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"Downsizing—Finding the Right Air Compressor!" 

Comments by Moses Ludel

     Bead blasting, a cornerstone of mechanical restoration, had been a regular part of my shop work and writing projects. In early 2009, discovering that we were part of "Main Street" and not Wall Street, we voted with our feet and chose to downsize. Fortunately, our home and shop property sold well for the market. With that sale went our big bead blasting cabinet, a DeVilbiss vertical 80-gallon air compressor with two-stage compressor and the 9000-pound capacity chassis hoist.

     I launched into my new shop/studio determined to have a functional, downsized arrangement, which turned out to be an immediate challenge. Square footage, now a third of the former shop floor space, demands thoughtful planning. Fortunately, my tools, welding equipment, parts washing cabinet and work benches fit within the current 580 square feet of space.
 
    To fill the need for compressed air, I invested in a spanking new, 2-hp I-R ‘Garage Mate’ SS-3R2 model with 24-gallon tank and 5.7 cfm flow at 90 psi—a nice, Saturday morning, "let’s air the tires up at home" compressor! Things went along smoothly for several months, the 110V compressor happily spinning air tools and squeezing paint through the HPLV spray gun’s nozzle. Then I accepted a magazine freelance assignment, the step-by rebuild of a 50-year old tractor's hydraulic cylinder...

Rusty iron cylinder will need glass bead blasting.

     The specimen arrived, saturated with rust, scale and traces of cow manure, all blended with the acrid scent of hydraulic oil. Thorough draining, a wipe down and pressure washing took care of the cow dung and grit. Rust and scale remained.

     For the record, my parts cabinet washer will do a commercial grade cleaning, spinning the wheels off the power company's electric meter just to prove it! That said, even 45 psi nozzles and Goodson's best cleaning solution will not remove embedded, Midwest corrosion in cast iron. Only glass beading will do that...Yes, less than a year into giving up my blasting cabinet, the washing cabinet stood helpless in the face of these oxidized castings!

     This dilemma required a “discussion” with my better half, as economic choices at our household rest on mutual decisions. The tally: one vote for a new blasting cabinet and one vote against. Having performed many glass bead chores at our previous shop, fully aware of the merits of bead blasting over tedious scraping and wire brushing, Donna acquiesced to a downsized cabinet. TP Tools & Equipment’s on sale model 780TL blast cabinet, with shipping and a few essential accessories, came to just under $500.

TP Tools 

     For now, the unit utilizes our paid-for shop vacuum instead of the former approach, a HEPA filtered, industrial strength VAC-35 air system. The 780TL handles most castings short of an engine block, is perfect for gear and transmission work, steering and chassis parts, manifolds, water pumps and fuel system components. Landing on our doorstep via UPS Ground—at a fraction of the shipping cost of our previous TP-960 Pro cabinet—the top loading unit actually fits within our shop!


     There stood a blasting cabinet and a 110V light-duty compressor for air. Though well made and ultra quiet, this mouth breathing, 5.7 cfm flow @ 90 psi I-R Garage Mate unit produces way less air than the minimum volume for a commercial bead blaster gun. The optimal requirement for serious bead blasting is more like 15-18 cfm @ 80-90 psi. So, back to the kitchen table with Donna, wife of 34 years, for another "discussion," this time the need for a larger compressor…

     Jeep families have unique priorities. Hedge fund shenanigans or balancing the Federal deficit seem far less exciting than negotiating mud or slush along a primitive four-wheel drive trail in November. On the other hand, a lifetime devoted to four-wheeling, outdoor recreation and other visceral pursuits leaves no excess of money around—which Donna quickly noted.

     So began the search for the mythical "bargain" air compressor. Three goals drove this quest:  1) must be affordable (Donna’s point), 2) have enough air flow volume (my point) and 3) perform quietly enough not to upset the already edgy suburban neighbors caught up in the throes of a national economic debacle (our point).

     I spent four days of questionably productive time shopping the Universe for a compressor that met our proposed budget and air flow demands. In the process, I became “expert” at all things "compressor". However, I still did not have any high-volume air to show for it.

     For new machines within my budget, the best buy appeared to be a Chicago Pneumatic 60-gallon compressor. A two-stage, iron-cylinder, 5-horsepower (some reviewers thought this horsepower figure had been manipulated) model for just under $1000, the unit even came with free shipping. Despite the comparative bargain (my view), Donna wanted nothing to do with a thousand dollar expenditure that merely produced air. She repeatedly urged me to find a “good used” compressor.

     “Good used,” often an oxymoron, means hours wasted on Ebay and Craigslist, reading and listening to stories of personal suffering and economic misery. Then there were the compressors that had "worked perfectly for 20 years," the workhorses that only needed a new motor or compressor assembly. Or the compressor that got left outside for just one winter. Or the overworked compressor. Or the New Jersey-you-pick-it-up compressors (we're near Reno, Nevada). Yes, the plethora of sight-unseen prospects that conjure visions of rusty, scaly tanks, old compressors accidentally run without oil—you name it!

Champion R15 is a rugged, high output iron compressor head!

     Then a full week into the search, a real prospect flashed onto the radar screen. A friend with a body shop hired a tech whose family's shop had gone out of business. They kept the equipment, including an air compressor referred to as an “Air Boy.” Like any compressed air "expert," I knew the questions to ask. How much horsepower? Is it single phase 230V? Does it have an 80 gallon vertical tank? What type of compressor head is it? Iron or aluminum? And lastly, “Who manufactures the Air Boy?” By now, I knew every compressor that Google's web crawler could unearth, and Air Boy was an unknown.

     Today's automotive field has its nitrile-gloved, ‘A attaches to B’ line "technicians". (I was a full chassis, engine, geartrain and automatic transmission "mechanic" in the day.) Then there are the body-and-paint masters, artisans who, by their own admission, “Don't care what makes an engine management system tick.”

     On the phone, Tim impatiently described the machine as a vertical tank, 80-gallon thing, single phase 230V and in good condition. Perhaps too many years of looking at wavy body panels, maybe the paint booth had a clogged ventilation system, who knows...Tim turned out right about two of his four facts: 1) the unit was 230V single phase and 2) it was in good operating condition.

Baldor 5 hp single phase 230V motor has magnetic starter.  

     I first saw the unit from the opposite side of the street. The tank lay horizontal and had a 120 gallon capacity. Dragged to the front yard of Tim's house, the unit was protected from the weather—a good sign. A better sign was that the “Air Boy” moniker was actually a U.S.-built compressor assembly with a Champion R15 compressor. The motor, only a year old, was a Baldor 23/25 amp, five horsepower replacement unit. A 120 gallon tank meets industrial demands.

     "A truly industrial compressor with magnetic starter, this was the slow-speed (750 rpm) iron beast that could last a lifetime!" I thought. Covering worst-case possibilities: a top end rebuild kit is only $100.

     Still visualizing how to rearrange my welding station and fit this horizontal monster into the shop, I whipped out my wallet. Accepting Tim’s asking price, forgiving his misrepresentations about the vertical versus horizontal tank, I dealt out five one-hundred dollar bills—faster than cards flying at a poker tournament! All the while, Donna sat in the Ram truck's heated cab, wondering how vertical went to horizontal and why I talked myself into buying an old compressor as big as a Harley-Davidson Ultra Glide.

     It took four men to lift each end of the compressor onto the trailer. Unloading was equally fun, involving several neighbors whose rusty lawnmower decks will be glass beaded, free of charge, this spring.

Improvised intake muffler works nicely and does not hamper air flow.

     The compressor saga has now ended. “Beast” operates flawlessly, easily delivering 23 cfm of air at 100 psi and maxing at 150 psi. Bead blasting is a breeze, and Tim's Rube Goldberg muffler on the R15 compressor’s intake stream really does quiet the unit down. With the garage doors shut, the suburban neighbors think I’m running a shop vacuum when, in fact, the Champion compressor hammers away!
 
     We’ve moved to other topics at our new home and shop. With two missing pieces of equipment now replaced, there’s only the bumper or frame hoist to go. With lower vertical clearance now, I'm thinking of a scissors, short lift style or maybe a commercial grade, pneumatic or hydraulic bumper/frame/axle lift. 

     On some future project, when the jack stands get dusted off and an under-Jeep photo shoot looms, Donna and I can once again take our places at the kitchen table. The bumper/frame/axle hoist will be a lively topic. There’s new versus used equipment, Harbor Freight versus “real” U.S.-built stuff…I’m ready—Donna will be, too!

Glass beading with ample air supply is the way to go!

 
     For more tool insights and ideas for setting up your Jeep 4WD shop, read Moses Ludel’s 4WD Mechanix Magazine online!