How to Use a Brad Nailer

Nail Gun on a Wood Background
DonNichols / Getty Images

There are several types of automatic nailing tools used by carpenters, woodworkers, and crafters. They come in various sizes, ranging from tools that shoot staples and tiny pin nails, up to much larger pneumatic guns that shoot large framing nails for home construction. The brad nailer falls at the smaller end of this spectrum, designed to handle brads (small finish nails) that are useful for crafting projects and light trim carpentry work, such as nailing up decorative moldings or picture frame construction. A brad nailer is larger than a powered staple gun, but smaller than a finish nailer, and it handles 18-gauge brads between 5/8 and 2 inches long.

There is some overlap and crossover in these tools, as some brad nailers can also be used with crown staples, and brad nailers that handle larger brads can do much of the same work as finish nailers.

Traditionally, these automatic nailing tools have been powered by air compressors connected to the tool with hoses, but increasingly, nailing guns are electric- or even battery-powered. No matter what the power source, the operating principle is the same: Brad nailers work by means of an internal compression chamber that shoots a blast of air to drive the brad when the trigger is squeezed.

What Is a Brad Nailer?

A brad nailer is a power tool that uses compressed air to drive a small finish-type nail (brad) from a built-in magazine into wood workpieces. It is a very useful tool for crafters and woodworkers and is also used by finish carpenters for detailed work.

Brad Nailer vs. Finish Nailer

A brad nailer can be viewed as a smaller version of a finish nailer since brads are really just small finish nails. Visually, you can usually identify a brad nailer because its nail magazine runs exactly parallel to the tool body and handle. A finish nailer, by contrast, usually has a nail magazine that is angled to the tool body and handle, much like a framing nailer.

The real difference is in the size of the nails that can be used with the gun. Brad nailers use nails that are 5/8 to 2 inches long. Finish nailers, on the other hand, can handle nails 1 1/4 to 2 1/2 inches long.

Ryobi Nail Gun
Brad nailer Courtesy of Amazon
Paslode cordless nail
Finish nailer

Amazon.com

Brad Nailer vs. Finish Nailer

Brad Nailer
  • Uses 18-gauge brads, 5/8 to 2 inches long

  • Can cost as much as $200 (battery-operated types)

  • Prices start at about $50 (corded)

  • Good for small moldings, craft work

Finish Nailer
  • Uses 15- or 16-gauge finish nails 1 1/4 to 2 1/2 inches long

  • Can cost $300 or more (battery operated types)

  • Prices start at about $100 (Pneumatic)

  • Excellent for case moldings, baseboards

  • If you do a lot of remodeling work that involves installing baseboards or large door and window case moldings, a finish nailer is a better choice.
  • A brad nailer is not ideal for tacking insulation, plastic sheeting, or thin material like veneer or upholstery fabric. For that, use a staple gun that fires two-pronged staples, which will not tear through ultra-thin materials.
  • Nor is a brad nailer a good choice for construction work such as framing a house or nailing a 2x4. For this, you need a pneumatic framing nailer with either a stick or coil magazine capable of firing 1 1/2- to 3 1/2-inch nails.

Parts of a Brad Nailer

If you are new to using a brad nailer, it's helpful be familiarize yourself with its parts:

  • The body is a D-shaped structure to which all other parts are contained or attached.
  • The handle comprises the top of the body, sized and shaped to allow the tool to be gripped
  • The battery, found only on battery-powered styles, is generally mounted on the bottom or back of the body.
  • The trigger is found at the front end of the handle, designed to be squeezed by the forefinger of the hand holding the handle. The tool is designed so both the trigger and the power tip need to be depressed for the tool to fire.
  • The magazine is a metal cartridge that is mounted on the bottom of the tool, opposite the hand grip. It has a sliding component that opens to allow the nailer to be loaded with brads.
  • The power tip and nail discharge opening are located at the front of the magazine. The power tip prevents the nailer from accidentally firing until it is depressed against the workpiece.
  • The front body of the nailer is a sealed unit that contains within it a pressure chamber and a cylinder with a piston. When the handle trigger and power tip are both depressed, pressurized air suddenly enters the chamber and forces the piston down the cylinder, where its blade-shaped head forces the nail out the tip and into the workpiece. This all happens in a fraction of a second.
  • Controls on the front body of the tool may include an air-pressure dial that adjusts the amount of air that is expelled when you press the trigger, and a depth gauge that adjusts the distance of the nailer from your work material. Together, both controls allow you to precisely control the depth to which the brads penetrate the workpiece.
  • A jam-clear lever fitted on the front of the tool is used if a nail becomes wedged in the tip.

Depending on manufacturer and design, a brad nailer may have other features, as well, such as:

  • A work light that illuminates the tip area.
  • A belt hook for securing the tool to your belt.
  • A low-nail indicator window to tell you when the magazine is empty and needs to be refilled.

What Brads to Use

Most brad guns can accommodate wire brads from 5/8 to about 2 inches long. The length of the ideal brad may vary, depending on the type of wood you are attaching, but the general rule of thumb is to use brads that are about 3 times longer than the thickness of the workpiece being secured. For example, if you are securing a molding that is 1/2 inch thick, then 1 1/2-inch nails are called for. For larger, thicker moldings—such as securing baseboards or window case moldings to walls—a finish nailer equipped with 2 1/2-inch finish nails is a better choice.

Safety Considerations

Brad nailers are fairly safe tools since the brads cannot be not fired unless both the handle trigger and the power tip are depressed at the same time. Still, accidents have been known to happen, so always point the tool away from you when making depth adjustments, and remove the battery (if present) and discharge any compressed air before reloading the magazine or freeing a jammed nail.

How to Use a Brad Nailer

  1. Load the Nailer

    Load the nailer's magazine with brads of the desired type. Most brad nailers accept 18-gauge brads in sizes ranging from 5/8 to 2 inches long. Do not try to use shorter brads; while they may fit the tool, they are likely to get jammed at the power tip.

    Do not try to load your brad nailer with finish nails, which are usually 15- or 16-gauge fasteners. Even if they are short enough, finish nails are too thick to feed through a brad nailer.

    A brad nailer is loaded by unlocking the drawbar from the back of the magazine and pulling it back. Lay the brad strip into the magazine and slide them as far forward as possible, then push the drawbar back into place and lock it.

    Where possible, try to keep the strip of brads connected as you load them. The brads will feed more smoothly if they are loaded in long lengths with the adhesive still holding the brads together. You can, of course, break apart long strips to fit the magazine.

    Loading Brad Nailer With Brad Strip
    The Spruce / Lee Wallender
  2. Set the Depth Controls

    Most brad nailers have two features to control depth: an air pressure dial and a depth gauge. It can be tricky balancing the two features since they sometimes work counter to each other.

    Begin with both controls set to the midpoint between their high and low settings.

  3. Test on Scrap Material

    It can be helpful to fire a few nails at scrap wood of the same type and thickness as your workpiece in order to fine-tune the depth controls before beginning the real work.

    1. Gather scrap materials that are the same as your intended workpiece.
    2. With the air pressure gauge and depth gauge to their middle points between high and low, test fire a brad into scrap wood. If the head of the brad extends above the workpiece, adjust air pressure to a higher level. If sunk too far, ease up on the air pressure. Use your air pressure as your primary means of adjusting depth.
    3. Once you are in the general range, you can use the depth gauge to fine-tune the depth.
  4. Position the Nailer

    Find the workpiece contact point on the "muzzle" end of your nailer. This contact point depresses when you push the nailer against your workpiece. For safety reasons, the gun cannot fire if the contact point is not depressed. As you position the tool against the workpiece, keep in mind that the brad will actually fire slightly ahead of the contact point.

  5. Drive the Brad

    With the tool tip pressed firmly down against the workpiece so that the contact tip is depressed, firmly squeeze the tool trigger on the handle. There will be an audible burst of air and you will feel a bit of a jolt through the tool. Then, remove the tool and examine the results on the workpiece.

    The desired depth for driving the brads can vary from project to project. In some cases, you might want the head of the brad to be flush with the wood surface. In others, the head should be slightly recessed for a more finished look. Keep the following tips in mind when checking the depth setting:

    • A protruding head is undesirable. If you try to hammer the brad the rest of the way in, you'll bend the brad over.
    • Countersinking the head slightly is fine, but if it's too far below the surface the nail won't sufficiently hold the material in place, especially with a material like MDF, which lacks density. You should be able to see the nail's shiny head, so you know it's not too deep. 
    • Level with the work surface is often best. Brad heads are smooth and small. If you place the head level with the work surface, the head will be invisible after painting. Also, the brad heads will hold the material firmly in place.

Buying vs. Renting

While many automatic nailers are expensive tools, a brad nailer is a relatively affordable tool, with costs ranging from about $30 for a corded electrical model to about $200 for a cordless brad nailer that can be used with a wide range of fastener sizes. Pneumatic tools powered by secondary air compressors are less expensive, provided you already have an air compressor and hoses.

Even at the higher end of the price range, a quality cordless brad nailer can be a good investment if you do a lot of woodworking or crafting. Complicated crown moldings can be installed around a room in a matter of minutes using this tool, compared to hours for driving and countersinking nails with a hammer and nail set. It's rare for a DIYer to regret having purchased a brad nailer.

If you only need the tool for a one-off project, brad nailers can also be leased at larger home improvement centers and tool rental outlets. where you will pay about $40 per day. Once you learn to use a brad nailer, though, you will likely see the ongoing value of owning your own.

Keeping Your Brad Nailer Working Properly

A brad nailer is a fairly easy tool to maintain. Simply wipe it clean of dirt and debris after each use, and store it in a dry location. It is best to store the tool with the magazine empty of nails. Should the magazine or other metal parts develop corrosion, wipe them down with a rag moistened with light machine oil.

With battery-powered tools, start each work session with a fully charged battery. If the tool needs to be stored long-term, remove the battery and store the tool and the battery at room temperature. Storing for long periods at freezing temperatures can shorten a battery's life.

When to Replace Your Brad Nailer

With good care, a brad nailer that sees occasional use should last for decades. A nailer that is used extensively on a daily basis may gradually show signs of wear on the magazine and power tip. If the parts begin to feel loose or the tool no longer drives nails correctly no matter how many adjustments you make, it's time to replace it. Or, have a tool repair specialist examine it and replace worn parts.