What size air compressor for framing nailer?

My grandfather had been building homes with nothing but a hammer for decades. 

I was there when he bought his first pancake compressor and nail gun. It was a momentous occasion. 

Use type dictates compressor size. Many brands sell nailgun and compressor combination packages to unsuspecting do-it-yourselfers. These look like a good value. 

However, you are often buying an undersized compressor that is paired with an even smaller trim or brad nailer. 

If you want to sling those 16d, 3-1/2 inch nails, you are going to need a slightly larger compressor.

See Related: Air Compressor Size Chart Per Tool Use

Calculating CFM For Nailers

You will need a minimum amount of compressed air to power your nailer. With inadequate air, you won’t fully drive the nails. This can lead to jams and to partially-driven nails. 

1. Check The Owner’s Manual or Framing Nailer for rated CFM or SCFM

2. Multiply by 1.5 

3. Find a Compressor capable of producing this CFM

Here is a chart with general guidelines. This will meet most nailer compressor CFM requirements to help you get the right compressor.

Air Nail Gun TypeCFM Recommended
Upholstery Nailer1 CFM, 1 Gallon
Brad Nailer1 CFM, 1 Gallon
Finish Nailer1 CFM, 1 Gallon
Sheathing Nailer 4 CFM, 2 Gallon
Framing nailer4 CFM, 2 Gallon
Roofing nailer4 CFM, 2 Gallon
Multiple Nailers6 CFM, 6 Gallon

Framing Nailer Requirements

Framing nailers are used for framing houses. Most houses in America are constructed from 2×4 pine lumber. These nailers need to easily drive 3.5-inch nails into this lumber. 

They are great for affixing subfloor, building fences and outdoor decking. 

A good nailer will let a small team frame out a house in a couple of days. 

CFM (Cubic Foot per Minute) or the amount of airflow a compressor can produce is the limiting factor. A framing nailer will require about 2.2 CFM and 90-100 PSI (pounds per square inch). 

Minimum CFM Calculation: If you are working quickly, you will need enough extra CFM to support your pace of work. 

The recommendation is to multiply your tool’s CFM by 1.5, This provides that 50% margin to ensure you don’t run out of air. 

If your framing nailer requires 2.2 CFM, you will want a compressor capable of 3.5 CFM @ 90 PSI.

Does Horsepower Matter?

Something I find funny is how much manufacturers promote the horsepower of their compressors. 

Additionally, manufacturers may each use a different horsepower calculation. Some might use peak horsepower (or brake horsepower), while others use the lower, normal operating horsepower calculation. 

HP really does not matter. What matters is the end result: how much PSI and airflow that compressor can generate. 

You can have a .5HP and a 1 HP tool that both generate 90 PSI with 2 CFM. 

Generally, a larger motor will produce more airflow since it can be paired with a larger compressor piston. 

That said, large horsepower motors tend to have a greater amperage draw. This can lead to a greater likelihood of tripping breakers. 

My recommendation is to ignore the horsepower ratings and to find a portable air compressor from a trusted manufacturer that has the ratings you need.

Emerging Tech: Non-Pneumatic Framing Nailers

There is a new technology of electric nailers (first appeared in 2013) that are starting to gain popularity. These do not use an air compressor. 

1. Cordless Framing Nailer.  These nailers are battery-powered and do not require an air source. The ability to move around without air hoses, speeds the team’s efficiency.  Paslode is one of the industry leaders in this niche.

2. Brushless Framing Nailer. Basically, another keyphrase to refer to the new electric nailers. These nailers use high-end brushless motors. Both Dewalt and Milwaukee have offerings in these categories.

Portable Vs.Stationary: Which Compressor Should You Go With?

Now that we’ve covered the requirements above, you are ready to start shopping. There is a wide range of compressors that meet the requirements of a framing nailer. 

Stationary

large oil-filled compressor

Stationary compressors generally have a larger motor and larger tank. This provides a higher flow of air with greater reserves. 

Stationary compressors are excellent for running larger air tools such as sandblasters and impact wrenches. 

Woodworking shops generally use stationary air compressors.  These can power multiple pneumatic tools at once. 

The downsides are that some of them require a 220v power source. 

Stationary compressors are often designed to use oil for lubrication which requires bi-annual changes. 

An intermediate between a stationary and a portable would be a 20-gallon wheelbarrow compressor. While technically portable, they are cumbersome to transport. However, these can provide the tank capacity to run 2 or more air guns. 

Portable

image of black air compressors for sale against red floor

Generally, you will be using your air tools on a construction site. You need a reliable source of air pressure that is easy to move around. 

My recommendation is a lightweight pancake air compressor.  Weight is everything when it comes to portability. 

An Oil-free compressor requires almost no maintenance and will work at any temperature. 

Both Porter-Cable and Bostitch make affordable pancake compressors that are easy to carry around the job site. Either one of these has the CFM rating to run a single nail gun. 

My suggestion is to have a compressor for each framing nailer that you are powering. However, some contractors opt for a larger compressor that can power two framing nail guns.

 The Makita Big Bore cast iron compressor is the best air compressor for the framing crew. 

What Size Air Compressor For Framing Nailer?

As covered, previously, the determining factor is how much airflow it can produce. 

In my experience, most contractors I’ve worked for will use a 6-gallon pancake compressor. This provides endless nailing power while still being lightweight enough to carry around the job site. 

However, the DIY handyman will probably appreciate something with a smaller, 3-gallon tank. These are even more lightweight. The downside of using a smaller tank size is that the compressor is going to run more frequently. 

  • 2-4 Gallons: Excellent for the solo contractor or for the do-it-yourselfer. Often sold as a combo package with a brad nailer or stapler included. 
  • 6-10 Gallons: Extremely reliable airflow for crews of 1 or 2. Also better for roofing nailers, which tend to use a larger amount of air. 
  • 10-30 Gallons: Larger, harder to move, but best for crews of 3 or more.

The only impact that tank size will have is how often the compressor will need to engage. With a larger reserve tank, the compressor can run less often, creating a much quieter job site.  

Noise Level

Compressors are notoriously loud. Most shoppers just want to buy the cheapest, more durable option, and noise level is a distant concern. 

However, contractors who do a lot of remodelling work, often find that they need a consumer-friendly option that is not too loud. 

Most compressors now have a decibel rating. We rank some of the quietest air compressors. 

When shopping online, California Air Tools tends to be one of the quietest brands on the market. 

Additionally, a heavy-duty oil-filled compressor is going generally be quieter than a cheap pancake compressor.


Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Set The Proper Pressure?’

Generally, your power tools will only need 90-100 PSI. It is possible for your compressor to produce too much pressure and blow out the internal seals on your tools. 

To avoid this, look for the large knob near the pressure gauge. This is the pressure regulator. Dial it down to the 100 PSI level to match your tool’s needs. 

CFM is not generally adjustable, as it is a component of the air flow.

Can You Use A Framing Nailer for Decking?

You need a nail gun that can handle 2-inch to 3-inch nails. This longer length means that a framing nailer is ideal for building a deck or for fence work. 

What PSI For Framing Nailer?

Most framing nailers will need 2.2 CFM at 90 PSI. 

Oil vs Oil-less Compressor

Most portable compressors these days are of the oilless variety. These use some manufacturer-installed lubricant combined with a Teflon coating on the compressor. 

Single Vs Bump Fire Triggers?

Cheaper nail guns tend to have a single-fire mechanism. This gives you the ultimate control and safety. 

However, professionals quickly find that they appreciate the speed of the bump-fire mechanism. This takes the pressure off your fingers from the repeated squeezing.

They also allow you to work more quickly, firing one nail every time the tip is pressed against the wood. 

Will A 6 Gallon Compressor Run A Framing Nailer?

A 6-gallon air compressor is a perfect size for running a framing nailer. They are a small air compressor that will run on any 120v power supply. They also have a slightly larger tank so that they hold better air reserves.


Conclusion

The right air compressor is going to increase your efficiency. 

Here are the top considerations when shopping for a job site compressor: 

  • Capable of 4 CFM @ 90 PSI
  • 6 Gallons
  • Good Warranty
  • Reputable Brand

Dewalt, Bostitch, Porter-Cable, Campbell-Hausfeld and Makita are some of the most popular brands. You pretty much can’t go wrong with any of these brands.

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