Which airbrush compressor is right for me?

Choosing the right airbrush compressor for your purposes

  • You want to operate in the area of airbrushing and you are looking for the right airbrush compressor?
  • You’ve seen many offers on as many websites and want to make sure that you don’t fall for a bad buy?
  • You don’t want to buy the cheapest airbrush compressor and get annoyed after a few weeks because it slowly gives up his function. On the other hand, you probably don’t want to buy the most expensive model, because the price says nothing about whether this airbrush compressor is best for your needs.

Things to consider on the subject of airbrushing

Felsenstein - airbrush compressorOver 20 years ago I started with airbrush works and at this time, of course, I had a lot of personal experience with the painting itself, as well as with the hardware. So I also started from scratch and had to gather together the best equipment. On this page I will tell you the main points that are important for the final purchase decision. Likewise, I will recommend some models to you, suitable to various claims and budgets.

When you start with airbrushing, you will learn in the coming weeks and months whether this is right for you at all, and whether talent and perseverance are available in the necessary dimensions. It is therefore advisable not to grab for the best, most expensive airbrush compressor, equipped with all the trimmings.

Set the focus for now on a price range of between about $100 and $250.

In this segment are favorable models available that work for the very first entry and more. They are affordable and also, later, they will not belong on the scrapheap when the workload increases and if one is somewhat “spoiled” in terms of compressor loudness. You should have a second compressor anyway…


Now, what to look for when buying an airbrush compressor?


The working pressure

An airbrush compressor is building up an air pressure with a pump which, at best, is NOT delivered directly to the airbrush gun, but in an air tank. This is a part of the airbrush compressor and has  a volume to suit the purpose, depending on the model, price and technical claim. This allows pressured air to be cached “in stock”, and the exiting of the air from the airbrush comes evenly. The air jet is very homogeneous.

Depending on the type of work, a specific air pressure is adjusted on the airbrush compressor. The pressure should NEVER break down under this mark under constant load. This could have unpleasant consequences; the color may sprinkle, solid lines may be uneven, surfaces may be filled irregularly. So, the airbrush compressor must always be able to deliver the required maximum (air) pressure PERMANENTLY.

For the beginner, an airbrush compressor that can deliver a PERMANENT working pressure of 2.5 bar, ought be ok. The normal operating pressure in practice is at about 1.5 to 2.2 bar.


The noise level

Who works on artwork and needs silence? The concentration is much disturbed by a loud airbrush compressor, which constantly (loudly) switches on and off. There is a habituation effect so you do not constantly flinch when a valve in the compressor is working loudly, but meanwhile there are pretty well-equipped devices that do not create such disturbingly loud noises at all. The permanent working noise of the airbrush compressor itself should be less than 45 dB (for more expensive models). Depending on the length of the hose, the compressor must not stand right next to the workplace, of course.


The compressor run time

Depending on what kind of work you perform, sometimes it takes quite large quantities of air from the airbrush compressor. This must be refilled by the pump again and this leads to heat generation in the device. When working over a large area and / or large quantities of color, this may mean that the compressor runs CONSTANTLY. In this case, the unit should be capable of doing this by default. Alternatively, the purchase of a model with a correspondingly larger tank volume should be taken into consideration, which guarantees the engine block some pause time.

For the beginner, this point is usually less interesting as he probably rarely begins with extensive works.



An artist wants to pursue his art and not constantly tweak tools. Therefore, the choice should fall on a low-maintenance or maintenance-free airbrush compressor. That is, one need not add oil, change fluff- or air-filters. In the price range above $100, this should be the norm nowadays.
20 years ago this was really different…


The purity of the air

If air is mixed with paint in an airbrush, it should not additional (condensed) water or oil from the engine compartment may be included.  A water separator at the airbrush compressor is obligatory. The machine should be oil-free anyway. Everything else is workshop accessories and (in most cases) unsuitable for high quality airbrush work!


The price

If you just want to try out an airbrush, it makes no sense to spend $500 for an exquisite product.  Models for less than $250 are, for the beginner, more than sufficient. If you have, however, gained experience and already reached limits with your compressor, you can take a look around this site for a successor model.


Recommended Models – an orientation

  • Models for small jobs and to test your “talent” e.g. DIY models, gas caps, cell phone covers, smaller motifs etc:

AS18-2 Wiltec air flow volume 20-23l/min at max. 4bar / 58psi / price at 60$

  • For medium-scale and more challenging activities e.g. areas on cars, motorcycles, medium billboards, paintings on paper and cardboard:

Airbrush Depot TC-20T air flow volume ~25l/min at max. 3bar / 45psi / price at $105

Badger 180-15 Airstorm air flow volume ~23l/min at max. 4bar / 58psi /price at $150

  • For larger area works (e.g. varnishing, primer work, smaller base areas on trucks, billboards) and respectively very quiet operation:

Super Silent 20-A air flow volume ~20l/min at max. 5.9bar / 85psi / price at $560

There are, of course, a lot of competitors, but the technical differences between their airbrush compressors in the respective sectors are usually not that big. It makes more sense to pay attention to the topicality and the reliability of the models. There are always new technologies integrated and, despite these devices being new to the market, with corresponding sales figures they will quickly become affordable.

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The diaphragm compressor (also membrane compressor) as airbrush compressor

The diaphragm compressor

This variant is also used as an airbrush compressor.

Mode of action of this type of airbrush compressor

It’s usually a little louder than piston compressors, which has to do simply with the fact that the compression is done by a mechanical part, which is more capable of getting into audible resonance than the piston of the other compressor group which is just a flat membrane. This part usually consists of an elastic material (plastic or metal) which is moved up and down by an electric motor, so that the medium air is compressed. This air can be taken then through valves, located behind the actual compressor’s mechanism.

airbrush compressor diaphragm compressor

Commonly for this compressor technology, no tank is usually used for an intermediate storage of the air. The device thus runs without pause. This leads to heat, which is usually measured by corresponding sensors. In case of overheating, the driving electric motor is switched off until an acceptable temperature has reached. This is always some degree under a so-called hysteresis level. This causes the device to switch off again not after a short time, but after a certain running period. Often, in addition to the diaphragm, a ventilation system is also driven by the electric motor, which provides the necessary cooling. This increases the lifetime of the electrical unit as well as the run-time between the automatic shutdowns. So, depending on the outside temperature, the airbrush compressor is also able to supply air without even shutting down.

Diaphragm compressors are oil-free in most cases. Therefore there is no need for maintenance. Depending on the price range, the focus is on the lifetime of the membrane. Should this be defective (assuming normal wear), the only way is to take it to the workshop. Only very few models are suitable for an adequate, professional DIY repair.

As the price of an airbrush compressor of this type is quite affordable, in case of a defect, it makes sense to estimate whether the costs of a repair are reasonable in relation to buying a new device. Finally, the models are constantly being developed and, should the defect occur several years after the warranty period, a new buy would be worth considering, if only for the higher efficiency of a newer model.



– low cost

– compact and portable, since usually without air tank

– (mostly) maintenance-free, as no oiling circuit takes place


– somewhat louder than piston compressors in the same performance range

– runs (almost) permanently

– depending on the design, thermal shutdown (older models)

– lifetime of the membrane is the weakest point of this type of airbrush compressor

air flow is not perfectly uniform, as there is no caching


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The piston compressor as airbrush compressor

The piston compressor

This type of airbrush compressor is available in the variants oiled and oil-free.

Mode of action of the piston compressor

Within a hermetically sealed cylinder, called the displacement, a piston is moved up and down by an externally mounted, rotating electric motor. This pushes together the air contained within massively. It is transported via valves either directly to the output of the device or into an air tank. Usually through integrated measurement, equipment is provided that ensures the resulting pressure builds up only to a certain degree. Once this is reached, the electric motor which moves the connecting rod on the piston is switched off. But when the pressure in the air tank drops under this certain value by removal of air, the compression is again set in motion and the sequence begins again.

airbrush compressor piston compressor

Due to the relatively favorable technical feasibility and the respective modest cost of this type of compressor, it is the best-selling of its kind.


The airbrush compressor with oil

Again, the air is compressed by pistons within an enclosed cylinder with a valve system. The peculiarity is this: next to the compressed air in the displacement is special oil. This ensures primarily that the material wear of the piston and the inside of the displacement are minimized over the long lifetime of the airbrush compressor. Since the direct mechanical contact of the moving part in relation to the static part is extremely low through the permanent oil film, the noise emission is also reduced somewhat. At the same time, some of the heat is dissipated by the oil, which is naturally produced during the compression of air (gas mixture). This is also an important parameter when it comes to improving the lifetime of a technical device.

It is also common that this type of airbrush compressor is equipped with a correspondingly large tank, due to the very strong delivery volume per unit of time. This allows for moderate use of air, for example, when airbrushing  small to medium sized motifs, pause intervals for the aggregate. Aside from the lovely side effect of more silence when working, this means at the same time an even higher life expectancy, since each pause is also another moment for the equipment to chill.



– a typical silent runner

– long life expectancy due to low abrasion

– overheating is normally not possible with correct oiling

– correspondingly large air storage mean more “silent phases” and cool-down times


– not maintenance-free, since the oil circuit is not closed

– additional costs due to oil post-buy

– they are rarely lightweight because of the air tank

– oil evaporates at a certain operating heat and gets into the air stream (you can smell it!)


The airbrush compressor oil-free

This type of airbrush compressor is not as old as its oily relative. The technology is a bit more complicated, despite no oil being used, since the lifetime ought obviously to be as long as possible, and reliability is also a factor to consider. However, the two versions are very similar in terms of their technical data. The main difference to oiled compressors is that here, due to the typical high air flow rate, a tank for the intermediate storage of the air (usually) is not common.



– also a silent runner

– maintenance-free because it requires no oil circuit

– long life

– lightweight compared to many oiled airbrush compressors

– on average, a little cheaper than oiled piston compressors

– no oil in the air stream, so no danger of ruining your “artwork”


– the variant without air tank is only useful when higher air volume is demanded

– slightly lower heat dissipation

air flow is usually not perfectly uniform, since no caching takes place


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