Finish nailers make jobs easier—and better
Meet the expert
David Radtke is a Field Editor, designer, remodeler and cabinetmaker in Minneapolis.
Back when I was a beginning carpenter, trim nailers were expensive and rare. Then, about 20 years ago, prices came down and I decided to give them a try. As expected, they made nailing faster and a lot easier on my arm. But as I learned to use them, they also made my work faster, easier and better in lots of ways I didn’t expect. Here are some of the tricks and benefits that make trim nailers an essential part of my daily work.
In the blink of an eye, a nailer can shoot a 2-in.-long nail into whatever is in its path. Injuries can be just as fast. I could tell my own injury stories for an entire lunch hour. So I’ve become a believer. Always wear eye and hearing protection. And remember that nails sometimes go off course, making a U-turn and popping out where you don’t expect them. So keep your hands and feet out of reach of errant nails.
Which nailer does what?
From left to right: 23-gauge pin nailer, 16-gauge finish nailer, 15-gauge finish nailer and 18-gauge brad nailer.
Smaller-gauge nails usually come in packs that load vertically. 16-gauge nails usually come in packs that load at an angle.
Trim nailers are categorized by the thickness or “gauge” of the nails they shoot: The bigger the gauge number, the smaller the nail (seems backward, doesn’t it?). Nailers that shoot the biggest trim nails—15 and 16 gauge—are usually called “finish nailers.” Midsize 18-gauge nailers are called “brad nailers.” The smallest nailer, the 23-gauge, is usually called a “pinner” or “micro pinner.”
15-gauge finish nailer
This is the gun I usually grab for nailing large 3/4-in.-thick baseboard and trim. It’s also a good choice for more demanding jobs like nailing doorjambs or stair treads. These nailers have a large piston, and because of the extra bulk, often have angled magazines so you can get into tight spots. Name-brand 15-gauge nailers, which handle nail lengths up to 2-1/2 in., start at less than $200.
16-gauge finish nailer
Like 15-gauge nailers, most 16-gauge guns shoot nails up to 2-1/2 in. long and are suitable for thick trim. The main advantage of a 16-gauge gun is that it’s smaller and lighter. If you’re shopping for a finish nailer, I’d recommend the larger 15-gauge gun, simply because the fatter nails provide more holding power. But some carpenters disagree with me. You’ll pay about the same for a name-brand 16-gauge nailer as you would for a 15-gauge gun.
18-gauge brad nailer
If you plan to buy only one trim nailer, this is the size to get. I use mine more than all my others combined. It’s perfect for standard trim, furniture making and odd jobs around the shop. Models that shoot brads up to 1-1/4- in. are common, but I strongly recommend spending a few bucks more for a gun that can handle brads up to 2 in. long. Name-brand 2-in. guns start under $100.
This is the nailer I use the least. Those tiny pins just don’t have enough holding strength for most jobs. But don’t get me wrong—there are times when pins are perfect, especially to nail small parts. My pinner, which cost a little over $100, shoots pins ranging from 1/2 to 1 in. long. That’s long enough for most jobs, though I occasionally wish I had a model that could handle pins up to 2 in. long, which would cost $225 or more.
Use a block to push baseboard
Apply pressure safely
This trick not only gets the trim into place, it keeps your hand away from unexpected nail paths.
When baseboard—or the floor—isn’t straight, I force the trim down with a 2×4 block. The block gives me a broad surface to push against and lets me apply a lot more pressure. This trick also works with uncooperative crown molding.
Use nails before screws
Tack the workpiece into place first
Then drill and screw.
I always found it difficult to keep parts aligned when screwing cabinets together. Then I discovered that a couple of shots with my finish nailer or brad nailer will keep the parts aligned while I drill pilot holes and drive screws for strong joints.
Tongue-and-groove the easy way
Just pull the trigger
Why hold a nail, start it, pound it, then fumble around with a nail set? Just hold the nailer in place and pull the trigger. Then move on to the next stud or joist.
With a trim nailer, you can install tongue-and-groove paneling in a fraction of the time. Some carpenters use a finish nailer for this, but I like to use my smaller, lighter 18-gauge brad nailer, especially on ceilings. Brads don’t have the holding power of 15- or 16-gauge nails, of course, but I make up for that by shooting two brads into every stud or joist.
Easy on old walls
I do a lot of work in old houses. And hammering nails through those old plaster walls is a recipe for cracks. A trim nailer, on the other hand, drives nails instantly, without the repeated blows that can cause cracks. I like my 15-gauge nailer best for these jobs; the nails are stout enough to push through the hard plaster and long enough to bite into the framing behind it.
No hammer marks
Finish-nail guns leave tiny, almost imperceptible footprints.
One of the best things about trim nailers is that you don’t have to worry about beating up the wood, unlike with a hammer. That means you can finish parts before assembly. I especially like to finish trim before installation, which gives me better results in less time. Just be sure that the soft rubber tip that came with your nailer is actually on the gun before you shoot.
Pin nailers are really handy
Invisible nail holes with a pinner
Pins are tiny and headless, so they’re hard to see even before you fill them. Afterward, nobody but you will know they’re there.
Tight spot? Use a Pinner
The working end of my pinner is just 6-3/8 in. long and goes where none of my other nailers fit.
A pinner means no splitting
A 23-gauge pinner almost never splits wood, even on very small parts. In most situations, I like to dab on a little wood glue to give the joint more strength than pins alone can provide.
Pinners are perfect for crafts
I make a lot of gifts for friends and family. My pinner is the go-to tool for delicate assemblies like these and saves me the torture of gift shopping.
Tiny, headless pin nails are the next best thing to invisible fasteners. They’ll hold workpieces together and nobody will ever see them. And since pins are so small, pin nailers are small, too—meaning they’ll fit into places regular brad and finish nailers won’t.
Nail before you clamp
Hold slippery workpieces together
Glue is tacky when it starts to dry. Until then, though, it does the same thing that your car’s engine oil does: creates a slippery film that makes it easier for parts to slide against each other. This is desirable in an engine, but not in a woodshop. Use a couple of brads to keep your workpieces from sliding around when you clamp them.
With a coat of slippery glue, parts will slide out of alignment while you’re desperately trying to clamp them. My solution is to tack the parts together with a couple of nails. That keeps the parts aligned while I apply serious pressure with clamps.
Tack trim for marking
Like having a third hand
Make your marks more accurately by using both hands at the business end instead of fumbling around holding the workpiece in one hand and your pencil in the other—while brushing away the mosquitoes with your tail.
To eliminate measuring errors, I like to hold trim in place to mark the length. When the piece is too long to hold alone, I tack one end to the wall with a brad nail. Then I mark, yank the trim off the wall and remove the brad. (I use nippers to pull the brad through the back of the trim to avoid damaging the face of the trim.) That gives me an accurate cutting mark and only one extra nail hole to fill later.
No stud? No problem
Studs aren’t always located where we need them. When I need to nail trim where there’s no stud, I dab some construction adhesive on the back of the trim and then drive nails into the drywall at 45-degree angles. That holds the trim tight against the wall while the adhesive cures. This “trap nailing” technique works fine with brad nailers and even better with finish nailers.
Extend your reach
One arm is longer than two
Finish nailers extend your reach. If you don’t have to hold a nail with one hand and start pounding it with the other, you can install nails farther away from your ladder.
Starting a nail with a hammer takes both hands&mdasah;and that limits your reach. So I used to spend more time moving my ladder than driving nails when I was installing crown molding. A trim nailer, on the other hand, lets me reach way over to shoot a nail. And using a bench, rather than a ladder, lets me nail off even the longest runs in only two or three moves. My aluminum bench (Werner AP-20) cost well south of a hundred bucks online.
Position parts with a gauge
For precise placement
Get precise, consistent placement of parts by using a gauge to hold them in place before fastening them with a finish nailer.
With a nailer in one hand and a gauge in the other, you can position parts perfectly—without measuring or marking. A combination square is a precise, adjustable gauge, but I often make a custom gauge just by tacking a couple of wood scraps together.
Dealing with stray nails
Pull them out or break them off
Sometimes you can bend errant nails into position to be pounded back out with a hammer. Other times all you can do is break off what you can and use a nail set to bury the rest.
My only gripe about trim nailers is “blowout.” Careless aim is sometimes the cause, but other times the nail inexplicably takes a turn inside the wood and pops out. When this happens, I grab a hammer and try to drive the nail up so I can grab the head with pliers and pull it out. This often works with 15- or 16-gauge nails, but 18-gauge brads almost always bend when I try to drive them back. In that case, my only solution is to grab the nail with pliers, bend it back and forth until it breaks off, and sink the remainder of the nail with a nail set.