I first started using air-powered pneumatic tools nearly 40 years ago while working as a custom cabinetmaker and remodeling contractor. At that time, air compressors were behemoths: large, loud, and as portable as a refrigerator. Thankfully, times have changed.
Today, every major air-compressor manufacturer offers compact versions that are lightweight and portable but powerful enough to drive most air tools. And although many of these models are designed for professional woodworkers and carpenters, their small size, quiet motors, and low price make them ideal for DIYers.
Check out quick info on the five best air compressors according to our experts, then keep reading for buying advice and more in-depth reviews of these and other models.
What to Know About Air Compressors
Portable air compressors, like their larger predecessors, are relatively simple machines comprised of two main components: an electric pump and an air-storage tank. The pump forces air into the tank until it reaches the desired pressure as measured in psi. The pump motor then shuts off, and the compressor is fully charged and ready to work. As you use an air tool, pressure inside the tank drops, and the motor kicks back on to re-pressurize the tank to the desired psi.
Compressors are rated by the volume of air delivered at 90 psi. This number is expressed in cubic feet per minute (cfm) or standard cubic feet per minute (scfm). Compact compressors move less air than much larger units, typically producing between 1.0 and 2.8 cfm. That’s still plenty of power to run most air tools.
Portable models with larger tanks hold more air, so they don’t cycle on and off as often and have greater maximum psi ratings to handle larger pneumatic tools like framing nailers and paint sprayers. And larger compressors often have two universal couplers, so you can run two air tools simultaneously. However, compressors with smaller tanks are quieter, lighter, and easier to carry around.
Once you own a portable air compressor—and start collecting pneumatic tools—you’ll wonder how you ever got along without an air-powered arsenal. Over the years, I’ve most often used my compact compressor to drive fasteners. That has involved using a finish nailer to install baseboard molding, chair rail, and window and door casings; a brad nailer to assemble cabinets, drawers, and bookcases; a pin nailer to attach thin moldings and hardwood edge banding; and a narrow-crown pneumatic stapler for upholstery work and attaching plywood cabinet backs.
My pneumatic collection also includes an impact wrench, ratchet wrench, cut-off tool, and random-orbit sander, which are useful when working on vehicles. And I have an air gun/inflator kit that’s super handy for blowing dust off surfaces and for inflating anything: car tires, rafts, air mattresses, pool inflatables, and more.
Here are five simple ways to get the most out of your air compressor:
- After every use, open up the drain valve at the bottom of the tank to expel any condensation. Failure to do so can eventually lead to corrosion and tank failure.
- During use, set the compressor on a folded, quilted moving pad. The cushioning will absorb sound, protect the floor, and dampen vibrations.
- Whenever possible, plug the compressor directly into an electrical outlet. Using an extension cord can result in a drop in voltage, which could prevent the compressor from starting. However, if you must use an extension cord, use a 12-gauge cord that’s less than 25 feet long, or a 10-gauge cord that’s no longer than 50 feet long. Never use an extension cord longer than 50 feet with an air compressor—the voltage drop will be too great.
- For maximum efficiency, adjust the compressor’s air pressure to match the recommended psi rating of the air tool you’re using. If the compressor delivers too little air pressure, the tool won’t work properly, whereas too much pressure can damage the tool. For example, my 18-gauge brad nailer has a recommended operating range between 70 and 120 psi; I typically adjust the compressor to about 95 psi, which is mid-range.
- Air compressors are relatively maintenance-free. Most have permanently sealed, oil-free motors, so there’s no need to check, fill, or change the oil. However, compressors vibrate quite a bit, which causes parts to loosen up over time. Plus, they’re often operating in dusty environments. So regularly check the compressor for loose parts and screws, and tighten any that you find. And use an air gun to blow away dust and dirt, especially from around the gauges, couplers, and pump motor. Then wipe down the entire compressor with a damp cloth.
If you’re looking for the ultimate in portability and convenience, check out the latest advancement in air compressors: cordless. That’s right, you can now buy battery-powered compressors that don’t rely on electricity.
These go-anywhere models are powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and are currently available in three battery platforms: 18, 36, and 60 volts. Cordless compressors don’t have the capacity or versatility of electric models, but they’re quiet, lightweight, and surprisingly powerful. For example, one of my favorite (but sadly no longer available) Ridgid models can drive up to 1,200 nails on a single charge. Cordless compressors are capable of running small to medium air tools, including finish nailers, brad nailers, and inflators.
Standout Cordless Air Compressors
How We Evaluated
To find the best air compressors, we evaluated available models in terms of portability, power, professional features, and our experience testing them (for the ones we’ve gotten our hands on). For consideration, each electric compressor needed to have an oil-free pump and produce between 90 and 165 psi of air pressure, because most air tools require 40 to 90 psi. We also looked for a range of storage tank sizes to suit different tools and projects.
Another reason these models earn the title of best is because each is engineered to withstand the rough and rigorous demands of professional contractors, but they’re all priced well within the budget of most DIYers. Plus, despite their small size, they sacrifice very little when compared to a large, traditional model. In fact, since getting my compact compressor three years ago, I haven’t moved my 30-gallon one from its cozy corner in the garage.—Joseph Truini
—BEST SMALL COMPRESSOR— Bostitch 1.2-Gallon Trim Compressor
Tank Capacity: 1.2 gal. | Motor Size: 2 hp | Max. Psi: 150 | Cfm Delivered at 90 Psi: 2.8 | Model: CAP1512-OF
Bostitch has a well-earned reputation for building rugged, contractor-grade compressors, and this model is no exception, to which I can attest. I bought one more than 12 years ago, and although it’s been battered and bruised and taken more than a few tumbles, it still runs great. Its 1.2-gallon, hotdog-style tank and 2-horsepower pump pair up to deliver an impressive 2.8 cfm at 90 psi. And with a maximum psi rating of 150, it can handle virtually any air tool. Weighing in at less than 24 pounds, this compact compressor is perfectly suited for use in home workshops or on-site with trim carpenters. Other notable features include a protective roll cage, LED on/off switch, power cord wrap, onboard air hose storage, and a convenient compartment for stowing hand tools, fasteners, and fittings.
—MOST POWERFUL— Husky 4.5-Gallon Portable Silent Air Compressor
Tank Capacity: 4.5 gal. | Motor Size: 1.3 hp | Max. Psi: 175 | Cfm Delivered at 90 Psi: 3 | Model: 3320445
Noisy machines can be more than a nuisance; over time, they can cause hearing loss. Husky’s Silent Air Compressor reaches 65 decibels at its loudest, which is quieter than many other compressors and about the same volume as a typical conversation. That makes it a great option for indoor tasks like inflating air mattresses. But don’t mistake the muffle for a less-than-capable machine. This compact compressors handily outperforms many competitors by delivering 3 cfm at 90 psi. So it’s up to the task of powering outdoor and jobsite tools, like nailers, and can run two tools at once thanks to the dual couplers. The tradeoff for the quiet operation is heft. The Silent Air Compressor weighs more than 70 pounds, making it less convenient to haul around. Luckily, it’s got two wheels.
—BEST VALUE— Ridgid 6-Gallon Portable Electric Pancake Compressor
Tank Capacity: 6 gal. | Motor Size: 1.5 hp | Max. Psi: 150 | Cfm Delivered at 90 Psi: 2.6 | Model: OF60150HB
This compressor is a great option for anyone who does finish carpentry and trim projects. If you have a helper or crew, it helps you boost productivity, because it has two universal push-to-connect couplers that allow you to attach two nailers or other tools at once. The large 6-gallon tank and 1.5-hp motor promise robust power: 2.6 cfm at 90 psi.
—QUIETEST— Rolair 1-Gallon Portable Pump Air Compressor
Tank Capacity: 1 gal. | Motor Size: 0.5 hp | Max. Psi: 90 | Cfm Delivered at 90 Psi: 1 | Model: AB5Plus
Rolair might not be the most recognizable name in the compressor business, but this third-generation, Wisconsin-based company has been manufacturing reliable, highly rated compressors since 1959. And there are several things I like about the Rolair Pump Air Compressor. First, it’s extremely compact, so it’s easy to carry around and store away. Second, its welded-steel roll cage protects the unit from drops, bumps, and rollovers. The two extra-large gauges are easy to read, and its two-piston pump refills the air tank very quickly. During testing, it seemed noticeably quieter than any compressor we’ve ever used. Some investigation revealed this little powerhouse operates at just 59 decibels. By the way, when shopping for compressors, or any power tool for that matter, keep in mind that long-term exposure to noise louder than 70 decibels can cause hearing loss.
—BEST FOR JOBSITES— DeWalt Heavy-Duty 165-psi Pancake Compressor
Tank Capacity: 6 gal. | Motor Size: 0.9 hp | Max. Psi: 165 | Cfm Delivered at 90 Psi: 2.6 | Motor: DWFP55126
There’s a lot to like about this DeWalt compressor, whether you’re a professional contractor or active DIYer. First, it’s one of the most powerful compact units on the market, featuring a large-capacity 6-gallon tank and a 0.9-hp motor that delivers 2.6 cfm at 90 psi and a max psi rating of 165. It has two universal couplers, top-mount handle, power cord wrap, and weighs in at just 30 pounds. And this DeWalt model has three vibration-absorbing rubber feet, not four like most compressors. Here’s why: Resting on three points allows it to sit more securely on rough, uneven surfaces without rocking back and forth. It’s ready for any jobsite, no matter what stage of construction it’s in.
—BEST FOR SMALL JOBS— Senco 1-Gallon Finish and Trim Air Compressor
Tank Capacity: 1 gal. | Motor Size: 0.5 hp | Max. Psi: 135 | Cfm Delivered at 90 Psi: 0.7 | Model: PC1010N
At 21 pounds, the Finish and Trim Air Compressor is lightweight and very easy to transport. The quiet operation—only 68 decibels, according to Senco—is also a nice plus. And the sturdy, rugged construction means it can make it out of a jobsite unscathed. However, given the 1-gallon capacity and lower cfm at 90 psi, it’s best for smaller jobs.
—QUICK TO RE-PRESSURIZE— Makita Quiet Series 3-Gallon Electric Air Compressor
Tank Capacity: 3 gal. | Motor Size: 1.5 hp | Max. Psi: 135 | Cfm Delivered at 90 Psi: 2.6 | Model: MAC320Q
Weighing in at 52 pounds, this professional-grade Makita compressor is slightly heavier than most compact models. But its greater capacity, power, and speed make it ideally suited for cabinetmakers, finish carpenters, and DIYers. Its 3-gallon air tank is matched with a 1.5-hp induction motor that has a maximum psi rating of 135 and produces 2.6 cfm at 90 psi. Plus, it pressurizes the tank from empty to full in just 65 seconds. And if that weren’t enough, the machine happens to be one of the quietest compact compressors on the market, operating at just 60 decibels. Quiet motors are especially important for compact compressors because they’re very often used indoors to install moldings and other trim work. And exposure to loud noises not only affects your hearing, I’ve found it incredibly fatiguing. Other features include a roll cage for superior protection, large pressure gauges, a power cord wrap, and two universal couplers for running two tools.
—BEST MID-SIZE COMPRESSOR— Senco 2.5-Gallon Twin Tank Finish and Trim Air Compressor
Tank Capacity: 2.5 gal. | Motor Size: 1.5 hp | Max. Psi: 135 | Cfm Delivered at 90 Psi: 2.2 | Model: PC0968
This mid-size, 2.5-gallon compact compressor has two side-stacked air tanks and a 1.5-hp induction pump motor that goes from zero to 135 psi in just 82 seconds. Despite its power, the motor only draws 8 amps of electricity, so there’s little worry of tripping a breaker, which is a common problem with larger compressors. The top-mounted handle, which also serves as a protective roll cage, is well balanced, making it easy to lift and carry the 38-pound unit. And with a footprint of just 15-by-16 inches, the Twin Tank compressor takes up very little space and stores easily.
—MOST AFFORDABLE LARGE TANK— Porter-Cable 6-Gallon Oil-Free Pancake Compressor
Tank Capacity: 6 gal. | Motor Size: 0.8 hp | Max. Psi: 150 | Cfm Delivered at 90 Psi: 2.6 | Model: C200
This is a reliable all-purpose compressor. Boasting a maximum psi rating of 150, it’s perfect for nailers and other carpentry tools. At 30 pounds, it is relatively lightweight and easy to transport. And it has two air couplers so you can operate a pair of tools simultaneously.
—INCLUDES ACCESSORIES— Craftsman 6-Gallon Air Compressor with Accessory Kit
Tank Capacity: 6 gal. | Motor Size: 0.8 hp | Max. Psi: 150 | Cfm Delivered at 90 Psi: 2.6 | Model: CMEC6150K
Like the Craftsman tools you might use with it, this compressor delivers the quality you expect from the brand. At a decibel level of 78.5 dBA, this compressor operates at just slightly above the noise level of normal conversation. Along with the quiet operation, you’ll get a 13-piece accessory kit that includes a tire gauge, blow gun, and inflation adapters. Be sure to check the air release valve when your unit arrives; some Amazon customers noted the valve on their compressors were open. It must be closed before use or the compressor will leak air.