If you have a nail gun or you’re looking to purchase one for projects at home or in the workshop, you may now be wondering what size air compressor you need to run your nail gun.

This page will serve as a guide into what size air compressor you need for your nail gun by presenting all the key considerations and relevant information!

Table of Contents

Key Considerations – Choosing an Air Compressor for Nail Guns

There are a few very key considerations you must look at when finding an air compressor suitable for a nail gun. These are:

  • Use cycle – Continuous vs Intermittent Use
  • CFM requirements & CFM rating of the nail gun
  • Pressure requirements of the nail gun
  • Duty Cycle of the air compressor
  • CFM delivery capability of the air compressor
  • Air compressor tank size (compressed air storage capacity)
  • Distance you’ll be using the nail gun from the compressor (hose length)

Are You Using the Nail Gun Intermittently or Continuously?

One of the first things you must consider is whether you will require to use the tool continuously or intermittently. If you only require intermittent use of your nail gun then a small compressor may suffice but if you require continuous use then the compressor has to have the discharge capacity that the nail gun demands.

A typical use cycle on a nail gun in a non-assembly line environment is likely to be far less than 50% of the time drawing its full CFM rating, and therefore it can comfortably be run intermittently.

What CFM Rating Nail Gun Have You Bought or Are You Considering Buying?

Nail guns come with CFM ratings, often expressed as SCFM ratings (as it’s a standardized unit). This can also be expressed as “Air Consumption”. I will now present to you an example of each different nail gun and their respective CFM ratings.

Example of a Framing Nailer

Here’s an example of a framing nail gun, the Metabo HPT framing nailer which is rated at an average consumption of 3.17 CFM when driving based on an air compressor sizing formula specified in the tools user manual.

  • Nail lengths accepted: 2″ to 3 1/2″
  • CFM: 3.17

The formula provided in the manual states:

Amount of air required = number of nailers x average nails driven each minute per nailer x air consumption at given air pressure x safety factor (always 1.2)

Under a situation where 1 nailer is operating at a 100 PSI driving 30 nails per minute, and as provided in their air consumption table, the air consumption at 100 PSI is 0.088 ft3/cycle, the air consumption (CFM) can be calculated as:

1 x 30 x 0.088 x 1.2 = 3.17 CFM (3.168)

Example of a Brad Nailer

This Wen pneumatic brad nailer has a 3 CFM average air consumption according to its technical specifications. The brad nailer consumes 0.028 CFM of air per nail at 88 PSI and is able to hold up to 106 nails. So the air consumption required to power the full magazine can be calculated as 0.028 CFM x 106 = 2.967 CFM.

Of course, you probably won’t need to use 106 nails in one go, and so this is an oversimplification. I’m just simplifying it for the sake of the example, and to then be able to provide you with a better understanding of the compressor needed to power a brad nailer with a 3 CFM requirement.

  • Nail lengths accepted: 3/8″ to 2″
  • CFM: 3

Example of a Finish Nailer

Here’s an example of a Bostitch finish nailer that requires 1.9 CFM of free air at 80 PSI to operate at a rate of 60 fasteners per minute.

  • Nail lengths accepted: 1 1/4″ to 2 1/2″
  • CFM: 1.9

Example of a Staple Gun

Here is an example of a Surebonder pneumatic stapler which is said to require a minimum of 0.5 CFM at 60 PSI. Staples do not use much air for each to be fired, in most cases.

  • Staple lengths accepted: 1/4″ to 9/16″
  • CFM: 0.5

Example of a Roofing Nailer

Here’s an example of a Porter Cable roofing nailer which requires a minimum of around 2 CFM to operate effectively.

  • Staple lengths accepted: 3/4″ to 1 1/4″
  • CFM: 2

What Pressure Rating Nail Gun Have You Bought or Are You Considering Buying?

All air tools, air nail guns being no exception, have a recommended operating pressure. The different tools listed above each have their own pressure range specified by their manufacturers in their respective manuals:

  • The Metabo HPT framing nailer has an operating pressure in the range of 70 PSI to 120 PSI.
  • The Wen pneumatic brad nailer states that it requires an operating pressure in the range between 60 PSI to 115 PSI.
  • The Bostitch finish nailer states that the operating pressure is 70 PSI to 120 PSI.
  • The Surebonder pneumatic stapler is designed to operate between 60 PSI and 100 PSI.
  • The Porter Cable roofing nailer states that its operating pressure should be between 70 PSI and 120 PSI

Note: it is crucial that you do not exceed the maximum operating pressure or operate on pressure lower than the minimum, otherwise you risk hindering your nailing.

Air Compressor Duty Cycle

The typical duty cycle of an air compressor is normally 50% as can be seen in this Craftsman 919 manual for example. It states that the maximum compressor pumping time per hour is 30 minutes.

If you want to know more about air compressor duty cycles, how they’re expressed and calculated, you should read my article on air compressor duty cycles here!

Here’s another example of a product manual that describes the duty cycle of a compressor in these terms:

“INTERMITTENT DUTY FORMULA

Pump-up time should not ordinarily exceed thirty (30) minutes or be less than ten (10) minutes. Shutdown periods between cycles of operation should be at least equal to the pump-up time. Note: When the compressor is regulated by constant speed control, the shutdown period is the time the compressor is operating unloaded.

This basically describes a 50% Duty Cycle. Some compressors may have a 100% duty cycle and be rated for continuous flow, allowing you to work non-stop!

CFM Delivery Capability of the Air Compressor

CFM ratings of air compressors tend to be based on the output of the air compressor pump.

However, to understand what ability the air compressor has to deliver CFM continuously you need to multiply the CFM rating by the Duty Cycle percentage.

So an Air Compressor CFM rating of 12 CFM with a 50% Duty Cycle would have the ability to deliver:

12 CFM * 50% = 6 CFM

Example of a Pancake Air Compressor Suitable for Nail Guns

This very popular Pancake air compressor is capable of delivering 2.6 CFM with a duty-cycled specified in the manual to be 50%, 5 minutes on, and 5 minutes on. Therefore, for a continuous draw of air, this compressor would actually deliver 1.3 CFM (2.6 * 50%).

This compressor would have no problem providing air to the finish nailer, pneumatic stapler, and roofing nailer intermittently (at 50% of the time). If the framing nailer and brad nailer were only used intermittently, say 25% of the cycle, their required CFM’s would become 0.79 CFM (3.17 * 25%) and 0.75 CFM (3 * 25%) respectively, and so, the compressor would be able to provide this amount of airflow.

Example of a Portable Air Compressor Suitable for Nail Guns

Here’s an example of a portable air compressor that delivers 2.4 CFM – and the product manual describes what would be determined as a 50% duty cycle. Therefore the compressor would actually deliver 1.2 CFM (2.4 CFM * 50%) if you require continuous airflow.

This compressor would be suitable for the finish nailer, pneumatic stapler, and roofing nailer, given that you only require intermittent use of the tool (assumed to be 50%). But, this compressor would be suitable for continuous use on the staple gun presented in this article as its required CFM is below 1.2 CFM, all the other nail guns CFM’s exceed the 1.2 CFM of the compressor.

This compressor would be capable of powering the framing nailer and brad nailer, if they were used intermittently, say only 25% of the time (15 minutes per hour). Their required CFM’s would become 0.79 CFM (3.17 * 25%) and 0.75 CFM (3 * 25%) respectively.

Example of a Wheelbarrow Air Compressor Suitable for a Nail Guns

Here’s an example of a wheelbarrow air compressor that is rated 5.30 CFM – and though the product manual does not describe the duty cycle, a customer Q&A response has declared that the compressor has a 70/30 (70%) duty cycle. Which would be determined as needing 18 minutes of rest during each hour’s cycle.

Therefore, this wheelbarrow air compressor is actually capable of delivering 3.71 CFM (5.3 * 70%). Making it capable of powering all the tools provided in this article, the framing nailer, brad nailer, finish nailer, pneumatic stapler, and roofing nailer.

It’s possible, however, that you will obtain, or have, a framing or roofing nailer that requires a CFM greater than 3.71 of this compressor. I picked out examples I found on Amazon, but of course, there are hundreds if not thousands of various versions of each tool all with varying CFM requirements. In this case, this compressor may be slightly undersized for your requirement and so you would require a larger compressor.

The California air compressor is also capable of providing enough CFM to power both the pneumatic stapler and one of the other tools at the same time if you and someone else are working simultaneously.

Example of a Twin Pontoon Air Compressor Suitable for Nail Guns

Here’s an example of a twin pontoon Air compressor, the Ingersoll-Rand 8 Gallon twin compressor capable of delivering 11.5 CFM with a 100% continuous duty cycle.

This compressor is suitable for providing continuous use on all the nail guns provided in this article. It could even power all of them simultaneously (3.17 + 3 + 1.9 + 0.5 + 2 = 10.57 CFM).

If this compressor were to have a 50% duty cycle, and therefore would provide 5.75 CFM (11.5 * 50%) it would still be able to power each nail gun continuously, and even a few of them together simultaneously. You get the idea now!

Air Compressor Tank Size (Compressed Air Storage Capacity)

The tank size will determine how much air is available to be drawn down at any time. This is also a key enabler in keeping a compressor within its duty cycle. If you have a small tank, the nail gun will quickly pull the pressure down below the level needed to activate the compressor. While a larger capacity tank will allow the compressor to run less frequently.

Therefore a 6 CFM compressor with a 50% Duty Cycle can be used to run a pneumatic nail gun that’s rated at 6 CFM – if used intermittently with a sufficiently large air tank.

To keep a compressor running for at least 10 minutes with a nail gun consuming 6 Cubic Feet of air per minute for 50% of the time, the storage capacity would be:

6 CFM * 10 minutes * 50% = 30 Cubic Feet of air (at atmospheric pressure (15PSI))

As atmospheric pressure is 15 PSI and the output pressure is 90 PSI and pressure and volume are inversely proportional 15 PSI / 90 PSI = 6

Therefore, you need 1/6th the volume of air at 90 PSI

30 Cubic Feet * 1/6th = 5 Cubic Feet

5 Cubic Feet = 141.5 Liters

This example is to provide you with a basic idea of the tank capacity needed.

Distance You’ll be Using the Nail Gun From the Compressor (Hose Length)

Long hoses will result in pressure drop, which is certainly not desirable. I could not find any recommendations in any of the nail gun manuals, but it can generally be recommended that you should not exceed a hose length that is just long enough to serve the working area.

Any hose length greater than 25 feet will result in a pressure drop that will need to be compensated for by the compressor to ensure that the nail gun is receiving the right operating pressure.

For further information on air hoses visit our Air Compressor Hose & Tube Guide here!

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What size air compressor do I need to run a nail gun?

Depending on the CFM requirements of your nail gun, you should be able to run your tool on a small portable, or even pancake, air compressor. These compressors will typically be able to provide 2-4 CFM which will be enough for a lot of nail guns. If you’re powering a nail gun like a framing nailer or brad nailer, these nail guns may require 4 CFM or more, and so, a wheelbarrow compressor with around 6 CFM would be needed.

Which air compressor is best for nail gun?

This best air compressor for a nail gun is a portable compressor that is capable of providing between 4-6 CFM and has a suitable size tank to provide you with enough air storage to complete your projects. It’s difficult to specify which compressor exactly is the best because it will depend on the type of nail gun you intend to use. You might be able to get away with using a pancake compressor that provides only 2 CFM with a 6-gallon tank if you’re operating a roofing nailer, finishing nailer, or staple gun that requires 2 CFM or less.

How many CFM do I need for nail gun?

Typically you will need no more than a 6 CFM air compressor to be able to power nail guns, but of course, some tools may require more! You may also be okay with a 2-4 CFM portable pancake compressor for powering most nail guns intermittently.

Will a 1 gallon air compressor run a framing nailer?

Yes, but whether it works efficiently or not is another question. You’ll be able to run the framing nailer, but you may not be able to work so quickly as the compressor won’t be able to keep up. For absolute intermittent use, firing a nail not so frequently, then yes this compressor will be fine. But, I will recommend getting a compressor with say, a 6-gallon tank so that your work isn’t disrupted.


If you have any questions regarding what size air compressor you need for a nail gun, please leave a comment below with a photo if applicable, so that someone can help you!