An airbrush can be a valuable – if not indispensable – tool for craft painting or art projects. But one thing you need to use an airbrush is compressed air. Of course there are air compressors made specifically for airbrushing, but these can be pretty expensive. And if you already have a regular shop compressor hanging out in your garage, why not just hook your airbrush up to that and save a few bucks? Is it even possible to use an airbrush with a regular air compressor?
You can use virtually any regular air compressor for airbrushing. There are even some distinct advantages to doing so – as well as a few possible drawbacks. But you’ll need a little extra equipment and some configuration to ensure optimal functionality and protect your projects.
First, let’s look at just what you’ll need to hook up your airbrush to a regular shop air compressor.
How To Use an Airbrush With a Regular Air Compressor
There are a few key pieces of equipment you’ll need to start airbrushing with your regular compressor. In this section, we’ll look at each one in turn.
Moisture Trap/Air Filter
First up, you’ll definitely want at least one moisture trap downstream of your compressor tank. Moisture is a natural byproduct of the air compression process – as air is compressed to a certain point, it becomes incapable of holding water vapor, turning the vapor into condensation. This condensate collects in the storage tank and can wind up in your air supply.
If you don’t have a way to capture any moisture in the air supply, it will mix in with your paint or dye, potentially ruining your project. A quality moisture trap/filter will also capture dust or oil coming out of the storage tank, which can also interfere with or completely mess up your paint job. This is particularly important if you’re using an oil-lubed air compressor.
Most people install a moisture trap immediately downstream of the storage tank by plugging it directly into the air supply coupler. Many people also place a second smaller filter/moisture trap closer to the airbrush itself.
If you live in a humid climate, use an oil-lubed compressor, and/or don’t want to take any chances with your paint quality, you may even want to use three filters – a larger one by the compressor, a slightly smaller one where your compressor hose connects to your airbrush hose, and a very small one connected to your airbrush itself.
The next thing you’ll want is a good pressure regulator with a range of 0-80 PSI (or higher). This will allow you to have more precise control over your airbrush pressure. Most airbrushing applications only require about 10-30 PSI, so you’ll at least want a regulator that offers this range.
Most air compressors already have a regulator knob to control the output pressure for your air tools, but these aren’t always as precise as you may want for delicate airbrushing tasks, especially if the compressor is older and the regulator has become worn.
If you want to kill two birds with one stone, you can purchase a combination regulator/moisture trap, such as this one. Regardless, you can install your regulator anywhere between the compressor and the airbrush. You’ll want it close enough to the airbrush that you can easily adjust it but you probably don’t want it connected to the airbrush unless you’re okay with holding the extra weight and bulk while you work.
Airbrush hoses are typically much narrower than regular air compressor hoses. If you don’t already have one, you’ll need an airbrush hose, which you can connect directly to your compressor using an adapter (more on that below). If you want some extra length, you can simply plug your airbrush hose into the end of your regular air hose – but it’s not necessary to do so.
Adapters & Couplers
Once you’ve got the necessary regulator, filters, and air hoses, you’ll need a few basic adapters and couplers to put it all together. These, you’ll simply install at the various connection points between each piece of equipment.
Most airbrush hose plugs are ⅛ inch, compared to the typical ¼ inch of most regular air hoses. Your airbrush hose may have come with an adapter to bridge this gap, but if not you’ll need to buy one separately. You’ll also likely need two or more ¼-inch male/male threaded connectors to be able to install the moisture trap/regulator, as well as a ¼-inch standard quick-connect plug and coupler to put on either side of the moisture trap/regulator.
The precise types and sizes for all of these parts will depend on your compressor, but these are the most common. To reiterate, here’s a list of the very basic hardware you’ll need, assuming your compressor uses ¼-inch couplers and your airbrush hose has ⅛-inch couplers.
(I’ve linked to each piece of hardware for reference, but always make sure any equipment is compatible with your compressor before buying anything!)
- ¼-inch male/male pipe connector (two for each regulator/filter you install)
- ¼-inch to ⅛-inch adapter (this example is female to male; your air hose may require the opposite)
- ¼-inch quick-connect plug
- ¼-inch quick-connect coupler
- ¼-inch moisture trap
- ¼-inch pressure regulator
Check out this video for a great example of how to set this up.
Can You Use an Oil-Lubricated Air Compressor for Airbrushing?
You can use an oil-lubricated compressor for airbrushing, but you run the risk of contaminating your paint with any oil that’s made its way into the air supply. That being said, you can take steps to capture the oil downstream. But it’s generally best to use an oil-free compressor for airbrushing.
If you do want to use an oil-lubed air compressor for airbrushing, you’ll want to do everything you can to keep oil from getting to the airbrush and mixing in with your paint or dye. Mose oil compressors have air/oil separators for this very reason. You’ll want to stay on top of maintenance for these, replacing them regularly. As mentioned earlier, you’d also do well to install multiple moisture traps/air filters along your air lines to capture as much as you can. So, while it’s not ideal, it can be done.
Here’s another video detailing an airbrushing setup for a large oil-lubed compressor.
Pros & Cons of Using a Regular Air Compressor for Airbrushing
There are a few things to consider before you buy all the necessary equipment and set up your shop compressor for airbrushing. I’ll go over each one individually.
One thing that can’t be overlooked is the noise level of a regular air compressor. They tend to be much, much louder than airbrush compressors, which can be a deal breaker for a lot of people. Of course, you can take steps to help make your compressor quieter or simply invest in a low-noise compressor – but it’s highly unlikely you’ll achieve the incredibly quiet operation that most airbrush compressors provide.
So if you do your airbrushing at night and don’t want to disturb your neighbors or wake the baby – or you simply don’t want to listen to a noisy compressor pump while you work – a regular compressor may not be the right fit.
Size & Weight
Another potential drawback is the overall heft and size of regular compressors. This, of course, depends on the compressor, but in most cases, a shop compressor will be significantly larger and heavier than the majority of airbrush compressors. This may not matter if you have plenty of space and don’t need to move your compressor around a lot, but it’s still worth considering.
On the other hand, having a fairly large storage tank with a high maximum PSI rating can mean that you can work longer before the pump kicks in. Since airbrushing uses so little pressure and typically involves fairly intermittent air usage, even a relatively small storage tank can provide plenty of airpower.
In comparison, most airbrush compressors have very small tanks and will cycle on more frequently, which can wear out the motor more rapidly.
Airbrush compressors are usually pretty expensive compared to regular air compressors of the same size. Sure, you’ll have to buy a bit of extra hardware to adapt your regular compressor for airbrush use, but most of that equipment is relatively inexpensive. And if you already have a regular compressor, the bulk of the investment is already taken care of.
Another major advantage of regular air compressors is that they can be used for a variety of applications – whereas airbrush compressors are really only powerful enough for airbrushing. All you need to do is disconnect the airbrush hose and attach whatever air tool you need to the regular hose. All of the necessary modifications are easily reversible, to boot. In this way, a regular compressor is a more cost-effective and valuable investment in the long run.
So, to reiterate:
- More versatile (can be used for more than just airbrushing)
- Less expensive
- More efficient (with a larger storage tank)
- Generally less portable – heavier/bulkier
As you can see, it’s totally possible (and maybe even advantageous) to use a regular old shop compressor for your airbrushing projects. Doing so just takes a little extra legwork and equipment, but fortunately, it’s very easy to get set up. I hope you found this article helpful! Thanks for reading!