airbrushes

So you want to airbush? A Beginner’s Guide, Part 1

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.

Feeds

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.

Triggers

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.

Needle Size

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.

Various Airbrush needles
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.

Brands

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?

An example of a needle stop of my Badger Krome.
An example of a needle stop of my Badger Krome.

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.

An example of a pistol grip airbrush.
An example of a pistol grip airbrush.

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:

airbrush grip
Some people find it uncomfortable. I feel like I have more control over paintflow.

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.

This is a fairly standard tank-less compressor.  Note that this one has a moisture trap and regulator attached.
This is a fairly standard tank-less compressor. Note that this one has a moisture trap and regulator attached.

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.

Cleaning

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:

Iwata Cleaning Station
Trust me, you want this.

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:

  1. A dual trigger, gravity or side fed airbrush
  2. An air compressor
  3. A cleaning cup
  4. Airbrush cleaner

Here’s a picture of my setup!

Here's my usual personal airbrushing setup....give or take.
Here’s my usual personal airbrushing setup….give or take.

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!

 I created an Amazon affiliate store with all these suggested products to try and make it easier for folks (and to help fund my hobby if I’m being honest).  I hope it helps!

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38 thoughts on “So you want to airbush? A Beginner’s Guide, Part 1”

  1. So; You’ve attached the compressor to a board so it wouldn’t move as much? I don’t know how I didn’t think of that.

    I’m working now on making a spray booth and I might make a tutorial on it later. What brand is your airbrush, by the way? I have a Trusted general-use double action Paasche airbrush (I’ve had this baby since university), a gravity feed Paasche Talon (which all around feels like having a sports car, that’s a beautiful airbrush alright) and a very cheap Hardware store single-action for basecoating and terrain.

    1. Yup, that’s a fairly firm piece of foam to keep the vibrations down.

      I have an Iwata Revolution CR and Badger Krome RK-1. The Revolution has a .5 needle and is fairly barebones in terms of features. I use it for like priming, or big, broad basecoats. The Krome has become my go-to baby. It comes with a .2 & .3 needle (although I only ever use the .3). It has a nice rest for your fingers, a needle stop, and the trigger is butter smooth.

  2. My wife bought me an Iwata Neo, and I love it. I’m curious to see you maskless in the pic though. Do you spray regularly without one? How well ventilated is the area you work in?

    1. That pic was just snapped to demonstrate my typical setup. There is a window right next to me that is open when I spray and I typically wear a glove on the hand holding the model. And a mask, especially during longer sessions.

  3. Great article! I’ve been looking at picking up an airbrush and the ones you compared are a couple of the ones I have been contemplating; it’s nice to see the differences explained head to head.

      1. The two that I am most seriously considering are the Badger 105 Patriot and the Badger RK-1 Krome. So I see that the Badger 105 Patriot has a .5 needle and the Badger RK-1 Krome comes with a .3 and .2 needle. When it comes to doing miniatures, what would you recommend? Can the RK-1 take a larger size needle for bigger things?

        1. So I’m not 100% that the Krome can take a .5 needle, but it’s not usually a matter of putting a .5 needle in the airbrush and calling it a day. It’d involve changing additional parts in the brush.

          For miniatures I recommend .3. I’m a bit bias, but I’d recommend the Krome as it’s a pretty versatile brush. I use mine for everything.

          If you went with the .5 that doesn’t mean you can’t get fine lines, but it would take more control (a needle stop would definitely help).

          Hope that helps a bit, if not, ask away!

          1. I ended up getting myself a Badger RK-1 Krome airbrush and several of the other items you mentioned here (through your Amazon affiliate store of course!). Haven’t had a chance to actually use them yet as the airbrush only just arrived yesterday, but I am excited to give it a go!

  4. Great guide, thanks for putting this together! One other item I would add as a must have is a respirator. Over time the aerosol mist from the spraying can and will get into your respiratory system. Do yourself a favor and pick up a respirator!

  5. Reblogged this on Guslado's Games and commented:

    I have previously mentioned another blog that really helped me in my research into getting an airbrush. While I am still learning how to master this black magic device, I am already excited by the results I am getting with my airbrush and am confident it will become a powerful tool in my painting arsenal; I wanted to share this blog post with you because I found it ridiculously helpful in my hunt. If you find this post as helpful as I did and decide to get yourself an airbrush, help a fellow hobbyist out and order yours through the Amazon affiliate store he has set up on his page. I hope this helps you all out as much as it helped me.
    If you’re into listening to podcasts, and looking for a little beginners help with your airbrushing, give A Wyrd Place Podcast episode 5 a listen. They have a lot of the same advice as this blog post, but also have a few other nuggets of wisdom on the topic. If you’re into Malifaux and haven’t given this podcast a listen, they have a lot of good info on the game and hobby (although I do wish they’d put out episodes a little more often). If you’re not a Malifaux player (why aren’t you!?) and just want the airbrush info, you can jump to about an hour into that episode.
    I am most certainly not an airbrushing expert (yet!) but these two sources really are what gave me the confidence in my selection of the parts of my airbrush setup.

  6. Thanks so much for this really informative clear super helpful guide, I’ve wanted an airbrush for vehicle mini camos for a while and you gave me the help I needed to take the leap and get one, I look forward to it, Tanks again!!

    1. But the reason to airbrush are many in my opinion:
      1. Basecoating is a breeze
      2. Easier to do/built in blends
      3. Easier to do various effects like osl and stuff.
      4. But for me, the biggest one is how much time it saves me. I still paint despite not having as much time as I used to, so anything that can give me great results in a quicker time is a plus to me.

  7. I Am about to buy my first airbrush, from Amazon. I want to thank you for yourarrival. It helped to confirm what I have picked out. So Thank You again!l

  8. You should post some videos on YouTube for your part two. This has really helped out in my choice of what to get. Very thorough and well written.

  9. thanks buddy just bought a new airbrush n compressor on the basis of your recommends. thanks for spending your time, to save us time

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