When I started building some 22 years ago, conventional wisdom was to hand-nail trim. In Maine, where I lived at the time, trim nailers were just coming into vogue, and brad nailers, well, there weren't any.
Times have changed and so has nailer technology, which has completely transformed how I install trim. I've found that small brad nails are strong enough to hold most trim, including base, case, crown, chair, and picture rail, and they really shine for detail work. I also use brad nails along with some glue to secure molding returns. And brad nail heads are much easier to hide in paint- and stain-grade work.
For nailing trim and getting the results I want, not only do I need a tool that regularly drives brads to a consistent depth in all types of material, I also want a tool that balances well in my hands–in all kinds of positions–and has easy loading, simple and quick adjustments, and additional features that make it easier and faster for me to trim.
I put 12 18-gauge brad nailers through their paces all over my trim sites: the Bostitch BT200K-2, Craftsman 18172, DeWalt D51238K, Fasco F21T GN-40A, Makita AF503, Max NF255-ST/18, Paslode T200, Porter-Cable BN200A, Rainco R26C GN-50, Ridgid R213BNA, Senco FinishPro 25XP, and Spotnails WB1850. I also looked at one hoseless tool, Paslode's 18-Gauge cordless brad nailer (see "Hoseless," below).
Weight and Balance. I want the lightest tool I can get; however, the lightest tool isn't always the lightest-feeling tool, so I check how a new nailer feels in my hands. Without question or hesitation, the two lightest and easiest-to-hold tools in the group were the Bostitch and Ridgid. Their magnesium construction is so light they felt almost weightless. The Paslode was third, and Senco was a close fourth. Next, the DeWalt, Fasco, Max, Porter-Cable, Craftsman, Makita, and Rainco were all light and balanced nicely. The Spotnails didn't have nearly the same comfortable feel or balance as the others.
Grip and Trigger. I also want a tool whose trigger I can reach without restriction. All of the triggers were easy to reach and comfortable to use. I have medium-sized hands and average-length fingers, so the optimum trigger placement might feel different to carpenters with larger or smaller hands. Carpenters with big hands might have trouble with the finger space on the Max and Fasco tools. I can't foresee a problem for carpenters with smaller hands using any of these tools.
Since all the tools in the test drove fasteners nearly flawlessly, the differences came down to functionality, features, and ease-of-use details like loading fasteners, depth-of-drive adjustments, exhaust systems, and safety. And this is where some tools really shine.
Loading Fasteners. Bostitch's loading was the best. It was easy to load and is the only nailer with a magnetic strip to hold pins secure when the cartridge is open. Second best was Max. This tool operates with a two-tier sliding process in which you open the cartridge to expose the pins while a second slide holds pressure on the pins until you retract the cartridge farther. This releases the pins so you can change them or add new ones. Bostitch and Max are the only tools that secure the pins when the cartridge is open so you don't spill them onto the floor, which is a very nice feature.
The Craftsman, DeWalt, Fasco, Makita, Paslode, Porter-Cable, Rainco, Ridgid, and Senco all loaded well. It was quite easy to open the nail cartridges either by a release mechanism on top or on the side of the rear cartridge assembly.
My least favorite was the Spotnails. It rear-loads, and you have to pull the feed mechanism back over the pins to secure them. The finger pull is small and less than easy to operate.
Adjusting Pin Depth. While brad heads are small and easy to hide with filler, I still don't like over-driving pins when I change species or material. And, over-driven nails blow straight through very small or thin stock like molding returns, thin cabinet backer, or small detail pieces.
The Max has the largest adjustment wheel, which I found very easy to use. DeWalt employs a patented slide adjustment that was also easy to adjust and was my second favorite.
Bostitch places its adjustment wheel on the face of the tool just above the firing pin, which is also a fine location, and it performed well. The adjustments on the Craftsman, Porter-Cable, Rainco, Ridgid, Senco, and Spotnails tools all worked nicely. The Paslode adjustment is small and located in a tight spot.
Surprisingly, neither the Makita nor the Fasco nailer has a depth-of-drive adjustment.
Exhaust. Four tools stand out here: Bostitch, Craftsman, Max, and Ridgid. These are the first tools I've encountered that–finally–redirect the air blast created when the tool is fired so it doesn't blow back into my face. All four of these nailers direct exhaust to the rear of the tool near the hose fitting–a part of the tool that's never directly in front of my face, no matter how I'm holding it. The DeWalt, Makita, Paslode, Porter-Cable, Senco, and Spotnails are adjustable. This is nice, but since I constantly changed firing positions and angles, I eventually got blow-back anyway. The Fasco and Rainco tools have no exhaust adjustment.