Air Hammer vs. Rotary Hammer

What is an air hammer and how is it different from a rotary hammer?

Confused between these tools? Let me help you figure out the right tool for your job.

When it comes to hammering and breaking up hard materials such as rocks, metal, and the like there are a variety of power tools that are available. Two of the most common power tools used for chiseling are air hammers and rotary hammers. While they have some similarities, there are some important differences that you should know.

Rotary Hammer versus Air Hammer Comparison

Air Hammer vs Rotary Hammer
The key difference is that a rotary hammer can be used for drilling and chiseling whereas the air hammer is mainly for chiseling and hammering. There are also differences in size, source of power, and the purpose for which these tools are used. The rotary hammers are mainly used for drilling masonry and demolition work while the latter is widely used in auto repair shops.

Jump to Comparison Table

But first, let’s see what is an air hammer and a rotary hammer and how these tools work.

What is an Air Hammer?

Sometimes called an air chisel, an air hammer is a relatively small tool that is connected to an air compressor, hence the name. In simple terms this is a hammer powered by compressed air. This handheld pneumatic device is used to hammer nuts and bolts, remove fittings, chisel & carve stones, breaking or cutting metal surfaces, etc.

 114GQC Ingersoll Rand Air Hammer
Ingersoll Rand 114GQC Air Hammer – Click to See Price

So why do you need this tool?
Imagine using a hand chisel and hammer to cut something. How many strikes can you do before your arms get tired? Now imagine a power tool that can strike 3000 times per minute at the back of the chisel. Your work will take only a fraction of the time that would take you hours to do manually.
The above air chisel from Ingersoll Rand can strike up to 3500 BPM (blows per minute).

As I explained earlier, the air hammer is a pneumatic power tool and hence you need to connect it to an air compressor. While it doesn’t require a high capacity air compressor like spray painting or sandblasting, you still need to factor in the cost of a decent compressor if you do not own one.


Its relatively smaller size allows for better control and is easy to work with. Of course you cannot achieve the fine control that you get from a Dremel or a rotary tool. But for the amount of hammering blows it can deliver, air chisels offer good control.

This air tool offers a wide range of bits that can be used for different tasks.


Air hammers are loud. I strongly recommend you use ear protection while working with this power tool.

The tool comes in different sizes. From the rather small sized tool to the powerful one which is often called “the big nasty”. However, when it comes to demolition, none of them match the power of a rotary hammer or jackhammer but works well on smaller surfaces or objects.

Get the one with a quick loading chuck. A lot of cheaper models do not have a chuck; instead they have a retainer spring which you have to open and place the tool bit in it. While they work just fine, tool changing is cumbersome.
Apart from that, if you do not assemble the spring retainer and the bit correctly, there is a chance that the tool bit can fly which can cause some serious injuries.

Long Barrel vs Short Barrel

The long barrel air hammer has more stroke length and hence exerts more force. Conversely, the short barrel has shorter stroke length, but faster speeds. It has higher blows per minute (BPM), but strikes with less force.

Generally, you should go for the long barrel one for heavy-duty work and get the short barrel one for regular maintenance jobs and delicate works.

Air Hammer Uses

They are widely used in auto repair shops and garages for repair and restoration work. An air hammer is a lifesaver when your wrench can’t break loose the stuck fittings in areas that are difficult to reach in your cars, large automotive, lawn movers, and oilfield equipment. For example, you can easily pop the studs off brake drums, remove ball joints, etc.

Powermate PX P024-0293SP Heavy Duty Air Hammer

Here are some of the typical uses of air hammers.


  • Cutting rusty exhaust pipes and bolts.
  • Breaking rivets from rivetted ball joints
  • To remove frozen rotors and drums.
  • Knocking out and installing ball joints.
  • To take out old bushing from control arms, suspension parts and brake assemblies
    Construction and Home Improvement:

  • Chiseling brick walls to cut openings for electrical boxes.
  • Punching holes and braking masonry. (For drilling you need a rotary hammer drill)
  • For removing frozen hinge pins on the doors.

Air Hammer Bits and Their Uses

Most of the regular sized air hammers are compatible with the .401 inch parker shank bits. With the right tool bit you can use this power hammer for a wide range of applications.

8 Piece Air Chisel Set Pneumatic Chisel Air Hammer Punch Chipping Bits Tool

Hammer Bits: They come in different sizes and different materials, from hardened steel heads to aluminum and soft plastic heads. You can also use the hammer bit or body forming tool for planishing.

Panel Cutters: The bit is designed to cut or shear metals. Use it to cut sheet metal, exhausts, etc. Get a double bladed panel cutter to shear sheet metal, open the head and cut holes in oil barrels, etc.
Unlike an angle grinder or rotary tool, panel cutting bits will not produce sparks which is a major advantage when working with oil-filled equipment.
The specialty muffler cutter bit helps you to easily split your car muffler (silencer) when you want to replace them.

Chisel Bits: As you can guess this bit works wherever you would use a regular hammer and chisel. This includes cutting, breaking, chiseling, etc.
A chisel and hammer bit combination can remove most of the frozen fasteners. Usually, my go-to tool for rusted bolt or nut removal is an impact wrench. But what if the head of the fasteners is rounded off?
Get an air hammer with a chisel bit and make a small dent on the head of the frozen nut or bolt. Change to a hammer bit and strike few times on the dent and you will be surprised how easily the fastener gets loosened.

Weld Breaker: Use a spot weld breaker bit for separating spot-welded sheet metals.

Pickle-Fork: Get a Pickle-Fork bit for separating steering compartments, ball joints, pop off tie rods off and suspension parts. Lisle manufactures a stepped design that will help you to keep the bit from bouncing out of position.

Lisle 41400 Stepped Pickle Fork Kit

Texas Twister: A Texas twister has a u-bent which can convert the hammering motion into a pulling action. This is very useful when you want to pull something out from a hard to reach area. For example, removing a car axle. Compared to a slide hammer, you can operate the air hammer and Texas twister pulling kit with one hand while holding the axle.

Needle Scaler Attachment: Instead of buying a dedicated needle scaler to remove undercoating, you can get an attachment to get rid of old paint and rust.

Safety Tips:

Wear ear protection and safety glasses. If you are going to use this tool for a long period of time, I would also suggest you get a pair of impact-resistant or anti-vibration gloves.

Rotary Hammer

This is a heavier and larger tool that can be powered by batteries or with a cord plugged into an outlet. A rotary hammer is primarily used to drill and break up concrete and other rock-based materials on a larger scale. The rotary hammer is the tool that you need to drill holes in concrete and masonry. It can also be used for regular drilling.
A rotary hammer drill from Metabo
The action of the rotary hammer, as the name implies, is that the cutting bit rotates within the device which creates a considerable impact when applied against the surface. The tool bits used in a rotary hammer is either SDS-plus or SDS-max bits that has a special shank design. When compared to a regular cordless drill, it is relatively slow in terms of how fast it moves, but the power of the device creates heavy impacts that can quickly drill or break through the concrete.

You can use the rotary hammer in either drill or hammer mode or combine them depending on the material that is present and what you want to accomplish. Learn more about rotary hammers here.


Although both devices are clearly different, they both apply force in a hammering action to achieve the desired effect. Both devices also use oscillating pistons and apply the force to the surface using various bits depending on what is needed.

Difference between Air Hammer and Rotary Hammer

The differences are considerable between the air hammer and rotary hammer.

Air Hammer Rotary Hammer
Working Hammering Motion Rotation and hammering
Tool Size Small device Heavy-duty power tool
Power Source Compressed air Electricity or Battery
Purpose Hammering and chiseling work. Drilling, hammer drilling, Chiseling
Uses Remove fittings, bolts.
Cut Sheet metal, shafts
Chiseling stones
Use as a regular drill
Masonry drilling
Demolition works
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Ingersoll Rand 119MAXK Long Barrel Air Hammer Kit
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Dewalt DCH273B
DEWALT 20V MAX SDS Rotary Hammer Drill, Tool Only (DCH273B)See Latest Price


The most notable is the size. The rotary hammer is considerably larger and designed for larger tasks. The air hammer is not only smaller but designed for specific tasks on small objects. The size difference is important because depending on the material used, that will determine in large part the device that is needed.

Power Source

The power source for each device is different as well. I have seen people arguing that they both need electricity to run. Well, a sort of..

The cordless rotary hammer runs on batteries and the corded version with an electrical cord for direct power.

The air hammer uses compressed air supply from an air compressor. This means that the electricity used for the air hammer is really to power the air compressor.

Tools Bits

Another difference is the type of accessories used by each device. A rotary hammer has drill bits for drilling, hammering, or both. While the air hammer has a wide range of tools that can be used for drilling, hammering, carving, and other tasks.

You need an air hammer for auto repair and restoration work and a rotary hammer for drilling masonry and demolition work.
If you are looking to shape small objects such as rocks or perhaps punch small holes through hard surfaces, then the air hammer is best suited for your needs. However, if you need to drill larger holes in concrete surfaces, such as floors or walls, then you will need the rotary hammer.