As an ex-mechanic car guy in the collector world, I have a unique perspective on tools.
Not every collector requires high-end shop tools to enjoy his or her collection, but I think certain items are key. Among them are torque wrenches (for tightening lug nuts properly), good screwdrivers, good wrenches, a good flashlight, etc. Maybe most important is a good air compressor that can grow with you.
If you have old cars, you probably already have an air compressor of some kind. But they’re not all created equal — and there’s a lot of room to upgrade from pancake-style air nailer units or loud oilless home-improvement store specials. That’s disposable technology. You can — and should — do better.
One option, if you’re only concerned with low tires, is something like Dewalt’s cordless and tankless 20V battery-powered inflator. It’s a high-tech and simple solution that will work great for $100 — but you’ll be limited in what you can do with it in the garage, and using it to fill tires will be a relatively slow process compared to using a compressor with a tank.
Instead, imagine having air lines plumbed throughout your garage, set up right where you need them. There are multiple locations to tap into the system to fill low tires or blast dust from otherwise gleaming paint without having to wipe surfaces. Somewhere in the corner, a nice compressor cycles to fill the system through a filter and air dryer — and it’s quiet enough that it doesn’t bother anyone. It’s always ready to go.
If that’s your goal, pancake and battery-powered units are out.
I like tools that are built to last and slightly overkill for the application. Along those lines, my favorite car person compressor — and the one I own myself — is the IR Garage Mate. It’s a 20-gallon unit with a 2.0hp motor that runs on 110v power. It’ll kick out 5.5 CFM of air and 135 psi, which is enough to run most air tools.
It’s also surprisingly quiet, upright, portable and simple. It’s built to last with a cast-iron oil-lubed pump and big-compressor motor. I bought mine six years ago and I run it in my attached shop constantly — even at night after my kids are asleep. It also has a 100% duty cycle, so you can use it all day without overheating problems.
Ingersoll Rand makes nice compressors for the money, and you can scale up to their bigger units depending on your needs. But for the average car person, or even a collector with a dozen cars and 50 tires to keep filled, this little unit is more than enough. For me, it was $650 well spent.
But what if even the IR’s 75db is too loud for you? What if you just want more power? Most compressors, including the IR, are reciprocating, meaning they have pistons — either one for two — that are used to compress air. That design is universal in the compressor world, but it’s also loud. If you want quiet, Eastwood has you covered with its 30/60 scroll unit.
These are more expensive at around $1,900, but they’re also a lot more efficient than reciprocating designs. Eastwood’s QST 30/60 is said to be about as loud as a home air conditioner and is capable of putting out over 12 cfm at 90 psi, which is way more than the IR and about what your typical professional auto shop system would deliver. It’s also rated for constant duty. The only downside here, other than the price, is the fact that it requires a 220v circuit in your garage that you might not already have.
Is that overkill for your average old car owner? Absolutely, but you’d never be lacking for power, even if you decide to tackle your own restoration work in the future. The key here is expandability along with lack of noise.
Both the IR and the QST are portable, but because of the QST’s 220v appetite, it would really benefit from that custom plumbed air system mentioned above — something with enough outlets to reach every car in your garage without needing to drag long sections of hose all over the place.
Regardless, any of these options are way more appealing to me than a cheap, rattly pancake unit. But maybe that’s just my inner mechanic speaking. Your mileage may vary.