Are you considering an airbrush for painting your miniatures? There are a lot of questions about the usefulness of an airbrush for miniature painting. Is airbrushing miniatures worth it? Can you paint details with an airbrush? Is using an airbrush cheating? On the market, there are a lot of great airbrushes for painting scale models and minis. Even more recent, there are a lot of great painters who now use airbrushes regularly in their amazing miniature painting work. If you’re on the fence about painting your miniatures and models with an airbrush, this airbrushing miniatures guide will help you get started. For those of you who are familiar with airbrushing, I’ve included a lot of additional information you may find interesting and new for you to discover.
Read on for a complete guide for airbrushes for painting miniatures.
In a hurry to get an airbrush? Check out the top 10 recommended airbrushes for painting miniatures
- Badger Patriot 105 Airbrush
- Badger Renegade Velocity
- 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
What is the best reason to use an airbrush?
For miniatures or models, an airbrush is a powerhouse tool. At its core, it’s the largest paint brush you can use for painting miniatures. It sprays huge volumes of paint when you need it to. An airbrush also gives you a lot of control over the smoothness of the paint application, because the paint becomes a mist through the process of atomization.
There are two reasons why most painters consider getting an airbrush:
- Base coating models
- Terrain or other large pieces
When I started painting, I picked up an airbrush so I could paint big blocks of terrain quickly. As a miniature tabletop gamer, I wanted to make my own gaming table. This required covering large surfaces of foam, cardboard, and plaster with primer and paint. To use an aerosol spray can wasn’t a good option due to bad ventilation of my small hobby room.
An airbrush was the perfect tool because it allowed me to spray primer and paint indoors. I could prime and paint miniatures inside the home without worrying too much about toxic fumes. Of course, at the time I didn’t have a spray booth (see the airbrush spray booth reviews), but given that I was using low air pressure, I wasn’t too concerned with overspray.
My first airbrush was a bottom-fed Paasche airbrush like this one. For base coating and painting terrain, a bottom-feed airbrush worked great!
Over time, I got better at controlling my airbrush and was soon painting actual game miniatures, too. I painted a large number of Warhammer 40k Imperial Guard (now known as Astra Militarum) models with my airbrush. As with many miniature painters, I started using an airbrush for large pieces and basecoating the first layers of primer and paint. Then, with practice I got better and pushed the limits of the airbrush for miniatures.
From this point onward, I slowly collected more than 15 airbrushes of different makes and models. Although each airbrush has a unique function and feel, they all work the same when painting miniatures. What airbrush you choose to use for your work will depend on your personal preference and how much time you’re willing to learn the tool.
This guide will give you the key information you need to know about airbrushing miniatures, and my thoughts on how you can use this knowledge to improve your miniature painting work. Read on for a complete guide about using airbrushes for painting miniatures.
What is the most popular 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. They all work great!
When I was painting swarms of tyranids on commission, the most useful airbrush I had was the Badger Patriot 105. The Patriot 105 is inexpensive, but is most reliable airbrush for painting a large number of models for hours on end. 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 35 PSI 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. Without mincing words, I think the Infinity airbrush is mostly for experienced painters.
Is airbrushing miniatures worth it?
Yes! But, it depends on what you want to do. If you’re looking for a quick way to paint models, then an airbrush may not be as fast as you think! There is a lot of prep (e.g., paint thinning or mixing) and clean up time after you’re done airbrushing. The learning curve for properly using an airbrush for detailed work is also pretty steep.
Many professional miniature painters who use an airbrush regularly also invest a lot time caring for the tool. And, behind the scenes, hundreds of hours went into practicing with the airbrush. An airbrush is not a shortcut to practice, dedication, and self-motivation.
If you’re willing to put in the time, then an airbrush can do amazing things for your miniature painting and hobby work. With so many features and functions, airbrushes are also fun to use!
Here, I’ll show you!
What is an airbrush?
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.
Air + brush = airbrushTweet
How does an airbrush work?
An airbrush makes paint explode! Here’s how:
- 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
Airbrushing miniatures is easy! Is it cheating?
You can find a lot of tutorials about how to use an airbrush for painting miniatures. An airbrush is a simple tool to use, but hard to master. For miniature painting, I learned how to use the airbrush by watching others with a lot more skill paint models of all kinds. Then, I went off and tried to do the same with my airbrush. I quickly learned how to basecoat paint, blend colors (on large surfaces), and prime models with my airbrush. The growth was fast and pleasantly surprising!
In summary, the beautiful work you see on social media has helped to propel airbrushes to the forefront as a legitimate and useful tool for painting miniatures. In fact, I don’t think you’ll find many serious painters accusing airbrushing as a cheating technique. To really maximize the utility of an airbrush, you’ll have to spend a lot of time practicing your skill with balancing your air pressure, paint thickness, and fine-motor control of the airbrush. More about this below!
Can airbrushing improve your miniature painting? The biggest thing I discovered from my early days with an airbrush was that I could do almost everything I wanted with even the basic, budget airbrushes on the market. It was only when I needed more reliability and finer precision that I invested in the higher end airbrushes. Overall, I think if you invest in an airbrush, you’ll find your miniature painting will improve in many different ways, because you’ll be painting more.
What kind of airbrush should I use for painting miniatures?
There are two kinds of airbrushes you should know about for painting miniatures:
- Single-action airbrush
- Double-action airbrush
Single Action Airbrush
A single-action airbrush is simple. You only push the trigger in a single direction to control air flow. To add paint to your spray, you don’t do anything except activate the airbrush air flow. In a single-action airbrush, paint is mixed with air, passively. Because single-action airbrushes are simple, they are easier to maintain and generally less expensive than double-action airbrushes (below).
On the other hand, single-action airbrushes have significant disadvantages that make them less favorable for painting miniatures. Single-action airbrushes rely on using air volume to control paint volume. This gives you less control over the air-paint mixture, and leads to more coarse spraying. This is okay on large surfaces, like terrain pieces, but could be problematic on small models.
In general, the disadvantages of a single-action airbrush far outweigh the advantages. And for this reason, I don’t recommend single-action airbrushes for painting miniatures.
Double Action Airbrush
In a double-action airbrush, you operate the trigger two ways to control air and paint. To activate air, you press the trigger down. For paint, you pull back on the trigger lever. With these two action, you have fine control over the paint-air mixture even at very low air pressures.
Although a double-action airbrush has more moving parts and a complex trigger operation, with time you can learn how to make the use of a double-action airbrush routine. Indeed, a double-action airbrush is also a bit more expensive than single-action airbrushes. But, the advantages easily make up for this and the rewards in your miniature paintings will be worth the investment in a double-action airbrush. Every miniature painter should consider the double-action airbrush.
How do you use a double action airbrush for painting miniatures and models?
The trigger on a double-action airbrush has two actions:
- Push the trigger down – air
- Pull the trigger back – paint
Holding an airbrush like a pencil, you use your forefinger to operate a double-action airbrush with a push down-pull back action. Combine the pushing and pulling of the trigger to mix air with paint to create the airbrush spray.
For best results with a double-action airbrush, you should always push down for air first. This lets you adjust the air pressure, as necessary. When you’re ready for paint, all you have to do is pull back on the trigger. To prevent clogs, you release the trigger while leaving the air on. The constant air flow prevents paint from building up on the needle. Then, let go of the trigger completely to stop airflow, too.
Here is the recommended trigger operation cycle on a double action airbrush:
- Push for airflow
- Pull for paint
- Release trigger to stop paint flow
- Stop airflow
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 prevents clogging. It also helps you know how much paint will spray out, before actually applying paint into the air mixture. Stopping paint from coming out before releasing the trigger allows air to continue to clear out any residual paint build up on the tip. This prevents tip dry during an airbrushing session.
Siphon, Side, or Gravity Feed?
Here’s quick overview of the 3 ways you can load paint into your airbrush:
- Siphon- or bottom-feed
- Side-cup feed
- Gravity- or top-feed
A siphon feed 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 a near unlimited amount of paint and make switching colors easy. Just swap paint bottles and re-insert the siphon. For example, a lot of airbrush artists who paint T-shirts often use bottom-feed airbrushes, because they can work with many colors, quickly.
Another benefit of airbrushing with a bottom-feed design is increased visibility. With the bottle of paint under the airbrush, your line-of-sight (LoS) is open to your working surface.
A problem with a siphon-feed airbrush that to create the suction necessary for a siphon-feed airbrush, the air flow must be strong enough to “vacuum-up” the paint. 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. You will have less control with a siphon-feed airbrush for painting miniatures and small surfaces that require precision and detail.
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. Paint is “sucked” into the airbrush from the side.
You will need less airflow to mix paint into the spray than a 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.
A gravity-feed airbrush 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 valve. As a result, you can operate a gravity feed airbrush at much lower air pressure (often less than 30 PSI). 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.
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.
What is the best air pressure for airbrushing miniatures and models?
For painting miniatures, a double-action airbrush will work with a PSI (pressure per square inch) between 0-35 PSI. A good air compressor that I recommend for airbrushing will calibrate to this air pressure range easily. 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.
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.
For a more intuitive way to determine the optimal air pressure, you can try using the “skin dimple” test. The skin dimple test works as a simple and fast way to find an airbrush that will work most of the time without looking at the pressure gauge. The best part about the “skin dimple test” is that it doesn’t rely on air pressure PSI or nozzle size.
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 finger tip. If the air just pushes a small area of skin (~3 mm diameter), then I’m at the correct air pressure. With too much PSI, the entire tip of my finger changes shape.
Watch the video below to see the skin dimple test in action.
5 things airbrushes are great for in miniature painting:
- 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.
Is airbrushing miniatures worth the effort?
Once you get the hang of airbrushing, the airbrush becomes a breath of fresh air. It will change the pace of your miniature painting workflow in a good way. 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).
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. Overall, you’ll find using an airbrush for painting miniatures a worthy challenge with fantastic rewards. Take a look at some of the models I airbrushed below or in my gallery (updated regularly).
What airbrush should I get for painting miniatures?
It depends. Try to 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. 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.
If you’re looking to get a new airbrush, check out my top 3 picks:
How to care for your airbrush?
Here are the top tips you should know for caring for your airbrush:
- Clean your airbrush with water, if you’re using water-based acrylics.
- Try to avoid harsh solvents, which can damage internal parts or clog up moving components.
- Don’t thin your paints with windex or alcohol-based products.
- Don’t clean the internal parts of your airbrush with any metal brushes or reamers, which can scratch delicate interior parts.
- Get an air compressor that has a water-trap, or tank. This will reduce water condensation in your air hose which could mess up your spray.
- To prevent needle tip-dry and clogging, coat your needle in a small amount of “Regdab oil“.
- Use an ultrasonic cleaner to quickly clean the disassembled parts of your airbrush (read more about ultrasonic cleaners for airbrushes)
For more care and use tips for your airbrush, I recommend this video below. The speaker is Ken Schlotfeldt, President of Badger Airbrushes. I suggest that any new airbrush painter watch this video. The video covers everything you need to know about how to start using your airbrush, how-to properly care for your airbrush, and other pro tips.
Essential supplies for airbrushing miniatures
To start airbrushing, at the minimum, you’ll need an air supply. So, you will need an air compressor.
I’m going to recommend my favorite air compressor for hobby airbrush painters: the Badger Air-Brush Co. TC910 Aspire Pro Compressor. I’m sure there are cheaper knock-offs that will work great, but I’ve never used them. You should avoid compressed air cans. They are not bad for the environment and are unreliable.
Here is why the Badger Air-Brush Co. TC910 Aspire Pro is my top pick for airbrush compressors:
- 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 useful accessories for your airbrush
The product accessories belowcan 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 spray 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!