Air Compressor Upgrade Ideas
for Woodturners

Air Compressor Upgrade: Overview

One of the most frequently used tools in my studio is my air compressor. When I first opened my studio, I was not a fan of pneumatic tools but I quickly saw the light and now prefer pneumatics to electrics for most operations. My air compressor has been a real workhorse for me but, through the years when working on various projects, I began to see that the ‘ole girl was showing her age and she needed a facelift. A few new accessories would fill the bill and keep her running at her best. These new additions have taken a really good air compressor and made it superb…

My Coleman air compressor.

This is my new setup for my upgraded air compressor accessories.

Air Compressor Upgrade: Problems Found

Water, water, everywhere! When you switch on your air compressor the ambient air that your compressor takes in is compressed, causing it to heat up. This increase in pressure (inside the tank) causes some of the water vapor in the air to condense and drop out as a liquid inside your tank. This is why you have to regularly drain the petcock on the bottom of your compressor’s reservoir tank.

This heated compressed air causes moisture to condense not only inside your reservoir tank, but in your air supply lines as well. Many devices are available to help remove or eliminate this moisture problem. Various filters and traps are available that will catch the liquid water or filter it, but some amount of water vapor is still inside the supply lines and must be removed with some type of air dryer.

Air Compressor Upgrade: Coalescing Filters

The coalescing filter (left) does a good job of removing
most of the moisture, but not all.

There are numerous accessories available to help reduce or eliminate water in your air compressor system. One of the most common things you will see are some type of pre-filter, like a coalescing filter that helps to remove water from the compressed air stream. While these devices work to a fashion, they are far from ideal. For years, I used one of these coalescing filters on my compressor. Whilst I drained the coalescing filter’s accumulation bowl regularly (and even multiple times throughout the day), some moisture still sprayed out the exhaust port on the tool I was using.

Air Compressor Upgrade: Power Sanding Challenges

If I was power sanding on the lathe (I prefer to sand with pneumatics), or just blowing out the studio a little moisture spraying out did not present a problem. When I was doing production work back in the day, it was not uncommon for the right side of my turning smock to be dripping wet after a long day sanding bowls. Really humid days presented the greatest problem, so when I was working with an HVLP sprayer, or with a tool that I could not afford the moisture dripping out of, I would add a disposable in-line desiccant filter to absorb any residual traces of moisture that managed to get by the coalescing filter.

That setup worked well most of the time, but when a lot of moisture was present, that not-so el-cheapo inline disposable desiccant filter filled up fast. Replacements cost around $8.50 each, but at the time, this was my only option. After a few years dealing with this, I looked into getting a professional compressed air dryer. These professional/industrial systems use a refrigerant to alter the temperature of the air, which causes the moisture to condense out of the air stream. These systems did everything I wanted, but they were prohibitively expensive.

Air Compressor Upgrade: Desiccant Dryers

My next step was to further investigate desiccant dryers. These are another type of pre-filter and they work by forcing compressed air through a chamber filled with activated alumina or silica gel (the desiccant), depending on the system used. The moisture in the compressed air stream reacts with the desiccant to produce liquid water, which is absorbed by the desiccant material.

During heavy use, some water may collect in the bottom of the desiccant dryer housing. This water must be purged every day through a tiny ball valve on the bottom of the dryer housing. These desiccant dryer systems work extremely well and are much cheaper than large industrial dryer units. Now, I only needed to find the right unit to purchase.

Air Compressor Upgrade: Solutions Found

This CamAir dryer weighs a hefty 50 pounds.

I looked around a lot for various desiccant systems and finally settled on a CAMAIR CT-30 unit that cost $285.00 at TCP Global, a large discount online retailer. This dryer utilizes a ten-pound replaceable desiccant cartridge that removes water vapor from the compressed air down to a dew point of -40 degrees F. This unit also features a special fiber media that removes oil aerosols and solid particles down to 0.1 microns, which means there is no need for coalescing or final filters.

It also has a nifty humidity indicator on the outside of the unit that changes from green to yellow when the desiccant needs replacing. It can handle up to 30CFM of airflow, with a maximum operating pressure of 200PSIG (14 Bar) and a maximum operating temperature of 150 degrees F. Replacement desiccant cartridges cost $55.00. For my needs, this was the biggest bang for my limited bucks.

This unit is designed for wall mounting and weighs in at a hefty fifty pounds with the filter installed. It was easy to plumb into my compressed air system using standard ½ galvanized iron pipe fittings. Whilst plumbing the desiccant unit in, I decided to add an outside drain line to the manual drain on the dryer, so my daily purges would exhaust outside the studio. This is a feature I also added several months before for my compressed air tank.

Now, when I need to drain the compressor or desiccant tank, I can just turn the ball valve on the bottom of the tanks and the accumulated moisture will spray outside. Sweet! Before installing this on my compressor, I would use a large bucket and it was a real mess, now it’s much easier to properly maintain my compressor and desiccant dryer and that’s always a good thing.

Air Compressor Upgrade: Two Supply Lines

When designing the piping for my new desiccant dryer, I decided to split the supply lines into two separate and distinct lines. The primary line would go through a standard coalescing filter, with its own regulator. The secondary line would feature the dry filtered air from the desiccant, with its own separate regulator. This would save the desiccant when doing tasks that do not require dry, filtered air – like blowing dust out of the studio.

The primary line is filtered only by the coalescing filter.

The primary line will be used for things like blowing dust out of the studio, and general air needs. The secondary line will be used for things like airbrushing, spray finishing with conventional or HVLP guns, or filling my 15 gallon pressure pot when casting polyresins that are sensitive to moisture. Since I would be using so many different types of equipment on the secondary system line, I added a multi-port connector made by DeWalt, so I could hook up four different lines at once.

This is the DeWalt multi-port after modifications.

I modified the DeWalt compressor multi-port by removing some of the original connectors it came with and adding the various styles of connectors I use in my studio. I also removed a large plastic grill that covered the oil filled pressure gage making it difficult to read. This multi-port was designed with portability in mind and it came with a large housing that had a handle. I cut this handle off so it would fit against the wall better. These modifications have worked out well and the multi-port is much more useable to me now.

Air Compressor Upgrade: New European Connectors

Since I had gone this far, I decided to upgrade my primary current male and female compressor line fittings to the high-flow European style (pre-cocked) with a 3/8” inside diameter that I found at Griot’s Garage online. Both the male and female connectors are 3/8” inside diameter, which delivers more air to your tool than standard ¼” connectors. These connectors are made in Holland and are so much nicer to use than my old, standard compressor line fittings.

My old female air hose connectors were not pre-cocked, which meant that you had to fight the air to get the male end connected on a pre-charged line. These new Euro style connectors feature a female connector that is already pre-cocked, so you do not have to fight the air pressure to attach your air hose or tool. It’s a little thing, but a welcome upgrade.

Air Compressor Upgrade: New Hoses – Finally!

Ok, I’ll admit it… I have been using the same old air hoses for more years than I can remember. They had more patches than Carter’s has liver pills. It seems as if dinosaurs were still walking around when I bought those bad boys. I added a couple of new ones through the years, but they were older than dirt as well. One challenge I always had with my air hoses was storing them properly at the end of the day. I looked at getting some type of reel device so I could just wind them up, but I never found any that I really liked.

With all of the new upgrades for my compressor, I decided it was time to retire the old air hoses and finally get some type of automatic winding reel, so I would not have air hose laying all over the floor. Yes, on many occasions, I was too lazy to coil the hose over my arm for storage and I left it lying on the floor in the corner. After turning production bowls for sixteen to eighteen hours, the last thing I felt like doing was coiling a bloody air hose!

This air hose reel is fed by the primary supply line.

I really wanted an automatic or semi-automatic reel that would store the hose and keep it neat and tidy. After looking around a lot, I found an import hose reel at Griot’s Garage for $109.00, half the cost of most of the other units I was researching at the time. It mounts on a heavy-duty swivel base and has a self-winding reel. To reel it in, you pull the hose out a little until you hear a click and a spring inside the unit winds the entire 50’ hose back onto the reel. There is also a device to layer the hose onto the reel properly, so you do not end up with a ball of hose on the middle of the reel.

Whoo hoo! I bought two and mounted them on the wall near my compressor. One line is dedicated to the primary output line (no dryer); the other is dedicated to the secondary line that runs through the desiccant dryer filter. Sweet! These reels are also removable, so if you need to use one on your driveway with a portable unit, they can be removed from their mounting bracket (no tools needed) in two seconds.

This air hose reel is fed by the secondary supply line
which is filtered through the desiccant dryer.

Since I have two reels I could if needed, reel one hose all the way out (50 feet), remove the other reel from its bracket and attach it to the end of the first hose (50 more feet) and then attach the supplemental 25 foot hose, giving me a total of 175 feet of hose. Now that’s what I’m talking about bruddah! I still have to hand wind the 25-foot supplemental hose, but it is made from a super flexible rubber, so it winds up very easily.

This supplemental 25' hose can be used to extend
the length of either reel hose.

Air Compressor Upgrade: Ball Valves

These ball valves are a cost effective solution for
isolating separate supply lines.

To make it easier to separate the primary and secondary air supply lines, I purchased several ½” ball valves at Lowe's. By turning different ball valves, I can isolate my primary and secondary lines in a couple of seconds. I cal also lock off the secondary line when it’s not being used, so it does not absorb any moisture from the uncharged pipes or lines. These ball valves were cheap, around $5.00 or $6.00 each and are a very cost effective solution.

Air Compressor Upgrade: Final Thoughts

I have been using my new setup for a week or so now and all I can say is, I wish I had done all of this sooner. It is so much nicer now anytime I want to use my compressor and I do not have to worry about water anymore! This entire upgrade cost me around $600.00 out of pocket, including all of the pipe fittings, ball valves, drain hose, the desiccant dryer unit, the two hose reels, and a spare 25’ hose line just in case I needed more than the 50’ of line on the reel.

There are less expensive options out there, so check around and see what might work best for you and your studio. Scrounge around on the Internet for the best deal you can find. A few minutes spent with your favorite search engine can save you big bucks. It sure did for me on this project. If you are struggling with water as I have over the years in your compressed air lines, look into a desiccant dryer. Many different sizes are available in various price ranges. If you are tired of hand coiling your air hoses, treat yourself to one or two those self-winding reels – you’re worth it after all! There are smaller units for most of these upgrades that would work well in a small hobby workshop and they are easy on the pocketbook. Good luck!

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.