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We take a lot of what we see for granted. Power tools haven’t been around forever—believe it or not, we used to have to rely on blood, sweat, and plenty of elbow grease to get even the easiest jobs done. And we all know the pyramids of Giza were built in a period of human history where the only power tool was found in the hard work and muscle of the average builder.

Have you ever wielded a sledgehammer? If you have, you’ll understand the stamina needed for even the simplest job. Luckily, we’ve invented an even better tool that relies less on our strength and stamina and more on engineering and physics. That tool is known as the jackhammer, and it’s changed the face of construction jobs—large and small—in a huge way. But how does a jackhammer work?

The Power of Pneumatics

When you think of jackhammers, you’re more than likely picturing the heavy duty variety commonly found on construction sites. They’re loud and cumbersome because they rely on the concept of pneumatics.

What is pneumatic technology? It’s any variety of technology that uses the force of air as its power source. Examples of this technology can vary widely—think of your car tires, the tubes that carry money at banks, and even the typical steam engine. They all rely on the power of air in their own distinct way, same as the pneumatic jackhammer.

The (Relatively) Simple Idea of the Pneumatic Jackhammer

So, how does a jackhammer work? We know that they commonly use air as their source of power. But in what manner? To find out, you need to visualize the inside of a jackhammer. You have the handle, and below that is an air intake and an air exhaust. An air compressor is used to bring highly pressurized air into the air intake, where it forces down a pile driver that powers the jackhammer’s bit. Since the air needs to escape, it’s exhausted from the air exhaust valve that sits below the air intake.

Believe it or not, the force of compressed air is enough to power the tool singlehandedly. And, since you’ve already selected the right bit for the job, the tip of your jackhammer will make quick work of the rock or concrete at your feet. While air is an extremely powerful tool, it does require the use of a compressor, which is usually towed behind a truck. Compressors are big, extremely heavy, and cumbersome for the average person to use. But there are more portable jackhammers out there and they don’t rely on pneumatics as their power source.

Electric Jackhammers, Slightly More Portable than Pneumatic

Pneumatic jackhammers are super powerful but inaccessible to the average person due to the need for a large air compressor as a power source. However, electric jackhammers do exist. They rely on the power of electricity and, as long as you have a plug, you can use them without much fuss.

Electric jackhammers work a bit differently from their pneumatic cousins. They’re driven by a motor that’s powered off of electricity. The motor, when engaged, rotates a cam that converts the motor’s spinning motion into an up-and-down motion, which in turn pumps against a piston. That piston powers a second piston, which powers the shaft connected to the chisel. The intricacy of these actions, and the restrictions of electric power, lead to a less powerful effect from the jackhammer. What electric jackhammers make up for in portability, they lose in effectiveness. With that said, there are gas powered jackhammers out there and they are quickly becoming the top choice in balancing portability and power.

Gas Jackhammers; Powerful and Portable

Gas jackhammers work in much of the same way as the electric variety. The primary difference is in the motor, which uses combustion power rather than electric. Inside, the combustive effect of ignited gas powers the same set of pistons, resulting in reciprocating power against a shaft that is connected to a jackhammer bit.

The perk of a gas jackhammer is in its true portability. While they may be heavy, depending on the power rating, they require no cords or connectors and thus are not tied down to a specific site. Most of all, because there is no cord or tubing attached, they can be operated freely without fear of severing any lines. For homeowners or anyone with a medium-sized concrete breaking job, a gas jackhammer is often the best choice. You can even rent a unit from an equipment rental yard, load it onto your truck, and carry it straight to your job.

Simple Technology with a Big Purpose

The jackhammer, be it pneumatic, electric, or gas, all work off of principles we’ve known about for centuries. However, we’ve used our modern knowledge to refine the tool into what it is today. If you ever use a jackhammer, try to appreciate that what you’re working with is the culmination of many great achievements by man.

Most of all, don’t discount the jackhammer as an unattainable tool for your job. They’re not all the big, bulky, and loud things you see on construction jobs. As technology improves, electric and gas jackhammers are becoming more powerful and portable. Why break your back when you can rent a jackhammer and finish your job in a quarter of the time?