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Is a Brad Nailer Right for You? (DIY Arts & Crafts)

This is my Porter-Cable Brad Nailer Kit.

This is my Porter-Cable Brad Nailer Kit.

How I Ended Up Getting a Nail Gun

Think of the words "nail gun," and it might conjure up images of a burly construction worker wielding a heavy, high-powered weapon firing nails into beams and spiking together lengths of framing lumber. While there was a time when nail guns were mostly used by professional carpenters, the versatility and reduced costs of smaller brad nailers make them the perfect tool for a variety of woodworking projects. Many craftsmen, carpenters, and weekend woodworkers use brad nailers to save time and to have better accuracy than driving in nails with a hammer. If you are an arts and crafts hobbyist, you may even find a few more reasons to invest in a brad nailer.

I like to make small woodworking projects in my home workshop. I especially enjoy building birdhouses and wooden toys in addition to doing basic repairs and DIY projects around the house. For years, I struggled with tacking small wood pieces together when I hammered in finishing nails or clamped odd-shaped pieces in place. The results were often less than satisfying—there were slightly misaligned parts, split wood pieces, and sore fingers from holding and pounding small nails.

One day, a friend stopped by and saw several of my work-in-progress projects. A skilled carpenter with a keen eye and an envious collection of quality tools, he pointed at a few errant nails and asked, "Why don't you get a small brad nailer?"

This is my Porter-Cable Brad Nailer at work.

This is my Porter-Cable Brad Nailer at work.

My Nail Gun of Choice

The Porter-Cable 18 Gauge Brad Nailer is my nailing tool of choice. This little pneumatic nail gun is lightweight, easy to use, and fires tiny brads that barely leave a pinhole in the surface of the wood.

The brad nailer makes it faster and easier to assemble my woodworking projects. Since I don't have to hold small and often delicate pieces while swinging a hammer to drive in nails, the nail gun gives me more accuracy and better results. It can shoot nails up to 2" long. Loaded with weather-resistant galvanized nails, it's often used to assemble birdhouses and add decorative trim. The compact size lets it fit into tight places and works in awkward positions where it might be difficult to swing a hammer and drive in a nail.

I use my brad nailer to build birdhouses such as the driftwood one pictured above. Tacking the small, brittle pieces of driftwood is exceptionally difficult with a traditional hammer and finishing nails. By shooting the brads with a nail gun, I can hold the piece securely in place with one hand, press the gun down on the driftwood twig, and nail it in place with a light press on the trigger.

I'll share a few ways to use a brad nailer around your home and workshop below. Who knows, maybe a nail gun will improve your projects too!

My Porter-Cable Brad Nailer is useful for woodworking projects.

My Porter-Cable Brad Nailer is useful for woodworking projects.

Four Useful Functions of a Brad Nailer

  1. Holding small or odd-shaped wood pieces in place while gluing and clamping them together is a common woodworking challenge. To stop them from slipping out of position, spread on the glue and then simply tack the pieces together with a few brads before applying the clamps. This trick also works well when using screws to build cabinets or similar projects—tack the pieces in place with brads, drill pilot holes, and drive in the screws.
  2. The brad nailer is also my tool of choice to pin miter joints together. The 45° cuts are hard to hold in place while clamping and gluing, and one piece always seems to slide out of alignment. A couple of brads through the corners solves the problem.
  3. Use the brad nailer to attach finished pieces of wood together. The brads do not have "heads," so the holes are very small. Filling the pin holes is easy, and the filled holes are barely noticeable.
  4. This brad nailer excels at tacking trim work in place. I recently refinished a basement windowsill and shelf, and the little nailer worked flawlessly for tacking up the casework around the window. I used 2" long brads to tack the thicker outer edges of the molding. Then, I quickly swapped in smaller 3/4" brads to nail the thinner, inner profile of the molding. The wire-thin brads even shot through a narrow piece of trim without splitting it!

Is a Brad Nailer the Perfect Tool?

While I enjoy using my brad nailer, there are a few minor drawbacks:

  • Air: This is a pneumatic nailer, and you need an air compressor to create the pressure to fire the nail gun. Compressors can be noisy, and you need a length of hose to connect the nailer back to the compressor.
  • Curving Nails: The thin nails sometimes follow the grain of the wood. So, rather than shooting straight, the brad turns and pops out unexpectedly through the edge of the wood. When this happens, I either pull out the brad with pliers or cut the nail and push any protruding metal remains back into the wood before patching the blemish.

Make a Brad Nailer Starter Kit

Here are the few items you'll need when you pick up a nail gun:

  • Porter-Cable 18GA Brad Nailer: I purchased the Porter-Cable Brad Nailer Kit that included the 18 gauge nailer, a few brads, and basic operating instructions in a plastic carrying case. The little nailer is durable and has served me well for many years. The kit includes a few brads, but you will need more nails in various lengths for different types of projects. The brads are reasonably priced and easy to find at home centers and online.
  • Pancake Air Compressor: I really like my little Porter-Cable pancake air compressor. Its compact size fits in my packed workshop, and it provides plenty of air pressure for crafts and woodworking projects. It also comes in handy for filling bicycle tires and basketballs.
  • Air Hose: A standard 25" air hose works well for me and provides plenty of range. Buy a quality air hose that doesn't kink easily. If you have space, consider getting an air hose on a retractable reel.

Tip: Use Caution and Good Judgment

A nail gun is a dangerous tool that requires respect: the gun fires nails at high speed and with great force. It can easily shoot a 2" long nail into the wood—or into flesh. Keep your fingers away from the tip of the driver (where the nails shoot out). The firing tip has a safety that only allows the gun to fire when the tip is pressed against the work surface.

  • Always wear safety glasses and hearing protection.
  • Keep your hands out of the path of a curving nail to reduce the risk of injury.

See a Brad Nailer in Action

The video shows a demonstration of the Porter-Cable 23-gauge brad nailer featuring its compact size and ease of use. It's similar to my 18-gauge nailer but is slightly smaller and fires thinner brads—the larger the gauge, the thinner the brad diameter.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: I just started my first string art project, and along with all the nailing, I'm finding it difficult to get the nails straight, and that particularly is important because their partly what makes the design stand out. Is there a nail gun or some type of tool that I could use to make my nails more straight, but without going all the way through the wood?

Answer: The brad nailer probably isn't the best tool for creating string art, especially since the nailer is designed to drive the brad below the surface of the wood. I've never tried string art, but I have an idea for making a simple jig that might help: find a thin piece of scrap wood with a thickness that equals the height of the nail above the artwork (maybe 1/4" ?). Drill a hole through the wood that's just large enough to slide the nail through without binding. Insert the nail through the hole and line it up in the right spot on the artwork, and then tap the nail into place. The scrap wood jig will help to hold the nail upright. The thickness of the jig will help drive all of the nails in at a consistent height.

Question: Does a brad nailer have a setting on it to not go all the way through the wood?

Answer: The Porter-Cable brad nailer has an adjustment setting that allows you to control the depth of the countersink.

Question: I want to attach two pieces of wood that are both 1/4-inch thick. Are there brads short enough so that they don't pop through the front?

Answer: The shortest brads available for my Porter-Cable nailer are 5/8" long, and those brads are still too long for attaching two 1/4" thick pieces together without popping through. Gluing and clamping the pieces together may work in your situation.

Question: Is a brad nailer a good tool for attaching shiplap to an existing sheetrock wall?

Answer: A brad nailer is a good choice for fastening shiplap and trim. Just be sure to nail through the sheetrock to the wall studs (brads won't hold in sheetrock). Mark the locations for the studs, and use brads that are long enough to penetrate through the sheetrock and into the studs.

Question: I’m looking for a tool to drill through the back of canvas into 1/2 inch wooden cubes. Drilling small screws into them often result in the wood splitting and making a mess. Would a brad nailer work?

Answer: The brad nailer is a very useful tool, though it may not be suitable for your specific requirement to fasten canvas to 1/2" square wooden blocks. Have you tried pre-drilling the screw holes in the little cubes? Using a drill bit that is slightly smaller than the diameter of the screws plus a dab of glue or epoxy should allow you to secure the screws without splitting the would.

Question: My husband and I want to get into building small things for our home- a mud room bench and possibly some shelves. What nail gun would be best?

Answer: I have both an 18-gauge and a 16-gauge brad nailer for building lots of different projects. Depending on the wood that you're using for the shelves, either gauge has brads that work. However, the brads may not be strong enough to securely attach the legs to a bench. Joinery, screws, and glue may be a better option.

Question: I am re-upholstering 6 dining room chairs and the backings are made of a 1/4 inch wood. I need to attach cotton and fabric and secure the removable backing and attach it to the 1/4 inch solid backing of the chair. Could I use brad nails from the outside back of the wood without seeing the brads?

Answer: The brads leave small pin holes that will be visible. However, since the holes are small (especially with the small brads that you would use for 1/4" thick wood), the holes should be easy to fill with wood putty and touch up with the finish.

Question: How do you load a nail gun?

Answer: My Porter-Cable nailer came with step-by-step instructions that show how to safely load the gun. The brads come in strips that fit into grooved slots in the nail gun's magazine. Simply open the magazine by depressing the release and slide the magazine bar outwards. Place the brads into the slot (with the heads facing upwards) and close the magazine.

© 2013 Anthony Altorenna

Share A Tip For Using A Brad Nailer

Lu P on December 11, 2019:

Can a brad nailer be used in constructing fine dollhouses? Are there some brands/types more appropriate for this than others?

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on October 24, 2013:

I agree with you that a brad nailer is essential. I use mine all of the time and don't know how I got by without one. I also own the pancake compressor and hose you feature here. Great combo. Congrats on your feature. Appreciate this high quality review. And I want that driftwood bird house!

Scott A McCray on October 24, 2013:

Brad nailers are wonderful tools - someday I'll upgrade to a nicer one (most likely a Porter Cable), but my el cheapo just keeps on working