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How to: Airbrush care and cleaning

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introduction
The airbrush is generally accepted to be one of the most useful finishing tools on a modeller's workbench. It occurred to me a while back that the biggest difference between a good looking model and a show stopper is generally the finish. The biggest obstacle that most modellers face is a lack of confidence in their airbrushing skills. Having been there and done that it is my opinion that this stems from having problems airbrushing on a regular basis, which more often than not is caused by improper cleaning of the airbrush.

I have spent years figuring this out and getting comfortable with my airbrush, and since then I haven’t had a single issue that I could not overcome by simply cleaning the airbrush and starting over laying the paint down. A bad batch of paint is actually very, very rare. If you’re comfortable with the operation of your airbrush you can almost always manage a nice even finish regardless of the paint being too thin or too thick but that’s another article entirely. Today I’ll focus on how I clean a traditional gravity feed dual action airbrush.
Photo 1
My airbrush – Okay so I went a little over the top and purchased Iwata’s gorgeous CMC-Plus when I wanted something other than my old Aztec A470. This is a gorgeous piece of kit, and the air control valve is just as good as everyone says it is, making minute adjustments a cinch. I don’t know that I would ever buy an airbrush without one now.
Photo 2
Paint mixing

We all do this differently, but here’s what I have always used and it’s what works for me. I use an old teaspoon, the hobby knife handle holds it level and the old screwdriver in the background is used for mixing paint in the bottle, and with thinner. I pour the paint directly from the bottle into the spoon and then add the appropriate amount of thinner. I usually have about half the teaspoon filled; this allows room for mixing and checking the consistency of the paint and is rarely not enough paint. After mixing the paint in the spoon, I place a few drops of the appropriate thinner into the airbrush and spray it onto a piece of cardboard – this is crucial because it allows me to ensure the airbrush is working and spraying properly before pouring the paint in and having to discard it all in order to clean a gummy airbrush. I then use the spoon to transfer the paint directly to the colour cup.
photo 3
Thinners

I like to have a few choices, up to and including lacquer. The white squirt bottle is filled with isopropyl alcohol. Generally I work from harshest appropriate thinner for the paint I’ve sprayed, all the way down to water.
photo 4
Cleaning tools

You’ll be relieved to know that this won’t require a large investment on your part.
  • Glass jar – When I’m done with a colour, I pour the remaining paint into a jar. I’ve been using the same jar for years.
  • Rag – used for wiping down the airbrush
  • Pipe cleaner – don’t be the el cheapos – they leave fibres in the brush.
  • Cotton swabs – same as above, spend the extra buck.
  • Dedicated paint brush. Doesn’t need to be stiff bristled like the one shown
  • Straw – I actually use this to transfer my thinner, to both the mixing spoon and the colour cup for cleaning. I stick it about an inch into the thinner, cap the top with my thumb and then transfer it. You can use whatever method works for you, I just find this cheap and easy.
  • Airbrush cleaning station – just buy one, you’ll have it forever and they’re not that expensive, your health is worth far more.
Cleaning Generally speaking I rarely do a complete breakdown and cleaning of my airbrush, the more you use a tiered system like I do, the more comfortable you’ll be with knowing when you need to pull the whole thing apart and give it a good cleaning. A complete break down and clean will take under 5 minutes. A quick cleaning takes less than 2.

I use the quick cleaning method when changing colours AND at the end of a session – UNLESS I’m using a clear coat, I find these tend to really gum a brush up and it’s best practice at this point to just break the brush down and I generally let the parts soak until I come back to the bench.

Quick Clean

Pour the remaining paint into your glass jar. I always end up with a drop of paint running down the side of my colour cup, so have the rag or a cotton swab handy to wipe this off.

Use a cotton swab to swab as much of the paint out of the inside of the colour cup as you can. Leaving the paint in there just means that the first round of thinner you run through will essentially just be thinned paint.

Fill the colour cup a third of the way up with thinner. Use the other end of the cotton swab to wipe down the inside of the colour cup again. This will mix the paint with the clean thinner. You’ll end up with a lightly tinted thinner. Spray this entire mixture into your airbrush cleaner – use whatever max pressure you’d normally use for spraying and move the needle/trigger from all the way forward to back repeatedly – this cleans the tip of the needle off.

Once the colour cup is empty, take a clean cotton swab and wipe down the inside of the colour cup. This swab should come out damp, but generally colourless. Repeat step 3 until the spray from the airbrush (tested on a piece of cardboard) and the cotton swab are free from any colour. At this point use one colour cup of water to clean the thinner out and you’re done – ready for a colour change or to be put away for the next session!
photo 5
Complete breakdown and clean

It’s not as bad or as labour intensive as you fear – and the more often you do it, the easier the task becomes. You’ll never have a problem with your airbrush that you can’t diagnose and remedy yourself. Airbrushes are built so you can take them apart for cleaning, so don’t be nervous. In fact go take yours apart right now, investigate how it all goes together and take a look at how the paint is actually drawn out of the colour cup. The more you understand your airbrush the easier it will be to pinpoint the exact problem when one arises.

I generally perform this routine cleaning after spraying a clear coat, upon completing a build or whenever my airbrush isn’t spraying as well or consistently as usual. If you’re in the middle of painting, pour the paint into the glass jar and get ready to clean – I know it’s annoying, but the paint is far cheaper than putting a whole model aside to never be finished after messing up on some paintwork.
  • Empty paint into jar
  • Use a cotton swab to swab as much of the paint out of the inside of the colour cup as you can. Leaving the paint in there just means that the first round of thinner you run through will essentially just be thinned paint.
  • Fill the colour cup a third of the way up with thinner. Use the other end of the cotton swab to wipe down the inside of the colour cup again. This will mix the paint with the clean thinner. You’ll end up with a lightly tinted thinner. Spray this entire mixture into your airbrush cleaner – use whatever max pressure you’d normally use for spraying and move the needle/trigger from all the way forward to back repeatedly – this cleans the tip of the needle off.
  • Disassemble airbrush. For my CMC-Plus this means I take the tail cone off, back the friction nut off and pull the needle out. Then I turn my attention to the nose, unscrewing all the individual components. Be cautious of the nozzle that the needle stops in – this part by its very nature is tiny and a little delicate. This is also the only part which tends to fail mechanically, requiring replacement to get the brush spraying properly again, you’ll know this to be the case if a proper cleaning doesn’t resolve your issue.
  • Now with everything apart, use the strongest thinner (I always go straight to lacquer because it will cut through everything) to clean the airbrush. I start with a cotton swap and I swipe it along the needle – it may look clean, but you’ll be surprised. Then I use my paintbrush, also dipped in lacquer thinner to clean the bottom of the colour cup – this area is normally hard to clean because the needle sits above it. Use the bristles of the brush to get into the passageway in the body just in front of the colour cup. You can add this step to your quick cleaning every now and again too. Use the pipe cleaner to gently clean the various parts of the nozzle. If the nozzle is too wide on the inside to get cleaned properly, then double the pipe cleaner over on itself.
  • If you’re going to be taking a break at this point anyway, I like to take all the parts of the nozzle and leave them in a glass jar of thinner to soak until I return.
  • Reassemble the airbrush – make sure you use the appropriate lube if the manufacturer indicates you’re supposed to.
  • Spray thinner through the airbrush – it should spray perfectly at this point, if it doesn’t then you’ll know you’re looking at some sort of mechanical failure, generally in the nozzle of the airbrush or a bent needle and not an airbrush that’s simply gummed up.
life with a clean airbrush
I hope you have found this article helpful – I wish I had figured this out ages ago. Now that I’m completely comfortable with disassembling and rebuilding my airbrush I haven’t had a single issue I couldn’t fix on my own. The lack of frustration has allowed me to tackle projects I never would have risked before – like my first natural metal finish and all sorts of weathering techniques that I wasn’t brave enough to face beforehand.
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About the Author

About Matt Odom (Scrodes)
FROM: ONTARIO, CANADA


Comments

Of course not! Anyone can achieve good results with any airbrush, but like everything else worthwhile, you need to practise and learn the quirks and requirements of your tools. Learn how it works best then adapt your techniques so that you use it to its best advantage.
OCT 16, 2013 - 06:42 PM
A very useful article, and very well written as well.
OCT 16, 2013 - 11:46 PM
I gather that your referring to a single action external Paasche gun. I've owned, and exclusively used a Paasche H1 external air brush for more then 40 years (as I said, I'm on my 2nd one as the 1st one the replacement parts just don't fit properly). I'll match my results with the best of them. As Jessica said, it's how you use it. As with any AB, you need to understand how it works, and why it works the way that it does. I use 3 different combinations of needle/cones/tips (almost never switch the tip from the #3), and either the cup or a feed jar for large jobs. I prefer to paint with acrylics, but I have been using enamels little by little. I thin Tamiya Acrylics (I use them 95% of the time) with X20-A, or lately with Lacquer thinner that breaks down the acrylic paint particles so that the finish is a little smoother, & the cone just never clogs. For Model Master Acrylics, I thin with either X20-A or lacquer thinner. Enamels are thinned with plain Jane Mineral Spirits. Haven't tried them yet with lacquer thinner, but I see no reason why it wouldn't work. Knowing when to vary your PSI, paint to thinner ratio, is the real secret to getting the max out of any AB, especially a single action unit. Take a look at any of my aircraft or armor models. Over spray isn't an issue, nor is the overall smoothness of the paint itself. Joel
OCT 17, 2013 - 02:19 AM
@Doppleganger - Sorry that wasn't what I intended, I simply don't have a siphon feed airbrush anymore - haven't in years - so I could only really talk with authority about gravity feed airbrushes. Most of the cleaning techniques are the same. The point I was trying to make is the more comfortable you are with your airbrush, the better you'll be AT airbrushing and troubleshooting.
OCT 17, 2013 - 04:14 AM
I gather that your referring to a single action external Paasche gun. I've owned, and exclusively used a Paasche H1 external air brush for more then 40 years (as I said, I'm on my 2nd one as the 1st one the replacement parts just don't fit properly). I'll match my results with the best of them. As Jessica said, it's how you use it. As with any AB, you need to understand how it works, and why it works the way that it does. I use 3 different combinations of needle/cones/tips (almost never switch the tip from the #3), and either the cup or a feed jar for large jobs. I prefer to paint with acrylics, but I have been using enamels little by little. I thin Tamiya Acrylics (I use them 95% of the time) with X20-A, or lately with Lacquer thinner that breaks down the acrylic paint particles so that the finish is a little smoother, & the cone just never clogs. For Model Master Acrylics, I thin with either X20-A or lacquer thinner. Enamels are thinned with plain Jane Mineral Spirits. Haven't tried them yet with lacquer thinner, but I see no reason why it wouldn't work. Knowing when to vary your PSI, paint to thinner ratio, is the real secret to getting the max out of any AB, especially a single action unit. Take a look at any of my aircraft or armor models. Over spray isn't an issue, nor is the overall smoothness of the paint itself. Joel [/quote]The Millennium is double action
OCT 18, 2013 - 04:47 AM
Thanks for this post I am still Horrible at airbrushing but have noticed some small improvements as of late. Practice is right I seem to get a little more Improved every time I use my brush. Again thanks for posting the video. Ironowl
OCT 18, 2013 - 05:16 AM
Indeed I purchased a dedicated airbrush compressor, that helped a lot, I have to remind myself every time to properly thin the paint and have the proper distance, and forget about airbrushing in my frigid garage in the winter here in Idaho territory
OCT 18, 2013 - 06:53 PM
I'm really lucky, I have my own dedicated, Model/computer man cave that my wife has been "bitching" about for years on end. Our house has central air, so heat & humidity is not a summer time issue, nor is the cold and low humidity in the winter. Actually, the room temps vary about 6 degrees all year long, and the humidity is about a constant 50%. I guess I'm really lucky, as I didn't come back to the hobby till we've had Central A/C for years. It does make a huge difference. In the cold of the winter, or the heat of the summer, is there any room in your house that you can paint near a open window with a paint booth? Joel
OCT 19, 2013 - 11:43 AM
LINK I used to have a vented paint booth that you can partially see in this photo.I had to move it out since it is temporarily being used as a bedroom.My daughter goes off to college next year than it shall once again be my man cave!
OCT 19, 2013 - 06:23 PM
David, so there is light at the end of your tunnel. Joel
OCT 20, 2013 - 12:48 AM