Airbrushing report

Posted on 3/14/2016 in old blog with tags Modelling

Greg is looking to get into airbrushing after many years of paintbrush and rattle cans. I'll try to put down my experience so far in order to help him and others that may want to consider this step :)

After my friend Marc's first foray into the weird world of airbrushing, I took the plunge into it about a year ago.

Now, three airbrushes, countless youtube video watches, and enough paper towels used to be indicted by greenpeace, I believe I started to understand how this all thing works. So here are my thoughts:

1. Air

Keeping the air supply mechanism affordable and reasonable, I got a TC-20 compressor with tank and moisture trap. The compressor works decently and it's not too noisy. I have it on a piece of cardboard on my office's carpet and I can use it with no issues before midnight. The advantage of a tank is that the compressor doesn't have to run constantly, it fills the tank and then you use that air until the pressure decreases to a point where the compressor kicks in again. Keeps things quiet. In addition, (but I'm not cool enough to notice these things), air coming from the tank has a smoother flow than if coming directly from the compressor, providing better control of the spray.

Anything else (two cylinders, CO2 tanks, etc) is probably overkill for us.

2. Airbrush

I went thru three airbrushes and I'm now planning to use them all in one way or another. The first one I got was a Paasche VL. Decent tool, I don't use it much (for now), probably because when I got it I knew nothing. So, after reading countless reviews, I got a Iwata Neo CN and proceeded to systematically destroy it by not knowing how to clean it. See below about cleaning, but let's just say that this is my favorite airbrush today; sturdy, simple, precise. Also, Iwata's 5 year warranty is like gold. I had the valve replaced twice at no cost, thanks guys!

The final - and most expensive - airbrush I got is the Grex Tritium TG3. I bought it when I was sure that the Neo CN was dead for good (it wasnt! :) ) and needed something that would not turn me off airbrushing entirely. This is a really good tool, but a bit more complex and delicate than the Neo CN. I have used it for a couple of models, but I'm still building up the confidence to use it properly (if this makes sense).

Anyways, you can get a decent brush for about $60. Spend more when you want to take it up a notch, but that price level is perfectly serviceable.

3. Paints

You can't talk about paints without talking about thinners. By having to go thru the brush nozzle, airbrush paint needs to be quite a bit more liquid than regular brush paint. I use only acrylics, due to not having an easy air vent, and they all say you can thin acrylics with just water, they say.

Don't believe them! :)  Use the proper thinner for the paint brand you use. The chemical composition of them is designed to work better in those cases, even if water can be used in a pinch. After trying Vallejo, Vallejo Air, Lifecolor, Model Master and Tamiya, I came to the conclusion that for me Tamiya paint thinned with X-20 thinner present the most reliable solution. Model Master + water and Lifecolor + Lifecolor thinner are up there, while Vallejo is still giving me some issues; maybe my paints are just a bit old and I need fresh stuff anyways... in the end, you should MIX the paint in the cup with an old paintbrush by adding thinner until it reaches the consistency of milk. Maybe add a drop or two of flow aid to avoid paint drying up in the nozzle.

Tamiya acrylics are kind of water based, and they have some kind of lacquer base that makes them a bit more tolerable to airbrushes, I think.

Anyways, I'm still experimenting here but, for now, Tamiya+X-20 and Model Master+water is what's working for me.

4. Cleaning

The dreaded cleaning part.

Airbrushing is a lot of fun, but all that fun can be dismantled when it's time to clean up your tools. While you can simply dip your paintbrush in water, wipe it on a paper towel and call it a day, it seems like you can't do that with an airbrush.

There are three instances when you need to clean an airbrush: between colors, at the end of the session, and when you don't plan to airbrush for some time.

In the first case, dump the paint that's still in the cup, wipe the inside with a paper towel, add some airbrush cleaning liquid (I use the Tamiya Airbrush cleaner) and spray it out into a container until it comes out clean. You can use a container designed for that (like the Iwata cleaning station) or just a mug covered with a paper towel. Then add the new color and paint away. A trick to clean the channel between the paint cup and the nozzle is to use a paper towel to block the flow of air from the nozzle, push some air (be careful here) and see that bubbles start forming up in the cup. This backdraft cleans the channel; just don't push anything dirty thru this channel again and dump the paint in the cup right away.

In the second case, you want to break down all the paint residue in the nozzle. For that, do the steps above and then leave some cleaner in the cup for at least 30 minutes. Spray it out and repeat until it comes out clean.

In the third case, you'll want to disassemble the airbrush and do a deep clean of all the parts. Try not to mess with the valve, as that's where the all-important o-rings are, and those are very sensitive to harsh cleaner.

5. Other stuff

  • Hose quick disconnect - if you have more than an airbrush, you should invest into a quick release disconnect. I have the Grex G-MAC valve that has a neat added bonus: a pressure regulator right by the airbrush handle. With most compressors, it's hard to finely tweak the air pressure, especially if they're in less than accessible positions. With this valve, you can fine tune it constantly. I would posit that this is the most important tool to improve your airbrushing experience.
  • Spraying booth - weird as it may sound, paint particles do not help your lungs' health or the fine furnishing of your studio. Get a spray booth (I got this one) and - if possible - vent it outside. Even if you don't vent it, the overspray is trapped by the air filter.
  • Wet the tool first - do not start painting with a dry airbrush. Just before putting in your paint, add a couple of drops of anything (water, thinner, cleaner) and spray it out, so needle and nozzle do not provide a dry surface where paint, especially acrylics, can stick.

Well, that is all for now, let me know if this helps and if you have any comments. As I mentioned, I am still learning a lot here and don't pretend to be any kind of authority. This setup just works for me, right now, but it's in constant evolution :)