After you’ve read this novel (sorry…), you may find another blog I posted a while back about how to use your airbrush helpful also. Because, ultimately…
For many years, I spent quite a bit of time on aircraft modeling forums. One of the most discussed topics, year after year, in every one of those places, was airbrushing. Though most started with a simple question such as “what airbrush should I pick” or “what is the difference between x feature and y feature“, the discussion often dissolved into brand disputes, style disputes, and general charges of anyone disagreeing with you being a pooty head. (Or worse…)
As I made the switch to different genres – scifi, Gunpla, and Warhammer – the same question remained. I suppose it should be no surprise. Anytime you glue plastic together with the idea of later adding paint, the question of airbrushing comes up. Some go for it, others do not.
So it’s a rather universal set of questions in modeling. The trouble is, if you do pose the question to 10 people, you’ll get 37 sets of opinions.
Welcome to the 38th. 🙂
So Why Should I Read This
If you’re already an experienced airbrush user, I probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know. You may not even agree with me on every point, which is fine. This will not be “canon”, but rather my own experience. I simply hope that people newer to the hobby, or new to airbrushing, will find it helpful in their search for getting questions answered.
I’ve been using an airbrush for 12 years now. Not a long time for people who’ve modeled many years. Yet for some, it may seem like an eternity. (Or at least a decade. 😉 ) And I’ve built nearly 300 models. I say that not to impress, but to make the case that I’ve had LOADS of opportunity to royally mess up many, many paints jobs. And in doing so, I think (hope!) I’ve learned a few things that might be worth sharing with my fellow modelers.
All The Terms
When you first embark on an airbrush journey, you’ll encounter many terms that might not be apparent. Knowing what those mean will benefit your understanding of the type of airbrush that will work for you. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few key terms that will help in our undertaking:
First, there is the action of an airbrush, generally referred to as single or double action. On any airbrush, there is a button or trigger that makes the air flow when you press it.
One some models, there is only one direction to push it- down. That is a single action airbrush. You push it down, and air flows. The paint itself does not flow until you adjust another mechanism on the airbrush to allow the paint to flow. On most single action airbrushes, this is accomplished through a small knob on the rear end of the airbrush. Adjusting this changes how far the needle (more on that later) protrudes from the end of the airbrush. The more it sticks out, the less paint can flow. The less it sticks out, the more paint will flow. Once it is dialed in as desired, you push the button, and the air flows, expelling the paint out the front, and you get (hopefully) a finely atomized mist of paint.
The other major category of airbrush is the double action airbrush. On this type, pushing the trigger down causes the air to flow, but it adds the ability to pull back on the trigger, which moves the needle back and forth. Careful manipulation of the trigger then gives the ability to vary paint flow from fine lines to full on “blasts” – or anything in between.
Now, the natural question to follow is “which is best?” For now, I’ll ask that you simply think of them as different. Because we need to add in a bit more information to help us examine the mysterious beast that is an airbrush.
In addition to an airbrushes action type, you’ll notice people discuss the feed type. The feed type is a way of describing what hold s the paint, and where it is positioned on the airbrush. In general, you’ll encounter three: siphon, side, and gravity feed. And it’s important to note – both single and double action airbrushes are found in all three of these types.
A siphon feed airbrush has a mechanism on the bottom forward part of the airbrush body that allows a color cup, or a siphon bottle, to be attached. The paint is added to the cup or bottle, and then when the airbrush trigger is actuated, the paint flows up and into the body, and out the sharp pointy end. 🙂
A side feed airbrush moves the paint feed mechanism to… you guessed it, the side of the airbrush. This type of feed normally uses some form of cup to hold the paint. Still, the principle is the same. Add the paint, push the trigger, and the paint flows out.
The gravity feed airbrush moves the feed mechanism to the top of the airbrush. (Gravity is required, so check your local ordinances on the laws of gravity. 😉 ) Generally, gravity feed airbrushes have the color cup fixed permanently to the top of the body of the brush, though there are a few exceptions to that. But the overall principle remains- add the paint, push the trigger, the paint flows out the end that you point at the model.
Of course, as with the difference between the actions, the natural question is “which is best?” And as before, I’ll submit that for now let’s not think “best”, but rather “different.”
Now that we have the terms down, let’s focus on the real issue at hand – picking an airbrush.
Safely Navigating The Airbrush Wars
Ask any modeler what airbrush they use, and they’ll like give a brand and a model number. “Why, I use the Acme Scoot Tooter, son.” (That last bit works better if read in a Foghorn Leghorn voice, by the way…) The next question you may ask is “OK, why that one?” And the typical response will be “Well, because, I say, it’s the best.” (Again – Foghorn Leghorn voice…)
Now, at this point, the new guy who is trying to pick an airbrush will often say “Oh, OK. I must get that.” But if I may, I think there is one more question to be asked.
“OK, why is it the best?”
At that point, you’ll most often (at least in my experience) hear crickets. Silence. (Well, except for the crickets…) Why? Because frequently, most modelers can’t objectively articulate why something is the best. Yes, it may work great for them. But the assumption is that the particular brand and model is what makes it so.
But I’d suggest that’s simply not the full story.
So the real heart of the matter is why a particular brand, configuration, or style may be the best choice for you. To really get to a data driven answer, it’s important to examine some practicalities.
No matter how many ways you slice it, choosing an airbrush often comes down to how much of your hard earned cash you need to plunk down. When I was new to airbrushing, everyone urged me to get a quality airbrush. And by “quality”, most people meant “spend a lot of money”.
Some did give good counsel. You may hear the phrase “buy nice or buy twice” being used, which simply means if you buy something cheap now, you’ll end up buying something nice later. And I do agree with that now. Now being after a decade of blasting paint through a metal tube on to plastic toys. (I know, I know… but it’s the truth. 😉 )
But at the time, as I was just getting into modeling, the idea of investing what amounted to 1-4 days of labor into something I was not sure I could really even use was a huge hurdle. All the wisdom in the world didn’t get me past the notion that I may buy this thing, use it for six weeks, get frustrated, and toss it away.
Another notion that has to be dealt with is simply how easily can you find an airbrush. While today’s online commerce driven world means that in most cases any brand and any model are simply a click or two away does remove some barriers. The fact still remains that ease of procurement is a real thing. So while you’re friend halfway across the world may really like the airbrush they can easily get at the local shop, you may find jumping through the hoops of procuring that particular brand a bit daunting.
So in making our decision, we must really factor in availability.
Parts and Service
Over the years, I think this aspect of an airbrush purchase is often the least considered, and yet most often the thing that comes back to haunt later. At some point, you will bend the needle, blow out an internal seal, crack an air nozzle, or in some way render your once functioning airbrush to little more than a fancy metal tube.
And when you discover that the cost of the parts, or the number of days it takes to have them shipped, or perhaps that even your airbrush is no longer in production, the number of unprintable words that will emit forth could best be described as “copious”.
As my mom used to say, “That’s a wash your mouth out with soap kinda word, son…” (NOT in a Foghorn Leghorn voice this time.)
Ease Of Maintenance
Because you will be blowing paint through your airbrush, there will be times that it actually needs to be cleaned. I cannot stress how important this is. Not so much because a clean airbrush works better, but simply that you will be more likely to use it if it doesn’t take a PhD and a chest full of tools to do even the most basic cleaning. While an airbrush does not need to be disassembled for every cleaning, at some point, it will need some level of breaking down the parts. Factoring that in ahead of time is a key piece of info to have.
Pulling It All Together
Now that we’ve examined terms and practicalities, some suggestions can be made for how to proceed with your airbrush purchase.
Pick Your Action
While many will say that a first airbrush should be single action, I’d suggest that a double action is more practical.
A double action is not that much harder to use. Push down, pull back. That’s it. What the double action will give you that a single action won’t is the immediate ability to easily and quickly vary the paint flow. The first time you try it, you may not appreciate that fact. But after a little use, the benefit will be clear.
This is not to say a single action airbrush doesn’t have its place. Or that its not workable. But for your first airbrush, I’d recommend a double action.
Pick Your Feed
For this aspect of your choice, I’d recommend a gravity feed style airbrush. As with the double action suggestion, I believe this is a more practical solution.
Generally, gravity feed brushes are easier to clean, can operate at lower air pressure, and unlike a siphon feed jar, won’t leave paint in the bottom of the color cup that the airbrush can’t get to.
While there are good uses for siphon feed styles, working with the premise of this being a “first airbrush” scenario, gravity feed is probably the best choice.
As for side feed, quite honestly, I’ve never seen a reason why that is superior to either of the others in any way, so I actually never recommend those. If you like them, cool – use them. But I can’t say I’ve ever encountered anything but the most narrow of scopes to use them, and certainly not as a first.
For cost, I’d suggest a simple notion. Don’t spend more than USD$80-$125 for your first airbrush. While price conversion may vary by region, this suggested price range should, in most cases, get you a good double action, gravity fed airbrush from a reputable manufacturer. And don’t buy the first one you see. Shop around.
That price range is enough money to get out of the “knock off” range type of cheap copies, but avoids the starry eyed suggestions of modelers who equate spending lots of money with getting the absolute best results. Because that is simply not true. As the article mentioned at the beginning of this article notes, air pressure, thinning, and practice have far more to do with actual performance.
For ease of maintenance, the gravity fed suggestion pretty much covers that. However, do look for a parts breakdown chart online. Fewer parts means easier cleaning.
With regards to availability and parts and service, look around you. What does the local shop stock? If there is no local shop, what online sources are readily and continually available? And check the manufacturers website- do they respond to being contacted? (You can test this out ahead of time.)
The two most likely parts you will need to replace are the needle and the air nozzle. Price those ahead of time. I’ve seen cases where one brand sold the part for a few dollars – less that $5 – and yet another manufacturer sold their equivalent for three to four times as much. Yet both airbrushes performed equally well. Knowing replacement costs ahead of time will be important.
One factor I’ve not discussed, but modelers love to “whip out” as if it were something to brag about, is the size of the needle, sometimes referred to as tip size. This is most often expressed in decimals… .3mm, .5mm, etc., etc. And while the size of the needle does play a part in how the paint sprays, when you’re starting out, it’s of little consequence in practical terms.
I’d recommend looking for a .5mm nozzle, as this will be the best balance for a wide variety of uses. it’s not a knock against the others by any means. If you find a good price on a .3, that works too. Any lower though, and you’re getting into areas best reserved for possible specialized use with a second or third airbrush.
So What’s The Final Analysis?
Alright, putting this all together, here’s what I recommend if you’re a first time purchaser of an airbrush.
- Double action
- Gravity Fed
- Easily available
- Lower cost replacement parts
- .5 mm nozzle
Keep in mind, you may vary from this based on what you finally decide. That’s OK. I present this not as a hard line, dogmatic list. I’m a huge proponent of knowing why you make a choice, and not just doing so based on emotion, or the well intentioned enthusiasm of others that simply parrot what they may have heard.
So What Do You Use, Mr. Smarty Pants?
Glad you asked. 🙂
I have used Aztek, Paasche, Iwata, and Badger. I fairly quickly chose Badger’s Model 105 Patriot as my go to airbrush for virtually everything. Why?
It fits all of the criteria I’ve discussed, basically. It’s a double action, gravity fed, .5 mm nozzle airbrush. Service and parts are readily available, and the cost of replacement parts is not excessive. It cleans up easy, works in a wide variety of situations, and it was at the bottom end of the price range I’ve already mentioned.
I have others- a Badger Renegade Velocity and SOTAR 20/20, which are both really, really fine precision tools. I’ve owned a Badger Model 200 single action brush, as well as a Patriot Xtreme. I still have an old Aztek, and a Paasche, though those never see the light of day anymore.
But 99% of the time, in virtually every circumstance, the basic Badger Patriot does everything I need.
Ultimately, it’s your airbrush, so you have to choose. I hope this information can help you define why you’re making a choice, which I believe is key. Face it, for most people, the first airbrush buying decision is almost a “blind date”. Yo don’t know what it will really be like until the doorbell rings and there it is. “Ready to spend an evening together?” 🙂
So making a data driven decision will give you confidence.
Listen to the advice of others. Ask pertinent questions. Look at results. Examine all of the criteria listed here, and maybe add in some of your own.
That way, when you do make your investment in an airbrush – and it is an investment – you’ll be able to focus on what the real goal is.
Having fun painting your models.
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