Over the past few years, I seem to run into the same conversation with friends as well as on various online forums. Usually someone wants to get started with Airbrushing their models and has no real idea where to start. Having invested a lot of time and money into answering that same question for myself, I try to avoid the default “google it” or “check on YouTube.” No offense to those options, but much like the options available related to the subject, there are as many answers available and many seem (to me) to not quite fit. As a result, I thought it might be worthwhile to write about my experiences and what I tell people when asked that question.
First, some background on me. I started painting models in the early 90’s with an old Hero Quest box set and some Testors Enamel paints. Moved on to Battletech plastics, and later to 40k in the 2000’s. I am by no stretch of the imagination what could be considered a ‘pro’ at this. I have at least a dozen miniatures painting projects on my workbench at any given point, in a mostly uncompleted condition. I think in 20 years of painting miniature figures, I have completed maybe a dozen ‘single model’ projects, and perhaps a single ‘full’ army for a game. What I would consider myself well versed in is learning time saving and efficiency methods so I can continue to add more projects to my workbench and feel as though I am making progress on them.
My start in Airbrushing was 2004 (?) with a cheap ‘airbrush kit’ from Harbor Freight Tools. I think it was a single action siphon feed airbrush, with a compressor that was supposed to be used to fill basketballs (or maybe bike tires). Results were middling at best. Several years later I came across an individual selling a large collection of airbrushes (from brands I recognized) along with a compressor and paints. He had purchased them to do body-painting and gave the endeavor up, taking the hit in cost because he just wanted rid of them. At that point I got seriously involved in it. Four airbrushes of a variety of makes/models (most of which were broken), an iwata compressor (for miniatures, but without an air tank), and a mix of paints (which were totally unsuited for miniatures).
Since then, I have learned a lot about what works for me, how to clean/repair/maintain brushes, and I have had the opportunity to learn from some very experienced people to develop my own set up. My actual painting ability is still rudimentary (I have had way more time invested in the cleaning/repair process than I have actually painting with it), I think I have enough experience to at least help someone along to getting started with their own kit.
Before digging in, it may be worth your time to familiarize yourself some basic airbrush concepts. Iwata (a notable brand) has a good guide, located here: https://www.iwata-airbrush.com/airbrush-basics.html
The scope of this article is to relate my recommendations for those new to the hobby, based on my own trial and error, in order to make an informed decision before jumping in. I will break it down into a few broad categories, with explanations along the way. As with anything like this, there is no ‘right’ answer (though you can frequently find several ‘wrong’ answers). I am sure others can and will produce the same results as me (if not better) with different equipment. This is just an explanation of what I recommend to people and why, with a lot of the little options I have found along the way. All of this assumes you will be using the brush to paint hobby models in a scale from 15mm to 28mm (the scales I play).
Part 1 - Minimum Requirements
The three things you need to airbrush, at the very minimum, is a brush, a compressor (or source of pressurized air), and paint. Everything else falls into ‘consumables’ to ‘nice to have’ or ‘quality of life’ improvements. With those three items, you will be able to put paint onto models, which is the point.
I have used hobby airbrushes from a variety of manufacturers with a variety of designs. Iwata, Badger, Paasche, Aztek, Masters, even that cheap Harbor Freight model I started with (basically the equivalent to the no-name $20 version you can get just about anywhere). Single action, dual action, siphon feed, gravity feed, quick change nozzles, bare bones or all the bells and whistles. The style I continue to use and recommend is a gravity feed, double action brush. I recommend Iwata (my preferred brand), though Badger is popular. Like with a traditional brush, your choice in airbrush should reflect what you plan to do with it. I currently maintain two Iwata brushes, listed below.
Revolution HP-CR (Retail $125, Amazon $100) -
The CR is a gravity feed, dual action, with a larger paint reservoir (with an optional lid, I’ve never used mine). It has a .5mm nozzle size, though it can be converted to .3mm. This is my work horse brush, used to prime and base coat almost all my models. It is a simple design, with a minimum of parts that can be adjusted or damaged compared to some others. It is capable of some detail work, depending on the scale, and I have used it to good effect in applying camouflage on 15mm WW2 models. If I had to choose a single brush to keep and use, this would be it. Easy to clean, easy to maintain, good coverage, large reservoir, great coverage for the scale of models I paint.
Due to the limitations of the .5mm nozzle on the CR, I purchased the BR for more fine camo work at 15mm. Specifically, the ‘squiggle’ camo patterns for German armored vehicles. If you need to paint a very small area with limited overspray and more fine control, the BR is a good choice. It is virtually identical to the CR with a smaller reservoir and a .3mm nozzle. When faced with the decision between buying a whole new brush for detail work or buying the conversion kit for the CR (and the time/effort in swapping the nozzle and needle) it made more sense to just get the second brush.
Badger would be my backup recommendation. I have used several over the years, but I have the most experience with the Patriot 105 and SOTAR 20/20.
Patriot 105 (Amazon $126) -
20/20 (Amazon $135) -
I found the badger brushes to be easy to use, but not as easy as Iwata. There are more options with regards to nozzle swaps, fine adjustments for spray (especially on the SOTAR), and the nozzle tip is easy to bump/damage due to it extruding from the brush without a cover (like the Iwata has). I actually bent the nozzle/needle on my Patriot early on from regular handling. This was completely user error, I was not paying attention to where I was holding it and it brushed up against a hard surface, but worth mentioning. An advantage Patriot has is that parts are inexpensive. A disadvantage is that I needed a lot of them. I also bought the extra nozzle/needle sets for the SOTAR, giving it a much wider range of uses. I include them here for options, some people feel strongly about a particular brand.
NOTE – Badger will frequently run sales direct from their store, which cut the price down for the available brushes significantly. I purchased my badger brushes with a sale like this, and if you want to get any of their brushes, I would HIGHLY recommend you wait for one of these sales. They are good brushes, I just feel the Iwata brushes do the job I need them to do better and for less cost.
The second item you will need is a way to get compressed air into the brush. An air compressor is the most common method that I have seen. It is worth noting I have seen people use individual cans of compressed air, some of which were refillable from a regular (non-hobby) air compressor. I have also seen battery powered hand-held compressors. Personally, I think those are niche uses. For most of us, you will want a hobby compressor.
Buy a compressor with an air tank. My first compressor was just that, with no storage tank for the air. It ran constantly, had difficulty maintaining pressure, and overheated (the heated air had a serious impact on the paint job). Other than that, buying a ‘name brand’ is optional. I have had very good results from this model:
hp Airbrush Tank Compressor -
That model is currently unavailable, though I have had friends recommend this similar item:
Airbrush 1/5 HP Cool Runner -
The important thing to look for is an air storage tank and a moisture trap (that clear plastic thing attached to it, traps the moisture coming out of the tank – very important for humid regions). I have found that one models works about as well as any others. My compressor is going on 4 years of regular use, and the only issue is that one of the rivets on the carry handle came loose and needs to be reattached. Performance-wise, it is great. Not too loud, no issues with heated air or moisture, and keeps steady pressure (I paint at 20-22 psi).
There are name-brand options which I am sure will do the job, but at a significantly higher cost. Avoid micro-compressors like those designed for airbrushing nails or ‘salon’ compressors. They usually operate at a lower psi and tend to lack an air tank (so they overheat). You can use a ‘generic’ garage compressor, like you would use to fill tires or basketballs and such, but I would highly recommend against it. I started with one myself but could not get the pressure consistent (they tend to operate at a much higher psi than hobby airbrushes), lack moisture traps, and a fluctuation of pressure at the wrong time could result in a bad paint job or a damage airbrush.
NOTE – You will need an air hose and possibly an adaptor to hook your airbrush up to the compressor. Look for a compressor that has a braided hose (much more durable) and fits your airbrush. My badger brushes require an adaptor as all my hoses are for Iwata’s. I consider this an included expense with the compressor as many come with it but check to be sure.
Use whatever you like, just thin it down.
Seriously, it is that easy. My go-to is Vallejo, though I use Army Painter, Citadel, AK Interactive, P3, and a variety of others. I have heard of success stories with Apple Barrel craft paints (my first airbrush paint job used that, actually). While I would recommend you go with a known hobby paint brand, any acrylic paint should work. The cheaper ‘craft paint’ just tends to have issues with pigment (the pigment particles are larger in some cases, which after thinning can produce a grainy finish, but not always). You do not need to go out and buy new paint.
Several companies are producing ‘airbrush ready’ paints now, which match up with their standard paint. That works, though it usually still needs to be thinned down. The necessary items to properly thin paints will be in the consumables section.
With regards to how much you should thin your paint, I have always been told to make it the consistency of milk. No, I still do not know exactly what that means. I gauge it based on results. If it sprays properly and gets good coverage without being runny, its good to go. If it sputters, I thin it more. If it comes off runny and transparent, I add more paint. In this case, I will refer you to YouTube and leave it to that. There is a lot of trial and error involved until you get a feel for it. If there is interest, I will work on getting a list of videos I have found helpful together and post that playlist for others.
NOTE – I will recommend Badger Stynylrez primer over any others. Vallejo primers can go on a little thick/rubbery and have had curing issues. AK primers are a mixed lot. I have had nothing but consistent good results from Stynylrez primers (check amazon). Actual paints can be standard thinned down or made for airbrush. For gloss or matte finish, you will want to get one designed for airbrushing, my attempts at thinning down brush on clear coats have not produced good results.
There you have it, the three items you need to get into airbrushing. All told, you can expect to spend $200-275 on your brush and compressor. Less if you can find sales. If you are trying to save money, cut corners on the compressor (as long as it has an airtank and moisture trap, you are good), not the brush. If you are only trying to airbrush primer and maybe the base coat, you can go cheap on the brush, just recognize that to get finer detail later on (which you eventually want to expand your experience with it, like we all do) odds are good you will be buying a new brush. Spend a little extra up front and get a good product with a variety of uses. Now, lets move on to the other items.
Part 2 - Consumables
To save time/space, I am going to attempt to be brief. These are all items you either have to have (marked with a *) or are really helpful to have around, and you will be buying them several times.
* Airbrush Cleaner – Iwata-Medea Airbrush Cleaner – I buy the large bottle (32oz) and refill the small squirt bottle (4-16oz)
* Airbrush Thinner – Vallejo – Get the big bottle, you’ll use it
Airbrush Flow Improver – Vallejo – A small bottle will work, it’s a compliment to the thinner
Gloves – Dealmed Medical Exam Gloves/Nitrile (Black) – I prefer the black gloves, but anything will do. Wear them on the hand holding the model so you don’t get paint all over yourself.
Q-Tips – For cleaning
Alcohol – For cleaning
Distilled Water – For cleaning
Toothpicks – For mixing paint
Dropper bottle for Alcohol/Water
Acetone/Mineral Spirits – The ‘nuclear option’ for cleaning, use sparingly
Shop Towels – I prefer the thicker blue shop towels, but any paper towels will work. Both for cleaning up as well as test spray
Quality of Life Improvements
Here are a variety of items I have added to my airbrush set-up with a brief explanation of how I use them:
Airbrush Booth/Vent - https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00NLQ019A - This is a dual-purpose spray area with a vent (and lights if you get the version that has them). Important for indoor airbrushing or areas with limited ventilation.
Canvas Drop Cloth – Harbor Freight – Something to protect my table, as well as one to put under my whole painting station for spills. Just saves me scrubbing things later to remove spilled paint.
“Dump Bucket” – Any hardware store – Standard 5-gallon bucket or small mopping bucket. Easier to dump waste paint/cleaner/water into this while working than getting up and going to the sink. I’ll put a little water in initially so nothing dries in it, then as I change paints, clean the reservoir, etc, I just dump into the bucket. Dispose appropriately at the end of the painting session.
Airbrush Cleaning Kit – These usually have both a ‘spray pot’ (where you stick the nozzle of the airbrush into it and spray to clean it out without spraying paint everywhere) and a brush set (pipe cleaners). Some have pick sets as well. Just good to have for those hard to reach clogs.
Brush Holder – Something that will clamp on to your table where you can rest your airbrush in an upright position (in case there is paint inside it). Spray pot will work just as well.
Apron – Keeps spills off your clothes.
Tool Box – If you are planning on transporting your kit, find a big enough tool box to hold everything. I have a rolling tool box that has my compressor, brushes, tools, paints, everything.
Golf-Tees/Blue-tack – How I hold my models while painting.
Ultrasonic Jewelry Cleaner – Useful when you need to do a deep-clean after a few painting sessions. I’ll do a general cleaning after I am done for the day, but after a few sessions things will build up. Strip the brush down to its component parts, soak it, get into it with the picks and q-tips, then let it spend some time in the ultrasonic cleaner. Reassemble, lubricate, and should be good to go.
Soaking Glass – I have a small somaek (Korean mixed drink, Soju and beer) glass that fits my airbrush perfectly. I’ll fill it up so that the cleaner covers the reservoir (but not the trigger) to soak if I am taking an extended break. “Professional” opinions are mixed on this. Some say never to soak your airbrush, others highly recommend it. I’ve found it helps with cleaning and keeps paint from drying if you take a break.
Long bristle synthetic brush – I use this both for mixing paint in the reservoir as well as cleaning out anything deep in there when I’m changing paints. Synthetic brushes hold up better and are stiffer. LONG bristle, you want to be able to get into the recesses. Preferably with a plastic handle so it doesn’t crack when you leave it in the soaking glass.
Various Tools – Tweezers, nozzle removal tools, picks, etc. There is not a painting session that goes by where I don’t wish I had something on hand, then forget to add it to the collection when I’m done. You’ll find a variety of odds and ends that would have come in handy, just remember to have them available (and accessible with one hand).
Quick Change Valves – I was using 4 airbrushes at one point, so I tried the quick-change values to switch between them without loosing all my air pressure. They never worked quite right.
For most of these items, a quick search on amazon or a trip to the local craft store should get you what you need. I’ve included photos of my setup for reference as well. If anyone has questions or I missed anything, please let me know. This is likely to be a work-in-progress as I find new items or new ways of doing things. I just hope my mistakes can help save others the same cost and trouble.
Here are some photos of my set-up: