Buying guide: How to choose the right pneumatic tool

Air-powered tools, also called pneumatic tools, are rugged, popular and used by everyone from the professional craftsman to the weekend DIY enthusiast. They offer more torque and power than electric power tools. They are durable and versatile but have to be chosen carefully.

Think of any job around the house that needs to be done and there is certainly an air tool for it. There are air guns, wrenches, sprayers and nail guns. A blowgun, also called an air duster, will direct short and powerful bursts of air that clean out hard to reach places. Grease guns can apply lubricants in an even way over the most complicated surfaces. Pneumatic drills can penetrate multiple materials with a constant power.

Tools for each job

The big advantage of air tools is their power. On average they are 20 percent lighter than electrically powered tools but deliver 50 percent more power. Air-powered ratchets and wrenches can loosen nuts and bolts four times faster than electric impacts and up to 10 times faster than using a manual lug wrench. Manufacturers are always striving to produce lightweight tools. Remember that the tool will be very powerful even if it feels quite light.

Make sure that the tool has a comfortable grip and feels easy to control. Air tools are designed for tough workshop environments but it’s still important to check that their surfaces are resistant to solvents and the various chemicals you may use. Choose the tool that makes your work as comfortable as possible. One example is a sander. The best choice is a two handed sander as even the smallest vibrating or rotating sander can be very tiring if operated with one hand.

Air compressors

Air compressors are the power sources for pneumatic tools. These can run on electricity or gas. Gas is usually the cheaper option but is best left to large, professional workshops that can ventilate gas fumes. An electrically powered compressor is the best option for small domestic garage or garden shed. Some portable air compressors can weigh less than 20 pounds and can be carried from room to room in a house.

It’s important to match the power provided by the air compressor to that of your most demanding tools. This is the cfm rating, or the amount of compressed air in cubic feet per minute that the tool needs to operate. Identify the tool that requires the highest cfm to work, multiply the figure by 1.5 and the result is the cfm rating of the compressor you need to buy. Spray guns, sanders and grinders typically have the highest cfm ratings, while nail guns, staplers and air brushes have low cfm ratings.

A compact air compressor popular with householders has a 120-volt motor and can deliver between 90 and 120 pounds per square inch (psi) of air pressure that is sufficient to power most tools.


Air tools have been around for decades, but have been used mostly by professionals. Today, manufacturers are designing and marketing pneumatic tools for the DIY householder. It’s important to check tools thoroughly and choose the right one for the job.