Size Does Matter – Air Compressors For A Nail Gun

In general, air compressors with a 2-7 CFM rating and a 2-6 gallon tank capacity are suitable for most common types of pneumatic nail guns. The exact requirements, however, will differ slightly based on the specific nail gun that you have.

Nail guns are handy tools designed to drive nails into wood. Compared to manual hammering, they are faster, safer and can dramatically boost your productivity. However, your experience with a pneumatic nail gun can quickly become cumbersome if you do not choose the right sized air compressor.

If you do not have any prior experience of working with pneumatic nail guns, all these technical terms can be quite difficult to understand. So, in this post, we explain the different types of nail guns with their specific requirements, and also explain some of the common terminology you need to understand to help you purchase the right sized air compressor for your nail gun.

Factors You Need To Know About Air Compressors

An air compressor is a device that can convert the potential energy of compressed air into kinetic energy. 

In simpler terms, an air compressor pulls air from an external source and stores it in high pressure in a small compartment. This air is then released through different machinery and tools to achieve a wide range of functions, like fixing nails onto wood, or lifting heavy weights, among others.

Pneumatic nail guns are special types of nail guns that work using the potential energy of compressed air. These guns typically only need short bursts of air whenever the nail needs to be fired. Therefore, small and portable air compressors often suffice. However, depending on your nailer and your usage, you may need larger compressors.

In order for you to properly understand which size of air compressor is suitable for your particular nail gun, it is essential that you get a rough idea of the following concepts first.

Flow Rate or CFM

The CFM (“cubic feet per minute”) is the total volume of air that moves from one area to another in one minute. 

Simply put, the CFM represents how much air your compressor can provide at a given pressure, and how powerfully it can deliver nails from your nail gun. A higher CFM means more air passes through in a smaller time and therefore more/heavier work can be done.

Your nail gun will already have specific instructions on the minimum CFM required for it to function properly. To stay on the safer side and to have a more smooth experience, we recommend getting an air compressor with a slightly higher CFM than the minimal value mentioned for your nail gun. 

As a rule of thumb, multiply the recommended CFM value by 1.5, and you will have the CFM rating of the compressor you need.

For example, if your nailer mentions that it needs a minimum CFM of 2.6, multiply it by 1.5 and you will get 4, meaning a compressor with a CFM of 4 is ideal for your nail gun.

Check the table below to see our general recommendations for choosing the correct cfm value for your nail gun. 

SNNail GunAverage CFM requirementsAverage PSIAverage Volume requirementsCompressor Type
1Pneumatic Staple Gun270-901 galPortable
2Finish Nailer270-902-3 galPancake/Portable
3Pin Nailer270-901 galHotdog/Portable
4Brad Nailer270-902 galHotdog/Portable
5Roofing Nailer470-906 galPortable
6Floor Nailer2-470-904-6 galPortable
7Palm Nailer2-470-903-6 galPortable
8Framing Nailer4-680-1204-6 galPortable
9Siding Nailer4-680-1204-6 galPortable
(We discuss each type of nail gun later in the post)

Tank Capacity

The tank capacity of your compressor should be determined by the level of activity that you will be performing with your nail gun.

If there is a lot of work you need to do, naturally, it is advisable to have a bigger tank capacity, or else you will find yourself frequently stopping in the middle of your work, waiting for your compressor tank to refill.

But then again, a larger tank is more difficult to carry around, and in general is more expensive as well.

Most compressors available in the market have a 1-8 gallon capacity. For operating nail guns, we recommend a sweet medium of 1-6 gallons

If you plan on using smaller nail guns like a Brad Nailer for simple household tasks, a smaller tank may be sufficient. If you are a professional construction worker who regularly needs framing guns to work, then you will likely be needing a much larger tank. 

Please refer to the table above for details.

Pressure (PSI values)

The term PSI stands for ‘Pounds per Square Inch’. It is an indicator of the pressure generated inside the tank by your compressor. 

Essentially, if your compressor can fit more air inside a smaller area, it will have a larger PSI value.

Having a larger PSI certainly has its advantages: it means more air is compressed in a smaller area, and so when it is released, it will be able to fire your nails better. 

In general, nail guns operate at a PSI value of 70-90. Most compressors available in the market, even smaller ones, can easily generate this pressure. You therefore do not need to worry too much about your compressor’s PSI.

PSI and CFM need to go hand-in-hand for you to have a smooth working experience, so just make sure the CFM values of your compressor are appropriate for your nail gun.

Horse Power (HP)

While researching air compressors, you will frequently come across the term ‘Horse Power’, or simply HP. It is an overall indicator of how powerful your compressor is. 

The higher is the horse power of your device, the more work that it can do in a given amount of time, and vice versa.

However, things are not always this simple to interpret. If you have a 5 HP device and an 15 HP device that can both deliver the same PSI and CFM, then the 5HP device might be preferable in terms of the cost.

Therefore, we do not recommend worrying about HP because as long as the CFM, the PSI and the Tank Capacity are fine, your compressor will automatically have the appropriate HP needed for it to function properly.

Nature of Compressor

You will almost always be using a portable air compressor while operating nail guns, so we will not get into the details of stationary compressors.

A portable air compressor can again be of the following types:

  1. Hotdog compressor: It is a small, cylindrical compressor that can hold 2-4 gallons of air.
  2. Pancake compressor: It is mounted on a circular base and can hold 4-6 gallons of air.
  3. Twin-stacked compressor: It holds two cylinders side by side and has a total capacity of 4-6 gallons as well.
  4. Wheelbarrow compressor: This one gets its name because of its easy portability and heavy weight. It is used for more heavy-duty nail guns and can hold up to 8-12 gallons of air.

As you can see in the table earlier in the post, most air guns will not need more than 4-6 gallons to function. We thus recommend a Hotdog compressor for smaller nailers (Brad nail gun, and Pin nail guns) while a Pancake compressor can make a great choice for most other types of nail guns we discussed.

Some additional features you should pay attention to include:

  • An Air cooling system
  • Portability
  • Thermal Protection
  • Noise levels
  • Oil requirements

The Best Size Compressor For Your Nail Gun

Now that we have discussed the basics of air compressors, let’s get into nail guns and their types.

Broadly speaking, nail guns can be of two types:

  1. Cordless Nail Guns: These are battery-operated and do not need an air compressor, but are often heavier, may not always deliver the same level of power, and require you to frequently replace batteries.
  1. Pneumatic Nail Guns: A pneumatic nail gun is a power tool that uses short bursts of air to push nails into wood. Air tools in general are smaller and deliver a more consistent performance, but require an air compressor to function.

There are nine common types of pneumatic nail guns, each with their own unique use and specific requirements. 

Plentiful Air has a guide to the best portable compressors available here.

1. Framing Nail Gun

These heavy-duty nailers are used in building and in larger construction jobs for nails up to 3.5 inches in size. You will commonly be using a framing nailer to build homes, decks, fences and the like. 

Considering the heavy nature of the work they do, framing nailers are usually quite air hungry. We recommend purchasing a compressor with a minimum of 5 CFM and a capacity to generate 80-120 PSI for your framing gun.

2. Palm Nail Gun

These are small nail guns that can fit on your palm. As one would expect, these are used for smaller building projects for nails of around 1.5 inches size.

Despite the small size, Palm Nail guns require a larger and more continuous airflow. If you need to run your palm nailer continuously, we recommend getting a compressor capable of generating 70-90 PSI and a CFM of 2-4 with a 3-6 gallons tank size. 

You may also consider getting a compressor with a larger tank capacity depending on your work.

3. Flooring Nail Gun

Pneumatic flooring nailers, as the name implies, are strictly used to lay tongue-and-groove floorboards. They are designed to deliver nails at just the right angle and depth to fix floorboards in place, but don’t have much other use besides that.

Flooring nailers, unlike palm nailers, do not require continuous air flow. You can therefore easily operate your flooring nailer with a compressor of a relatively lesser capacity, but since the task of flooring is intrinsically done in a larger scale, most construction experts prefer a larger size of 4-6 gallons. 

Make sure the compressor can generate 70-120 PSI at a CFM of 2 or more for optimal functioning.

5. Roofing Nail Gun

Roofing nail guns are commonly used by professionals to drive nails through roofing materials and through wood at lightning fast speeds.

When it comes to size requirements, roofing nailers are very similar to flooring nailers. You should thus be looking for compressors with a CFM rating of 4 or more and capable of generating 70-90 PSI of pressure. 

As far as the tank capacity is concerned, consider getting a smaller size of 2-4 gallons if you are simply looking to complete a small DIY project. Else, we recommend a larger size of 4-6 gallons.

5. Pin Nail Gun

These are the smallest and the most delicate types of nail guns. They are commonly used for finishing work in furnishing and crown molding (where there is a risk of the wood splitting if larger nails are used.)

As one would expect, these need minimal power to function well. A compressor with a CFM of 2, a tank size of 1-2 gallons and a PSI value of around 70 is often sufficient to operate pin nailers with ease.

6. Siding Nail Gun

Like the framing nailer, siding nailers are powerful tools designed to connect thinner structures (wood or synthetic material) into a wooden mount. These are generally used with shorter nails of 1.5 to 2.5 inches length.

Siding Nail Guns also need a higher PSI of 80-120 in order to function properly. Most compressors can easily generate this pressure, so your priority should be the CFM.

We recommend a CFM of 4-6, and a tank capacity of 4-6 gallons for siding nailers.

7. Brad Nail Gun

Brad nailers stand right beside pin nailers when it comes to finishing. These nailers, too, work with smaller nails of around 18 Gauge size and are used in crown molding, furnishing, and trim work.

To operate a Brad Nailer, you will need a 2 gallon air compressor that can generate 70-90 PSI while keeping an airflow capacity above 2 CFM.

8. Finish Nail Gun

Finish nail guns are commonly used for finishing fine carpentry work. Unlike Brad or pin nailers, however, they are capable of working with bulkier pieces of wood. The nails they use are of 15-16G, which are slightly thicker than typical Brad nails.

As such, finish Nailers require slightly higher airflow than Brad Nailers. In general a 2-3 gallon compressor with an airflow capacity more than 2 CFM that can generate 70-90 PSI should work just fine.

9. Staple Gun

These are simple devices that drive staples into fabric, upholstery or sometimes even in small wood-working projects. Many are mechanical and work based on muscle power, while some larger ones are pneumatic.

To operate a pneumatic staple gun, your compressor will have to generate a 70-90 PSI pressure, and usually require a small tank capacity of 1-2 gallons. It does not need a CFM of more than 2, considering 0.22 CFM is required per shot. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Use A Tire Air Compressor For A Nail Gun?

No, it is not always possible to use a tire air compressor for a nail gun.

Tire compressors generally only need to run up to 32-35 PSI, with a 1 CFM compressor being sufficient. Nail guns, however, need at least 70-90 PSI and a minimum of 2 CFM.

Your tire compressor thus may not be able to provide enough power to operate a nail gun.

Do Nail Guns Need A Compressor?

Pneumatic nail guns always need a compressor, whereas cordless and gas compressors do not need air compressors.

Pneumatic nail guns work by using jets of compressed air to fire the nail. It is therefore not possible to use one without a compressor.

Cordless nail guns get power from batteries and do not need an air compressor. 

Similarly, gas nail guns fire nails when an electric jolt ignites a gas cartridge that is embedded within the nail gun. Although this also uses gas to fire the nail, it doesn’t need an air compressor per se.

Will A 3 Gallon Air Compressor Run A Framing Gun?

A 3 gallon air compressor can be used to run a small framing gun suitable for home use, but it may not be sufficient for larger projects.

As long as the CFM and PSI values are good, you can certainly run a framing gun with a 3 gallon capacity.

However, with a smaller tank capacity, you will only be able to use it for a short amount of time before the compressor will need to fill itself up again. This means you will waste a considerable amount of time just waiting for the compressor to refill.

If you need the framing gun for larger projects, we thus recommend a compressor with a 4-6 gallon capacity. For professional grade framing, you may even consider an 8-10 gallon compressor.

Russell Singleton

Russell holds a Bachelor of Science (Environmental and Marine Geoscience) with Class I Honors. He is currently completing his doctorate in science and is passionate about all earth processes, especially isotope geochemistry and paleohydrology.

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