Thursday, September 19, 2013

Wargame Airbrushing 01: multi-purpose rigs

To get an airbrush rig on the table top, I got to combine two of the great things in life... modelling, and home improvement stores.  For this particular build, I had a few criteria:  keep it multi-purpose, portable, and suitable to long painting sessions (my preferences), and keep it quiet (my wife's preference).

This particular setup has a few bells and whistles that are not required for basic airbrushing...I will make note of those optional components when they come up.  The order I list them is the order I connect them in the final rig.

Component 1:  Air Supply

There are airbrush compressors available, but I went with a construction model for two reasons:  the air reservoir means it only runs occasionally, and I can use it to run pneumatic tools for other hobby projects.  The one I got has a three-gallon tank built in, and runs at 125psi, so I can run my airbrush with the compressor turned off for about 25 minutes before the compressor needs to get turned back on to re-pressurize the tank.

Price-wise, a good hobby compressor will cost about the same, but you are trading smaller size and quieter operation with the hobby compressor for the ability to connect your compressor to pneumatic tools and shoot nails across the garage.  Your call.***

Craftsman 3-gallon compressor, $99 at Sears

Component 2:  Air hose/adapter

Most airbrushes come with an air hose, but in this build, I needed an extra one to run from the compressor to the external tank.  I went ahead and got a 3/8" x 50' polyurethane air hose, for when I wanted to use the compressor for construction projects, and so I could park the compressor in a closet down the hall and just let it run whenever it wanted to if The Wife is in the house.

The 3/8" refers to the diameter of the hose, 50' is the length, and the polyurethane is a coating that keeps the hose from marking stuff up when it drags across them.  You can get hoses a lot cheaper if you go with a PVC hose, about $10 or less for a 25-foot hose.  Note:  the 3/8" size is different from the 1/4" size of the connector fitting...which is the brass piece that screws into other pieces.  This hose is a 3/8" hose with 1/4" NPT fittings.  Clear as mud?  The helpful folks at wherever you are shopping can make sure everything connects.

Generic 3/8" x 50' polyurethane air hose, $23 at Lowe's.
(optional) generic 1/4" NPT quick-coupler set, $6 at Lowe's

(optional) Component 3:  External Air Storage

To extend the amount of time between re-pressurization, and to make the setup easier to move around, I picked up an 11-gallon air tank; this lets me airbrush without lugging the compressor around, as I can fill it up and carry the tank to my worktable and entirely cut out compressor noise.  Or, if I leave it hooked to the compressor, it lets me go over an hour between refills (a total of 13 gallons of air starting at 125PSI will last a good while!).

Note:  as a money saver, in place of buying a compressor, you can also fill the tank up at most gas stations; some are free, so look around if your local station charges you to use the air station.  It ends up costing you in the long run, if only from the cost of driving to the station, but in the short term, skipping the compressor can save a buck or two from the initial investment.

Craftsman 11-gallon air tank, $30 at Home Depot.

Component 4:  Regulation

The compressor has a built-in regulator, but most of them aren't very precise at lower pressures, and we need more pressure control for airbrushing.  You can adjust the air flow with the airbrush trigger if you have a double-action brush, but I find it less strain on the trigger finger to regulate the pressure before the brush and just max out the flow at the trigger, so all I am adjusting is the paint flow...which can also be somewhat adjusted at the brush, if you have a model with a pre-set handle.

If you get a construction-style regulator, check the type.  Some of them just restrict the air flow instead of actually regulating the pressure; you want one that regulates.  If you are not using the optional air hose, you can attach the regulator directly to the air tank.

Generic brand, $22 at Home Depot

(optional) Component 5:  Filter

The filter removes moisture from the air before it hits the airbrush.  This is an optional step because unless you are doing high-quality stuff, you will likely not even notice.  I did my filtering with Component 7 below, but if you go with a basic one like this you can screw it directly to your regulator with a coupler (not pictured, it is a common fitting).

Generic brand, $13 at Home Depot
1/4" NPT Male/Male coupler, $2 at Home Depot

Component 6:  Airbrush and Hose

I'm not going to cover the choices here...there are roughly 2.3 bazillion articles on airbrush choices floating around the interwebs.  I have been using an Iwata HP-C+ for about 8 years, and it's been rock-solid that entire even survived a trip to Afghanistan with me.

(optional) Component 7:  Filter Grip

While a grip is optional, I highly recommend it, as it makes long airbrush sessions a lot less stressful on the hand.  The grip screws into the airbrush where the air hose normally would, and gives you more to hold on to.  If your hand comes stock with a Kung Fu Grip, you won't need this piece.

I added a quick-disconnect to mine, to save both time and wear on the plastic threads on the grip; one piece screws onto the grip, and one screws onto the Airbrush air hose.

I assume the other manufacturers make filter grips, but I am an Iwata guy, so I have not confirmed that fact.

Iwata Pistol Grip Filter, $22 at Dixie Art Supply
(optional) Iwata Quick Disconnect, $13 at Dixie Art Supply

Component 8:  Backdrop

You could build a portable spray booth so you can airbrush wherever you want in the house, but I went the easy route - and got a fan as a bonus.  As my house does not have air conditioning, this is important for the week or two that we have "hot" weather each year.

Important:  check where the power cord plugs in before you buy the fan.  Most of them plug into the middle of the back of the fan, but this is a no-go for an airbrush backdrop, as the "back" is the side we will be airbrushing on.  Get one that plugs into the side or bottom, even if you have to spend an extra buck or two; this will prevent you from needing to poke a hole in the filter each time you replace it, and keep you from painting the power cord.  Unless those things sound like fun to you, in which case go for it...I suppose you could paint the cord with the airbrushing equivalent of kill stripes.

To use it, just set the fan in front of where you are going to be airbrushing, pointing so it blows the air away from you.  Put a 20"x20" pleated air filter in front of the fan and turn it on, you are ready to roll.  I tape mine in place, though, as I occasionally forget to grab it when I turn off the fan and air flow stops holding the filter in place, at which time the filter jumps at my freshly painted whatevers and any nearby open liquid containers.

Note:  the "pleated" part is important; the filter needs to look like a paper-towel-type materiel. Filters also come in fiberglass, which is fine for dust but won't work as well for airbrushing.  Cheap filters are fine, we don't need a micron filter or allergen reduction for this.  I get them in 3-packs; they will last for months if you are only airbrushing, but I also spray paint in front of mine.  It does a brilliant job of keeping overspray controlled, so I can prime stuff in the garage.

Generic 20" box fan, $21 at Target
3-pack 20" pleated air filters, $8 at Home Depot

That's it!

All told, the entire rig with all the bells and whistles would cost me about $250 at normal retail plus the cost of the airbrush.  If you shop around, hit sales or go online, and go with basic versions of everything,  you can do it for about $160, but I think it is worth the extra bucks for the quality and convenience of the upgrades.

*** legal note:  I do not recommend you use your rig to shoot nails across a garage, or at anything, for that matter.  That comment in Component 1 was a joke.  It's not safe.  Don't do it. Seriously.

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