How to Choose the Right Airbrush for Scale Modeling

I’ve decided to get an airbrush. I’m getting into scale modeling and I love drawing. I’m thinking about getting a plastic or resin model kit for my first scale modeling project in many years. Up until recently, I kept imagining painting my future model projects with a paint brush. But then it dawned on me: Why not use an airbrush?

Sure enough, as clear as day, airbrushes are very popular for scale modeling and amazing for artwork. I browsed some prices and, to my satisfaction, realized that they are very reasonably priced. Now it was time for some in depth research on what kind of airbrushes were available and what would be best suited for my needs.

The Answer

For a beginner who would like an airbrush that I could grow into and use as a pro for scale modeling and artwork, I should definitely go with a gravity (top) feed, dual action, internal mix airbrush; rather than a single action airbrush, a side feed airbrush, a siphon (bottom) feed airbrush, or an external mix one.

Even though a single action is easier to use for the beginner, it is really limited in the artistic expression we could get with a dual action airbrush: namely, fading. However, the artistic control that is allowed with a dual action brush is precisely what makes it able to be something I could grow into, even if it means having a steeper learning curve.

The Research  

I started by watching some YouTube videos on how to choose the correct airbrush for my particular applications, and was informed about the different characteristics:

  • Single Action
  • Double (Dual) Action
  • External Mix
  • Internal Mix
  • Gravity Feed
  • Siphon Feed
  • Side Feed

Single Action vs Double Action

Single action airbrushes has a trigger that only controls the air coming through, while a knob at the front or back of the airbrush controls the amount of paint that comes through. These are simpler to use and slightly easier to learn, but that benefit is not worth the consequence of not being flexible enough for true artistic expression in the long run.

Dual action allows for the trigger to control the amount of air by pressing down, and the amount of paint by pressing back. These are a little trickier to use and require a little bit more practice, but this is a true artistic instrument and is worth the learning curve. You can do fades and manipulate the characteristics of the paint stream on the fly. However, you can use a dual action as a single action by pulling the thumb trigger all the way back before pressing down, resulting in a uniform paint stream. 

External Mix vs Internal Mix

This one is easy: go with an internal mix because they have a much finer gradient than the external mix ones.

Internals mix the paint and air before the air spreads from a thin, high pressure stream to a more separated state as it exits the nozzle, resulting in a fine atomization. Whereas the Externals mix the paint and air once after the paint comes out of the barrel, as it starts to separate, creating a more granular appearance that is not as desirable, especially for smaller scale projects.   

Gravity Feed vs Siphon Feed vs Side Feed

There's really only two types of feed- gravity and siphon. Side feed is a hybrid that is a gravity feed when the paint level in the cup is above the hole that feeds into the airbrush, and a siphon feed when the paint level drops below the hole in the side feed cup.

However, on a side feed airbrush, you can use a gravity cup which has the hole on the very bottom of it, a hybrid cup with the hole half way up the side of the cup (the inner hole is at the bottom of the cup, but siphons up to the exit halfway up the outside of the cup), or a bottle or cup that has an exit point all the way at the top of it to use as a siphon feed.

Gravity feed is the best for any psi levels and is the most efficient for not wasting paint. Gravity feed is the best for artwork with lots of detail and scale models.

Siphon feed is great for large areas, but doesn't work well at low psi. They are convenient for quick paint changes and cleaning your airbrush on the fly, in between color changes. They good for t-shirt painters and people who need to cover a lot of area with not a lot of detail.

Side feed airbrushes can utilize both of these types of cups/bottles, along with the hybrid cup that acts as a gravity feed cup when the paint level is above the exit hole, or as a siphon feed when the paint level drops below the exit hole. These hybrid cups are a little more difficult to clean, but it's not a big deal. However, you can easily use a gravity feed cup that has the exit hole on the bottom: I would use this cup in almost all of my applications, because you can get down to 10 psi with this set up to avoid overspray and get sharp lines.  

Gravity Feed Airbrush

Side Feed Airbrush

Racking My Brain

When I'm making an important decision, I tend to over analyze. When researching this topic, I had the mindset of finding an airbrush that was good for both scale modeling and artwork for at least a canvas application. Discovering that a dual action would definitely be the better choice was relatively easy compared to the next choice: Gravity (top) feed vs side feed.

For about a week, I made the argument that a side feed would be the way to go. Here is that argument that I made to justify the purchasing of a side feed over a gravity feed:  

Although, gravity feed is by far the most common, and for good reason: It's a simple, one piece design (simplicity is good) and you can get down to 8 psi for very detailed work with thinner paint.

However, the reason I would want the side feed, rather than the gravity feed, is because:

    • You can use a side feed airbrush as a gravity feed and have all the benefits of the gravity feed: efficiency with paint and the ability to get down to a low psi. From what I've read, you can get down to 10 psi with a side feed airbrush, which is the lowest I've seen suggested to get really sharp lines and avoid paint splatter.

    • You get all the benefits of a syphon feed: Holds more paint for larger projects and the ability to switch colors on the fly, using a bottle of cleaning fluid to quickly and easily clean your brush in between switches.

    • The convenience of being able to tilt the cup in various angles to enable you to paint hard to reach places without having to turn your model avoids unnecessary risk to your model, especially larger scale ones.

Despite all of this rationalization, my gut was telling me I would feel more comfortable purchasing a gravity feed airbrush. I think it had to do a lot with:

  • Almost all scale modelers use a gravity feed: very few use a side feed.

  • Again, gravity feed is the most common manufactured compared to side feed.

  • Gravity feed is a simple, one piece design (cup not being able to be pulled out like the ones that are stuck into the side of a side feed airbrush)

    • The fact that the cup on a side feed airbrush can just be pulled out makes me a little nervous of paint leaking onto my artwork.

  • For the applications I am purchasing the airbrush for, scale modeling and artwork, I would only want a gravity feed rather than a siphon feed: To buy a side feed to ultimately use it as a gravity feed with a removable cup is not worth the risk of leaks and fidgety extra parts.

  • The line of sight argument that side feeds remove the cup from your line of sight during painting doesn't seem to bother the vast majority of airbrush artists who use gravity feeds, at all. In fact, one can argue that having the cup to one side could throw off the balance; but, again, I'm sure that argument is negligible as well.

  • Being able to tilt the cup on a side feed to be able to spray at weird angles doesn't seem to apply to scale modelers or canvas artists: Even experts who are trying to sell the side feeds only use the example of photo retouchers or people who need to paint on a ceiling. Nobody says anything about how imperative it is to scale modeling. It seems to me that almost all scale modelers use gravity feed airbrushes.

    • I asked the question on a few Facebook Groups of airbrush and scale model experts and 95% of them said "gravity feed [all the way]."  

  • Finally, the option to use a bottle for siphon feed to use on a side feed airbrush allows you to hold a lot of paint and change colors fast, doesn't seem to apply to scale models or canvas art. A gravity feed is very efficient with the paint and you can get a lot of coverage (enough for a scale model or artwork) for the work at hand.


After all that back and forth, I've decided to go with a simple, yet elegant gravity feed airbrush that is internal mix.

As far as brand is concerned, that's the topic for another blog post. As for now, I like the Iwata's quality (especially when I was leaning toward the side feed airbrush). But if gravity feed is the way to go, I may opt for an American brand like Badger or Paasche. So far, Badger is in the lead with me because of an excellent YouTube video I found that was very helpful and I thought the people of that company seemed to be really genuine.

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I've gotten some feedback on this article, which I am very thankful for! I would like to share with you some tips and alternative opinions that were shared by a very experienced modeler. I will leave him anonymous for now:

  • Single action airbrushes have the benefit of creating very consistent lines, provided that you keep the distance, angle, and speed of motion constant.
  • Single action airbrushes can do fades, but requires more practice on angle and distance. This means that it, arguably, has a steeper learning curve than a dual action.
  • To paint panel lines, a single action is best for the job.
  • For coverage, a bottom feed airbrush, like the Badger 175 is preferable because it holds more paint.
  • Since dual action airbrushes are more in abundance than single action, even though single action maybe better for scale modeling, the most important thing to consider is to make sure you get an airbrush with smaller/larger needle/nozzle options. A Badger Crescendo 175 or a Paasche Talon are good choices.
  • Get a compressor that produces 40 psi consistently.
  • For primer and clear coats, go for bottom feed with a large jar with a large needle/nozzle option.
  • For general purpose, a top feed or bottom feed with a small/medium cup/jar and needle/nozzle is the way to go.
  • For detail and panel lines, you would want a top feed, small cup and small needle/nozzle option. This is so you can get up close with very low psi.
  • It's better to have 3 airbrushes specific to the task at hand, rather than one do it all airbrush.

I want to give my thanks to the modeler who gave me those tips and insights. He was really helpful.


Helpful Links

This video really got me onto side feed airbrushes. Watch at your own risk: this guy will convince you to get a side feed. Lol, It's no big deal, I'm sure they are great, it just might make your decision harder. 


This was a very helpful video and made me really like the Badger airbrush company.

I really liked this video, because you can tell this guy really knows his stuff and gives you an in depth view on how airbrushes work.

I have to give this video credit because this was the first video about airbrushes I came across and it gave me the foundation of my knowledge. Thank you! 

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