Air tools can be game-changers in the jewelry workshop. From sandblasting to engraving, harnessing air power can give you nearly as much flexibility and versatility as your flex shaft. The best air compressors can power all your various tools easily, without ruining your hearing or taking up lots of space in your workshop.
However, a lot of folks run into problems when they start working with air tools. Most popular air compressors are designed more for carpentry work than jewelry. They don’t have the capacity or the duty cycle to cope with continuous draw tools like we use for jewelry work. It can all be fairly frustrating for the first-time buyer.
Not to worry, though! In this guide, you’ll learn exactly what to look for when you choose an air compressor for jewelry work. We’ll walk through all the pertinent specs, introduce you to some of our favorite models available today, and help you figure out which is the best choice for your own projects. You can find all our recommendations at a glance below. Keep reading to explore our in-depth comparison reviews, as well as FAQ, buying advice, and more.
Here’s a quick look at all the best air compressors for jewelry-making:
Best Air Compressor for Jewelry Making: Our Expert Reviews for 2019It may be the cheapest air compressor on our list, but don’t let the price fool you: the Rolair JC10 packs plenty of features and a surprising amount of performance into a small package. The best air compressor for the budget-conscious jeweler, the Rolair JC10 is surprisingly quiet and well suited for a single-person work space and more lightweight tasks.
This is certainly not the cheapest air compressor on the market right now, but that’s also the point. When it comes to jewelry work, it really doesn’t pay to go cheap. This is the least you can pay for something with a decent amount of capacity that won’t have reliability issues in a short space of time. So, while it may be more expensive than some “budget” options, it’s by far the best value.
For its class, the Rolair JC10 is pretty powerful. Of course, it’s a small hot dog-style compressor, so you shouldn’t expect this to compare to a big stationary unit like the North Star below. The Rolair provides 2.35 CFM at 90 psi (pounds per square inch) —enough for tools like sprue cutters, engravers, and so forth.
The key spec to look at is the duty cycle, though. While the Rolair may not have wildly more power than other small units, it’s designed to be run longer. When it comes to jewelry making, that’s key. These kinds of air tools usually require continuous draw. You’ll need a higher duty cycle to keep up. The Rolair’s 70 percent duty cycle allows you to run the compressor’s motor for about 40 minutes out of the hour. Most compressors of similar size (especially those cheap pancake units) have a duty cycle of 50 percent or less.
If you’re concerned with product life span, the Rolair includes an induction motor with a heavy-duty copper coil, a durable combination that should provide years of use.
It’s built with a steel tank.
The Rolair’s small aluminum tank might be a turnoff for heavy users, but a rapid re-cycle time ensures the air compressor is always ready to go: it can drop down to 85 psi and charge back to 115 psi in about eleven seconds.
The JC10’s noise level is a comfortable 60 decibels, which is about the same level as a normal conversation. It’s not the best air compressor on the list when it comes to noise—that honor goes to the JUN-AIR 1452000—but compared to a diaphragm-based air compressor of comparable size, the JC10 is remarkably quiet. At the least, you won’t need to shout to make yourself heard.
We also appreciate the model’s oil-free design, so you can plug it in and get started right away. At 120 volts, we could run it without worrying we were going to trip a breaker, a nice feature if your work space isn’t wired for 230 volts.
“The Rolair’s small aluminum tank might be a turnoff for heavy users, but a rapid re-cycle time ensures the air compressor is always ready to go.”
The JC10 is extremely impressive given its size, cost and class. Having said that, it’s not a miracle-worker. It’s a small compressor and it has some key limits to be aware of.
First of all, while the duty cycle is much higher than other compact units, it still does require some breaks. This is not the best choice for running 100% draw tools like sandblasters.
Secondly, it’s not going to do well with anything that requires a lot of power. It’s a better choice for the average small hand tools you’d use for fabrication and engraving than it is for finishing applications.
Need more power and a larger tank capacity than the JC10? Smooth-running with a 3,440 rpm motor, the NorthStar is a portable powerhouse with more than enough CFM to handle a siphon feed sandblaster.
We suggest this NorthStar to most buyers. While JUN-AIR models like the one below tend to be the most popular among the jewelry making community, NorthStar tools are absolute workhorses and they offer more bang for your buck. This compressor will run practically any air tool at full whack, for as long as you need it to. As long as you’ve got the money to buy it and the space to keep it, it’s the best bet for you.
It’s powerful. The NorthStar doubles the Rolair’s capacity, offering more than enough air supply for most jewelers.
You can use it continuously with no breaks, thanks to the 100% duty cycle. That’s a huge advantage, especially when it comes to grinding, finishing, and blasting projects.
While barely any heavy machinery like this is made entirely in the USA these days, the NorthStar’s engine is. The valves are Swedish. All in all, it’s built like a tank.
With its 20-gallon tank and 2-cylinder cast-iron single-stage pump, we love how quietly the NorthStar runs. Make no mistake—at 80 decibels you’ll know it’s operating, but it’s no louder than the average dishwasher.
We’re also impressed by the NorthStar’s solid construction, including two flat-free wheels and a sturdy handle for easy transportation. Periodic draining of the air tank is made easy with a side-installed tank drain, as opposed to similar models that place the drain beneath the tank.
Our team loves the NorthStar’s ability to hold tank pressure when turned off, without the normal release of tank pressure. This makes getting back to work after breaks much faster. We also appreciate the thought NorthStar put into keeping the pump cool, with a V-stage cylinder to eliminate hot spots.
In addition to the tank itself, the pump cylinders, heads, and crankcase are all cast iron for long-lasting performance, and the company backs up parts with a 4-year warranty—more than either the Rolair or, surprisingly, the JUN-AIR. For just about $500, the NorthStar is a pleasant combination of power, quality, and affordability.
“We were pleasantly surprised with how quietly the NorthStar ran—it’s no louder than the average dishwasher.”
This air compressor weighs in at over 200 pounds, making it cumbersome even with the wheels and handle. It’s also a little top heavy, so be careful moving it. We’d recommend finding a semipermanent home for the NorthStar and only moving it when necessary. While it’s certainly portable, it’s not the sort of thing you’d want to move on a daily basis.
As the drain valve is located on the side, fully draining the tank may not be possible. This is a tradeoff—we liked the side valve for convenience but did wonder about the long-term consequences of leaving residual condensate in the tank. Tipping the compressor to fully drain the tank would be a cumbersome task, given the NorthStar’s weight.
One small piece of advice: The NorthStar does not come with oil, so you’ll have to buy your own. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and be sure to use standard nonsynthetic oil for the first 50 hours.
Allow us to introduce the best air compressor of 2019: the JUN-AIR 1452000 Oil-Lubricated Piston Air Compressor. Priced at close to $2,500, the JUN-AIR is a hefty investment, but if you need a small, portable, and quiet air compressor, you owe it to yourself to consider a JUN-AIR.
“If you need a small, portable, quiet air compressor, you owe it to yourself to consider the JUN-AIR.”
JUN-AIR specializes in providing air compressors to dentists’ offices, laboratory settings, and anywhere size and noise are a consideration. The JUN-AIR 1452000 is quiet. At 45 decibels, it’s more like having a white noise machine in the workplace than an air compressor.
With a 6.6-gallon tank, the JUN-AIR 1452000 has a larger capacity than the Rolair JC10, although at 2.12 CFM, it’s not quite as powerful, mostly due to its small 0.54 HP motor. Despite this, the JUN-AIR has enough power for most jewelry-making tools and is capable of handling etching equipment and wax injectors with ease.
We’d have liked to see more than a 2-year warranty for an air compressor this expensive, but JUN-AIR’s reputation for quality craftsmanship is well earned, with many units operating after 25 years of constant use.
As for heat dissipation, unlike most traditional air compressors, JUN-AIR’s oil-lubricated compressors don’t have piston rings. A decrease in the tolerance between the piston and cylinder means friction is eliminated, reducing heat development. This not only helps preserve the air compressor’s internal parts but also reduces heat exchange with the surrounding environment, making it more comfortable for you when working near the compressor.
Like the Rolair JC10, the JUN-AIR 1452000 runs on 120 volts, so it won’t overload your electrical system. The company does offer the option of 230 volts, although this requires you to contact the manufacturer directly.
“The JUN-AIR 1452000 is quiet. At 45 decibels, it’s more like having a white noise machine in the workplace than an air compressor.”
The biggest disadvantage of any JUN-AIR model is price. The JUN-AIR is a significant expenditure compared to the JC10 and NorthStar. For periodical jewelry work, either of the other air compressors would be a better option. For full-time work, however, you should consider a JUN-AIR.
The only other concern we have is more of a quibble than anything else. It’s important you only use JUN-AIR oil with a JUN-AIR air compressor. Using any other type of oil can destroy the pump. You’re unlikely to find JUN-AIR oil at your local Home Depot or Lowe’s, but the oil is readily available on Amazon.com, so it’s hardly a deal breaker.
It’s only rated for a 50% duty cycle.
So, which is the best air compressor for you? If you’re on a tight budget, we have to recommend the Rolair JC10: its small size, oilless design, and quiet operation make it perfect for both the hobbyist and small business.
If you need more power and have the space for it, we recommend the NorthStar for its sturdy design, extra cubic feet per minute, and overall durability. It’s louder than the Rolair, but for an extra $150–200, you get enough cubic feet per minute to operate most jewelry sandblasters for extended periods of time.
For professional use, we have to go with the JUN-AIR 1452000. It’s small, sturdy, and almost whisper quiet. You’ll be making an investment, but it’s one that should keep your tools going for years to come!
How to Choose the Best Air Compressor
We’ve included a wide range of air compressor models above. They’re all high-quality machines, but they’re suited to different use cases. The best air compressor for you is one that meets your specific needs, whether jewelry making is your business or your hobby. You’re going to need to consider budget, size, noise levels, and a number of specifications before you can make a decision.
Let’s explore the key things to think about:
Decide On Your Budget
“The more you pay, the more you can expect in terms of capacity, duty cycle, and build quality.”
Air compressors generally cost between $100 and $2000. There are certainly options for more or less than that range, but the cheaper options are worthless and the more expensive models are overkill for nearly all users. Still, we’re left with a massive price range.
You’ll find that nothing under $300 is going to cut it for most tools in a jeweler’s workshop. At the other end of the spectrum, we don’t think there’s any reason to pay more than $750 for an air compressor. That’s more than enough to get something that’s heavy-duty, high-powered, and reliable enough for any jewelry workshop.
The more you pay, the more you can expect in terms of capacity, duty cycle, and build quality:
As you’d expect, you get a lot more capacity (power) as you go up the price scale. Most budget options, up to the $300 mark, will have 2-3 CFM capacities at most. You can expect to roughly double your capacity if you double your spending. At around $500-$700, you’ll be looking at 5-6 CFM (and at much higher pressures). The practical differences are substantial, which is why we suggest that professionals skip the budget range and buy something more robust.
Budget compressors can still put out a decent amount of air, but their big limitation is the duty cycle. As explained below, this limits your actual runtime with your tools. You’ll need to spend at least $500 to get something with a 100% duty cycle that can run constantly without trouble. In the budget range, the best you can do is 70% duty cycle (most top out at 50% or less).
The other major area where you’ll see differences as you go up the price scale is build quality. We’ve saved you a lot of the considerations in this area, since we don’t recommend any of the shoddy budget models you’ll see on a lot of best-seller rankings. Every model in this guide is professional-grade. The substantial differences are in size and capacity.
That being said, you’ll certainly find that you see more steel and cast iron on more expensive units (as opposed to aluminum, which is more common at the lower end). As with so many tools, you’ll also find that paying more gets you components built in the USA or Europe to much higher standards of quality control.
So, how much should you spend?
If you’re new to air tools, you may want to stick to something smaller on the lower end of the price range. You can pick up a very respectable Rolair for around the $300 mark. A smaller model at this price point will handle most small tools reasonably well.
If you’re a professional jeweler who uses a lot of air tools, particular demanding engraving or sandblasting equipment, it’s worth investing in something that can handle absolutely everything you can throw at it. Something like the NorthStar above will probably cost you about $750, of which a sizable chunk will be freight shipping.
Know What You Need
This is where things get a bit technical. Before you can decide which air compressor is the best choice for your workshop, you need to know exactly which tools you’ll be using with it.
Think of it like electricity: if you’re in an average household with standard appliances, chances are you run on a 100 amp power system. If you’re in a massive house with central air and electric heat, you’ll probably need a 200 amp power system. The same kind of thing applies to air tools: the more power (air) your tools need, the bigger a power supply supply (air compressor) you’ll need.
There are two key things you need to learn: to understand how powerful a given compressor actually is, and to figure out what a given tool will demand from your compressor.
Understanding Air Compressor Specs
When it comes to looking at compressors, specs can be misleading. Most companies like to list their HP (horsepower) ratings front and center, since the consumer sees those numbers and feels impressed.
Horsepower actually doesn’t make for a good measure in this case, though. Higher horsepower engines are great, since they allow the air compressor to recover pressure faster. However, they don’t tell you anything about which tools you can actually run off it.
The most important spec to look at is CFM (cubic feet per minute). CFM tells you the quantity of air the compressor can produce at any given time. So, if a unit is rated at 3 CFM, it produces 3 cubic feet of air per minute. All air tools will list their requirements in terms of CFM. So, at a glance, if you’re trying to use a sandblaster that requires 5 CFM, you can rule out any air compressors rated for a lower amount.
CFM isn’t the whole story, though. You also need to look at PSI (pounds per square inch). PSI is a measure of pressure (where CFM is a measure of volume). When an air tool’s requirements are listed, you’ll see that they demand a certain CFM at a minimum PSI. It’s the combination of these two specs that tells you how powerful your machine actually is.
So, you need to find something that produces as many CFM as your tools need at AT LEAST the minimum PSI. Most compressors are rated by CFM at both 40 and 90 psi, or at 50 and 100 psi. This is handy as you’re gauging whether the compressor specs match those of your tools.
Some other relevant specs are duty cycle, tank size, and horsepower:
Obviously, we’ve already said horsepower isn’t the most important thing to look at. It doesn’t actually tell you much about what you can and can’t do with your air compressor. Where it does come in handy is giving you a sense of how quickly your compressor can recover its capacity while you work. If you have a higher horsepower motor, the recovery time drops drastically. For folks who work with air tools frequently, that does matter.
Tank size matters for the same reason. If there’s a bigger tank, there’s more air to use at any given time. Your air compressor will turn on to recover pressure as needed, but it’s better for you and better for the machine to simply have a bigger tank to begin with.
Of these three specs, duty cycle is the most important. An air compressor’s duty cycle is the amount of time the compressor can run at full cycle before beginning to overheat. An air compressor with a 50 percent duty cycle is only meant to run for 30 minutes out of every hour. So, duty cycle tells you much you can actually run your air compressor at the capacity listed.
This is extremely important. Most buyers wouldn’t know at a glance that many air compressors are rated for CFM at a 25% duty cycle. That’s because many air tools (especially the ones for carpentry) only use air sporadically. Tools like nailers only use air during a quarter of the time you’re using them. While some jewelry tools work similarly, many do not. Sandblasters and grinders, for instance, draw air 100% of the time you’re using them. So, if you were to buy an air compressor rated for a 25% duty cycle, it would need to have a 20 CFM capacity to run a 5 CFM sandblaster.
At a minimum, look for something with at least a 50% duty cycle. That’s plenty for intermittent tools like engravers. As far as we’re concerned, though, life is much simpler with a compressor that runs on a 100% duty cycle, like the North Star above. It saves you lots of mental math, and gives you the leeway to work with absolutely any tool you might add to your bench.
Understanding Tool Specs
When you look at tools, you’ll be looking at CFM and PSI, which we’ve just explained above. Each tool should have listed requirements of CFM @ PSI.
Note: Most tools will also list duty cycle, but some don’t. Use common sense. Sandblasters, sanders, grinders, and any other tools that run constantly will require a 100% duty cycle. You can get away with using them in short bursts on a 70% duty cycle, but this is not ideal. Intermittent tools like engraving handpieces often work more like a nail gun, so they won’t require more than a 50% duty cycle.
Some typical air tools jewelers use are listed below, with their requirements:
Rio Sandblaster: 5 CFM @ 80 PSI
Rio Sprue Cutter: 0.8 CFM @ 60 PSI
GRS GraverMate Engraving System: 1.4 CFM @ 45 PSI
As you can see, there’s quite a wide range. Practically any air compressor on the market these days will comfortably run things like sprue cutters and engraving tools. When it comes to grinding, blasting, and sanding, you’ll need a lot more power.
Using The Specs To Make A Decision
Now that you know how to navigate the specs, you’re a good way toward figuring out which unit to run in your shop. One word of warning, though: it’s always better to err on the safe side. Give yourself at least a 25% margin of error on your CFM requirements. If you’re having to run your compressor flat out to get the power you need, you’ll end up having to replace parts in a hurry. You may also find that your tools simply don’t work properly. Also, be sure to consider whether more than one person will be using the air compressor. You’ll need to figure out the total load you want to support at any one time, and then buy accordingly.
Check The Safety Mechanisms
“Some compressors have built-in thermal protection that automatically shuts them down at the end of the duty cycle.”
Some compressors have built-in thermal protection that automatically shuts them down at the end of the duty cycle. Others you must manually turn off to prevent overheating and damage. Some air compressors, including the NorthStar, have a 100 percent duty cycle, meaning they can run continuously without damage.
Portable Vs. Stationary Designs
Air compressors can be either portable or stationary. Most are portable, to varying degrees. These range from the tiny pancake compressors used for brad nailing and small carpentry projects to the upright tank designs mounted on dolly frames. These tank models are certainly portable, but not as easy to simply pick up and move as pancake or hot dog designs. The very largest air compressors are stationary units that are often as tall as a person and which take up a great deal of space.
We’ve included only portable models above. Most stationary units are simply too large to be practical in the average jewelry workshop. They’re also overkill in terms of power (and price). However, the NorthStar model we’ve recommended above is still quite large (and extremely heavy). You’ll want to make sure you have a dedicated spot for it in your shop, so that you’re not having to shift it constantly. It’s mounted to a dolly, but it’s not exactly small.
If you’re a professional who wants the capacity for multiple, high-demand tools to be used at once, such as having two sandblasters running, you’ll need a massive, stationary air compressor.
We haven’t included this other NorthStar model in our three main picks, since it’s wildly overkill for most folks. However, if you want to go full-bore and get your shop equipped for absolutely anything you or your colleagues need to get done, we suggest this 80-gallon unit:
As we’ve said above, we don’t think most people need to spend nearly this much. This 80-gallon model costs twice what we’ve said is the most anyone ought to pay. However, it gives you the capacity to work side by side with someone else, so that does make the investment make sense. You can easily run two sandblasters off this at once, without it breaking a sweat. Just be absolutely sure you’ll get your money’s worth from it and have space to install it.
In addition to the size and the price, you’ll also need to consider the fact that this NorthStar requires an industrial electrical hookup. It can’t run on standard household power. Bear that in mind, since installing an industrial outlet is quite costly if you don’t already have one in your workshop.
We hope you found our guide to the best air compressors both informative and enjoyable. You can find out more about any of the models we’ve recommended here by clicking on the links in our reviews. You’ll find more expert comparison reviews of the best tools for making jewelry here!