Monday, May 16, 2011

Adventures in Airbrushing Episode II: Attack of The... Compressors?

"Guns don't kill people.  Apes with guns kill people" -Charlton Heston
Welcome back everyone to the second installment of Adventures in Airbrushing with Chaosheade and M4XVLTG3.  In this episode, we will be discussing compressors and virtually everything you need to consider when choosing a compressor.  Strap yourselves in because it's going to be a bumpy ride and remember to keep your hands and other body parts inside the vehicle at all times.  Maximum Heresy is not responsible for any injury sustained while reading this post.  Enjoy your ride!

Research - Compressors

Researching and choosing a compressor is a little different from airbrushes.  With airbrushes there are a few very specific requirements and the rest is simply personal preference and how much you want to pay for extra features.  With Compressors the only absolute requirement is that it needs to be able to supply a continuous flow of air and have a regulator and moisture trap.  The regulator and moisture trap, however, do not necessarily have to come supplied with the compressor since you can buy a variety of different regulators and moisture traps.  This leaves many more options open with less guidance and a much wider range of prices and features.  A good starting point for information on compressors can be found in this post on The Painting Corps on compressors.  Many people recommend that if you have to choose between buying a better quality airbrush or compressor that you should initially get the better compressor, and I generally agree with this.  Airbrushes can come and go, but a good solid compressor will last you a nice long time as long as you don't abuse it.  I agree, the best airbrush in the world will not help you if you have a weak compressor as a foundation. Now I will go into some of the options that you have to consider.
Not that kind of option, dummy!

Hobby compressors vs non-hobby compressors - Keep this in mind while shopping

One of the main decisions that you will have to make is whether you want to go with a hobby compressor or the type of compressor that you would find at a hardware store designed for inflating things, use with air powered tools, etc.  I will go into the general differences between the two types of compressors and then show you a few places where you can find one you like and make your purchase.

Price difference - Price is always a factor

The first thing I want to talk about is price.  Generally speaking, hobby compressors range from expensive to OMG IT'S RAPING MY BANK ACCOUNT expensive (see oil compressors below).  I truly believe that you pay a premium for buying a hobby compressor but as I will discuss there are advantages to either type of compressor.  Both types of compressors can range from under $100 to thousands of dollars but for small scale like operating a single airbrush those higher end compressors are extreme overkill.  The real deciding factor is finding the one that gives you what you need for the least amount of money and the following points to consider will help you make the right decision.

Oil compressors vs oil-less compressors

Almost every guide I have seen has recommended an oil-less diaphragm compressor.  They are much lower maintenance since you don't have to worry about keeping it oiled and do not offer any significant advantage in terms of performance.  The oil compressors are also exorbitantly expensive, weighing in at $750+.  That being said, the oil compressors are supposed to last longer so if you have deep pockets you may decide that you want to spring for a compressor that will stick around longer.  When making this decision, also factor in how much you expect to use your airbrush and compressor.  If you are just doing an occasional prime and/or base coat, even a cheap compressor will probably last for a good long time. Personally I think since there are no supreme performance advantages using a oil compressor. As such I'm going to put the money I saved during my market research in my airbrush selection.

I am the regulator!  No, that's not right.  Damn, what's my line again?  Am I the terminator in this movie?  I can't remember. Source

Regulator and moisture trap - Must have items

As stated before, you must have these two things if you really want to get serious about airbrushing.  Most hobby compressors will come with these things included while many non-hobby compressors will not come with a moisture trap.  Moisture traps and regulators can be purchased separately and can be relatively inexpensive and come in several different flavors.  Hobby compressors generally have the regulator and moisture trap combined and attached right to the compressor.  If you buy a compressor without a moisture trap, you can get a pistol grip moisture trap that is mounted on the underside of your airbrush such as the one at the top of this page (or can also be found cheaper on Dick Blick) or this knock-off version or you can get an in-line moisture trap that resides somewhere along your air line such as this one.  You can also buy an air hose with a built-in inline filter  You can also find in-line moisture traps at your local hardware store.  These links are just a few examples of the options you have.  You can find more options at a number of different places if you search for it. That is a incredible amount of options to suite any budget and personal style.

This is generally not an issue but in the case that you purchase a much higher PSI compressor you may find that the regulator is difficult to dial in the correct pressure.  Some of the non-hobby compressors are designed to power pneumatic tools, nail guns, and other uses that require much more air flow than our little airbrushes. Sometimes their regulator dials can go to, say, 200 PSI while generally the maximum you will use for airbrushing is about 35 PSI.  This leaves very little room on the regulator gauge for the 15-35 PSI range that you would need.  Again, this is generally not an issue unless you get a compressor that is extremely overpowered but if that's what you want (or already have or can borrow) then you can always purchase a secondary regulator with a smaller range so you can dial in the correct pressure.  Many of these come with a built in moisture trap so you get both in one package.

The additional cost of purchasing a regulator and/or moisture trap should be factored in to your purchase price but will generally not have a significant impact on the total cost of your setup.

Size - Bigger is not always better

Hobby compressors will be much more compact than non-hobby compressors.  Even the smallest non-hobby compressors will have a significant size footprint so if space is at a premium for you, you might want to look into a hobby compressor that will fit on your desk, table, nightstand, or wherever you do your hobbying.

Noise level - Can be a concern or non-issue depending on your personal situation

This is an area where hobby compressors generally have the advantage of being quieter.  If you live in an apartment, have roomates/family that will want to strangle you, or any other reason why you might not want to make too much noise, you may want to look into hobby compressors.  If noise is not an issue or you just want to piss off your neighbors, get noise complaints, and an eviction notice then just go wild and get the noisiest thing you can find.  The next point also factors into the noise level as well and should be taken into consideration when addressing your noise level needs. Footprint and noise are a issue for me. I live on a second floor apartment and this means that I require a compressor that is small enough to put on a desk or table. In addition it has to be stable and quiet enough not to transfer vibrations to the tenants in my city apartments.

Not even close.  I am disappoint.
Photoshop Kludged by Chaosheade
Source1 - Source2 - Source3

Air tank - Highly recommended but not absolutely necessary

While not absolutely necessary, an air tank is a very, very nice feature.  The primary benefit is that it ensures a more consistent air flow with less pulsating or sputtering that can occur if you get a model without an air tank.  The other advantage to having an air tank is that you will not have to run your compressor constantly while you are working.  An air tank, depending on the size and pressure can run your airbrush without any compressor noise anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more.  A noisy non-hobby compressor with a large air tank can be taken outside and filled up during the day and you can use the stored pressure to get your airbrush on without waking everyone up in the wee hours of the morning.  Almost all non-hobby compressors will come with an air tank but many hobby compressors do not have one and generally have much smaller tanks when they do come with one.  The next feature also ties in with air tanks.

Automatic on/off - Again, highly recommended but not absolutely necessary

A compressor with this feature will automatically turn on when the pressure in your air tank gets low and turns off when the tank is fully pressurized.  This can save wear and tear on your compressor and reduces noise because it does not have to run the entire time that you are airbrushing.  Obviously, this really only applies to compressors with an air tank.  If you have a compressor without an air tank, you may want to look into this next feature.

Foot pedals or other hands-free switches - An alternative to the automatic on/off 

Despite the previous statement, these devices are not exclusively for tank-less compressors.  They can also be used with a compressor that has an air tank attached, but are obviously more useful for the tank-less variety.  It's pretty self-explanatory.  You turn your compressor on and off using a foot operated pedal on the floor leaving both hands free to work on your painting, reducing noise and wear on your compressor by only running it when you need pressure.  I'm pretty sure most of these are sold separately from the compressor, but I have not looked in to them much at all.


One last point to consider - in case you forgot

Make sure it's powerful enough to push a constant flow of air through your airbrush at the pressure you want to use.  Grey_Death from The Painting Corps (linked at beginning of the article) recommends at least 20 PSI continuously.  Since the non-hobby compressors are designed for more heavy duty tasks this is usually only a concern for hobby compressors.  You don't want to pay $130+ or $250 retail price (!!!!!!!!!) for an Iwata Ninja Jet that only pushes 5-18 PSI and doesn't even come with a moisture trap.  It does come with an air hose though...  

Alternative Solutions - It's good to have options

There are a few alternatives to buying a compressor.  No, do not use the cans of propellant.  Just don't even think about it.  The two main alternatives are air tanks without a compressor and CO2.  A tutorial on making an air tank can be found here on DakkaDakka.  You can fill your tank at gas stations (preferably ones with free air) or borrow someone else's compressor, preferably the non-hobby kind with higher capacity or any other source of cheap or free compressed air you might find.

Well, I think that covers just about everything you could possibly need to know when buying an airbrush compressor.  Bottom line is each type of compressor has it's strengths and weaknesses and what type of compressor and features will suit your needs best is highly variable and depends on your personal situation.  In the next installment of Adventures in Airbrushing we will tackle the choices we have in compressors and some places to buy them.  Until next time, this is Chaosheade And MX4VLTG3 signing out.  Catch you on the flip side. 

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