I decided to break this page down into three different sections relating to airbrushing equipment, hand and detailing painting equipment, and everything else that you'll need. Of course, you're also going to need some paint!
Picking out an airbrush can be pretty daunting at first. Here's some information on the basic types of airbrushes...
- Gravity, Siphon, or Side-Feed - Different brushes receive their paint in different ways, gravity receives it from a reservoir on top and siphon brushes pull it from a jar beneath. Side fed, as you might have guessed by now, receives it from the side of the brush. Gravity fed brushes are my favorite on account of their ease of use. You can add as little paint as you like to the reservoir as opposed to a siphon fed system which will generally require a bit more paint for proper suction in a jar below. Siphon fed systems are also more painful to clean as the small tube used to suck up the paint can easily become clogged without proper maintenance. The benefit to siphon airbrushes is that the bottom heavy jar will generally provide enough support to rest the brush between coats. In addition most models allow you to swap jars on the fly compared to having to empty a gravity fed brush's reservoir.
- Single Action and Double Action - Single action brushes only allow one spray mode. Push the button and paint comes out the other side at a standard rate. Changing the rate requires moving the needle back and forth, usually by turning one end of the brush. Double action brushes allow you to move the needle back and forth on the fly, changing the flow rate.
- Internal/External Mixing - At some point paint and air are going to mix, either internal to the brush or external. I feel as though internally mixing brushes give a more consistent spray and have had better luck with them over the years. They are a bit more difficult to clean than externally mixing brushes where the and air paint mix outside of your brush's components.
Which brush is right for you? Well that's something only you'll be able to figure out. Each type has it's own pros and cons and everyone is going to have their own preference. Some advanced modelers even have multiple types on hand for different purposes. To make things easier I recommend a simple gravity fed brush.
Regarding brand, the most common and popular are Iwata and Badger. You can't go wrong with either. The one I currently use is a Badger Renegade Velocity.
In addition to an airbrush you're going to need a compressor to provide that crucial element, air. There are a lot of different compressors out there and unfortunately I'm in an ill position to give comments on them. I've always had a pretty basic one, without all the bells and whistles, that has fit my needs spectacularly.
On that note I'm going to direct you to this page which has a lot of good information on the various types and considerations that would go into a purchase. One element I don't believe they mention is a water trap. Water traps sit between the compressor and the brush and help trap extra moisture in the air generated as compressors get hot. This can easily be alleviated by breaking up usage and allowing the compressor to cool down a bit (if you time things right, the right paint might also dry enough for a second coat during this rest period).
RIght now I use a Badger Airstorm compressor.
Of course, there are a few other components you'll need or should otherwise keep on hand...
- Air Hose/Tube - Runs between your compressor and your brush. Make sure to get one sized for the thread on your compressor and brush. Your airbrush may come with an adapter to fit a different size if need be.
- Cleaning Jar - Various companies out there make jars which serve both for cleaning and as a stand for your airbrush. They're designed to provide a convenient and clean place through which to run cleaner or a bit of excess paint through your brush. In my opinion the key part is that it provides a stand to hold the brush while taking a break. If you don't have one just spray into a can or mason jar.
- Cleaning Materials - As you might expect it's always good to have cleaning solution/thinner on hand with some paper towels to clean up before/after/in case of a spill. Some folks out there also sell specialized brushes for airbrush cleaning but in most instances simple pipe cleaners will do the job just as well.
- Parts Dish - At some point you'll have to disassemble your airbrush for a good cleaning. When you do so it's best to have a little dish in which to put or soak small parts. Depending on your brush there may be small parts inside, small parts you definitely don't want to lose.
- Workspace Supplies - Before you start to paint you'll want to prepare your workspace to help keep things clean and make it easier to clean up later. For example, use drop cloth to prevent spilled paint from becoming an issue or a paint booth to exhaust fumes. More information on space prepping.
- Respirator - Using an airbrush or spray can puts a lot of paint particulates in the air. You don't want to breath those in and a respirator will help with that.
The most important thing you can do before starting to hand paint small details is invest in a good micro bush. Look for a brush with a fine, short, strong tip. The key is to use a brush with a fine tip that will allow you to get in and work on details without brushing against other pieces or sections around the part that you're working on. While I can't point out any brands specifically make sure to get a brush whose tip won't fray or pull easily. The quicker the bristles wear the quicker you'll lose that edge and need to replace the brush. I'm not aware of any conflicts between most model paints and bristle type.
Remember that proper cleaning will extend the life of your brushes.
For hand painting larger areas I recommend a nice flat brush. Versus a round brush, a flat one will allow for wider and more consistent coats across a piece.
Clean Paper or Simple Painters Palette
After dipping my brush in paint I like to brush a bit onto a clean piece of white paper. This helps me gauge the consistency of the paint, whether there may be an issues with the brush, and remove any excess paint.
Droppers are essential to moving paint and thinner cleanly between jars. Always make sure to clean them thoroughly after each use. I also recommend marking one and using it only for thinner to avoid cross contamination.
Toothpicks, Poster Putty, Kabob Skewers, Alligator Clips
Poster putty, or any type of reusable adhesive putty, works great for positioning your pieces for paint. It allows you to paint nearly the entire piece without having to touch it. It's also great at keeping them organized. Just apply a little piece of putty to a part you don't mind going unpainted (like underneath) and stick a toothpick into it. Of course, you're going to need to stick the toothpick into something. I recommend Styrofoam blocks. They're cheap, can often be found for free, and can hold up well. You can purchase similar blocks at craft stores and some companies make specialized cardboard contraptions. More on that below.
A lot of people use longer skewers (like the kind used for shish kabobs) as it gives more room to grip and helps spread the pieces out more. You can also attach alligator clips to the end to create a an easier and more secure way to hold your pieces. You can find people selling clips and skewers together online but it's easier and cheaper just to make them yourself. You can get a six piece pack of clips from Harbor Freight for $1 and just crimp them into place yourself.
Hard Styrofoam or Cardboard Platform
Once your pieces are up on stilts you'll need something to put them into while they dry. I recommend a piece of hard styrofoam that you can poke pieces into on the fly. Most of my pieces are salvaged from work, once used to protect electronics for shipment. Make sure to check how firm the foam is and whether it gives under your finger. Soft foam is okay for airbrushing or other applications though any paint that you get on it, say via spray can, may break off after it hardens.
A common alternative is to get a good piece of cardboard (the heavier it is, the lower the center of gravity and the less likely it will tip over) and poke some evenly spaced holes into the top. If you have room I recommend leaving at least a quarter of the space free. That way, as you go through and paint, you can move pieces from one end to the other.
Masking Tape & Masking Solution
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At some point you're going to need to mask off certain areas so you don't get paint on them. Well, that's what masking tape is for! For more information on masking, and the various solutions, check out the masking section of the Guide.