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A primer on airbrushes

A primer on airbrushes

I’ve been asked a lot recently (in the past 3 months) about my thoughts on airbrushes, and what someone getting started should look for.  Rather than re-type my thoughts each time I get asked, I figured I’d make a blog post of it!

Before I get started, check out the Plarzoid.com Store.  It has an Airbrush section, and there are links to Amazon for everything I use.  I didn’t put the store together to make money or try to sell you on things.  It’s just a very convenient way for me to put stuff in one place when it comes to answering the “What do you use?” question.  Take a gander, support your local hobby shop if you can.  If you can’t, buy through Amazon.

For the impatient (Spud), here’s an index of what I’m going to cover:

  1. Compressors
  2. Hoses
  3. Airbrushes
  4. Starter Setup

Compressors

If you’re going to Airbrush, you need air.  The compressor supplies this.  A compressor consists of three main pieces – the motor (which does the compressing), a tank (which holds the compressed air) and the regulator (which controls the compressor’s air output to the brush).  Some compressors don’t have tanks, but most do, and some don’t come with a regulator.  Regulators can be purchased separately, but you can’t really add on a tank after the fact.

In my opinion, the compressor is one of the least important parts of the setup, but can be one of the most annoying or costly if you don’t do your research.  So, rather than tell you what specific model to buy, I’m going to spell out some good and bad things to look for.

Motor:  When researching, look for complaints about overheating or motor failure.  Overheating is often a factor of how large the compressor’s tank is, because a small tank will need to be refilled often, which runs the motor more often.  The manufacturer should have compensated for this with better heat sinks (the metal ribs you see around the motor) but some don’t, for cost reasons.  Some compressors claim to have silent / quiet motors – don’t expect them to be completely silent.  All it meas is that the compressor will sound like a dozen purring cats instead of a tornado.

Tank: I’d avoid tank-less compressors.  While ultra compact, they run continuously (potentially noisy) and that’ll add to your electric bill and more importantly, wear out the motor faster.  Plus, most tank-less compressors tend to be budget jobs and fail often.  The larger the tank, the less frequently the motor will run, but the larger the compressor is going to be.  That trade-off is up to you and how much space you have in your hobby area.  My compressor has a super small tank, so the motor runs about about a 35-50% duty cycle.

Regulator: This is the gauge and knob that your hose attaches to.  It should also have a moisture trap (looks like a honeycomb in a glass bubble).  If your compressor doesn’t have a regulator with a moisture trap, get one.  The regulator … well, it regulates the compressor’s output to the brush into a steady stream of air with a constant pressure.  The moisture trap, as you’d expect, pulls moisture out of the air.  This is important because we don’t want water in the air messing with our paint mixture!  “I live in a dry climate!” you say.  When air is compressed, it squeezes the water out, and that condenses inside your compressor.  You need one, even if you live a desert environment.

So, look for a compressor with a solid motor and that fits into your space/ budget.  Here are some decent ones I found with 10 minutes of research:

Paasche D500SR – $100

Master Airbrush Starter Kit – $75

Badger TC910 – $190

Hose

While it may not seem obvious, there’s a good reason to take a minute to discuss hoses.  I don’t know that there’s any advantage to one manufacturer or another, except that they all tend to use their own threads.  This means that a Paasche hose may be incompatible with a Badger Airbrush.  I suggest getting a hose that matches your compressor.  Since you won’t be changing compressors often, stick with that.

Once you have your hose picked out, look for a Quick Disconnect end for it.  This should be $10-20.  Quick Disconnects are like a USB port for airbrushes – a universal connection system regardless of what’s on the opposite end.  Once you have them on all your brushes and hoses, you can swap any airbrush to any compressor, and you can do it in about 2 seconds.

Additionally, having Quick Disconnects for your airbrush system is like having car insurance.   Airbrushes have their threads cut into the body of the brush.  When / if they get stripped or ruined, you don’t get a good seal to the hose, and you have to buy a new airbrush.  That gets expensive, and super inconvenient.   So, if you’re going to use more than one airbrush or disconnect the airbrush from the hose often (which you’ll need to do for proper cleaning), then the Quick Disconnect will protect those fragile threads on the expensive airbrushes.

Seriously, Quick Disconnects, man.  Get on that train.  For $10 (per hose / airbrush), you get so much convenience and protection, it’s stupid.  Why the manufacturers don’t just include them with the brush is beyond me.

Airbrush

Two things to keep in mind when looking at airbrushes:  number of actions and needle size.

A single action brush is at the mercy of your regulator, since it can’t control the air flow – only how much paint you add to the air.  A dual-action brush can control both.  Obviously, more control is cool, but it’s harder to learn and more complex and often more expensive (but not by much).

Needle size is less important, since most manufacturers offer needle & nozzle kits to swap sizes.  However, if you’re on a budget, you don’t want to be spending an extra $20-40 for a needle kit on top of the brush itself.

Brands

There are several out there, and I don’t have enough experience with all of them to tell you which is best, etc.  However, if / when you go on YouTube and start watching airbrush videos, you’ll notice lots of the YouTubers using Badger airbrushes.  For the longest time, I thought they were the budget brand, and stayed away, but I was so wrong.  They’re an industry standard for a reason, and they can sponsor the YouTubers for a reason.  They make some damn good Airbrushes.

I can really only talk with authority about the brushes I have, so here’s my stable of three brushes, and what I like / dislike about each.  Again, each of these is in the Plarzoid.com Store, so go there to see detailed product info.

Grex Tritium TG3

The pistol grip is fun and ergonomic, but it’s only a single action brush.  I keep it configured for a big, wide spray since it has one of the largest cups of all of my brushes.  I use it primarily for priming and base coating.  It’s got some cool features for detail work, but I’ve not really spent the time to get them dialed in.  This brush came in an all-in-one kit, so the compressor it came with is the one I use.  It’s a small “tankless” one with a nice regulator and moisture trap.

The Tritium TG3 comes in the full setup kit at ~$450

Badger Patriot 105

This is my most recent purchase.  I wanted something between the Grex and the Sotar (below) and this was the best model I found for my price range.  It’s a dual action brush and came with a medium/small needle which was perfect.  I really like this brush.  It can do the finer detail when I need it to, and when dialed in, gives a great gradient and smooth coat.  I’m still exploring what this brush has to offer, but I’m super pleased with it.

See Also

My latest purchase, and new primary airbrush.

Badger Sotar 20/20-2F

This is my detail brush.  It’s configured with the smallest needle available, and has the smallest cup of all the brushes.  It’s clearly designed for fine detail work.  The dual-action trigger is smooth as silk, and gives really fine control.  I’m still mastering this brush, but I’m really happy with what I’ve been able to achieve with it thus far.  It normally retails for over $400, but Amazon seems to ignore this and has hat it listed at less than $100 for several months.  I don’t know why, but if you want a detail brush, this is the one.

A great brush at a ridiculous discount on Amazon.

Starter Setup

If you’re just getting started, I think the Badger Patriot 105 is the brush to start with.  It’s a decent investment at $75, but it’s not a throw-away brush that you’ll want to replace in a few months when you have a handle on what you’re doing.  I really think it’s a brush that you could use for several years.  I plan to.

Find a compressor that fits your budget and taste (tank, no tank, size, cost).  Use the Amazon reviews – they’re helpful.  Paasche and Badger are good brands, from what I understand.

GET QUICK DISCONNECTS.  Seriously, protect your investment.

You’ll want a respirator.  Simple cloth ones work OK, I prefer a 3M mask, since it’s more comfortable and has a better seal.

Windex cut 50/50 with water is a great cleaner.  Just flush with water before going to your next paint color.  (The ammonia in Windex will destroy the paint.  Makes it a good cleaner and terrible thinner).  Use your respirator when cleaning – you don’t want to breathe ammonia.

Solo cups and white paper towels.  White paper towels so you can see when you’ve successfully cleaned the paint from the brush.  Though, when cleaning white, they’re terrible.  (I just use Chipotle Napkins, myself).  Whatever you get for paper towels, make sure it doesn’t leave behind fibers.  Those will gum up the airbrush.

Airbrush cleaning wand-y things.  Usually $5, and have a half dozen or so on a key ring.  Really useful for cleaning out the brush at the end of a session.

I spray into a huge cardboard box.  IMO, you don’t need a fume hood or booth unless you’re airbrushing on a daily basis and can’t close the door of the room you’re in.  Just make sure anyone else in the room with you (including pets) has a respirator.  You’re atomizing paint and violently projecting it into the air.  Don’t breathe that shit.  Your snot will be funny colors for days, trust me.

Patience.  Play with the brush on paper for a few hours.  Draw fat lines that get skinny.  Draw skinny lines that get fat.  Work on drawing straight lines.  Draw transparent lines.  Build up a gradient.  Then, do it all again on a piece of primed plasticard.  The paper will teach you how to control the brush, and removes the paint’s consistency from the equation (a bit).  The plasticard will help you dial in your paint and air mixture.  Much like learning a new game, you’re not going to get fantastic results the first time.  Keep that in mind going in, and you’ll be less frustrated and get better results faster.

Questions?

Post in the comments below, or shoot an e-mail to me at plarzoid [@] gmail [.] com.

View Comments (3)
  • Just a comment about Windex: You are better off using an actual airbrush cleaning solution- commonly called “Airbrush Cleaner”. I use http://www.amazon.com/Vallejo-200Mls-Bottle-Airbrush-Cleaner/dp/B00B4B067G Vallejo airbrush cleaner and it lasts forever. Windex has a lot of other chemicals in it besides ammonia, which is it’s main solvent for cleaning your airbrush. Do you really want to be spraying that kind of crap around where you can breath it in (hence the respirator, but I haven’t found one yet for my cat).

    Along with a cleaner for your airbrush, I highly recommend http://www.amazon.com/Iwata-Medea-NAC-201-Cleaning-Station/dp/B000VADIVC/ref=sr_1_1?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1425074139&sr=1-1&keywords=airbrush+cleaning+pot an Airbrush cleaning pot. You can buy one, or make your own- they are pretty easy to make. Basically, anything for you to shoot junk paint/cleaner into and not have it spread out every where or atomize and all you or anyone nearby to inhale.

    After a while I picked up a “fume hood” which is basically a plastic box opened at one end and the other end has a filter and fan that sucks all the over spray and atomized paint through the filter (I have a flexable 4″ hose on the outside of the box that connects to another big empty box.

    Some people swear by Windex as a “cutter” for airbrush paints. Windex has a lot of other junk in it, and in some paints, it will actually break it down right in your paint cup. Again, I turn towards Vallejo and use their excellent airbrush medium.

    In the end though, if all you are shooting is acrylic paint, then you can use water to cut the paint, and it will work perfectly well (I use just water in P3 paints and Vallejo and have no problems).

    Final comment- I like to use airbrush paints in my airbrush. Such paint is thinner and has a finer pigment to it then a regular acrylic paint. It costs a bit more, but is well worth it for shooting in your airbrush. Don’t believe me? Pick up GW Gold and a bottle of Vallejo airbrush gold, and paint them on a test model with a brush. Tell me which flows better, covers better, and when dry looks better? Now try and shoot the GW gold in your airbrush….

    Remember, practice, practice, practice and you will get better with your airbrush!

      

    • The Iwata station is really nice, I agree. The heavy glass base is great, but the Grex Pistol grip doesn’t fit into the stand, so I stopped using it a while ago. I should go back to it.

      I thin with a mixture of water, Flow Aid and Fluid Retarder. I’ll look into the thinner and cleaner, thanks!

        

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