How to airbrush miniatures: A beginner’s guide, part 1

You’ve seen those minis that are impossibly good. You know, the ones that look like beautifully painted sculptures.

And then you found out they were painted (primarily) with an airbrush.

It’s time to dive in, and this handy guide should help.

This guide is for beginners looking to start airbrushing. In today’s segment, we’re going to talk about the very important first step: Buying an airbrush.

This is what you’ll need:

  • Airbrush
  • Compressor
  • Paint
  • Hose
  • Miscellaneous items (cleaner, thinner, etc.)

Let’s break it item by item, but first let’s look talk about…

Where to buy

First off: Get the best deal that you can.

Getting into an airbrush is a pricey endeavor, so it’s best to get a deal or discount if possible.

And I don’t mean “buy the cheapest airbrush you can find.” Research your options, and get the best deal on that item. Many airbrushes have an MSRP that’s hundreds of dollars over what you can actually buy them for. (My airbrush retails for more than $200. I got it for $92.) Lots of places that sell airbrushes have coupons (Hobby Lobby, in particular) that give you big discounts, and places like Amazon offer pretty deep discounts.

With that in mind, shop around. Hobby Lobby, Blick, Amazon and even Harbor Freight (that cheap tools place) sell airbrushes and airbrush accesories. Check as many different places as you can for what you’re buying.

Where I bought from: Amazon. I have Amazon Prime, so free shipping and their lower prices made for an easy decision. I bought literally all of my airbrush stuff from them.

Airbrush

This is your main tool, so this is what you’ll want to focus on first. For starters, you’ll want a gravity feed airbrush (paint cup on top feeds right into the airbrush) with a dual action trigger (push down for air and pull back for paint).

Then ask yourself a question: What will I use this airbrush for?

Painting minis, obviously, right? But will you want it for detail work? Best get one with a fine or very fine needle. Will you want it for priming and basecoating? You can probably go with something cheaper and with a wider nozzle/needle. Painting terrain with the brush? You can definitely get something wider and with a big paint cup for painting big sections of terrain.

Consider needle size, trigger (standard or pistol grip), feed or if you want something like a needle stop.

Also consider your desired level of painting. If you just want to play around, I wouldn’t buy a $400 airbrush. If you really want to get into this, consider buying something a little better that you can learn with. Also, you can always upgrade at a later date.

The most common companies I’ve seen are Harder & Steenbeck (the Cadillac of airbrushes), Badger, Paasche, Aztec, Grex and Iwata. They all have several different models.

What I went with: Sotar 20/20 from Badger Airbrush. I was going to go with more of a “beginner” brush, but this had all the stuff I wanted at a price only about $20 more than the more entry level stuff I was looking at.

Compressor

This is the next big item. You’ve seen those big air compressors in your dad’s garage, right? This is the same basic idea, but you don’t need nearly as much air for an airbrush, so they’re much smaller (and also much, much quieter).

If you have a regular air compressor, you could certainly use it with your airbrush, but that’s like using a flamethrower to light a birthday candle. It’s way more than you require plus you’ll need some special fitting adapters to connect your airbrush hose, and you’ll probably piss off people you live with when the thing turns on and makes all that noise.

You have a few options here. First are small, electric compressors that look like a plastic box. They’re cheap and very quiet, but reviews generally say they don’t put out much air OR that they “pulse” the air – the PSI fluctuates as you’re painting… not good – as the compressor cycles.

Then you have slightly bigger airbrush compressors that are basically motors in a metal housing. For these, you can go with tankless or with a tank. Those with a tank are a little pricier, but it can store up air and  and won’t cycle the motor very often.

You can spend a ton on a compressor, possibly even more than your airbrush. That is certainly your right, but I went with a pretty basic model and I’m happy with it. It puts out air at a pretty constant pressure

What I went with: Master Airbrush Compressor, for several reasons. In short, it was the least expensive option that had everything I wanted. It came with a water trap (fast moving air builds up condensation) and an air hose. It was a good deal.

Paint

I swear by Privateer Press’ P3 paint. It’s consistent, it looks good and it’s easy to do shading and highlights because they make specific colors for bases, shades and highlights.

But it’s not airbrush paint.

That’s fine. You can use pretty much any miniature paint in an airbrush. Love Citadel? You can use it as long as you thin it properly. (Hint: Very, very thin.)

Along with my airbrush, I also bought some Vallejo airbrush thinner. It’s paint thinner made to thin out your paints without causing them to lose their adhesion.

Vallejo and Badger both make paint specifically for airbrush, and both get great reviews. They also conveniently come in dropper bottles, so you can just put a drop or two of paint right into your airbrush’s paint pot. Sadly, they’re not available anywhere in my area, but you can order them online very easily.

The pigment in airbrush paint is actually made up of smaller particles, so it won’t require as much cleaning or cause as much clogging as regular mini paints, but so far I haven’t had issues with either (as long as I’ve properly thinned everything).

What I went with: Still rocking a lot of P3, but I’m looking to buy some Vallejo Air.

Hose

Airbrush hoses are all pretty much the same. You can buy them at Blick, Hobby Lobby or online.

But I wish someone told me: All airbrushes don’t have the same fittings.

I ordered my brush, supplies and compressor. They all arrived. I started hooking things up, tested the compressor and went to screw the hose onto my brush. It didn’t fit.

In what I believe is an effort to get you to buy their specific hoses, Badger (like all other airbrush companies) uses its own thread size, so I had to track down an adapter. It wasn’t too hard, but I had to wait a couple more days before I could get started.

Instead of an adapter, you can also simply buy a hose that fits right to your airbrush. This one would work with mine.

What I went with: A hose came with my compressor, but Master (the same company that made my compressor) also sells these adapters that fit to Paasche, Badger and Aztec brushes. There are also ones for Iwata and Grex. Amazon has pretty much whatever you’re looking for.

Other items

You thought you were done, right?

More or less, yeah. But some other stuff will help you out.

First off, you’ll need a spray booth. It’s an airbrush, and paint will go everywhere if you don’t have something. The most nifty ones have a filter and fan (paint and thinner are harmful to your health!) as well as lighting, and they fold up to suitcase size. They also have a little lazy susan in the middle you can clamp your mini onto.

You can also make one out of cardboard, foam board or whatever. (For now, I use a cardboard box.) You can build in fans or lights or whatever you need.

Quickly: Be safe. I recommend a paint mask and making every effort not to breathe in paint or fumes.

Second, you’ll need to clean the thing a lot, so get some cleaning supplies. I highly recommend an airbrush cleaning station (they’re all pretty much the same, so get the cheapest one you can find) and some airbrush cleaning solution. When you’re done with a color, spray it into the cleaning station, then put in a few drops of cleaner and empty that into the pot. You’re ready for your next color. Various things like Q-tips, rags and paper towels are also great to have on hand.

Third, disposable gloves are needed if you want to keep clean. I keep showing up to work with paint all over my fingers, which is both really classy and really healthy. (I love paint chips on my sandwich!)

Lastly, there will be a lot of little things you might want. Some recommend Silly Putty to mask off areas of a model. Index cards work as a mask for larger sections. Small pipettes to pick up your paint from where you mix it and drop it into your airbrush cup are helpful. (Master sells them in boxes of 100.) It’s also a good idea to have a base or something you can attach your minis to. (I use a tiny, tiny spring clamp.)


Airbrushers out there: Is there anything I missed?

Join me next week for part two, where we’ll get into prep, priming, mixing paint and actually painting.

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