How to: Airbrush care and cleaning
introductionThe 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 1My 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 2Paint 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.
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 4Cleaning 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.
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.
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 5Complete 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 airbrushI 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.
Copyright ©2020 by Matt Odom. Images and/or videos also by copyright holder unless otherwise noted. The views and opinions expressed herein are solely the views and opinions of the authors and/or contributors to this Web site and do not necessarily represent the views and/or opinions of Armorama, KitMaker Network, or Silver Star Enterrpises. All rights reserved. Originally published on: 2013-10-11 23:25:31. Unique Reads: 9278