Do you spend a lot of time on the wargaming hobby, particularly painting and modelling? Yes, you should get an airbrush.
Do you see wargaming as a primarily gaming hobby and spend as little time on painting as possible? No, you shouldn’t get an airbrush.
There we go. Article finished.
What, you want more? You want a shopping list too? Fine.
Why you should get an airbrush
Airbrushes are fantastic tools for painting. Their ability to lay down smooth coats and transitions is outstanding and they’re one of those things that you get and you soon wonder how you survived without.
Most of the time you will simply be basecoating miniatures. All you’re doing is putting down the first layer of paint. Now, this can either be the most predominant colour on the model or it can be a very difficult to paint colour. For example, you might choose to airbrush your models with a white or yellow paint, since those are so difficult to paint by hand and get a smooth coat, even if they’re a relatively small amount of the final colouring of the model.
Of course, this is very similar to priming with colour matches spray paints, such as the range provided by Army Painter. The difference is that you can spray any colour with an airbrush and don’t have to buy an entire can of spraypaint.
That’s for basic infantry anyway – airbrushes really come into their own for larger models. Monsters and tanks in particular. You could spend hours putting down layer after layer of paint on a tank to try and get something smooth and… not end up with something smooth. Or you can do it in 10 minutes with an airbrush. On top of that, you can do some fantastic shading, camo patterns and paint effects using an airbrush that are just unfeasible with a traditional brush. You can cut out a stencil and spray a pattern over your tank. You can do fantastically blended shading on a monster. Airbrushes really are the absolute dogs bollocks for larger models. And those bollocks will be exquisitely shaded.
The bascoating at least seems to be very similar to using spray paints but there’s one major difference – you can safely spray an airbrush inside. It’s advisable to wear a mask of some sort however there’s no waiting for good humidity, no rain (particularly a problem in the UK) and no need to worry about leaving freshly sprayed models out to dry if you don’t have a garden.
Why you shouldn’t get an airbrush
Cost. Expect to spend around £100 getting started with a basic airbrush, compressor and all the accessories you need. The costs will rise when you want to upgrade the airbrush.
Maintenance. This is a nightmare, especially at first. Airbrushes are fickle beasts and need constant cleaning and maintenance. This isn’t like a traditional brush where you just swirl it in some water to clean off residual paint at the end of a painting session, no. You need to spend a good 5 minutes at the end of each session cleaning the airbrush, and you will often find your airbrush session interrupted to clear a blockage. The usual way of clearing a blockage is to disconnect it and take the entire thing apart.
Also expect (but be pleasantly surprised if you don’t) to break your first airbrush. Overtightening and snapping a very delicate nozzle can mean hunting down a replacement part on the internet and waiting several days for your new £15+ nozzle to arrive. I recently dropped my airbrush in my kitchen sink while cleaning it. It landed on the unprotected nozzle and needle, destroying them both. Cost me £35 for replacements.
It’s a new skill. If you haven’t used an airbrush then you don’t know how to use it. It’s nothing like painting with a traditional brush and instead comes with its very own learning curve. You will suck at it before you get passable. You won’t be cranking out perfectly basecoated minis and an incredible tank with lovely airbrush highlighted panels within an hour of getting the airbrush. You’ll not be doing it for a few days. Depending on how much time you spend practicing, perhaps not for a few weeks. It’s a new skill and one you’ve got to learn from scratch. There are plenty of helpful tutorials, particularly on youtube, but it’s still something new to learn.
With this new skill comes learning your paints all over again. Paints have to be thinned down to use in an airbrush and knowing how much a particular paint can or needs to be thinned down by is yet another skill in itself. Some paints can handle a 5:1 ratio of thinner to paint, others won’t work much past 1:1. Different mixes require different PSI from your compressor. Again, another skill but unfortunately this is one that there’s not a lot of help with online – it’s once you learn through experimentation and determination.
Not something to not get an airbrush for
Yeah, I got confused by that title too. A few people have asked me in the past if using an airbrush means you go through paints quickly because of overspray. The answer: “not really”.
When you’re airbrushing a solid layer, you’re using a fraction of the paint that you normally would with manual basecoating or painting. The paint goes on in very thin layers so the amount that you “lose” through overspray, you gain back by not using on the mini in the first place. What will use up paint quickly is learning how to use the airbrush in the first place and finding the right mix ratios.
Airbrushes are a great tool to have on your hobby desk. They open up whole new techniques (I didn’t even touch on things like zenithal highlighting) and you can basecoat entire armies in less time than it would take you to do a single unit. They are however a great sink in terms of cost and time, and the pros and cons must be weighed up for your individual circumstances.
The shopping list
Here’s what I think you should get to get started in airbrushing. Links are to UK ebay but you should be able to find the same items locally.
- Airbrush & compressor kit – usually running around £70-£80, these contain a compressor and two cheap Chinese airbrushes*. Make sure you get one with a tank.
- Quick release catch – enables you to quickly disconnect your airbrush from the compressor, usually for cleaning, without unscrewing it or emptying the tank. Buy two of them – one for each of your airbrushes.
- Airbrush cleaning kit – needed.
- Airbrush cleaner – a solvent that dissolves built up paint and cleans your airbrush. Use in conjunction with the airbrush brushes above.
- Vallejo thinner – you need a thinning agent and this works fantastically. I even use this to thin my paints normally (I fill up an empty dropper bottle with this stuff for mini painting).
From here, arm yourself with a bucketload of youtube tutorials, hunker down and enjoy perfectly smooth basecoats and incredible shading on tanks and monsters after just several days of careful practice.
*Some people will tell you to discard the cheap Chinese airbrushes and spend £100+ on a top end airbrush. I disagree. The Chinese airbrushes are more than serviceable by themselves and you don’t run the risk of permanently damaging a £100 airbrush because you don’t know how to maintain it.