In this Guide
Small portable air compressors are a convenient, low-cost solution for DIYers who don’t have a lot of space or money for a larger unit. They’re also ideal secondary units for working professionals who need something super portable for light trim and finish work.
These units make small jobs like trim nailing, stapling, and inflating infinitely easier and faster. They give you the power and speed of air tools without the inconvenience of lugging around a big, bulky, or loud compressor.
However, as with any power tools, there are small compressors that are workhorses, and then there are wimpy little machines that let you down and waste your money.
We’ve put ourselves to the task of finding the absolute best small portable air compressors on the market today. We compared dozens of models, from all the big brands, and all the off-brand competitors.
We looked at price, build quality, power ratings, and portability, among other important factors. As we compared models, we narrowed the field down to 3 great small portable air compressors to recommend to you!
Our recommendations are excellent compromises between portability and power, and they’re priced reasonably to boot! In this guide, we’ve put together in-depth reviews of each of our picks. Our reviews will talk you through everything you need to know about these machines, and help you figure out which one is the best choice for you and your projects!
To get you started, here’s a quick glance at all our favorites:
Best on a Budget
- Our Rating: 4.3
- Popularity: Medium
- Our Rating: 4.7
- Popularity: Medium
- Our Rating: 4.7
- Popularity: High
Best Small Air Compressor Reviews 2018
This Bostitch is our most affordable recommendation for a small portable air compressor. It’s a highly efficient hot dog-style unit with a very compact design and light weight which makes it one of the most portable units on the market!
We’re also impressed by how powerful it is for its size–this one cranks out enough air power to rival any cheap pancake unit! If you’re looking for a small unit for light work, and want something light on your wallet as well, this should be right up your alley!
It’s super compact. The Bostitch is just 15” tall, and only 1 foot across. Since it’s only about a cubic foot, this one can fit absolutely anywhere. You can carry it alongside you, or fit it on landings, scaffolding, and other tight spaces. In the home workshop, it’s very easy to make space for and store when you’re not working. It’s an excellent choice for DIYers who don’t have as roomy a workspace as they might like.
The square design means this one has a much more stable stance than a pancake compressor. It won’t roll around or tilt in a truck bed, and it stays planted while you work at the other end of the hose.
In addition to the small frame design, there are a few smart features to help the whole unit keep itself self-contained. There’s a storage pocket onboard, as well as storage for an air hose and tool. The power cord wraps into the frame as well, so the whole thing picks up into an easy, convenient unit. Overall, it’s one of the easiest compressors to transport on the market.
It’s only 23.5 pounds. That makes it one of the lightest units on the market, period. It’s easy to carry, and there’s a handle built into the top of the roll cage to help you out.
It’s very powerful for its size. This little machine packs 2.8 CFM at the standard 90 PSI, which is enough for most small tools, especially trim and framing nailers, or staplers. In fact, it’s perfectly suitable for two people to work with brad nailers at the same time, provided you’re not moving quickly.
Previous buyers were very pleased with the Bostitch’s portability and lightweight power. They said that for light jobs, this was one of the most convenient compressors they’d ever used.
Previous buyers said they loved it for light trim work, framing, and stapling. They also said it made a very handy tire inflator around the garage, and for bikes or other smaller inflatables. We found it was a popular choice among casual DIYers and craftspeople, as well as carpenters and builders who wanted something very portable for light work. We recommend it to people who don’t use any particularly large or heavy air tools, and need something that’s very portable.
It draws 12 amps to start, which allows it to achieve a starting horsepower of 2 HP without tripping breakers.
It uses its 1.2 gallon tank very efficiently. The Bostitch operates at 150 PSI, which allows it to perform comparably to units with double the tank size. It’s an excellent choice for anything from staplers to framing nailers, since it holds so much air in its smaller canister. Previous buyers said it kept up very well with their tools, and didn’t cycle as often as other small units they’d used previously.
It has a tubular metal roll cage around the frame, which protects both the gauges and controls from accidental damage on the job site or when you’re transporting the unit. The roll cage makes this a much more durable option than the cheap pancakes which are your alternatives at this price. They have exposed parts which get damaged easily, or at least scuffed up. The Bostitch is nicely contained and protected.
It’s oil-free. That means there’s no upkeep for you to do, aside from draining water out of the air tank.
It has a clean, user-friendly control panel. The Bostitch has gauges for both tank and output pressures, and a knob for adjusting output pressure to your specific tool. The power switch lights up to confirm that the system is running and at pressure, so you don’t have any dangerous misfires due to low pressure.
All the gauges are large and easy to read, and the knob is oversized as well. Previous buyers said they appreciated how user friendly the design was, and also loved that the control panel was protected by the roll cage.
It’s covered by a 1-year warranty.
This machine is powerful enough to handle one light air tool easily, and two small tools reasonably well. However, if you and your partner are both working fast, especially with nailers, it may struggle, or at least cycle close to constantly.
We generally recommend that for two people to use the same compressor at once, you choose a model with a slightly higher CFM. However, for light tools and a relaxed pace, most buyers found that the Bostitch could keep up pretty well.
It’s not good for larger tools like impact wrenches or sanders. This unit simply doesn’t have enough oomph for something like an impact wrench. It also doesn’t have a big enough tank or fast enough duty cycle to power something that needs a continuous air feed, like a sander or grinder.
While it’s quieter than a pancake compressor, it’s still a fair amount louder than other hot dog-style units. We couldn’t find any official decibel ratings for this one, but previous buyers said it was on the louder side, especially indoors.
It doesn’t have the best record for reliability, or quality control. Some buyers had issues with their units out of the box, and some people who used the machine for commercial operations or daily applications said it developed problems after a year or two. This definitely isn’t industrial quality, and while many of the initial issues this model had have been fixed in updated versions, it’s still not the nicest machine out there.
This Rolair unit is our top mid-range pick in the small category. It’s not quite as powerful as our other recommendations, but it more than makes up for its small size in smart design and noise reduction features.
This is one of the quietest compressors on the market! It’s ideal for home DIYers, or woodworkers who primarily use smaller tools in an indoor setting. It’s also an excellent choice for handymen and tradespersons who will be doing finish work in clients’ homes, where noise is a concern. Even if you work primarily on job sites, this is one of the most enjoyable compressors to use for light tools, because it’s so quiet and reliable.
It’s very quiet. Previous buyers said that aside from the build quality and surprising amount of power, the Roller’s number one selling point was the noise level. This is an extremely quiet machine where air compressors are concerned.
It functions at just 60 decibels-much quieter than the Bostitch, and 1/4 as loud as an average pancake compressor. You can easily hold a normal conversation over this machine, and you’ll really notice the difference working in indoor settings where noise can echo and amplify.
The noise reduction is thanks in large part to smartly-placed rubber components, which isolate vibration and noise. There are rubber feet on all 4 corners of the frame, and there are rubber pieces between the compressor unit and the frame as well.
They all cut down a lot on the usual rattle and clanking noises you’re used to hearing from small compressors. There’s also a muffler assembly attached to the motor, which cuts down on noise right at the source.
It’s very compact. This one is about the same size as the Bostitch, at just over 1 square foot. The Rolair adds an inch or two in every direction, but it remains very compact and manageable. It’s not awkward to carry by your side, and it stores and travels easily, thanks to the squared-off sides.
It still provides plenty of power for light jobs. The Rolair pairs a 1 HP engine with a 2.5 gallon tank capacity to produce 2.35 CFM. That’s nearly as high as the Bostitch, and the fact that the Rolair has double the onboard air capacity means it can keep up better with nailing and other repetitive tools. That’s a key benefit for woodworkers or professionals nailing in a hurry.
Like the Bostitch, it can run all your small air tools easily, and do a good job keeping up with two smaller trim tools. Previous buyers said it could easily get through 10 nailer fires without needing to cycle, and that a cycle took less than 10 minutes to refill the tank.
Like the Bostitch, it’s oil-less. Oil-less machines are very low-maintenance, as we’ve said, and the Rolair has a much better reputation for reliability over time than the Bostitch.
Both the Bostitch and the Rolair have metal roll-cages all around the frame for protection and stability. The Rolair gets a few extra points from us because its carry-handle doesn’t protrude (where on the Bostitch, the handle pokes up at the top, preventing you from stacking other equipment on top of the machine, or packing it level with other gear in a vehicle. It still has a rubber grip across the center handle for comfort and security.
Unlike the Bostitch, the Rolair has a great reputation for reliability and durability. Previous buyers appreciated that the company had taken a “fewer features, but better quality” approach. This isn’t the fanciest machine on the market, but all the features are built very well, and work reliably every time you use the machine.
It has a ball-valve drain for emptying the air tank of water. We love these valves because they’re super easy to use, and they don’t require any tools. They make draining the tank even easier for you, and they also tend to last longer.
The pressure gauges are a bit hard to read in their factory configuration. Most previous buyers recommended tilting them upwards to see them better and reduce delays. It’s an easy adjustment to make, but we really think they ought to ship in the more readable position.
It’s a heavier unit than the Bostitch, by about 1/3. While the 42-pound Rolair is still quite manageable for some people it might not be as easy for others to carry around. However, that extra weight comes from superior build quality, so we’re not complaining much.
It’s on the expensive end of the spectrum for a compressor of this size and power. We think the reduced noise and added durability factors make it worth the price increase, but some people might not want to spend this much for a light unit. We’d recommend it to frequent DIYers, woodworkers, or other users who will put the Rolair to work on a regular basis.
Our most powerful recommendation for a small portable air compressor unit is this Makita model. It’s the most powerful compressor here, even though it still fits in a neat, tidy cube that’s almost as small as the Bostitch or Rolair.
We love it because it has an oversized engine and dual tanks which give it more oomph for using bigger nail guns and framing tools, and for working with a partner using lighter air tools. We think in terms of power and rugged build, it’s the best you can do for a small portable unit. Between its power and rugged build, this is by far the best option here for job sites and professional use!
It shares a lot of the design elements we like about our other two recommendations. It has an easy to read, easy to use control panel with gauges set at an angle, so they’re always visible.
It uses a 12.3 amp draw to get a reliable start without tripping breakers. As with the other two models, it has a roll-bar frame with a built in handle. The frame protects the control panel and key internal components. Like the Rolair, it has a ball valve drain for emptying the air tank of water. All in all, it’s a smart little package with a lot more power onboard than you’d expect.
It’s just 1.5 cubic feet. That’s almost as compact as the Bostitch or Rolair. Plus, like the smaller units, it’s all self contained. The Makita fits easily in the truck, on the workbench or on a scaffold-though it’s a bit heavy for working in high places.
It’s heavy-duty. The Makita is made with cast iron cylinders and motor components, which can stand up to heavy, daily use. Previous buyers said the difference in build quality between this machine and cheaper units was immediately apparent in both the feel and sound of the Makita. We think it’s easily the most rugged machine we’ve seen at this size and power class.
It’s nearly twice as powerful as the Rolair or Bostitch. This unit combines a 2.5 HP engine with a twin tank assembly totaling 4.2 gallons. The Makita puts out 4. 2 CFM at 90 PSI, which is enough for two framing nailers to work quickly in tandem, as well as all other lighter air tool needs.
We like that the motor is slightly overbuilt compared to other machines at the same tank size. That means the cycles are very short, which keeps your tools fully-supplied, especially when you’re nailing progressively on a roof or on trim. It can handle all your inflation needs, and it does reasonably well for light garage work with smaller impact tools.
It’s an efficient compressor system, which works quickly and coolly. The Makita has a large air intake and filter for increased efficiency. Previous buyers said the automotive-style filter was ideal for a busy, messy workshop or site where dust and debris could otherwise foul the cylinders.
The cast-iron cylinder also has a larger bore than most models at this size, which means that it can work faster and keep up with your tools (especially nailers) more easily. Since the motor is has a higher horsepower per gallon than other comparable units, it’s able to cycle and recompress the tank faster.
Like the Rolair, it has a low RPM motor for better noise reduction. Previous buyers said it was a relief to use this one as opposed to larger compressors, especially in close quarters or in home workshops.
At its loudest, it’s 78 decibels, which is well below the threshold for ear damage. Plus, it cycles so infrequently and quickly that you rarely hear it at full volume. Previous buyers were very pleased by how quietly the Makita ran. They said that the rubber feet really helped cut down on noise, and that the overall noise level was comparable to an average vacuum, at most.
It has special fins along the discharge tubing. They help dissipate heat, similar to the fins you’ll see on larger stationary compressors. They also reduce moisture buildup in the lines, which preserves the working life of all the compressor components.
Overall, the Makita runs at about half the RPM of most models at this power grade, and it stays cooler, with less wear as well. It’s a smart fix which preserves the motor life, and makes the whole unit a smarter design.
It’s oil lubricated. That adds an extra maintenance step for you, but it also cuts down on noise and wear and tear over time. To compensate for the inconvenience of having to maintain the oil, the Makita has a sight-glass for oil, and a drain to make changing the oil easy.
We think it’s an excellent compromise between convenience and durability. The oil lubrication system makes this a better choice for commercial operators who will really put the Makita through its paces on a regular basis.
It’s built for teamwork. The Makita has dual output nozzles, so you can easily connect two air tools without using an additional coupler or nozzle.
It’s covered by a 1-year warranty.
It runs at a lower PSI than the Rolair and the Bostitch. The Makita compresses at up to 130 PSI, which means that it doesn’t use its tanks as efficiently as either of our other two recommendations. Since it has twin tanks, it does store more air overall, but the Rolair and Bostitch make more efficient use of their size.
It’s pretty heavy. You can’t carry this by your side, and you need a fair bit of strength to lift it. However, many previous buyers commented that at a time when everything seems to be made from cheap plastic, the Makita’s solid iron construction was refreshing and welcome.
At 79 decibels, it’s on the louder end of the scale. While it’s not louder than the Bostitch, it’s several times as loud as the Rolair. We’d recommend using ear protection, although the machine runs a bit quieter than the ear damage threshold.
The air filter does protrude slightly from the side of the frame. It’s not as well-protected as the other components. You’ll want to be careful when you’re throwing this in the back of a truck, to make sure the filter doesn’t bump or scrape anything that might damage it.
A few previous buyers said that while most of the packaging was well thought-out, some units were shipped in such a way as to arrive with damage. That problem seems to have been fixed, and more recent reviews said the packaging had much more protective material surrounding the compressor.
Quality control is strong for Makita, but not perfect. Some people had issues right out of the box. Thankfully, there’s a 30-day satisfaction guarantee, and you can use the return window to make an exchange as well. Sadly, these units don’t seem to be factory-tested as well as the Rolair.
Which is the Best Small Compressor for You?
The Bostitch is the best choice for people on a budget, since it’s half the price of the Makita, and 1/3 less expensive than the Rolair. It provides the most bang for your buck, in terms of power to price ratio.
This machine is a great choice for home DIYers who use mainly light air tools and want something they can take anywhere. On the downside, this unit has the iffiest reliability of our recommendations, and it’s a bit cheaply built overall.
The Rolair gets our top quality spot because of its extremely quiet function and its superb record for reliability and build quality. While it isn’t quite as powerful as the Bostitch or Makita, it’s still plenty powerful enough to take care of all your light air tools.
It’s the best choice for people who are going to use their small portable compressor in a mainly indoor setting. It’s simply much more of a pleasure to use than other small compressors, thanks to its quiet operation and neat little design.
The only thing that stops us from recommending the Rolair to every buyer is the lower CFM rating–it’s not a good choice for two people to use at once, or for people nailing quickly with a larger gun.
The Makita is the best choice for people who want the most power possible in a small portable package. It’s rugged like the Rolair, with even more power than the Bostitch. This is the best choice for tradespeople who need a compact, portable compressor.
Of all our recommendations in the small size category, the Makita is the best suited to working in tandem, and to working with larger nailers or small impact wrenches which require a bit more CFM than the Rolair or Bostitch can handle. It’s heavy, though, so make sure you have the strength to lift it easily, or a solution for adding a wheel base to the unit.
How to Shop for the Smallest Air Compressor
Decide how small a compressor you’re looking for:
There aren’t any hard and fast rules delineating which portable air compressors really count as small, but we generally think that anything from 1 cubic foot to 2 cubic feet is a “small” portable unit.
While that might not seem like a huge size range, you’ll find that it encompasses a whole variety of shapes and sizes of units which have a range of power levels and air capacities. You should take some time to think about how small you need your air compressor to be.
One key question to ask yourself upfront is whether you’re looking for a small primary air compressor, or for a small, portable unit that you can use specifically for smaller jobs in harder to reach areas. If you’re looking for a primary compressor, you probably want to get something closer to 2 cubic feet, in order to make sure you have enough power. If you’re getting a secondary compressor, you can probably get away with something on the smaller end of the spectrum.
While you’re thinking through your size options, think about how you need to transport, store, and operate your compressor. Does it need to fit in a car as opposed to a truck bed? Does it need to be easily storable in a home workshop without a dedicated compressor nook?
Will you need to be able to carry it as you work, or set it up in a tight space? Answer all these questions up front, and be sure to take any relevant measurements in your vehicle or workshop before you start making any decisions.
The Reason Hot Dog Compressors are Better than Pancake Compressors
Small portable air compressors are usually either a pancake or hot dog design. Pancake compressors have circular, flattened (pancake) air tanks that sit squat with a motor on top. Hot dog compressors have squared-off roll cage frames with a horizontal (hot dog) tank on the inside.
While they each have their plusses and minuses, we generally prefer hot dog designs when it comes to the smallest portable air compressors. That’s because their roll cage designs make them extremely easy to pack, since there are straight edges to work with.
Plus, they’re self-contained, with no extra parts hanging off. Pancake compressors are very lightweight, but they’re pretty vulnerable to breakage, since all the components are exposed.
A hot dog-style unit is neater, tidier, and more packable. These models are also easier to carry by your side, since they’re less wide. They balance better on truck beds and on flat workspaces, and they’re much quieter overall. We think they’re the better choice for a small unit, plain and simple!
Decide on your budget:
Small portable air compressors can vary in price, depending on the size, power class, and build quality. We’d recommend spending at least $100 for a small unit, even for budget buyers.
Under the $100 mark, you’ll find shoddily made models with power ratings that are too weak to handle even light power tools. These models are also pretty disposable, since they’re made cheaply with a lot of plastic parts.
If you’re looking for a budget air compressor for light DIY work, or something inexpensive to have as a secondary compressor on a job site, you’ll probably want to aim for something in the $125-$200 range. If you’re a serious DIYer looking for a small unit to use regularly, plan to spend $250-$350. For those looking for a compact industrial-quality compressor that can handle commercial use or frequent job site projects, we’d recommend spending $350-$500.
Think about power:
When you’re looking at compact models, there’s not quite as much of a power scale to choose from as when you’re looking at portable units as a larger category. Compact models range from about 0.5 CFM to 5 CFM, depending on the size of the unit and the efficiency of its motor/tank pairing.
Figure out how much power you need from your compressor before you start shopping. If your new compact unit will serve as your primary air compressor, you should probably aim for something closer to 5 CFM. If you’re a DIYer or solo craft/tradesperson working with light air tools, you can probably get by with 2-3 CFM.
Determine your power needs by looking at the CFM ratings on the most powerful tools you’ll run off your compact unit. You’ll want to round up by 50% to make sure you’ve got a safety margin to account for changes in working conditions. If you’re going to be working with a partner off the same machine, you’ll want to double your power rating.
Keep in mind that compact units are designed to power smaller, more compact tools. They’ll all have enough power to handle light, trim-grade tools like staplers, brad nailers and such.
Closer to the 5 CFM mark, you’ll be able to use smaller impact wrenches and larger nailers, or work in tandem with a partner using two finish/framing tools. With all that said, no compact compressor is designed to run sanders, grinders, or blasters.
If you need to use those tools, you’ll probably need a larger primary compressor in addition to your compact unit. Or, you’ll simply need a bigger portable unit for your all purpose tool!
If you’re not sure how to figure out how much power you need, we’ve put together a step-by-step tutorial on our homepage! You’ll find everything you need from average tool requirements to a sample power calculation for you to use as a guide. Check it out here!
Make sure your new compressor is built tough enough to handle all the jobs you’ll throw at it. While we always advise buying the most durable model you can afford, your durability needs will depend on how you’ll use your machine.
If you’re going to use your small portable air compressor only occasionally and mainly around the house, you probably don’t need something that’s industrial strength. You can afford to spend a bit less, and get something that’s lighter to carry.
On the other hand, if you’re going to be traveling with your unit frequently, working off-site, or using it on a daily basis, you should get something more rugged that will resist wear and tear better over time.
When you’re thinking about durability, there are a few key points to have in mind. First, look for as many metal parts as possible. Plastic parts on a power tool are usually asking for trouble, and you want to avoid them whenever you can.
Look for solid metal parts in the engine assembly, and tubular metal frames to protect the compressor components. We recommend aluminum or steel for lightweight strength, and cast iron for people who need something industrial-quality.
Second, look for smart design features which can extend your compressor’s working life with minimal maintenance. Look for a convenient, easy-to-use drain valve on the air tank, so you can make sure water doesn’t cause rust or leaks in the air tank.
Look for wide-bore motor cylinders, which work efficiently and keep things cool in the core of the compressor. You can also look for cooling fins or low RPM motors to help with the heat problem.
Both features can help your motor a lot over the long run. Overall, you’ll want to look for two key things: rugged construction and smart design. Remember that just because you’re machine’s small, it shouldn’t be flimsy.