When talking about power tools, it’s common to be referring to those powered by electricity. After all, they are much more common – and they are used by people ranging from homeowners all the way to construction professionals.
That said, in some situations, pneumatic tools powered by air are more common.
If you are wondering what the differences between the two are and whether you should consider using the latter (if you already decided that a hand tool won’t do the job), continue reading.
Electric and Pneumatic Power Tools: The Basics
Electric and pneumatic power tools are a staple in any shop or garage. They are both named after the means of powering the tools. As their name suggests, electric power tools use electricity to work, and pneumatic power tools use compressed air to operate.
What Are Electric Power Tools?
Electric power tools are any tools that need electricity to run. This can be in the form of a battery-driven tool or one that has a wire that plugs into the wall.
The way this works is there is an electric motor in the power tool that requires an electrical input to operate. If you imagine a hand drill, there is a rotating chuck that spins a bit that drives the screw. The electric motor is at the heart of this motion – by supplying electricity, the motor becomes energized and allows for the rotation of the chuck.
As mentioned before, electric power tools can be either battery-operated or plugged into the wall – this is generally referred to as a “cordless” or “corded” power tool, respectively.
Cordless power tools are less powerful, easier to manipulate, and easier to carry around the job site. Corded power tools typically have more power, deliver more torque, and provide a constant level of driving performance, but you need to be plugged into a wall outlet or receptacle.
To learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of cordless and corded power tools, read this article.
The most typical example of an electric power tool would be a hand drill, either cordless or corded. Other examples are chainsaws, sanders, jigsaws, impact drivers, heat guns, hedge trimmers, multi-tools, and pressure washers.
What are Pneumatic Power Tools?
Pneumatic (air) power tools use air to drive the tool. You would hook up a compressor or house air to your tool via a quick-connect fitting on the back of the tool. From there, it operates like an electric power tool from the perspective of the operator.
That said, internally, it is very different. The air pressurizes to create linear motion – it often does not rely on rotational motion.
If you’ve ever seen someone paint a car, they are most likely using a pneumatic paint sprayer. Other common examples of air-powered power tools are buffers, nailers, staple guns, jackhammers, and some wrenches.
Pneumatic (Air) vs. Electric Power Tools: What Are Their Differences?
Now that you know the basics of the two different types of tools, let’s take a look at their main differences.
In electric power tools, the tool is being driven by electricity. This usually takes the form of an electric motor rotating to deliver the power or electricity heating up an element.
When it comes to pneumatic tools, there is often no rotation. The way they work is the air is delivered to drive a cylinder or piston. The compressed air will move a disc along a cylinder. This motion displaces the air, pressurizes it, then releases it in whichever way is designed.
The way to imagine this difference is thinking of an electric hand drill versus a staple gun. The hand drill rotates, and the staple gun works with a pressurized burst of air.
Every room typically has an electrical outlet you can hook up to and if not, you can use a battery pack to operate your electric power tool.
If you need compressed air to power your tool, you need to make sure you have a compressed air hook-up in the area. This takes the form of a compressor or house air. The most common area for pneumatic power tools is in a machine shop or on a construction site.
For any tool that’s available in electric and pneumatic power, the pneumatic option is often cheaper. Consider a hand sander. You can find a pneumatically driven hand sander for a third of the price of a comparable electrically driven hand sander.
Due to the physics behind how an electric power tool works vs. a pneumatic one, the noise difference between the two can be dramatic.
Pneumatic power tools are generally quieter than their electric brethren. If you’ve handled sanders powered by both methods, the difference is obvious.
It is simple to imagine that a battery-powered tool will weigh more than an air-powered tool. But even a corded tool will often weigh more than a pneumatic power tool. This is due to the electronics and motor required to drive an electric tool.
Pneumatic (Air) vs. Electric Power Tools: Which One Should You Use?
This isn’t an easy question to answer.
If you are working in proximity to a compressor or working with readily accessible house air, you might want to use pneumatic air tools. They are lighter, cheaper, and quieter than their electric counterparts. For my favorite air tool brands, read this article.
If you don’t have access to compressed air or you are working on a remote site, you often have no option but to use electric power tools. You can opt for a battery-operated power tool so you can use it anywhere without connecting to power.
Additionally, cordless power tools are much more convenient than air-operated tools – as long as the battery is fully charged!
For my favorite power tool brands, check this article.
Why Do Mechanics Use Air Tools?
Mechanics are working in either a machine shop or a garage. These locations are often fitted with accessible compressed air that they can hook into.
One of the most commonly used pneumatic tools is an air gun. Mechanics will use the air gun to quickly blow compressed air on a piece they’re machining to clean all of the dust and debris off.
Other times they might use an air tool include to sand a piece or deliver a final buffing. The pneumatic sander is a lot quieter than the electric sander, it’s lighter, and usually a lot cheaper. In some cases, it can be more powerful, too.
Considering that they need access to compressed air which is not as common to have around as electricity, pneumatic tools are a bit less convenient than electric tools. That’s why they are often only used in shops.
That said, they can be cheaper and quieter – and are often more powerful and quicker.
All in all, they are a good option if you are planning to be using your tools only in one place and if you don’t mind having to get a compressor. Otherwise, you should go for the more standard electric power tools.
Whichever you go with, make sure you are getting a quality tool that will last, preferably from one of the leading power tool makers like Milwaukee or Hilti.