What Size Air Compressor Do You Need To Paint a Car?

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An air compressor takes regular air and pressurizes it so it could be used to power tools such as nail guns or spray painters – the latter of which we’re going to talk more about in a short while. There are many types of air compressors available in today’s market, so it could be quite confusing to know which one to buy. Read on to learn more about what to look for in an air compressor, particularly one to be used in painting cars.

How Big is Its Tank?

Most commercially available air compressors have four major selling points. The first thing you should consider when purchasing an air compressor for auto painting is how big its tank is. Getting one with a tank that’s too small could result in an uneven flow of paint. It’s recommended that you go for a compressor with a capacity of at least 50 gallons. If you can afford it, buy an even bigger one. An air compressor with a 60 or more gallon capacity can handle painting most vehicles evenly in a single pass.

Car painting work

Image source: spinny.com

What’s Its CFM Rating?

However, of these characteristics, tank size isn’t the only one you should be giving consideration to. You should also take note of the compressor’s CFM or cubic feet per minute rating. The higher the CFM rating of a particular air compressor, the more air it can pump out at a given PSI (pounds per square inch) reading. Painting with an air compressor with too low of a CFM rating could have serious consequences such as an asymmetrical finish. You may notice that some areas of the car are better painted compared to others.

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If you want to paint your car in a single pass, or if you’re planning to paint for a long period of time, then it’s advisable to get an air compressor with a higher CFM rating. These may be a bit pricier, but they can certainly get the job done. Most auto body shops have air compressors with a CFM rating at the 14 to 18 per unit range.  If you’re getting an air compressor for simple cosmetic retouches, then you can survive with around four CFMs. You’ll need to get an air compressor with more CFMs for base and clear coats.

Does it Deliver Enough Air Pressure?

The next thing you should consider when getting an air compressor for auto painting is its air pressure rating, which is measured in PSI. This is arguably the most important thing to consider when purchasing an air compressor – but again, it isn’t the only one you should take note of. Contrary to what many believe, you don’t really need to crank the air pressure up so high to get an even coat of paint on your vehicle. You can easily get your hands on a high volume, low-pressure (HVLP) spray painter, which doesn’t need that much PSI to run.

Experts recommend spraying a base coat using ten to 15 PSI. On the other hand, they would advise you to increase the pressure by a couple of PSIs to around 20 to 25 for the clear coat. Even if you’re using a low volume, low-pressure (LVLP) spray, you don’t really have to increase the PSI rating by too much in order to achieve the same result. However, if you use an LVLP paint gun, be aware of how much water it produces. It would help to have a couple of filters handy – one near the tank and one near the gun itself to keep water out.

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How Much Horsepower Does it Have?

Lastly, we have horsepower (HP), which can simply be defined as the amount of work that can be done by an air compressor. Just keep in mind that a higher horsepower rating doesn’t necessarily equate to a better compressor. If an air compressor that clocks in at around 10 HP can deliver the same amount of pressure as one that has a horsepower reading, then it’s the lower HP compressor that’s more efficient. However, it is advisable to get an air compressor with a higher HP reading, since it can be used to power other tools as well.

car painting

Image source: expondo.co.uk

How Does it Run?

For some users, the type of technology used in running an air compressor is also very important. First of all, you need to choose between getting a reciprocating air compressor or one that is powered by a rotary screw.

The first option uses pistons in the same vein as the engines of the vehicles it helps paint. These may be a bit noisier compared to its rotary counterpart, but it’s also much cheaper – its price tag and cost of maintenance considered. Reciprocating air compressors also come in a wider range. They can go from a rather measly one horsepower all the way to industrial models that measure 30 HP and above.

On the other hand, compressors that run with a rotary screw are more silent and generally consume less energy. However, they come with more complex machinery that’s harder to tinker with as well as a heftier price tag.

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You could either get a gas-powered or an electric air compressor as well. The former is more widely available and comes at a cheaper price. However, the latter option is a better investment in the long run since you don’t have to keep filling it up with expensive fuel.

Should I Get a Portable Air Compressor or a Stationary One?

If you’re going to be using your air compressor for painting in an auto body shop, then you can make do with a stationary model. You won’t really have to move your compressor that much if it only serves a single purpose. However, you’ll get more bang for your buck if you get a portable model since you can move it around. One moment you can use it to paint a car and the next you can use it to power a leaf blower. The possibilities are practically endless if you get an air compressor on wheels.

Those are the things to consider when getting an air compressor for painting cars. The size of the compressor is surely an important factor, but of course you should also be mindful of other things like its CFM and PSI rating as well as the technology that’s used to run it.


  1. How to Find the Best Air Compressor for Painting Cars, Auto Body Tool Mart
  2. What Size Air Compressor Do You Need to Paint a Car?, Learn Auto Body and Paint
  3. Air Compressors for Painting, Quincy Compressor

Originally posted 2023-12-18 12:21:50.

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