Progress in restoring my 1959 MG Farina Magnette was getting a little slow. Like many of the British cars we own, all of the nuts and bolts are rusted solid. I would go out and get one nut off the Armstrong lever shocks and Id be tired. One nut a day, after a few calculations, equaled that the car was never going be finished! I really needed something to speed this process up, and Liquid Wrench wasnt gonna cut it this time.
What I needed was air-power. Once the exclusive domain of professional mechanics and hard-core restorers, air power has become surprisingly affordable lately. You can have a nice compressor and a collection of tools for just about any job for under $500. A short while back you would be looking at a $2000 investment to get anything worth your while.
If you decide that air tools are for you, first thing you need is a compressor. Deciding what kind of compressor to buy is a compromise between what you are willing to spend, your intentions in use, and what is the largest piece of equipment the spouse will let in the house. What basically was the deciding factor for me was that I wanted the largest compressor I could get for under three hundred dollars that had wheels. That turned out to be a Craftsman 5.5hp 30 gallon model built by DeVilbiss. There were 25, 20 and 15 gallon versions but they were only about $20 less for each step down. Next step up was a stand-up compressor and I did not want a compressor I could not roll for job to job. For me, it was the perfect compromise. You are going to have to decide what you are planning on spending, and what your needs are (most air tools can be powered by 15 gallon models but you cant paint with less than 30 gallons).
Once I had the air compressor in the house I needed tools. Most air tools are now made in Asia. The devaluation of most Asian currency means that air tools have gotten very inexpensive. Even quality brands such as Campbell Housefield have dropped. At our local Home Quarters Warehouse (similar to Home Depot, Hechingers or Builders Square) I was able to get HC tools for about $20-$30 a tool. An electric grinder would $80, but an air grinder (with more power) is about $25. Most drills sell for $75, but air drills are closer to $35. Heres a short list of some very useful tools:
-Sandblaster- You can get siphon sandblast nozzles for as little as $10. You basically get a trigger nozzle and hose that goes in a bucket of sand. Set the air compressor for 110 psi and you are sandblasting! Versions with attached sand hopper are still over $60. Professional sandblasting equipment, that uses pressure blasting instead of siphon blasting, is a more serious investment costing $250 and up. You can also get blasting cabinets and vacumm systems but they arent cheap yet.
-Air Grinder- Remember those rusty bolts? Well I have found it much easier just to cut them off. A nut I once struggled with for three hours to budge, with heat, Liquid Wrench, and breaker bars, was cut off in under a thirty seconds. This is best reserved for nuts and bolts you were planning on replacing! The same air grinder can be used to remove rusty body panels and rough cut all sorts of metals. You are looking at between $30-$50.
-Air Drill- why pay $85 for an underpowered electric drill when an air drill is $35? Also, these air drills are much more compact. It is very hard to find handy features like speed-chock on air drills but the time and money saved are worth the loss. Most models however are not reversible!
-Air Ratchet- These ratchets actually cost about the same as some hand-ratchets. $25 gets you something usable, with higher torque models costing more. You can use this in places youd never dream of using a real ratchet because you dont move the ratchet, it moves itself!
-Impact Wrench- This is like an overgrown air ratchet, except a banging air pulse just rips apart rusted nuts and bolts. These are as cheap as $35, and never endingly useful.
The list of available air tools is almost never ending. There are air flangers for flanging sheet steel, air punches for punching holes, even an air-power grease gun! You can also go wild with accessories. While you will need a fifty foot air hose, you can also get quick-connect sockets, special short hoses for odd jobs. When it comes to accessories, realize that the compressor is often almost a loss-leader. It looks affordable to start with but once you start permanently plumbing in air lines or buying little fiddly do-dads you can really burst the bank. If you can restrain yourself, air power tools might just make your life a little easier, and not cost you a fortune.