What You Need To Start Airbrushing - Part 2 - The Compressor

Hi All!

Now that you've got your airbrush, be it Badger, Paasche or Iwata, what's the next step, eh? Well, you'll need a compressor or course! It's called an AIRbrush for a reason ;)

You could put your lips to the connection and try blowing through the airbrush to make it work but it isn't recommended ;) Let's find out how to do it right!


When I first started my journey into airbrushing, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to accomplish with my airbrush (see What You Need To Start Airbrushing Part 1 - The Airbrush) and then looked to see what my options for a compressed air source were. I found three:

1. "In Studio" Compressors

I found an all in one solution for my personal airbrushing needs at Wyndham's Art Supplies in Guelph, Ontario. They had the siphon feed and gravity feed Iwata airbrushes I was looking for and they also carried the Iwata brand "Smart Jet" air compressor for "in studio" use. What do I mean by "in studio"?

Iwata Smart Jet Compressor for airbrushing

I LOVE this compressor!

These compressors are small, portable, have no air tanks on them (so are continuously in use) and are very, very quiet. The very, very quiet part is key. Without creating some kind of sound proof booth to put your compressor in, most commercially available compressors will deafen you in short order. But not "in studio" compressors.

No, sir! They are quiet and smooth. They gently hum beside you and give a continuous feed of air to your airbrush. I've had my Iwata Smart Jet compressor for three years and it is only now showing signs of wear and tear. It's been very reliable up to this point. Even with its growing eccentricities, it still performs admirably.

A couple of draw backs to "in studio" compressors:

1. Overheating - These little guys are tough but they are also continuously running which can be taxing in the long run. When I first started airbrushing I overheated my compressor after about three hours of continuous use. I'd call that pretty good performance for the little guy after I was an abusive ass but it still stalled out my painting while it cooled down (for an hour).

2. Air stutter - I was told about this issue by a fellow artist and mentor Jason Gateman. He said that because "in studio" compressors are continuously pulsing air you can get a stutter in the flow of the paint. I've never experienced this with the Iwata Smart Jet but Jason has been at this a lot longer than me and this may have been an issue with earlier models.

3. Price - For what they are, they aren't cheap. The Iwata Smart Jet will run you around $400 CAD and that is the low end of the Iwata line.

There's a very good chance that I have been over using my Smart Jet for a long time but its stood the test of time and is still helping me today. Unfortunately, it's getting crabby and will need either maintenance, or replacing...soon. Maybe by...

2. Commercial Compressors

Commercial compressors come in all shapes and sizes and can be as inexpensive as adopting a cat from the local Pet Valu or as pricey as buying a new truck. For the purposes of airbrushing, opt for the cat ;)

All of these come with air tanks and you can get small, 3 gallon compressors all the way up to 200 gallons or air storage or more. It all depends on the application.

I picked up a commercial compressor from Canadian Tire two years ago. I wanted to started priming larger boards but I didn't want to continuously run my Smart Jet. I knew that would be the end of it so I purchased a 100 ft. air line, a paint spray gun and a 1.5 hp, 5 gallon, Mastercraft air compressor from Canadian Tire.

Canadian Tire - Air compressor - 5 gallon, 1.5 HP

This is the one that I have!

It melted down in 45 minutes (go team Red Fracture!)

I blame the fact that all the cooling fins on the motor were hidden under a plastic cowling that promptly melted and shorted out the compressor but the guy at the fix it shop who assessed the ailing appliance (under warranty. Phew!) said this specific compressor was not meant for large scale spray painting. It was destined to die. More fool me.

At the time of the melt down, the compressor motor had been kicking over constantly and THAT IS NOT supposed to happen. After the motor fills up the reserve tanks it's supposed to shut off and cool down. If your compressor is continuously running, chances are you've got the wrong one for your application. That being said...

When 'Ol Bluey' came back from the compressor hospital I hooked it into my airbrush instead and it works perfectly!

Now, I use my 'big' compressor for large scale artworks where my 'in studio' compressor would get overheated. I can use the 5 gallon reserve tanks for about 3 - 5 minutes of continuous airbrushing before the motor kicks over, and it's only on for about 5 - 10 seconds before it shuts off again. There will be no more overheating. I've put in over one hundred hours on a painting with this process and never had a problem.

Some draw backs to commercial compressors:

1. "Which one do I pick?" - Finding the right compressor for what you're trying to accomplish can be difficult especially is you're a noob like I was when I bought my first Canadian Tire special. But I'm here to help! I found this handy dandy Wikihow article on choosing the right compressor. It's a little industrial and reads a bit like stereo instructions but it can give you the run down on picking a compressor better than I can.

2. VOLUME! - Commercial compressors are louder than hell! They will not be sitting beside you in your studio. Volume is a safety issue. DO NOT TAKE YOUR HEARING FOR GRANTED.

When I first used my compressor I needed earplugs to be in the same room with it. And this was only a 1.5 HP motor! Typically, the bigger they are the louder they are. I built a soundproofing cabinet for mine complete with a cooling fan. Now I can use it and listen to an audio book on ear buds without going deaf.

While I don't use my commercial compressor all too often, when I do, it is excellent. The 1.5 HP, 5 gallon Mastercraft has been more than enough for my airbrushing needs and I expect to use it for years to come. And I just checked the price on the website: $149.99. Be aware, that's on special but I paid about the same when I purchased mine. WAAAAY cheaper than a Smart Jet and it does the job just fine. If my studio wasn't on the other side of the house from my garage, I'd use it daily. Right now, it's just not practical to run 100 feet of hose through my house ;)

3. Compressed Gas Cylinders

The last entry on this list is also the most esoteric and probably the least used due to it's safety issues but, I thought I'd make mention of it anyway.

The use of compressed gas cylinders to run your airbrush was first reported to me by again, Jason Gateman. It seems this was a method he employed quite often when he had to live paint at a show / exhibition / convention. Instead of lugging in a compressor that would either require electricity or be louder than hell, Jason brought with him a compact, quiet and portable cylinder of compressed air. Simple and convenient. I like!

I had to look into the method myself just for curiousity's sake so I called around to Praxair and a local outfit called Acorn Fire and Safety to enquire about buying my own gas rig. Here's what I found out.

All told, both shops could outfit me with a 20 lb gas cylinder and a regulator for around $250 dollars. Praxair's cylinder was rented while Acorn would sell me a used cylinder. On top of that, fill ups would range anywhere from $40 to $60 with Praxair being more expensive. Over time, if I liked this method, Acorn would be the less expensive supplier to go with and I'd own the equipment permanently.

Some draw backs to compressed gas cylinders:

1. Safety - This is not a method I would pursue if I'd never had any contact with compressed gas cylinders in the past. Personally, I've had a lot of experience with gas cylinders through my 20 year fabrication background and let me just say, they're not to be treated with a careless hand. A fully charged, standard sized gas cylinder can be a deadly missile in short order if  its valve is knocked off. If you don't believe me check out the Myth Busters video exploring this very phenomenon.

While I've never seen one go off, I never want to either. Safety and respect is the order of the day when using one of these bad boys, even a small one. Be aware.

2. Barriers to entry - Chances are, even if you know what you're doing with gas cylinders and you're a total safety nazi, you're probably going to run up against issues of using gas cylinders where you're planning to work. Your in home studio is your business but out on a job site, in a building, at a mural project or a convention you'll want to  look in to any bylaws, rules or governance that restricts the use of gas cylinders. Also, be prepared for someone who is not as knowledge savvy as you to take issue with your gas cylinder choice. You may end up in a fight with a Nervous Nelly...whether it's justified or not.

Before going down this path, check with your employer, partner, new hires, venue etc. that everything is kosher before you break out your new best 'compressed' method for getting the job done. It may be more of a headache than it's worth.


In a nut shell, there are at least three methods you can pursue in order to run your airbrush but only two of them are practical on a regular basis. I hope that this post has given you some info to educate yourself and direct you to the compressor that is right for you. Check in to a couple of options and price out what's available in your area. Compressors don't have to be cost prohibitive or cumbersome. Find that happy medium and get airbrushing! :)

Next up in part three, the paint of airbrushing; options and opportunities!


 Part 1: The Airbrush Part 3: Airbrush Paint
Part 1: The Airbrush Part 3: Airbrush Paint

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