Brad Nailer Shootout
With the advancements in glue, screws, and joinery tools (biscuit joiners, pocket-hole jigs, etc.) over recent decades, nails have all but disappeared from furniture and cabinet construction. But 18-gauge brad nailers have kept small nails relevant, especially for shop projects, jigs, and difficult-to-clamp assemblies. And, of course, they still excel at installing small trim. We tested a dozen bradders in search of the ideal model for a woodworking shop. Fortunately, we found several that excelled.
The best brads won't be seen
Operating your nailers at 90-psi hose pressure—making exceptions for higher pressure only when needed—will extend the life of your nailers.
Ideally, a nailer should seat the head of a brad 1⁄16 " below the wood surface, leaving you space in the tiny cavity for wood filler. Using an air compressor set for 90-psi hose pressure, we drove 11⁄4 " brads with all 12 nailers into laminated-MDF panels and hard maple with no problems. However, when we drove 2" brads at that same pressure, only half the nailers could sink them below the surface. Increasing the pressure 10–20 psi (to a level still within each model's approved range)helped all but one of the rest sink the brads. The Porter-Cable left every other 2" brad proud of the wood surface until we increased the hose pressure to 130 psi, just outside its recommended range.
Each of the tested nailers uses a thumbwheel below the trigger to adjust nail depth. Most worked well, but five were more difficult to get a finger on and turn, and the Cadex would bind frequently. (See the ratings.)
Precise placement prevails
Whether attaching trim to a furniture piece or casing to a door jamb, your nailer must drive a fastener precisely where you want it. Otherwise, you could end up with a misplaced nail, a nail hole in an unsightly spot, or even a blowout through an adjacent surface.
Most of the nailers have safety trips behind the nose, which improve your sightline to the nose for brad placement. These must be depressed against the workpiece before you can fire the nailer via its trigger.
Two models consistently fired brads with the kind of accuracy a jeweler could appreciate. The nearly identical Bostitch Smart Point and DeWalt Precision Point nailers have rear safety trips that serve as the back half of the nose, rather than being separate elements as on the other nailers. The noses on these two resemble those found on micropinners and are dwarfed by the others in the test group (shown below). And with both of these, the opposite-action safety trip defaults to the up (depressed) position, so it doesn't need to be pushed up by workpiece contact. The safety moves downward as you pull the trigger, so as long as the safety trip contacts something that prevents it from moving down, the trigger will fire. With other nailers, you must fully depress the safety trips before the noses contact the wood, often resulting in shallow dimples in the surface.
All the nailers come with at least one no-mar nose tip for preventing (or minimizing) dents in the wood. But these tips can impair your ability to place a brad precisely, particularly with the Cadex, Grex, Paslode, and Porter-Cable nailers. The front safety trip on the Grip-Rite makes it the most difficult for brad placement. And with half the nailers, the drivers create dents wider than those made by the brad heads.
What to know about nails and magazines
Among our test group, only the Grex nailer fires brads as short as 1⁄2 ". The Cadex has a minimum of 3⁄4 "; the rest start at 5⁄8 ". We like the 5⁄8 " capability for nailing together thin stock, preventing accidental nail-throughs. For maximum length, five nailers top out at 21⁄8 "; the others at 2". Nails this long prove crucial when installing trim.
The magazines on all 12 nailers open and close easily, with no issues loading and unloading sticks of brads. They all have view windows, shown below, to alert you when the brads are almost gone. We prefer nailers that will accept a full stick (100 brads) as soon as the indicator appears in the view window. But with the Cadex, Grex, Max, and Paslode models, you have to fire 5–8 more brads after the indicator appears before a full stick will fit.
To avoid damage to the driver, dry-fire lockouts prevent firing when the brads run out. Four tested models claim this feature. The Grex works best because it fires all the remaining brads and then locks up its driver. Ridgid's nailer leaves six brads in the magazine when it locks out. Dry-fire lockouts failed to work on the Cadex and Grip-Rite nailers, as they continued to fire on an empty magazine.
We experienced only a few nail jams during testing—a good sign, for sure. But it's comforting to know that all but one nailer have tool-free access, shown below, should a jam occur.
Features that matter
■ Quick connects. All but the Max come with a quick-connect air-hose fitting. Fittings of the Cadex, DeWalt, Grex, Grip-Rite, Ridgid, and Senco nailers swivel, making the tool less clumsy in use than the fixed, straight fittings on the Bostitch, Makita, Paslode, and Porter-Cable nailers. Hitachi's coupler is fixed, but angles upward, reducing the awkwardness. They all work well enough in our testing, so it comes down to user preference.
■ Oil or oil free. The Bostitch, DeWalt, Porter-Cable, Ridgid, and Senco nailers do not require oil for internal lubrication, so if low maintenance is a priority for you, choose one of these. The others require a drop now and then, more so with frequent use, but Hitachi and Max do not include a bottle of oil. Oil-lubricated nailers typically will be less likely to need repairs down the road.
■ Exhaust. Each time you fire a nail, the compressed air powering that blast needs to escape after resetting the piston. Four nailers (Grip-Rite, Hitachi, Makita, and Paslode) use top-mounted, 360° swiveling exhausts that let you direct the air away from you and the workpiece. These tend to be louder than rear exhausts. Of those models with rear exhausts, only Ridgid and Senco have 360° swivels.
■ Blower Cadex has a built-in air blower, shown at right, that comes in handy for clearing dust and debris from workpieces without having to set the nailer down.
■ Eye protection. The Grex, Hitachi, Makita, Grip-Rite, Paslode, and Ridgid nailers come with protective goggles.
■ Storage. Each of the nailers comes with a storage case, important for protecting the nailer's nose and keeping dust from getting into the air fitting. All are plastic except for Ridgid's canvas bag.
Three features of less importance to woodworkers
■ Bump-fire trigger. All but the Makita, Paslode, and Porter-Cable nailers have dual-mode triggers that let you choose between single fire (pulling the trigger each time) and bump fire (holding the trigger depressed and then lifting and lowering the nailer each time). Woodworkers rarely need to bump-fire in rapid succession.
■ Belt hook. All but the Cadex, Hitachi, and Paslode have a hook to let you hang the nailer on a tool belt. Some rotate to suit your dominant hand, and the Bostitch, DeWalt, and Porter-Cable have a pencil sharpener in their hooks.
■ Padded trigger. Although some nailers tout this as a value-added feature, woodworkers rarely fire more than a dozen or two brads per use. We found no issues with trigger comfort on any model.
Three tools nailed our tests
A brad nailer used primarily for building furniture and cabinetry and hanging trim needs to drive brads precisely without marring the wood. The Bostitch Smart Point BTFP12233 and DeWalt Precision Point DWFP12233 nailers excel at that, and earned excellent marks in all secondary categories. They come with test-topping 7-year warranties. For all this, they share Top Tool honors. Ridgid's R213BNE scored nearly as high and has the dry-fire lockout, but a less-precise nose kept it a notch below the top pair.
The Senco FinishPro 18MG, for $90, scored nearly as well as the top two and comes with a 5-year warranty, earning our Top Value award.
Keep the hold, lessen the hole
If an 18-gauge brad nailer creates too large of a hole for your projects, but you need the holding power of a headed nail, consider a 21-gauge pinner. These tools fire headed wire pins about midway between the size of a brad and a 23-gauge headless pin. Senco's FinishPro 21LXP ($250) and Cadex's CPB21.50 ($330) are the only two we know of, and they both performed well in testing in our shop.
Bostitch BTFP12233, $120
DeWalt DWFP12233, $120
Senco FinishPro 18MG, $90
Cadex CB18.50A, $160
Grex 1850GB, $200
Grip-Rite GRTBN200N, $90
Hitachi NT50AE2(S), $80
Makita AF505N, $90
Max NF255F/18, $110
Paslode T200-F18, $90
Porter-Cable BN200C, $80
Ridgid R213BNE, $100
Download full Brad Nailer Comparison Chart