If you haven’t got an Airbrush (AB) setup yet, then the fact that you’re reading this post indicates that you’re in the market for it. But where to start? There are countless ABs out there and making a decision can feel like a minefield. Despite what people say, no one AB is really better than another. Sure, the more expensive ones will last longer and perform more consistently, but for many years I have used a cheap AB from an auto store.
Setting yourself up to use an AB can seem daunting and expensive. If you’re making the move from rattle cans, you’ll realise that you will make your money back quite quickly. In Australia, Tamiya rattle cans can cost $14, while a jar if paint can be as low as $3. With an AB, you can paint more parts with a jar than a rattle can. Multiply that by how many rattle cans you use, and the dollars quickly add up. Despite everything mentioned below, my entire AB setup cost me around AUD$500 in about 2012 and I made that money back in about 12 months. Here’s some tips to help get you started.
Single action or Double action?
This is first choice you need to think about. To explain them, I’ll start with double action. The ‘trigger’ – which is actually more of a lever on top of the AB – serves two functions (hence “double”). If you depress the trigger, air will be released through the nozzle with no paint. If you then slide the trigger back, paint will be mixed with the air and sprayed out the nozzle. The further down you press the trigger, the more air pressure will come out. The further back you slide the trigger, the more paint will be released. Single action does it all at once. You slide the trigger back and paint will come out, “mixed” at a set rate.
Double action ABs provide the greatest control over your paint. You can “spray” air only, which can be a way to quickly clean off dust from your parts, you can spray paint thinly by not sliding the trigger all the way back, or you can ‘open her up’ and spray paint thicker by sliding the trigger all the way back. This means that you control the air/paint mix yourself. This control can allow you to get into small areas with less paint and avoid puddles.
Single action ABs will still let you control the flow (or speed) of paint, but the paint colour will always be the same thickness.
As I’ve said, there’s no straight answer to which is better. I prefer double action, but I know many people who swear by single action for the same job. Whichever you purchase, as you practice with it, you will become more proficient and skilled.
Gravity fed or Syphon fed?
Another big decision, and like the action, neither is really better or worse than the other. They both have pros and cons, and it comes down to what you’re comfortable with.
Gravity fed ABs have a cup on top of the AB itself. You pour (thinned) paint into the cup and when you depress your trigger, paint literally “falls” into the body of the AB and is sprayed out the nozzle. Syphon fed ABs have a separate cup which attaches underneath the AB and when you depress the trigger, air is forced into the cup which pushes paint up a tube, into the body of the AB and sprays it out the nozzle.
Gravity fed’s biggest good point is the fact that you can use literally every drop of paint in the cup. Syphon fed work like that bottle of Windex you have. When you get to the end of the bottle, there’s always that little bit that you can’t quite get to go up the tube. So Gravity fed allows you to use more of you paint and there’s less wastage.
Syphon fed’s main good point is that you can mix (ie: thin) your paint in the cup which directly attaches to the AB. With Gravity fed, you need to mix the paint in a separate container, and these can get expensive. However, you obviously need to clean out a Syphon fed’s cup between colours which can be frustrating and time consuming. Between colours, Gravity fed usually just need a quick clean of the cup and nozzle.
To run an AB, you need a compressor. Like ABs, there are a multitude of options available from hobby stores, auto stores and tool stores. You only need a small compressor, capable of reaching 40psi. There’s very little reason to spray anything at a higher pressure than that. Most people spray at somewhere between 15psi and 30psi.
Think about where you will be spraying. You can get small compressors that you can run indoors – but you should really only do this if you use acrylics, or if you have a room with some pretty significant extraction fans. Key things to consider are size, weight, noise level and mobility.
Depending on where you live, it’s also recommended that you get a compressor with a tank. The tank works similar to the bag on bagpipes. With bagpipes, the air that the musician blows doesn’t go straight to the pipes. It goes into the big bag, and they use their arm to squeeze the bag to push air into the pipes. This means that the notes they play don’t need to fall in time with their breathing, because there’s a store of air in the bag.
Air is pushed through a compressor via a diaphragm. This is like a little rubber or silicon seal that pumps backwards and forwards very quickly. Without a tank, that pumped air travels directly to your AB creating a “machine gun” effect of air. Instead of a steady flow, the air “pulsates” at a very high speed. While it’s possible to get good results without a tank, you’re prone to have issues with a consistent paint spray. A tank allows that pumped air to store in the tank. When you depress your trigger, air is released from the tank to the AB giving a constant, smooth flow of air.
This is another component to consider, especially if you live in a hot or humid area. Compressed air can get quite cold and with cold comes condensation. A moisture trap uses special magic to remove condensation from the air in the compressor so it doesn’t reach the AB and ruin your paint. Even if you live somewhere very dry, most people would recommend that you get a moisture trap.