The art of the airbrush

With a title like that, it sounds like I’m about to embark on a dissertation about hand-painted T-shirts and fantasy battle scenes adorning the walls of Boogie Vans. But the airbrush is one of the most powerful and expressive tools we have in this hobby – useful for everything from painting locomotives and weathering rolling stock, to enhancing scenery, structures and details. It’s also a tool that many hobbyists avoid using whenever possible, because airbrushes are often unfairly viewed as complicated devices that can wreck a well-built model and that require hours of precious hobby time to clean.

Airbrush closeup from the Notch 8 series on airbrushes

One of the goals at TrainMasters TV is to encourage hobbyists to try new things. At the same time, we hope to give new ideas to experienced hobbyists. And with a new series of clinics on our Notch 8 segment, we’re doing just that.

I was delighted to host Alan Houtz for several segments about airbrushes and airbrushing. Alan appears regularly at train shows, NMRA conventions, RPM meets and other gatherings, offering airbrushing clinics and advice to model railway enthusiasts on behalf of airbrush manufacturer Iwata-Medea Inc.

Together, we discuss different types of airbrushes, compressors and other accessories to help you make informed purchasing decisions.

We demonstrate painting techniques and offer suggestions for getting started, so you don’t wreck a prized model. We share best practices for routine cleaning and caring for your investment. And we show how to strip down and clean airbrush that’s suffered from benign neglect. (Confession time: It’s mine.)

How far a few drops of paint goes in a gravity feed airbrush on the Notch 8 series on airbrushes

I think the airbrush’s bad reputation is a consequence of how many of us learned to use them. In my case, it was through a combination of reading about them in the hobby press, receiving minimal instruction by fellow hobbyists, and lots of trial and error. Each of these approaches has its problems.

  • Reading about airbrush techniques is like trying to learn how to drive by reading a book. There’s really no substitute to getting behind the wheel, with an experienced driver to guide the student. And just like a book can’t capture the movement of the trains on our layout, a magazine can’t adequately convey the movements of an airbrush as effectively as a video.
  • Certainly, fellow hobbyists can offer instruction, and that’s how many of us learn to airbrush. But there are caveats. For example, is the person a good teacher? Can they convey the information? Does the person fully understand the capabilities of an airbrush, or are they passing along only the few basic techniques they know? Worse, do they have bad habits that they’re teaching – errors that will only get worse with each sharing of the technique?
  • Finally, there’s trial and error. Airbrushes are powerful, versatile tools – but that capability comes with a cost. They have lots of small, precisely machined parts that can be damaged if improperly treated. They’re more expensive than many other tools we use. They require practice. Add up these factors, and any attempt to teach oneself to airbrush is likely to end in failure and frustration. The tool will go in the back of a drawer, never to be used again.

The airbrushing segments on Notch 8 are intended to help those new to this tool get started on the right path – and, hopefully, avoid the experiences that often discourage people from embracing the airbrush. That said, there’s a big difference between learning the mechanics of airbrushing and becoming a real artist with one.

As Alan notes in our series, practice is important to build the “Muscle Memory” that allows one to wield the airbrush with confidence.

Practice is also important to develop techniques – and for those looking for additional help, there’s a good chance that any art supply store that stocks a good selection of airbrushes and accessories will also know of people who offer hands-on workshops. A good railway modeling or military modeling hobby shop may also conduct such classes. Ask around.

As long as you keep the TrainMasters TV airbrushing segments on Notch 8 handy as your reference, we are confident you’ll be able to spot and avoid bad practices, so you can explore the artistic potential of the airbrush. Pretty soon, you’ll be thinking up new ways to use this tool in your hobby, instead of thinking up ways to avoid it.

And remember, painting mistakes are going to happen but it’s important to remember that failing is an essential part of learning. That said, we offer ideas to minimize those mistakes – everything from building up paint on a project in several light coats, to buying cheap rolling stock at swap meets to use as practice pieces.

Airbrush technique demonstration from the Notch 8 series on airbrushing

Alan and I also discuss health and safety in our segments – because like many tools and materials we use in our hobby, an airbrush that’s used improperly can pose a genuine health hazard.

For the purposes of our videos, we did not wear respirators or use a properly vented paint booth, because it would’ve been impossible for viewers to hear our discussion. But Alan sprayed very small amounts of water-based paint for very brief sessions, and we were in a well-ventilated space. The tiny amounts of pigment we inhaled during our video sessions are, well, the hit we took for the team.

This is a classic case of, “Do as we say, not as we do”: buy a proper respirator mask and a tested and approved paint booth. As with the airbrush, buy the best safety equipment that you can afford and take care of it. There are several sources for respirators and booths and – like the airbrush – they will be lifetime tools: The cost is quite modest when amortized over many, many years.

More airbrushing technique on the Notch 8 airbrush series

I consider myself to be a fairly experienced modeler, so I often measure the success of our TrainMasters TV recording days based on whether I learned anything that will improve my own engagement with this great hobby. And without a doubt, I learned a lot from Alan about airbrushing that will encourage me to reach for this powerful and versatile tool more often. I hope you do, too.

--Trevor Marshall

Steam locomotive airbrushed by airbrushing expert Alan Houtz, featured on the Notch 8 airbrush series
Steam loco airbrushed by Alan Houtz.

Do you use an airbrush? What are your experiences? Let us know via the comments section to this post!


I've been using an airbrush in my Taxidermy business and my hobbies for decades!  I love the versatility of these tools ... and they are tools!  ;)

I own two Pasché VL1 Double Action, and one Pasché H Single Action airbrushes.  I like to use the H for general, large area work, and the VL for finer applications.  Of the two VL airbrushes, one is for Acrylic Paints, and one is for Lacquer Paints.  The H has served double duty in that respect.

In my video on painting 1/87 people I show using the H for application of a thinned white primer, and with the VL show applying flesh tones to the skin areas.

While I have used both the VL and H airbrushes on rolling stock, I've not used an airbrush on any Locomotives, but I am currently working up the bravery to use airbrushing techniques on my Broadway Limited NYC J1e Hudson.  I have never before taken one of these apart, and am a bit apprehensive in doing so, but I realize it must be done in order to properly clean the Locomotive before painting, as I enjoy running the old boy and using the smoke oil, which covers a great deal of the Locomotive!  So cleaning - prior to painting - will be a necessity.

As far as using the airbrush on other models in the past as well as in my business, using airbrushes are second nature to me.

CN6401's picture

Not everyone has an airbrush!

The purpose of my clinic 'Extreme Weathering' and Weathering with Mike Confalone's was to show how weathering can be done without an air brush.

I agree with Alan's theory of placing heavily weathered engines and tail end cars of a train and the lightly weathered cars in the middle. That is fine if you are only running trains. If you are operating, its a whole new ball game for the makeup of a train and where the heavily weathered and lightly weathered cars end up.

Alan Holtz definitely knows his way around the airbrush, as do I but I cannot justify weathering in the form that he is using.

For those of you that can't make up your mind or you don't have an airbrush, go back to TMTV April 2014 Act I and you be the judge. Then checkout Mike Confalone's weathering segments., No Airbrush.

Ralph Renzetti (CN6401)


I'm very late to the party with this reply, but I just finished doing the second airbrushing series, and was looking back through the prior work and found your comment.  Just a few clarifications Ralph: First, you are correct, Placing the best pieces at the front and rear of the train is what I do for displays, such as our club open houses.  You might want to watch the video again.  It is NOT my typical placement technique.  I only meant to point out that every piece of rolling stock does not have to have a contest quality weathering job, and if you want to get one started, the techniques I used will serve you well. There is no rule that says you can't enhance them later!  Everything I weather is a little different, just as the prototype, and I model an era where equipment stil got washed and repainted regularly, so anything from a light dusting to "time to repaint" is acceptable.  Second, I've seen Mike Conflaone's series.  It's really pretty work, but I do believe somewhere it was mentioned that the pieces were sprayed with flat coat to seal each stage prior to beginning the next.  Is that really "no airbrush"?  Third and most important: It should never be "either/or"!  It shound be "and"  There is no single medium that does it all.  All of these methods should be used together.  I emphasize the airbrush because I really like to use it, however, my weathering supplies also include a broad collection of Pan Pastels, oil paints, and other types of chalks and AI washes. If you want to do something quick, the airbrush is an excellent start.  If you want something extreme, add the other meduims to the team.  Cheers!  Alan

Georonn's picture

Hi Team TMTV:

Your video series encouraged me to purchase an airbrush.  Formerly I was a brush painter, and the first few building I've painted with the airbrush have turned out amazing with Vallejo Air paint.  I still have quite a bit of Polyscale water based paint, but it tends to clog the airbrush painting without thinning it.  Since thinner is not available for Pollyscale paints, can I use something else as a thinner, say isopropyl alcohol, and if yes, what ratio should I use?



George: Try using Armor All Auto Glass cleaner as thinner, at least 20% thinner to paint, up to no more than 50% thinner to paint. If you want to try something fancier, get the free MRH Subscriber download here:

Georonn's picture

Thanks for the tip.  I'll be headed to Auto Zone this weekend to get a bottle.

Hi George,

The Armorall Glass Cleaner is something I've heard of using before but I've never tried it. For Polyscale I use water to thin it when I use it. I don't use much Polyscale these days. Don't use alcohol. Alcohol speeds the drying process. Tamiya paints are alcohol based, as is their thinner, but I know of no other system that uses it. You might also try larger needle /nozzle assemblies depending on what airbrush you have.