Shop Vacuums: A Complete Guide to an Essential DIY Tool

Updated: May 23, 2023

Wondering what a shop vacuum is and whether you need one? We review the basics and round up some top choices.

Do you ever see those big, barrel-shaped shop vacuums in hardware stores and wonder what they’re for? Most people don’t grow up around shop vacuums, and it can be eye-opening to use one for the first time.

My introduction to shop vacuums came in my early 20s, when I’d taken a job mucking out the basement of a 19th century Victorian home. I expected to tackle it with a broom, shovel and buckets. Instead, my employer showed up with a wet/dry shop vacuum, and it completely transformed the job.

It was still dirty work, but I finished in half the time and with a fraction of the effort. Today, I own three shop vacuums — two full-sized and one portable unit — and I wouldn’t give up any of them.

Here’s a rundown of what shop vacuums are, what sets them apart from regular vacuum cleaners, and a short list of great choices for your first purchase.

What Is a Shop Vacuum?

A shop vacuum collects debris found in a workshop, garage or construction site.

There’s no strict definition of what sets a shop vacuum apart from other vacuums. If you use a household vacuum to clean your shop, feel free to refer to it as a shop vacuum. The vacuum police will not come and arrest you.

However, models marketed with the shop vacuum label typically feature a stronger engine and a wider nozzle and hose. This lets you collect heavier, bulkier objects like nails and scraps of wood. They’re also unlikely to come with a beater bar to clean carpet.

You’ll often hear these referred to as “shop vacs.” Shop-Vac is actually a brand name, the way Google is a brand name for an internet search engine. Other common terms include workshop vac, job site vacuum and wet/dry vac. (The last one has an added meaning, which we’ll explain shortly.)

Features To Consider When Buying a Shop Vacuum

  • Mobility: Vacuums on wheels can be moved from place to place. The length of the power cord and hose also impact mobility.
  • Durability: Crush-resistant hoses and covered power switches that keep out dust can extend the life of your vacuum.
  • Storage capacity: The larger the storage drum, the less often it requires cleaning. But a large canister also can be heavy when filled.
  • Power: Shop vacuums will list their horsepower (hp), but also look for the suction, expressed in cubic feet per minute (CFM). A well-designed motor can generate more suction with less power.
  • Wet/dry vacs: Most shop vacuums can collect liquids and wet debris with a few simple adjustments. If this is important to you, double-check to be sure the model you want offers this feature.
  • Compatibility: If you own a table saw, planer or similar product, you can use a shop vacuum for dust collection. Look for a hose size that matches your equipment’s dust port, or that can accept an adapter.

Do Shop Vacuums Have Collection Bags?

Many do, which is handy when dealing with fine particle debris. But items like nails, screws, and wood cutoffs can quickly fill a collection bag, or even tear it open. For this reason, most users simply let items build up in the storage canister, then empty it into the trash directly.

When collecting water or wet debris, a collection bag or paper filter shouldn’t be used.

What Size Shop Vacuum Do You Need?

When manufacturers discuss shop vacuum size, they generally mean the volume of the storage canister. Larger vacuums can be emptied less frequently but take up more floor space. For DIY projects, storage size isn’t that much of a concern.

The other size to consider is the hose diameter, which usually varies from 1-1/4- to 2-inches. Larger diameters work best for cleaning large areas and bulky objects, or a large volume of lightweight debris. Smaller hoses work well for smaller, heavy objects like nails. If in doubt, opt for a wider hose.

Best Shop Vacs

For your first workshop vacuum, consider these three options:

Best entry-level budget pick: At just under $50, the Craftsman four-gallon wet/dry vac is about the least expensive shop vacuum you can find. If you need something to collect sawdust and shop debris as well as wet/dry vac flexibility on minimal budget, this is what you want.

craftsman 4 Gallons 3.5 Hp Corded Wet Dry Shop Vacuum via merchant

Best entry-level value pick: If you can spend a little more, the Craftsman eight-gallon wet/dry vac offers great bang for your buck. Same hp as the budget model, but it draws an impressive 110 CFM with a 1-7/8-in. hose.

Craftsman 8 Gallons 3.5 Hp Corded Wet Dry Shop Vacuum via merchant

Best portable pick: I’ve been using the same DeWalt corded/corded portable shop vacuum since 2009. Portable vacuums lack the size or power of larger models, but they’re a great fit for small jobs. The DeWalt portable shop vacuum continues this tradition of convenience and dependability. (Note: DeWalt also offers a slightly less expensive version that’s battery operated. For most DIYers, the added flexibility of a power cord is often worth the higher price.)

Dewalt 20 Volt Max 2 Gallons Corded Cordless Wet Dry Shop Vacuumvia merchant