My life changed 30 years ago when my boss showed up on our jobsite with a used 2-gallon, 1-horse air, belt-driven compressor and a couple of roofing staplers. That old compressor chugged day in and day out, just barely keeping pace with our tools but driving our production to a new level.
As the company grew, we went through half a dozen big compressors, but that little machine powered on in its new role as a mainstay of our pick-up and trim-out work for the next 15 years.
Today, I run three compressors of different sizes for different jobs, but my lightweight, easy-to-carry, 2-gallon unit gets the most use. For trim, siding, roofing, and occasional framing nailer shots, it suits a lot of the work I tackle these days. And it handles without complaint most of the 20 pneumatic tools I use.
Knowing well the utility of a compressor this size, I set out to test 12 newer hand-carryable units with tank capacities ranging from 1.5 to 2.6 gallons, and output rates from about 2 to 4 cubic feet per minute (cfm) at 90 psi. These are units that can typically handle a few trim nailers, and even a roofing or framing nailer for some jobs; they're probably the smallest models you can use to do some of everything.
Included were models from both broad categories of compressor pumps, oil-free and oil splash. The six oil-free models are the Bostitch CAP1516, DeWalt D55141, Grip-Rite GR152CM, Maxus EX8017, Porter-Cable C2025, and Thomas T-635HT. The six oil splash models are the Craftsman 921.15312, J-Air J390-HC2, Jenny AM780-HC2, Makita MAC700, Senco PC1130, and Rolair FC1500HBP2.
The Porter-Cable, Grip-Rite, and DeWalt oil-free models have an identical break-in sequence: open the tank drain valve, plug it in, and let 'er rip for 15 minutes. Bostitch, Maxus, and Thomas are silent on the issue, so we just plugged them in and went to work with no obvious trouble.
The oil splash compressors require a fill up, and all come with a bottle of pump oil. Only Makita's manual specified a 20 minute run-in period. A few models had air filters and quick connect fittings that had to be screwed on before use.
Easy portability is a key feature of these small units. With a hose over my shoulder and a tool case to haul, one-handed carrying is a must. And with my tool bags on, I don't want the compressor beating against my leg. Weight is a big factor, but good handle position, balance, and projecting parts also influence carrying comfort.
The sleekly housed Bostitch, with its molded-in handle and lightest weight of 19.5 pounds, is the easiest to tote around. If it does bump into you, or even the woodwork, its smooth plastic body does no harm.
The motor-over-tank, hot-dog style Porter-Cable also has a molded-in handle on its motor/pump shroud. This handle is centered along its narrow profile for perfect balance, making the 24-pound lightweight easy to maneuver. The heavier hot-dog compressors have elevated handles positioned for great balance.
You can carry the 39-pound Senco and even the heaviest, 52-pound Makita without bruising your leg.
You have to bend down to reach the DeWalt's handle, but it's worth it for its easy carrying. This 30-pound compressor stands up like a suitcase, so it rarely touches your leg. Be careful setting it down, though, the roll cage makes contact before the rubber feet and could scuff a floor. The DeWalt could use another set of feet.
The low slung, tank-beside-motor designs of the 26-pound Craftsman, 46-pound J-Air, 44-pound Jenny, and 27-pound Thomas models have elevated handles and balance well, but their broad footprints mean that some part will ride against your leg when hauling. Be careful of snagging protruding gauges or air filters this way.
The twin-tank side stack Maxus has a wrap-around frame with a grip on top, but its off-balance placement puts a few of the unit's 30 pounds dragging against your leg. In its best position, with the tanks facing your leg, the drain valve ends up wearing at your pants.
The 39-pound, pontoon-style Grip-Rite misses the mark for carrying ease. All three grip positions on the roll cage make the unit's lower edge "hinge" into your leg. While not painful, the bumping and scraping are annoying.
There's no easy way to handle the 39-pound Rolair. Its tall frame is easy to reach, but its extra length causes the compressor to ride low, and gripping the off-center top frame makes the unit constantly bump into your lower leg while you're carrying it. About the best you can do is to ride the unit against a stiff leg and limp it to where you're going.