Dust Collector vs Shop Vac: Which Should You Use?

dust collector vs shop vac

I live alone, so this means I do what I want in my house without having to get spousal approval. When I bought my house, I wanted my living room to be my woodworking studio. My studio/living room is the size of a one-car garage- 10.5’ x 23.5’ with 10’ ceilings throughout my house. Dust control is essential to keep the rest of my house clean. I had to choose, shop vac vs dust collector to keep the dust down.

My bedroom, den, and kitchen have doors that open to the studio. Two of the rooms don’t even have doors I can shut to keep dust out if I wanted. Did I mention I am a woodworker who is allergic to wood dust! I am basically at war with sawdust.

What is a Dust Collector?

There are two ways to control dust. The first occurs at the source with a shop vac or dust collector. The second uses an air filter/purifier to filter an entire space or room. I find it’s more efficient to capture dust at the source using a dust collector. It is too late once it is already floating around in the air, on your stuff, and in your lungs.

When it comes to removing dust at the source, most people decide on either a shop vac vs a dust collector. There is a third option, however—a dust extractor. Dust extractors are the most efficient and leave the air the cleanest. Hospitals, museums, and cleanrooms use them due to their HEPA filters and the highest level of performance at cleaning their air. Dust extractors are used on the jobsite to remove concrete dust at the source because of the carcinogenic nature of the dust. In the woodworking industry, they do the best job filtering out the ultra-fine dust particles that can escape a shop-vac or regular dust collector.

Dust collector
A Powermatic dust collector hooked up to one of the biggest dust producers, a jointers

Use a Dust Extractor for Single Tools with Small Particles

Festool, Bosch, and Makita make excellent dust extractors. Makita’s dust extractor even runs on two 18V batteries so that it can go anywhere. With the proper attachment or shroud, these dust extractors plug directly into tools such as grinders, miter saws, circular saws, or sanders. Connecting one into my Festool track saw dramatically reduces the amount of dust made by the cut.

Shop vac vs dust collector

Dust extractors work really well with handheld power tools with built-in dust ports. They are not a good solution for tools with larger 2-1/2 in. dust ports such as many miter saws, table saws, band saws, or other stationary equipment. While you technically can find Frankenstein adapters and hoses together to make a dust extractor work on stationary power tools, I could not find any. I am choosing to take it as a sign they are not supposed to be used this way! The better solution is the shop vac or the dust collector.

If there is any other issue with the dust extractor, it is the price. It typically costs about 3 to 4 times more than a shop vac. You may pay anywhere from $400 to even $600. They have a lot of technology built-in, such as the HEPA filters, self-cleaning filters, and auto start features which make them more expensive.

What is a Shop Vac?

In my limited space, I have a dust extractor near my workbench for the track saw. However, I use a dedicated shop vac for my miter saw. When I had my house rewired, the electricians installed a dedicated circuit for my miter saw, which draws 15 amps. My shop vac (which sits underneath my miter saw) runs on a separate circuit so it doesn’t trip the breaker when I use them at the same time. Whenever I move my shop vac and miter saw to a jobsite, I always use two extension cords and run to two different circuits to avoid tripping breakers. 

Using a shop vac with stationary tools works reasonably well. You will have to empty the vacuum much more often vs using a dust collector. A single session of planing a few boards can fill a 16-gallon shop vac. A dust collector has a large collection bag and sometimes uses 55-gallon drums or even garbage dumpsters at large shops. The filtering capability of even the best shop vac is not nearly as strong as even a small dust collector. Dust collectors are simply able to pull air and dust at a much greater CFM (cubic feet per minute). A shop vac is strong enough to get the majority of dust, though. 

Yes, I know Shop-Vac the brand is pretty much gone. But saying “shop vac” is like saying Kleenex these days

Automatic Power On (Tool Actuation)

One excellent accessory for your shop vac is a device that will automatically turn on your vacuum when you turn on your corded power tool. These work great—just don’t overload your circuit breaker. And, of course, they don’t work with cordless tools unless you have a system compatible with a proprietary Bluetooth module.

Hitachi Dust Extractor Review RP350YDH

Most dust extractors have this AC outlet built-in. Because it can take longer to start, larger duct collectors often are simply left on while you work. Some of them come with remote controls that you carry in your pocket or shop apron. I would tend to lose things like this while working, so I would just as soon have a switch on the wall near my tools to turn the dust collector on and off.

Using a Shop Vac as a (Small) Dust Collector

Even in large workshops with built-in dust collectors, shop vacs still have a place. It is often not cost-effective to hard connect every tool in a shop with all the ductwork needed for a sizable dust collector. Sometimes it may be easier to just buy a dedicated shop vac for the one lone tool in the corner that is too difficult to connect to the dust collector. In this way, you end up using the shop vac as a small dust collector.

Shop Vacs vs Dust Collectors for Miter Saws

Miter saws are just downright dusty. The issue is not the shop vac; it is the miter saw. They blow dust everywhere, even with the best dust collection. If you are in an environment like my studio or a client’s home where you need to keep the dust to a minimum, there are solutions like the Fastcap Saw Hood, which I reviewed. It keeps the dust contained inside a tent that surrounds the back of the saw. When combined with a shop vac or dust collector, it eliminates much more dust. It also works with tile saws to keep the mess contained.

Chopsaw shop vac vs dust collector
The Fastcap Saw Hood is a tent designed to contain the dust around a miter saw and collect it in a box in on the floor

Ductwork Dust Collection Kits for Shop Vacs (Hamster Habitrails)

There are kits such as the ones made by Powertec, which have clear tubes, elbows, fittings, and blast gates to turn your shop vac into a miniature dust collector. The shop vac sits in a fixed location while the tubes attach to the walls and ceiling, connecting all of your stationary tools. The key to successfully using these systems is to have a single straight mainline run without bends. Then use shorter hoses to run from the mainline straight to each tool. In the end, it will look like you have a pet hamster living in your shop with a giant habitrail! 

Use Cyclonic Filters to Make Your Shop Vac More Efficient

One of the valuable upgrades you can make to your vacuum is a cyclone attachment. Perhaps the most popular is the Dust Deputy. Cyclone filters attach to a 5-gallon bucket and sit between your tool and shop vac. Dust and debris go into the cyclone filter first, and all the heavy particles fall into the 5-gallon bucket before the rest travel onto the shop vac. The result is that cyclone filters can capture about 98% of the dust in the 5-gallon bucket leaving the filter on your shop vac cleaner and running more efficiently.

Dust Deputy
The Dust Deputy cyclone filter in a custom made stand. It keeps dust from reaching your shop-vac so the filters last longer

Shop Vac vs Dust Collection – Time to Grow?

Once your shop has grown large enough, and you have a certain number of stationary tools, it is time to consider moving to a dust collector. You can get a mobile dust collector, but that sort of defeats the purpose of having one. Dust collectors are designed to be installed in a single out-of-the-way location, possibly even in another room or outside, so you don’t have to listen to the noise.

The majority of dust collectors sit on the floor, but a few mount to the wall. Before purchasing one, make sure you can still buy replacement filters for it. You also want one that makes it easy to empty its bags. Also, check the noise output (the dB rating) to make sure it’s not too loud. I would not go much above 70 dB for something that is going to be constantly running. 

If they move enough air (have enough CFMs), dust collectors can include features like floor sweepers. These let you sweep your dust and debris over to a vent in the floor where it automatically sucks everything up. No more bending over, no more dustpans!

Bottom Line

When it comes to buying a shop vac vs a dust collector, go with a shop vac if you have a small shop. If you have a large shop, buy a dust collector and maybe add a shop vac or two. When you’re ready to take the financial leap, get a dust extractor to connect to your track saw, handheld sanders, biscuit jointers, etc. The dust extractor will also be helpful if you work onsite at a client’s home or whenever you work on concrete.

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