know that 20 V will offer less amperage, and therefore less power.
That’s why you’ll find plenty of brad nailers that are battery operated, but most finish nailers tend to be air compressor operated.
There’s nothing wrong with using either, they just have distinct power differences.
Can You Use Brad Nails in a Finish Nailer?
If you put brad nails in a finish nailer, which are smaller than finish nails, then you’re going to be met with a pretty nasty jam.
Those nails will get all caught up, since they’re usually two or three gauges lower than brad nails.
Likewise, you can’t use finish nails in a brad nailer because they would never leave the barrel at the end.
Can I Use a Brad Nailer for Framing?
Small projects, yes, but since brad nailers don’t have the 45° angling they’re not good for house framing.
Of course, since we’re all about woodworking, brad nailers will do perfectly fine for what we’re doing.
You can create frames for smaller projects like picture frames, hope chests, and other similar projects.
Are Cordless Brad Nailers Better?
Brad nailers that are hooked up to an air compressor are usually better.
Cordless models have a miniature air compressor on the back of the nail gun, but they don’t hold up to an external air compressor.
These will also drain the battery on cordless units far faster than expected.
Are Air Compression Finish Nailers Better?
There’s certainly a lot more power.
As discussed before, a finish nailer is going to be used for construction-level projects, and an external air compressor will definitely lend a lot more power to your finish nailer.
Just keep in mind that it makes them more dangerous, too.
So, Which is Better for You?
Does your project call for an invasive nail gun, or can you make do with thinner gauges?
Whatever you choose, just keep your average project dimensions in mind. You don’t want to drive a finish nail through thin plywood, only to ruin it and start all over again.
If you’re leaning towards a brad nailer, we’ve covered the very best of them in this buying guide.