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Painting Tools for Model-Builders

May 05, 2015

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Airfield Models ( Tools

I enjoy painting.  In fact, that is why I build plastic models more than any other reason.  Like most people, I thought painting was something difficult to do and thought that I would never be able to finish a model so that it looked good to me.

Painting does require skill and practice to achieve a good result.  However, the final finish is more a product of preparation not the actual painting part.

This page is not intended to teach you to paint.  It simply covers some of the tools used and provides experienced advice about what to buy, what not to buy and how to maintain your painting tools.

Also see



Please read the Safety Page.  It contains important information about protecting yourself.  Many paints and associated chemicals are dangerous!

The fumes from the chemicals can be obnoxious if not dangerous.  You should wear a chemical mask or at the least have some flow-through ventilation.  Even with good ventilation, there is a pretty good chance you are going to breathe the fumes, so the chemical mask is probably a good idea regardless.  Some paints that modelers have managed to get hold of did not used to be available to the general public.  I think DuPont Imron was one of those paints.

I am not sure if this is true about Imron and I do not want to get sued for passing along bad information, but I was told the reason these kinds of paints were not available was because they required a certification as well as the use of respirator equipment.  That is not a chemical mask it is a breathing apparatus like a scuba tank attached to a chemical mask.

Apparently breathing the fumes from these paints could cause central nervous system damage.  The point being that you should be aware of the risks so when you ignore them, you are not surprised when you wake up in the middle of the night doubled over and see your liver on the pillow next to you after you puked it up.  If this is scaring you then my job here is done.

In all seriousness, just read and heed the warnings.  Most of the paints made for modelers are relatively safe.  If you go outside of that realm, then make sure you know what you are doing.


Types of Paints

Painting tools are selected first by what type of paint they will apply then by size of the object to be painted and finally by frequency and size of detail.

Modelers generally use one of three families of paint

  • Water base

    Acrylics, latex and other "watery" types.

  • Oil base

    Enamels, epoxies, polyurethanes, oil paint, etc.

  • Lacquer base

    Lacquers and dope

This is important information - particularly when selecting a brush.


Paint Brushes

Various Fillister and Round Paint BrushesFlow is the operative word when it comes to painting.  The whole idea of a brush is that it flows paint onto a surface as smoothly as possible.

Any given brush, no matter how expensive or what the quality, will brush some mediums poorly.  In other words, If you have a good brush and the paint job ends up crappy, it's not the fault of the brush.  Assuming you did everything else right (preparation, paint thinning, etc.) then what remains is that you used it improperly or you used the wrong brush (which is also using it improperly).

So how do you know if you have the right brush?  Ask the manufacturer what type of paints the brush is intended for.  The company website will probably have this information by searching for the brush model number at the site and looking at what family of brushes it is part of.

Paint is an important factor here.  It must strike the balance between remaining wet long enough to flow from the brush and then for brush marks to flow out but it must dry eventually.

Quality of the brush is important.  The reason I care about the quality is that I brush small details (knobs, instrument panels, etc.) where the shape of the tip of the brush makes the job easy rather than the frustration caused by using a brush having a poorly shaped or damaged tip or a brush having the wrong type of bristles.

Flat, natural hair paint brushes.Sable brush enthusiasts are very vocal about the quality of these brushes.  There is no doubt that they are very good brushes but I do not believe they are enough better than quality nylon brushes to warrant the price or the attitude that most modelers have in regard to them.  I have a few sable brushes that I reserve for times they will make a noticeable difference which is almost never.

I mainly use good quality nylon brushes I picked up in Europe and am quite content with.  The same quality brushes are available in the U.S. as well.  Regardless of what anyone tells you, good nylon brushes work well and will save you a lot of money.

I suggest that you purchase brushes at a good art store rather than the local hobby shop because the selection is larger.  Decide the sizes and types of brushes you will need.

Inspect every brush they have of the size and type.  If the shape of the brush bristles is not right, then do not buy the brush the shape will never be right.

All the brushes of any given size and type cost the same amount so there is no reason not to buy the best one in the rack.  If none of the brushes are good do not buy one.  If the brush is supposed to have a cap make sure you get one in the deal.  Often the caps fall down in the racks.

Thinning Paint for Brushing

Most people new to painting are concerned about how much to thin paint for spraying but never ask about thinning paint for brushing.  I used to assume that paint was ready to brush as it comes out of the can.  I'm guessing a lot of people believe the same thing.

All paints need to be thinned even if being brushed.  I knew nothing about thinning paints when I was a kid.  That was the reason I had so much trouble.  The paint went on too thick, didn't flow out properly and took forever to dry.  I haven't even attempted to brush a coverage coat for years, but back in the days when I did they were pretty much thick crap.

I thin enamels to the paint where they are the consistency of hot melted butter.  I use Mineral Spirits (for enamels, not for all "oil base" paints listed above) because it is a slow drying solvent that allows time for the paint to flow.

I can't tell you anything about thinning acrylics for brushing because I always spray them.

Don't Ruin Your Brushes!

  • Never soak your brushes to clean them.  Standing the brush on its bristles will prevent the brush from ever taking the proper shape again.

  • Never let paint dry in the brush. You will never get dried paint completely cleaned from the brush.

  • If you have to soak a brush because you let paint dry in it, then suspend the brush in the jar using a clothespin or something.

  • The ferrule of the brush should never be submerged into paint.  That is a sure-fire way to guarantee that the wrong color paint will bleed out at the worst possible moment.

Also see



Sanding Blocks for Model Building
Air Brushes, Spray Guns and Air Supplies

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