Are you looking for an airbrush to paint miniatures? Over the years as a commissioned miniature painter, I’ve been asked a lot about airbrushing. What is the best airbrush for painting miniatures? What airbrush should I start with for painting models? Is using an airbrush cheating? Are you wondering whether airbrushing is worth it?
Well, you’ve come to the right place!
In this article, I share my experience with using an airbrush to paint miniatures as a hobbyist and in a professional setting. I’ve painted thousands of miniatures of all scales and genres.
Read on for my airbrushing guide, insight, and review of the best airbrushes for painting miniatures and models.
Why did I start using an airbrush for painting miniatures?
Big blocks of terrain. As a miniature tabletop gamer, I wanted to make my own gaming table. That required covering large surfaces of foam, cardboard, and plaster with primer and paint.
I lived in a small apartment with limited outdoor space (the balcony). To use an aerosol spray can wasn’t a good option due to bad ventilation. So, I turned to my trusty old bottom-fed Paasche airbrush like this one, except mine was the older version. It worked like a charm!
After a while, I realized I could airbrush the gaming models, too. My Warhammer 40k Imperial Guard (as they were called back then) painted up much faster.
I also learned that certain colors had better coverage with an airbrush. Difficult to paint colors like white, yellow, and orange, worked really well in an airbrush.
Ultimately, it was my need to paint large surfaces indoors and with colors that gave me trouble with a regular brush that led to my first stint as an airbrush miniature painter.
From this point onward, I slowly collected more than 8-10 airbrushes of different makes and models. Keep reading to see my thoughts on what I gathered from painting miniatures with an airbrush.
What is my favorite airbrush?
In the years providing a painting service, I’ve owned and operated many types of airbrushes.
I’ve airbrushed miniatures with Iwatas, Harder & Steenbeck airbrushes, Badger airbrushes, GREX, and Paasche airbrushes. They were all kinds of models and makes.
The better question is…
“What is the most useful airbrush?”
The answer depends on when you asked me during my painting service career….
When I was painting swarms of tyranids on commission, the best airbrush was the Badger Patriot 105 with the larger paint cup size. It was the most reliable airbrush for painting a large number of models for hours on end.
Non-stop painting required an airbrush that didn’t clog easily, and if it did, I could disassemble quickly and use harsher chemicals to remove debris. This mighty faithful airbrush was the Badger Patriot 105.
Suffice it to say, the Badger Patriot 105 airbrush does not clog much with the 0.5mm nozzle. Of course, at the time, I was blasting away at over 35PSI of air pressure.
On the other hand, when I was painting a smaller number of models, I preferred a balanced approach. I needed an airbrush that could help me with the first basecoat and a few layers of highlights. That’s when I moved on to the Harder and Steenbeck Infinity 2-in-1.
I didn’t mess around. At over $300 USD, the Infinity is an expensive airbrush. But, it was adaptable, and felt great in my hands.
Painting models with this airbrush was simply awesome.
The Infinity 2-in-1 airbrush is the best airbrush for general miniature painting for experienced painters. But, the Infinity is only the ideal airbrush because it can adapt to one’s needs.
In many respects, the Infinity is also an over-engineered airbrush; providing many more features than you’ll ever need.
The hot swappable nozzle and needle sets (between 0.2mm to 0.4mm nozzle sizes) allowed me to use one brush for everything. Even the paint cup could be changed to hold less or more paint (more pros and cons below). Tool-less disassembly makes upkeep and maintenance with the Infinity airbrush a breeze.
Keep reading to see my thoughts on different airbrushes that may fit your personal needs.
What is an airbrush?
No seriously, I’m asking here because not everyone knows.
Ask a non-painter.
Air + brush = airbrush?
Airbrush technology is old. The airbrush was invented in 1879 by Abner Peeler (source).
An airbrush is a simple device that atomizes liquid through the flow of air. Paint atomization is the mechanism that produces the fine spray we all expect from an airbrush. In principle, a modern airbrush gives its user control over how paint is mixed and atomized into the airflow.
Explosive power: how does an internal-mix airbrush work?
This is how an airbrush works:
- Pressurized air flows through the airbrush and creates a negative pressure vacuum that sucks paint from a reservoir, e.g., a bottle or attached paint cup
- The moving air creates turbulence in the nose cap (the front of the airbrush), i.e., this is an “internal mix” design
- The air is looking for an escape
- As the air squeezes through the nozzle, the narrowing channel squeezes the air, greatly increasing the air pressure, until the air explodes or decompresses into the atmosphere
- The paint particles explode along with the air
- Paint atomizes
In short, an airbrush literally makes paint explode.
How did airbrushing become popular for painting miniatures?
In world of traditional fine art, the popularity of the airbrush grew, slowly.
In the miniature painting community, the airbrush was always around, but remained in the shadows until…social media.
With the explosion in social media, the airbrush grew into a mainstream, highly-regarded tool for painting miniatures.
The sharing of artwork on social media sites, with the most visible use of airbrushing show with video, e.g., YouTube, has propelled airbrushing to the forefront of the miniature painter’s conscience as a legitimate tool.
What are the 2 best types of airbrushes for painting miniatures?
There are many types of airbrushes.
Each of these types of airbrushes are categorized depending on the industry. For example, in the automotive or home painting industries, the airbrush is referred to as a “spray gun”. Spray guns are a much larger apparatus that produce a wider, more robust spray pattern. Atomized paint is coarse, due in part to the thickness of the paint and the design of the spraying system. Spray guns are generally used for polyurethane or latex-based paints.
For the miniature painter, there are 2 types of airbrushes for painting miniatures:
- Single-action airbrushes
- Double-action airbrushes
Single Action Airbrush
All airbrushes function by controlling air flow and mixing paint into that air.
A single-action airbrush passively mixes paint into the air.
This type of airbrush mixes air and paint by allowing the user to actively control the airflow. Paint mixes passively via internal mechanics.
In a single-action airbrush, to control the amount of paint in the air-paint mixture, you need a lot of air.
And, the air has to travel fast. This means more pressure!
Overall, single-action airbrushes like any tool has weaknesses and strengths. Weigh them out below.
A single-action airbrush has 3 advantages:
- Easy Operation – You only have to control air. The trigger is a simple “on-off button”. A single-action airbrush acts just like an aerosol spray can. Point and shoot.
- Less maintenance – A single-action airbrush has less moving parts and is therefore easier to clean and maintain
- Inexpensive – The initial cost and operational needs of a single-action airbrush are less than double-action airbrushes. This is due in part to less moving parts, reduced need for high tolerance engineering, and consumer demand.
On the other hand, a single-action airbrush has 3 disadvantages:
- Coarse Spraying – As a single-action airbrush, the air pressure required to internally mix paint leads to less fine control. The spray from a single-action is broader, and paint atomizes in a coarse pattern (e.g., less smooth).
- Limited Control – Single-action airbrushes as the name implies only has a single way for you to control the air-paint mixture (the volumetric ratio of air-to-paint). Each paint you put into the airbrush may require a different air pressure, but then you’re never sure…see below.
- Unpredictable – You would think that less control over an airbrush, the more predictable it would be. Nope! The need for relatively high air pressure limits your ability predict how different paint and inks may behave within the airbrush. Air doesn’t simply mix paint in a linear fashion. High air pressure doesn’t mean more paint comes out the way you think. In fact, low pressure and high pressure air do very different things to liquids. Air temperature comes into play as well, and can strongly affect how an airbrush behaves.
For the miniature painter, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Most artists don’t use single-action airbrushes.
Similarly, I don’t recommend any miniature painter purchase a single-action airbrush. Their usefulness is limited to large models, terrain pieces, where control of the air-paint mixture and spray pattern is not important.
Double Action Airbrush
Every miniature painter should consider the double-action airbrush. It should be the first and only airbrush you get.
All airbrushes do is mix air and paint (see here).
While a single-action airbrush only lets you control airflow, a double-action airbrush gives you control over both air and paint.
This is a powerful advantage.
With a double-action airbrush you have the ability to mix paint and air into any spray volume. You can have a large spray volume (e.g., base coating), or small volume (e.g., detail painting).
A double-action airbrush has 3 advantages:
- Control – A double-action airbrush gives you a lot of control over the air and paint mixture. Control and reliability make airbrushing miniatures easier.
- Versatile – You can use a double-action airbrush for various paint techniques. The control you have is useful large models, base coating, or fine details, and even glazing.
- Low pressure operation – A double-action airbrush can operate at lower air pressure because you are not limited by the need to “vacuum” paint passively. You can pull-in and mix as little or as much paint as you want.
Not without faults, a double-action airbrush has 3 disadvantages:
- More complicated – You are responsibly for mixing both air and paint at the correct ratio for your application (well, you can’t do this at all with a single-action airbrush). With this power, comes more responsibility.
- Upkeep and maintenance – A double-action airbrush has more moving parts and internal mechanisms. This also means that a double-action airbrush is also prone to the invasion of paint and a deeper cleaning may be required.
- Cost – A double-action airbrush requires a higher degree of engineering and quality components to operate well. This increases the overall cost of a double-action airrush compared to a single-action airbrush.
Although the disadvantages of a double-action airbrush are significant, any miniature painter will soon realize that control is what they are truly purusing. In this case, a double-action airbrush is your best choice.
How does a double-action airbrush work?
Airbrushes make paint explode (see above).
More specifically, a double-action airbrush works through a unique trigger system.
The trigger on a double-action airbrush has two actions. You can push the trigger down and/or pull it back.
- Air – Push the trigger down
- Paint – Pull the trigger back
Holding an airbrush like a pencil, you use your forefinger to operate a double-action airbrush with a push-pull action. When you pull the trigger back, then a valve opens up and introduces paint into the moving air.
The combined air turbulence and the paint create the mixture inside the airbrush, which then atomizes completely as it exits the nozzle.
Procedure for best results with a double-action airbrush
What should I do first, push for air or pull for paint?
The standard operating procedure (SOP) for a double-action airbrush is to always push down for air first. Once air is flowing, then slowly introduce paint into the airbrush by pulling the trigger back.
After you’re done spraying paint, keep the air on, while you turn-off the paint (release the trigger back to the vertical position).
Proper trigger-use when operating a double-action airbrush (in order):
- Push for airflow
- Pull for paint
- Release trigger to stop paint flow
- Stop airflow
Why are these operational steps important?
- Triggering air first is important because this allows the airbrush to clear out any debris, e.g., flecks of dried paint, or dust, before mixing paint. It also gives you information a priori about how much spray amount you’ll be applying to your model (without accidentally getting paint everywhere).
- Stopping paint flow before shutting off airflow is important to prevent clogging or tip dry (Clear out the bit of paint on the tip of your needle before your next spray action and you’ll have a much cleaner result with less risk for splattering paint).
3 must-know paint reservoir designs in double-action airbrushes
How does paint get into an airbrush?
There are 3 paint reservoir designs on double-action airbrushes you should know about:
- Siphon- or bottom-feed
- Side-cup feed
- Gravity- or top-feed
This type of airbrush uses a jar or bottle attached to the airbrush. A tube or siphon inserted into the bottle acts like a straw to pull the paint into the airbrush during operation.
Siphon-bottom feed airbrushes are very popular for applications that require spraying large surfaces and need a lot of paint volume. A bottom-feed bottle can hold an unlimited amount of paint.
These airbrushes are also great when you need to switch colors quickly, or need multiple airbrushes ready to go. For example, a lot of airbrush artists who paint T-shirts or people’s faces (face painters?) often use bottom-feed airbrushes because they can work through the painted design quickly with many colors.
Another benefit of airbrushing with a bottom-feed design is increased visibility. This is an overlooked advantage, which has intrigued me for painting miniatures. With the bottle of paint under the airbrush, your line-of-sight (LoS) is open to your working surface.
Of course, the problem with a siphon-feed airbrush is physics. To create the suction necessary for a siphon-feed airbrush, the air flow must be strong enough to “vacuum-up” the paint. And, paint is considerably heavier than air.
A siphon-feed airbrush has a lower limit for how little air pressure you can use. For painting miniatures, the lowest air pressure you can use in a siphon-feed airbrush is often too high for finer detail painting. To operate a siphon-feed airbrush reliably, you may be required to operate a minimum of 30-40 PSI.
If you’re looking for more control, a siphon-feed airbrush is the wrong brush for you.
- Lower cost
- Bottles and jars hold a lot of paint, which is great for airbrushing large surfaces, e.g., terrain
- Excellent visibility of the working surface (e.g., paint loads from the bottom of the airbrush)
- Easy to change colors with multiple bottles; simply, swap them in and out
- Requires more air pressure to operate to pull and mix paint in the airbrush
- Limits the lowest air pressure an artist can use (major drawback)
Similar to a bottom-feed airbrush, a side-feed airbrush uses a suction action to pull paint into the airflow. However, instead of using a tube or straw inserted into a bottle, paint is feed in a cup attached to the side of the airbrush.
What this means is that the paint vacuum does not necessarily need to fight gravity. Paint is “pulled” into the airbrush from the side.
This has the advantage that less air pressure (airflow) is needed to get paint into the air mixture than compared with a siphon bottom feed airbrush.
In addition, the location of the cup is generally out of the view of the user. You have an unrestricted view of your working surface. Of course, this depends on whether you’re right or left-handed, and which side the cup is attached.
I’ve owned and operated a side-cup airbrush for many years as a miniature painter. A note to point out with a side-feed airbrush is that you often need to fill the cup with enough paint to allow the feed to work. In other words, there is a minimum amount of paint you need to use in a side-feed airbrush. This means you end up wasting paint if you only need to paint a small amount with the airbrush.
- Requires less air pressure to operate than a bottom-feed airbrush
- Side-feed airbrushes can operate with thicker paint at the same air pressure than bottom-feed airbrushes
- Visibility is as good as a bottom-feed airbrush (depends on which side the cup is attached and if you’re a left- or right-handed)
- Minimum amount of paint needed for proper operation (can often leads to wasted paint)
- Significant air pressure is still required to vacuum paint into the airbrush
- The minimum air pressure limits how much control you have with the airbrush
3. Gravity-Feed (recommended for painting miniatures)
This is the best airbrush for painting miniatures. In gravity-feed airbrush, the paint is fed through a cup located on the top of the airbrush. This allows gravity to pull the paint into the airbrush when you open the needle valve. The sheer weight of the paint loads it into your airstream.
Because gravity is a force acting on the paint, you don’t need the airflow speeds to create a suction (like the other airbrush designs). As a result, you can operate a gravity feed airbrush at much lower air pressure (often less than 30PSI).
In fact, the only limitation of a double-action airbrush is the viscosity of the paint and nozzle size (measured in millimeters for the opening diameter).
Of course, a weakness of this design is that the paint cup sits on top of the airbrush and blocks your view (somewhat, depending on the size of the paint cup). But, for the most part, you will easily compensate for this loss of full-visibility. What you gain in control is worth this small compromise.
- Gravity pulls paint into the airbrush, removing the need for air flow to internally mix paint
- Operates at very, very low air pressure and provides the user a lot of control
- Able to spray with thicker paint than compared with other paint feed systems
- Limited visibility (but, it’s not too bad)
- Limited paint capacity depending on the size of the paint cup
- Changing paints is slower as you have to clean the entire paint cup and front end of the airbrush
Interestingly, there is a universal airbrush design (by Badger) that lets you operate with bottles or paint cups, depending on your need. I have not tried this airbrush, but this could be a great option for those who want an “all-in-one” option for how they feed paint into the airbrush.
Best air pressure for airbrushing miniatures and models? (Use the “skin dimple test”)
For painting miniatures, a double-action airbrush will work with a PSI (pressure per square inch) between 0-35 PSI.
- A low PSI is preferable when airbrushing details with thinned paint (ink-like viscosity) of around 10-20 PSI. Base coating or airbrushing large surfaces with thicker paints will require higher PSI settings of around 30-40 PSI.
But, these different PSI numbers are confusing, right? As a professional painter, I don’t even bother looking at my air regulator anymore.
I use the “skin dimple test” to find the right airbrush pressure. The skin dimple test always works as a simple and fast way to find the best airbrushing pressure. Watch the video below to see how the correct air pressure against the tip of my finger dimples the skin.
For fine detail airbrushing with thinned paint (e.g., milk consistency), I point the airbrush nozzle at my index finger. I trigger-on the air flow and watch how the air “dimples” the skin on my index finger tip. If the air just pushes a small area of skin (~3 mm diameter), then I’m at the correct PSI pressure. If the skin doesn’t seem to dimple, then your PSI is too low. With too much PSI, the entire tip of my finger changes shape.
After you adjust the air pressure following the skin dimple test, all you need to do is add paint (i.e., pull back on the trigger).
The best part about the “skin dimple test” is that it doesn’t rely on air pressure PSI or nozzle size.
For base coating or large surface area spraying, any PSI will work fine. The only issue with low PSI is the airbrush is more prone to clogging and won’t spray thicker paint very well.
5 key features to consider in shopping for the best airbrush for painting miniatures
All tools fill a need that is unique to the user. In other words, finding the best airbrush for YOU is a personal decision.
Based on my experience, however, here are a few things that you may want to consider when shopping around for a new airbrush or when looking for an upgrade.
Of the double-action airbrushes, there are 5 features you need to decide on:
- Paint cup size
- Nozzle size
- Ergonomics (e.g., how the airbrush feels/handles)
I’m of the philosophy that you should only “pay for the quality you need”.
After collecting so many airbrushes over the years (more than 15 years), I realized that I never needed to spend so much money. If I only knew what I was looking for from the start….
You can get a great, do-it-all airbrush for under $100.
In fact, all you would need to add is a good compressor and you could get painting right away. For $100, depending on where you shop, you can pick-up the venerated Badger Patriot 105.
As a guideline, I would not spend less than $90 on an airbrush for painting miniatures. Below this price point, airbrushes don’t have the same reliability or support that you would want for a pleasant airbrushing experience. Cheap airbrushes suffer with poor quality parts, sub-par manufacturing (e.g., do you like air leaks?), and below average paint atomization (e.g., coarse spray).
An airbrush that fails, or has unreliable operation will kill your enjoyment of the miniature painting hobby.
Be willing to pay for reliability.
Now if you’re wondering “what makes an airbrush more expensive?”, it comes down to a few important characteristics: quality of materials, paint and airflow characteristics in the internal mixture, other functional attributes, e.g., feel and handling, and customer service (see below for company “brand”).
Things that increase the price an airbrush include added feature that give you finer control of the air and paint mixture. This may include a knob at the tip fo the airbrush that “tunes” the airflow (i.e., a pressure air valve or PAC). You may see this feature on the Iwata Hi-Line series of airbrushes, or the Patriot Xtreme.
Another feature that may add to the cost (or value depending on your needs) is needle access. Some airbrushes have the ability to “lock-out” the needle with a set-screw. This limits the maximum amount of paint you can add to your internal air mixture. Hence, more airbrushing control. Many airbrushes have this needle lock-out feature, but I have not met a miniature painter who has used this airbrush feature.
There are 3 major airbrush brands that are most popular among miniature painters and fine scale hobbyists.
- Badger (American)
- Iwata (Japanese)
- Harder & Steenbeck (German)
Each brand has its defining characteristics, e.g., engineering design, look and feel, and function.
Badger, for example, is often noted as the heaviest airbrush. A Badger airbrush has a solid, utilitarian build, with a nice heft that helps with stability. I enjoy the weight of Badger airbrushes as it helps me feel as though I am working with a tool, and not a toy.
Badger also uses a simple system for their nose/nozzle subassembly. The nozzle fits into the end of the airbrush, aligned and held in-place with the nose cap. There are no threads on the nozzle, which would be prone toward stripping or breakage. The nozzles in Badger airbrushes are durable.
Pro tip: don’t disassemble a Badger airbrush over a sink with an open drain (the nozzle will pop out)
In short, the Badger airbrush design motif is simplicity and practicality over all other considerations.
IWATA airbrushes are classics. They are beautiful machines. Disney animators painted with Iwatas. In fact, the Iwata HP line of airbrushes were the favored airbrushes of analog cartoon animators before digital came along. The older models of the Iwata HP line are no longer in production. But, the new versions are available.
My first professional airbrush was an IWATA HP-C. I remember having to save up for months to afford it. And, shipping from Japan took 4-weeks.
The Iwata design motif is decades old. Little has changed. All Iwatas use high quality materials with an exterior chrome plating (shiny!). All internal parts are machined to very high tolerances. Fit and finish are spectacular in all Iwatas. Because of these reasons, legacy, quality, and brand, Iwatas are some of the most expensive airbrushes on the market.
Pro tip: avoid purchasing the NEO for IWATA. This is a cheap knockoff with the Iwata branding only.
If you’re looking for a professional level airbrush, look no further than an Iwata. Be prepared to pay for it, however, as even the budget model exceeds the $150 threshold.
Harder & Steenbeck is a German airbrush company. Harder & Steenbeck (H/S) airbrushes are highly-respected in the miniature painting community.
The notable characteristics of these airbrushes is the nozzle/nose subassembly with an open needle design. While Badger and Iwatas have airbrush models with open needle nose adapters, they are non-standard.
In the Harder & Steenbeck airbrush, the open needle gives the user more visibility and fine spray control. This, of course, comes at the expense of increasing the risk for needle tip damage.
Bottomline: The brand of airbrush you choose is up to you. You can’t go wrong with any of these airbrush brands. I have airbrushes in my collection from all of these companies that I still use for painting miniatures. If I had to recommend just one airbrush brand, it would be a Badger airbrush for its cost-to-feature benefit value.
3. Paint cup size
What is the best paint cup size in a gravity feed airbrush? This is an important consideration because in a double-action airbrush, the paint cup is usually integrated into the airbrush body. You’re stuck with the paint cup size you buy with the airbrush. The standard paint cup size in a gravity feed airbrush is about 3ml. A 3ml sized paint cup will be the most versatile balance of paint volume to line-of-sight visibility over the airbrush.
Of course, Harder & Steenbeck airbrushes (like the Infinity) have the option of different cup sizes. But, this airbrush alone for this feature costs twice as much as other airbrushes.
Why would you choose a smaller paint cup size?
Well, if you know that you want more visibility for fine detail painting, a smaller cup will provide this benefit. But, this is situational, and more often than not you’ll want the versatility of a standard sized paint cup (more than 3ml volume).
With a larger paint cup, you’ll have to fill-up your airbrush less often for most jobs. If you don’t need to paint a lot, just put less in your airbrush.
My final suggestion here is to get a large sized paint cup (1/3 ounce or 10ml), if you plan to have a more versatile miniature/model painting setup, e.g., an airbrush that can handle almost every job.
4. Nozzle size
An airbrush nozzle size refers to the opening diameter at the tip of a nozzle in millimeters (ml).
Choosing the best nozzle size for airbrushing miniatures is a fairly controversial topic. When choosing an airbrush, ask yourself: “what am I using this airbrush for, mostly?”.
The smaller the nozzle size, the finer detail spraying you can do. With nozzles less than 0.3mm, you can operate with thinner paints or ink at lower air pressure. With the lower air pressure (see the skin dimple test above), you have a lot of control over where the airbrush spray goes on your miniature.
However, with a smaller nozzle size, you are more likely to risk clogging your airbrush. A clogged airbrush is commonplace, but more frequent with a small nozzle. Even with experienced and professional miniature painters, a clogged nozzle happens all the time.
With a smaller nozzle, you will be forced to use thinner paint. Thinner paint has poorer single-pass coverage compared with undiluted, thicker paints.
Suffice it to say, a smaller nozzle in any airbrush will not be ideal for priming or base coating models. Both priming and base coating works best with thicker paint (e.g., more pigment) and sprayed at higher air pressure.
My recommendation for airbrush priming and base coating is to use a large nozzle (0.3mm or greater). I use a 0.5mm nozzle in my Badger Patriot 105 that I task for priming and base coating larger models and terrain pieces.
With a 0.5mm nozzle size, I can spray any surface primer (see this article for my favorite primer) undiluted at higher pressure (30-40PSI) without fear of clogging.
For a happy middle ground nozzle size, if you had only one choice, I would strongly suggest a 0.3mm nozzle size. This is a standard nozzle size in the IWATA HP-CS airbrush, and I trained myself to airbrush with this setup. With a 0.3mm nozzle size, you can do nearly every airbrush miniature painting technique. I can base coat models, apply glaze and inks, and cover large surfaces with most art media, e.g., water-based varnishes.
5. Ergonomics (airbrush “feel”)
Every artist has intuition. This is the “inner voice” that tells you when things are, right.
Airbrushes are just another tool in the artist’s toolbox. As such, airbrushes are only as useful as the person using them. Airbrushes fill a purpose and exist to serve their master…you.
RELATED: BEST BRUSHES FOR PAINTING MINIATURES
This means that an airbrush is good at some jobs, and bad at other jobs.
Here are 5 jobs that an airbrush is really good at doing for painting miniatures:
- Priming models
- Base coating the first few layers of paint
- Stenciling, masking, tonal-gradient designs, e.g., color modulation
As you may notice, these jobs for airbrushes are for applying paint over fairly large surfaces.
Advanced painting techniques with an airbrush involves more skill from the painter. More advanced techniques with an airbrush for painting miniatures include: zenithal highlighting, sketch-style painting, and non-metallic metal (NMM) techniques.
Can airbrushing improve your miniature painting?
Simple answer, no. In fact, taking airbrushing for the first time will worsen the results.
Is airbrushing miniatures worth it?
The learning curve for airbrushing is steep. If you’re new to the airbrush, outside of base coating and priming models, the airbrush will be a frustrating tool for painting miniatures. You will have to learn how to control the airbrush to use more advanced painting techniques.
It took me about a month to fully grasp the in-and-outs of the airbrush. And, I painted a lot!
Note that persistence pays off with learning how to airbrush.
Once you get the hang of airbrushing, the tool becomes a breath of fresh air. It will change the pace of your miniature painting workflow in a good way.
What do I mean?
Some mundane aspects of painting miniatures and models will become more enjoyable. Highlighting miniatures will become fun in a different way. Your blends will smooth out, naturally, and color modulation techniques will bring new life to some models, especially scale model vehicles.
For best results, stenciling is a technique that is unique to the airbrush.
The entire panel of advanced paint blending techniques becomes somewhat easier with an airbrush (depending on the size and complexity of the model, and only after you’ve mastered the tool).
Is airbrushing miniatures “cheating”?
Let me explain.
If you are looking for tips for Warhammer airbrushing, most will not be focused on normal brush techniques. You might get answers lik getting an airbrush kit, but has its used f warhammeror other miniatures isn’t very encouraging.
They ignore the skill required to paint miniatures with an airbrush well. And, that is why airbrushing is not cheating. Airbrushes are a tool that helps you get a particular result. Sure an airbrush might do certain jobs faster and to a better quality; but don’t the Citadel colored primers do the same thing?
Cheating is an act performed dishonestly to gain an advantage or to avoid something negative by luck or skill (source).
Using the definition of “cheating”, airbrushing miniatures is not cheating. In fact, airbrushing miniatures and models requires the painter to employ more skill and work to achieve a desired effect.
Bottomline: Airbrushing is not cheating. Airbrushes are an investment that will return as much as you put into learning the tool.
What airbrush should I get for painting miniatures?
Answer these questions:
- What kind of miniature painting do you want to do with an airbrush? (purpose)
- What is your budget and how much are you willing to invest? (cost)
The best airbrush for painting miniatures and models will depend on your answers to “purpose” and “cost”. And, this is all personal to your hobby goals.
Read on for some of my recommended top 10 best airbrushes for painting miniatures and models, either professionally or as a hobby.
Whether you’re painting 28mm Warhammer 40k or 30k models, or 15mm historical or sci-fi wargaming models, e.g., Drop Zone Commander, Bolt Action, Dust Tactics, Carnage and Glory II, a good airbrush can make a huge difference in your painting productivity.
My recommended top 10 best airbrushes for painting miniatures and models:
- Badger Patriot 105 Airbrush
- Badger Renegade Velocity
- Badger Krome Airbrush
- Iwata HP-CS
- Badger Sotar 20/20
- Harder & Steenbeck Evolution 2-in-1 Airbrush
- Harder & Steenbeck Infinity 2-in-1 Airbrush
- Grex Genesis XSi3 0.3mm Nozzle Side Feed Airbrush
- Badger Air-Brush Co R2S Renegade Spirit Side Feed Airbrush
- Badger Patriot Xtreme
I’ve operated all of these airbrushes over many years of painting miniatures for commission work. None of my reviews here are sponsored. I have favorite airbrushes, but each one has pros and cons.
PLAN - PRICE
Badger Patriot 105
Best starting airbrush
Excellent build quality
Fine detail spray
H&S Infinity 2-in-1
High-end, professional airbrush
Smooth, easy operation
Very fine detail spray
How to use and care for your airbrush
This is the best introduction video on the use of airbrushes for painting miniatures.
The speaker is Ken Schlotfeldt, President of Badger Airbrushes. I highly-recommend that any new airbrush user watch this video in its entirety.
The video covers everything you need to know about how to start using your airbrush, how-to properly care for your airbrush, and other professional tips.
If you don’t want to watch the whole video, I summarize the top tips here:
- Clean your airbrush with water (if you’re using water-based acrylics)
- Try to avoid harsh solvents (e.g., ammonia based products, windex, alcohol), which can damage internal parts or gum up moving components
- Don’t thin your paints with windex or alcohol-based products (see video for why)
- Don’t clean the internal parts of your airbrush with any brushes or reamers, which can scratch delicate interior parts (e.g., this will void your warranty)
- Get an air compressor that has a water-trap, or tank; this will reduce condense water from collecting in your line and messing up your paint spray ouput
- To prevent needle tip-dry and clogging, coat your needle in a small amount of “Regdab oil” (fun note: Regdab is the reverse of “badger”)
What is the best airbrush for new miniature painters?
If I had to start all over again, I would strongly recommend either the Patriot 105 or Renegade Velocity. For the cost-to-function, these are two airbrushes that will provide you with years of reliable service.
They are both rugged, designed to operate without a lot of maintenance (just rinse them clean after each use).
For a first airbrush, you want a tool that will let you make mistakes as you learned how to use it. It won’t break, easily.
In particular, the Patriot 105 is what I would call “bullet proof”. If I drop an airbrush, I want to know that the main body survives, or if a small part breaks, I can replace it without too much hassle. The Patriot 105 is a strong airbrush, machined from solid metal, and has very little exposed delicate parts.
I also suggest these airbrushes for new painters, because after a single disassembly/reassembly you will find the maintenance process intuitive. You will know where each part should go. No need to read a manual or instructional booklet.
Finally, the Patriot 105 and Renegade Velocity are inexpensive airbrushes (around $100).
The Patriot 105 comes with the larger 0.5mm nozzle; whereas the Renegade Velocity comes with the 0.2mm sized nozzle. For this fact, I may recommend the Patriot 105 for the casual painter, and the Renegade Velocity to the more serious hobbyist. The Renegade Velocity will be a bit harder to use, e.g., higher risk for clogging, but the Velocity airbrush will provide you with more control and a smoother spray output (e.g., lower pressure with thinned paint).
What is the best airbrush for professional miniature painters?
This is a hard question. It is controversial on so many levels.
First of all, if you’re already a professional painter with a good work flow, how do you envision the use of an airbrush? Are you looking for speed, or a different result on your painted miniatures or models?
A professional airbrush is any airbrush you work with professionally.
That is, if you have the skill to operate an airbrush, then any airbrush will do the job you need it to do. All of the airbrushes in the 10 recommended airbrushes above will do (I’m 100% sure I’m missing other popular airbrushes).
In high quality miniature paint jobs, however, where only the smoothest paint blends are called for, then you’ll want an airbrush that can reliably spray an ultra-fine mist of paint (e.g., ultra-fine nozzle sizes 0.2mm or less).
To spray fine-lines consistently, the airbrush must have a small nozzle, extremely well-built internal air control (e.g., trigger, needle assembly), and predictable turbulence (e.g., the way air travels and mixes with the paint). You must also be able to operate at a wide-range of air pressures, low to high, depending on your paint viscosity. Being able to finely control air flow speed (via pressure) is integral to reliable airbrushing.
The next key in this whole process is you, the miniature painter, and your skill with the airbrush. You must be able to finely control the nuances of the tool. It must become a part of you: a samurai and his sword.
What single airbrush on this entire list above can help you do this airbrush thing professionally?
I think it’s a toss-up between the Sotar 2020 and the Harder & Steenbeck Infinity airbrushes. The difference between these two airbrushes for professional work is ergonomic comfort. Which airbrush “feels better” for you will determine what airbrush will fit your need. You won’t know this until you’ve used them for a while.
And, this is my final point.
If you start using airbrushes regularly, I am betting that most of you will end up owning more than 1 or 2 airbrushes. This is particularly true for those of you who will be working on a regular basis, painting a lot of miniatures and models.
Looking for the best airbrush is never ending.
What else do I need to airbrush miniatures?
To start airbrushing, at the minimum, you’ll need an air supply.
That is, you’ll need an air compressor.
Avoid compressed air cans at all costs. They are not only bad for the environment, e.g., disposable cans, but they provide an unreliable and very limited air supply.
I’m only going to recommend one air compressor for more serious airbrush painters, based on all my research and experience: the Badger Air-Brush Co. TC910 Aspire Pro Compressor. I’m sure there are knock-offs that are cheaper and will work great, but I’ve never used them.
The reasons I love this air compressor are as follows:
- Integrated air-tank (removes moisture in your air line)
- In-line moisture trap (this is very important)
- Quiet motor operation (mostly)
- Maintenance-free for many years (nearly 10 for me)
- Automatic on-off switch (e.g., keeps air tank pressure above your needed amount)
- Portable construction
- Priced fairly online
I’ve owned several air compressor brands, including a Sparmax brushless compressor, and a tank-less unbranded air compressor. Both of these compressors tended to overheat and could only operate about 10 minutes at a time before I had to stop to let them cool down.
They also did not come with an air tank, so air pressure required that the motor run continuously. This made air coming to my airbrush inconsistent, with an airflow that seemed to putt-putt-putt along with the compressor’s piston-motor.
At the end of the day, I purchased the Aspire Pro air compressor because I wanted to paint, not tinker and wait around.
Other recommended accessories for airbrushing miniatures?
None of the products below are necessary for you to get started painting with an airbrush. All you need for airbrushing is an “airbrush” and an “air supply”. The product accessories below only make your life easier when you start using your airbrush regularly.
This airbrush cleaning pot is probably the most essential of the accessories you may want to get. It holds your airbrush, providing a nice rest while you fill it, or do something else. The spray pot also lets you spray to your heart’s content while you clean out the previous color, or simply doing a rinse. The filtered top prevents the over-spray from leaving the pot and getting the mist everywhere else. For $10, it’s probably a no brainer to get this with your airbrush.
A hobby airbrush spray booth will keep the paint overspray from contaminating your room and workspace. If you’re sensitive to particulates in the air, e.g., allergies/asthma, a spray booth can help keep the air around your hobby clear.
There are different types of spay booths. Check out this article for a review of 10 affordable and popular airbrushing spray booths.
This is an attachment that fits between your airbrush and the air-line hose. It is an air regulator (controlled by a twist knob) that allows you to adjust the air pressure heading directly into your airbrush. This is a huge convenience so you don’t need adjust the air regulator on your compressor (which tend to be clunky, awkward affairs), which may be located farther from your working surface.
Also, this valve comes with a quick disconnect system. So, instead of having to unscrew your airbrush from the air-hose (like when you want to clean it), merely throw the Grex valve quick-release switch and the valve will automatically seal-off the air hose when you detach your airbrush.
Airbrushing is fun.
Plain and simple.
Once you get past some of the routine things you need to do, airbrushing miniatures is a breath of fresh air. Airbrushes give you a new way to paint miniatures and produce results that a regular brush may not be able to recreate without a lot of effort.
There are a lot of tutorials online about what you can do with an airbrush, e.g., NMM, OSL effects, blending, and you will see some of how I use an airbrush for painting miniatures on this site.
I hope this article was as entertaining was it was useful. Let me know if you have any questions. I’m always happy to help fellow painters!