Thursday, October 8, 2015

How I Deep Clean my Airbrushes

Airbrushes are totally awesome.

Ever since I was a little kid putting together model kits in my pajamas over a bowl of cheerios I have had a serious airbrush fixation.

I remember painting camo with Testor's high gloss paints and then trying to convince my father that I really needed an airbrush. To his credit he came through and on my twelfth birthday I became the proud owner of a Paasche VL. I blew through a couple of cans of propellant and then it sat on my shelf for a very very long time.

25 years later I use the same Paasche VL for base priming and base coating and some finer stuff on occasion. It is a great, robust, workhorse airbrush. The other airbrush that I own is a Iwata HP-CS. The Iwata is also about 20 years old and I actually found it in the bottom of a dollar bin at Goodwill. I think it started life painting fingernails, but after some serious cleaning, a new nozzle, needle and a couple of O-rings it is good as new. Well, I guess it is. I never used it when it was new.  

Which brings us to this posts subject: Cleaning your airbrush to make it as good as new. Some of this came up on the CMON forums the other day and I thought it would make a useful blog post.

If your Airbrush will not spray a nice consistent cone pure water you probably have a clog. A thorough cleaning of your airbrush should fix your clog, if not, it's a good place to start.

The process described below is a deep cleaning. You shouldn't need to do this every time you use your airbrush.


You need to take apart your airbrush. The Paasche comes with a convenient little wrench for doing this. The Iwata doesn't and it has some much smaller parts, particularly the nozzle. I use some small pliers to do this job. Be careful not to damage anything. If you are familiar with working on miniatures or models you will be right at home taking apart your airbrush. Have a clean, well lit, place to work and don't be in a rush.

A clean, well lit place to work is key. There are very very small parts that are easy to lose. Another great point is to do this when you have some time. Trying to figure it out while you scramble to finish your contest entry is going to end in tears.

The first part of disassembly is removing the back of the airbrush. If you have used your airbrush much this has probably already been removed. It screws off just like a a cap on a fountain pen.

The next thing to do is remove the needle. Guess what, the needle is pretty delicate. Once you remove it set it somewhere safe so you won't bend tip or be tempted to use it to pry all the gunk out of your old crusty nozzle. You shouldn't need a tool for this. The knob that holds the needle in place should only be finger tight. If it's too tight to undo you can use pliers but use a light touch and go slow. Once the needle is out make sure it doesn't have any paint on it. If the needle has paint on the very tip and you are worried about bending it, you can use a soft paint brush dipped in cleaner to wipe it off. When I am painting and get a clog, usually just this step is enough.

To remove the needle on the Paasche, you unscrew the knurled knob at the back. In the picture it has a green arrow. The red arrow points to a piece that holds everything together. If you want to fully familiarize yourself with your airbrush you can unscrew it too, but you don't need to for cleaning and be warned: there is a spring in there that really wants to hide in your carpet.

Now its time to remove the nozzle and the nozzle guard. Both my Iwata and Paasche require a wrench or pliers for this. Remember, righty-tighty lefty-loosey. If you use pliers, do so in a way that won't strip or damage anything. Pretend your airbrush is a rare, out-of-print Rackham miniature.

Here are all the pieces on the Paasceh and Iwata. Look how small that nozzle is on the Iwata! good luck finding that in the couch cushions. 


The next step is to scrub all the crud out of your airbrush. The main place to get is inside the nozzle. Dried paint loves to build up in there. You can use rubbing alcohol or soap and water to help loosen it up and then try and work out the crap. One thing that I use is an old airbrush needle.I have one that is pretty beat up and it works great to scrape out the nozzle you could also use a very small sewing needle or something. Be careful if you use a toothpick though because it can break off and get stuck in there. 

To make sure your nozzle is clean, use a strong light and look down into the back of the nozzle. The inside should be nice and shiny. Here is another view of the nozzles and their shrouds.

 On the Paasche, the part that mounts between the nozzle and the body has 3 little air passages. Those need to get cleaned out too. I used a piece of small gauge wire that I looted from my wife's beading supplies. I hope it wasn't white gold or something.

The next thing to clean is the body of the airbrush. This is where the paint flows from your cup to the nozzle. A lot of big boogers hang out there waiting for their chance to clog your nozzle. A lot of times if you feel like you have a partial clog or you airbrush "just doesn't work" a crud in this part is the culprit. You should use rubbing alcohol or soap and water here too. Scrub it out with a pipe cleaner or a handy airbrush brush. 

I have siphon feed airbrushes. So the paint comes up from a cup. It's what I learned with and it is what I prefer. Most hobby types have a gravity feed airbrush with a fixed cup on top. Either way, you need to scrub out the area between the cup and the nozzle.

That's pretty much it. Airbrushes are a little hard to learn how to use at first, but, my airbrushes are an essential part of my hobby. Familiarizing yourself with the different parts of your airbrush and getting it nice and clean are the first steps to learning how to use it.

Chemical Warfare: 

Okay, let's say you can't get all the crud out of your airbrush. Maybe someone used it to paint their nails or thought Testor's gloss lacquer was a good idea. Maybe the tried to varnish a wood working project with their tiny little airbrush. Spider webs? Who knows? No big deal, suit up lab buddy, let's solve this problem.

100% Acetone is available in the nail polish section of the local pharmacy. It is NASTY. You are going to need gloves some good ventilation and/or a mask and I would recommend eye protection as well. A tiny speck of acetone on your eye-ball is no fun. Basically go through the same steps as above with the acetone. Make sure you do not come in contact with any soft parts. The acetone probably won't eat through an o-ring, but why risk it?

Acetone is a powerful solvent. Be sure to keep it off your skin and do not breathe the fumes. If you have much left over dispose of it properly. It evaporates really fast so you probably won't have much to get rid of.

Okay, now we are really all clean! Time to base coat that Bucket O' Figs you prudently invested in on Kickstarter! Clean up your work area and run some water through your airbrush. It should make a nice consistent spray pattern now. 

Take a look at all the crud I got out of these little guys! They weren't even that clogged, just seemed a little wonky. Hope this helps. Try not to get over-spray on the laundry :) 

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