How to Clean an Airbrush

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How to Clean an Airbrush

Humans have developed a number of power tools to help them perform all sorts of tasks, including work done in the creative field. Even with the development of computers, when it comes to arts and crafts, many projects are still made by hand, as it is this human touch that lends additional beauty and mystery to a piece of artwork. Nevertheless, power tools have their place here as well. One of the most useful power tools in the art world is the airbrush. These devices are used to:

  • Decorate cakes
  • Apply temporary tattoos
  • Create paintings
  • Paint model cars and trains
  • Decorate clothing
  • Apply makeup
  • Paint nails

There are many more uses for airbrushes.

An airbrush is an investment and, like regular paintbrushes, airbrushes must be cleaned between colour changes and before putting them away after a painting session. Some creative people who are hesitant when it comes to mechanics may be afraid to even own or operate an airbrush, let alone dismantle the airbrush and clean it. However, thorough cleaning is the only way to get good results and extend the life of an airbrush. Luckily, airbrushes are not as complicated as they might seem, and cleaning them is fairly simple.

Types of Airbrushes

While the basic steps in cleaning an airbrush are essentially the same, airbrushes come in varying designs. These work slightly differently and mainly revolve around how the paint is distributed through the device. Most airbrushes are either of the gravity-fed or siphon-fed variety. These are both double-action airbrushes, meaning they require two steps to operate the air and paint flow separately. Single-action airbrushes are not as popular, as they offer far less control with fine art projects and are best for quickly applying a solid coat of colour.

Gravity-Fed Airbrushes

On a gravity-fed airbrush, the paint reservoir is attached to the top of the airbrush so that the colour flows downward into the mechanism. These airbrushes are lighter than siphon-fed airbrushes and require less air pressure. However, they do not hold much colour, so they must be refilled often.

Siphon-Fed Airbrushes

On a siphon-fed airbrush, the paint is held in a large jar that is connected to the bottom of the airbrush. These airbrushes are heavier when full and are a bit awkward when working in proximity to an object; however, they hold more paint, thereby decreasing the need to refill, and colour changes can be executed more quickly by simply swapping the jar. On some siphon-fed airbrushes, there is not a jar but a cup and lid, similar to the one on top of a gravity-fed model.

Anatomy of an Airbrush

Proper cleaning of an airbrush requires a basic understanding of how the device works. By knowing where the paint goes and how it flows through the airbrush, one is better prepared to clean out the paint thoroughly. The following chart describes the parts of an airbrush.

Airbrush Part


Fluid cup and cap

Reservoir for colour, towards the front end of the gravity-fed airbrush


Cap on the front tip or nozzle of the airbrush

Air hose

Rubber tubing which delivers pressurised air, attached to the airbrush


Control for spraying the paint; allows air to flow and releases needle to spray paint


Front tip of the airbrush from which colour is ejected


Controls flow of paint

Air valve

Controls flow of air into the airbrush


Connects the lever to the air valve

One can see from this explanation of an airbrush's function that the internal mechanism is not so complex as to be impossible to understand. It is easy to learn the required steps for cleaning an airbrush.

When to Clean an Airbrush

Before getting into the how, many airbrush owners want to know when they should clean their tool. Basically, an airbrush needs to be cleaned between colour changes and after the end of a painting session. Cleaning may also be required when the airbrush performance is inhibited, such as when:

  • Paint does not flow smoothly out of the airbrush
  • The airbrush is clogged
  • The airbrush is coated with several colours of paint

Regular cleaning should hopefully prevent these performance issues. A clogged or dirty airbrush can ruin a masterpiece, so it is worth taking the time to clean the airbrush as often as possible.

Airbrush Cleaning Steps

Like bristle brushes, airbrushes are far easier to clean while they are still wet. Dried, hardened paint is difficult to soften and remove from any surface. The method for cleaning an airbrush varies according to the type of paint used. Water-based paints clean up more easily than oil-based paints. Follow ensuing instructions according to the type of paint in the airbrush.

Water-Based Paint

Follow these instructions for cleaning water-based paint, such as acrylic paint or watercolours, from an airbrush.

  1. Be sure the airbrush is empty. Dump out the reservoir on top of a gravity-fed airbrush, or unscrew the jar from a siphon-fed airbrush.
  2. Pour the paint back into its corresponding container.
  3. Pour the cleaning solution into the fluid reservoir where the paint goes.
  4. Spray the airbrush as normally, as if painting. This moves the solution through all the parts the paint touches.
  5.  Unscrew the back of the airbrush.
  6. Remove the needle.
  7. Spray the cleaning solution through the back of the airbrush.
  8. Reinsert the needle and pull it back out to check for paint. If the needle comes out clean, the inside of the airbrush is clean. If there is paint on the needle, then the interior of the airbrush needs another round of cleaning.
  9. Finally, reassemble the airbrush.

Some users lubricate the needle before putting it back into the airbrush.

Oil-Based Paint

Follow these instructions for cleaning oil-based enamel from an airbrush.

  1. Empty out all colour from the airbrush back into the paint container.
  2. Spray any excess into a lined rubbish bin, paper bag, or other appropriate container.
  3. Pour some lacquer thinner into a wide-mouthed can that is large enough to hold the airbrush.
  4. Submerge the nozzle into the lacquer thinner and swish it around.
  5. Fill the reservoir with lacquer thinner and spray it through the airbrush back into the can.
  6. Repeat Step 5 until the lacquer thinner comes out clear.

Deep Airbrush Cleaning

While the steps above are appropriate between colour changes and after a session, the airbrush requires a deeper cleaning every few months or so. This requires taking the airbrush apart and soaking it in the appropriate cleaning solution. A small pipe cleaner, cotton swab, or bristle brush is good for cleaning the interior of the nozzle and brush. Use the owner's manual that came with the airbrush to learn how to disassemble and reassemble the tool correctly.

Where to Find Airbrushes

One can find airbrushes at art supply shops, craft shops, hobby shops, and online craft supply retailers. One might also find a used airbrush in good condition through a classified advert, yard sale, craft show, or other similar resource. Online auctions offer both new and previously owned equipment.

How to Buy an Airbrush on eBay

Buying an airbrush on eBay is even simpler than cleaning one. To shop for airbrushes, view all categories by clicking on the link on the home page. Once you see the directory, navigate to the logical category and continue to click on subcategories until you arrive at airbrushes. You can then use category filters to narrow down the selections or start looking at items right away by clicking on the photo or hyperlinked product title.

Another way to find airbrushes on eBay is to go back to the home page and simply enter a keyword or a set of keywords. You might try just "airbrushes" or type in a specific brand or design to help you sort through the active listings faster and find exactly what you want.

Whether you choose to shop by going through the directory of categories or using a keyword search, you can take advantage of eBay's convenient filters and pick out items by condition, price, location, or a number of other variables.


An airbrush achieves effects that are impossible to create with a standard brush or any other tool. Like traditional bristle brushes, airbrushes need to be cleaned between colours and after use in order to keep them from clogging and to prevent muddying of the colours. Even though an airbrush is a mechanical device, its function is relatively simple, and so is the cleaning process for either a light or deep cleaning.

Whether an artist uses a gravity- or siphon-fed airbrush or water- or oil-based paints, the cleaning process is essentially the same. After any remaining paint is dumped out and sprayed out of the mechanism, one adds a cleaning solution to the paint reservoir and sprays it through in the same manner as one sprays out the paint. Once the cleaner comes out clean, the airbrush is ready for the next use. By following these steps, an artist can ensure optimal results every time he or she uses an airbrush.

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