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Choosing the Right Airbrush

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The Extremely Short Version for Impaitient Beginners

There are so many choices in features and configurations...  Gravity feed, siphon feed, side feed.  External mix, internal mix.  Dual action, single action, trigger action.  

Consult the Airbrush Dictionary if you're dying to find out what all those terms mean, or just keep reading.

Then you have to take into consideration the different manufacturers out there. Iwata, Badger, Paasche, Grex, Richpen, Harder and Steenbeck, countless other private brands and even nameless airbrushes that look like any of the above...

So, what should you choose?  Actually it's easy...

  1. Choose a gravity feed, dual action, internal mix airbrush from a name brand manufacturer like Badger, Iwata, or Paasche.  
  2. If you use a one airbrush per color, or one bottle per color setup, choose a siphon feed instead of the gravity feed.
That's it.  

I could walk you through the various branches and choice but most people under most circumstances end up at either a gravity or siphon-feed, dual action, internal mix airbrush.


Uh, huh...you want me to guide you through the whole journey?  You think you might be one of the rare exceptions that end up on one of the rabbit trails?

Well, if you're reading this far you're a rare exception.  In a good way of course.

Okay, here goes.

The Really Long Version


Things You Should Already Know

  • You should already know what you're going to do.
  • You should already know what kind of paint you're going to shoot through the airbrush.

Coverage vs. Detail

  • Do you want lots of coverage?


    If you do, you need to look at spray guns.  Remember this rule.  The bigger the spray pattern the easier it is to blend and cover.  Your goal is to spray an area in as few passes as possible without getting hideously expensive.  Conversely you don't want to get too big else your material waste (sprayed paint that never sticks to the surface) will chew up your cash.
  • Do you want lots of detail?


    If you do you'll need something with a long pointy needle.  That usually, but not always, translates into an airbrush.
The rest of this article assumes you're looking for an airbrush.  If you're looking into spray guns feel free to contact me for a recommendation.  Do take into consideration if you're in a heavily regulated state like California.

Beginners vs. Veterans

  • Are you a beginner?

     
    Beginners need an airbrush that "forgives" their mistakes more so than professionals do.  The biggest problem most people encounter with their airbrushes are user problems.  i.e. cleaning, paint consistency, lack of fine motor control, instead of product issues.  This means it's better to have equipment that teaches you these things but doesn't require you to know them inside and out.

    I'm getting at super detail airbrushes.  Beginners should STAY AWAY from super duper, amazingly amazing, ultra-micro-nanometer line producing airbrushes that solve all your detail problems.

    These are amazing airbrushes, but let me break it to you.  They're too much airbrush for you to handle. These airbrushes are actually too amazing for beginners simply because they offer you your worst nightmare.  Control.  Control over every possible airbrushing variable.  The more variables you face the harder it is to learn, and the learning curve for airbrushes is steep enough already.

    I use this analogy.  Did you learn how to drive in a Formula 1 Racer?  No.  You probably learned how to drive in something street legal.
  • Veterans.


    I assume you know how to clean your airbrush and change your paint consistency (straining, reducing, etc.).
     
    Because you know a little or a lot about airbrushing you'll need to do a bit more research to find the kinds of brushes you're after.  There're three ways to go about this.
     
    1. Experimental research.
       
      This is actually what most people do.  They buy a new airbrush and try it out.  This is actually a good way to find the type of airbrush you want, but there are a couple drawbacks.   It's expensive and time consuming.
    2. Read reviews
       
      Basically, take other people's experience into consideration.
    3. Mixture of both.
       
      Ultimately it does come down to this.  You hear about a product and you try it out.  The cost will be a bit lower but you should still be prepared to occasionally find tools you're not interested in ever picking up again.

Internal Mix vs. External Mix


The way the paint hits the air stream is important simlpy because it changes the way the spray looks when it hits the surface.

Unless you have a good reason to choose external mix you should choose internal mix simply because you get more consistent, more even spray.

  • Internal Mix

     
    The paint gets introduced into the center of the air stream.
  • External Mix

     
    The paint gets introduced into the air stream's side producing a squished O or D shaped spray pattern.

    Reasons to choose external over internal mix.

    • You don't mind the grainies, less consistent spray
    • You don't need fine details just a small coverage area

Dual Action vs. Single Action vs. Trigger Action


This is about how you physically manipulate the airbrush controls.  Again, unless you have a good reason to choose something else choose dual action.
  • Dual Action (aka Double Action)

     
    Press down for air.  Pull back for paint.  Most people use dual action airbrushes, most techniques are built upon how they work and function.  Also, the manufacturers have accessories to duplicate many of the benefits other gun types offer without sacrificing the benefits dual action offers.
  • Single Action

     
    Press down for air which usually starts the paint too.  Twist a knob to adjust the paintflow.
     
    Reasons to choose single action over dual action.

    • You always spray the same amount of fluid all the time.
    • The airbrush passes through many untrained hands to do the same repeatable thing all the time.
    • If you're looking into some kind of research application I generally reccomend single action airbrushes, simply because they're a little bit easier for you ordered, logical science types.  You can take some measurements and they'll stay generally the same.  You don't have to worry about that silly, artistic, relative measurement junk!
  • Trigger Action

     
    This setup is for people who want to use their airbrushes as if they were spray guns.
     
    Reasons to choose trigger action over dual action

    • You've used spray guns forever and have a pretty good feel for them.  This will be easier for you to get used to instead of learning a seperate motion.

Gravity Feed vs. Siphon Feed vs. Side Feed



This covers how the paint is fed into the airbrush.  Generally choose a gravity feed unless you have good reasons to choose something else.

  • Gravity Feed

     
    Gravity pulls the paint down to the nozzle's tip.  The paint 'wants' to be sprayed.  It's economical and can function on a drop of paint.  You can also use less air pressure to effectively atomize the paint.  Less pressure means the built in abililty to spray finer details than the other configurations.
  • Siphon Feed

     
    Fast moving air generates a low pressure zone at the nozzle's tip.  This pulls the paint up through the stem to get atomized.  They do require a bit more air than a gravity feed airbrush but make up for it with the ability to hold far more paint depending on the bottle size attached.
     
    Reasons to use a siphon feed airbrush over a gravity feed.

    • Your using a multi-gun setup.  1 airbrush per color.  It's faster this way because there's less cleaning.
    • You need the extra capacity because you spray a lot of paint at one time. i.e. spray tanners use siphon feed airbrushes because they don't need to worry about responsiveness.
    • You want a quick cleanup
    • You've got a lot of stock colors you use all the time.
  • Side Feed

     
    A side feed airbrush is cross between the straight siphon or straight gravity feed airbrush.  If the paint level is above the nozzle tip it's a gravity feed.  If the paint level is below then it's a siphon feed.

    Reasons to use a side feed airbrush over a gravity feed

    • You want one airbrush to do it all.
    • You need to spray upside down
    • You don't mind the cost of extra accessories
    • You don't mind the slightly longer cleanup time
    I actually really like side feed airbrushes.  If I had to only choose one airbrush this would be it.

Choosing the Manufacturer


I generally recommend one of three or four manufacturers simply because they've got a reputation and understand customer service.  This isn't to say that you won't find good equipment from other people but it's kind've of hit or miss.  

  • Badger

     
    Of the three Badger is by far the least expensive.  I personally don't think they're the best airbrushes in the world, however, they are certainly NOT the worst.  They stand behind their products and continually innovate new designs.
  • Paasche

     
    Paasche is a step up from Badger.  In fact, many people I've met first learned on Paasche VLs.  I've never dealt with Paasche's customer or technical support so I can't say yay or nay, but I've never heard complaints about it being bad.
  • Iwata

     
    Iwata positions themselves at the top of the airbrush food chain.  The Eclipse CS (graivty feed) and the Eclipse BCS (siphon feed) are the two most popular airbrushes they produce.  I know their customer service and technical support rocks.
  • Everyone else

     
    There are other brands that I've heard good things about (Harder and Steinbeck comes to mind) but I've never played with them or done much research into how they perform and how the companies take care of their end users.  At the other end of the spectrum are the clones.  Most clones come out of China or Taiwan and model themselves as exact duplicates of the first three.  Try to avoid the clones.  You can tell the clones because they aren't 'claimed'.  Iwata, Badger, Paasche, and most repudible manufacturers will engrave their name on the side so you can call them and figure out what's going on when you have problems.  Clones don't.

Conclusion


It's time for you to go looking for a good airbrush.  Once you've found it, it'll be time to choose the right kind of air source to power it.

Good luck!