I’ve got a bit of a love/hate relationship with airbrushing for painting models and miniatures. You can get great results, but you need quite some time for preparation and especially cleaning afterwards, so you probably want to plan an hour or so for an airbrush session. There’s also a learning curve, not only in actually using an airbrush for painting, but also in preparing your paint. Nevertheless, I’ve recently decided to take the plunge again and use the airbrush more often. Here’s an overview of stuff you’ll need to get decent results, and yes, it’s longer than “a brush, paint, and some water”. 🙂
- Airbrush pistol: You want a double-action cup-fed airbrush pistol from a good brand. Here in Europe, the two top brands appear to be Iwata and Harder & Steenbeck, with H+S probably being the market leader. Expect to spend about €75-€100 for a good entry-level model such as the H+S Ultra. A 0.2mm nozzle is commonly used for detail work, 0.4mm for covering larger areas, e.g. during priming and varnishing. H+S sells two-in-one sets with both nozzle sizes, and exchanging them is done without tools in seconds. The H+S Evolution is very popular (priced at approx. €160 for a two-in-one set), the Infinity CRplus the top model priced at around €250. Even if you decide after some time that airbrushing is not for you, you should be able to get decent money for a quality pistol on the used markt.
- Compressor: You want an oil-free, relatively silent compressor with an air tank. Yes, these start a bit above €100, but there’s no way around one.
- Pressure regulator & hose: If your compressor doesn’t come with one already, you need a pressure regulator with moisture trap. You also need an air hose with screw fittings in the proper size. A quick-release adapter is an optional upgrade.
- Cleaning jar: This is a glass jar into which you can spray the cleaner with which you fill the brush after painting or when changing colors. Most also have a holder for your airbrush.
- Mixing cups: Get some shallow metal or plastic cups or a palette with sufficiently deep indentations. You will use these for mixing paint with chemicals and other colors.
- Droppers: Essential for dropping chemicals into paint, and getting the paint into the airbrush cup.
- Paper towels: For cleaning the airbrush, and you can also test spray on them.
- Q-tips: For cleaning the airbrush.
- Mixing sticks: For mixing paint and chemicals. You can use wooden sticks, coffee stirring sticks or whatever you have lying around.
- Masks. It is recommended to wear a mask during airbrushing to protect your lungs. Chances are you’ve got one somewhere. 😉
- Cleaner: For cleaning your airbrush in between colors and after you are done. You can spray it through the nozzle, and dip q-tips into it or moisten paper towels with it.
- Thinner; For thinning paints to get the proper consistency. Milk-like is usually said, but getting it right needs a bit of practice. Too thin and it will run, too thick and it will come out in splotches. Make sure you get the right thinner for the kind of paint you use, i.e. acrylic thinner for acrylics.
- Flow Improver: This reduces the surface tension of the paint, making it flow more easily.
- Retarder: Acrylics dry very quickly and may dry on the tip of the needle, giving poor results. A retarder increases the drying time and prevents this.
Acrylic paint, i.e. paint that used water as solvent, is pretty much the standard these days, It is odorless, dries quickly, and is easy to work with. There are many brands that have a good reputation in the gaming community. Just to mention a few: AK Interactive, Vallejo, Scale 75, Citadel, P3, The Army Painter. People often have their personal preference based on experience and color availability. I have used Citadel, Vallejo, The Army Painter, and P3, and have just started using AK Interactive. Vallejo, Army Painter, and AK Interactive come in dropper bottles that are very convenient for mixing paint. There are of course also the brands more traditionally associated with scale model building and painting, such as Revell, Tamiya, Humbrol, and Testors. Among these, Tamiya probably has the best reputation. I think their paint uses an alcohol-based solvent, which gives them slightly different characteristics and a distinctive smell.
Many of these brands offer Air paints that are pre-thinned for airbrushing. This is convenient, but in my opinion you get less paint for your money – thinner is cheaper than paint. Air paints may also require a drop of flow improver or retarder for optimal results, so some mixing might still be required. It’s up to you what you go for.
In the end, there’s no reason to stick to a single brand. Acrylics from different brands can also be mixed. Availability might be a thing if you want to buy from a hobby store, but shopping on the Internet has made life pretty easy in this regards.