A great deal of excitement has been generated around an age-old tool adapted for polish application in nail salons: Airbrushing.

Used for generations in a variety of fields as diverse as auto painting and photograph restoration the airbrush has recently proven effective in nail/beauty salon for nail art, and now seems capable of a more basic operation: that of the application of straight color as part of the nail care service.

Its use in the salon has generated this interest and excitement because of its ability to increase salon income, and due to claims of proponents: Nail polish goes on faster, needs only drops of paint, lasts longer and excites client.

But there is a bewildering selection of equipment available from nail airbrush companies. Questions have been raised: What are the types of equipment and brushes available? How do they differ? What air sources are needed?

In an effort to provide answers to those and other questions, the following material was compiled from a variety of technical sources. Although this is an overview of airbrushing in general, it is not intended to make a decision for you. Individual considerations such as costs and future use must be addressed. But here is a start; information geared toward providing enough material to at least take some of the mystique away from this new and, yes, exciting service for nail salons.


Although the modern airbrush is made to exacting specifications through a complicated manufacturing process and is itself a sophisticated piece of equipment, its principle is simpler: The airbrush combines paint and air for a consistent, uniform spray much like blowing a mouthful of water through a straw. Technically, when a liquid (such as paint) enters a stream of compressed or pressurized gas (such as that provided by the airbrush’s air source), its molecular bonds are broken and it forms a spray of discrete droplets.

For these droplets to spray consistently, two devices are needed: a manner to control the amount and flow of air, and a way to control the amount of paint.

The airbrushes used for nail painting are generally referred to as single action internal mix or dual action mix. The trigger mounted on top of these brushes controls the air flow, and a needle that runs through the middle of the brush controls the paint flow.

The trigger acts as a lever and opens the air supply, depending on how far it is depressed. Air flow is unrestricted when the trigger is fully depressed. Paint flows when the needle is fully retracted: Pulled completely back, paint volume and flow are unrestricted.

In single action airbrushes, this needle is controlled by an adjusting screw located at the front or back of the brush. In dual action brushes, the trigger controls air and paint flow.

In addition to the trigger and needle, the head or tip of the brush also determines the fineness of the spray, depending on the size of the opening. (Different airbrushes have interchangeable heads, available in fine and medium points.)

Basically, paint and air are mixed with the brush, inside the head assembly. Hence the term “internal mix,” either through a syphon principle, as with side and bottom feed airbrushes; or through gravity, where paint flows from a cup permanently attached in front of the trigger, or from an opening between the head and trigger of the brush.

Internal mix airbrushes are widely recommended for use when air painting nails, because of their uniform spray pattern and ease of use.


Single action refers to the movement of the trigger, located on the top of the airbrush. With single action brushes, the downward pressure on the trigger releases both paint and air, the amount of which is controlled by an adjusting screw on either end of the brush, depending on the manufacturer. Once the volume of paint has been set in this manner, the spray is consistent. To adjust while spraying requires the technician to twist the screw with a free hand ... a process that can be distracting when working on a small area such as nails.

By turning the needle adjustment screw counter-clockwise, the needle tip is backed out of the tip, thus allowing more paint to pass through for a wider spray. Clockwise adjusts the needle forward, resulting in a finer spray.

In general, the width of the spray is dependent on the amount passing through the airbrush and the distance from the working surface.

The advantage of the single action airbrush is that it is often less costly and easier for the beginner to learn.


Dual action brushes are exactly that: two actions in one. This particular brush, in comparison to the single action, is more versatile, offering specific paint control advantages ... but it is also more complicated to learn, and usually a more costly unit.

The term dual action refers to the basic function of the brush’s trigger: By depressing the trigger, air is released. By drawing back while depressing, paint is released. With this brush, both paint and air can be controlled simultaneously ... an important feature if the technician needs to make subtle changes while spraying.

In addition, an adjusting screw is generally at the tip of the brush, allowing for fine adjustments in the flow of paint. With the dual action, this adjustment actually moves the trigger back, thereby pre-setting the flow of paint and fineness of spray.


Airbrushes recommended for nail salon use are basically of two types of paint feed: gravity feed and bottom/side feed.

With gravity feed, the color cup is permanently attached to the top of the brush, available in different sizes. In another design, paint is poured directly into the brush via an opening in front of the trigger. The advantages of this style are that it is easier to clean and offers the nail technician an unobstructed view of the working area.

With side feed systems, the color cup is attached to the side of the brush, adjustable for different working angles, and set up for easy removal for maintenance. With side feed systems, a left hand version can be specified/ordered.

Bottom feed systems have the color cup located below the brush, out of line of vision for the artist. Although this style presents an option for the nail technician, it can be unwieldy because of the color cup’s proximity to the working surface.


With airbrushing in general, there are three main sources of air for the systems: compressors, compressed gas (as in tanks), and propellant or aerosol cans.

An air source should be determined by three factors: cost, capacity (whether more than one airbrush will be used with the same air source), and noise.

Compressors are the most costly, but are also the most efficient. They represent a major part of the commitment to the system. There are different types available, some with a greater capacity, some virtually noiseless. Those necessary or nail work can range in price from $100 to over $600, and must be compatible with the airbrush itself.

Basically the options for nail salons include mini-compressors, piston compressors, and silent tank compressors. Those units are made specifically for the airbrush and offer a variety of features.

A second option is compressed gas, generally in tanks. This is an economical choice, one that is available in different sizes and capacities. Completely silent, the tank is practically maintenance free. However, the tank does need refilling, and is generally not portable because of its weight.

The last option, and the most economical and portable of air sources, is the propellant/aerosol can. The advantages, however, are also its weaknesses: Small in size means a limited source of air; it is also difficult to guage the amount of air available.

Also, some aerosol cans will lose pressure while working. When spraying, the liquid inside the can evaporates, causing the can to chill and the pressure to drop. Once the can returns to room temperature, however, the pressure will return to normal.


Masking material is utilized with the airbrush to provide a hard-edged finish line and to protect a painted area from overspray. Masks also work to achieve special effects: For example, a nail painted red, with a mask covering the red, then painted blue will protect the red underneath. When the mask is removed, the red will be unaffected by the blue, and a hard edge will exist between the two colors.

These materials, available in a variety of sizes and shapes, include what is known in the airbrushing trade as “frisket” paper and film: a transparent, adhesive-backed material available in a variety of tacks for differing surfaces and uses.

The difficulty with this and similar material is in its adhesive: Too much will lift the paint from the nail surface; not enough and the airbrush spray will lift the edges, overspraying previously painted surfaces. Refer to the manufacturer for proper materials.

Masks can also be stencils. Available from most nail airbrush companies, stencils are pre-cut with specific designs and are made from a variety of materials. The difference between masks and stencils is that masks are designed to protect existing paint while painting over them: stencils are to be painted through.

Not all stencils are adhesive backed, and must be held in place while spraying. (There are also new stencils designed to clip onto the end of the finger for a more consistent image.)

In addition to the actual design of the stencil, its use will determine finished effect. By positioning the stencil flat on the nail surface, the result will be well defined, hard edges. If the stencil is held above the nail, the finished effect will be softer and fuzzy.


Those paints available for use in the nail industry are non-toxic, water-based. They provide a full range of color and have been proven effective when spray painting nails. Because they are water-based, there is no need to use a thinner and no fear of flammability. (Most paints available from nail companies are pre-mixed.)

There are two basic types of paints used in airbrushing: opaque and transparent.

Opaque paints are for coverage, for blocking the nail and anything previously painted on it. Available in a variety of colors, these paints will literally cover anything because of their depth. (Generally an opaque white is used, allowing the technician to add color to it rather than buying an entire color line of opaques.)

Transparent paints are brighter, offer a full color, and are “bottom” colors, those painted first. Because of their nature, transparent paints will not cover a previous painted area, but will interact with it. For example, a transparent yellow sprayed over a transparent blue will result in a green; whereas an opaque yellow sprayed over that same blue will result in a yellow only.

Water-based paints dry quickly, allowing the artist to blend vivid colors on the nail.

When applied properly, nail polish lasts longer and will not chip as soon.

Important note: Check with the supplier of the airbrush system. Many offer a specific base coat and top coat to ensure that the paint adheres to the nail surface.


In learning about the airbrush and proper use, concentrate on three basic guidelines:

-         holding the airbrush;

-         triggering the brush and adjusting the flow; and

-         directing the spray.

The first is the simplest. Hold the brush as a pen or pencil, with thumb and middle finger on each side and the index finger poised above the trigger. Drape the hose over the forearm to keep it from interfering with movement of the arm and brush. Keep in mind that if your nails are long, you may want to adjust your hold on the brush to avoid dipping nails into the color cup.

Triggering the brush and adjusting the volume of paint is the next exercise. With the single action, push down on the trigger and hold it. Then, with the trigger depressed, reach back with the other hand and adjust the paint volume with the needle adjustment. (Notice the subtle changes in the amount of air and paint.)

A dual action system is a bit more complicated. Completely depress the trigger and draw back for paint. With this brush, the air and paint flow simultaneously ... the more the trigger is depressed the greater the air flow; and the farther back the trigger is drawn, the greater the color flow.

When working with a dual action, it is recommended to always begin in a shut-off position, with the triger fully forward. By doing so, the change in paint volume can quickly be seen, and the best point to work with can be determined.

Directing the spray from the brush is the same for both types of brushes, and is determined not just by the action of the trigger but of the brush to the surface. Consequently, always keep the airbrush perpendicular to the nails. Although nails represent a small working area, you will still have a better consistency and control if you spray using a sideways arm movement rather than by working the wrist.

Once spraying has begun, maintain the movement through the spray. Hesitating will only create inconsistent coverage from nail to nail, hand to hand. When making a pass, start the movement before depressing the trigger, and continue moving until after releasing the trigger.

When painting nails, experiment with the volume of paint, with the effects of different adjustments, and with distance from the nail. Look for consistency and comfort.

Much of airbrush’s effects are easily achieved by practicing. Before working on a client, airbrush nail tips, small objects, art paper. Work within two to four inches of the surface, as that is the best distance for painting nails.


The biggest problem facing airbrush artists and nail technicians using this tool in the salon, is in the constant cleaning it demands. There is no simple way around it ... the airbrush must be routinely cleaned between colors and cleaned thoroughly when finished for the day.

Although it is clearly the most tedious aspect of airbrushing, dirty and clogged systems affect the consistency of the spray, the efficiency of the brush, and hamper the overall system by damaging internal parts due to paint build-up.

Generally all airbrushes are sold with complete care and maintenance booklets with manufacturer’s directions and suggestions for cleaning and replacing parts. However, the following procedures can be applied to most single and dual action internal mix airbrushes.

For routine cleaning, such as between appointments, follow these simple steps:

-         Stop spraying, but do not shut off the air supply.

-         Remove the color cup and place it in a container of water.

-         Aim the airbrush at an absorbent cloth, such as a paper towel, and spray out any color left inside. While spraying, turn the adjusting screw to its fullest position, if single action; or depress the trigger and draw fully back, if dual action. Spray until no color is released onto the towel.

-         Run a cleaner recommended by the manufacturer through the airbrush, increasing air pressure for Pressurized cleaning.

-         Plunge the airbrush point only into a container of water. Use the trigger to allow air and water into the head by working the needle back and forth. At this point, the brush can be set aside for the next appointment.

For cleaning at the end of the day:

-         Spray a cleaner through the brush as if changing color.

-         Remove the needle, lay on a flat surface and clean with cleaner. Important: Do not remove the adjustment screw from the chuck. This has been preset and must not be changed.

-         Clean the nozzle tip with a small, soft-bristle brush saturated with cleaner. At this point, check for any damage.

-         After wiping the needle clean and cleaning the nozzle, carefully replace it. Spray additional cleaning fluid through the airbrush until no more cleaner is emitted.

-         With a dual action brush, remove the needle from the brush by unscrewing the handle from the back. Turn the needle chuck counter-clockwise and draw the needle out. Be careful not to turn the brush upside down as the trigger may fall out of the brush. Always hold the trigger in place when cleaning without the needle inserted.

-         As with the single action, clean the nozzle with a soft bristle brush after the needle has been removed. Inspect the head assembly for damage.

In addition to the cleaning steps outlined, there are a few steps necessary to maintain the system at its peak:

-         Never leave the airbrush attached to the compressor overnight.

-         Between appointments, hang the brush on a special hanger attached to the station.

-         Disconnect the compressor from the electrical source when not in use.

-         Check the components on a regular basis.

-         Always work in a well ventilated area. Don’t smoke, and ask your clients to refrain as well. Also, keep hands and skin as clean as possible to avoid scratching or rubbing paint or solvents into eyes or near mouth.

When investigating airbrush systems, the nail technician should consider the following questions:

  • How much do I want to spend?
  • How much use will I get from the system?
  • What airbrush “feels” the best?
  • What back-up/service does the supplier offer?
  • Are supplies such as paint, stencils and accessories readily available?
  • What educational aids are offered to expand knowledge about airbrushing?
  • What are the company’s warranty and repair policies?

These are basic points to consider when evaluating a specific brush and company. But the basic question is whether you as a salon owner or nail technician are willing to make the commitment to an airbrush system to fully benefit from it.

Because of its expense (range $250-$800), and the need to introduce this as a service into the salon, airbrushing should not be entered lightly. While it is true that it can increase salon income, it is still a major purchase ... and must be planned for as such.

The advantages of airbrushing in the salon appear to be two-fold: A new and fairly simple way of expanding a nail art service, and its ability to enthuse technicians and clients alike, As a service, it excites the client because it’s something new, something that gives her the ability to experiment with color. And this excitement is easily shared by a technician interested in a break from the routine of nail care.

And importantly, handled properly, airbrushing can speed polish application and increase salon income.

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