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[ Home: Airbrush Art: How To Choose the Right Airbrush! ]
"How To Choose the Right Airbrush!"
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Author: Sam_Houchin, Contributing Editor

Which Airbrush is right for me?That is the question that I hope this article will begin to answer for you! Choosing an airbrush can be a major headache! The right airbrush, and accompanying equipment, for the right application is what you ultimately want to achieve! So, What is right for your situation?

Know your own needs before you start shopping. If you are just interested in airbrushing and have no idea of where to begin, I would suggest that you read everything you can on airbrushing and look at all the different styles and applications. Doing so will get you pointed in the right direction! Not all airbrushes are the same (styles and designs vary) and choosing the right one for your needs will require a little effort on your part. Most airbrushes are intended for specific applications and/or paints. Choosing which airbrush best suits your needs is essential! In order for you to use an airbrush you must also have an air source. Remember, an "airbrush set-up" can be rather costly, so do your research!

Letís examine important questions that you should ask yourself when choosing an airbrush:

What will I be airbrushing? You can use an airbrush on T-shirts, autos, fine art, photo retouching, and many other applications.

What support do I want to airbrush on? You can use canvas, MDF, illustration board, fabric, walls, human skin and many others.

Which medium do I want to spray through my airbrush? Mediums include acrylics, gouache, watercolor, oils, or something else!

What degree of instant control would I like? Different airbrushes offer varying degrees of control.

How large is the area I want to work with? An airbrush's ability to generate detail can be a main factor in your choice. Do you want to use your airbrush for detail or just shooting large backgrounds?

How much can I afford to pay for an airbrush? This consideration can sometimes be the most important factor in choosing an airbrush!

What type of air source do I need for my airbrush? The air source can be a small hobby compressor, a large shop style compressor, or a portable air or CO2 tank.


Nozzle and Tip Size

Tip size is the primary regulator of the amount of air/paint mixture that can be sprayed through any given airbrush. Most models come with predetermined tip sizes, while other models come with interchangeable tips. Tip size can vary from 0.10mm to 1.50mm. The smaller the size, the finer the work that can be achieved. Most airbrush artists own several differently tipped sized airbrushes, as one can not provide the versatility they require. With that said, there are several airbrushes on the market that provide itís user with a reasonable amount of versatility. These can be found in the 0.16mm to the 0.30mm range.

Letís discuss the primary differences between the airbrush designs. Each design has its own unique advantage, and serves its own specific function. I will try to incorporate information that will answer the questions above! There are three main types of airbrushes; single action, double action, and turbine.

Single Action Airbrush

With the single action, you preset the amount of air flow via the regulator and then you adjust the amount of paint that you desire by rotating the nozzle clockwise, for less, or counter clockwise, for more. When the trigger is depressed both the air and the paint come out at the same time. In order to change the paint flow you must stop spraying and make the proper adjustment. The needle selected for the job will have to be changed for a different job. In other words, to get a fine line you must use the smaller needle and to get a larger spray pattern you must change to a larger needle. Some might tell you that these are great for starting out with, but sooner or later you will want more control over the paint flow through the airbrush.

Single action airbrushes can be used for fine art, commercial art, hobby & craft, automotive, signs, taxidermy, and cake decorating.
Single action airbrushes can be used with watercolors, gouache, acrylic, ink/dye, oil, enamel, lacquer, textile, glazes, gesso, and varnish.

External Mixing Airbrush

Most single action airbrushes combine paint and air externally. That is, the airflow goes through the airbrush itself and is directed over an opening where the paint will come from. This causes a siphon, or suction, that draws the paint up and into the airflow where it passes over the fluid tip. At this point, the air and paint are mixed. The paint is atomized and propelled out of the airbrush. The atomized paint has a larger dot pattern and is less capable of fine line work.

Double Action Airbrush

The double action airbrush allows you to control the amount of paint that is placed into the airflow. The air pressure is adjusted at the regulator. When the trigger is depressed this preset amount of air will flow from the brush. There is a little control of the air flow with the trigger, that is proportional to how far you depress the trigger, but not much. Then, as you begin to pull the trigger backwards you add paint into the airflow. The farther back you pull, the more paint will be added. This control gives you the ability to vary your spray pattern from a fine line to heavy coverage of a large area without changing needles.

Double action airbrushes can be used for, fine art, commercial art, hobby & craft, t-shirt or textile, automotive, signs, nails and cosmetics, body art, photo retouching, taxidermy, and cake decorating.
Double action airbrushes can be used with watercolors, gouache, acrylic, ink/dye, oil, enamel, lacquer, textile, glazes, gesso, and varnish.

Internal Mix Airbrush

Most double action airbrushes combine the paint and air internally. That is, the air and the paint both flow through the airbrush, and are mechanically mixed inside the airbrush. The fluid is mixed with the air right at the tip of the head assembly inside the cap, and because the air passes all around the tip, the fluid is thoroughly atomized to a micro dot size.

Siphon Feed

There are also two main ways to deliver the paint to the internal mixing airbrush. The first is siphon. Most siphon feed airbrushes have side feed cups or paint jars that are plugged into the side or bottom of the airbrush. These are particularly useful where large quantities of paint are required. Large bottles can be plugged into this type of airbrush where and when quick color changes are required. Like the external I explained above, the airflow goes through the airbrush itself and is directed over an opening where the paint will come from. This causes a siphon, or suction, that draws the paint up and into the airflow. These airbrushes require higher air pressures and are great for high volume work. They are better for the more viscous mediums. These are the preferred airbrushes by the t-shirt and textile industry.

Gravity Feed

The second type is a gravity feed airbrush. These have top mounted feed cups. The paint is still siphoned, but with greater ease due to the gravity assist. These airbrushes are better for low volume and highly detailed work. They are better for the less viscous mediums. They require less air pressure to operate thus cutting down on over spray. The lower the air pressure, the slower the artist can move his hand; and the slower the artist moves his hand, the more control he has over the spray. Because of itís design, this airbrush cleans quickly for fast color changes. These are the preferred airbrushes of the fine artists and illustrators.

Turbine or Turbo Airbrush

The turbine airbrush is a version of the original airbrush design dating back 1904. It is a double action external mix airbrush designed for the commercial illustrator or photo retoucher to achieve the finest detail and control possible. A small air driven turbine oscillates a fine needle through a paint reservoir and in front of the airflow tube which causes the atomization a small amount of paint. The AB has extremely precise control over paint flow because of its unique design. It uses a dual channel airflow system to separately regulate air and paint flow. The mechanisms that make up the paint delivery system have three main controls, the trigger, the speed regulator, the stipple adjuster, and several auxiliary controls that can be tuned in different ways to control the airbrushes behavior.
As you can see, this brush is best left to the expert airbrush operator as many adjustments make it a temperamental tool in the hands of a novice. The high price of this model is another consideration for the price conscious consumer. This brush is ideal for detail work but, is limited for base coating and painting large areas.


Depending on the your needs, the air source can be a small hobby compressor, a large shop style compressor, or a portable air or CO2 tank. Small cans of air are available, but not recommended. They are very expensive and do not last long! Compressors can be found in a variety of price ranges and should be factored into your overall decision on a airbrush. The work that you want to do will influence the compressor you will need. How many airbrushes do you plan to work with? Do you want the ability to operate an airbrush and a spray gun in one fail swoop? Or do you just want to decorate cakes? Compressors can be found in as many varieties as the airbrushes themselves. Their price can range from $50.00 to thousands! I have heard it said and I believe it myself, that you need to buy the best compressor you can afford! If your having problems with your air supply then your having problems with your airbrush work/art! Another rule I abide by is, that you will eventually have a need to upgrade, either by necessity or by a newfound budget! So, anticipate these needs when you purchase a compressor.

Diaphragm Compressors

Diaphragm compressors are small and portable. They are reliable and inexpensive. They can not generate pressures greater than 30 psi. They use a vacuum to oscillate a diaphragm which forces air through a one way valve system. They tend to cause the air being emitted from the airbrush to vibrate or cycle which some artists report to be a problem when attempting to do fine work. The primary considerations for a diaphragm compressor is that it generates high heat and is very noisy. The heat will eventually lead to complications with both the compressor itself and with the problem of moisture that condensation produces. In line moisture traps will eliminate some of condensation traveling to your airbrush, but most manufactures recommend keeping operating times to about twenty minutes.

Silent Compressors

The silent compressors tend to be pricey! They are a little larger and heavier than diaphragm compressors, therefore slightly more cumbersome to transport. Some models have wheels and dolly style handles to facilitate easy moving. They are extremely reliable and low maintenance if proper care is given. They use a small piston driven motor that is submersed in a noise dampening oil bath which renders itís operation almost silent! They have holding tanks, of various sizes, in which air pressure levels are maintained at a constant level. The tanks air outflow is controlled by regulator and the psi can be adjusted.

Oil-less Compressors

Less costly and much louder than the silent compressors, the oil-less piston compressors usually come equipped with holding tanks and cooling systems. Unable to produce air pressures higher than that of the silent compressors, it will provide more than the diaphragm style. Oil-less piston compressors may be the middle ground that many find most suitable. They are low maintenance and very reliable.

Industrial Compressors

Industrial compressors are abundant and moderately priced depending on itís size. They are oil-less piston style compressors possessing a holding tank and a cutoff switch for when the tanks air levels are at maximum capacity. They are extremely loud and hard to operate indoors. Some have industrial compressors in their garage and run air tubing into the house. This is fine if your wife is OK with it and you regulate the air pressure as close to the airbrush as possible. The added ability to use other air powered tools is a consideration for this style of compressor.

CO2 Tank

Extremely portable, reliable, and efficient the CO2 tank is a viable option to compressors. A fifty pound tank can provide up to thirty hours of operation, depending on the pressure being used, and can be purchased new around $200.00 or you may find a great deal on a used one. Refills can be obtained at any welding supply.

In summary, if I were to emphasize one concept of the content of this article it would be to recommend that you take great care in your selection process and to remember that you will get what you pay for. This is one time that you should make the effort, regardless of your budget, to purchase the best airbrush, and compressor, that you can possibly afford! I say this with confidence and the added knowledge of many years of trial and error. On this issue at least, learn from my mistakes so you donít have to make your own.

Happy Airbrushing!