Tool talk...

Last modified: Wednesday, March 21, 2001 4:51 PM



The air compressor is one of those unglamorous tools that you hate to spend money on... They're in the background as a support player for the more flashy airbrush and other air-powered tools at the output end. A lot of people probably focus their money on getting a good airbrush and assign whatever is left over to buy some kind of passable air source. Some people even believe that the little compressed air cans that accompany some airbrush bundles are an alternative to an air compressor. It ain't so, unless you also believe that running a TV off of disposable D-cells is a good idea.

I'm not a particularly big fan of airbrushes and most of the things I do are better served by bristle brushes. Bristle brush coats tend to be more durable because you can work with thicker paint. A scrape through the middle of an airbrush gradient is considerably more difficult to repair than a brush painted monotone finish. Fine line details are also much easier to brush paint. I've had my share of aggravation with airbrushes-- shockingly, they actually need to be cleaned and maintained! Switching color is a bit of a production, and spilt color cups have caused more carpet damage than any of my brush palettes. They're noisy. They can spit and clog, screwing up the piece that you've slaved over. They sound horrible, don't they? Why use 'em?

There are a lot of tasks that an airbrush is better suited for, and there are effects that require using an airbrush. If you want an even, stroke-free finish that can be applied to a large area quickly, use an airbrush. If you want artistic coloration and subtle gradients, use an airbrush. Some of the negatives I mentioned are indeed part of the territory of airbrushing, but some of them depend on the quality of your equipment and supplies. Yes, you do have to clean and maintain an airbrush to keep it working properly. Yes, some airbrushes are a big hassle to clean. Yes, some paints will tend to clog a nozzle more quickly, especially if they aren't strained & thinned properly. But the air compressor determines the level of noise (affecting your concentration) and contributes substantially as to whether you'll be able to get a smooth flow of paint (affecting your level of frustration); that has a substantial impact on your enjoyment of the process.

I've owned a few airbrushes-- a Paache, a Badger, and now an Iwata-- but I've always used the same funky old Intermatic compressor that I bought a loooong time ago. I installed an inline air tank to smooth out pulsations; that improved the operation, but it ran continuously, making an annoying sound as I worked. I couldn't wait until I was finished so I could turn the damn thing off. I couldn't coax more than 20 psi (pounds per square inch of pressure) out of it and some paints needed more than I had. The price of a new air compressor always kept me from upgrading-- Even though I'd eyeballed and been tempted by the Badger and Paache units I'd seen at the hobby shops, I didn't want to spend a couple hundred for a hobby compressor that was just a bigger version of the one I had. The modern quiet ones in the hobby magazines cost a big bundle. Well... I finally decided to upgrade. However, instead of going the route of the hobby market, I checked out the Home Depot route.

Shazzam! For about $220 you can get a 2 HP "Contractor Quality" air compressor with a 4 gallon tank. The particular one I got (Campbell Hausfeld) is actually slightly shorter than my old tiny compressor with its air tank and has the same sized footprint-- but that's where the similarity ends. It has an auto shut-off mechanism so that when the tank hits 120 psi pressure, the motor cuts out. The regulator delivers the air at whatever pressure you dial, and you can get quite a bit of noiseless airbrush mileage out of a full tank. While filling the airtank, the compressor is loud for indoors but relatively quiet for what it's doing (not as loud and irritating as a much smaller Black & Decker Airstation), The airtank fills quickly, which kills the motor and then it's perfectly noiseless except for whatever sound the tool you're using makes.

There are other benefits (or expenses) as well... bunches of solidly built little accessories are available at a reasonable, non-hobbyist price-- like a moisture trap and filter. For painting, you need one of those! There's the air-powered engraver, which lets you do magnifier-assisted fine work at 10 psi, continuously adjustable up to heavy metal gouging at 90 psi. And the tire inflator nozzle, just like those at the service station. And the groovy selection of industrial air powered tools that you need to build your own 10'x20' toolshed. And the paintgun to paint your house. Bear in mind that a 2 HP compressor is about as dinky as you can get and some tools will require a heftier machine.

I can't think of too many downsides of going this route instead of buying an air compressor manufactured for the hobby market (okay... they're heavier). The pressure range is much greater so the gauges aren't as finely calibrated at the low end. This is more than made up for by the greater versatility and greater value for the price. However, be aware that these are not toys and should be operated by responsible adults. High pressure tools can be very dangerous, and 120 psi released explosively can cause serious injury or death.