Airbrushing Miniatures – Getting Started

by Lars E. Liljeblad

One of the biggest challenges a modeler faces is a achieving a great finish on a model. An airbrush can help, but as commonplace as this tool is it mystifies and intimidates many modelers. While some lack the experience (or confidence really), others have not only mastered the airbrush, but consider it the most important asset in their toolbox.

If you’re just getting started you need to get a good airbrush, either a single-action or preferably a good dual-action, an air source, thinner, paint, mixing jars, and a good well lit place to work. The air source at the beginning can be a simple propellant can. After painting and practicing on several models, you will most likely want to move up to a carbon dioxide CO2 tank, or better yet, an oil-less compressor using silent technology such as the new Iwata with “Smart Technology.” Many other compressors are available through Sears, Badger and Paasche as well.

The airbrush comes in many forms, the simplest being the single-action variety. This airbrush is simply a means of atomizing any paint you wish to use. There is a single release valve that controls both the paint and air together, and can be manipulated to some degree, but doesn’t have nearly the sophistication and control of the dual-action, internal-mix airbrush.

For the beginner, a good single-action, external-mix airbrush such as the Badger 350 or the Paasche ‘H’ are great choices. I have had great results using these particular ones. For general, broad applications such as high gloss finishes on car models, or matte finishes on ships, tanks or perhaps metallic finishes on aircraft or spaceships, these airbrushes will do a great job.

As you gain experience, you will want to ‘fine-tune’ your finishes. To do that you will need to step up to a good dual-action airbrush with fine, medium and high flow tips. Some of the manufacturers I’ve had good success with are Badger, Paasche and the Tamiya ‘Super fine’. The Tamiya is a great airbrush for super small detail, such as high lighting camouflage on armor and aircraft models, or even the subtlety of flesh tones on figures. I also like the Paasche ‘VL’ for general use. It’s a very old, tried and true design that has a minimum of clogging issues, something that drives a lot of modelers to distraction! Remember, the airbrush is a precision tool and needs to be kept clinically clean at all times for optimum results. Some other excellent airbrushes are Harder & Steenbeck from Germany and the wonderful Iwata HP series, which are probably the state-of-the-art at the moment.

The best paints for airbrushing, in my opinion, are acrylics hands down. Vallejo ‘air’ model paint is excellent and a great choice. These paints come in eyedropper bottles and are pre-thinned for airbrush use out of the bottle. The nice thing about these bottles is they can literally be controlled one drop at a time. Other great acrylics for airbrushing models are Lifecolor and Tamiya. Most brands can be thinned with water or alcohol, the exception being Tamiya. This brand seems to have its own formula and works best with its own brand thinner. I would also recommend picking up a bottle of Liquetex ‘Flow-Aid’, an additive that prevents clogging the airbrush. It is basically a wetting agent and it extends drying time. Only a couple of drops are needed.

Once you have your arsenal of tools, it is time to get started. I find it very helpful to have a stack of index cards handy to practice on at all times. You can fine-tune the paint to air pressure viscosity and do some test runs on the cards. I like to practice doing some dots, straight lines, and maybe even writing my name just to get a feel of the way the paint flows. Once you have this ‘control’ you can switch to the actual model at hand. Sometimes, when it’s a humid day there can be an issue of water seeping through the line and onto the work. This can be somewhat prevented by adding a water trap to your compressor as well as a secondary back-up in-line moisture trap on the air hose itself.

On hot summer days, clogging is sometimes an issue. As mentioned above, the Flow-Aid will slow this problem or possibly eliminate it entirely. Be prepared to clean the airbrush from time to time during long painting sessions. The airbrush has an extremely small tip and even the minutest dried particles in the tip are like boulders in full scale.

There are on and off days regarding clogging, it depends on a lot of things, weather conditions, age of the paint, how well the paint is mixed etc.

I would like to point out a key factor regarding a beautifully finished miniature. Probably the single most important element of the process is ‘preparation’. Since the paint from the airbrush goes on only microns thin, the surface preparation has to be absolutely flawless. I would recommend spending whatever time is needed to prepare the model to have a perfect surface, if this step isn’t right the model will look flawed in the end.

Some recommended primers are Tamiya fine surface primer, Gunze Sangyo resin surfacer primer and Floquil primer, even some automotive red spot putty is great for finishing larger surfaces. It bonds with primer, and is in fact recommended to put over primer. All these brands are excellent for all types of modeling.

As I mentioned earlier, the airbrush is the single most important tool in your arsenal; it will bring you results you may have never have imagined. Its subtle blending of colors and transitions would be nearly impossible to accomplish by hand and certainly not with an aerosol can.

Like all things in life, you get out of airbrush what you put in. The best way to get started is to simply dive in. You have to begin somewhere, and trying for perfection at the beginning will stifle any action. Practice is your best teacher, and a little trial and error will help you immensely. The key is not to give up early on. If the results you desire doesn’t come as quickly as you would have hoped, the key is to practice-practice-practice and when you finally achieve that great finish you desired chances are you will have the confidence to tackle any paint finish you desire on your models. Success will bring confidence.

About the Author

Lars Liljeblad is a full time modeler who works exclusively for private collectors. His work can be seen on a variety of websites including his own http://larslil.com/ as well as www.scahms.org. His writing credits include work for Fine Scale Modeler and Sci-Fi & Fantasy Modeler.

Lars is currently president of the Southern California area Historical Miniature Society. Striving for excellence in modeling, the club holds a yearly international model competition exhibition which attracts modelers and collectors from around the world.

Lars is a former automotive metal fabricator and his other interests include collecting movie and television memorabilia, as well as history, science fiction, movies and music.



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