A Buyer's Guide to Model Paints
There are a wide range of model paints to choose from. There are three main types of paint used for model making; acrylic paints, enamel paints, and lacquer paints. Whatever paint you choose you will find colours available in gloss, satin, and matt finishes, as well as clear varnishes to change the finish of the paint and give it a protective layer. There are also primer paints that you can apply as a base layer to help your paint adhere to the surface. Here we present a quick guide to the different options available so that you can make the right choice for you.
What are Water-based Acrylic Paints?
Water-based acrylic paints are the most popular type of paint used by modellers. These paints are non-toxic, odourless, and dry very quickly so you don't have to wait a long time between coats. There are painting techniques that are easier to do with acrylics, such as drybrushing, and water-based paints can easily be made into washes by heavily thinning them with water. When using these paints you can wash your brushes in water so you don't need any special thinners to clean them with. Just remember as the paint dries so quickly to wash your brushes often so that the paint doesn't dry in.
There are a number of different brands of paint and all give good results. Vallejo Model Color has the widest general range of colours including several different shades of red, yellow, blue, and flesh-tones that other ranges usually only have one or two shades of. Vallejo paints come in dropper bottles. Vallejo also produce a range of paints that are pre-thinned for use with an airbrush in their Model Air range.
While most well known for their enamel paints, Humbrol also produce a range of water-based acrylic paints in dropper bottles. Unfortunately the range of acrylics does not cover all of the same colours as the enamel range so for the less common colours you may have to find alternatives in other ranges or mix paints to get the colour you need.
The Revell range of water-based acrylics come in square tubs with a larger volume that most other ranges. These acrylics have a higher pigment content than the other brands, meaning that they give a more solid covering straight out of the pot but because of this they are thicker. A helpful hint is to use a little bit of water to thin the paint slightly in your palette.
Xtracrylix are a UK company that produce water-based acrylic paints with some of the most accurately matched colours. Their range covers colours for World War II and modern British RAF, German Luftwaffe, Soviet/Russian Air Force, and US Air Force aircraft, as well as colours for ground vehicles of the same nations.
While water-based acrylics can be thinned with water, for best results while airbrushing it is best to thin them with a specially made acrylic paint thinner. You can also add an acrylic paint retarder to slow the drying time.
What are Alcohol-based Acrylic Paints?
Several manufacturers of acrylic paint for modellers, such as the very popular range produced by Tamiya, use an alcohol-base instead of water-base. As alcohol evaporates faster than water these paints dry even quicker than water-based acrylics. The downside is that these paints are generally thinner so give less coverage and the solvent in the fresh paint can damage paint underneath that has not fully cured. However, this also makes them ideal for airbrushing as the alcohol keeps the paint from drying in the paint nozzle as quickly while spraying.
When thinning alcohol-based acrylic paints for use with an airbrush you will need to use the specifically designed thinner as they do not mix well with water. Being thinner than water-based acrylic paints these generally require less thinner to get them to the correct consistency for airbrushing.
What are Enamel Paints?
Enamel paints for modelling are oil-based and can be thinned with white spirit or turpentine for use with an airbrush and for cleaning your brushes. There are also specially designed enamel paint thinners. These paints come in small 14ml metal tins and you will need a tool such as a flat-head screwdriver to remove the lid. Enamels were the first type of paint designed for model making, and for a long time were the only option.
The main advantage of enamel paints is that they are much more hard wearing, and are often used for repairing chipped paint on cars and bikes. Enamels are slower drying, taking a few hours to be touch dry and up to a few days to completely cure. This slow drying time makes enamels easier to blend as you paint, making them popular for modelers who build large scale figures. You also have time to wipe off any mistakes, with the help of a little enamel thinner. Enamel paints are popular for airbrushing as the slow drying time means that you are having to flush the airbrush through with cleaner much less often. Enamel paints are toxic and have a solvent odour to them, but no worse than the polystyrene cement adhesives.
One of the most long-running brands of enamel paints, and certainly best known in the UK, is Humbrol. Humbrol have a large range of colours available in their enamel paint range. Humbrol also produce some basic colours in larger 50 ml and 125 ml tins. Alongside the Airfix plastic model kits, the Humbrol paints are owned by the famous British toy company Hornby, who also own the Corgi diecast and Scalextric slot car brands in addition to Hornby Railways.
Revell also produce a good range of enamel paints for model making. Compared to the Humbrol enamels the paints from Revell are a little thicker. Some modellers like this for the better coverage it gives you, while others prefer the thinner Humbrol paints for a smoother finish. With just a tiny amount of thinner in the paint as you are working you can make the Revell ones just as smooth.
What are Lacquer Paints?
Lacquer paint, which is cellulose-based, is highly toxic with a very strong smell and is highly flammable. Lacquer paints are very durable, dry even faster than acrylics, and have the strongest pigments. It is highly recommended to work with lacquer paints in a well ventilated area and to wear a protective mask, especially when using them with an airbrush.
The shiny hard-wearing coat is ideal for natural metal finishes such as on bare-metal aircraft models. They are also very popular with auto modellers giving cars that fresh factory look. Radio control enthusiasts also make use of this hard-wearing paint with models which need to survive the real world knocks and bumps.
Tamiya produce a range of lacquer paints with many colours for aircraft, and military vehicles, and automotive models. Tamiya also produce lacquer thinners so that you can thin the paint for airbrushing and for cleaning your brushes, and a lacquer paint retarder to slow the drying time. Tamiya lacquer paints can be applied with a brush but they are recommended to be thinned and used with an airbrush.
One of the most popular ranges of metallic lacquers is made by Alclad II. These lacquer must be applied to the surface of the model using an airbrush, and must be applied over a black primer for the best finish. Alclad II also supply an airbrush cleaner for lacquer paints. Alclad II also produce a range of weathering pigments and washes.
Where can I Buy Model Paints Online?
At Wonderland Models we stock a wide range of model paints available to buy online, including top brands like Tamiya, Humbrol, Revell, Vallejo, and Xtracrylix, as well as a range of surface primers from Mr Hobby.
If you are considering buying an airbrush but don't know were to start, we have a guide on Buying an Airbrush for Model Kit Building. We also have a Buyer's Guide to Plastic Model Kits that you may also find useful.