Over the course of our carpentry career, my co-worker Bruce Cranston and I have probably run tens of thousands of feet of baseboard, casing, and crown molding efficiently thanks to pneumatic nailers. And while we have multiple gauges of nailers in our tool arsenal, the one we use most often is the 18-gauge brad nailer. We like the weight of these guns, and the gauge of the nail is perfect for millwork because it provides good holding power while leaving only a small hole to fill.
Given the consistency with which we use this size nailer, and the diversity of jobs we do (in both new and existing residential construction), we were excited to test all 10 cordless brad nailers now on the market, which we did over the course of eight weeks. We were able to put up thousands of feet of baseboard, shoe molding, bead board, and crown molding ranging from poplar, pine, oak, maple, and finger-jointed pre-primed. Having all 10 guns on site at once provided a perfect setting for a proper shootout.
Gas or Electric?
A lot of carpenters we know complain that gas-powered cordless nailers produce a terrible, annoying smell. But many of us put up with the mild discomfort in exchange for the freedom of not being tethered to an air hose—which is especially appreciated when we’re working in finished homes. Without a chain of air hoses, there’s less to carry in and out of the job, and less chance of damaging floors or baseboards.
Thanks to a seemingly never-ending battle among tool manufacturers for the best battery technologies and improvements in brushless motors, battery-powered nail guns are now giving pneumatics and gas-powered nailers some serious competition. With most of the top tool companies offering cordless brad guns, the options and price points mean it might be time to keep the compressor and hose in the shop. At the end of the day, though, we found that gas is still king.
Picking the nail guns to test was an easy task, as these are the only ones available. Because the price points and cost of use vary so widely between gas power and battery power, we decided to compare the nailers to others in their respective sub-categories.
What we rated
We were very pleased to see all 10 guns had plenty of power to drive nails into common ½- to ¾-inch pine and poplar trim. All the nailers have some form of depth adjustment—in some cases, a dial extends or retracts the nosing, and in others, a knob at the top increases or decreases the force of drive; the Ridgid and Ryobi have both a dial and a knob. Some of the depth settings worked better than others; those on the Senco and Porter-Cable were the easiest to use and most obvious in terms of seeing depth changes as adjustments were made. On the Ryobi and Grex, we did find it hard to determine whether or not the power adjustment dial did anything to change the depth of drive.
We considered rating the hole size of the different guns, but after using all of them, we decided that the differences were barely noticeable to the eye, and rating them made no sense. A brad nail head is small no matter what pin is driving it—and at the end of the day, you’re left with a hole to fill, no matter what (and painters don’t care—filler is cheap, and a slightly larger hole doesn’t take any more time to fill). In stain-grade work, we found the differences in hole size a non-issue, as well. What we did pay attention to, though, was the no-mar tip, which, when combined with certain nailers and wood types, either left a mark or didn’t. None of them dented hardwoods, but a few did make slight indentations in the pine and sometimes poplar (which is only slightly harder than pine even though it is technically considered a hardwood).
The biggest advantages we found with gas-powered guns were weight and shape. The slim bodies of the Grex, Hitachi, and Paslode worked very well in tight spaces and had well-designed belt clips. But they don’t have an on-board work light or a bump mode, and the exhaust smell lingers in the air when they’re used in a confined area for long periods of time.
The battery-powered guns do have more bulk, but they have LED lights, and several offer bump mode shooting. Bump mode is great for shop-production work and running long lengths of trim, though it’s not a feature we often use, even with pneumatic finish nailers. The battery-powered models are also less expensive to operate per nail; gas cartridges run between $5 and $8 apiece, and if you run out with no back-ups, the gun is useless. With a battery-powered nailer, you don’t have to worry about running out of anything but battery power—and having an extra battery on hand solves that problem. With most of the major tool companies offering battery-powered guns, it’s convenient and economical to pair a new brad gun with tools you already own.
The Bottom Line
Any of these guns would be a great addition to a jobsite. And after testing all of them, we find it’s hard to go back to a conventional pneumatic gun—it’s easy to get spoiled with the convenience of a lightweight, compressor-free tool. From large trim packages to punch-list items, these guns are up to the challenge. Some models had a few subtle differences that set them apart and made them more comfortable and easier to use in tight conditions than others.
The standouts were the Grex in the gas-powered category and the Ridgid in the battery-powered group. The Grex had the best feel in the hand and allowed for a full day of use with little fatigue. Its simple styling, light weight, and small nose had the most streamlined and “pneumatic” feel of all the guns. We found the Ridgid to be the most user-friendly in the battery-powered group. The brushless motor and 18V battery provides plenty of power to drive nails efficiently. The gun parks well on both the battery and its head, saving time and preventing “fall downs.”