Shop Vac vs. Dust Collector: Which to Use?

Shop Vac vs. Dust Collector: Which to Use?

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If you are planning on building your own little woodworking shop in your garage, there are some essentials that you will need, with cleaning tools at the forefront.

If you have a lot of large power tools making a mess, specifically saws, you’ll need ways to contain that mess, with shop vacs and dust collectors being two great options. That said, these tools are different from each other, and today we want to determine which one you may want for your shop.

Shop Vacs and Dust Collectors: The Basics

Before we start talking about similarities and differences, let’s first determine what exactly both shop vacs and dust collectors are.

What Is a Shop Vac?

Shop Vac A shop vac or shop vacuum is a special kind of vacuum designed to be used in workshops, garages, and other such places where you need a strong cleanup tool. These tools function mostly just like a normal vacuum in the sense that they use a strong motor with suction to suck up a variety of debris, including sawdust, wood chips, small wood scraps, screws, nails, and much more.

Many shop vacs, known as wet-dry shop vacs, are also able to suck up water and other forms of moisture, therefore making them extremely convenient. The vast majority of these tools also come with air filters to filter out small dust particles, to prevent them from going back into the air.

They also come with fairly large debris collection containers, usually between 10 and 20 gallons in size. Shop vacs are designed with portability in mind, as they generally come with wheels so you can easily roll them around on a flat surface. Depending on the vacuum hose you have, you may be able to attach it directly to power tools for easy dust collection when sawing wood.

What Is a Dust Collector?

Dust Collector We then have the dust collector, which is designed specifically to be attached to power tools, mainly saws, with the purpose of sucking up all of the sawdust created when working on wood right from the source. These generally come with different-sized hoses designed to be attached to different woodworking power tools. This way, they suck up sawdust right as it is created, preventing it from entering the air.

Dust collectors come with fairly strong motors, although they don’t have the best suction. For this reason, they are able to easily suck in wood shavings and sawdust, yet aren’t strong enough to suck up heavier items like nails and screws. On that note, these accessories also aren’t designed to suck up moisture. Dust collectors do, however, come with high-quality HEPA filters to prevent the vast majority of particles from reentering the air. They also come complete with very large collection bags, anywhere between 50 and 100 gallons, depending on the model you get.

Similarities of Shop Vacs and Dust Collectors

Now that we know what dust collectors and shop vacs are, let’s figure out what makes them similar.

1. General Function

First, both of these tools serve the same general purpose, which is to suck up debris. They both have strong motors that create suction, which can then suck up a variety of particles from the air and various surfaces. That said, the level of power they have, other features, and the specific functions they serve are different.

2. Usually Used in the Same Spaces

Another similarity shared here is that both shop vacs and dust collectors are both generally used in the same spaces. These are both tools or accessories commonly used in woodworking shops to suck up wood chips and wood shavings created by sawing and other such practices.

3. They Can Be Hooked Up to Tools

The next similarity here is that thanks to their special hoses, as well as the dust collection ports on various power tools and saws, both of these tools can usually be hooked up to many different power tools, with the purpose of collecting wood shavings and sawdust right from the source, before those particles enter the air.

4. They Feature Filters and Collection Bags

The other similarity shared here is that both the shop vac and the dust collectors feature collection bags to keep the wood shavings in one place, and they usually both have air filters designed to filter out fine particles, to prevent them from reentering the air that you breathe.

Shop Vac

Differences Between Shop Vacs and Dust Collectors

Now that we know what makes shop vacs and dust collectors similar, let’s figure out what makes them different.

1. Power and Suction

One big difference here is that shop vacs have a whole lot of power to them. They feature a very high level of suction, although low airflow, which is why they can suck up heavy items like screws and chunks of wood through a relatively small hose.

On the other hand, dust collectors feature a powerful motor that produces a fairly low level of suction, but with high airflow. For this reason, dust collectors are able to easily suck up large quantities of sawdust, yet are unable to pick up heavier items through their hoses.

2. Filtration

Another big difference here is that dust collectors usually have extremely high-quality HEPA filters that can filter out up to 99% of airborne particles, therefore making them much cleaner and safer.

Yes, shop vacs do usually come with filters, although these might or might not be HEPA filters, and they generally don’t do as good a job at filtering out particles from the air as dust collectors. Therefore, in this sense, dust collectors are much safer, and they help keep the air cleaner than shop vacs.

3. Wet and Dry Vacuuming

Another difference to consider here is that dust collectors are designed specifically to suck up sawdust and nothing else, particularly nothing wet. On the other hand, most shop vacs are wet-dry shop vacs, which means that they can suck up both wet and dry debris. This makes them extremely versatile, and it allows them to be used in a variety of spaces and for many different purposes. Shop vacs are much more versatile when it comes to the debris they can handle.

4. Collection Bag Size

The next big difference here is that shop vacs generally have much smaller collection bags, usually only up to 20 gallons, and even that is pushing it. On the other hand, dust collectors have much larger collection bags, sometimes up to 100 gallons. This means that shop vacs need to be emptied much more often, which can be inconvenient.

5. Hooking Up to Tools

The standard hose that comes with a dust collector should be able to hook up to most power tools, and if it can’t, there will be others that you can buy for those purposes. On the other hand, shop vacs aren’t quite as versatile and can’t be connected to quite as many tools.

6. Portability

Another big difference here is that shop vacs are relatively small and come with wheels, which does make them fairly portable. You can easily roll them around and put them in your truck to take from one space to another. On the other hand, dust collectors are very large, heavy, and strictly stationary.

7. Cost

The other difference to consider here is that you can buy a shop vac for around 100 dollars, or a little more, whereas a high-quality dust collection system can cost thousands.

Shop Vac vs. Dust Collector: Which of the Two Should You Use?

If you have a large woodworking shop, and your main goal is to be able to suck up all of that sawdust right from the source as it is being created, then it is a dust collector that you need. However, if you need a vacuum that is able to suck up sawdust and connect to tools, can be used to clean workspaces, and can even suck up wet debris, then a shop vac would be the tool for you.


Now that you know what the main differences between shop vacs and dust collectors are, you can make an informed choice between the two.

If you do a lot of woodworking, you might also want to learn about how to dispose of sawdust.