We’ve been asked again and again for info on airbrushing, where to start, what to buy, what you need, as it can be a minefield, and fairly daunting. Well, here it is, part one of a solid, friendly guide, presented in a manner that’s not confusing, elitist, or jargon heavy, designed to guide you through the initial steps.
Part one will give you some info on your compressor, what you’re looking for, the difference between them, which will fit your needs etc. We’ll cover the actual airbrush in part 2, and in part 3, some supplies you’ll need, what you can use to save money, and just general tips and tricks, all in one handy place.
You’ve already decided you want to begin airbrushing, whether you want to coat legions of troops quickly and smoothly, paint scale armour, Forge World kits, or whatever. You might have seen the Games Workshop flamer, with its cans of air. Avoid this, it’s very poorly built, and you’ll only end up frustrated, annoyed, and wanting to quit airbrushing before you’ve begun.
Now we have that out of the way, let’s move on to why you need a compressor. A compressor is an engine that compacts the fresh air you’re breathing right now. Once the air is under pressure, it can be squirted out via your airbrush, it picks up the paint within the brush, and carries it on to the surface you’re painting. That, is it. As you can imagine, using cans of air isn’t ideal if you want control over that pressure that’s coming down the tube into the airbrush. Which is why you need a compressor. They regulate that air, meaning you can set it at whatever pressure you want (psi). Higher pressure for large areas and priming, lower pressures for base coats, lowest for detail work. I’m no engineer, nor physicist, but that’s what we do in a nut shell.
Now, there are a tonne of compressors around, and these are split in to various types that can be confusing. There are two types initially, ones with air tanks/reservoirs, and ones without. The ones with, have a motor, that compresses the air, to a specified pressure, in a metal canister. Once its full, the motor stops, and you have a box with air in it set to your chosen psi, meaning you get a really nice, smooth flow of air. Soon as you begin to use up the air, the motor comes on and refills it automatically.
The second type is direct, basically the motor compresses the air, and pushes it straight down the hose to your airbrush at your chosen pressure. That motor is running whenever you’re spraying, and the air pressure is controlled by a regulator. This is a device in the setup that makes sure the air pressure stays at the psi you set it at for the task at hand.
Given this is a hobby blog, and you’re likely to be spraying moon men, fantasy monsters and sci-fi tanks, weigh up what your needs are. Do you live in a flat, where an always on compressor is going to be noisy and cause problems, do you work late at night? As with all things, get the best setup you can afford, set yourself a budget, and try to stick to it, if you know a friend with a setup, ask them if you can have a go and get some experience with how you work. You’ll likely find you airbrush in a slightly different style to your mate, meaning you might need a different setup.
I’ve tried a £230 Iwata Smart Jet, against a £75 KMS compressor, the Iwata didn’t have a reservoir, the KMS did. I went back to the KMS pretty quickly. For me, and the way I work, the flow from a reservoir feels much smoother, and fitted my style better so its worth testing out some setups if you can. I’d split your budget 50/50 or thereabouts, compressor and brush, if either one is sub standard, you’ll get poor results and you’ll get frustrated very quickly.
Now, you’ve decided what kind of compressor you want, there’s another division here, there are standard ones, and quiet ones. The quiet ones are specifically designed to run almost silently, whereas your standard ones will vary, some will be louder than others, but it might be worth checking the decibel (db) output on the manufacturer’s website before taking the plunge. The silent compressors are oil compressors, meaning they need a clean oil supply to function, much like a car, these things are essentially motors after all. This isn’t as massive a ball ache as it sounds. You get oil with them, and you just connect the bottle to the compressor using the provided tube and squeeze it in. Easy. The standard compressors are predominantly oil-less, which as you’d expect, require zero maintenance and no oil top ups.
Your entry level silent compressors come in at around the £300 mark, which can seem daunting as an initial outlay, as I said, set yourself a budget that works for you. There are several companies doing them but Bambi are a solid UK based brand that supply to trades such as dentists and medical practices where the utmost quality is needed. If they’re supplying for that kind of specification, then you’re in safe hands. They don’t get enough credit in the hobby world, but their products are top line and every part is replaceable so this things going to be with you a life time. Their budget range is here. They put out around 40 decibels which I’m told is around what your fridge does, with no vibrations and have a minimum of 9 litre reservoir which is massive when compared with every other brand available.
Also available are compressors by Werther, their Sil-Air range are similar to the Bambi lines price-wise. Their Entry level drops in at £270, with very similar spec of 40db but with a 1.5 litre reservoir,going upwards to £300 for a 4 litre and beyond, Air -Craft stock these lines here. They come highly recommended on forums and the like. The 30-6 above is excellent value for money and has a 6 litre reservoir putting it pretty much on part with Bambi’s entry machine.
One point thats worth bearing in mind at this stage is oil carryover. Its a worst case scenario with oil compressors, but can happen, which will necessitate purchasing a coalescing filter. This is basically an in-line filter that will clean the air before it gets to the brush and consequently the paint. The Bambi machines do seem to be more prone to this than the Sil Airs, although Bambi’s main retailer state that 9 times out of 10, you’ll not need one. I’m just mentioning this now as you need to look at all the angles when putting down that kind of spend.
Now well compare the above specs to the ubiquitous Iwata range, the Smart Jet Pro that retails at anywhere between £230 and £300. I cant find the db output on this but its fairly noisy having used one, and it doesn’t have a reservoir either, its a direct compressor. This is where your choices need to be made. These things are fairly common as tanning compressors, and have a patented (I think) Iwata regulator making sure the pressure doesn’t drop while you’re spraying. Byron from Element swears by Iwata compressors, and his models are ridiculously well painted, so go figure.
As I mentioned, the compressor most of the members of Corehammer uses is the AS186 re-branded by various companies such as KMS and Wiltec. It has a 3 litre reservoir, but I cant tell you what the noise output is. Mine is quiet-ish, I’d not use it late at night though, and it kicks out some serious vibrations. You’ll also need to watch it if its on a smooth surface and not stuck down with the sucker feet as it moves when its turned on on. It does the job, the reservoir gives you a nice smooth flow of air, and it just tops itself up when your tank starts getting empty. as a starting point, this is a solid choice. Dont expect any customer support though if you go for the KMS branded model, all emails will be ignored.
I’ve seen a few of the direct AS18 compressors knocking about too, coming in at round £50-80 depending on where you’re buying from. If your plan is to fire on primer/base coats, and a bit of zenithal highlights on to models, with no noise issues, then these will no doubt fit the bill. Solid little machines that get your paint where you need it to be. But if youre going to be spending £50 on one, I’d urge you to think about saving up another month or so and pushing for that AS186 as your entry model. You wont regret it. Don’t let those free airbrushes you get with it sway you either, those are going on ebay unopened as soon as your package arrives. Just trust me on this, all will be revealed next time.
Hopefully that’s enough info to get you started and thinking about your own specific needs, what you want to do with it, how you want to work, and whether noise is an issue in your work area. We’ll cover the setup you need once you’ve got your compressor nailed next time, starting with the actual airbrush itself.