Are air tools worth it for the home car mechanic?

As a kid watching NASCAR, air tools always were the coolest. People even say the reason they can't work on today's cars is because they don't have "expensive" air tools. This blog reflects on 40 years of wrenching and how air tools did or didn't help.

-Sean J. Miller 01/06/2024

If you are starting to build out your garage so you can handle any repair or upgrade on your vehicles, you probably are considering air tools.  Today, air tools have never been more accessible and affordable.  Off brand tools sold at Harbor Freight will last a lifetime, no matter what your buddies try to tell you.  But, are they worth the money?

Air Tools

There are two subcategories for cars where air tools come into play.  One is automotive bodywork and painting.  If you want to do this, then absolutely you will want them!  You want a dual orbital sander and one or two types of spray guns to have a lot of fun with that hobby.  If you have a lot of body work, you probably can use some nippers or chisels that can help rip through body panels.

The other scope is impact guns and air ratchets. This is where I draw the line.  I bought everything you can think off over the years - or got them for Christmas.  Little air saws, ratchets, impacts, and chisels.  After one use, I never touched them again.  When we recently moved, I liquidated them all as I'd rather fund more useful tools and parts with their value.

Why? If you have been using anti-seize on every threaded connection - air tools are simply overkill and take too long to set up and clean up.  Instead, a box end wrench with a rubber mallet is all I use.

 

If a bolt is well stuck, torching it with map gas for several minutes and then spraying with penetrate can help.  Harbor Freight also has nut splitters if it is entirely frozen from rust.  Usually, an air tool won't help you there.  Here is what they look like:

I haven't tried it at this time, yet, but they also have inductive heating devices that will help with a seized bolt.

The only bolt I ever had trouble with was the crankshaft pulley bolt of an engine.  Turning this one will turn the engine over unless you open the flywheel plate and chock the flywheel with a screwdriver.  However, the big trick here is simply putting a box end wrench on it and using the starter motor to crank the engine (on non push to start vehicles).  Note:  you need to be sure the box end will brace safely.

 

The son and I have rebuilt complete front ends, dropped and replaced transmissions, rebuilt engines, changed all drive shafts, replaced intake manifold gaskets, and on-and-on and I never bother charging up the compressor, dragging hose out, and trying to cram an impact under the hood - even for use on wheel studs.  Too much prep and too much clean up.  We just get to wrenchin'.  If you want to paint, then definitely get you at least a 20 gallon tank and a gun and have some fun.

-Sean

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