Really. I’m not kidding. Every Toolmonger should own an air compressor. And while you should probably consider picking up a more capable/larger/sturdier (and pricier) model if you’re looking to run tools or do something more complicated, a model like the one pictured above — priced at $80 — will air up car tires or blow dust out of the garage just fine.
“But wait,” you say. “I want to paint cars and run scores of air tools!” I can sympathize. I’ve given thought to both of these ideas, and I’ve even gone as far as to implement the latter. But consider this:
First, you’re not going to paint your car in your garage, at least not without considerable effort and danger to yourself and your neighbors. When I was a kid I wrecked my sweet little 280Z, and since I carried only liability insurance, the solution my father and I came up with to get it fixed was a little creative. We found a crusty old guy who’d quit his job at a paint shop and was doing some work “on the side” to pay his mortgage. (I extended the “on the side” concept, too, convincing him to re-paint the car Porsche red instead of just returning it to its original blue, all for the $600 my parents shelled out for the repair. I paid off the additional work by being his lackey during the process.)
I busted my ass on the first day — I really wanted a red 280Z — and the guy warmed up a bit. In fact, he wouldn’t let me do some of the sanding or any of the painting. “Don’t got the proper gear,” he said. “This shit’ll kill ‘ya.”
Guess what? He’s right. And that was then. Paints, primers, and the solvents used with them have become even more dangerous since. I’m not telling you what you can and can’t do. I’m sure that if you set your mind to it, you can probably figure out a way to paint that car without the right gear right in your garage. But you’ll probably knock some years off your life — and your unwitting neighbors’ lives as well — in the process. Worse yet, you’ll need some pretty damn complicated compressor gear.
Air tools, however, represent a different issue: air quantity. You’ll see PSI ratings slapped all over air compressors. If you’re planning to run air tools, though, you’ll want to look at not just how much pressure the compressor can deliver, but how much air it can deliver at that pressure. Look for a CFM (cubic feet per minute) rating as well.
A little pancake compressor, for example, might deliver up to 100 PSI max and around 1.0 CFM at 40 PSI. That’s fine to drive a single nail gun, which needs only a tiny bit of air per nail driven. But plug in an air wrench and you’ll get about a tenth of a second of medium power followed by a wrench that’ll barely turn.
Lots of people will argue about how much flow you need to successfully drive air tools. Most shops run 40-60 gallon compressors that deliver 10+ CFM at 90+ PSI. That’ll certainly give you the kind of performance you imagine when you think “air tool.” But that’s a big-ass compressor, and you’ll pay at least $500 for one — plus the installation cost, as they’re almost universally 230V and huge.
If you’re just going to break something loose — and maybe use the low-pressure flow to back out a loose nut quickly — you can get away with far less, sometimes even as little as 5 CFM at 80 PSI. Of course, your mileage may vary.
But hey, even if you never run an air tool you still need a basic compressor. So don’t get tied up in trying to find the perfect model. Just grab one. And stop crashing the gas station every time you need to air up a tire.
P.S.: Before you bash too hard on the HF compressor, you should probably know that I owned one for years. My dad bought it for me when I was living in an apartment and didn’t have a compressor, and when I later inherited his large model, I loaned it to Sean. He hung onto it for at least five more years, using it on and off as he almost always had a test model in for Toolmonger. It finally died this year. Dad paid $50 for it.