Airbrushing Tips ‘n Tricks v4: Airbrush Cleaners–Suggestions for Getting the Gunk Out


The results of a secret years-long Model Paint Solutions research project conducted by an elite group of paint scientists at the MPS Secret Underground Paint Laboratory (and Bistro) has just been de-classified. The results are presented here in their entirety for the first time. Some of these findings are a little sobering so brace yourself.

This project tried to answer the question: How well do airbrush cleaner’s remove dried paint? A simple yet profound question that deserves answering. Most people with a little experience airbrushing will say that wet paint is easier to remove from an airbrush than is dry paint. This fact is the basis for both the “Don’t Run It Dry” and “Three Soaks” methods described in Airbrushing Tips and Tricks Volume I. Dried paint clinging to the needle, nozzle and airbrush innards causes multiple issues including loss of spray pattern, clogging, spitting, and sometimes even sneezing. It’s just not very pretty.

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Many of us rely on commercially available airbrush cleaners to remove paint from our brushes either as a wash step after spraying or during a complete break down and cleaning. To be clear, most of the cleaners tested in this study will do an acceptable job cleaning wet or partially dried paint from our brushes. The removal of paint that has dried completely to the metal surfaces of our brushes is the focus of this study.

Dried paint can be removed by a cleaning solution in two ways: 1) the cleaner can fragment and/or dislodge dried particles of paint from the surface they’re stuck to or 2) the cleaner can dissolve or solubilize dried paint thereby putting it back into solution. From the standpoint of cleaning airbrush parts, a cleaner that solubilizes dried paint is preferred. In order to test how efficiently common airbrush cleaners dissolve dried paint, the crew down in the underground paint lab came up with something a little different.



The Model Paint Solutions Airbrush Cleaner Test:

To assess the ability of common airbrush cleaners to solubilize dried paint from multiple manufacturers, ~1 drop of each type of paint was used to coat the well of an aluminum paint palette. The acrylic paints used were dark colors from the Mission Models, Vallejo, LifeColor, Tamiya, and Model Master ranges. Gunze Mr. Color (a lacquer) was included for amusement.

After a 2-hour drying time, the painted wells were covered with ~0.5ml of a commercially available cleaning solution and allowed to sit for 20 minutes. After this time the palette was gently rocked to determine if any of the painted wells showed signs of paint solubilization (dissolving).

Wells exhibiting complete solubilization are denoted with an “S+” in Table 1 below. Wells that didn’t exhibit solubilization were wiped with a micro brush to determine if the paint was actually solubilized but still adherent. Some paints would go into solution (dissolve) immediately with just a small amount of brushing. Wells that exhibited solubilized yet adherent paint are denoted by an “S-“ in Table 1 below. As opposed to solubilization, some painted wells exhibited fragmentation of the paint layer with little-to-no evidence of the dried paint dissolving. These wells are denoted by an “F” in Table 1 below. Lastly, wells that showed no effects to the cleaners being tested are denoted “I” in Table 1 for insoluble.

If you’re wondering, whether I questioned my sanity for a moment: bent over, stirring little wells of dissolving paint with a microbrush-my camera at the ready. The answer is yes. Good thing the shop door was locked. Similarly, if you’re wondering what this little test looked like, photographs of all the test runs are provided at the end of the article. Enjoy?


A quick glance at Table 1 below shows that the Grex cleaner is good for cleaning dried Tamiya and to a lesser extent LifeColor, and Mission Models. Windex, a cleaner that many modelers use when cleaning their brushes proved efficient at dissolving Tamiya and Mission Models but not much else.

A surprising result is the rather anemic performance turned in by Vallejo Airbrush Cleaner. I was sufficiently surprised at the first round of results to purchase a new bottle of Vallejo Airbrush Cleaner for a repeat test. Results were the same. Vallejo cleaner caused both Vallejo and LifeColor paints to fragment when brushed. In addition, a small degree of solubilization was evident but nothing compared to the other cleaners. I suspect a longer soak time with the Vallejo cleaner would result in more solubilization than is evident in 20 minutes?

A pleasant surprise is LifeColor Airbrush Cleaner. This cleaner shows a pronounced ability to solubilize most of the acrylic paints tested plus Gunze Mr. Color, a lacquer. I’ll be replenishing my stock of LifeColor Airbrush Cleaner very soon.

Tied with LifeColor is the Tamiya Lacquer-based Airbrush Cleaner. I’ve been using this stuff for years as the final rinse step in my airbrush cleaning routine. No matter what type of paint I’m cleaning out of my brush (Vallejo, LifeColor, Gunze), the last solution I spray through it is Tamiya Airbrush Cleaner. I find that my brushes don’t bind up even after many months in storage if they’re rinsed out with this cleaner before being put to bed: really good stuff. When you can find it, I suggest you stock up.

I’ve cleaned a lot of enamel paint out of airbrushes with lacquer thinner so just for old times sake I included it in the test. The effect cheap hardware store lacquer thinner (Klean-Strip) has on dried acrylics necessitated the category of “G” for goo. I would not want to remove this material from my airbrush. Approach with caution if you’re cleaning acrylic paints from your brush.

An additional take home point from the data is that you guys shooting Tamiya acrylics have no excuse for not having the cleanest airbrushes in the modeling kingdom. Every cleaner and thinner tested solubilized dried Tamiya paint quickly and completely.



Table 1: Effects of Airbrush Cleaners on Dried Paint Layers

­                  Paint Manufacturer

Cleaner     Tam   Mission     Vallejo        MM    LC    Gunze

Grex           S+          S-               F                 F         S-         I

Vallejo        S+          F                 F                 I          S-         I

LifeColor    S+          S-                F                 S-       S-        S+

Tamiya       S-           S-                S-               S+       F          S+

Windex      S+          S+                I                  I         I           I

Lacquer     S+          G                 G                 S+      G          F

Key:                                                        Abbreviations:

S+     Solubilized                                    MM= Model Master

S-      Solubilized with brushing          LC=LifeColor

F       Fragmented                                   Tam=Tamiya Cleaner

I        Insoluble                                        Win=Windex

G       Goo


As mentioned earlier, the premise that wet paint cleans up easier than dried paint is the basis for both the “Don’t Run It Dry” and “Three Soaks Method” described in Airbrushing Tips and Tricks Volume 1. If you can keep the paint in your airbrush wet up until you begin cleaning, the amount of dried paint clinging to your brush will be greatly reduced and the brush will be much easier to clean: simple.

If however, your neocortex is struck by a stray neutrino and you forget your poor airbrush for an hour or two: paint cup full of nasty acrylic paint (fill in your least favorite brand here). In this situation you’ll probably be faced with the task of removing dried paint from your airbrush. Depending on the brand of the offending paint, you may be able to get away with just a long soak with the appropriate cleaner.

If, for example, my brush were infested with dried Model Master Acrylic, I’d try a series of 15-minute soaks with either LifeColor or Tamiya cleaners. Lacquer thinner would also work for Model Master but it’s the exception of all the acrylics tested. If the offending paint were Vallejo, I’d be reaching for my Tamiya cleaner and leave the other brands on the shelf.

Should a complete breakdown of your airbrush be required, choosing the right cleaner will make the job quicker and easier. In addition to cleaner, having an assortment of good cleaning tools also makes a complete breakdown easier and more thorough. Time for some shameless plugs. To prevent noxious thinner and/or cleaner fumes from ruining your work area you may want to consider an airbrush cleaning station with a quality glass collection reservoir. To make cleaning easier and to decrease the chance of damaging the parts or finish of your brush, a quality set of nylon cleaning  brushes designed specifically to be used with airbrushes can be quite handy. Lastly, for the occasional plugged nozzle, the H&S nozzle cleaner: beautifully machined stainless steel, it’s the one tool for clearing even the smallest spray nozzles.

Well, for those of you with a gooped-up airbrush hidden away in the bottom drawer of your workbench, I hope this serves to give you (and the airbrush)  some hope. Likewise, for those who prefer a proactive approach to keeping their airbrushes clean, I hope you picked up a trick or two that makes that job a little easier. There are other “airbrush cleaners” out there that will be sent to the lab for testing so stay tuned for updates.

If you have any questions or want additional information just drop me a line at [email protected]

Now go paint something 🙂


Note in the pictures below the paint each well was coated with is written above the well.

Upper row (L to R): Tamiya, Mission Models, and Vallejo

Lower row (L to R): Gunze, Model Master, LifeColor

Each picture is captioned with the cleaner being tested and if its before (#1) or after (#2) agitation with a microbrush (pictured).