How Do Pneumatic Tools Work?

Pneumatic tools are powerful and efficient, making them a great choice for nearly any job, but they’re not quite like your electric tools. Here’s what you need to know about how pneumatic tools work and what it takes to keep them going.

July 16, 2019

Photo by: Karen Kavett

Karen Kavett

Air Pressure and Air Volume

Pneumatic tools are powered by air that’s typically delivered from an air compressor. The air is sent through a pressure regulator that’s set to the required pressure for operation of a given tool. The air leaves the regulator through a hose that’s mounted to the tool via a ¼” quick release coupler.

Once the air enters the tool, it’s fed through a pneumatic motor that converts the compressed air’s energy into mechanical work. Linear-action tools like hammers and nail guns typically employ a piston-style actuator, while rotary-action tools use a geared or turbine-style motor. Pulling the trigger on the tool sends the air into the motor and causes the tool to begin work.

Air Requirements and Duty Cycle

Every air tool can run continuously as long as it can be constantly supplied with the volume of air it demands at the correct pressure. For tools like paint sprayers, which require large volumes of air at lower pressures, it’s advantageous to have a compressor with a larger tank. Every time you pull the trigger on a paint sprayer, it releases a large volume of air compared to something like a nail gun or impact hammer. Nail guns typically use short bursts of high-pressure air to drive nails. So while a nail gun doesn’t require a large volume of air, it definitely demands a higher pressure to deliver the force needed to penetrate materials.

The balance between pressure and volume has an effect on how hard your air compressor has to run in order to keep up with your work. A small pancake-style compressor is fine for most nail guns and other short-duration tools, but its small tank can’t hold enough air to properly operate a something like a spray gun. Spray guns and sanders that need large, continuous volumes of low-pressure air require compressors with much larger tanks. Larger tanks increase weight, which reduces portability. Additionally, larger volume compressor tanks often require higher horsepower motors to rapidly fill and pressurize their tanks. Depending on the style of motor, this can be a big contributor toward noise from your air compressor.

Clean and Dry Air Along With a Little Care

Since pneumatic tools depend on air for their operation, they’re susceptible to the moisture that’s inherently present in the air in the form of humidity. As your compressor ingests air and compresses it, water vapor will condensate inside the tank and can cause rust and corrosion. Additionally, moisture can be delivered to the tool and cause premature wear along with rust. Many people choose to add a small air/water separator between the tool and compressor to prevent water from being delivered to the tool. However, you can avoid moisture damage by routinely draining your compressor’s tank and periodically lubricating your tools. Make sure that you only use oil specifically designed for pneumatic tools. Using the wrong oil can cause damage to your tools, your compressor and can be ejected from the tool causing damage to your project.

Always take care to inspect the condition of your air compressor. If your tank appears to have rusty spots or weak metal areas, it’s a sign that something is wrong. Neglected air compressor tanks should NEVER be pressurized.

Next Up

How to Remove Rust From Garden Tools

Removing rust just got a whole lot easier. This simple method can be used on any rusted item such as garden tools, bicycles, auto parts, hand tools or outdoor decor. Find out how we gave new life to a couple of old, rusted garden tools.

How to Remove a Stripped Screw

Keep all your projects moving and say goodbye to stripped screws once and for all with these helpful tips and tricks.

How to Start Using Your Cutting Machine

If you’re afraid to take your new cutting machine out of the box, you’re not alone. Even Dennis Setteducati and Andrew Boza — The Crafty Lumberjacks — were afraid to use their new machine at first. Learn how to become a cutting machine pro with our beginner's guide for Cricut, Silhouette and other popular brands, then get step-by-step tutorials for making a sticker and an iron-on.

How to Make Ruched Ribbon

Ruched ribbon is ribbon that has been gathered into a strand of loops using bullion wire. This technique can be used for a variety of crafts including wreath making, fabric flowers, gift wrapping and trim for all types of sewing projects.

Block Print Like a Pro: How to Carve Rubber Stamps for Fabric Printing

If you’ve always wanted to create your own T-shirt design, this tutorial by Maine artist Allison McKeen will have you block printing with color in no time. Plus, the tools you need are easy to use and just as easy to find at almost any craft store. Learn how to block print like a pro with this easy beginner’s guide to carving rubber block stamps and using fabric block-printing ink to make your design shine.

How to Winterize Sprinklers, Hoses and Irrigation Systems

Learn how to blow out your lawn irrigation system to prevent cold-weather damage.

How to Refinish a Wood Deck in a Weekend

See how we cleaned, pressure washed and painted a multi-level deck to give it a fresh look and to maintain it so it will last for years to come.

How to Drill Into Brick or Concrete

Drilling into tough materials can be challenging, but using the proper equipment takes the effort out of anchoring into brick and concrete.

How to Clean Outdoor Cushions

Have those outdoor cushions looking so fresh and so clean with our two simple and easy options.

How to Clean Rust

Skip the commercial rust removers. These common ingredients in your kitchen can remove rust from tools, knives and even furniture.

Go Shopping

Get product recommendations from HGTV editors, plus can’t-miss sales and deals.


Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.