It’s understandable to look at these two kinds of nailers, also called finishing nailers and brad nailers, and think that they must be interchangeable. It’s even easier to make that assumption when you know that 16-gauge nails are only slightly larger than 18-gauge nails
However, the truth is that these nailers are designed for entirely different uses.
Even where there is some overlap between the two designs, it’s still important to make sure you’re using the best nail gun for the job. We’ll discuss the core differences between the two, what each nailer is best for, and everything else you’ll need to know to choose the right gauge for the job.
What Does Gauge Mean?
The gauge of your nails is a measure of the size of the nail As the number increases, the size of the nail goes down. That means that an 18-gauge nail is smaller than a 16 gauge nail.
How is gauge determined?
It’s measured off of roughly how many nails will fit in an inch, with all the nails lined up next to one another. So if you can put 18 nails lined up next to each other in an inch, those are 18 gauge nails.
Why Does It Matter?
There are two basic reasons you should pay attention to the gauge of your nails. The most important, from a safety perspective, is to make sure your nail gun functions properly when it’s loaded with your nails. A nail gun that’s designed for small nails likely won’t be able to load or fire larger nails without damaging both the nail and the nail gun.
You might even damage the materials you’re working on if you try to fire a nail that’s too large for your nail gun.
Nails that are too small are just as problematic. Your gun may grab more than one nail, or not seat it firmly enough in the firing mechanism. That can easily lead to a misfire, damaging the nail, the nail gun, and anything too close to the tip of the nail gun.
A bad misfire of a nail that is too small can even end up going in completely the wrong direction, causing even more problems.
Safety isn’t the only reason you should pay attention to nail gauge though.
The size of the nail you choose also determines how much finishing work your project will need, how visible the nail is, and how securely the nail attaches your materials.
Smaller nails might be good for decorative and delicate elements of a project, but you wouldn’t want an 18-gauge nail holding together two critical weight-bearing pieces. Larger 16 gauge nails, and other even larger options, offer more structural integrity but at the risk of damaging decorative elements and leaving a bigger entry hole.
Overview of 16 Gauge Nailers
16 gauge nailers are a type of finishing nailer, usually the smallest gauge nail gun that’s considered a finishing tool. They’re good for some light securing work thanks to the large size of the nails, especially when you opt for a longer nail.
But these tools aren’t as much about structural integrity as they are about making a secure but small connection. They are generally good for a wide range of materials, including hard and soft woods, plastics, and composite materials.
Some professionals even use the higher-powered versions of these nailers for siding and other high-precision jobs that still need secure fastening.
But, like other finishing nailers, they do have a thickness limit. These nailers aren’t a good option for incredibly thick materials, and even a 2×4 may be a little too thick for this kind of tool.
Here are some examples of the best uses of 16-gauge nailers:
- Exterior trim
Of course, these nailers do have some drawbacks.
Despite their smaller design and weaker firing mechanisms, 16-gauge nail guns are still powerful enough to break some kinds of decorative elements and to chip or split thinner veneer wood.
They’re also a little aggressive for some materials and can leave a lot of finishing work in terms of filling the entry holes and sanding down damage from the nails.
While this is a little less relevant since 18-gauge nails are even smaller and less secure, it’s also worth noting that a 16-gauge nail is a slightly less stable connection than larger nails. You can make up for that somewhat with good placement and using more nails for your project, but a finishing nailer isn’t a good option for heavy-duty work most of the time.
Overview of 18 Gauge Nailers
18 gauge nailers are the best option when it comes to delicate work that’s durable enough for a power tool instead of just hand tools. They’re a good option for finishing work that’s more detailed or that uses smaller and more finicky materials.
You’ll also commonly see 18-gauge nailers used for cabinetry and baseboards thanks to their smaller entry holes and less finishing work. Brad nailers also really shine when you’re using veneers and other materials that are prone to splitting.
The smaller nails and point of entry are a lot less likely to cause tension through the grain of the material, reducing both the immediate risk of cracking and splitting and the long-term risk as the materials grow and shrink over time.
Here are a few examples of the best uses of brad nailers:
- Paneling and veneer work
- Crown molding
- Interior trim
One of the biggest reasons these nailers are popular for those delicate and decorative tasks is that the nail heads are also proportionately smaller. That makes them less noticeable and easier to cover, leaving a more professional finish.
However, brad nailers have some noticeable drawbacks as well.
The smaller thinner nail design doesn’t offer as secure a connection as larger nails, for starters. They are also significantly less powerful than other designs, which means that they only work with a limited selection of materials.
You won’t be able to use a brad nailer with anything too hard or too thick. Usually, hardwood veneers are fine since the thinness of the material helps to offset the durability and hardness of the material.
Before we move on to a direct comparison, there’s one other feature of these nailers that’s critical to consider when you’re buying a new nail gun.
The power supply for your nail gun has a huge impact on where you can use it most effectively and can also affect the maneuverability and durability of your new tool.
There are two common power options for nail guns. Pneumatic designs rely on air compressors, while battery-powered tools are self-contained but offer more limited power and working duration.
Pneumatic tools are generally preferred by professionals since they can keep working longer and offer more consistent power over time than battery-powered options.
But battery-powered tools work better in remote locations and tight spaces where there isn’t enough space for an air compressor and cord. Battery-powered tools are also much quieter than air compressors, which can make them easier to use for long periods without needing ear protection.
16 Gauge and 18 Gauge Nailers Head to Head Comparison
Now that we’ve gone over the basics for both of these nailers, let’s look at how each nail gun performs with different kinds of tasks and talk about which one you need for which kind of project.
Both of these kinds of nail guns will work relatively well for baseboards. Choosing the right one is all about matching the nail gun to the materials you’re working with and the finish you’re going for.
For a thicker baseboard, you’re likely going to want to stick to the 16-gauge finishing nail gun to make sure it’s securely attached and that you won’t end up with partially fired nails that need to be removed before you can start over.
For thinner baseboards, or baseboards that you want to disguise the entrance hole entirely, you’re better off with a brad nailer. The smaller entrance hole and nail head are easier to cover or disguise, and the smaller nail design will also be easier on thinner and more delicate materials.
Like baseboards, both of these nailers will work, but each is suited to a different kind of trim.
For exterior trim, you’ll probably want the greater durability of a 16-gauge finishing nail gun. But you may be able to use an 18 gauge brad nailer for interior trims, especially trims that are mostly or entirely decorative.
For Other Finishing Work
For visible finishing work, you can use either of these nailers, but brad nailers have a slight edge when it comes to creating a professional finish. The smaller size of these nails and the more delicate power of the nail gun itself both help you disguise the evidence of your work, letting the natural beauty of your project shine through without distractions from entrance holes and visible nail heads.
For Heavy Duty Work
Neither of these nailers is particularly well suited to heavy-duty construction work, but the 16-gauge finishing nailer is significantly more versatile when it comes to heavy-duty work and handling things like staircases.
Which Option is Right For You?
Ultimately, you’re likely to have both of these nailers if you do both heavy-duty work and detailed work. But for some contractors and professionals, an 18-gauge nailer might simply be too delicate for the kind of work you do.
You can use a 16-gauge nail gun for a lot of the same delicate work than a brad nailer will handle, so it’s definitely the more versatile of the two designs. If you can only get one nail gun to start with, the 16 gauge is probably the way to go.
Just plan on getting an 18-gauge brad nailer when it’s time to do a little more detailed and decorative work down the road.