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I started my woodworking career with a quarter-cord grinder, which quickly took the exam to a random orbital disc and finally realized that I could significantly shorten the grinding time with an air palm sanding machine. I settled on a 5 "Dynabrade Sander and Sears 3HP Air Compressor. It took me less than an hour to realize my mistake: The little compressor I bought couldn't start keeping the air's demands on the air. It would run out of air almost immediately and the airman would slow down to be useless, so I have to wait several minutes for the pressure to rebuild to get another one minute grinding.
To make matters worse, I had three people employed as sanders and so I would have to keep three machines on top speed all day. I did a little math and discovered that I would need a ten horsepower air compressor with a big tank to do this. I was lucky to find a used one for not too much money, but it required three-phase power and much of it. More money went out for an electrician to connect to the building's 208 volt 3-phase current. The large air compressor was so high that it could be heard over the building and down the block, but it drove the three sand from dawn to dusk. The good news is that it paid itself in saved grinding time very quickly.
Air sanders are aggressive and efficient. They are light in weight compared to their smaller electric cousins. My sanders immediately took them and the production took off. I was as happy as they were. Soon there was another machine except that the air compressor needed to have large amounts of air in the store: an Onsrud inverted pin router. It was also good to be able to blow sawdust off benches and machine while cleaning the store at the end of the day. The compressor is also used for spraying surface treatments on the finished furniture.
Years later, I built a smaller woodworking shop in my home, which only required an airshooter to run at one time. For that store I bought an air compressor that was half the size and isolated in a soundproofed room in a corner of the store. I ran ¾ "galvanized tube under the shop floor to three regulators in three different convenient locations. The machine I bought for that store as a 5 HP Ingersoll Rand model with an 80 gallon tank. At 80 PSI required by my Dynabrade sanding compressor would produce enough air all day, I have to say that the compressor was very well built, all I needed was to keep an eye on the oil level in the sight, at night I would turn off the main air valve on the side of the machine, leave electricity on, to silence the compressor for the night.
I have to assume that, after reading this far, you have no interest in using an air compressor to operate air tools in your store. Most likely, a 2-step reciprocating air compressor will fill the needs of a small to medium store. As a rule of thumb, a 5 HP air compressor will operate an air grinder, a 7.5 hp machine will power two and a 10 HP machine will be needed for three sanders.
The size of the compressor air tank is an important factor: The smaller the tank, the more often the compressor needs to be switched on and off. This is difficult on both engine and compressor pump over time and it uses more electricity. I wouldn't even consider an air compressor used to power an airshield with less than a 60 gallon tank and I would feel much more comfortable with an 80 gallon tank.
The type of electric power required by an air compressor is another consideration. If you have three-phase power available in your place, good. Three-phase motors tend to use electricity a little more efficiently than single-phase motors. Large air compressors all need 3-phase current, but the 5 HP models come either. If you do not have 3-phase power, you can make it with a rotating or electronic phase converter as I did in my smaller store. Whether you are using single or three phase power, you need 230V AC for single phase motors and 208 or 220V AC for the three phase type. Be sure to check the voltage and current requirements for any air compressor before purchasing it. Electricians can be expensive.
A two-stage compressor pump is a must for a machine of this size. Two-stage machines have two cylinders, one larger than the other. Air is first introduced into the large cylinder where it is partially compressed and sent to the smaller cylinder for final compression in the tank. When the air is compressed, heat is produced and so a good machine always has a flange cooler built in.
Compression not only gives heat but pushes water out of the air that gets into the tank. Tanks can rust internally over time and if not kept in control, the equipped air reservoir can eventually explode and cause enormous damage and even death. This is why it is critically important to empty the water tank every day. Most machines are equipped with a drain valve at the tank's lowest point. If you do not want to spray water over the floor underneath the compressor, you may want to consider piping it from the valve to another location, eg. under the floor or in the drain. Pipette water will flow into a sink as it is pushed out of the tank with compressed air.
You need at least one regulator and a water trap in line before it. These are not expensive. A regulator allows you to set the correct air pressure for the tool you are going to use (eg 80 PSI) instead of the tank pressure (say 175 PSI).
The air outlet from a compressor pump is expressed in standard cubic feet per minute (SCFM) or just cubic feet per minute (CFM). Not all 5 HP compressors charge the same volume of air per minute. This is a function not only for motor horsepower but also the efficiency of the compressor pump that the engine drives. The higher the CFM, the less the compressor will have to cycle on and off to stick to the demands you make on it. A small compressor pump on a large tank will not produce more air than on a small tank. The only difference will be in the number of times the compressor cycles on one of each hour and the time it takes to compress the tank on each cycle. Ultimately, you need to pay attention to SCFM (or CFM) more than you do horsepower or tank size. The air flow is the end product of a compressor and CFM must be sufficient for the current work.
All reciprocating air compressors dispose of oil with the air they compress. When the tank, when constructed, is a maximum pound per square inch, a pressure switch will interrupt electricity to the engine. At the same time, a certain oily air will be released into the shop environment. You can see oil collection on the wall behind the compressor and on the pump and the compressor also over time. This is not the cause of alarms but periodic cleaning may be needed.
Piston compressors (piston type) make noise and this is something you need to plan for yourself, your workers and others who surround your place. If silence is an important requirement, you may want to consider spending extra money on a screw type compressor. Screw compressors have no pistons or pistons. Air is compressed in turbine form with a large metal screw that rotates very quickly. These compressors only spread in comparison to the reciprocating type but they are very expensive. They sound more like a quiet jet engine than a tall truck engine.
I hope this article has been useful to you. Buying an air compressor for your woodworking business can be a rather expensive investment when considering pipelines, regulators, hoses, water traps, wires and electricians. You will want to buy a machine that is equal to the jobs you should do but no more than that. Buying the wrong air compressor can be a very expensive mistake. My intention to write this has been to give you the knowledge you need to choose the right one.