As requested: airbrushing!
Asking for airbrush advice is a fairly common topic on miniature forums. With good reason, getting one is pretty daunting and there aren’t many clear cut answers (such is art I guess).
That’s because just getting an airbrush isn’t enough. What else do you need to make it work? How do you make it work? It can be a fairly expensive venture, so you want to keep trial and error to a minimum.
Welp, you’re in luck because I’m one to dive into things, so I’ll share with you all my trial and error and all I’ve learned in my 2ish years of using an airbrush! Here’s comes the quick and dirty guide!
DISCLAIMER: While I do try to give more clear cut answers, these are still my recommendations ONLY. I’ve geared this guide towards people that want more concrete answers. I do give information as to why I choose each. There are many great guides available online that contain more in-depth information on each subject if you want to learn more.
Where to start?
Okay so you want an airbrush. Step one done. Let’s just go over to Amazon and pick one u…wait…single or dual action? A what feed? What needle size do I need?! AAAARRRGH. Yeah I know. It’s crazy.
Let me try my best to break it down with out getting too much “into the weeds”. I’m going to gear this towards what I’ve found works best for me and what I think will work best for most people.
Let’s start with feeds: you have Gravity, Siphon, and Side feeds. Basically what this is, is how the paint feeds into the airbrush. Gravity uses…ugh…gravity. The paint cup is at the top of the airbrush and the paint flows down into it. Siphon uses air pressure to feed the paint into the brush and is a canister below the airbrush. Side feed operates a bit like gravity but allows you to swivel the cup when you spray upside down or at an odd angle something.
What do I choose?
Go with a Gravity Feed. To paint miniatures with an airbrush you don’t need the extreme capacity of most Siphon Feeds. Also this will come in handy later when we talk about compressors (gravity giving you some built in air pressure). Side feed would be a close second, but gravity feed airbrushes tend to be easier to find.
Next is dual action vs single action triggers. This is easy. With single action triggers, when you press down, air AND paint come out. With dual action, you press down: only air comes out. You pull back: paint now starts to come out.
What do I choose?
Dual action. It simply gives you more control over your paint.
Needles come in all sizes. What they factor into is how fine your airbrush sprays. The smaller the needle, the finer the spray (but also the thinner you need to thin your paints). For miniatures, you want to look in the .2-.5 range. A .5 needle is better for larger items, like vehicles, while a .2 needle is much better for fine details. You’ll typically use one in a middle range however.
What do I choose?
In my opinion, you can’t go wrong with a ~.3 needle for miniatures. It’s the most versatile for what we typically paint.
I unfortunately can’t speak too much about which brand is better. The ones I trust (in no particular order) from my information gathering is Iwata, Badger, Harder and Steinbeck, or Paasche. I can honestly say that I have been happy with both my Badger Krome and Iwata Revolution however.
What other features should I look for?
A common feature you’ll see on airbrushes are needle stops. I personally like these, as they are precision tools. You can dial in a stop and you won’t be able to pull the trigger past that point, thus allowing you to get a consistent line, even if you switch colors.
Another is pistol grips. Personally, I’m not a fan, but then again, my experience is limited to convention demos. Some people, like Meg Maples, love them. This one is all a matter of comfort. On a typical airbrush, you push the trigger down to start airflow, then pull back to spray paint. Your hand will be arranged like so:
With a pistol grip airbrush, you pull the trigger a little to start the air, then pull back more depending on the amount of paint you want to flow. Your hand is positioned like it’d be if you were holding a gun.
Both these, especially the pistol grip vs not, is a personal choice as it’s more a matter of personal comfort.
What else do I need?
Now we have our gravity-fed, dual trigger airbrush. How do you power it? With an air compressor of course (we are staying away from the canned air stuff).
Air compressors also come in a few varieties. Again with miniatures in mind, our choices narrow a bit.
Tank-less or not?
You don’t need a very powerful compressor or large tank like you would with other tools. Power tool compressors are just too large/loud/impractical for our needs.
The difference between tanked compressors is that the compressor fills a tank with air, which them powers the brush. The benefits of this are that you get a more constant stream of pressure and less “pulsing” when spraying. Basically a smoother experience. This is great for longer spray sessions (which I prefer).
Tank less are cheaper and smaller but will turn on far more during a session in order to keep you supplied with air. These are great for shorter sessions and if you are short on space. Just be careful with long, continuous sprays to avoid “pulsing”.
What do I choose?
Really it’s up to you and your space. I used a tankless compressor (a lot) for a good year before it finally burned out and then picked up my current version. Which is a tanked version of the exact same compressor. I do like the more consistent pressure now though. If I really had to recommend one though, I’d say opt for the compressor with a tank. It’s just a little more money upfront.
This is a biggie. Arguably the most important thing you can do is learn to clean your airbrush well. This is an investment after all, protect it. I’m going to recommend these two items right off the bat:
This cleaning cup I actually see as a required purchase in all honesty. You’re going to end up using this every single airbrushing session. This thing will help with cleaning your airbrush and when changing colors and keeping any fumes to a minimum. Plus it doubles as an airbrush holder when it’s not in use.
Here is the airbrush cleaner I use. I squirt a bit into the cup, stir it around, spray it out. Not much else to say about it really. Others have also had good results with the Createx equivalent.
I would recommend staying away from ammonia based cleaners, spraying acetone, and straight up just soaking your airbursh in general. The former for health/safety reasons, the latter for longevity of your airbrush (messing up the rings inside of it).
What paint do I use?
In all honesty, the paint you’ve been using to paint your miniatures already. You know, your P3s, VMCs, LMNOPs.
Vallejo and Badger make paint lines that are specifically for airbrush use (Vallejo Model Air, Vallejo Game Air, and Minitaire). Meaning that they come pre-thinned, you just pour and spray.
But your typical acrylic miniatures paint lines also can be used in any airbrush as long as it is thinned properly. How and what do you use to thin with? Well, water is the most accessible (and what I usually use). However, there are premade airbrush thinners available that work just as well and have a lot of nice additional properties that are helpful like flow aid or stuff to help prevent tip dry.
Personally, I use a combination of P3 and various Vallejo lines.
How about Primer?
If you’re like me and the weather sucks for priming on most days, then airbrush primer is for you!
Vallejo makes an airbrush primer in which you just pour and spray! It creates an incredibly smooth and thin coat. It’s also available in a multitude of colors in addition the usual black/white/grey for more colorful options (although I believe they are mostly modeled after military craft paint jobs).
I can’t recommend this stuff enough.
Word of warning though: I’ve found that on metal models the thin coat can lend itself to chipping. Make sure you do multiple coats. On plastic/resin/restic models it’s perfect though, never chipped on me.
So what are we getting?
So far we’ve decided that we need AT LEAST the following four things in order to begin our airbrush odyssey:
Here’s a picture of my setup!
And so ends part one of this guide.
I wanted to do this in one big post but the next part I think can get pretty heavy (and to avoid information overload) as we will talk about using the airbrush and cleaning it. We’ll also talk about things like what PSI to spray at and I’ll have a bunch of videos that helped me along in my journey.
Be on the look out for PART 2 next week!