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Choosing Airbrush Pigments

No two airbrush pigments are created equal. Find out how to choose the best pigment for your specific project. Should you use water-based paints? Automotive paints? Or solvent-based paints? Find out the pros and cons of each option.

By Jennifer LeClaire

You’ve learned the basics. You’ve made mistakes. You’ve developed a pricing strategy. Now it’s time to start making money airbrushing on vinyl.

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  • Now that you are past the experimental phase and into the selling phase, you need to understand the pros and cons of the three types of pigments, or paints. No two airbrush pigments are created equal. Choosing the proper airbrush pigments will allow you to create a final product that meets the needs of your client, whether that means custom works of art or quick and dirty lettering.

    Butch “Superfrog” Anton, founder of Superfrog Sign University, better known as Frog U, has experimented with various pigments and methods of airbrushing. He teaches many of them at Frog U, a one-, three- or five-day hands-on school taught in-house at Superfrog Signs and Graphics in Moorhead, Minn.

    Anton is well qualified to impart the knowledge it takes to become successful in airbrushing. He has a degree in industrial technology and has been an educator on the national sign circuit since 1990. He has taught classes from coast to coast and all over the world.

    Anton has written countless articles for various industry magazines and offers a series of instructional videos on working with vinyl. Indeed, Anton’s innovative ideas have changed the sign industry in many ways, the most obvious being the three-tier pricing concept. So when we wanted to learn about choosing airbrush pigments, who better to turn to than Superfrog himself?

    The Norwegian Airbrush
    Anton created what he calls the “Norwegian airbrush” in 1989. In reality, it is merely an aerosol can. It’s called a Norwegian airbrush because Anton is of Norwegian decent.

    “Back in those days I found Krylon worked very well,” Anton says of the spray paint brand. “Krylon has chemistry in it that was very compatible with the manufacturing and making of vinyl letters so that chemistry 101 and the Krylon would physically cause it to stick to the vinyl letter.”

    Anton says once he completed the airbrush blend with Krylon, all he had to do was add the outline and shadow. Of course, back in 1989 sign industry professionals did not create outlines and shadows on the computer. These effects were accomplished by hand. A paintbrush and an Exacto knife were one in the same to many sign makers like Anton.

    Even today in the digital era, Anton says there are still plenty of sign makers who cut plain straight vinyl and then airbrush on it with a can of Krylon or Frog Juice Color. (Frog Juice is Anton’s brand of spray aerosol.)

    A Word about Frog Juice
    Frog Juice is super glossy, like the finish on an automobile. It is totally synthetic, Anton says, and will not yellow. It does not require a hardener or catalyst. And it achieves maximum hardness slowly over a period of 30 days, yet Anton says it is ready to handle and place outdoors in 30 minutes.

    Frog Juice comes in 18 colors. Custom colors are also available. The normal drying time is five to 30 minutes. Fans, heat or sunshine speed up the drying time. Frog Juice is normally thinned with mineral spirits, but can be thinned with napha, automotive acrylic enamel reducers, and lacquer thinners, according to Anton.

    Frog Juice can be sprayed with any spray device, from Preval Sprayers, turbine sprayers to HVLPs. For good results, Anton suggests starting with a mixture of 25 percent mineral spirits and 75 percent Frog Juice. Then adjust the thinner as needed depending upon climatic conditions.

    Gun pressures depend upon your spraying habits. Forty pounds per square inch (psi) is normal. HVLPs run about 10 psi. Anton says you should use standard cross pattern spraying methods. Then you can recoat in 10 to 15 minutes at normal room temperature of 65-70 degrees. Anton suggests laying down two wet coats and allowing them to dry overnight. If you leave fingerprints in fresh Frog Juice it will usually flow out with time.

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    Water-based Airbrush Paints
    Frog Juice is also available as water-based airbrush paint. Alternatively, you could also use Createx Auto Air. Auto Air colors offer less than 0.1 VOC and superior results for overall custom jobs or graphics on hot rods, tuners, street rods, trucks and motorcycles. There are more than 200 colors to choose from.

    Auto Air colors are ready to spray out of the bottle without the need for mixing a catalyst or reducer. Colors may be thinned with Auto Air Reducer to achieve lower viscosity when spraying with an airbrush. Auto Air Colors do not have time windows. And they may be top-coated with a urethane clear at any time after they have cured.

    Anton says you could also use anything from the polyurethane side or the automotive side of the paint industry. Likewise, you could use an aerosol can (AKA a Norwegian airbrush) or a traditional airbrush. One of the most popular airbrushes in the industry is the Iwata HPC or the Iwata Eclipse.

    “You can take an Iwata airbrush and use Createx water-based airbrush pant,” Anton says. “All you have to do is wipe your vinyl clean with a paper towel. You don’t need to sand it or do anything magical to it. There’s chemistry in the Createx that causes it to stick to the vinyl.”

    Anton says vinyl to vinyl is your common denominator. But what you put on top of it requires a somewhat different format in order to make it stick. So while you can create the exact same effect with all of the paint types mentioned above, you use each one a little differently. For example, some require thinners. Some require more drying time. Some are more caustic.

    “In this day and age you should always read the vinyl’s materials data sheet (MDS),” Anton says. “Once you understand the MDS, then you’ll realize that a water-based paint is typically the best option because it is not hostile or caustic. Krylon, Frog Juice Colors and the automotives are all solvent-based, which means they are thinned with a thinner or a solvent.”

    Case in Point
    Anton says he recently completed a job for a trucking company. He airbrushed 10 sets of ultra-metallic gold with a white airbrush blend on the bottom. His pigment choice for that particular job was a white aerosol can of Frog Juice Color.

    “I chose Frog Juice Color because of the speed. I can go buzz, buzz, buzz and airbrush all three lines of copy in the sign, throw it aside, do the next one, throw it aside and go through all ten of them quickly. By the time I get to the tenth one the first one is already dry and it’s ready to weed, mask and apply.”

    That is what Anton calls his economical airbrushing. It’s “fast and dirty.” But let’s say Anton wanted to create a beautiful piece of one airbrushed word. He would approach it much differently. Instead of using Frog Juice and banging out the sign, he would take the vinyl over to his table, cut it out of a sparkly material, and airbrush it with a water-based transparent paint.

    “If I put red on the gold, I can see the pattern underneath. Whereas if I sprayed opaque, the pattern disappears,” Anton says. “So I would take the transparent airbrush paints and airbrush a beautiful blend. Let’s say I’d start with a yellow and add a little tinge of orange and add a little splash of red on top of that. Then I would apply that down to a candy apple purple outline and shadow and stick it on your black Corvette. That’s an absolute knock out. It’s a high buck, high end, nice stuff.”

    Exploring Other Options
    Alternatively, if a customer comes to you and wants a duck airbrushed on their car with their name underneath it, then Anton says a traditional airbrush is probably the best option. That’s because it offers fine detailing. You could still airbrush on vinyl, but it would require outlining, shadows and blends to make the duck look three-dimensional.

    The first option to complete this task would be to use water-based paints through an airbrush. The second option would be to use an automotive line of paints, like lacquer or polyurethane. Anton says lacquer is becoming obsolete, so polyurethane is typically the more obvious choice if you choose an automotive line.

    “If you use automotive paints, you put down a base color and then spray a clear coating over the top of it,” Anton says. “Like in the old days when we did all of our custom graphics on helmets, hockey masks, cars and all the fancy stuff, using automotive paints.”

    Anton says he hasn’t used automotive paints in many years because he migrated to a water-based paint, which is more environmentally friendly. “It doesn’t hurt me and if I have it on my fingers and get it on my drinking cup it doesn’t affect me. The automotive stuff is very hostile,” he says.

    To summarize, the airbrush pigment you choose will depend on several factors: the client’s desired outcome, the client’s budget, the available window of time you have to complete the project, and your personal preference. Anton suggests experimenting with the various options to discover for yourself what works and what doesn’t.

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