Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Compleat Cheapskate's Guide to Getting Started in Airbrushing , v. 1.0

WARNING: This post is going to be long, and will deal entirely with the subject of airbrushing - specifically, buying what you need to get started.  If you have no interest in such matters, go ahead and click the next item in your blogroll now - I won't be offended.

As I mentioned a little while ago, I've been making a concerted effort to make better use of my airbrushes.  At the same time, I've been giving several friends advice regarding airbrush purchases, and I realized that some type of FAQ was in order.  I've decided to put this up as one big post, so people can print it out/bookmark it/download it and go through it later, at their convenience.

I'll say this right up front: this is NOT going to be a post on how to airbrush (I'm not good enough to offer much worthwhile advice on that subject, anyway;) nor is it going to be a complete A-to-Z primer on every single piece of airbrushing equipment in existence.  What I'm going to attempt to do is discuss what types of airbrushes are suitable specifically for modelling that will allow you to basecoat your models, as well as allow you some "elbow room" to try some more advanced techniques, talk about the other equipment you'll need, and give a couple of options in a reasonable price range.  What do I mean by "reasonable price range"?  Well, in some ways, buying the airbrush & compressor is the cheap part - it's the hoses/paint/accessories/safety gear that you're going to spend more on in the long run.  I would say ideally you should budget at least $300 to get everything you need to get started with halfway decent-quality equipment.

With that being said, I'm going to give many of you all the advice you need right now, because you fall into one of two categories:

"I want the absolute cheapest, bottom-dollar entry into airbrushing": - Then go buy the Harbor Freight airbrush kit:

Some people report great results with it.  For those of you who aren't familiar with Harbor Freight, they are an importer of cheap Chinese-made tools.  (UK readers, I believe they're known as "Arc Euro" on your side of the pond).  Their airbrush is a kind of weird hybrid knock-off, with some Badger-spec parts and some Iwata-spec parts - you can see a complete review & tear-down of the airbrush ( and many others) over at Don Wheeler's site.

The big problem with Harbor Freight is reliability - we have two Harbor Freight stores in my town, and I've bought some items there over the years.  I'd say about 50% of the time, their stuff doesn't work right out of the box, or dies shortly after the first use.  Now, they have a great return policy, so it isn't a big deal for me - I can just drive over and exchange it.  But, if you're dealing with mail-order, it could be a big hassle if you have to return something two or three times to get an item that works.  I will say that I've been using the Harbor Freight airbrush compressor for a couple of years now with good results.

"I want the absolute top-of-the-line airbrush & compressor.  Nothing else will do!":  Then go buy an Iwata CM-C Plus and a Sil-Air compressor.  You will be the envy of the airbrushing world, as well as $1,500 poorer.  IMHO it's kind of overkill for painting models, but if you're a "champagne-wishes-and-caviar-dreams" kind of person, and have the means, then more power to you.

Now, on to the rest of us.

One of the biggest issues I encountered when I decided to try airbrushing is the bewildering array of equipment - and, when I ventured into forums or chat rooms and tried to find out why people recommended what they did, it was always "Hey n00b, just shut up and buy what we tell you".  The trouble is, my mind doesn't work that way - I need to know the reason.  Also, I'm a cheapskate - and, because of this, I've bought a lot of unsuitable equipment for airbrushing over the years trying to get by with something "good enough", and then thrown good money after bad trying to "put lipstick on a pig" and turn my airbrushes into something that they're not, and are never going to be.  If I would have done my research and listened to advice right out of the gate, I could have bought that Iwata CM-C Plus, and it would have been cheaper in the long run.  So, here's some basics on what you want if you're buying an airbrush for modelling.


No, not that kind of action, you sickos. In the airbrushing world, there are two types of "action": Double-action and single-action.


Single-action airbrushes are just that: you press the trigger, and paint mixed with air shoots out.  The trigger is basically an ON or OFF button.  You have no control over how much paint is flowing using the trigger (although there is sometimes a knob or lever that allows a small degree of adjustment).


Double-action airbrushes have a two stage trigger: pressing the trigger down starts the flow of air, pulling the trigger back starts the flow of paint.  As you pull the trigger further back, the ratio of paint in the mixture is increased.  This is the type of airbrush we want.

Feed Styles

These are the three most common "feed styles" for airbrushes - feed style refers to the manner in which the paint is "fed" from the storage reservoir into the airbrush:

Siphon Feed

This is perhaps the most commonly-encountered style, and what most people probably think of when they hear the word "airbrush" - Most manufacturers sell an "all-purpose" airbrush, and it's usually this type.  There is a jar attached to the bottom of the airbrush body that holds the paint.  A tube extends from the airbrush into the jar, and when the trigger is pressed, air moving past the top of the tube creates a vacuum which sucks the paint up into the airbrush.  This type of airbrush is mostly geared towards people who need to spray a significant amount of paint, or who need to change colors fairly frequently - T-shirt artists, auto painters, etc.  It will work fine for basecoating, but most siphon feed brushes aren't going to be geared towards detail work.  Also, unless the jar is mostly full, you're going to have to keep this type airbrush pretty much horizontal while you're spraying - otherwise the hose will suck up air, causing the paint flow to be interrupted and splatter all over your work.

Side Feed

This type of airbrush has a small metal paint cup that attaches to the side of the brush via a metal stem.  The pigment is put into the cup, and when the trigger is pressed the Venturi effect causes the paint to travel into the stem, then into the airbrush.  This type of airbrush is mostly meant for medical illustrators, photo retouchers, etc. - the cup is located on the side since they are often doing extremely fine precision work, they can hunker down and look directly down the barrel of the airbrush to see what they're doing.  This type of airbrush is usually used to shoot inks or dyes (although there are some exceptions that are meant for auto painters who need the moveable cup, since they often need to spray at odd angles).  This type of airbrush is not ideally suited for painting models.

Gravity Feed

This type of airbrush has a metal paint cup attached directly to the top of the barrel of the airbrush.  Pigment is placed into the cup, and when the trigger is pressed the paint travels directly downward (via gravity) into the brush.  This type of airbrush is ideally suited to painting models - why?  Well, since the paint travels directly downward and doesn't need to be "sucked up" into the brush, a vacuum is created in the paint chamber - this makes the paint atomize more finely, and results in a smoother basecoat.  That's what we want.  Gravity-feed brushes also require a bit less pressure to operate (since they don't have to maintain suction to get their paint supply).  Less pressure = easier to achieve fine detail.  Gravity-feed brushes are also usually a bit more forgiving when using thicker paints (like hobby acrylics).

Sometimes a manufacturer will make the same model airbrush with two different cup sizes, large and small - large cups are geared towards users who will be moving lots of paint (i.e. auto customizers).  Model painters will rarely be using more than fractions of an ounce at a time, so ideally we want the small cup - but, so long as the airbrush doesn't have a huge cup that makes it weigh a ton, either is suitable.  (I certainly wouldn't pass up a killer deal on an airbrush just because it was the model with the larger paint cup).  Additionally, the large cups usually include a cap, which some people prefer.

Sometimes gravity-feed brushes don't have a paint cup at all - they just have a small cutout, like this:

This is for illustrators who are literally only using a single drop of ink at a time - you don't want this type.

You might encounter other types of feeds (top-mounted reservoir bottles, "quick-change" cartridge systems, etc) - these are either highly specialized brushes for a particular industry, or gimmicks - don't worry about them.

Needle/Nozzle Sizes

The last major part of the equation we want to look at is the size of the needle & nozzle in the airbrush - most manufacturers will express this as "x.x mm", with x being the diameter in millimeters, although Badger just uses "medium", "fine", "ultra-fine", etc.  Here's what we're looking at:

.5mm - .4mm: The largest size you should be considering.  This what the vast majority of the "general purpose" airbrushes that are sold today are going to be.  This size is mostly only going to be suitable for basecoating models.

.3mm/.35mm: This is going to be the start of the range for what most manufacturers consider their "detail" airbrushes.  Suitable for basecoating and some freehand (camouflage patterns, etc).

.2mm/,21mm/.23mm/.25.mm: This is going to be even finer than above.  Basecoating will take a bit longer with this type of airbrush, since the spray pattern is going to be finer, but it will pull much finer lines.  In my opinion, this is the "sweet spot" for a modeller's airbrush.  Unfortunately, with most manufacturers there is a significant price jump involved with going down to .2mm.

.15mm & smaller: Insane details possible, but basecoating will take forever.  These can be great, but I would never buy one as my only airbrush.

So what size do I want?: A quality .3mm airbrush is going to be fine for most people that want to do mainly basecoating, but maybe play around with some freehand - if you're willing to spend a little bit more money and are really drawn to the idea of detailing, step up to a .2mm.  Another option: many airbrushes can accept multiple needle/nozzle sizes, so you could buy an airbrush with a .3mm setup, then just buy a smaller needle/nozzle set (for $20-$50, depending on the manufacturer), when you're ready ready to try more advanced techniques.  (I'll go into greater detail on this option in the "recommendations" section).

I can practically hear somebody out there right now saying "Waitaminit!  I'll just buy an airbrush with a .005mm nozzle - I'll never have to touch a regular paintbrush AGAIN!  MUHAHAHAHAHAHA!"  (Okay, maybe the evil laugh is just something that I do).  *Ahem*. Anyways, there are issues associated with a smaller nozzle - the smaller the nozzle, the finer the paint is being atomized.  The finer the paint is being atomized, the faster it dries.  With the smaller nozzles, you will encounter "tip dry", which is when some of the paint dries on the tip of your airbrush as soon as it leaves the gun - this dried paint will eventually build up and causes your paint to splatter, or stop altogether.  So, the finer the tip, the more often you're going to have to stop and clean it mid- painting session.

So, overall we want: A double-action, gravity-feed airbrush, with a .3mm or .2mm nozzle.

What are some good brushes to consider?:  Here are what I think are some good options, from least- to most-expensive.  

(NOTE: I know there are many other airbrushes out there that are potentially good choices - these are just the ones that my friends & I have experience with, or are well-documented among the "hobbyist" community).

Badger Renegade Velocity:

Double-action, gravity feed, .21mm 
Street price: $95

This is Badger's latest entry, and it's earning rave reviews from the modelling community.  One of the criticisms aimed at Badger over the years was the shape of their needles - the taper was not as gradual as other manufacturers, resulting in Badger airbrushes not being able to pull off fine details as well as other manufacturers.  The only exception was the venerable SOTAR 20/20 (see below) - the Velocity needle mimics the taper of the SOTAR and gives similar performance for one-third of the price. 

Advantages: Cost, first & foremost.  In my experience, Badger build quality is second to none. Parts are cheap.  Customer service is outstanding - if you call them, many times the president of the company, Ken Schlotfeldt, will be the one who answers the phone.  They will rebuild or replace any Badger airbrush, in virtually any condition, no questions asked, forever.  The Velocity has a 'stopset" trigger-setting mechanism, a feature previously unheard of in a sub-$100 airbrush.

Disadvantages: The main disadvantage?  Airbrush elitists will make fun of you.  Badger has always aimed their airbrushes squarely at the hobby shop/craft store crowd (you can read why here), so "serious painters" claim Badger airbrushes are "kid's toys".  Les Bursley is using them now, though, so judge for yourself.  As of this writing, I use several Badger airbrushes.  Iwata fanatics will tell you that parts are harder to come by, but my local Michael's craft store sells needles for one of my Badger brushes, and parts are cheap from their online parts store and have never taken more than 2 days to get to my door.  I've heard complaints that the needles for the Renegade series airbrushes are rather fragile.

Badger Renegade Krome:

Double-action, gravity feed, .21mm 
Street price: $125

The Renegade Krome is a "souped up" version of the Renegade Velocity available exclusively from MidTenn Hobbies.  It is based on the Renegade Velocity, but adds a chrome finish, cutaway handle, needle stop adjustment with graduated markings, upgraded trigger, two needle/nozzle sets (I believe one is .33mm and the other is .21mm), and a deluxe case.

Advantages: Same as the Velocity.  The "Krome" version adds a lot of high-end features to the Velocity for an airbrush at this price point.  Reviewers claim the upgraded trigger is a noticeable improvement.  The two needle/nozzle sets allow you to basecoat with the larger one, then swap out to the smaller one for detail work.

Disadvantages: Same as the Velocity. 

Iwata Eclipse HP-BS:

Double-action, gravity feed, .35mm
Street price: $125

This is what I'll call Iwata's "entry-level" brush - they do make a less expensive line (the "Revolution" series), but I would start here.  I have one of these that I converted to a .2mm needle & tip (apparently this is only possible with the "original" version of the Eclipse), and I can get significantly finer lines than with my Badger brush with a .21mm needle & tip.

Advantages: Parts availability - I've heard that the Eclipse models are Iwata's biggest-selling airbrush line, so if your town has a reasonably well-stocked "fine art" supply store, they probably stock parts.  Iwata's reputation for customer service/warranty issues is similar to Badger's, although I've never dealt with them personally (Iwata brushes have a 5-year warranty, vs. Bager's lifetime warranty).

Disadvantages: None, really.  This is probably one of the most popular, dead-bang-reliable "starter" airbrushes on the planet.

Iwata HP-B+

Double-action, gravity feed, .2mm
Street price: $180

The next step up for Iwata.  Higher-precision than the Eclipse, billed as suitable build quality for commercial purposes.

Advantages: Same as the Eclipse.

Disadvantages:  Getting kinda pricey.

Harder & Steenbeck Evolution Silverline fPc 2-in-1:

Double-action, gravity feed, .4mm/.15mm
Street price: $200

Harder & Steenbeck are a relatively recent entry to the U.S. airbrush market - they've been selling airbrushes in Europe for over 50 years, and manufacture airbrushes for other companies under a lot of different names (Hansa, etc).  They've recently started selling their Evolution and Infinity airbrushes stateside, and have earned quite a few fans in the modelling community - Mathieu Fontaine uses a Harder & Steenbeck Infinity, and one can be seen in Les Bursley's YouTube videos, back before he got an official sponsorship from Badger.  The "2-in-1" kits they sell are interesting, because they include both a .15mm nozzle & tip, as well as a .4mm - you can basecoat with the .4mm, then swap out the nozzle & needle with the .15mm for detail work.  The internals of the the "Evolution" series are allegedly identical to the higher-priced "Infinity" series, it just doesn't have the "quick-stop" tailpiece.  The "fPc" stands for "fine pressure control", a regulator that is built into airbrush itself - this is the cheapest airbrush on this list with such a feature.

Advantages: Many painters compare the Harder & Steenbeck brushes to the Iwata Custom Microns, both quality- & performance-wise, at a MUCH lower price.  fPc valve.  The "Two-in-1" kits include a pretty nice airbrush holder.

Disadvantages: They are located in Europe, so count on having to mail-order parts, and supply issues could potentially arise.  .15mm needle will bend if you look at it funny.

Iwata High Line HP-BH:

Double-action, gravity feed, .2mm
Street price: $215

The next-to-highest-end Iwata.  Adds Iwata's "MAC valve", which is basically a fine-touch regulator integrated into the brush itself, similar to Harder & Steenbeck's fPc valve.

Advantages: Many painters claim that this brush offers 90% of the performance of Iwata's top-of-the-line Custom Micron, at half of the price.

Disadvantages: Getting more and more expensive...

Harder & Steenbeck Infinity 2-in-1:

Double-action, gravity feed, .4mm/.15mm
Street price: $265

Basically the same brush as the Evolution above, with the addition of a cutaway handle & "quick-fix" end-piece - this allows you to set the trigger action so you can't go beyond a certain point, allowing you to consistently duplicate fine details, then quickly reset the trigger with a press.  This can be REAL handy with repetitive details.

Advantages: This brush is earning accolades from the modelling community - may be the best value for a high-end brush out there.  fPc valve.  "Two-in-1" kit includes an airbrush holder.

Disadvantages: Same as the Evolution.

Badger SOTAR 20/20-2:

Double-action, gravity feed, .19mm
Street price: $270

Although initially designed as an illustrator's airbrush, this brush has earned a hardcore following among the scale-modelling community.

Advantages: Possibly the only Badger that "serious artists" won't turn their nose up at.  Crusty old scale-modellers & model railroad aficionados who can paint circles around guys like me swear by it.

Disadvantages: Since it was originally designed as an illustrator's brush, you're going to have to thin your paints very carefully to avoid gumming it up.  I've never used one, but the ergonomics look downright funky.

Iwata Custom Micron CM-B

Double-action, gravity feed, .18mm
Street price: $400 (CM-C Plus, $475)

The absolute mac-daddy of the airbrush world, whether you are talking about painting models, canvas, or automobiles.  For an extra seventy-five bucks, the CM-C Plus is "... hand-tested and adjusted by the world's leading airbrush technicians".

Advantages: You'll be able to tell people that you have a Custom Micron.

Disadvantages: Crazy expensive.  The Custom Microns have an adjustable needle bearing seal - this is so you can tweak it according to what type of paint you're shooting, but what it really means is that most people who don't have many years of airbrush experience will find it too fidgety.  Probably way into "overkill" territory for painting models.

Overall Recommendation - Best Values:

If your budget is tight, get the Badger Renegade Velocity.  if you're willing to spend more, get the Harder & Steenbeck Infinity 2-in-1.


Now that you've got the brush, you'll need a way to get air to it.  First of all, though, I'd like to start with what you shouldn't use:

"Canned Air":

Total garbage.  Never, ever use it.  I can pretty much guarantee if you go this route that your airbrushing experience will be terrible, and you'll get discouraged.  You'll read about people who say that get great results by swapping back-and-forth between two cans, putting the can in a bucket of warm water before they start painting, etc - regardless, it's always a hassle, expensive, and gives poor results.  There are a couple of options we'll discuss in a minute that only cost as much as a couple cans of this crap, anyway.

Testor's hobby compressor:

I don't know how Testor's sells any of these things - they cost a HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS, and are essentially a cheap toy.  Fail.

Manicure/Tanning/Bakery compressors:

These compressors are usually square or rectangular, encased in plastic, and have a carry handle.  They are meant for bakers who are shooting food dye or for "airbrush tanning", and do not generate the amount of pressure needed to spray acrylic model paint (even if it's been thinned).

Iwata Ninja-Jet compressor:
Honestly, Iwata should be ashamed of selling this turd.  I've heard more horror stories from people who bought this compressor because it said "Iwata" on it, so they assumed they were getting a product of decent quality - well, guess what?  They didn't.  This was originally sold as a cake-decorating compressor (which it's probably fine for) and apparently Iwata said "What the heck, lets start agressively marketing it to RC car enthusiasts & model painters, too".  Trouble is, it's optimistically rated at 18psi, which is not enough to run thinned hobby acrylics through an airbrush.  Iwata should excise this this thing from their product line, as it's about the only product they sell that stands to give them a bad reputation.

Okay, so now that we've done that, what should you get?

Best option - a full-size air compressor:
In an ideal world, you'd have one of these - a full-size compressor.

Advantages: Will run any airbrush, plus give you the option to buy air tools, inflate your car's tires, etc.  You can get a decent full-size compressor for well under $100 nowadays.

Disadvantages:  Most models are too noisy to be in the same room with without ear protection, so you pretty much have to own your own house and run a hose out the window/down to the basement/out to the garage.  They take up a lot of space.  You'll have to run out to the compressor to turn it on or off.  And you'll have to buy a decent regulator to dial the pressure back to a usable range for airbrushing.

The next option: "silent" compressors

These are compressors that are purposefully made for airbrushing - they are extremely quiet.

Advantages: Made for airbrushing, so they've usually got the regulator built-in, and you'll need very few (if any) adapter couplings to get your hoses to fit.  Very consistent pressure.  Near silent.

Disadvantages: CRAZY expensive.  Prices start at around $500 and go up from there.

Most common option: single-piston airbrush compressors

These are probably going to be your best bet if you live in an apartment/condo/dorm, and/or are on a budget.  These compressors are meant for airbrushing, but aren't "noiseless" like the compressors above - usually they're about as loud as being in the same room with a slightly loud-ish television.  (I wouldn't run it at 4AM if you have thin walls, but your neighbors are unlikely to raise a stink about it in the middle of the afternoon unless they're "noise Nazis").  Ideally, I'd recommend getting one with an air tank like the Paasche in the first picture - some painters have reported that the air flow tends to "pulse" if you don't have a tank, plus, without it, the compressor is running all the time.  that being said, I use the Harbor Freight compressor in the second pic - it costs $59.99 if you wait for a sale and includes an air hose, pressure gauge & moisture trap.  I use an extension cord with a foot switch (they sell these around Christmas time, so you don't have to crawl behind your tree to unplug your lights) to turn it on & off during color changes, cleanings, etc.

Advantages: Cheap.  Not loud enough to damage your hearing.  You probably won't need a regulator at first, as they don't put out more than 25 - 30psi, which is right where you want to be most of the time.  Available at Michael's & Hobby Lobby, so if you sign up for their emails you can buy one with the 40% off coupons that they'll send you every week.

Disadvantages: Loud enough to be annoying.  Air flow might "pulse" without a tank.  The cheaper ones generally have a limited life span.

The "anything's better than canned air" option:

This is a portable air tank that is available at Harbor Freight or better hardware/tire stores for around $25 - you can take this to the gas station (or to a friend who owns a full-size compressor), fill it up with air, and it should be enough to last you you for at least several extended airbrushing sessions.  Many people with full-size compressors still get one of these, as it's silent, and portable enough to carry into their office/studio - then they can just run out to the garage and fill it from the full-size compressor when needed.

Advantages:  Cheap.  Silent.  It's not canned air.

Disadvantages: Once it's empty, you are done airbrushing until you can refill it.

The "So redneck that it's kinda awesome" option:

That's right, Badger makes an adapter that, when coupled with a "Propel" (Badger's brand name for "canned air") regulator, lets you use a spare tire as an air source.  Essentially, this is the same as using the air tank above - but, if you're the kind of person with lots of old tires in their yard, there you go.  (You'll have to find your own uses for the rusted-out water heater & the rest of the El Camino - I can't solve all your problems).

Great! So now I'm all ready to go, right?

Whoa, not so fast there, cowboy.  Remember back at the beginning when I said buying the airbrush & compressor was the cheap part?  Well, now we're gonna go into what you need to airbrush, safely, indoors, and not ruin your brushes, your house, your body, or your relationship with your roommates/parents/significant other.  I'm going to cover a lot of ground here, so I'll try to keep it brief - I'll give a general price range, and rate the importance of each item.

Extra Needles

Whatever airbrush you buy, go ahead and buy an extra needle for it - you will ruin the first one.  In time you'll learn that needles are rarely ever completely ruined, and it's usually possible to repair them - but, for now, you'll want to have a spare on hand.

Cost: $10 - $20
Importance: Highly recommended


You're going to need a way to connect your airbrush to your compressor.  This is accomplished with an air hose.  Maybe your airbrush or compressor came with a hose - if so, great, as long as it's not one of these cheap, tiny-diameter vinyl hoses:

You want a decent quality hose - I prefer the ones with a braided nylon covering, like so:

I also prefer the straight hoses as opposed to the "coiled" hoses - I just tend to get tangled up in those.  I usually buy the 10-foot-long hoses, although you can get 6-footers a bit cheaper.  I run a hose to each of my commonly-used airbrushes, rather than swapping them out each time.

Cost: $12 - $20 for decent quality
Importance: Required

Adaptors & Fittings

You're going to need a way to connect the hoses to your airbrushes & compressor - usually the sizes aren't going to match up across the board, and if you have two airbrushes made by two different manufacturers but only one hose, you'll need some adapters & fittings:

Additionally, it can be nice to have a quick-disconnect for your airbrushes:

These are handy because they allow you to disconnect your airbrush from the air hose for cleaning, or to switch brushes, in a matter of seconds rather than having to unscrew it.

Cost: $2 - $5 each, depending on what you need
Importance: Required 


If you're using a full-size compressor or are doing extremely fine detail work, the air pressure your compressor will be putting out will be too high.  You'll need a regulator that will allow you to dial back the pressure:

Sometimes compressors will include a regulator.  Don't bother with cheap regulators from Harbor Freight, I've bought several and they either don't work at all or leak like a sieve.  Good, airbrush-specific regulators like the one above start at about $25 - however, if you're cheap like me, and you're using a single-piston hobby compressor, you might be able to get by with a small brass regulator:

This is what I use - they only cost a few dollars (I have gotten a few leaky duds, however) and are basically just a simple butterfly valve that allows you to reduce the pressure.  There's no dial so you don't actually know what PSI you're getting, and you'll have to fiddle with it a bit (there's not a lot of fine adjustment), but it's an option.

Cost: $5 - $50
Importance: Required

Teflon tape
What you should use with the adapters & fittings to ensure a good seal.  Available at any hardware/home improvement store.

Cost: about a buck per roll
Importance: Required if you're using any adapters/fittings

Moisture Traps 

Compressing air naturally causes the moisture in it to condense- moisture traps "trap" the water so it doesn't get pushed through to your airbrush.  Many, if not most, compressors will come with a moisture trap, but in some cases you might have to buy one.

Cost: $10 - $20
Importance: Required, if your compressor didn't come with one


Manifolds allow you to connect two or more airbrushes to your compressor at once - useful if you're using a "basecoating" airbrush and a "detail" airbrush simultaneously.  Manifolds range from a basic 2-outlet model to big 10-outlet models aimed at commercial artists.

Cost: $15 - $75
Importance: Nice to have

Cleaning Jars

Cleaning jars give you a place to blow out excess paint or cleaning fluid from your airbrush, rather than just spraying it into a trash can or bucket (which would also put a lot of it into the air, and then into your lungs).  Some models, like the one in the second pic above, also double as an airbrush holder.  They have a filter system that allows the jar to be vented, but traps paint particles.  (One of my upcoming posts will show how to make one of these for next to nothing, if you don't want to pay for it).

Cost: $15 - $40
Importance: Highly recommended

Cleaning brushes & needles

These make cleaning & maintaining your airbrush a lot easier - the brushes in the first pic come in various diameters, allowing you to clean the cap, bottom of the paint cup, etc.  The needle in the second pic allows you to remove crusted paint from your nozzle if necessary.

Cost: $5 - $15
Importance: Highly recommended - you can get by with cotton swabs & safety needles, but these make life MUCH easier.


Seriously, you DO NOT want to airbrush without some type of mask - this becomes obvious the first time you blow your nose after an extended airbrushing session, and it comes out Ultramarine Blue.  Yeah, if that much paint made it into your nose, you can bet a significant amount also made it to your lungs.  Not good.

Ideally, you should be using a NIOSH-certified respirator, like this:

...but, those can be kinda pricey (around $25 and up).  Many painters, myself included, get by with these:

...which cost a few bucks for a multi-pack.  I'm sure someone will tell me that this is a horrible idea, but since I'm using water-based acrylics exclusively, I mainly just need something to filter the particulate out of the air I'm breathing.

Cost: $2 - $50
Importance: Required


Pretty self-explanatory - you're going to need to pick models up to spray them in the hard-to-reach areas - these keep the paint off your hands.  Just drop five bucks for the bulk box, it'll be more than you use in a lifetime.  Plus, you can always make balloon animals with 'em.

Cost: $5 for a box of eleventy billion
Importance: Highly recommended

Airbrush cleaner
This is what you'll use to clean your airbrush after use - make sure you get water-based airbrush cleaner for acrylics.  The bigger the bottle you buy, the cheaper it is.  Several different companies make it, I usually just buy the Badger or Medea version at my local craft store.

Cost: $2 - $15, depending on size of bottle
Importance: Required

Lacquer thinner

Lacquer thinner is useful for cleaning dried paint off of your needles, nozzles & tips.  NOTE: do not run lacquer thinner directly through your airbrush unless the manual specifically says it is "solvent-proof" or has Teflon seals.  Lacquer thinner is EXTREMELY flammable.

Cost: a few bucks for a quart at the hardware store
Importance: Nice to have

Airbrush thinner

With a few exceptions (notably Vallejo's "Model Air" line), most "hobby" paints aren't going to be suitable to spray directly through an airbrush - they're going to need to be thinned.  Exactly what you should use to thin them has been the catalyst of more Intarweb nerd-fights than I can count.  Luckily, I have the definitive answer to thinning all acrylic paints:
Yep, 91% rubbing alcohol from your local pharmacy or supermarket.  That's it.  I'm not going to get into debating why or how or what might be better.  This is all you need.

Cost: A dollar
Importance: Required, if you're shooting anything other than airbrush-ready paints


You're going to need a way to get the paint from your paint pots into another vessel for mixing, and then into your airbrush - if you've ever tried to pour paint from a Citadel paint pot, you know how great that works.  These make life a lot easier.  I place a bulk order for 'em every few months from eBay.

Cost: $1 per dozen
Importance: Highly recommended

Paint jars
You'll need something to mix the paint in - these can range from cheap plastic multipacks of disposable jars from the craft store, to nice heavy glass ones.  Resealable ones are nice, so you can save any leftover paint if you have to stop in the middle of a project.

Cost: $1 - $5
Importance: Highly Recommended

Airbrush holder
It's nice to have a place to set your airbrush down without having to balance it against something so the paint doesn't spill out of the cup - these holders let you do that.  Also nice if you're working with more than one airbrush at a time.  some airbrush-specific compressors have an airbrush holder built in, and Harder & Steenbeck include a pretty nice airbrush holder in their "Two-in-One" sets.

Cost: $15 - $40
Importance: Nice to have

Spray booths

Okay, here's an area where there's a wide range of options that I need to speak to a bit.  Spray booths are basically an open "box" (usually made of metal or plastic) that has a fan in the back to draw air.  The fan is covered with some type of filter material to trap paint particles, and then there is a hose that is usually usually vented to the outside that allows you to draw fumes out of the room.  Some of the fancier paint booths have integrated turntables, lighting, etc.  Until recently, spray booths where very expensive - usually around $500 and up.  Why?  Because they were only made using "brushless" motors.  What's a "brushless motor" and why is it important?  Well, some of you may have gotten a chance to play with something like this in science class when you were a kid:

...and, if you looked at it from the side while someone was cranking it, what did you see?  Something that conventional electrical motors all cause when they're running - sparks:

Since most of the people using spray booths were commercial or industrial users, they were using solvent-based paints.  Solvent-based paints emit flammable fumes - if you run those fumes through a conventional fan motor, they could explode.  So, spray booths had to use brushless motors, which don't generate sparks - but are much more expensive.  If you need a spray booth with a brushless fan, expect to pay $500 or more:

However, an interesting trend appeared a few years ago: apparently many hobbyists wanted a spray booth, but weren't willing to pay $500+.  Several manufacturers began selling spray booths that used conventional fans, with the warning that they were NOT to be used with any type of flammable paint or solvent.  The first I saw was this Paasche hobby spray booth:
This booth was around $200 when I first saw it, but lately I've seen them for around $125.  I haven't seen one in person, but supposedly it folds up, includes an integrated turntable, and can be connected with a second spray booth to form a single "double-wide" booth.

The one I bought, because it was by far the cheapest available at the time, was the TCP Global hobby spray booth:

It only cost $89.  It's cheap, but it works.  As far as a turntable, I just bought a plastic "lazy susan" for $5 and stuck it in the booth:

(NOTE: there are many options for building a "homemade" spray booth - these range from extremely basic (a cardboard box, furnace filter & box fan) to examples that rival top-of-the-line commercial booths.  I'm not going to go into them here, as that's a bit beyond the scope of this article, and I can't vouch for the safety of their designs - just Google "homemade spray booth" and you'll get plenty of results if you want to go this route).

Spray Booth:
Cost: $89 - $2,000
Importance: Highly recommended

Okay, now I think I've covered most of what you'll need to buy to get started.  So, trying to stay as cheap as possible, and just working with the necessities and the optional stuff I would consider really important, here's a sample cost breakdown:

Badger Renegade Velocity Airbrush
Extra needle
Harbor Freight Airbrush Compressor (Includes hose, moisture trap, & airbrush holder)
Adapters & fittings (est.)
Brass regulator
Teflon tape
Cleaning brushes & needles
Masks (pack of 20 disposable)
Latex gloves (box of 100)
Airbrush cleaner (16oz. bottle)
91% Isopropyl Alcohol (16oz. bottle)
Pipettes (3 dozen, shipped)
Paint jars
Spray booth (TCP Global)

TOTAL:  $317.00
So where do I get this stuff?

Here are some stores that I or people I know have personally had good experiences with:

Chicago Airbrush Supply
Dixie Art
Wyn-Wyn Inc.

Okay, if you made it this far, you're either genuinely interested in airbrushing, or an incurable masochist.  I hope this was informative.  Feel free to comment or email me if you think there are glaring omissions - I intend to re-visit this post occasionally and update it if necessary.


  1. Excellent article, and definitely one I'll be linking to when I start my airbrushing series.

    I'd be very curious how you got yours a .2mm tip though...

  2. Dave -

    I bought my Iwata Eclipse used from a retired commercial artist - it was fairly old when I got it. It came with a bag full of parts, including two .2mm nozzles & three needles - I swapped them in, and it worked great. It appears that Iwata no longer lists .2mm needles/nozzles on the Eclipse parts list - I don't know if they stopped offering these parts for the Eclipse and I just got lucky finding someone who stocked up, or if they are parts intended for another model that just happen to fit the Eclipse - either way, it works! I have the original packages, so I can get the part numbers on the label if anyone needs to know...

  3. That would be awesome helpful :)

  4. Thank you so much for this article. Seriously, this is the best summary I've ever read of all this. As you said, there's just so much information out there, it's hard just to know what you need to know. While I wish you had written this 6 months ago - when I was looking for my first kit - I'm just glad you wrote it at all :)

    One key piece of advice I got when I started looking was to buy a brush you can grow into, and I'm glad I took that advice. After just around two dozen hours I went from being so angry I almost put my kit, my paints, and all my minis up on eBay to being ready to start tackling some bigger challenges and finer shading.

    FWIW, I ended up with an H&S Infinity 2-in-1 and an Iwata SprintJet and I couldn't be happier. Unfortunately, I've had a really hard time finding a useable hose - I've bought three off of Amazon and they were all utter trash. I'm still using the one that came with the SprintJet. Avoid TCP Global Supply at all costs!

    Thanks again for the great writeup, I will be sharing this far and wide.

    1. Aaron, I know this reply is over three years old, but I wanted to thank you for your advice, "buy a brush you can grow into." I had not heard that before, and that helped push me in the direction of choosing a brush with fPc. THANK YOU!!

  5. Dave - I'll dig them out tomorrow and find the part numbers. I even have a set of each still in the package, so I'll snap some pics for you too.

    Aaron - Thanks! I have a couple interesting deals for some used stuff in the works right now, but the next new airbrush I buy will almost certainly be the Infinity Two-in-1. I haven't heard a single bad thing about if from anyone who has actually used it.

    I've actually had good luck with TCP Global - Besides the spray booth I've mostly only bought couplers & accessories from them, but the one time I had to contact them, I got a live person on the phone almost immediately who was actually helpful & friendly, and shipped me out a replacement part free of charge - but yeah, they are a huge-volume seller, and also sell a lot of junk, so I can see how it could turn bad easily...

  6. Great write up! I bought an Iwata Smart Jet compressor a couple of years ago really cheaply (used from a friend) but it came with a crappy older Siphon-Fed Badger Airbrush.

    I had terrible success with the thing and ended up putting it on the shelf. I just ran across the kit the other night while organizing to move so I'm very likely going to purchase a new airbrush (once I ensure the compressor still works) and see if I can make some magic happen.


  7. Great article! I have been figuring this stuff out on my own for the last few months, and doing lots of research. The setup I've ended up with is exactly what you suggest!! Crazy! Either I'm on the right track or we are both crazy :)


    thank you very much man! this article rocks!


  9. I really want to kick my painting up a gear and I think the best way to do that is with an Airbrush. Thanks for the guide man, it's by far the easiest thing I have seen regarding getting a setup anywhere and one that relates to 40k from a 40k hobbyist.

    Thanks very much and I can't wait to place an order for my first setup.

  10. Just a quick comment on the H&S Guns:

    Really, really love them. For me they are the "omni mech" of AB guns. You can swap out needle sizes w/o getting a whole new gun. And there are tons of other upgrade options on top of that.

    Easy to disassemble and clean too.

    But I wouldn't get the Silverline 2:1 fpc. The reason for that is twofold:

    1. you don't need the fpc valve. And if you want some kind of air regulation on top of the gauge at the compressor itself, just get a quick connect (THAT you want anyway) with a build in air regulator.

    2. the non-fpc version of the 2in1 Silverline comes with a 0.2 needle instead of the 0.15. And that is def. enough for fine details, not to mention that most of the typical wargamer paints don't work that well with anything smaller than 0.2mm anyway.

    So it not only saves you some money, you also won't get frustrated too much paint clogging up.


  11. Thanks for all the info. I bought a Badger set with canned air and the trigger piston jammed after three uses. It's total crap, I'm waiting for a reply from their customer service. I was thinking of getting the iwata ninja but If the psi is that low what a waste. They really try to suck you in with the "silent" part.

  12. I am both very interested in starting with airbrushing AND a masochistic reader. As such, I thank you for this very informative article!!! ;-)

  13. Question, The Leadhead. When you are thinning paints with alcohol, do you only use alcohol or do you mix the alcohol with water? Specifically referring to Citadel Paints.


    1. I'd say 75% distilled water, 25% alcohol to break the surface tension of the mixture.

  14. As a new Guy to airbrushing I found your article most informative, thank you for your time and research. I will use your recommended list and see how things work out. I have a Trumpeter 1:48 Vickers Wellington, still in the box, that I have been wanting to build for some time now. The painting has been my stumbling block. So I look forward to lots of practice when my equipment arrives and hopefully get my Wellington looking as good as the picture on the box. As a point of interest my Dad was a gunner on the Wellington, WW2, shot down over Denmark 1942 and spent 3 years as a prisoner.

  15. This article was amazing. I just started airbrushing and thought that since I have been a graphite and paper artist that the transition would be smooth and cherubs would drop rose petals before me, birds would hold my airbrushes as I sang a highly contagious tune, and it would be beautiful. It has been a nightmare. Yet, this article was so informative and so well written with such an engaging tone, I couldn't stop reading it and face palming at myself for not thinking of most of it before! Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time to help out your fellow man.

    1. Khrys -

      Thanks, glad it helped! My techniques have evolved a bit since this was written, look for an update sometime soon!

  16. Hi, thanks for all the great info!

    How do I know if my airbrush is set up to take different nozzle/needle sizes? I have a Sparmax DH-2 .25mm and find it hard to find the replacement needles and want to change to a .2mm

    1. Brenda - I'm not familiar with Sparmax brushes - my only recommendation would be to check the manufacturer's site or search for advice on some of the web forums. Good luck!

  17. This article is awesome. It is the perfect balance of concise, useful, and well thought out information with an appropriate dose of humor. I really thought fPc would be something for me to shoot for, but Karnstein said if you're using the H&S guns you won't need it, so I'll need to re-evaluate my brush choice. Anyway, thanks a ton for writing this up; it is very well done and greatly appreciated. I'm going to look around your blog to see if you have some photos of your work as I'm always down for some inspiration.

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  20. Thanks for the post!!! I'd be lost without it!

    One question, can you use these airbrushing machines to put on makeup?

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  37. This was extremely informative! I especially loved how the pricing and quality for all of the different parts were put up. I've never airbrushed before, but I've always wanted to give it a go! I was wondering if you could also put up how long each of these supplies last, and also when, if they need to, be replaced? Thanks!

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