Can You Use a Regular Air Compressor for Airbrushing?

Airbrushing is an activity that is starting to gain momentum between the doers. It’s a form of spray painting that uses an airbrush, which is a small tool that sprays paint, ink or dye. It’s an air-operated activity, so it needs some kind of air compressor. As a beginner (I assume you are if you found this article), there are probably a lot of questions popping in your head right now. You are probably evaluating all the things you need to get, and how much are they gonna cost you. So, one question comes to mind: can I use my air compressor for airbrushing?

That’s a legitimate question. If possible, it would be a great way to cut costs. The answer is yes, you just need to get a moisture trap and a good reducer. You can get a “combo” product (like this one) that does both air filtering and pressure regulation for cheap. In this quick article, I’m also going to teach you a couple more tricks that you may find useful.

If you are a complete beginner, here you have a quick step by step guide to get you started. If you don’t need it (maybe you are getting into airbrushing again after a hiatus), feel free to skip the following paragraph.

How do you use an airbrush?

“014 – Airbrush” by LaertesCTB is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is a pretty broad question to get through in a few lines. I will give you just the basics to get you started (source: wikiHow). There is a lot of good detailed material you can find with Google or on Youtube.

  • First thing, connect the airbrush to the air source. If you are using a standard compressor, there are a few things to consider that we will discuss in detail later.
  • Make your paint thin before putting it inside your airbrush. The paint thinner to use depends on the type of paint you have: for acrylic paint, you can use water to do the job. Other kinds of paint require other types of thinners.
  • Put a little bit of paint inside the airbrush. Keep the tip of the airbrush up, to avoid spilling the paint.
  • Turn on the compressor. You should regulate the pressure to 10 psi to start. Once you get some experience, you could experiment with higher pressure (20 psi) to get different results (mainly, lines texture).
  • While holding the airbrush at a couple of inches from the object you want to pain, push the trigger on the top of the tool to apply the paint. In some airbrushes, you might need to pull the trigger back to let the paint out. If you are a complete beginner, I think it might be a good idea to get some practice first. Use the airbrush on some scrap to get yourself started. Remember that the closest you get to the object, the thinner the lines will be.
  • After applying the paint, let it dry for at least 24 hours. It might take longer if you applied a thick layer of pain. You can speed up the process by using a heat gun or a hairdryer, though.

Can You Use a Regular Air Compressor for Airbrushing?

Yes, it is possible. Here are the things you need to do to be successful:

  • Air compressors usually have pressure up to 100 to 150 psi or more. For airbrushing, you need 10 to 20 psi. 10 psi is the best for fine details (at risk of clogging), while 20 psi is better suited for experienced users. The paint gets foggy and dries quickly. In order to get there, you need a good reducer (aka pressure regulator) to get the psi you need;
  • Another thing to consider is the water that is always present within the air inside the compressor. You need a moisture trap to get rid of that. The last thing that you want is to get water and oil mixed up with the paint while airbrushing. You need to place the moisture trap the farther you can from the output of the compressor. The air cools while running in the hose, so moisture condenses down the line. The closest to the airbrush you can place the trap, the best job it will do.
  • A valid alternative to getting a reducer and a moisture trap separately is getting an all-in-one product, like this “Drain Air Filter Pressure Regulator“.
  • If your air compressor isn’t very big and doesn’t have a tank, you might consider getting one. With a tank, you are going to avoid a lot of noise. An airbrush doesn’t require a lot of air, so you can fill the tank before you start working, and enjoy a couple of hours without any background noise.

That’s pretty much what you need to get to use a common air compressor for airbrushing. Actually, you may also need an adaptor to connect the hose to the airbrush. If you are not sure about what to get, take your airbrush to your local store and ask an employee. This will prevent you from a headache.

How do you hook up an airbrush to a big compressor?

“Ingersoll-Rand air compressor” by BriskersAuto is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

If you have a big air compressor, you can follow the tips I gave you in the paragraph above. There are some more things to consider, though:

  • You want to set the air compressor pressure as low as you can (40-60 psi in most cases), before hooking up a regulator and bring it down to 10-20 psi.
  • A big air compressor has some downsides when compared to an airbrush compressor. It consumes more power, it’s louder and it needs to supply loads of air to fill the tank.
  • There are also a few advantages: you don’t need to buy a tank; you don’t have pressure fluctuations that are common with smaller compressors. These fluctuations happen in the absence of a tank.
  • You might think that a smaller compressor is better since it’s less noisy. Actually, once the tank is filled up with air, you won’t need to turn a big compressor on for a long time, since airbrushing requires a small amount of air.

Does an airbrush compressor need a tank?

If you have a big compressor that comprehends a tank, you won’t need it, obviously. On the other hand, if you have a small compressor, it might be a good idea to get one, for the reasons I explained above (in short, to avoid pressure fluctuations and reduce the noise).

If you don’t want to get a tank, you can work around the noise by connecting the air compressor to the airbrush with a long hose. Then, put the compressor in another room (for example, in your garage.

Can I use a pancake compressor for an airbrush?

“Pancake” compressor is just a fancy name for a small compressor. So yes, you can use a pancake compressor for airbrushing, just consider all the things we said in the paragraphs above.

Since pancake compressors are very light and portable, it might be a good idea to get one for airbrushing, especially if you want to create an airbrushing kit to carry around.

Can I use an airbrush without a compressor?

No, you can’t. An airbrush needs an air supply to work.

To be honest, I read about using canned air, but in the long run, this will be more expensive than getting an air compressor. So you should consider this is you are planning to airbrush very few times. In all the other cases. you should save the money until you can get an air compressor.

What PSI should I use for airbrushing?

As we mentioned before, you usually use 10 or 20 psi. You should stick to the lower end of the range if you are a beginner. On the other hand, low pressure is going to make the paint texture look worse.

When you use 20 psi, the paint dries faster and tends to create fog. At the same time, the paint texture will be better and you will have lower chances to block the airbrush with the paint that runs inside.

What is the best air compressor for airbrushing?

The best air compressor you can get for airbrushing is obviously a dedicated one. They usually come with a moisture trap and a pressure regulator included, so you don’t need to worry about that. They are also easy to move around and produce low noise.

Some of them, for example this one, comes with a complete kit that includes an airbrush, a 6-foot hose and a booklet to get you started.

That’s probably the safest choice if you are a complete beginner, and you will avoid a lot of headaches.


There’s a lot that one can say about airbrushing. It is a very broad topic. In this article, we answered some questions that a beginner could have: how to start airbrushing, what to do to get a regular compressor to do the job, what psi you need and finally, what is the best air compressor for this kind of activity.

If you spare the money, getting a dedicated air compressor is the best choice. On the other hand, getting a standard air compressor to work is possible. You will need a few components (a pressure regulator, a water trap, maybe a tank), and some craftsmanship.

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