Friday, November 24, 2023

So You Want to Buy an Airbrush?

I am a constant fidgeter, so I'm scrolling through Facebook and forums a lot just to do something with my hands. And I see a lot of people wanting to get started with airbrushing asking the same questions. With me being the know-it-all that I am, I repeat the same answers pretty frequently but always off the cuff and always missing something of value. So I have decided to collect my thoughts all in one place so that I don't leave anything out next time!
Figure 2 from the US Patent on the first internal mix airbrush
A couple of notes before I get going. First, I'm assuming you already know to get a double action, internal mix airbrush so I am not going to go into why to do that. Second, I live in the USA and that affects some of the advice I will be giving. Where I can make recommendations for other countries, I will, but take everything I say with a grain of salt as it is all based on hearsay. Finally, feel free to leave corrections or additional advice in the comments, I intended to update this page as needed. 

Before you can use an airbrush, you need an air source. DO NOT use canned air. For this you can use either an airbrush compressor or an actual compressor. However, using a big compressor designed for tools has quite a few drawbacks. First, they're really, really loud. Second, they use a different size hose than an airbrush, so conversion is required. Third, they generate a lot more water in the line (at least with my experiences) that has to be trapped out. 

So really, the only option is an airbrush compressor. For an airbrush compressor, you want one with a tank, a regulator, and a moisture trap. You need a tank to hold the generated compressed air; otherwise the compressor has to run constantly, which creates more heat (risking burning it out) and more noise (just annoying). The regulator is necessary to control your airflow. Different paints, thinners, and techniques can require different levels of air pressure and need it at a steady rate. The moisture trap is necessary because air compressors generate small amounts of water that will mess up your painting. The good news is that most decent airbrush compressors come with all three of these. 

All the big airbrush companies sell branded compressors, many offering a lot of features. But there are also more affordable options. While I cannot prove it, I'm 99% sure that most airbrush compressors are made by the same company or small group of companies and merely private labeled by the airbrush companies. I use the this one sold by TCP Global: TC-326T. It currently retails for about $140 US. Mine is pretty much the same, but lacks the blue tint on the compressor itself. 

I've been using it for many years now. I'm not sure what the noise is rated at, but it is quiet enough that my wife cannot hear it on the other side of the drywall (her office used to be right next to my work area). It's also quiet enough that I don't really have to turn up the volume if I'm listening to music or podcasts (or maybe I already listen to them too loud!).

I will mention this again later, but if you decide to buy this from TCP global, also check out their Amazon and eBay pages because their prices are not consistent across the three and you may be able to shave a few bucks off of the price. If you are not in the USA (or if you are and just don't want to shop at TCP Global), I've seen this (or at least one that looks exactly like it, sometimes minus the blue tint) sold by several companies all over the world. Just do some looking around.

Although the basics of airbrushes were invented over 100 years ago, there are some different features and characteristics that must be considered prior to choosing an airbrush. The importance of these features is going to vary from person to person, though. The first, and probably most important, is the needle size. The smaller the needle size, the finer the line that it can paint. However, the smaller the needle size, the easier it is to clog. This is, of course, not hard and fast. Angel Giraldez shoots primer through a super fine detail needle -- in other words, skill and practice can negate this. But, Angel Giraldez probably doesn't read my blog so what are some good needle sizes for a beginner? For fine detail, needle sizes are in the 0.20 mm range. For priming, base coating, and even early highlighting stages, needle sizes are generally in the 0.35 mm to 0.50 mm sizes. Larger needle sizes than that are really only useful for terrain and the like.

Another characteristic that I want to discuss are nozzle sizes. This is a personal bug bear though. It wasn't something I had considered initially, but after using quite a few airbrushes for a while, it was something I came to think about a lot. Especially for a beginner, the smaller the nozzle, the harder it is to clean and, more importantly, the easier it is to lose. That said, it is just something to keep in mind. But here are some of my (very dirty) nozzles to give you an idea. One other thing to note is that the Chinese airbrush screws in while the other three "float." I can tell you that I have broken the threads on the screw in nozzles before, but the ones that float just get placed in and have no threads to be damaged.

One last feature worth mentioning are needle limiters. Needle limiters helped me a lot when beginning because they allow you to set it so that the needle cannot be pulled back to far so that you don't let too much paint out. I don't use them much anymore as I've gotten used to the how to control the trigger so that I don't need it. Additionally, with acrylic paint, you often have to spray at full blast to clear out small clogs. But, it may be a feature you want and they can help.

Any knob that looks like this is probably a needle limiter

Okay, so now that you know some of the features worth considering, there are two schools of thought when it comes to buying your first airbrush. Both have valid points, which I will explain below, and you have to decide which one is right for you.

The first option is to buy a cheap airbrush. If you're in the USA, this is usually one of the Masters Airbrushes, also from TCP Global. Like anything from TCP Global, check their Amazon and eBay stores for the best price.

These airbrushes are made in China and are essentially knockoffs of Iwata airbrushes, but at a significantly reduced price. Although, like most knockoffs, they are not made to the same standard as Iwatas. They all appear to be made by a company known as Fengda or Fenghua and are sold to other companies to private label with their own brand. As of the time of this writing, I believe they're sold by FoxHunter in the UK and do not appear to be sold under any particular name in the rest of the EU. After beginning this article, I learned Greenstuff World also sells one model, albeit with only a single needle size per brush.

So why should you buy one of these? Well, the number one reason is that they are cheap. They run around $35 US, about a quarter of the retail price of a Badger Patriot 105 (more on that later). If your only concern is price, this is definitely the way to go.

But, the price also brings another advantage. Airbrushing is tricky and takes some learning. And  every company does things a little differently and offers some different features. In other words, you're first airbrush is probably not going to be a perfect fit anyway. So you're also probably going to have (want?) to buy a second airbrush anyway. And if you're going to do that, you might as well spend as little as possible on the first one to learn what you like. And when you do, you'll still have uses for your first one. Metallics, lacquers, enamels, etc. can be rough on an airbrush, so you won't want to shoot those through your nice, new, expensive airbrush anyway.

However, if these airbrushes were that great, we'd all be using them right? Well, I have some; I've had three or four in fact. And why have I owned that many? They damage easy. Tips have broken, barrels have been damaged from drops, etc. Now, I'm pretty klutzy, so  your millage may vary.

Plus, the price break isn't as good as it looks on first glance. As I said above, you pretty much have to buy a compressor, which already requires an outlay of funds. Further, the results of these airbrushes are not that great out of the box. They're not terrible, but not great. And if you decide to go this route, check out this video on how to improve one:

The other option are more expensive, "name brand" airbrushes. These are just generally just better airbrushes. They operate smoother, they spray better, and the parts last longer and are easier to find. But that comes at a cost, and you're probably going to spend $120 US or more. Plus, unlike the cheap ones, there are a lot of brands to sort through. And I'm going to give you my on these brands. Now, before I start discussing the brands, Badger, Iwata, and Harder & Steenbeck all offer "entry level" airbrushes. The Iwata and Badger aren't terribly well received. The Harder & Steenbeck is better received (and one I own) but at least avoid the Iwata and Badger as they're more expensive than the cheap Chinese ones but are generally don't offer much better performance. And while the Harder & Steenbeck is better received, it's also a lot more expensive than the other two -- so it kind of defeats the purpose.

If you're in the USA, probably the most well known brand is Badger. They're made here and widely available. In fact, one common suggestion for a first airbrush is to buy a Badger at Michael's with one of their 50% off coupons. One note about Badger airbrushes is that they use a different hose than everyone else. I'll discuss the best solution for this later when discussing accessories.

Badger Patriot
Badger makes what is, in my limited experience, the best beginner airbrush: the Patriot 105. Although it has a larger needle, this gives it a much smaller learning curve. Even without thinning your paints, you won't get many clogs. I once heard it stated that you could probably shoot gravel through this thing. (Please don't try that thought!!!). The larger needle makes it less suitable for fine detail work, but for a beginner, you're probably not really capable of that anyway. Even then, you can still do a lot with it. Aside from the obvious priming, base coating, and varnishing, I frequently apply the first and sometimes second highlights with mine. And if you paint a lot of tanks, you can do even more than that with it. Badger also makes an upgrade kit so that you can swap out the needle with a 0.30 mm and matching nozzle, which will allow you to do finer (but probably not fine) detail work with it. Plus, as you can see in the nozzle photo above, it has a large nozzle that is pretty easy to clean.

A word of warning though, avoid the Patriot 105 Extreme. It may seem like an attractive options because it comes with the 0.30 mm needle instead of the larger needle. However, it also advertises another feature: a "precision air control dial." Other airbrushes offer similar features, and I can't speak to other implementations of it, but Badger's implementation in the Patriot 105 Extreme is not well done. If you leave it unscrewed enough so that it doesn't affect the airflow, it is prone to falling out on its own, which then causes the airbrush to quite spraying. But if you have it screwed in enough so that it won't fall out, you end up with a splatter effect (since that is what it is for). Your money would be better spent on a regular Patriot 105 and the needle upgrade kit.

This falls out all the time!
Badger Renegade Krome
This was my first "expensive" airbrush. I bought it because it had lots of good discussion and reviews available on the internet. After I bought it however, I read some indication that some of those reviews and discussions may not have been entirely honest. That said, I don't have any evidence of that. When I first bought it, I was upgrading from a Testors Aztek (more on that later), and it took a lot of getting used to. It clogged a lot and I mixed up the fine and extra fine components almost immediately. There were many nights where I began to regret my choice over the equally well reviewed Iwata HP-C. But, over time, I've come to like this one best of all of my airbrushes. Strangely, it happened after I bought the Badger Patriot and got used to using that one. This is part of the reason I think the Patriot is such a good beginner airbrush. After using the Patriot almost exclusively for a few months, I was no longer getting all the clogs with the Krome either. Strange! The nicest part about this airbrush is that it comes with two needle sizes, a 0.33 mm and a 0.21 mm. This allows it to be used for both primers/varnishes and for fine detail work. It also has a needle limiter that, as discussed above, I did used to use quite a bit.

But the biggest knock to me is the size of the components. As you can see in the photo above, the Krome nozzle is much smaller than the H&S Ultra nozzle, even though both have a similar size needle. This makes it much easier to drop and/or lose. It is also harder to clean since you can barely hold it while you are cleaning it. The learning curve on it is also a negative.

Harder & Steenbeck Ultra
I picked this one up used and had to do a bit of cleaning and oiling of it. It's a well built airbrush and one of the biggest selling points of Harder & Steenbeck is that all their airbrushes use (mostly) the same parts. So the parts are machined exactly the same way and to the same standard, since they are exactly the same. And like all things engineered by Germans, it is very well made. Everything assembles and disables smoothly. But, I've also found it to be the most fiddley to use. It clogs like no one's business unless I'm shooting water through, then it seems to work just fine! I can't promise that this isn't user error or equipment issues. One nice feature it does offer is that the paint cup is removable, which does make it a lot easier to clean. Even though I'm not terribly happy with it, I also still planning on picking up an Infinity or Evolution at some point, but that's mostly because I'm an airbrush junkie!

Iwata HP-C Plus
I started writing this article before the pandemic started, but life got in the way and it took me three years to finish it. In the meantime I picked up an Iwata HP-C Plus though. And it's a pretty great airbrush. Spray wise, it is somewhere between the Patriot and the Krome as far as fine detail goes. But it's by far the easiest airbrush I own to clean. So that's a big plus. My only real knock on it is the tip is like the Chinese knocks above, in that it screws in, but it does screw in to a larger tip that floats, so it is much less likely to be lost and you aren't really messing with the threads anyway. If you can't easily get a Badger or want something a little more fine detail than the Patriot anyway, I highly recommend this one. 

Testors Aztek
A short note on this airbrush: AVOID! This was my first airbrush, it was a gift. It has a system where you can swap out the needle and nozzle quite easily, which makes it look attractive. The problem is that I could never get it to shoot acrylic paints very well. After years of using it, about the only way it works is to use the 0.70 mm needle. And even then, it get clogs and I have to keep a separate jar of cleaner to use periodically. Basically, I can only use it for terrain. Testors customer service is excellent though!

So, the TL;DR is get a good compressor first and foremost. For the airbrush itself, either go with the cheap, Chinese airbrushes or go with the Badger Patriot or Iwata HP-C Plus. But, if you're anything like me, you'll have several before you know it!

No comments:

Post a Comment