We tested 11 units priced from $130 to $325 in search of one that will handle most woodworking-shop needs.
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Air compressors

A portable air compressor won't cut, shape, or join wood, but it's one of the handiest tools you'll ever own. You can use it to power pneumatic nailers and other tools in your home, shop, or job site; to inflate all sorts of things; and to blow away wood debris. We like the 3- to 6-gallon size for its all-around usefulness, ease of moving from place to place, and affordability.

Nailers? No problem. Sanders? Sorry.
Each of the tested compressors easily powered a brad nailer, finish nailer, roofing nailer, and framing nailer as we drove nails into dimensional pine lumber. To our surprise, all the compressors maintained the required air pressure for our one-nail-per-second testing pace--even with the framing nailer shooting 3-12 " ribbed nails! In fact, we emptied the nailer's magazine of finish and roofing nails as each compressor's pump kept the tanks supplied with adequate pressure. Only the 3-gallon Husky H1503TP ran out of the pressure needed to drive a full magazine of framing nails at that pace—but it still sank 65 nails before we had to stop and wait for it to replenish the tank.

Next we used each compressor to spray polyurethane finish with a 600cc gravity-fed spray gun. The best units could spray two minutes before falling short of the requisite air pressure--not long enough for medium- and large-size projects. However, you can successfully spray small projects with one of these compressors if you switch to a detail sprayer with a 100-200cc cup that requires less air volume.

If you plan to run a pneumatic sander, impact wrench, or large spray gun, get a 30-or-more-gallon-capacity stationary compressor. The compressors we tested simply lack the air storage and pump capacity to power these air-hungry tools.

Just because an air compressor pump will run continuously as long as there's demand doesn't mean it should. Each compressor has a "duty cycle," the manufacturer's rating for how long its pump should run. For example, if your unit rates at a 50 percent duty cycle, it should not run more than half of the time you use it. If it exceeds that limit it could overheat and shut down; you need a larger compressor. Four of the models rate as continuous duty, meaning they can run nonstop without overheating. All of these have oil-lubricated motors--more on that next.

The 11 compressors we tested have either oil-lubricated pumps or oil-free pumps. Oil-lube models feature an induction motor with either a cast-iron or aluminum pump housing and twin-stacked tanks. These units run 2-4 times quieter than the oil-free units and generally have less tank capacity, but weigh about twice as much. You'll also need to change the oil a couple of times a year.

Most oil-free compressors have universal motors and a single pancake-style tank. (The oil-free Ridgid OF50150TS has an induction motor and three stacked tanks.) With the lighter weight of the pump and motor comes a lighter price, up to a third less.

Also consider your electrical supply in choosing between the two types of compressors. Oil-lube models require more amps at start-up. Four tested units (Bosch CET3-10, Hitachi EC12, DeWalt D55151, and Senco PC1131) require a 20-amp circuit; those models would not start on some 15-amp circuits in our tests. And, the Bosch and Hitachi failed to start in a 30°F garage. So if you routinely work in a cold environment, opt for an oil-free compressor.

Compressor oil change

If the ability to lift, carry, and transport your compressor matters, here's where you can quickly pare your list of potential purchases. The oil-lube models weigh 20-40 pounds more than the oil-free pancake units, and their designs make them more difficult to carry because they're typically not balanced well. The Ridgid, though oil-free, tops our test at 77 pounds. But the 74-pound Makita MAC2400 proved the most difficult to carry because it's more stretched out with the handle in the center.

Ridgid offsets its weight by breaking down into two smaller units, as shown. After using it with all three tanks connected, simply unhook the pump and 1-gallon tank from the two larger tanks. Carry one unit in each hand and it doesn't seem as heavy or cumbersome overall. We found the smaller module great for such jobs as nailing up trim in a house or inflating a flat tire, where you don't need the larger tanks' storage. And because each unit has its own valves and hose connections, you can also use the two larger tanks to transport air when you don't need the pump.

Ridgid air compressor

Other points worth noting

Readability and placement of gauges and switch. Only a few compressors have pressure gauges you can read from a standing position. We like the ones on the Campbell Hausfeld MW250000, shown, and the Husky because they use a larger gauge for the regulated hose pressure--the gauge you need to see most often because it's the one you adjust for different tools--than for the tank pressure. Most of the others have identical gauges that can't be as easily read.

And both of those units, as well as the Bosch and Bostitch CAP2000P-OF, nicely position the gauges and on/off switch so they're easy to reach yet well protected against damaging blows. On the other hand, we found the gauge-and-switch assemblies on the twin-stack compressors from DeWalt, Hitachi, and Senco difficult to use and more exposed to potential damage.

Hose couplers. We like the quick-connect couplers, like the one shown, that stay retracted when not hooked to a hose, because you can make easy one-handed hookups. With the others you must manually retract the sleeve on the compressor coupler with one hand and, with the other hand, insert the hose nipple. (You must use two hands to uncouple the hose from all the compressors.) As with the gauge-and-switch assemblies, beware of hose couplings that stick out beyond the compressor's protective zone, setting them up for potential damage.

Six of the 11 tested compressors have two or more hose connections, so you can operate two tools at the same time (on separate hoses). As you'd expect, two tools drain the tanks faster than a single tool. Still, all six maintained sufficient air pressure to power two large nailers at a normal work-application rate.

Drain valves. To avoid rusting inside, drain the compressed air (and unavoidable moisture) from the tanks at the end of each work session. For this easy task, we prefer the quarter-turn ball valves, shown, found on all but three models. The Craftsman 15216, Porter-Cable C2002-WK, and Senco compressors use a threaded stem valve that's more difficult to open and close.

Campbell Hausfeld controls
Campbell Hausfeld's controls areprotected within the plastic housing.The hose regulator and gauge sittogether to avoid confusion.
Makita compressor connector
Most of the tested compressors havehose couplers that hold in a retractedposition, making one-handed hoseconnection easy.
Husky compressor drain valve
Quarter-turn ball valves (shown on theHusky) allow you to drain tank moisturequickly and easily.

Here's what we'd buy

The Campbell Hausfeld MW250000 oil-free unit delivers the test-highest airflow, weighs less than 40 pounds, and has thoughtfully designed controls—including a lighted on/off switch. Its middling price tag includes a PVC-reinforced hose, quick-connect couplers that require two hands, and an inflation chuck.

If you prefer a quieter (albeit less portable) oil-lubricated unit, opt instead for the Makita MAC2400. It ranks second quietest in our test and half as loud as the Campbell Hausfeld. With a robust cast-iron pump and induction motor, this compressor should last for many years. Its 4.2-gallon twin tanks need to fill more often than the 6-gallon Campbell Hausfeld, but the pump does this quickly. It comes with self-locking quick-connect fittings, but no hose.

If you'd like to save a few more dollars, consider the Husky H1503TP. Its small 3-gallon tank will have to refill more often (and loudly), but its overall performance surprised us. It's our Top Value.

For this article, we reviewed the Bosch CET3-10, Bostitch CAP2000P-OF, Campbell Hausfeld MW250000, Craftsman 15216, DeWalt D55151, Hitachi EC12, Husky H1503TP, Porter-Cable C2002-WK, Ridgid OF50150TS, and Senco PC1131 compressors.

Campbell Hausfeld MW250000
Makita MAC2400
Husky H1503TP