Airbrushing – Cleaning the Damn Thing

After my deep dive on airbrushing, I’ve received several requests asking for me to discuss my cleaning process.

I get it. Cleaning sucks and it seems like it’s probably one of the top three stories people throw out about why they don’t like airbrushing.

So what the hell. Let’s talk about cleaning.

First, a story

About six years ago, I was building Zvezda’s 1/48 La-5. Lovely little kit that even my newly-returned idiot self couldn’t fuck up too bad. But in the days before AKAN and Mr Paint, decent World War II VVS colors were hard to come across. I decided to order some White Ensign Colourcoats.

Screw these Humbrol-like tins, by the way

Color-wise, the AMT-4 and AMT-7 were gorgeous. As paints, though, they left a lot to be desired. Purportedly enamels, they thinned pretty much the way that sand thins in water – not at all. Mineral spirits, Testors enamel thinner, lacquer thinner…whatever I tried, the paint would basically swirl around for 30 seconds and then fall out of suspension and gather at the bottom of whatever container it was in.

My dumb ass decided to put this through an Iwata HP-C+.

The result on the kit was okay, but the process was an utter mess – I had to stir and dump small amounts constantly and by the end the needle channel and nozzle were packed with AMT-7 sludge.

Then, after a half-assed clean, my dumb ass decided to pull the needle and nozzle and drop them along with the airbrush body into an ultrasonic cleaner.

Are you wincing yet? You should be. The ultrasonic basically just distributed the White Ensign sludge EVERYWHERE. Including past the paint cup and all around the trigger, the air valve, the needle spring.

Despite more than five following years of strip-and-cleans on that HP-C+, and replacement of nearly every single internal part, the air valve STILL sticks regularly.

The moral of the story? Don’t do stupid shit, and don’t stick whole airbrush bodies into ultrasonic cleaners. If it’s clean enough that you’re confident you won’t have problems, it’s clean enough that it doesn’t need to go into the damn thing to begin with.

The Anatomy of an Airbrush and Where It Gets Dirty

I won’t lie, I’m having a hard time figuring out where to start here. But I guess understanding how paint moves through an airbrush and where it goes and doesn’t go is kinda important. So…this handy cutaway:

iw-cutaway

See that o-ring between the trigger and paint cup? Unless we really fuck things up (like, by putting an airbrush body into an ultrasonic cleaner), we shouldn’t have to worry about anything aft of that o-ring at all.

Forward of the o-ring, here’s what happens. You put paint into the paint cup. Gravity (or suction, with side and siphon feeds) pulls the paint into the needle channel. This is the hole in the airbrush where the needle resides. Paint flows along this channel, down the needle to the nozzle.

The nozzle cap sits over the nozzle. It’s job is essentially to channel airflow over the tip of the nozzle, which sets off the venturi effect that pulls paint off the end of the needle and sends it flinging toward whatever you’re aiming at.

Paint can buildup on the needle, of course, from the tip back to the o-ring. It can also pack up inside the nozzle – particularly thicker paints and those with larger-sized pigments. It can also build up, over time, in the needle channel or in front of the o-ring. On side- and siphon feeds, you have the addition of whatever the “transfer tube” mechanism happens to be to worry about.

But basically – that is our universe for the purposes of this post.

Paint – It Fucking Matters

When talking about paint, a lot of modelers (myself included) focus heavily on spray performance, reducability, and other factors. But paint choice matters just as much when it comes to cleaning.

Some paints just clean up a lot easier – both immediately after use and days or even weeks later.

I’ve found that many water-vinyl acrylics – Vallejo and similar – may seem like they clean up easily, but can actually leave a lot of little deposity crud deep in the recesses of your airbrush – packing into the nozzle in particular.

Many metallics are similar – especially Alclads. While they seem to clean up fairly easily, it seems like you’re never quite done. Fill the cup with thinner a fifth time and there’s still little metallic bits floating around in it, like when you wipe and wipe and wipe and realize your journey is still not at an end.

Most lacquers that I’ve used, though, they clean up very quickly and easily and rarely pack up in the dark places.

Thin is Good

Do you like strip-cleaning your airbrush? I don’t. It blows. It’s tedious, it risks damage to tiny, delicate parts that can be easy to drop (looking at you, HP-C+ nozzle), and it takes away from more enjoyable bench activities.

Good news is, you can reduce the frequency of those strip cleans by thinning your paint. I tend to spray very small and very thin – 2:1 thinner to paint is my starting ratio for Tamiya and Gunze – and I’m frequently playing closer to 3:1 or even 4:1. When I clean and flush at the end of a session, well, think of how much easier it is to flush diarrhea than, uh, chunky style. Same principle.

Lacquer Thinner is the Honey Badger of Airbrush Cleaning

Lacquer thinner doesn’t give a shit. Vallejo? Ammo? Model Master? Tamiya? Lacquer thinner will destroy it and send it flying out of your airbrush.

Yeah, with acrylics that whole “water cleanup” thing is nice, but it only goes so far. And some paints that say that have a bad tendency to skin over in the cleanup process.

Want to stick with water or Vallejo Airbrush Cleaner or whatever? Cool. You do you. Nobody is twisting your arm.

But if you wind up with stubborn bits, introduce them to your friend Mr. Lacquer Thinner.

Clean with the Well Liquor

I’m a big advocate of thinning your paints with quality thinner. It’s not the place to skimp with potentially harsh, potentially inconsistent hardware store thinner, much less your cat’s fermented piss or whatever other homebrew solutions get tossed about.

“But Mr. Leveling Thinner is expensive!”

And a bottle, properly tended and cared for, will last you for a good long while. I just cracked a new one – my last lasted me better than a year.

But for cleanup? Bring out the bargain shit.

How I Clean My Airbrushes

So. Let’s say I’ve just finished an airbrush session at it’s time to clean up. The paint on display here isn’t even paint – it’s Mr. Finishing Surfacer 1500. A very tiny bit more of a challenge than Mr. Paint or heavily thinned Gunze.

Step 1 – Remove the excess paint. Either dump it back into the mixing container or, if it’s Mr. Paint that I didn’t have to thin, return to its bottle. This way you have a lower volume of paint to clean up.

 

Step 2 – Add a small amount of lacquer thinner. Just enough to cover the needle, basically. Crank up the air pressure. Direct the airbrush into your cleaning pot or the eyes or nasal passages of your enemies and let fly. This flushes out the low-hanging fruit of the paint still in the needle channel and nozzle.

 

Step 3 – Fill the paint cup most of the way with lacquer thinner. With a q-tip, scrub out the paint cup. It should be obvious what this does. If your paint is smeared all over or being an asshole, rinse and repeat.

 

Step 4 – Fill the paint cup about halfway with lacquer thinner. Q-tips are great at “wiping the bowl” but they suck at doing any kind of cleaning work up under the needle and into the needle channel. So get a trusty old paintbrush – I have a flat brush expressly for this task – and scrub around under the needle. When you’re done with that, very gently clean around the needle/nozzle tip. Flush.

 

Step 5 – Feeling frisky? Remove the needle, wipe it down with a q-tip soaked in lacquer thinner, dry it off and replace. But honestly I rarely do this and will usually pull and wipe down the needle at the START of a spraying session instead. With Tamiya, sometimes skipping this step will mean that the needle will stick and need a tiny bit of effort to remove. With Gunze and Mr. Paint, that’s not an issue I’ve ever had.

You’re a Damned Barbarian!

What? I don’t strip and clean my airbrushes down to their component parts after every color, or every session?

Fuck no. It’s overkill. It’d be like changing the oil in your car after every day’s commute.

But I’ll fully admit that spraying thin and using paint that is extremely cleanup friendly are two things that make my downright Visigothic cleaning regimen possible. In the last year, I’ve performed probably two deep strip-cleans.

Bet he didn't strip, either

Bet he didn’t strip, either

So – with the right paint and high thinning ratios, you probably don’t need to worry about spending a half hour after every paint session cleaning your airbrush. There – that’s one less excuse not to pull it out.

13 thoughts on “Airbrushing – Cleaning the Damn Thing

  1. I primarily build ships these days..less and less aircraft but can ditto on the Humbrol/colorcoat paints. They have beautiful colors and match FS# ‘s very accurately but are a damn mess to work with. As you say ..they clump up into little globs that refuse to thin out for proper spraying. The last I used came out looking like colored grit on the model..very rough and near impossible to shoot..
    I pretty much have the same routine you have on AB cleaning with one exception…after I Complete a project I will tear the AB all the way down and use my Ultrasonic cleaner for a deep clean. But do a standard clean before this so as to remove most of the paint medium. Use a 50/50 solution of water and “Simple Green” in the Ultrasonic cleaner..It’s very mild and gentle on the rubber/ Vitrol washers and O-rings. Flush and rinse several times then blow dry the components before reassembly . Well anyway that is my method of madness.

    Good Post!!

  2. Great read as always.
    In case it’s of any interest, Windex is my go-to cleaner. It breaks everything down on contact, and doesn’t bug your lungs like lacquer thinner.
    Given that I’m from Australia and have no idea what products are called in other countries, Windex is a blue ammonia based window cleaning liquid.

      • Ammonia should only be used as a spray through cleaner. Don’t soak in ammonia or leave it set in your airbrush. Ammonia and brass do not get along well with each other for prolonged periods.

  3. Wow, I didn’t know that about ammonia and chromed parts, thank you so much guys. On the balance of it, given how nasty I find the lacquer fumes (to the point that I now absolutely avoid using lacquers for anything) I will stick with Windex but make the final flush with either water or maybe even acrylic thinner to get the Windex out.
    Out of interest, is anybody else avoiding lacquers? Shame, but the asthma and headaches aren’t worth it, despite a respirator.

    • I think it absolutely depends on your bench environment. If I were painting indoors in an enclosed space with no kind of extractor, I’d certainly be looking for other options.

      As it is – my bench is in the garage, so I’ve got ventilation for miles. Also, if you keep your spray small and tight, the fumes are very nearly nonexistent. For me, it’s the cleaning stage that throws crap everywhere, which is why I try to dump into the cleaning pot as much as possible.

      • Thanks for your reply Doogs. I’m in the study, next to a window, but right next to where my wife and kids work on computers etc. I have a spray booth but it’s too big for the space and it just sits in the garage. I’ve used it for spraying Tamiya rattle can primers and clear coats but that vapour still infiltrates everywhere. I realise that I’m missing out on some seriously good primers, metallics and clear coats.
        Nobody has mentioned this (I think) but I find make-up wipes are the best for clean up. They absorb a hell of a lot of paint, Windex or thinner or whatever your poison (literally) is, and when you’re done they are so soaked in that stuff that you can use it to clean your paint stirrers and little mixing cups.
        Also, in case it’s of any interest, I use these little rubber cups that I buy through a dental supplier (being in the business) and the advantage is you can pinch them as you pour paint, to avoid spillage and wastage. They clean up pretty easily too.
        One thing I’ve learnt from you is to spray small, thanks for the reminder.
        Compliments on your website and blogs. I’d rate your stuff as the best on the net, by miles. Maybe on par with Paul Budzik but completely different style.
        Keep it coming!

  4. Wow,2 great “How to’s in a row. Just write a darn book. Shep is gone [ God rest his soul ]. Time for someone to step on up & keep the knowledge going !!! keith r.

  5. Another set of great posts. I had a lightbulb go on in my (admittedly tiny) brain when you talked about putting your airbrush in the ultrasound bath – that is exactly what I did when my lifecolour paints went to a sludge in the cup and it took a major efforts, including repeated cleanings, to get the air release to stop sticking on my HP+. I am sure less is more: I have spent some time fiddling with o-rings on underwater cameras and found that the application of excessive zeal produced more leaks that the guys who adopted the ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it approach. As a medic, can I humbly suggest you watch the ventilation issue carefully – the paints are not good for you in the long run. Keep them up! The posts I mean.

  6. Thank you! Exactly what I was looking for. I do have my own rutines, but I never knew if they were appropriate. The tip with the brush is especially useful – so darn simple!

    Alex

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