An enamel paint, commonly used in model building, crafts and other projects both dries and cures to a hard, protective finish. Enamels may have a chemical solvent base, which requires solvent-based thinners, or they may be acrylic, which dries faster and requires only water for clean up. They might also be lacquer based, which dries fast but has an odour. Spraying through an airbrush typically means thinning these paints.
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Thinning Solvent-Based Enamels
A solvent-based enamel, often called an oil-based paint, requires a solvent-based thinner in an airbrush or spray gun. The ratio will differ based on the consistency of the original paint, but you can begin by trying a 1:1 ratio using a few drops of each in a clear paint jar to visually inspect the fluid. It should flow freely without losing opacity. Lacquer will thin solvent-based enamels, but it is best to use the manufacturer's recommended thinner to ensure compatibility.
Thinning Lacquer-Based Enamels
Lacquer-based paints are very common and dry fast and hard, but they have a powerful odour and should always be sprayed in a well-ventilated area, preferably outside. Many canned spray paints are lacquers and they are already thinned for spraying, but may limit your options for layering colour. For an airbrush, use a lacquer thinner or white spirit starting with a 1:1 ratio. Again, you want the paint to flow easily without losing colour.
Thinning Water-Based Enamels
Water-based enamels, called acrylics, have grown in popularity since the 1960s because they can be cleaned up with water. They can also be thinned with water, but isopropyl alcohol is preferable. Often water-based acrylics need less thinning in general, so start with a ratio of about 2:1 in favour of the paint first. In fact, many brands of acrylic enamels are airbrush ready and will flow easily in drops without looking watery.
If you want to mix paints to get your own colours, the best practice is to keep the colour experiments within the same brands. Do not try to mix acrylics with solvent-based paint. Oil and water just don't mix. It may be useful to use a little thinner, starting with 10 per cent of the overall solution. Mix your colours in a separate cup or jar and use a craft stick to blend them thoroughly before using in an airbrush.
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