Airbrushing With Nitros


Many times I’ve run into a situation when I was out of paint. Not because I wanted to, I just wasn’t checking the amount of paint I’ve had and because I don’t do artistic work too often, it just happens – from time to time. Recently I ran into the same situation and after one of my Facebook fans pulled a similar situation out I decided to write a post.

What type of paint you can use in your airbrush, beside professional airbrush paint?

Usually I recommend to use any acrylic based or water based paint from home hardware store. They always have a reducer for acrylic and sometimes, if the situation is really bad, you can thin acrylic with water. Read more about airbrush paints.

But this is not my case. I decided to give a few tips for nitrocellulose (NC) based lacquer paint. It is very common paint in eastern Europe hardware stores for very affordable price. Here is one comment about this:

A nitrocellulose lacquer clear coat dries quickly and leaves a smooth, polished finish (instrument builder and guitar repair instructor Frank Ford)

I know that these days it is a problem in US to get this paint.

If I could, I’d prefer the old NitroCellulose paint. I think it looks better than modern base-coat/clear-coat paints which look very plastic. In California it is no longer legal for body shops to use nitrocellulose paint but I am not sure about other states. I know however that it is often used on guitars (where are these people getting it?)

Yes, California has restrictive laws on emissions of volatile organic compounds, that’s why it is difficult to find nitros in this state.

You cannot get it shipped from other countries legally without a lot of troubles. Better find at least one place that makes nitro cellulose in your area. The body shops will be no help, look for cabinet-maker suppliers. Deft clear lacquer is nitro so if you find a can of it in your hardware store read the label and see who actually made it. There is a website for guitar finishers called that sells it in spray bomb form US only.

Well, if you manage to get some nitro lacquer, Congratulations! BTW, here is one good manufacturer page that does this stuff and have thinner for it – LANCO (available in US too). Nitrocellulose lacquer requires some rules to follow and I’m going to write about it here. But first of all…

What Exactly is Nitrocellulose Paint?

Nitrocellulose paint is quick drying solvent-based lacquer that contain nitrocellulose (a resin obtained from nitration of cotton and other cellulosic materials). Developed in the early 1920’s and extensively used in 1930’s automobile industry. At the start automotive finishes were very limited in colors (Japan Black was the most popular and fastest drying color. General Motors Oakland was the first to bring one of new fast drying nitrocellulose lacquers, a Bright Blue (1923), produced by DuPont.

These lacquers were a huge improvement over earlier automobile, furniture finishes and musical instrument finishes. Most common method of applying these quick-drying lacquers is spraying. The development of nitrocellulose lacquers led to the first extensive use of spray guns. Nitrocellulose lacquers produce very hard, flexible and durable finish that can be polished to extremely high sheen. These lacquers have their cons such as hazardous nature of the solvent (flammable, volatile and toxic, more highly nitrated form is used to make explosives). It becomes not toxic after about a month after all the solvents are dissolved. BTW, ping-pong (table tennis) balls are made of nitrocellulose and I think you know how they react to an open fire. That’s about it, “The Basic Info”, that I thought that you should know about Nitrocellulose.

If you have chosen some good brand, you have to look around for same branded reducer. Be careful as almost every brand gives different reducer for different purposes, depending if you’re going to spray or brush. Many brands have sign on their paint or reducer bottles “Airbrush Only” but that’s not a rule, so, you don’t have to look for that sign.

If you got NC based paint from some local manufacturer that does not have a particular reducer for that paint in their offer use the most common solvent available – ACETONE. Nitro lacquer needs a thinner that evaporates quick and acetone is one of them. For example, the one especially for Nitrocellulose from Lanco is LANCO Laquere thinner LT-102.

If you do everything the right way then you are going to get no worse results with any nitro paint than with any professional airbrush one, sometimes even better. To be honest, many of my friends are likely to say that they use professional airbrush paints just because they are lazy to mix colors themselves as those come already mixed in the bottle and the difference now is the price only.

You Have to Mix Nitrocellulose Paints to Get Desired Color

If you want to work with nitros, you will have to mix them as the palette of colors available is not that wide. But all you need are five basic colors to get any desired color. Yes only 5 – white, black, blue, yellow and red. Black and white can also be made by mixing together other colors, If you add white to a color you lighten it and if you add black you darken it, simple, though some painters don’t use black at all.

It is good to get some schema of mixing colors, so you know which colors to mix to get the desired one. I decided to include this schema here, so you don’t have to waste your time looking for it elsewhere.

I think many of you are very familiar with this model. The colors connected with black line are primary ones, yellow is the second level of mixing (i.e. if you mix red and blue you get violet and so on). The blue line is the third level of mixing. The schema is universal as if you mix red-violet and red-orange you will get red color.

Federal Color Standard

I would recommend to get Federal Standard Color Chart (I’m not sure if you can get it for free) and mix color according to that. Here is how it works in this standard:

The marking in this standard is made of two letters FS (federal standard) and 5 digits (FS XXXXX) where every digit is assigned to particular color.

  • First digit means brightness (1 – bright, 2 – semi-opaque, 3 – opaque)
  • Second is for color tone (0-brown, 1-red, 2-orange, 3-yellow, 4-green, 5-blue, 6-grey, 7-doesn’t go under any of the above (black, white, transparent, silver …), 8-special paint (half-transparent, metallic, fluorescent))
  • Next Three digits are for intensity. As lowest is the number as more intensive is the color. In many cases it is not true and mostly you just get the color out of this number but not intensity. Sometimes they even give this color funny names like “color of duck eggs” or “dark-grey feather of seagull” :)

Example: FS35237 -Opaque, grey, half-intensity; FS34092 – Opaque, green, intensive, dark-green-lightblue. Here is the picture as better example:

If you want to find out more, follow this link – Colorserver.

How to Work With Nitros

Before applying nitrocellulose lacquer make a test on wood panel to see how it adheres to the wood and colors it. Adding more coats will affect the final color.

But first of all you have to make base coat. For example if you do work on wood (guitar), thin out the sanding sealer to about 20% and apply the coat of sealer onto the wood. It has to be wet enough to adhere to the wood, otherwise the lack of adhesion can lead to the de-lamination of the lacquer. Then sand the wood to remove roughness by using a sand paper 00 steel wool. Second coat of the sealer will even out the base especially if the wood is soft. Sand it again and if you want to enhance the color texture apply glazing too.
After that you may start applying a coats of the lacquer. Continue adding coats until you’ve achieved the finish you like. That’s actually the whole process. Some people use to sand it again and apply clear coat at the end.

Few Tips For Nitros

Be careful with RED. To cover this color is possible only with pure black color. If you use any other cover it will get through it eventually (if not right away then after few days for sure). After Red color it is good to take airbrush apart and clean all the inside parts with cotton pads and reducer. If you try to flush it with reducer prepare to spend something around a litre of it just to get rid of pink tone. I recommend the same process for shell-silver color too.

Shell-silver pigment is a special case. It will try to clog the nozzle. That’s why I think it’s best to use this color with widest nozzle you have. If you want to get effect of polished aluminium try a wet wipe after it dries out. It will shine like chocolate foil. Do not touch! It keeps finger prints.

This is it. If you have any experience with this paints, do not keep it for yourself, share it with us by leaving a comment. I’ll be very happy if you share it through your social network.