What Are Pneumatic Tools? A Simple Explanation

A pneumatic tool, often referred to as an air tool, is one which is powered by compressed air. As opposed to electric tools which require electricity to operate, pneumatic tools require compressed air in order to function. This compressed air is generally supplied via an air compressor.

Because pneumatic tools have to be tethered to an air compressor, many people opt for their electric counterparts. After all, who wants to lug an air compressor around when you can simply slap a battery in and do what you need to do? The convenience of electric tools definitely makes them desirable, but pneumatic tools have their advantages as well, which we’ll discuss later in this article.

For now, lets take a look at how air tools are powered and what size air compressor is needed to power them.

What Are Pneumatic Tools Powered By?

Pneumatic tools are powered by compressed air which is derived from an air compressor. Every pneumatic tool has specific PSI and CFM requirements that a given air compressor must be able to supply in order for the tool to function properly.

For example, a 3/8 air ratchet may need 4 CFM @ 90 PSI in order to function properly. This means that a given compressor must be able to produce at least 4 CFM @ 90 PSI in order to operate this particular tool. However, its always better to get an air compressor with a slightly higher CFM rating than what you need, just to be safe. More on this in a moment.

Because all air tools have different PSI and CFM requirements, its important to know how many PSI and CFM your air tools use prior to purchasing an air compressor. After all, you don’t want to buy a new compressor only to find out that it won’t power all your air tools appropriately.

If you don’t know how many PSI and CFM your air tools need, you can check out this Air Tool CFM Chart I created. There you’ll see a list of common air tools, their respective PSI and CFM requirements, and an air compressor recommendation for each tool listed.

What is PSI and CFM?

PSI stands for “Pounds per Square Inch” and is the metric used to represent the amount of force or pressure compressed air is under. The PSI rating on an air compressor represents the maximum amount of pressure or force of the compressed air it provides. This rating is important because every tool has a specific PSI rating at which it was meant to operate. If your air compressor doesn’t provide enough PSI then your air tools won’t function properly.

CFM stands for “Cubic Feet per Minute” and is the metric used to represent the volume of compressed air that a given compressor can provide. Just like PSI, every air tool has a specific CFM requirement that must be met in order for it to function properly.

If you want to learn more about PSI and CFM check out this article:
The Difference Between PSI and CFM Explained

What Size Air Compressor is Needed for Pneumatic Tools?

All air tools have different PSI and CFM requirements. That being said, the size of the compressor needed to power them will vary. However, bigger is not always better. And while it may be tempting to opt for an 80-gallon compressor, a compressor of this size is overkill for most.

All a bigger tank size does is allow for more time in between cycles. Because a bigger tank holds more air, the compressor doesn’t have to run as often to provide compressed air to your tools. But a bigger tank size doesn’t doesn’t necessarily mean that its more powerful or that it’ll run all of your air tools no problem.

A compressors ability to run your air tools is based primarily on its PSI and CFM ratings, which has nothing to do with the size of the tank itself. That being said, if you’re purchasing an air compressor for general home use, you’ll probably be fine with a 3-6 gallon tank. I have a 6 gallon Bostitch pancake compressor that I’ve used for filling tires, running brad nailers, framing nailers, staplers, palm nailers, and so on. Its not very big, but because it has a high enough PSI and CFM ratings for the air tools I use, it does just fine.

My 6-gallon air compressor mentioned in the previous paragraph.

If this is the type of work you plan on doing, then you’ll probably be fine with a 6 gallon compressor as well. But again, its not the tank size that matters but whether or not a given compressor produces enough PSI and CFM to power your specific tools.

How Many PSI and CFM are Necessary?

Most air tools operate in the 70-90 PSI range, and most air compressors for home use have a PSI rating of anywhere between 125-175 PSI. I haven’t found a compressor yet that has a PSI rating below 125. That being said, most compressors on the market today are going to provide more than enough PSI for your air tools.

CFM ratings, however, vary drastically from compressor to compressor. Because of this you should pay more attention to a prospective compressors CFM rating than its PSI rating. If a compressor doesn’t provide enough CFM to meet the CFM requirements of your air tools, they’re not going to function properly.

That being said, you want to size your compressor based on the CFM rating of your most air consuming tool. If you regularly use a palm sander that has a CFM requirement of 6, then this is the tool you want to base your compressor choice off of. You want to make sure that a given compressor has enough CFM to power the tools which demand the most air. But you don’t want to get a compressor that matches the CFM requirements of your tools, but one that slightly exceeds it. You always want to give yourself a buffer just to be sure.

In order to do so, lets say you’re using that palm sander we just mentioned with a CFM requiremnet of 6. You’ll want to multiply 6 by 1.5 to get your buffer. This will tell you what size air compressor you should buy, in terms of CFM, to make sure it’ll power all your tools. In this example, you’d need an air compressor with a CFM rating of 9.

(6 x 1.5 = 9 CFM)

If you use multiple air tools simultaneously, then you’ll want to combine their respective CFM requirements together and then multiply that number by 1.5 to get your buffer.

If you don’t know how many CFM your air tools need, now would be a great time to check out my Air Tool CFM Chart.

Common Pneumatic Tools

There’s a pneumatic version to just about every electric tool there is. However, to give you an idea of some common air tools, check out the list below.

  • Brad Nailer
  • Framing Nailer
  • Finish Nailer
  • Pin Nailer
  • Palm Nailer
  • Roofing Nailer
  • Siding Nailer
  • Flooring Nailer
  • Stapler
  • Ratchet
  • Impact Wrench
  • Air Hammer
  • Sanders
  • Buffers
  • Paint Spray Guns
  • Reciprocating Saw
  • Drills
  • Drivers
  • Needle Scaler

Are Pneumatic Tools Better Than Electric Tools?

There’s really no objective way to say whether air tools are better than electric ones or vice versa. They each have their own set of pros and cons that, when considered, will help you determine which category of tools you should invest in. That being said, instead of trying to convince you one way or the other we’ll just compare the two types of tools so you make an informed decision when it comes time for you to make a purchase.

Power

Electric tools have made great strides in recent years with regards to how powerful they are. In times past, air tools have always been considered the stronger and more capable of the two, but now, they’re almost neck in neck.

Generally speaking, however, air tools still have the advantage. They’re capable of delivering more torque or force because their power source is adjustable. Meaning that you can give an air compressor more air which in turn, means more strength, torque, speed, etc. You don’t have this option with electric tools. What you get is what you get.

The edge here goes to air tools. Although electric tools are becoming more and more capable, they still haven’t surpassed their pneumatic counterparts in terms of output.

Cost

Cost is another obvious factor you’ll want to consider. Generally speaking, air tools themselves cost less than electric ones. But the added cost of an air compressor means you’ll have to spend more money upfront.

By way of comparison, lets say you were wanting to purchase a brad nailer for a project you’re working on. You could buy a corded electric brad nailer for around $50-70 bucks and that’s really all the money you’d have to spend. If you went pneumatic, you’d have to spend around $35-50 on the brad nailer itself but then you’d have to spend another $150 (roughly) on an air compressor to power it. And if the compressor didn’t come with an air hose, you’d have to shuck out another $40 bucks for that!

Of course, if you already have an air compressor then that changes things. But if you’re just getting started in your accumulation of tools, you’ll definitely want to consider if the added cost of an air compressor makes sense for you.

Lifespan

When it comes to lifespan, air tools have the advantage here. Most air tools last an incredibly long time without needing to be repaired. But when they are in need of maintenance, most can be rebuilt by purchasing replacement parts for them. The same can’t be said for electric tools.

Of course, air tools do have to be lubed periodically to ensure their longevity. But a few drops of oil from time to time is a small price to pay to ensure your air tools last as long as they can. Of course, electric tools don’t require such maintenance and this is definitely a point scored for them. However, the issue with electric tools is that, even if the tools themselves last for a while, the batteries usually don’t live as long. Not to mention, replacement batteries are expensive. A lot more expensive than say, a few drops of lubricating oil.

While both modern air and electric generally tools last a long time, its cheaper to resuscitate an air tool than it is an electric one. This round goes to pneumatic tools.

Convenience

The biggest issues with air tools is that you’re tethered to you air compressor and you can only move around as far as your air hose lets you. This is a big inconvenience, and one that isn’t experienced with electric tools, at least not battery powered ones.

If you need to use your tools with no strings attached, don’t need the superior strength of compressed air, and don’t mind having to replace expensive batteries down the road, then this one factor may be enough to persuade you to go with electric tools. This is by far the biggest advantage that electric tools have over pneumatic ones.

This round obviously goes to electric tools.

What’s the Verdict?

As you can see, there’s lot to consider when comparing air tools to electric ones. Each category has its own set of pros and cons. That being said, you’ll need to consider the aforementioned factors in order to decide which tool set is right for you.

I personally have a combination of both air and electric tools. Sometimes it just makes sense to go with a battery powered tool when I need to get into a tight space or just don’t want the hassle of fighting my air hose. Other times it makes more sense to buy an air tool that’s considerably cheaper than its electric counterpart simply because it costs less and I already have a compressor.

Of course, both electric and air tools are viable options for just about any job, but which one works for you comes down to your particular situation and needs.

Other Articles You May Be Interested In:

Justin

Justin is a full-time blogger with a passion for anything DIY. When he's not hanging out with his wife and son, you can find him putting the finishing touches on yet another home project he's taken on. He's also the creator of AllAboutAirCompressors.com.