How to Choose the Right Air Compressor For You

WikiHow does a great job at helping you decide which air compressor is right for you. But the publication also fails to discuss the specifics. An air compressor is a complex piece of machinery, and the compressor can be used in a variety of applications.

You can paint a car with the right compressor, use it for general home use, on construction sites or to power a nail gun.

Each application is slightly different.

Once you know how to use an air compressor (Family Handyman has a great article on the topic), you’ll find a multitude of different tools and uses for a compressor. Mechanics even use air compressors to make their job faster.

Trim Air Compressor

For Painting a Car

Your spray gun will have its own requirements for an air compressor, but the general rule of thumb is that you’ll need an air compressor that offers:

  • 9-15 CFM
  • 60+ gallon tank
  • 5 –6 horsepower

The requirements will vary from one spray gun to the next, and there are a lot of conflicting sources, too. Learn Autobody and Paint has a decent resource on how to choose an air compressor for painting a car. You might also want check out  our comprehensive guide here.

I prefer the 60+ gallon models because they allow you to paint your entire car in one pass.

You won’t need to make multiple passes when you have a large capacity tank. The reason for not wanting to make multiple passes is that multiple passes means that the paint will dry at different times.

You’ll also have to worry about overspray.

When you’re painting a car, this can make the coat of paint look uneven or unnatural. The best option is to spray the entire car in one day for the best results.

For Home Use

If you’re planning on using your air compressor primarily in your home, you’ll often be using your compressor for small power tools. These compressors don’t need to be quite as powerful as a compressor for painting a car.

A good rule of thumb is to buy a compressor that meets your power tools’ needs.

I recommend:

  • Choosing the power tool with the highest PSI requirement
  • Purchasing a power tool with 50{63e9163d2c17d0b069b8deee763be7330d4e0c7ed51605edf339b1f505433272} more PSI than is required


There are a lot of power tools, so you might have a nail or staple gun today, but what PSI will your rotary tools or grinders require?

Who knows.

If you choose a 50{63e9163d2c17d0b069b8deee763be7330d4e0c7ed51605edf339b1f505433272} higher PSI, this will remove a lot of the margin of error when choosing a power tool for home use. A higher PSI will also be able to accommodate more tool options – a win-win for all buyers.

For Construction

Construction settings are more demanding. Why have multiple compressors running at once when you can have one compressor powering three tools? You’ll need multiple connectors, a high capacity and a powerful motor.

Multiple connections allow you to run multiple tools at once, but the motor needs to be able to accommodate all of these demands, too.

A few things to consider when choosing an air compressor for construction are:

  • Portability. If you need to lug a 60-gallon compressor around a small job site, it may be worthwhile to have multiple smaller compressors that are under 30 gallons. Smaller compressors are on wheels and are much easier to transport.
  • Pump. Two-stage pumps are ideal when running tools continuously. These pumps will allow for less down time and will really speed up your work.

Of course, on large-scale construction sites, you’ll have the means to transport even large air compressors that weigh hundreds of pounds to the desired location. These compressors can handle larger demands, multiple tools and are often powered by 25 HP motors.

Some offer three stage compression and multiple phases.

For Construction Pros provides a great resource on what compression needs are on construction sites.

For Use With a Nail Gun

Den Garden does great when explaining the usefulness of nail guns. These tools can be used for everything from framing to trim to flooring and roofing. Compressors need to offer enough power for your nailer, and this demand isn’t too hard to meet.

In fact, you’ll find that a portable air compressor is best because nailing requires mobility and movement.

The key is to look at the PSI requirement of the nailer. Most compressors are powerful enough to run a nail gun. A general frame nailer will require 120 PSI (of course this can change) and a 2 CFM is often enough to keep a framing nailer going through even thicker wood.

Portability is a must, so choose either a lightweight model that’s easy to carry or a compressor on wheels.

You can ignore the horsepower of the air compressor, too. Capacity may be a concern on larger jobs, but even a 6-gallon unit will provide you with the compression needed for 99{63e9163d2c17d0b069b8deee763be7330d4e0c7ed51605edf339b1f505433272} of nail guns.

Before you jump into your next nail gun project, make sure to watch the video below for air compressor safety tips.