Tool Review: Cordless vs. Air Tools

As a car guy, I love tools. I’ve invested many thousands of dollars over the years in quality (and some not-so-quality) tools of all shapes, sizes, colors, and styles. When I started wrenching professionally over 10 years ago, there were mainly air tools and hand tools, but cordless tools weren’t as popular yet. I should clarify that when I say “cordless tools” I mean battery-operated tools targeting the auto mechanic, not a carpenter or do-it-yourself handyman; cordless drills have been around since the 1960s. In the last few years there has been an explosion of cordless tools across the automotive industry. Battery technology has evolved so rapidly and batteries are lighter, last longer, and produce more power than ever before. They also take more charges and don’t have battery “memory” like in the old days.

Air tools have been a workhorse in the hands of skilled mechanics for years, and they’re not slowing down any time soon. Having owned dozens of pneumatic tools over the years, I have come to appreciate their usefulness, but I’ve recently become very enamored with their younger cousins: cordless tools. These guys use batteries and electric motors to ratchet, whirr, impact, and cut their way into the tool arsenals of techs around the world.

There are all kinds of reviews scattered across YouTube and the interweb on specific models of air and cordless tools, so I’ll keep this general and give you my experience from tools I own or have owned. No one paid me for this, so these are just my honest opinions. I bought every tool outlined here with my own Benjamins. Which one ends up at the top of the heap at the end of a long, hot, greasy day in the shop?

Air tools

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Pros: Lots of power, compact size, lower cost (not including the air compressor), light weight, durability, track record.

Cons: Useless without a GOOD air supply, maintenance, not portable.

Pneumatic impact wrenches and air ratchets typically have more torque and higher speeds than cordless tools, but they have one major downfall: they’re tethered to an air supply. I’ve always been a big fan of Ingersoll-Rand products over most other brands, including the tool truck brands. Don’t get me wrong, the Big Three (Snap-On, Mac, and Matco) all have fantastic air tools, but I usually prefer Ingersoll. The quality, handling, and power is right up there with the Big Three, and they’ve been around a long time.

My 1/2″ Ingersoll 2135TiMax impact has been my workhorse for years. It’s lightweight and well insulated thanks to the polymer body and has tons of torque. The 2135 has been replaced with an updated model, so if you’re looking for a quality 1/2″ impact wrench look no further than the 2235TiMax

The 3/8″ pneumatic I have is an old Matco made by Ingersoll-Rand. It’s served me well for many years even though it’s basically worn out at this point. I keep thinking about replacing it, but I just can’t bring myself to do it! The Ingersoll 2115TiMax will be my pick if I ever do get around to purchasing a new one.

The 3/8″ air ratchet is a budget Edge Series Ingersoll I’ve had for years, and I really need to replace it with a new version to match my 1/2″ impact. The 3/8″ air ratchet is extremely useful for mid torque applications in tight spaces. I use mine all the time on brake jobs, belt tensioners, intake manifolds, etc.

Matco made the 1/4″ mini air ratchet that lives in my box, and I absolutely love the little thing. It was on sale for not much more than a comparable Ingersoll, so I couldn’t say no. I have that trouble a lot on the tool trucks…

I also have an Ingersoll air chisel (air hammer) that I’ve used for just about everything. Again, it’s a budget Edge Series that I need to upgrade with a Max Series, but it’s been a champ and I couldn’t have gotten along without it.

Finally, I have a 1/4″ angle grinder and 3″ cutoff tool (not pictured) that have a lot of miles on them. I’m actually pretty happy with the cutoff tool, but I really would like to upgrade to the Max die grinder for a little more horsepower!

Cordless tools

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Pros: Portability, precise control, convenience, no need for an air compressor.

Cons: Expensive, shorter track record, larger, lower power levels.

Nearly of my cordless tools are Snap-On. I have some Ryobi tools that I use mostly for the home honey-do chores, but Snap-On was my brand of choice for the pro mechanic stuff. I think if I had it to do all over again, I might go with Milwaukee because of the price difference, but I’ve been VERY happy with the Snap-On 14.4V and 18V Lithium systems so far. I had a few Ni-Cad Snap-On tools years ago and the Lithium batteries are light-years ahead.

The 3/8″ impact is the small 14.4V rather than the 18V “Monster” Lithium because I wanted the control and compact size over the torque of its big brother. It has all the power I need to do most 3/8″ work, and I like the rocker forward/reverse trigger; it’s big, yet precise and offers great control with its brake (anvil stops immediately when the trigger is released).

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The 1/2″ impact is 18V powerhouse. I can’t honestly say that it has removed every bolt it’s ever touched, but if the cordless couldn’t do it, my top-shelf Ingersoll and my co-worker’s top-shelf Matco gun couldn’t remove it either. It’s pretty big and heavy compared to a pneumatic wrench, but I was so glad I had it the first time I had to work on a trailer in the parking lot of the shop when I was a tech. I go back and forth between the cordless and air impact in the shop, but I’ll never ditch the cordless for mobile work!Pic6

The 1/4″ and 3/8″ ratchets are extremely useful in an interior or a tight engine compartment because the hose isn’t constantly getting in the way. They have decent power and speed, but the bodies are a little larger than their pneumatic brethren.

The 1/4″ hex screwdriver is one of my favorites of the bunch. I’ve been through three generations of Snap-On cordless drivers, and I’ve loved every one of them. This guy obviously gets a workout with any Phillips, Torx, or Allen fastener, but I also have 1/4″, 3/8″, and 1/2″ socket adapters for occasions when I need a little more control over torque and speed. The adjustable clutch allows me to install transmission pan bolts quickly without the risk of breaking or stripping them, for instance.

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Cordless tools are usually my go-to tools nowadays, especially since I’m usually working in a driveway or somewhere else without a good supply of compressed air. I have a small compressor in my garage, but it’s more convenient for me to just grab a cordless tool than to fire up the compressor, wait for it to build up pressure, run the hose to the project, etc. If you are in a professional shop or have a good network of air lines, pneumatic may be your preference, but I still prefer my cordless tools for most day-to-day wrenching.

The biggest downfall I can find with cordless tools is that it just isn’t possible (or practical) to do some of the things that air tools do. They do make cordless die grinders and cut off tools, but I have yet to see a cordless air nozzle (“blow gun”) or air hammer. I’m sure someone will (or has) come up with a good solution for these, but for now they belong to the air tool category.

Let’s not leave out the venerable hand tools! I think it’s safe to say that most of us here got our start with a socket set and/or some screwdrivers. Power tools are a life saver in the shop, but you always have more control with a manual tool and sometimes that’s more important than speed. An experienced tech can tell if something’s off with a hand tool and may be able to keep from stripping or cross-threading a fastener when he can’t get the same feedback from a power tool.

Obviously there are MANY more tools in each genre than just these, and in more brands than you can shake a stick at, but like I said, I want to give you MY opinion on tool that I own, not just stats from a catalog.

So what should you do? Buy both!! Seriously, though both have their place, it comes down to your budget, preference, and how often you use tools. Batteries go dead after a while of just sitting, but an air tool doesn’t really care how long it sits unless the time frame is measured in decades or generations. My cordless tools are typically my go-to tools unless I know I need the most power I can possibly get or I just feel like using an air tool. Air tools and cordless tools behave and handle differently and the numbers on a YouTube review should not always be the deciding factor. It’s easy to get wrapped up in max torque numbers but there are many more factors that should be considered before dropping your hard-earned cash on a tool.

After all that rambling, I hope it was somewhat helpful. Go buy some tools and Happy Wrenching!

Post contains affiliate links. When you use the above links to purchase products, I get a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your support!

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