Portable air compressor powers an array of useful tools

Portable air compressors are a worthwhile investment for DIYers because the inexpensive pancake or double-tank machines will power an array of useful tools.

The Porter-Cable double-tank compressor I own came as a package that included 50 feet of hose, plugs and connectors as well as a 3 1/4-inch pneumatic framing gun. I believe the price was about $350, which is not too shabby for a multi-purpose tool that has withstood several large roofing and siding jobs in the five years I have owned it.

I’ve noted that professional roofers favour the pancake style compressor as it is light, portable and usually capable of powering two roofing guns at once. As well, pros will generally purchase more expensive oil lubricated compressors with a long life expectancy that is not required by home handymen who use their pneumatic tools on a limited basis.

DIYers who do a lot of interior finishing work might be advised to invest in a compressor with a 135-psi rating that includes a 16-gauge finish nailer, an 18-gauge brad nailer and a heavy duty crown stapler. DeWalt, Porter-Cable, Bosch and Bostitch all manufacture similar three-piece finishing outfits priced in the $250 to $350 range.

The compressors and nailers are not top-of-the-line products, but will perform accurately and last indefinitely if operated according to instructions. This means the compressor should be bled of air at the end of each day to remove water created by condensation formed during compression. If left in the tank(s), the water will rust out the bottom in a few years and feed harmful moisture into nailers and other tools. For this reason, manufacturers also recommend adding a few drops of light oil into the air plug of a pneumatic tool at the beginning of each work day.

Owners should also be aware that small electric compressors operate on 120-volt, 15-amp circuits and require 12-gauge or heavier extension cords if they are more than six feet (the length of cord that comes with the compressor) from a household outlet. Failure to observe this rule will result in a burned-out motor or, more likely, a motor that will not start because its built-in breaker switch will trip when the juice is turned on.

Heavy gauge extension cords are expensive — I paid over $140 for a 100 feet of 12-gauge cord at Home Hardware, so be prepared to shell out a chunk of cash if you plan to operate your compressor at a distance from your main power source. The alternative is to buy more air cord, but the resulting loss in line pressure will cause your compressor to recycle more often in service.

As frequent stops and starts are hard on the motor, you’re probably better off to pay the exorbitant price for a heavy-duty electric cord.

I thought I could save money by purchasing 12-gauge Cabtyre, black insulated cable sold in bulk and cut to length. However, by the time I summed up the cost of the wire as well as the price of a male and female end, the homemade cord was $8 cheaper, not including the time it would take to add the end connections to the wire. It was not worth the effort.

Air compressor roofing packages include a coil nailer, a starter coil of nails, hose and couplings. These are good buys for DIYer shinglers who do a limited amount of roofing at home, the cottage or for friends. Prices are similar to those of framing or finishing kits. As mentioned, a pancake compressor is ideal for this purpose, as it is much lighter than a so-called “portable” two tank machine —  believe me.

Once you own a compressor, it can power a multitude of attachments that would make Tim “the Toolman” Taylor salivate. One that I find particularly useful is an air-powered caulking gun that takes the sweat and mess out of caulking around windows, doors and whatever. I bought mine at Princess Auto for about $25 and have never regretted the purchase.

The caulking bead can be regulated with air pressure to form anything from a fine line to a half-inch wide bead. Once a person gets the hang of moving the tool at a steady pace, bulges and skips commonly caused by a hand-operated gun can be eliminated, as can arthritic pain in your hand joints.

If you’re unsure about your ability to control an air caulker, use good quality masking tape to delineate the strip of glass/frame you wish to caulk. Use your index finger to smooth out the bead. When the caulk is close to dry, remove the tape along with excess caulking that has spread onto its surface. This technique requires more time, but the clean, professional-looking finished bead is worth the extra effort.

Another attachment I dearly love is a high-pressure air nozzle with a trigger that can be used to clean grass, sawdust and dirt out of chain saws, lawnmowers, garden tillers, crevices that need to caulked, you name it. This little treasure can be purchased for under $20 from any business that sells air compressors, including SPAR-Marathon, Prime Fasteners, Princess Auto, Home Hardware and many big-box outlets.

Also available are inflation kits that sell for about $25 and include all the accessories needed to blow up beach and exercise balls, rafts, mattresses, bike and auto tires, and so forth. I use my kit to re-inflate car, wheelbarrow and lawn tractor tires that once required a special trip to the local gas bar.