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Good morning!

I've been looking into getting a set of airbrushes lately, as I don't have the space for a model railroad but I do want to continue expanding my skills and fleet. I'm curious to know what some of our more experienced modelers recommend. Full kits? Brushes and compressors separate? Certain brands? 

Thanks for your replies, really looking forward for the help.

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Replies to This Discussion

Hi, Chad.

I've been painting my (and custom-painting others') models with airbrushes for more than 30 years.  I believe in a separate air source, a compressor with moisture trap being essential.  To start out, you'd probably be OK with a less expensive always-runs tabletop compressor (no reservoir) but good buys on more advanced units with a built-in pressure regulator, storage reservoir/tank can be had at places like Harbor Freight Tools, which is where I bought my last one.  That replaced an earlier Sears compressor with "doughnut" shaped air tank.  I rather liked the Sears unit, but when it was about 10 years old the motor froze, and the air/moisture drain valve underneath had also locked up.  It was time to "go" for that one.  The Harbor Freight unit I have is noisier, but can also be used for house maintenance; it's already more than paid for itself.

As for airbrushes, I strongly suggest to anyone not practiced with these to avoid "Double Action" models such as Paasche's spendier "TS" or "TGX" styles or Badger's 100-series and "named" airbrushes.  'Waaaay too fancy, and over-priced for modeling uses.  Any and all of those use small top-mount or side-mount paint cups.  Also, conventional model paints (even diluted) can clog inside the delicate air-fluid mixing mechanisms within the handle, and the mini-cup on top or side can too easily spill.  These are primarily intended for graphic-arts uses with watercolors and water-based gouache paints.  Water-based acrylics do not go through them well unless highly diluted, and high dilutions and railroad models do not typically go together.

That said, I have long depended on "Single Action" airbrushes.  My first "quality" airbrush was a Binks "Wren" Model B, with separate glass paint jar at the bottom, and a medium spray tip.  A fine tip could be applied easily when I needed it.  I wore that out over 10 years of use and loved it.  I don't know if these are still made, but the price was right when they were, and parts -- tips, cap seals, etc. -- easy to get and cheap. I'd like to have one again.

My current airbrush is a Badger 350 Single action.  It's been as easy to use as the Binks Model B, but -- you have to be "kind" to it; all now have a high-impact plastic handle/body, and I found that it's too easy to strip the threads inside the body when changing tips after some years of use.  (The old Binks Wren Model B was all-metal and tougher.)

FYI, I don't like and don't use water-based model paints. I've never had good results with them, and don't like how easily an "eggshell" finish can happen.  I grew up using real lacquers and enamels that require thinners, and with those I get smooth, glossy finishes ready for decals application when dry. 

For railroad colors I stick with 1) TruColor paints; 2) Scalecoat I and II (I choose which one based on whether I'm painting metal or plastic, although I have gotten excellent results using Scalecoat 1 (for metals) on styrene plastic because I'm very experienced.  I also really like Testors ModelMaster colors (that use thinner, not their water-based ModelMaster colors) for general use.  My everyday thinner for all airbrushing is inexpensive hardware store Lacquer thinner.  It takes practice to use without getting "crazed" plastic, but I find it gives me the results I like. 

Good luck to you!

Hey Kevin,

I was reading through Pelle Soeborg's book Done in a Day, which also recommended ModelMaster paint on a type of project I want to try... What do you follow for using that type? 

I like the TruColor paint a lot, I've had some good success with it. I mean, for a beginner. :)

Chad, I'm very happy with my Iwata bottom feed airbrush. As the previous poster said stay away from water base paints they screw up your airbrush faster than anything. I use a Paache DC600R compressor/air tank combo with a water trap regulator. I paint in my apartment using a dual fan paint booth so it's quiet.
Pick up some cheap Tyco freight cars practicing masking and getting the hang of it. I primarily use P-B-L from PBL in Ukiah and Tru-Color. With Tru Color thin it with Tru color thinner and use 100% acetone for clean up not nail polish remover. It's says on the bottle it's ready to use without thinning. It's not. I have several pieces of my work on this website. Keep your pressure down below 25 psi and thin your paint. Don't spray too far away and you will avoid a sand paper textured finish. Please PM me if you have questions. I've been airbrushing for 20+ years and it takes practice. Have fun!

Chad, I to started with a Binks Wren air brush and I still use it for painting large areas such as road bed. I use a Paache air brush for models, but only because my Binks got displaced in a move, so I bought the Paache. I had an opportunity to try a dual action air brush once, and found it difficult to control. I'd stick with a good quality single action air brush.

Here comes heresy! I don't use a compressor! Years ago I purchased a small tank of CO2, equipped it with a regulator valve, and I have used my CO2 tank for, could it be, 30+ years. I have only had it refilled once. I can move it around the layout for spraying where I need it. There is no moisture. And most importantly, it is silent! Another advantage is that the propellant, CO2, doesn't begin the drying process as soon as the paint leaves the air brush. I now have a small 2 gallon compressor with a moisture trap, but I still prefer my CO2 tank!

My good friend Bob Hogan uses Scalecoat and other solvent based paints and is a superb modeler. Kevin Bunker is another proponent of solvent based paint who has done great work as well. I to started out with Floquil paints. If the original paints were available today, I would go back to them. They are not. When the parent company for Floquil and Pollyscale abandoned the market, I put by a large selection of the Pollyscale paints I normally use. I can't remember the last time I used a solvent based paint! Are the acrylics different? You bet. Can you get good results with them? A resounding yes. Model Railroad Hobbyist has produced a guide to duplicating and using todays available acrylic paints. If you do a search on line, you can receive the monthly on line magazine for free. If you are unsuccessful in getting the guide, e-mail me and I will send it to you.

Like so many other things in this hobby, it is important to remember that it is only important that you have fun doing it! Whichever paint, airbrush, or pressure source you choose, its like the old joke, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice man, practice!" As Matthew suggested, buy some cheap models and try different techniques and find what works for you. I keep a stack of 3X5 white cards next to me when I am painting. I spray the blank card first. to be sure I like what I am about to spray on the model.

Cleanliness is essential with an airbrush. It MUST be taken apart and cleaned thoroughly after every use. No exceptions! I used to think it was enough to spray thinner through the brush. After ruining several tips, I realized I have to take the brush apart, and using small pipe cleaners dipped in acetone, clean every part. While I use acrylic paints, mostly Pollyscale, I do my final cleanup with acetone.

I suggest you get on MIcro Mark's e-mail list. E-mail them and ask for a catalog, give them your e-mail address, and you will receive sale ads every week. Their prices are good, and their customer service has always been very good for me.

Have fun with this new phase of the hobby!

Richard Todd

I need to copy and paste the above message.  I've done very little airbrushing on my railroad rolling stock, but I've been using airbrushes for a ton of other applications.  Weathering on tanks, RC planes, etc. Anyway.....I love my CO2 tank.  A man by the name of Don Usher turned me onto that.  The first airbrush I ever used was (drum roll), was the Binks Wren.  Somewhere, I still have my Paache H.  If I knew where it was, I'd mail it to you.  I bought a cheap ultrasonic about 20 years ago.  If you ever decide to work with acrylics on a regular basis, it's the only way to go.  Acrylics will have less odor, but take a little more time to get used to when dealing with detail.  It's more likely to fill details, too.  It's not that they don't work, they operate differently than the spirit based paints. 

Like Richard said, have fun with it.  Play.  I haven't used a single action air brush in 15 years, but I love my dual action.  It took more work to learn it.  Pain the keester to keep clean with acrylics, but the control freak in me likes it.  Ebay and TCP global have some really good starter kits, as well.  The kit I bought for a friend here a couple years ago has a small compressor with tank and the airbrush for $99.  TCP Global Link for single action kits  Check with you local welding supplier.  You might be able to get a tank cheap from them.  The refill on my 40lbs tank seems to last forever.  


First off, huge thanks to all three of you guys for getting back to me so soon. I really, really appreciate it. I think I am moving in a better direction now. All three of you guys are talented modelers, and I trust your judgement and advice a little bit more than...the other guy's... I've been finding on some of the other model railroad forums. 


Painting in your and effective? I keep seeing posts not to do so, whether the compressor bugs the neighbors or the paint fumes get too bad, and I'd rather not have an angry housing officer knocking on my door. I don't really have another place to paint that is also heated unfortunately, and up here that is a necessity, so I was hoping to figure out a way to safely and effectively paint in the apartment. 

Kevin and Richard,

I really appreciate the help and guidance. I started looking into compressors, and I'll pass a long what I find. I will definitely be PMing all three of you guys in the near future. 

As far as parts and caps and things like that, should I invest in those now or is just the one cup that comes in kit okay?

I'm definitely hearing all you guys on the cleaning process. 

Really appreciate the help, thank you all!


I purchased a large twin fan paint booth from MicroMark. The compressor is super quiet and it has a tank so it's not constantly running. I have a large Makita contractors compressor with a larger tank, but I use that at my house because of noise. I safely store my paints and thinners away from flames. I use my best judgment on hours that I'm painting not to disturb neighbors and I live on the bottom floor with separate walls. I've had management come through several times and they have never approached me about it. I do suggest you invest in a compressor with a tank. It's gives you a nice constant flow of air unlike compressors without a tank as they can pulse causing inconsistent air flow. More importantly, have fun!

Chad, I do must of my painting in my basement, (one of the few perks of living in Ohio), and that is part of why I use acrylics. no smell. When I have to use solvent paints, i.e. painting trees with shaker cans, I do that outside. When I paint outside, it has to be 50F or I don't paint. Another reason I use a CO2 tank, is that the compressor I have makes LOTS of noise. The family tolerates it but it does get old.

Most "starter" air brush kits come with several sized bottles that attach to the brush by pushing the tube in the cap into the brush. I wouldn't worry about extra until you discover you need them.

Are you in base housing? If so, you probably should check before you start using an air brush in your apartment. They can be truly fussy!



I am in base housing, however I talked to my chief the other day about it and he gave the go-ahead, as long as I don't bug the neighbors or "blow the house up." Interestingly enough, I think I will have to stick with the compressor... he didn't like the idea of pressurized cylinders in housing. I do agree with what Matthew was saying up above, about making sure my neighbors are not home when I use the compressor. Done right, I think it will be okay. 

Chad, here are 3 links to the Micro Mark catalogue. While they are only showing their units now, they frequently have other makers available.,11615.html,11605....


While I haven't read all the replies, start with a dual action. The sooner you learn that movement the better. I have a silent compressor, an Iwata HP-C for fine work and thin paints and a good old fashioned Pasche for "thick" paints i.e. Star Brands and such. If you shop around you can find a cheap paint booth for less than half the price MicroMark charges. Ask Santa for a silent compressor;)

My two cents' worth:  I've been airbrushing on and off for over forty years, primarily scratch-building ship models.  Most of what has been said is quite true, so I'll only add a bit to what's been said.

I started with a dual-action Paasch and I've never looked back.  Single-action tools are basically miniature spray cans, which are fine if you are just "painting," but the dual action permits you to "lighten up" on the flow when hitting details, like around and behind grab rails and the like, without building up too much paint and losing detail or (God forbid!) ending up with runs.  It's very easy to get the hang of the dual-action tool and most can be set to operate as single-action by simply turning a knurled adjusting wheel.  The dual action is just "push down and forward."  Down gives you the air and forward gives you the paint.  (Or is it the other way around... oh, never mind, it's quite intuitive.  If you can operate a computer mouse, you can use a dual-action airbrush.)

About paint:  Sadly, due to "environmental concerns," the really great Floquil, Poly S, and Humbrol oil-based paints are no more.  These paints offered the advantage of very finely ground pigments which would did not build up much and destroy detail.  In a lot of areas, particularly the Bay Area, their sale is prohibited and this apparently caused the manufacturers to discontinue these lines.  They were thinned with proprietary thinners, generally containing relatively exotic high-VOC solvents.  Most of the model paints sold now are acrylic "water based" concoctions which I find somewhat less suitable than the oil-based versions.  They will suggest thinning with water, which I quickly discovered made matters worse in an airbrush, which requires very thin material.  Some experimentation, however, revealed that thinning with denatured alcohol works very well so long as the material contains finely ground pigment.  The alcohol also has the advantage of evaporating very quickly, unlike water.  This gives one the ability to work over an area repeatedly with the airbrush.  With water, you have to wait for it to evaporate before going over it again or you quickly end up with a wet, soggy mess.  Another significant advantage to the dual action airbrush is that you have a lot more control if you do weathering and similar detailing.  Like any fixed spray gun or can, the closer the nozzle gets to the surface painted, the more concentrated the amount of paint that is applied.  With the dual-action airbrush, you can back off on the amount of paint applied and move in very close to the surface and paint a very small spot or area if you wish.

I will also say that with the relatively small amounts of paint used in modeling, one also still has the option of mixing your own paints.  This is perhaps a bit fiddly, but it is easy enough to purchase artists' oil colors in tubes at art supply stores and mixing your own colors and thinning to your taste.  One needs to develop an "eye" for the color you want and know your "color wheel," but once you have the hang of that, the color spectrum available is unlimited.  Artists' oils will take longer to dry if simply thinned out of the tube, but a very small amount of "Japan drier" can be added to speed up the drying if need be.  This is also sold wherever artist's oils are sold.  Artist's oils are also "archival," being intended to last for a long time, centuries even.  (Ask the Mona Lisa!)  Oil based paints remain more "flexible" than acrylics and other polymer coatings (this being a relative term in this context) and are therefore less likely to crack or peel in varying moisture levels (especially if applied to wood) and dry to a harder, more wear-resistant finish.

As for air sources, I must say I've never used a CO2 tank, but it sounds like a workable idea if you can get a tank with sufficient capacity.  I have used the standard portable air tanks they sell for filling by compressors to use for inflating tires like the tow trucks used to carry.  They work fine, but the pressure has to be regulated as they lose pressure progressively in use.  If you have a "construction grade" portable compressor, they work fine, but do make a fair amount of noise.  The small continuous flow airbrush compressors are great, but beware of Micro-Mark's offerings.  They may be fine, but Micro-Mark, as much fun as their catalogs are to read, sometimes charges WAY too much for some of their items.  Their two small table top compressors are in the $100 to $150 range (,11600.html), plus shipping and handling, and don't look appreciably any different than the cheapo Harbor Freight models in the $70 to $90 range ( and you don't pay shipping if you buy one at a Harbor Freight store.  (Of course, with anything electrical from Harbor Freight, you may have to return three of them before you get one that works, but that's why their prices are lower, I suppose.  They are okay if you know what you are buying and take a close look at it before you do.)  I can't imagine that anybody would have any problem with noise from one of these small table top units.  Your TV would make more noise than they do!

Okay, now this is just my opinion and I realize some folks are more sensitive to smells than I am, but IMHO those fancy-schmantzy "spray booths" are a load of crap, and expensive crap at that.  If you are working on the kitchen table, as I did long ago before I had a real shop, you can stick a cheapo plastic "lazy susan" like they sell at Target for use to hold small stuff like spice jars in kitchen cabinets in a cardboard box with the side cut off.  If you are really anal about the smell (and aren't using an explosive solvent!) you can cut a hole in the back of the box and shove your shop-vac hose through to suck out the overspray.   Truth be told, though, I've used cardboard boxes to humor "she who must be obeyed" when spraying in the house, but once I was able to work in the shop, I've never used any kind of booth whatsoever.  The amounts sprayed are so small that it really isn't a problem.  Spray booths are fine for industrial applications where they are shooting paint on cars, but I've never seen the point of them with airbrushes.  (And you won't see professional airbrush artists using them much either.)

With respect to prices, it seems to me that the artists' stores and supply houses' prices are lower than "hobby shop" prices and the quality of their goods are often better.  This is also true of modeling tools.  The "hobby quality" stuff that Micro-Mark and similar outfits sell is often unbelievably junky compared to the same tool, often priced less, from a professional jeweler's supply house.  (e.g. Micro-Mark sells a bottom of the line six inch pair of proportional dividers for $100.  You can easily find a professional quality mint condition used pair, often in larger sizes, on eBay made by Keuffel and Esser, Dietzgen or other quality instrument makers for half that price.)  So, it pays to shop around.

I'll repeat what has been said before.  Always, always, clean your airbrush thoroughly after use.  Dried paint on the insides is very difficult, if not impossible on cheaper airbrushes, to ever remove.  I'd also say that if money is limited, spend it on the very best airbrush you can afford, one of the top brands like Paacsh or Badger.  You'll be glad you did, as there is a world of difference between professional quality airbrushes and the ones sold with the intent that they will only be used by kids to paint plastic model cars.

I can't imagine that any investment in a modeling tool (except perhaps a Byrnes micro-table saw, but that's a story for another night, children) will improve the results of your work more than an airbrush will.  Just get one (a dual-action one being my preference for its versatility) and a paperback book on airbrushing technique from the art store or wherever, and start playing with it on some card stock.  (As recommended before, always have a "test sheet" handy to check color and spray patterns when using an airbrush.)  You'll be amazed by the subtle effects that can be easily achieved with one.  An airbrush is to a spray can what a feather is to a hammer.  If you doubt it, dig up some of your old Playboys and look what an airbrush did for those centerfold models!


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