Choosing and using air compressors in the home store.

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It has always been useful to have compressed air in a home workshop. If you’ve ever wondered about adding an air compressor and related tools to your collection, let me show you a few things you should know. Answering the question “what will you use compressed air for?” It’s a great place to start.

The possible uses determine the size of compressor that makes sense for you. And when it comes to size, the volume of air moved is the important parameter. If you’re not going to do anything more than use a pneumatic nailer or blow dust out of your air filters, then a small oil-free compressor will do a great job for you. Machines like this deliver 1.0 to 1.5 cubic feet of air per minute (cfm). You will sometimes see the term scfm on compressors. This stands for “standard cubic feet per minute” and is simply measured in cfm at standard atmospheric pressure and temperature. All compressors generate a lot of pressure, so there is little use in looking at the pounds per square inch (psi) figures found on all compressors.

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Many small, portable compressors plug into a regular wall outlet for power and don’t take up much space in your shop. Traditionally, even small air compressors like this were noisy, but now manufacturers are making much quieter models. Any machine with a power rating less than 50 decibels (dB) will be fairly quiet in use. In my experience, the best ones are also cordless and use the same rechargeable batteries that fit drills, saws, and other tools. It’s helpful to have access to compressed air without being tied to an extension cord, and today’s tool batteries can keep a small compressor running for a long time.

A hoseless alternative to air tools, this combustion-powered framing nailer is one of Steve's favorites.
A hoseless alternative to air tools, this combustion-powered framing nailer is one of Steve’s favorites. Photo by Photo Robert Maxwell

If you think you might someday like to use air sanders, air wrenches, or spray finishing equipment, you’ll need a larger compressor to generate more cfm. The size required depends on the actual air consumption figures of the most air-consuming tool you may someday purchase. Choose a compressor that supplies at least 20% more air than the most demanding tool you are considering so you don’t overwork it. For example, the large stationary compressor I have in my shop moves a whopping 14 cfm of air, and I use almost all of this when using a stone hammer, for example.

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All this talk about compressors is one thing, but air tools are losing popularity as cordless power tools improve. This is true even in an industry that previously used pneumatic tools like auto repair. A mechanic friend of mine who has his own shop no longer uses pneumatic tools. Cordless electric impact wrenches are simply easier than the noisy air wrenches used for years.

Something similar is happening with hoseless finish nailers that do not require compressed air, and there are two families of models. One of the original lines of hoseless nailers comes from a company called Paslode. Their tools burn fuel gas from a disposable gas cylinder to drive nails. Cordless, battery-powered nailers are available that use the same battery packs as other tools in the line. Both work well in my experience.

If you decide to use a pneumatic air compressor, take a look at something called a nailer. This small handgun shoots needle-thin 23-gauge headless fasteners. They are almost invisible when flush with the wood and do a great job of holding small trim and moldings in place while the glue dries.

Whichever compressor you choose, be sure to get a hose nozzle to inflate your tires and a trigger-actuated dusting nozzle to blow out dirty air filters and machine parts. I always use my compressor for jobs like these, and they’re the type of tasks most compressor-owning home shops I know do all the time.

Steve Maxwell spends part of each day in his home workshop on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Visit him online at and join the 31,000 people who receive an informative email newsletter each week.

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