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Pneumatic Screwdrivers Explained – What Are They, How They Work, Safety, Maintenance & Buying Guide

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A pneumatic screwdriver is a tool that is powered by compressed air. Commonly used on an assembly line, the pneumatic screwdriver allows a worker to place many screws without generating forearm or hand fatigue.

This article will provide you with all the relevant information about pneumatic screwdrivers, how to use them safely, preventative maintenance advice, as well as a buying guide to help you select the perfect one!

Table of Contents

What is a Pneumatic Screwdriver?

A pneumatic screwdriver, otherwise known as an air screwdriver, is a tool that is powered by compressed air fed from an air compressor. Pneumatic screwdrivers allow a user to place many screws without generating forearm or hand fatigue, and hence, they will be commonly found being used in assembly lines.

Air screwdrivers are capable of being preset to a specific torque setting to help to prevent the stripping of screw heads or threads due to over-tightening. Compared to a battery-powered screwdriver, the compressed air used to power these pneumatic versions typically remains constant and never requires recharging, which is often very favorable when selecting a screwdriver.

Many assembly line tasks involve the driving and tightening of screws. Using a hand-held and powered screwdriver in this situation would not only result in having to halt the assembly line in order to catch up due to the worker falling behind, but it would also lead to severe injury to the workers’ hands, wrists and forearms due to the strain.

Using a battery-powered screwdriver, or electric screwdriver is of course better. However, the batteries will often fail during use and they require charging or time to change the battery pack. The prices of replacement battery packs can also be quite high. While pneumatic screwdrivers counter all these issues, and tend to be the solution for many assembly plants due to their efficiency.

How Does a Pneumatic Screwdriver Work?

An air screwdriver is typically operated by airlines dropped down from the ceiling over the assembly line, the worker then simply pulls the spring-loaded pneumatic screwdriver down and drives the required screws by squeezing a handle/trigger on the side of the screwdriver body.

The assembly line workers are not tangled in airlines around their feet and the airline is not in the way of the parts or screws by hanging pneumatic screwdrivers above the line. Of course, for DIYers and those working in garages at home, this may not always be practical, and running a pneumatic hose across your floor isn’t seen as so big of an issue.

Visit our How to Plumb an Air Compressor Setup in Garage – Ultimate Shop Air Compressor Setup guide for more information!

The spring-loaded action of the pneumatic screwdriver with torque control pulls the tool up and out of the way as soon as the worker releases the tool, allowing the worker to complete any other necessary assembly line steps before pushing the object down the line.

While equipped with a clutch that regulates the amount of torque that is the pneumatic torque screwdriver applies to the screw, many operators become so accustomed to the sound of their tool that they are able to judge the amount of torque simply by the sound the tool makes as it drives the screw home.

How to Use a Pneumatic Screwdriver

To properly use your air screwdriver, please follow this step-by-step guide!

How to Use a Pneumatic Screwdriver

  1. Select a bit

    Begin by selecting your bit from those rated for use on your specific tool. The bits which come with your tool will be suitable for use, as are any others indicated in your user’s manual. Make sure your bit is the appropriate size and configuration for your fastener. If you are unsure if you have the correct bit, consult your work instructions or contact the manufacturer. To insert a new bit, retract your bit collar, remove the old bit, place the new bit inside, and then contract your bit collar.

  2. Select your torque level

    Your torque selection mechanism will vary, depending on your tool. Some air screwdrivers allow one-touch torque selection, allowing operators to easily switch between settings. Others require manual adjustment. You should receive instructions as to the amount of torque you’ll need for each fastener. If the amounts are expressed in different units than the settings on your tool, use a torque conversion calculator.

  3. Attach air hose

    Only attach your air hose when you are ready to begin using your tool. Attach the hose to the receptacle gently but securely, then open the airflow toggle to the hose. Your tool is now ready for use.

  4. Activate tool

    Select forward or reverse motion, which should be a noticeable switch on your tool. Securely place your bit on the fastener, activate your tool until torque shut-off occurs, then move to the next fastener.

Pneumatic Screwdriver Safety Tips

For your safety and those around you, you should always adhere to these general guidelines when using air screwdrivers:

  • Always wear appropriate personal protective equipment, such as safety goggles and gloves.
  • Never carry the air screwdriver by the hose.
  • Use both hands to operate the pneumatic screwdriver.
  • Do not place your fingers on the start switch unless you are ready to begin.
  • Avoid loose clothing or jewelry that may get caught in your equipment.
  • Disconnect your air screwdriver when not being used.
  • Remove your pneumatic screwdriver’s hose from its receptacle gently. Do not yank or tug it.
  • Disconnect your air screwdriver and remove or secure its power source (lock out, tag out) before servicing, cleaning, or changing accessories.
  • Understand how your pneumatic screwdriver works, including its motive power. Possible power sources include air, electricity, liquid fuel, compressed liquids (hydraulics), or powder.
  • Do not use damaged pneumatic screwdrivers.

By following proper procedures and observing the relevant safety guidelines, you can put your air screwdriver to work in a safe and productive manner. Once you have finished with your work, you should close off your air supply, disconnect your tool’s air hose, and store the tool in a cool, dry, and secure location.

Pneumatic Screwdriver Maintenance

Common maintenance practices for a pneumatic screwdriver involve a light application of oil in the airline connection to lubricate the motor as the air flows through. Assembly lines are smart in that when a pneumatic screwdriver is in its high-use position, a relief worker may change it out with a replacement during the working shift to allow the old tool to be oiled and, if needed, replace the screwdriver tip.

In very busy assembly plants, this may happen at every break period, or there may be scheduled intervals to exchange the tools. This is the sort of necessary maintenance required to keep the tool and the work at its optimum.

Failure to properly maintain your pneumatic screwdriver can lead to early breakdowns and potentially hazardous situations. To keep your air screwdriver working at its optimum level, you should be performing certain preventative maintenance actions at regular intervals based on time or tool usage.

If your pneumatic screwdriver requires maintenance or becomes damaged, you should immediately remove it from an operation and place a tag on it until it is either maintained or repaired. I’ll always advise checking your own air screwdriver’s instruction manual to follow any specific requirements for maintenance tasks. Alternatively, you can use the following preventative maintenance guidelines as a guideline:

Weekly Maintenance

  • Inspect the condition of the air hoses and connections.
  • Inspect pneumatic screwdriver suspension and torque reaction components.
  • Ensure the lubricator is functioning properly and that the air screwdriver is appropriately lubricated.

100,000 Working Hours Maintenance

  • Inspect housing, baseplate, socket, and socket bushings for pneumatic screwdriver, gear, and clutch components. Replace any worn or damaged components.
  • Lubricate the gear head and angle head gears with the recommended lubrication from the manufacturer.

250,000 Working Hours Maintenance

  • Inspect the clutch and replace any worn components.
  • Inspect the valves and seals, then replace any worn components.
  • Disassemble the gear case, output, and motor. Check all components for wear, defects, or damage. Replace any worn, defective, or damaged parts, and replace the motor bearings.

By paying careful attention to your pneumatic screwdriver and maintaining them at these regular or manufacturer specified intervals, you can ensure a long, safe, and productive tool span. If you are unsure how to maintain your tools yourself or at your operation, you can send them to a qualified service center for repair and maintenance.

Properly using and maintaining your air tools simply requires a little time and common sense, with just a bit of specialized knowledge. Paying close attention and considering the part of the tool operator, you can ensure the safe usage of pneumatic screwdrivers. To learn more about preventative maintenance in general, related to air compressors and tools, visit our Air Compressor Maintenance – How to Guide – Preventative & Ongoing guide!

Pneumatic Screwdriver Buying Guide

When selecting the right pneumatic screwdriver for you, it’s important to consider the following factors:

  • Torque range
  • Speed
  • Bit holder
  • Clutch
  • Shape & activation

Torque Range

The first step in choosing any pneumatic torque screwdriver is to determine how much torque (the twisting force) is required for the joint you are assembling. Torque is generally measured in inch-pounds, foot-pounds, or newton meters.

Without a clearly defined torque specification, or at least with an acceptable range, you are going to have a hard time choosing your pneumatic screwdriver. When selecting an air screwdriver, you want your target torque to fall squarely in the center of the tool’s torque range.


There is an inverse relationship between speed and torque. Pneumatic screwdrivers are geared so that the models with the lower torque ranges spin faster, while the higher torque tools will always rotate slower. When selecting the speed of your screwdriver, first refer to the torque range guidelines above and be mindful of the type of material you are working on.

If you are assembling metal on metal joints you are probably fine with a high-speed tool. Alternatively, if you are running small screws into plastic, wood, or any other softer materials, you should opt for a slower model that still allows you to achieve your desired torque.

Note: Faster is not always better and more RPMs don’t translate to more power. Too fast of a tool in inexperienced hands can cause a screw to walk all over your freshly painted part and cause more damage than good.

Bit Holder

90% of the air screwdrivers out there are equipped with a 1/4″ female quick change bit holder. This tends to be your standard spring-loaded “chuck” which is designed to accept 1/4″ shank male bits with the familiar hexagonal shape.

These bits are often referred to as power bits. The knurled outer sleeve on the holder is slid forward or backward (depending on the model), the bit is then inserted, and the sleeve is returned to its original position to secure the bit ready for operation.

Clutch Selection

The hardness of the joint being assembled, the material into which the fasteners are being driven, and the need for torque control largely determine which type of mechanical clutch should be selected. Here you will typically have the following 4 options:

  • Precision shut off clutch
  • Cushion or ratcheting cluth
  • Positive jaw clutch
  • Stall tools

Precision Shut Off Clutch

For a highly precise and repeatable torque limiting clutch that is pre-calibrated prior to production use, the precision clutch is desirable. Especially when the same amount of torque needs to be applied to a high volume of screws with as little variation as possible.

Cushion or Ratcheting Clutch

The cushion clutch, also referred to as a slip clutch,is the one you are probably already familiar with because it is the type of clutch present on most commercial screwdrivers like Dewalt, Milwaukee, Makita, etc. This tool audibly ratchets once it hits its preset torque.

Positive Jaw Clutch

Positive jaw screwdrivers are almost always used in applications requiring more driving torque than final torque such as thread cutting. The positive clutch screwdriver features two opposing jaws that rotate as one when forward pressure is applied to the screwdriver.

As fastener torque begins to overcome the power of the motor of the tool, the opposing jaws begin to separate, which stops the spindle from rotating and therefore prevents further torque delivery.

Stall Tools

With a stall, or otherwise known as the direct drive screwdriver, has the tool’s output shaft being coupled directly to its air motor. There is no clutch present in these models and torque output is controlled entirely by the air pressure fed to the tool.

Once the torque of the fastener overcomes the output power of the motor, the tool “stalls” and stops rotating. The benefit of these types is that they are compact, lightweight, and capable of being maneuvered in tight spaces.

Shape & Activation

Air-powered screwdrivers are typically offered in either a pistol grip or inline orientation. The goal is to select the style that will allow the operator to perform the rundown with the least amount of physical exertion and with the best ergonomics that are possible.

In short, a workpiece laid flat on the bench with fasteners facing vertically requires an inline screwdriver and a top to bottom approach. For a part placed right in front of you where the fasteners are driven horizontally, the logical choice is a pistol grip screwdriver.

When it comes to their activation:

  • Inline screwdrivers come with either push to start, lever start, or push to start + lever start activation.
  • Pistol grip screwdrivers are offered in either push to start, trigger start, or push to start + trigger start activation.

Push to start models begin to turn when the operator places downward or forward pressure on the air torque screwdriver bit. Lever and trigger start models only rotate when the tool’s lever or trigger is depressed. And, push to start + lever or trigger start models require the operator to apply forward or downward pressure to the bit while simultaneously depressing the lever or trigger.

Operator comfort is largely the deciding factor for the method of activation. Generally speaking, high-volume applications that are not highly susceptible to stripping lend themselves to the push to start design.

Pneumatic Screwdrivers Available on Amazon

I have picked out some of the best pneumatic screwdrivers available on Amazon. First up is this Ingersoll Rand reversible air screwdriver. The Ingersoll Rand pneumatic Screwdriver is an excellent choice for soft-draw applications and is well-suited for service work on HVAC systems, instrument panels, and trim components!

Chicago Pneumatic offer this push to start Chicago Pneumatic pneumatic screwdriver, that provides excellent accuracy for various applications. The Chicago Pneumatic air screwdriver is ideal for moderate to intensive assembly line, offering great versatility thanks to its wide & high torque, along with low noise for operator comfort.

Finally, this Jet Jat pneumatic screwdriver enables you to work in different materials while still achieving the tightening accuracy you want. Pressure on the tool enables you tighten to the extent you want, and stop by simply releasing the pressure on the back of the tool.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is a pneumatic screwdriver?

A pneumatic screwdriver, also known as an air screwdriver, is a screwdriver that is powered by compressed air. Pneumatic screwdrivers allow a user to place many screws without generating any fatigue on the forearms or hands, and hence, they will be commonly found being used in assembly lines. Air screwdrivers are also capable of being preset to a specific torque setting to help to prevent the stripping of screw heads or threads due to over-tightening.

How do you use a pneumatic screwdriver?

Begin by selecting your bit from those rated for use on your tool. Then go forth and select your torque, which will vary, depending on your tool. You can then attach your air hose when you are ready to begin using your tool. Now you’re ready to activate the tool… Select forward or reverse motion, which should be a noticeable switch on your tool. Securely place your bit on the fastener, activate your tool until torque shut-off occurs, then move to the next fastener.

What are the two types of screwdrivers called?

The two most common types of screwdrivers are the simple ‘blade’-type for slotted screws, and Phillips, generically called “cross-recess”, “cross-head”, or “cross-point” The reason for the different styles is cost and torque.

What is an adjustable screwdriver used for?

An adjustable screwdriver is ideal for field service or production applications. The adjustable torque screwdriver typically features an external adjustment torque scale, which allows the operator to quickly and accurately adjust the torque setting on the tool as per required for a range of different applications.

If you have any questions regarding pneumatic screwdrivers, please leave a comment below, with a photo if applicable, so that someone can help you!

By Aidan Weeks

A passionate Mechanical Engineer with endless enthusiasm for fluid power - building off the back of over 18 years of high quality contribution and discussion stimulated by Bill Wade here at About Air Compressors. With both practical and theoretical experience in pneumatics and hydraulics, I'm putting my knowledge to work - and working my grey-matter through my research, assistance and publishing work here at About Air Compressors. Feel free to reach out any time! P.S. A HUGE shout out to Doug who really offers such great value to all visitors to About Air Compressors - once again, feeling like I'm standing on the shoulders of GIANTS by getting to work alongside such a great community

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