Here are some tips on selecting the right air brush compressor for your airbrush painting needs, and some things to watch out for too!
The first question often asked is if an inexpensive, relatively low capacity air compressor purchased at your local tire store, or big box store, will even work properly for air brush painting and if so, what are the issues with them?
Use of non-air brush air compressors for air brushing
The answer is, of course they will. The air brush doesn’t care what the source of the compressed air is, as long as it’s clean and dry, and at the right pressure.
Yes, there are differences between DIY and industrial types of air compressors and air brush compressors built specifically for that purpose. It will help you to select the right one for you if you understand the variables.
The most significant issue is, I think, noise. Good quality air brush air compressors run fairly quietly. A “cheapie” air compressor does not! Having a very loud air compressor right next to the artist when they are trying to work is not conducive to creating wondrous air brush art.
Noise from the compressor can be mitigated by moving it elsewhere, and running a longer air line to where the artist is working.
Many small, low cost compressors, do not come equipped with an air filter either. If the choice is to use a lower cost, non-air-brush-specific compressor for air brushing, installing a combination filter regulator instead of just an air regulator will help remove water from the air. If a long air hose is used, prudence suggests another small air filter be added to the line just before the air brush to remove any water that may have condensed in the hose from the air.
Regardless of what compressor you use, as long as it’s got the air flow your paint apparatus / gun requires (CFM) at the air pressure you need (PSI), and the air is of sufficient quality, then that unit will work for you.
Oversize the air brush compressor
In my opinion it is always good to “oversize” your air brush compressors a little, as you’ll see below. Even if the air-brush-compressor flows 10 CFM @ 80 PSI, and you only need 2-3 CFM @ 20 PSI, with the appropriate air pressure regulator, you can adjust the air flow from higher flow, higher PSI capacity compressor to the level needed for the air brush.
Having excess capacity means that you can handle the more viscous paints, as you’ll have lots of air in reserve!
Here are some things to consider when looking for a compressor to excel in supplying compressed air for air brush painting.
While compressor that are manufactured specifically for air brush painting typically are fairly quiet, the lower cost compressors, and many expensive ones for that matter, are very noisy. It’s pretty hard to concentrate on doing just the right blend, or an intricate fill, when all of a sudden the compressor under your bench “blaattsss” into life, scaring the bejeesus out of you, and disfiguring your hard work as your steady-hand jerks away from the sound.
One of the most important hallmarks of an air brush type compressor is that it’s quiet. It can cycle on with almost no sound, and cycle off with a gentle “pssssst” as the unloader valve dumps air from over the compressor piston.
That quietness doesn’t come cheap. Depending on the size you pick, you might not get much change from a $1,000.00. Silence is golden, and it costs a lot of gold!
As a result of that high cost for a quiet compressor, we’d be inclined to purchase the $200-or-less compressor from the tire store, spend another couple of hundred building a soundproof box around the darn thing, and put the rest of the money we saved from not buying a “quiet” compressor in the bank!
When you do that, make sure you leave good air access for supply air and to allow cooling of the compressor head.
Oil-less versus oil lubed compressors
No professional air brush painter will put up with oil carry over from the air compressor creating “fish eyes” on their finished artwork. As a result, some feel obliged to purchase an oil-less compressor.
The downside of this decision is that oil-less compressors usually cost more, they are often quite a bit noisier than the oil-lubed comparable units, and they tend to run hotter which, unless the hot compressed air is mediated via “air preparation”, will have some negatives as to compressed air quality. A hotter running compressor usually means more maintenance and shorter compressor life, too.
Instead of buying into an oil-less compressor, simply ensure that the air that exits the lower cost, oil-lubed compressor, is adequately filtered to remove free water and oil. Please see here for detailed information about compressed air filters in general, and this page on coalescent filters for information on filters that remove oil from the air.
Regardless of the type of compressor you purchase, water spraying out the end of your nozzle will wreck your paint job, and ALL compressors generate water and water vapor. The general purpose filter can remove free water from the air, but won’t remove water vapor.
If you are using a lot of compressed air, say a quite large piece of work, it’s likely that the water vapor exiting your compressor receiver will condense in your air line or your gun, leading to water droplets projecting onto your work.
That being the case, you can add a “point-of-use” dryer to ensure that no water can reach your work. Have a look at for information about compressed air dryers on this site.
Regardless of the type of compressor you purchase, and even after adding the compressed air accessories referred to earlier one air component that it might be worthwhile upgrading to is a precision regulator. A precision regulator versus a general purpose regulator means that you can “dial in” the correct pressure that works best with your gun and your paint mix much more accurately since precision air regulators are so much more sensitive than general purpose units. The precision regulator will ensure that compressed air flow is consistent and steady.
An acquaintance recently told us that they’d a friend that had “gone through” a number of low cost compressors recently, taking them back to the store and complaining to the retailer that the compressors were junk.
When I asked for details, it boiled down to the fact that the user did not understand that all compressors are not designed for continuous operation, and the compressor that they had purchased was definitely not! Their lack of knowledge about “duty cycle” did them in in terms of selecting the right compressor.
Look for more info on duty cycle on this site.
Important to remember about air brush compressors
Make sure that the compressor you select has ample flow and pressure for your airbrush painting equipment needs, both today and as your business grows and the need may arise for more air brushes to be used simultaneously.
If the air brush compressor you have has a tank, do not forget to drain the receiver regularly to eliminate free water from the reservoir. Be aware that the liquid you drain from a compressor tank is now considered a hazardous waste as it contains water and oil, and should be disposed of properly.
Good luck with your airbrush compressor hunt!
Air brush compressors manuals
Are you an air brush professional?
Do you create art with an air brush compressor? I am not an air brush artist though I wish I had even a tiny bit of the artist’s skills that air brush artists display when they create their art masterpieces with their air brushes and their air brush compressors.
I do, however, know a bit about air compressors, and I get a fair number of questions about air brush compressors and equipment on this compressed air web site.
So, I thought I would move all those questions relating to any air brush compressor and air brush painting to this page for the benefit of artists looking for information or solutions for their air brush compressor and air equipment issues.
Use this page to ask and answer questions from air brush compressor users and, if I can help with a question, even though I don’t airbrush myself, I’d be happy to do so.
It would be great if you, as an air brush professional, could offer advice, or help solve some of the problems that other airbrush artists have with their equipment, by posting a comment about that question below.
We all appreciate your help.
Air brush compressor maintenance video
We all thank Sunsanvil for finding and sharing this video about upkeep of a typical air brush air compressor. It’s a bit long, yet provides a good deal of useful info on diagnosing issues with these little, typically quiet, air compressors.
Existing posts about air brush compressors:
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