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Finishing Nailer Versus Framing Nailer

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Figuring out which tools to use can often be a struggle when preparing for a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) project.  You either have everything you need, or you try to figure out how to use what you have to complete a task.

What is the difference between a finishing and framing nailer?   The chief difference is the type of job they are designed to accomplish. Framing nailers use larger framing nails with a defined head while finishing nailers use smaller, headless nails.

There is a lot more to this question, so we are going to explain each in more detail and help you decide which one you need.

Carpenter using nail gun decorative unfinished molding on the ceiling

Understanding How Nail Guns Work

A nail gun “shoots” a nail through wood using electricity or pneumatic (air) power. Invented in 1944 by astronautical engineer Morris S. Pynoos, the original nail gun was used to tack boards together on Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose airplane. 

  • Air-powered nail guns did not gain popularity until the 1980s. Moving into the construction industry, they have taken up permanent residence.
  • The difference between nail guns and their uses is the source of the power used to propel the nail. Power nailers are available with three power sources: combustion, pneumatic, and electric. 
  • Pneumatic nail guns use an air compressor attached to the tool with a delivery hose. Pneumatic nailers are limited to use within the range of the hose but are excellent for heavy-duty or repetitive projects.
  • Combustion nail guns use a gas cartridge that releases fuel into a combustion chamber. Ignited by a small electrical spark, a mini-explosion propels the nail into the wood. The advantage of this nail gun is the loss of the air hose tether, but cartridges need frequent replacement.
  • Electric models use a rotating motor to generate force, compressing a spring, which is released when the trigger is pulled. These can be corded or cordless. While battery-operated models do increase portability, they are more suited to lighter-weight tasks.
finishing nailer putting on baseboard

What is a Finishing Nailer?

In broad terms, a finishing nailer is used to “finish” projects. Using a headless nail, a finishing nailer automatically injects the nail below the outer surface of the board. This allows the use of a small dab of wood filler to cover the nail hole, thus finishing the project.

A standard finishing nailer will use 14 to 16 gauge nails from 1-inch to 3.5-inches long. Finish nails are designed to be headless so they can be countersunk under the outer surface of the board. 

Finishing nailers are designed to automatically countersink nails. By adjusting the PSI setting, the user can set the depth of penetration. This allows the user to set the best holding depth for the nail, while also minimizing the amount of filler needed to cover the nail hole.

Finishing nailers are most commonly used for lighter projects:

  • Installing cabinets and general light carpentry
  • Adding interior/exterior trim
  • Installing molding, baseboards, door casing, and chair rails
  • Assembling or making furniture 
  • Stair treads and risers

Finishing nailers are normally smaller than framing nailers and lighter in weight because they perform a more delicate task. 

One of the advantages of a finishing nailer is that it will not leave marks on the surface of your project. Most carpenters want their finished project to look like no nails were involved, so this is a pretty important thing.

The light-duty nature of a finishing nailer is a disadvantage in that it won’t handle those larger jobs. 

Carpenter install base molding trim air gauge finish nailer man nailed custom house building

What is a Framing Nailer?

Framing nailers are used for bigger jobs, such as building walls. They drive larger nails with more force. They aren’t as delicate as a finishing nailer and are more apt to leave dents in your wood. Since the results of this impact will be covered by drywall or siding, no one really cares that it isn’t “pretty.”

Most framing nails have a gauge between 8 and 11.5, with lengths ranging from 1.25-inches to 5.5-inches. 

Framing nailers are used for heavy-duty projects:

  • Construction
  • Fencing
  • Wooden deck construction
  • Installing wood siding

Because of their intended purpose, framing nailers are heavier and more durable than finishing nailers. They are adjustable, and the head of the nail can be impacted slightly to allow drywall installation to be flush with the surface of the framework. 

An advantage of a framing nailer is that it can be used with a variety of nail sizes, making it a versatile addition to any toolbox. 

A disadvantage is size. These are bulky and not suited for construction projects in tight spaces. They are also heavy and have a fatigue factor if used for extended periods of time. 

Determining Your Job Requirements

To determine what type of nail gun to use, you must first determine the type of nail you need. Once you determine the best type of nail for your task, you will know which type of nail gun to use.

Air nailer tool close up of carpenter using nail gun to crown moldings on kitchen cabinets with

Nails have three parts: point, shank, and head. With thousands of choices, knowing a bit about nails will help you select the right nail for your project. This, in turn, will help you select the right nail gun for your project.

  • Gauge is the diameter of a nail. Like electrical wires, the larger the number, the thinner the nail. 
  • Most nails have a smooth shank. Different shank designs have been introduced to increase the holding power of nails. 
  • The nail head is easy to identify. A flat head nail will be visible on the surface of the wood. Countersunk (finishing) nails have a conical-shaped head. 

Nails are sometimes coated to prevent rust, lubricated to make them easier to drive, or coated with glue to make them hold better. 

The technical term for nails used in nail guns is collated nails. These are sold in strips or coils for a variety of different nail types and guns. Held together with glue, paper tape, or plastic, these are designed to be loaded into a nail gun’s magazine.

When shopping, make sure that the nails you select will work in the nail gun you are using.

Which is Right for You: Finishing Nailer vs. Framing Nailer

It all boils down to the job you need to perform. Buying a nail gun is an investment. While some are inexpensive, to get a quality tool, you will be spending a bit.

There are other factors to consider too.

Is this a one-time project, or something you will do more than once? For a one-time project, consider renting the tool you need. If you will be doing the task more than once, purchase the nail gun that suits the task.

Carpenter close up using on air nail gun to moldings for window

Does your project require both heavy- and light-duty nailing? Which is the most difficult part? You could consider purchasing the type of gun that you will use most and renting the one you would use periodically.

For building Adirondack chairs, go with the finishing nailer. To build the deck to set your chairs on, go with the framing nailer. 

Final Thoughts

If you are working in the construction industry, by all means, add both these tools to your arsenal. If you are a weekend DIYer, you may need both also. Or you may find it more cost-effective to rent from your local home supply warehouse. 

Understanding the basics of how a nail gun works and the jobs they are designed to perform will help you decide which one is right for you. Based on experience – nail guns are definitely an advantage in finishing a project quicker and keeping your thumbs intact.

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