Basics of Airbrushing


Images and text Copyright © 2006 by Christian Jackson


        Chances, are, that if you are seriously into modeling, you own, or are planning on buying, an airbrush. In fact, if you ask around, or flip through an issue of a modeling magazine, you find that most, if not all, of the models have been painted with an airbrush. Once you have made the big purchase, (Airbrush and Compressor) the adventure has only begun. You still must learn to use it in such a controlling way, that you can make glass-smooth finishes, thin coats (which retain more surface detail), and wide as well as slim lines (as small as 1/32 inches wide). Many modelers will switch to an airbrush after using spray paint on a few models, because of the fact that they want even better and more professional results than spray paint or brush painting can achieve, and an airbrush is the perfect tool for the job.

How it Works


        An airbrush is not a very “complex” tool (rather, idea) by any means. All it is is a miniature spray gun, when you press down on the button, air blows across the paint nozzle, creating suction, drawing paint from the siphon tube, or cup. Then, the paint flows into the air, atomizing into small droplets, and lands on the model’s surface.

Airbrush Types


        I’ll cut to the chase on this one. There are two kinds of Airbrushes, single and double action. Most modelers start with a single-action, and move up. You may be wondering what the differences are. Well, a single action is just that, all you need to do is push down on the button, and paint comes out, but you can also adjust the needle from the back via the knob to control how wide the spray pattern is. A double action requires you to push down for air, and pull back on the trigger for paint. I have both of the types, a Badger 200 (single), and a Paasche VL (double), as well as a new Badger 155 Anthem. I mainly use the Badger 200, because of its ease of use, but will use the 155 just as much. Each is used for its own reasons; I use the 200 for large base coats and final coats of future and the like, and the Anthem for weathering, shadowing, skin tone bases, camouflage, and other small things.

        Here is a table listing the pros and cons of each type. How good an airbrush is does not matter, it all has to do with the artist. Many of the best airbrushed models have been painted with a single action, most of them weren’t even expensive, top of the line brushes. Also, there is a difference in where the paint is atomized in different brushes, internal or external. External has a paint needle/point that meets the air outside the brush, and internal, the cup directly connects to the air inside the brush.


Single Action Airbrush


Double Action Airbrush













Less control


Greater Control


More expensive


Fewer Parts


Limited capability






Easy to Clean



Finer lines


Learning curve


Good for General








        Here is a comparison of the basic breakdown of all major components between a single and double action. Single action on the left, double on the right.

Air Sources


        No matter what kind of airbrush you get or have, you need something to power it. No, don’t try to plug it in, you’ll ruin it. Try hooking it up to an air source. Your airbrush should have a screw- like attachment on the flipside of the air button. But, you’ll need somewhere to get the air from; these are our next topics, compressors, propellant cans, and other sources.
        Compressors are by far the best deal. You get a never-ending supply of air, for a one-time fee. The down side is that they are expensive, and make lots of noise. You will also need an adapter for the hose size difference, but those are cheap and easy to find, just ask your LHS salesperson. Once you turn on the compressor, it begins compressing with a piston, and then, most likely stores it in a tank. I have a five gallon pancake (oblong) tank that I use.
        For the first few attempts at using an Airbrush, you may want to try out cans of propellant, available at your LHS. Do not use too many of these, as they get very expensive and can cause global warming! Or not. They also will occasionally spurt out some cold material that can mess up your finish badly, which makes for an unhappy modeler.
        Those aren’t the only ways of powering your airbrush, though. You can purchase LARGE air tanks that will last a long time, and are very silent. Your local welding supply store may carry these. I have no knowledge in this area, so I will not comment on it, good or bad. Also, there have been people seen using a tire as an air source. Someone (I can’t remember who) actually sells an adaptor for tires so you can hook it up to your airbrush.

        Keeping all of this in mind, for hobby paints, you need a consistent 10-25 psi (pounds per square inch) to create a great finish. To keep this consistent, you will need a regulator. Most compressors come with one attached, and propellant kits will have screw on regulator tops.



        An airbrush is a very versatile piece of equipment. It can spray almost anything, lacquers, acrylics, and enamels. No matter what, though, it must be properly prepared. First, make sure it is thoroughly mixed. To do this, shake the bottle vigorously, with the cap off… just kidding, you know better than that. Next, take a toothpick and stir the paint as you would a gallon of house paint with a stir stick, scraping pigment from the bottom to mix with the transport, or runny part. Shake again.
        Almost all paints, regardless of their base, need to be thinned so they will run through an airbrush correctly. Generally, thin the paint with the correct thinner type until the consistency of milk. Generally, gloss paints require more thinning. There is no written in stone ratio, but usually 1:3 thinner: paint for flat paints will work.

        For general painting, such as a base coat, use 15-20 psi, holding it 4-7 inches from the surface. If it’s too close, it will run, too far, and the paint will partially dry and not adhere correctly. Practice making smooth, even, straight (try to keep lines straight, even though you may think you are, natural human movement makes you spray in an arc) strokes, letting the paint spray past the edge of the model. Remember, flat paint will look glossy for the first 10 - 20 seconds, so don’t freak out. Don’t come to close or get to far away from the surface when painting, but remember….





        If you have any problems with your airbrush, contact me, or someone you know with a good knowledge of airbrushing, as there are many problems that would take up at least a couple of pages to write down. You can email me directly with this link Christian Jackson

        Always use a respirator when spraying, as it is deadly if you get too much, and you’ll never get all those un-built kits in the closet finished. These can be picked up at the paint section of your hardware store. I use a dual cartridge respirator from NIOSH. Yes, HAHA, get it out of your system now; this is me, after waking up and not cleaning up.

Where to buy


        It is best to buy airbrushes at an online store like Dixie Art. Compressors can be bought at the hardware store. Your LHS may also carry some bushes that you can consider.

Cleaning Your Airbrush


        An airbrush is a very intricate piece of work, and for it to work, it must be clean. Paint buildup can hinder your painting ability. It can also permanently harm your airbrush.

Materials for an average cleaning session

        Cotton Swabs (Q-tips)
        Paper Towels
        Pipe Cleaners
        Lacquer Thinner or Enamel
        Thinner (if using enamels)
        Clean jar of nothing
        Ratty old brush

        After your painting session, immediately fill a jar with thinner and hook it up with your airbrush. Flush it out by spraying the thinner into a paper towel while holding it against the tip. Remove the tip assembly with the supplied wrench. Be careful not to bend the needle, it will cause irregular patterns, unpredictable ones. Also, the needles have a sharp point, so be careful. Remove the remaining seals. You either have Teflon or Rubber seals. Rubber seals cannot be placed in thinner, as they will “dissolve”. Teflon seals resist that reaction, but once they are depressed in the head assembly, they stay that way. Clean the rest of the assembly where the pipe cleaners soaked in thinner will fit. Where they do not fit or scrub, use a paper towel soaked in thinner. Wipe down the exterior with thinner soaked paper towels. For other parts of the assembly, use Q-tips. Also, USE GLOVES! Thinner is not like water, this stuff stings if you get it under fingernails or into Xacto knife accident cuts…

Gloss Paints


        Flat paints are relatively easy to airbrush compared to gloss. Carefully preparing the surface is the first step toward producing a super smooth finish. Carefully remove imperfections, like mold seams with fine sandpaper. Use a stand to suspend the model from the inside, or you can use a coat hanger. Lay in a coat of overall light gray primer to reveal any imperfections. Fix these if they exist. Thin gloss paint appropriately with correct thinner. Apply a few “mist” coats, wait ten minutes between coats. Now is time to apply the wet coat. Apply this coat at close range, using very smooth, even strokes. Place model while still on stand into a dust-free container. Gloss takes much longer to cure than flat, so give it a day before you touch it.

Christian Jackson has last been seen working on the Tiger I, yes, the same Tiger I….

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