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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:

Painting Cars

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

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.


22 Responses to You Have No Excuses For Not Owning An Air Compressor

  1. Toolhearty says:

    Before any discussion of PSI or CFM, I want to hear about dB. Those oil-less things can be noisier than heck.

  2. Bill says:

    Toolhearty speaks the truth. I bought a Sears direct-drive oil-less, fired it up in the garage and took it right back to sears. Very loud and irritating. I ended up getting a Sears unit with separate motor and compressor (belt drive).
    Much quieter, probably because it runs at a lower rpm than that nasty direct-drive unit.
    Now, my pancake is direct drive, but it isn’t sitting in the corner of the shop cycling all day.

  3. george says:

    when i opened my one man repair shop i ran a oil less unit for over a year. yea it was sorta loud but it more than held up to my use. you sorta get used to it. at home it still performs just fine and hardly cycles much. still a very good option for the home. one option is to cover it with a large vented cardboard box, keeps the noise down.

  4. Jim K. says:

    Agreed with the above comments about oil-less. I have a craftsman that I was given for free because the guys’ wife wouldn’t let him use it any more. I don’t use it too often and typically wear ear protection when I work so I don’t mind the noise, but plan on replacing with a belt driven model when it finally dies (or my neighbors start giving me dirty looks as I walk down t street). 😉

  5. Eric R says:

    I agree with george. You get used to it.
    And, there are ways to cut the noise down inexpensively.
    Good article Chuck.

  6. Bill says:

    I’ve had the pictured unit for about ten years, it was in daily use for about 2 years. Still working, but yes, loud. I had it outside, behind my shop, and it was loud. Finally put it on a time switch so I wouldn’t upset the upstairs apartment if I left it on the pressure switch overnight.

  7. PutnamEco says:

    Re: Those oil-less things can be noisier than heck.
    Thomas makes a fairly quite oilless compressor. When combined with an oilless nailer, it makes for a pretty sure bet that you’ll get no fisheyes in your finishing job.

  8. fred says:

    Here is what I said before on this subject:

    There is quite a bit of difference between what you install in a a commercial shop and what you might do at home. I’m not sure what size shop you have, how its wired and what your budget is. Based on what we have in 2 different shops – we’d buy another Sullair rotary screw compressor. Ours is V-belt driven, enclosed, 20 years old and still quiet. For a home shop this would be totaly impractical (how many homes have 460V available) This unit is probably aimed at home users – who want to run an ocassional pneumatic tool. I think the prior comments are probably correct in that an oil-lubricated compressor is likely to run quieter than an oil-less – but have no experience in which ones are most quiet. For jobsite use – we’ve been happy with our Emglos

    Now what I’d add is that oil-less comperssors do have their place on jobsites – and on really cold days thay may actually work without need to warm up the oil lubricant or pay attention to how level they are – and then their is PutnamEco’s observation about using “oiled” tools don’t mix well with wood finishing.

  9. Discoman says:

    considering all the issues with air tools (pressure, CFM, noise, safety, price, longevity, and portability) I just decided to start saving my pennies for hydraulic tools.
    there are even more hydraulic tools than pneumatic ones.
    and there are some good comparisons between hydraulic and pneumatic, and stanley tools has a good FAQ on hydraulic tools.

  10. Brau says:

    “No excuse”

    I wholly agree!

    $179 got me a dual tank compressor, a framing nailer, and 25′ of air line. Sure, the cheapo framing nailer misses now and then, but it’s fine for weekend projects. I bought a good Porter Cable brad nailer to do finer work, and this “cheap” compressor has paid for itself many times over. It makes assembly of boxes and cabinetry a joy. It’s even done some concrete painting jobs (spray a bit … pause while it pumps …. spray … pause, etc). Can’t see how I did without now.

  11. aaron says:

    “No excuse”

    I disagree. this article presumes the truth of that statement, but never justifies it. why do i need to use air tools? what sort of projects will “require” me to use them?

  12. Chris says:

    Aaron: While I’ve never used an electric impact wrench, I suspect the pneumatic versions are more powerful, easier to find, cheaper (even when you factor in the compressor), and probably more durable.

    Pretty hard to do any kind of painting or sandblasting without a compressor, too.


  13. Kurt Schwind says:

    I think it does address the ‘no excuse’ but perhaps misses some other uses.

    I got a refurb porter cable pancake and nail gun because I was doing a project (isn’t that how we always acquire new tools?). I can’t recall now, but I think it was a nail gun, hose and pancake for around $160. That’s a pretty good bargain considering what else I can do with the compressor.

    Car tires.
    Bike tires.

    Those are the pretty obvious ones.

    Cleaning out tools. (Not much more satisfying than blowing away sawdust from all the nooks and crannies of your tools and workspace)

    How about this one: Blowing up balloons and those inflatable pool toys and whatnot.

    I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I no longer use lung power when blowing up balloons for parties. When I lugged my compressor over to an event one time and others saw me using it, it was like Tom Sawyer. I probably could have charged a quarter per balloon to each teen that wanted to use it.

  14. Peter W says:

    Don’t buy a compressor just to have one – first consider the use and then size appropriately. I have a dual-tank Harbor Fright compressor that I bought several years ago for about $100 (output is comparable to the one shown above). The psi/cfm is good for nail guns, tire inflation, and possibly paint. Unfortunately, it is inadequate for impact wrench, ratchet, and die grinder: it will give one good impact, but the ratchet and die grinder will barely turn with no load.

  15. fred says:


    We use electric impact wrenches (Milwaukee and an old Skil) all of the time on jobsites to drive big lags. Except on big jobsites where a stationary compressor is set up – our small hot-dog and dual tank compressors – while OK for nail guns – can not handle a pneumatic impact wrench – let alone some other air hogs like a sander. In our shops – that’s a different story and our Sullair certainly has enough output for anything we use.

    And – as far as painting and especially sandblasting – I think you will find that typical jobsite compressors can’t handle these either. For painting and finishing – think about HLVP – and in the shop or elsewhere think through the environmental health and safety consequences of spraying finishes before you start. Our roof deck has been beefed up over the years to support all of the process equipment needed to scrub the emissions from our modest spray booth.


    You make a good point: do we really need air tools? Maybe the hobbyist doesn’t – but they certainly add productivity. That said, I am constantly reminded that the “fine” work we turn out in our shop can not hold a candle to some of what our forefathers built with hand tools. But, for the best of them – their craftsmanship came from years of apprenticeship and skill-building practice – and what today would seem an unconscionable amount of time spent on building a perfect piece.

  16. fred says:

    BTW its HVLP – should have taken typing in school

  17. PutnamEco says:

    Discoman Says:
    considering all the issues with air tools (pressure, CFM, noise, safety, price, longevity, and portability) I just decided to start saving my pennies for hydraulic tools.

    Your still going to have to deal with pounds per square inch(PSI), gallons per minute(GPM), single or dual stage pumps, single or dual hose for single or dual action rams, open or closed for hydraulic motors, accumulators for closed systems, flow controllers. Back pressure is also something you may have to worry about
    Portable hydraulic power units are pricey, heavy, and can be messy. Yes, hydraulic pumps are mostly quieter than compressors and from what I’ve seen they do tend to last longer.
    There are a very limited selection of hydraulic tools for woodworking or construction type work, and even less for DIY type stuff. Both pneumatic and hydraulic saws will run around $1200, I’m not aware of any hydraulic sanders. Hydraulic impact wrenches are sweet, a few things to consider, they cost around $1000, and they require serious GPM-PSI, usually 8-10 GPM @ 2000 PSI, which will require about 10 horsepower to power the pump. So you are looking at spending around $5000 for electric (can you handle the 230 V 40 amps 3 phase?) or $4000 for a 13HP range (there goes the quiet) gas powered unit. You could maybe find a retired linesmans lift truck with a pto pump or possibly run it off your skidsteer or tractor
    Hydraulic chainsaws are another cool tool you might like. I would definitely be expanding my business into concrete cutting if I where to invest in hydraulic, just for the fun of owning a hydraulic concrete cutting chainsaw.
    Hydraulic really comes into its own when you start talking rams. serious lifting, spreading or cutting power can be yours for the right price.(see jawsoflife dot com if your interested in some really interesting and pricey hydraulic tools) You can find many hydraulic powered air compressors (LOL) should you wish to partake of both worlds.
    A word on hoses, Hydraulic hoses need to be a lot stronger than air hoses(3000 PSI vs 300 PSI). there are no quick fixes, should you wish to repair hydraulic hose.
    So I hope if your considering hydraulic over air you have to have a pretty big piggy bank to hold all them pennies
    One last thing to consider which would you rather clean up after an air leak or an hydraulic leak?

  18. wes says:

    Unconvinced here. I needed a brad nailer for several projects. I thought, heck I should start my investment toward air tools. Shopped around, read reviews. The whole PSI, recovery time issue was confusing as heck. If they were cheap they were inconceivably loud and hit or miss on reliability. If they needed oil they needed TLC and frankly to be used often. Some of the nailers required fiddling with what appeared from the diagrams to be a complicated hose and gauge setup. I’ve never ever in my life said, dang, I wish I had an air compressor. I’d sleep on my camping roll before I’d sleep on an air mattress and I’ve no trouble with pulling out the honking huge bike pump for the car tires if they really can’t go half a mile to the gas station. If I need to blow air, my shop vac has an exhaust nozzle hookup for that.

    I bought a refurbed battery-powered nailer for $209 and dang that thing does exactly what it is supposed to do with no complaint and no misses so far on a single nail. Everything is right handy on the unit like the depth adjustment, no tools required. Pick it up, put in three nails, put it away, total usage time is < 3 minutes. Can't imagine screwing around with a compressor setup now that I am spoiled by this thing. If I need an air compressor I better be building a new house or forgetaboutit.

  19. fred says:


    What you say is absolutely correct because its based on your needs and perspectives. I can’t imagine taking out a compressor to drive a few nails – but on a big framing job – I can’t imagine doing it by hand anymore – just a productivity thing. For a few roof shingles why bother – but for hundreds of squares – our Hitachi coil nailers have the edge.
    I also think that the same is true for cordless tools – if you use them only a couple of times per year – you will probably not get a lot of value out of them (depends on your measure of value) – and you may find that battery shelf life becomes an issue.
    Hydraulics – I’m with PutnamEco – but we couldn’t run our Daewoo excavator without them – not to say that hydraulic maintenance is something to forget about.
    I also can appreciate your frustration about reviews and the confusion about specs and what’s really needed. Tools and construction equipment is the subject of just as much hype as many other things in this world. Maybe its easier to spot how silly this sometimes is – when the hyps is associated with things that are familiar. So reviews that compare toasters might be easier to unscramble based on our experience and needs for that perfect piece of toast. With air compressors – maybe its tougher. Do you really need an ASME certified pressure vessel stainless steel tank. How many stages of compression are enough. Belt driven versus direct drive. How many stages of regulation and how precise. What about automatic drain. Soon enough you might drive yourself crazy seeking perfection – or as you say forgetaboutit – these things are tools after all.

  20. Actually, most of the HF compressors are not oil-less. The 21g unit I have takes two full containers of oil. It’s still far from quiet, but I did find a way to significantly lower the noise (-15dB) while maintaining air exchange. You can read about it on my blog http://www.artifacturestudios.com/blog/archives/985 That post also covers my adventures with the HF auto-drain (worthless) and problems with the first two compressors I got from them and how they happily replaced them, no questions asked. This one is going strong.

  21. Chuck Cage says:

    FWIW, I didn’t really intend this post to suggest that readers have no excuse for not owning air tools, but rather that we all have no excuse for owning a basic air compressor. I didn’t know what I was missing until Dad swung by and dropped my old one on me. I found all kinds of uses for it. (It was a basic pancake model.)

    I own a pretty big compressor now, and it’ll easily drive air tools. But I don’t use them all that much. When Sean and I were in the shop a lot doing auto work, I used the wrench a bit — mainly to back out long screws and such, mostly low-torque applications. They’re handy, but not necessary in the shop, IMHO. But if someone really wants to use ’em, some cheap compressors will give you that low-torque functionality.

  22. paul says:

    I had 2 oil-less units before getting my current compressor. After about 10 years with oil-less units it is nice to have a powerful yet semi quiet machine with a compressor only spinning at 600rpm as opposed to that scream of a direct drive 3600rpm oil-less machine. My first oil-less (coleman) died after about 5 years with a bent reed valve. It actually died because the pressure switch that turns off the compressor at 120psi died and just keep the compressor running and the relief valve didn’t pop either! It hit about 200psi before the compressor stopped the motor and hence the belt valve. I couldn’t source a replacement so I just JB’d one of the 2 valves closed on the intake and it still worked, actually it didn’t even seem to operate any worse because of it. That was about 5 years ago, I left that compressor at a job in trade for a metal brake I made there. Last time I was in there it was still there and still in use!

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