Articles - Airbrush
02/03/2011
When I modeled in N-scale, there was so much ready-to-run equipment available that I could get by without needing an airbrush. I hand-painted my structures with small brushes. When I started purchasing my S-scale equipment, however, I discovered that a lot of rolling stock comes in unpainted kit form. The acquisition of an airbrush was necessary. My primary purpose for the brush is to paint unpainted rolling stock, and then to weather them using the airbrush. Additional uses for the airbrush, such as painting rail, structures, and details will probably flow from this, but that was not the reason for investing in an airbrush.

Which Airbrush?

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I had read many of the airbrush-related model railroading magazine articles and bought and watched a how-to-airbrush video. I learned that a simple single-action airbrush is sufficient for painting kit models. However, I really want to focus on weathering rolling stock using the airbrush. For that, "experts" recommend a double-action airbrush. I therefore decided to invest in a double-action airbrush. After extensive research I settled on the Badger Anthem Model 155 double-action airbrush.

How to Supply Air to the Airbrush?

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With the airbrush purchased, the next step was to provide a source of air. I spent some time researching CO2 (carbon dioxide) as a clean, pure source for air to the airbrush. The hardest part I found was finding a supply source. Incidentally, after purchasing a compressor, I found that the hardware store Lowe's has 10 and 20lb tanks for sale in their air power tools section (at least here in Houston, Texas). The reason why I didn't want to go the air compressor route is that they are expensive and loud. Not something I want to sit around while trying to paint. One day I was visiting the local Harbor Freight store and found the Central Pneumatic 1/8hp Oilless Airbrush Compressor with Regulator (part no. 93657) on sale. They had a unit set up in the store. It turned out to be very quiet.

I now had the two main ingredients for successful airbrushing. There was only one minor problem. The hoses that come with the airbrush and the compressor do not mate up at all. I took both to Lowe's one day and asked for help. The employees were very helpful, but the end result was that no matching parts could be found. I gave up for a while. One day I did another web search (I had done several before; just goes to show how important the correct keywords are). I stumbled upon a web site (now gone) where the owner described a very similar situation to mine. The web site listed the parts he used (also from Lowe's). I went back to Lowe's and bought one of each part he described (found in the plumbing department). When I got home, I tried the parts and sure enough, they fit. I have some extra parts, but I was very happy to finally have a connection between the airbrush and the compressor. The parts I used to make this connection were: "Watts A-738 1/4" MIP x 1/8" FIP Pipe Hex Bushing" and "Watts A-717 1/8" MIP x 2" Brass Pipe Nipple". The parts are shown in the photo. The hose on the left is the one from the compressor and the one on the right is the one from the airbrush.
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I painted the underframe of two of my freight car kits as my first airbrushing session. The session went well. I was only able to get about 20psi out of the compressor, but that is more than enough for my needs. Some pipe connection tape was needed to keep the setup from leaking air. Overall, I am happy with the compressor, because it seemed to be able to keep up with my demands and it was very quiet. This photo shows my airbrush session setup, with all the tools, paints, and cleaning supplies needed. I currently airbrush in the garage and spray into a large cardboard box. Soon I hope to install a ventilation system, since I'm enjoying airbrushing very much, so I'll be doing it more often.
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This is a closer view of the materials. In the foreground is the airbrush all cleaned up. I use a mixer to mix the paints. A wooden tray holds the paints and an empty painting bottle. To its right are the metal paint cup and a small plastic cup to hold the cleaning solutions for cleaning the airbrush parts. On the far right is the compressor. Behind it are the paint thinner (which I use when I paint with solvent-based paints), and the mandatory roll of paper towels. A box of Q-tips can also be found to help me clean the airbrush. On the left is a box of disposable latex gloves. I put one pair on while cleaning the airbrush and preparing the paint mixture. I then put on a fresh, clean pair when I actually start to paint so that I don't damage the model to be airbrushed. In the far back on the workbench is a drawer that holds all my airbrushing parts. It is just handier to bring the entire drawer out to the garage than to carry each of the tools and materials. Not shown in the photo is a grocery store plastic bag that I hang nearby to put all the used paper towels and other debris produced during an airbrushing session. It takes me about an hour to prepare for an airbrushing session, although I am getting faster at it the more I do it.
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Also not shown in the photo above are the things I use to protect my clothing and my lungs. I wear an apron to protect my clothes, a good-quality respirator (shown in the photo below), and the Optivisors to see up close. The garage has similar lighting to what I use in the model railroad room, so what I see in the garage is pretty close to what I see on the layout. I do supplement the lighting with a large work lamp to help me see if I have good coverage of paint on the model. A recent addition to my airbrushing set-up is a movable platform shown in the cardboard box in the photo below. It is made from a steel caster screwed to piece of nice, straight 1/4 plywood. The caster is screwed to a block of wood that I glued to the underside of the plywood, so that there are no screws visible on the top. This allows me to place the model on the platform and freely rotate it so that I can paint it from all angles. I made the plywood big enough to hold my largest engine.
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Another recent addition is a Sparmax airbrush holder (part #H20). Although somewhat expensive ($20), this holder is great for when you just need to quickly put the airbrush aside to inspect the model, and in preparation for a painting session. I clamp a board to my table, and then clamp the holder to the board. The holder then winds up sitting right next to where I am working.
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Airbrush Cleaning

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This article describes how I disassemble, clean, and re-assemble my airbrush. I am by no means an expert. However, when I first bought my airbrush I found virtually no information, especially no step-by-step guide, on how to do those tasks. After spending a good bit of money, it was quite intimidating taking my airbrush apart. I will show you via photos how I do it. I use the Badger Anthem Model 155 double-action airbrush. There might be some slight differences with the airbrush you have. The first photo shows the airbrush fully assembled after an airbrushing session. I do my disassembly on a paper towel which protects the airbrush parts and makes it easy to see the parts (keeps them from rolling off the workbench too).
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The first part to remove from the airbrush to disassemble it is to unscrew the "counter balanced handle" (the loose part on the right-hand side of the photo). If you have never disassembled the airbrush before, it might be in there a bit tight.
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Next, you can unscrew the head. This is where the air and the paint are mixed before coming out of its nozzle.
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I then loosen up and remove the thumb screw ("needle chuck").
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This, then, allows you to remove the needle from the airbrush. Be careful with the thumb screw, because it falls off the needle and can roll away.
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On the other end of the airbrush, the tip falls or pops right off (may be stuck if there is some dried-up paint in it).
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The trigger is shown removed from the airbrush here. Normally, for cleaning the airbrush, it doesn't need to be removed. However, I wanted to show the fact that it has a rectangular slot in it through which the needle slides when you re-assemble the airbrush.
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The best product I have found for cleaning parts of the airbrush, regardless of which type of paint is used (acrylic- or solvent-based) is Klean Strip Brush Cleaner (it is available in the U.S. at Lowe's and Home Depot). It smells, but then again, a paint cleaner should! Dip a small piece of paper towel in the small container of this stuff, and wipe every part of the brush off with it. For paint accumulation inside a part, dip the part in the solution for a minute or so, or swirl the part around in the solution. I then use a cotton swab to get whatever paint I can out. I do a light cleaning after each paint color session, or when I am done for the day. I always do a thorough cleaning (i.e. complete disassembly of the brush) before I start my first session of the day. It seems to me that no matter how well I clean the brush at the end of a session, the next session the brush is dirty again, so I don't bother with it.
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A typical cotton swab will also fit into the paint inflow hole. This accumulates a lot of paint. Not shown in a photo is cleaning the tip. Typically just blowing the thinner through the airbrush cleans that. But if paint has accumulated in that, since it is kind small and hard to clean, I usually just drop it in a small container filled with thinner. The exterior of the airbrush can be cleaned with the appropriate thinner as well. The first time I used the airbrush, it didn't seem to produce much flow. When I was cleaning it with paint thinner, I noticed that all of a sudden it started flowing the paint thinner through the brush really well. I didn't think much of it until the second session. I then noticed that the brush worked significantly better than the first session. My conclusion is that there must have been some manufacturing debris in the brush that I worked out when I cleaned the brush after the first session. The lesson learned is to clean the brush first before the first session.
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Assembling the airbrush is pretty much the reverse of the disassembly process. I start by inserting the trigger. Make sure to insert it in front of the "back lever", or else the needle cannot be controlled.
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Next, I insert the tip.
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I then place the thumb screw on to the needle.
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Insert the needle carefully back into the airbrush body. Be careful with the tip and don't force it in. It could be getting stuck in the trigger. Remember the rectangular slot in the trigger shown above. The needle has to go through that. Try repositioning the trigger, making sure the slot is positioned such that the needle can go through it.
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I push the needle all the way through until it fully pokes through the tip. Next, the thumb screw can be positioned and tightened onto the airbrush body, locking the needle to the airbrush.
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I then screw the head on to the other end.
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This is a good time to test the trigger to make sure the needle fully extends in and out of the head.
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Also make sure the trigger snaps back automatically when you let go of it. If it is too tight, loosen the thumb screw and try again.
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Finally when you are happy with the needle's movement, you can screw on the counter balance. It is not that difficult to disassemble the airbrush, but if you have never done it, it can be intimidating. It is one of those things that are easy once you know how to do them, but getting through that first time is hard.
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