Most units have gauges for both tank pressure and the output pressure of the regulator, but the Bostitch has just an output gauge. Some people run their compressors wide open all the time, but reducing the pressure to only what's needed conserves air consumed with each nail fired, helping these small units to keep up with demand by decreasing the compressor run cycles. It is also much easier on your nailers.

Even with a small compressor, I rely on having two air outlets. That way, I can have two tools connected and ready for service–a brad nailer and a trim nailer, for instance, when I'm running kitchen cabinet crown. Craftsman, DeWalt, and Maxus have this great feature. Adding a "T" fitting to others is an option, but it's an extension that hangs past the perimeter of the compressor and leads to a greater chance of snapping it off.

The tubing that links the pump to the tank is always of concern to me. I've replaced dozens over the years that either failed or got damaged. I prefer metal tubing or heavy-duty, reinforced plastic hoses with a threaded ferrule or flared fitting. But DeWalt and Porter-Cable have rubber hoses with crimp connections that noticeably bulge when the pump is running. At least when the hose bursts, it is easier to make a field repair, I suppose.

I don't drain my tanks every day like I should, but I do it more regularly on compressors that have drain valves that are easy to access and operate. Most of the models have small tubular valves, and the smallest of these can be difficult to grip and twist. A nicer option is the quarter-turn ball valves with larger grip levers, such as on the Craftsman, DeWalt, J-Air, and Makita. These valves give you more leverage and keep your fingers from the spew of water, ice, and gunk jetting from the tank.

Half of the compressors require you lift them off the ground to reach the drain valves, and these include the Bostitch, DeWalt, Jenny, Porter-Cable, and Rolair. Aluminum tanks are a feature unique to the Maxus.

The Winner

It was hard to select a closely matched set of portable compressor models from this broad field, but we found models that are similar enough to compete pump to pump.


The roll cage and protective control panel of the DeWalt contain the unit securely and provide a nice handle. The dual air outlets are especially handy on the job.

Credit: Photo: By dotfordot.com

The performance of the compressors we selected generally follows weight classes; the heavier units have larger tanks, pumps, and motors and have performance advantages over lighter models, and oil-splash compressors took the top spots. But lighter models have great portability benefits, so if a unit has enough power for your job, why haul more than you have to?

Our top choice goes to the Jenny AM780-HC2. It outperformed the rest in output capacity, and it's stable and fairly easy to carry. It is brutish in vibration and noise and is expensive, but it gets the job done, and then some.

The runner-up is the Senco PC1130. Second in the performance tests and very easy to carry, this is a top-level compressor with more civility and a better price. The top-heavy design will find the bed of your truck before you even use your turn signal, so be sure to strap it in.

The Makita MAC700 missed second place by several points, but really by 13 pounds. It is the heaviest but is also a quiet and powerful performer.

A few of the lighter models did better than expected and deserve honorable mentions. If we had drawn the weight limit a bit lower for our category contenders, the Maxus EX8017 would be a top pick. It has a stable design and good pump output but is a bit annoying to carry.

Bostitch's CAP1516 stands out as a super lightweight with a knockaround housing and easy carrying. Great to handle if it has enough air for you.

The J-Air J390-HC2 has great quality features, but falls in the middle of the pack on performance, and the Craftsman 921.15312 is a very respectable model for its low price. The Porter-Cable C2025, DeWalt D55141, and Grip-Rite GR152CM follow.

If we could easily carry the Rolair FC1500HBP2, it would be near the top. It has outstanding performance, but this one nuisance makes it hard to get around the job. You might be more forgiving, but for us, this would make a fine compressor for a small shop.

The Thomas T-635HT had us all confused. It's expensive but shows no advantages for the cost. It performed at the bottom, and its small-output motor and pump start too hard to be used with an extension cord.

–Mike Guertin is a Rhode Island-based contractor, and a regular contributor to Tools of the Trade.

Sources Of Supply

Bostitch CAP1516: $179

Craftsman 921.15312: $120

DeWalt Industrial Tools
DeWalt D55141: $219

Grip-Rite GR152CM: $159

CFM Air Inc.
J-Air J390-HC2: $572

Jenny Products Inc.
Jenny AM780-HC2: $329

Makita USA
Makita MAC700: $169

Maxus Powered Equipment
Maxus EX8017: $199

Porter-Cable C2025: $159

Rolair Compressors
Rolair FC1500HBP2: $189

Senco Products Inc.
Senco PC1130: $169

Thomas Products
Thomas T-635HT: $349