16 vs 18 Gauge Nailer: Which is Right For Your Needs?

a man using a nailer at the ceiling

Getting the right nailer for finish projects probably sounds simple. Go to the store, find the highest-rated nailer for the right price and take it home. It’s never as simple as it sounds, however, and buying the wrong nailer can end with split tongues or baseboards that come away from the wall.

It starts by asking whether you want a 16-gauge nailer or an 18-gauge nailer. While it might seem intuitive that nails increase with gauge, the opposite is true. An 18-gauge fastener is smaller than 16-gauge. This is pretty important to keep in mind because the basic choice it presents is whether you want a fastener that leaves a smaller hole to fill or a bigger fastener in the wood.

There aren’t any black-and-white answers. It’s all based on personal preference and what kinds of materials you’re going to fasten together. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that unless you’re a professional carpenter, you’re probably going to buy only one. So, you want to make the right decision right off.

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Manufacturer specs

We’d be remiss if we didn’t tell you that if you’re buying a nailer for a job you’re getting ready to start, consult the manufacturer specifications for the materials you’re using. Those might tell you which gauge to use for a variety of reasons. If that’s the case, the choice of which gauge nailer was made when you selected the materials for the job.

nailer for flooring

Image credit: Max Pixel

The versatility of the 16-gauge

Of the two, the 16-gauge tends to be the more popular choice if you own just one. That’s because the nails tend to be bigger and hold things together with a little greater strength. So they are the more versatile of the two, which makes them more attractive to people who only want to buy one.

This is true as trim projects get a touch heavier. If you’re installing baseboards or door frames, for instance, you want a nailer with better holding power. That would mean the slightly wider and — more importantly — slightly larger head of a 16-gauge nailer. These are also a little better for projects like putting together furniture that will take a bit of a beating and cabinets where glue is not your primary way to hold them together.

You’ll also want a 16-gauge nailer if you have exterior trim to hang. This is just to reflect that exterior trim comes with special challenges as it relates to weather.

18 gauge: Smaller nail, smaller footprint

Appearances matter, and sometimes they matter a whole lot, however. Sometimes what you want is a much less noticeable hole where the nail goes into the wood. This is especially true if you need to use a few of them in a place where they might be noticed by even a casual glance. The smaller the hole, the less noticeable, and the easier it is to make them go away by filling them.

18-gauge nailer

Image credit: Mark Hunter, Flickr

In these cases, you will want to consider an 18-gauge nailer. The difference in holding power at this size is most noticeable the more wear and tear the finish job gets, so a smaller hole is great for things like crown molding. The kinds of lighter, thinner pieces of wood also confer an additional advantage to an 18-gauge nailer. Larger nails can split wood, especially at the ends.

If you are gluing together cabinets, 18-gauge nails are well suited to hold them together until the glue dries.

A few final thoughts

If you have a specific job that requires that you buy a finish nailer, your choice in what gauge will probably be determined by the manufacturer specifications included with the materials you use. If you have a lot of experience or are a professional, you might be able to make a different gauge nailer work. If you’re a layperson, ignoring those specifications is a good way to wind up doing a bad job.

If you have a job in mind but not materials, and are willing to find materials to fit your finish nailer, in general a 16-gauge nailer is a more versatile investment. If you think you need a nailer in this general range for your workshop, this is a good route to go because it will allow you to do more.

The advantage of an 18-gauge nailer, however, is that the nails create a smaller hole in whatever you’re finishing. If your job requires that you use a finisher where people will see your work, a smaller footprint means less of your work to see and more of what you’ve hung.

About the Author Adam Harris

Hi there! My name is Adam and I write for HealthyHandyman. I have a great passion for writing about everything related to tools, home improvement, and DIY. In my spare time, I'm either fishing, playing the guitar, or spending quality time with my beloved wife. You'll also often find me in my workshop working on some new project!