For those not in the U.S., Harbor Freight is a retailer that imports cheap Chinese tools. In one of their ads this last weekend, I saw that their best quality airbrush was on sale for $15. The regular price is $20, but it’s on sale a lot. So, I cashed in some aluminum cans and bought one. I also picked up a couple of neat little LED flashlights for another $2.50.
Here is what I got for my money.
It came in a nice plastic box with fitted foam, and included a bottle, cup, wrench, flexible hose adapter, nozzle cap, and a hanger. It’s a double action, siphon airbrush, and it appears to be the same as aFengda BD-800. This is the same manufacturer that I believe makes the Master G-22. Like the G-22, it’s probably sold under many brands.
It looks nice. The chrome finish and the blue anodized handle looked good. One strange thing, everything felt a little sticky, even the glass bottle. Whatever it was, it came off easily with a little Windex. The body has lettering on both sides. On one side, it says Central Pneumatic (Harbor Freight’s brand), Item 95810, and Deluxe Air brush Kit. On the other side it has a bunch of stuff; Max working pressure 60 PSI, Nozzle size 0.35 mm, Made in China, and Always wear ANSI approved safety goggles when working with tools and equipment. I guess they don’t want to get sued.
A lot of people have written that this is a copy of the Badger 155 Anthem. Let me make this clear:
IT IS NOT A COPY OF A BADGER 155.
It vaguely looks like a 155 because of the body shape, the cut-out handle and the knob on the back of the needle. But, the resemblance ends there. It is really more of a copy of the Badger 150, with a 155 type handle and a longer needle.
It weighs 72 grams, a little less than the 78 grams of the 155. This is probably due to the aluminum handle. It feels slightly front heavy. Like my other airbrushes, the trigger feels a little stiff to me. Pressing the trigger feels a little crunchy. The hose connector is standard 1/8 inch and will fit an Iwata hose, but not Badger or Paasche without an adapter.
Here’s what it looks like dismantled. I didn’t remove the needle seal. It looks like Teflon and is adjustable. I felt it was too tight, so I loosened it a bit with a jeweler’s screwdriver. It’s a very sensitive adjustment.
The head assembly looks a lot like the old style Badger 200 and the 100 and 150 models. I measured the nozzle and it is 0.35 mm as advertised. The O-rings between the regulator and head and between the head and body look like neoprene, not Teflon. I assume they are solvent resistant. The manual says it can spray lacquer. There is no wrench provided to remove the little nozzle from the head. So, I think it’s meant to be left in place, and I think that’s a good idea. You may be able to see the slot in the regulator. There are four of them, and I don’t know why they’re there. They might make back flushing a little more difficult. Because of the rubber O-ring, there is some resistance when tightening the regulator to the head. Be sure to tighten it all the way so that the nozzle will end up in the correct relationship to the front of the regulator.
Here is the needle next to a Master G-22 and a standard Badger 155 needle.
Like the G-22 the shaft diameter is 0.046 inches. The taper is slightly less acute and shorter than the G-22. It’s very fragile. I managed to put a slight burr on it while re-assembling, and I was being really careful. As you can see, it’s nothing like a 155 needle.
The trigger assembly looks like my Vega. The upper one is the Harbor Freight, and the lower one the Vega.
The rocker that the arrow points to is pretty delicate. I had a devil of a time getting it seated right the first time I put it back together. Trigger action is very rough if you don’t get it just right. I must have spent 15 minutes messing with it. There is a knack to it, and it does get easier each time. Another strange thing is that the trigger can rotate in the slot, which means it can go in sideways, not a good thing when you are installing a fragile needle. On all my other brushes, the trigger will only go in the correct way.
Here is the parts diagram from the manual.
You might notice that it’s not quite correct. Parts 11 and 13 are actually combined in one part and part 14 doesn’t exist.
This could be because there have been changes that are not incorporated in the manual yet. But, it could cause some confusion for a new user.
Part 12 acts as a tension adjust on the trigger. But, if it’s not in far enough, the handle, part 16, will not screw on all the way.
The cup seems to be a copy of the Badger straight cup.
There are differences however. The tube on the Badger cup goes all the way to the bottom of the cup, and the bottom is tapered to a small diameter. The tube on the Harbor Freight cup joins farther up the side and the bottom is larger. With the Badger cup I can spray just a few drops of paint. The Harbor Freight cup will require quite a bit more. Also, although you can’t tell it in the picture, the Harbor Freight cup is rough on the inside and will be harder to clean. The yellow tint in the picture on the right is due to my light source. Both cups are silver inside.
The cup sits at a funny angle on the brush.
In the picture on the right, I have installed the Badger 50-483 cup, and it seems more normal to me. The Badger cups fit.
Here’s something curious about the bottle. Notice that the tubing inside points to the rear. So unless you’re painting uphill, you won’t get the last of the paint. It was an easy fix. I just pulled it off and turned it around.
By the way, the threads on the bottle are different than Badger bottles. So you might have to buy spares from Harbor Freight.
The needle bearing is just like the one in the Master G-22. This means that there is a channel that paint can collect in that goes in 1 1/4 inch from the front of the body. However, with the head removed, a pipe cleaner will fit all the way to the back, so cleaning it is not all that difficult. But, just flushing with thinner is going to leave paint in there.
Since the needle seems so fragile, I was curious about spare parts. The manual lists an 800 number to call about spares and technical assistance, so I called it. I was connected right away to a gentleman who was very helpful. He asked the model number and told me that a replacement needle could be ordered over the phone. The price is just $2.16, but shipping would be $6.99. Multiple items could be shipped for the same shipping charge. Of course, you can get a whole new airbrush for $6 more if you wait for a sale.
Trying it out
I removed the burr on the needle with my fine Arkansas stone, installed it and hooked the brush up to my compressor. I used a Badger cup. At first I put a little water in the cup to check for bubbles or other problems. Everything looked OK, so I sprayed out the water and put in a few drops of black ink. Then I did my usual doodles on a paper towel. I expected the fine needle and tip to produce fairly fine lines, and they did. Here is a sample. Air pressure was set to 20 psi. It has a pretty narrow pattern as you would expect with such a needle.
I tried the little trigger preset screw, and it worked surprisingly well. Badger has one of these on the 150, but I’ve never used one before. The hard part was remembering not to pull back on the trigger when using it. I did not like the feel of the trigger. The small size combined with the crunchy feel bugged me. I’m going to work on that. When using the preset, there was an initial small burst of ink and then a noticeable delay from the time the trigger was pressed until the spray began. This may be normal for this type of preset. I think I prefer the needle limiter to be in the handle.
Even when not using the preset, I noticed the brush would sometimes begin spraying even before I pulled back on the trigger. Normally, this would mean the needle isn’t seated all the way in the nozzle. But I re-seated it and it still did it. Then I noticed that the needle moved a little as soon as I pressed the trigger. So, after cleaning, I marked where the rocker was riding on the trigger shaft and removed the trigger assembly. What I found was that when the trigger is in the up position, the little rocker rides against the groove for the slot. Then, when you press the trigger, it slides up onto the main shaft and pushes the needle back a bit. Here is a picture showing the relationship of the parts when installed in the airbrush.
I don’t know if this is sloppy manufacture or bad design, but it isn’t good. The rocker should always rub against the smooth shaft of the trigger. It doesn’t move the needle much, but with something thin like ink, it’s enough to cause some spray. The work-around is pretty easy. Just hold the trigger down as you set the needle. There will be a little play in the trigger when you release it, but not too much. Note: This puts a little extra stress on the nozzle because the needle is under spring tension. I recommend that you set the tension as low as possible if you do this, and it might be a good idea to pull the needle back when the brush is not in use.
Another strange thing about the trigger action was the control I had over air flow. The air valves in my other airbrushes are pretty much on or off. With this one, I could actually vary the amount of air by varying pressure on the trigger, right down to a whisper. This may be because the trigger has a longer stroke than I am used to. While some may consider this an advantage, I don’t. It’s tricky enough just controlling paint volume without simultaneously controlling air at the same time with the same finger. Standard advice for airbrushing is; air full on, pull back for paint, trigger forward to stop paint, and air off. Air flow is best controlled by the compressor regulator or, on some airbrushes, a MAC valve.
During cleaning, when the needle was removed, there was an annoying tendency for the trigger to pop out. To be fair, this can also happen with the Badger brushes, but not as easy and the Badger triggers are very easy to put back. This one isn’t. The trigger seems undersized for the slot. It should be a closer fit. There’s not much I can do about that.
It took me a while, but I finally figured out that the roughness in the trigger was coming from inside the air valve. I was able to get it apart, and with a little work with a needle file, a round toothpick, some pipe cleaners and some Brasso, I got it so the trigger feels pretty good. While I was in there I cut off one loop of the spring and stretched it a little. I put a little Chapstick on the shaft of the valve and stuck it all back together. Then I used hot melt glue to put a piece of suede leather on the top of the trigger. It feels a lot better, but still not as smooth as my other airbrushes. I may try reducing the spring tension a little more. I also clipped a loop off the trigger back pressure spring to make the action a little lighter.
While I had the Brasso out, I polished the needle.
I shot some more ink, and it was more comfortable to use. Then I tried some ModelMaster enamel thinned about one part paint to two parts mineral spirits on a plastic bottle. It went on nice and smooth and control was very good
I don’t understand why the manufacturer made the trigger and rocker so undersized. It shouldn’t cost any more to make them fit, and it would have been a much better brush. The ironic thing about it is that in the hands of someone knowledgeable about airbrushes, it can be a capable tool. But, the average buyer will probably be someone who has never touched an airbrush and just wants to try one out. The experienced user will probably own one or more brand name brushes and not want to fool with this one. A new user who buys this may well become frustrated with it and give up. I wonder how many of these are sitting in their boxes never used. Also, my personal opinion is that a 0.35 mm nozzle, while preferred by many, is not the best choice for beginners. They don’t need the added thinning issues.
So there you have it. If you understand it and it does what you need, it’s a bargain. If you’ve never used an airbrush, I think you’d be better off with a name brand with a medium tip. You might save yourself some frustration.
I came up with a couple of more modifications that make the brush easier to use.
I decided the little wings on the handle weren’t buying me anything, so I snipped them off. Now the needle knob is easier to grasp. Then it occurred to me that maybe the Badger rubber cap would fit the trigger. It does, although I had to file the top of the trigger flat to get it to stay on, and it feels much better. Not only that, it makes it easier to tell when the trigger is in the right way for the needle to pass through. I”ve also done some more cutting and stretching on the air valve spring and that’s made a big difference in the feel of the trigger. The rubber band is something that I’ll put on to keep the trigger from falling out when I pull the needle during cleaning.Postscript
I still wasn’t happy with the way pushing the trigger down moved the needle, so I did a little more rework. I ground the trigger flat on the side that rubs against the rocker using my diamond stone. It worked pretty well. Now the rocker doesn’t move when I press the trigger.
It occurred to me that I might be able to do finer lines if I could get closer to the tip of the needle. The needle is recessed a little over 1/32 of an inch. So I decided to file down the spray regulator to the point that the needle would be flush with the front of it. To do this, I drilled a 13/64 hole in a piece of soft pine and threaded the spray regulator into it. Then I clamped the pine in a vise and began filing with a fine file. The picture below on the left shows the result. I actually went a little too far and the needle protrudes a tiny bit. On the right is a sample done with blue food coloring afterward. I was able to get finer lines.
Please Note: If you copy any of the things I’ve done to this airbrush, you do so at your own risk.
I got a nice e-mail from Kay Sievert. He bought one of these airbrushes and had the same problem I had re-installing the rocker. On the right, is the great illustration he included. He says the trick is to have the rocker lean forward during installation so that the bottom stays outside the trigger recess.
Many thanks to Kay for this tip.
I got an e-mail from Roger Rondeau. He just bought a Harbor Freight Deluxe airbrush, and it’s different than mine. The trigger assembly is more like the one on the Master G-22, and the rocker is not attached to the needle tube. It also doesn’t have the problem with the rocker riding too low on the trigger. So, maybe they have improved the design or just gone to another source.
A Second Sample
I noticed that the package for the Deluxe airbrush at my local Harbor Freight had changed, and so did the price. Instead of $19.99 it was now $24.99. The other day I received a Super Coupon pricing it at $14.99, and I couldn’t resist. So for $20 and change, I got another airbrush, a couple of small bar clamps, some quick cure epoxy, and a free flashlight. The young lady at the register offered me a 5 year warranty on the airbrush, but I politely declined. At my age, I don’t get a 5 year warranty on anything.
Here is a picture of the new package. It’s larger and more impressive than it was before.
When I opened it, here was what was inside; the same small plastic case and a couple of cardboard fillers. You would think they would want to keep shipping costs down with a smaller package, but I guess the bigger box sells better.
The contents are almost the same as the earlier package, but there are subtle differences. The shape of the cup is just slightly different, but the spout still joins about one fourth of the way up from the bottom. The lid on the bottle is now metal instead of plastic and doesn’t screw on as easily. The threads are the same however.
On the brush itself, the knurling is a little coarser. The legend on the left side of the body now just says Central Pneumatic, and there is nothing on the other side.
The trigger still has a little scrunchy feel when you press it like the old one had. It could probably be reworked, but I don’t think I’ll bother. The back pull is smooth enough.
I dismantled it to compare internal parts. There is no longer an O-ring on the spray regulator, but there is still one between the head and body. By the way, I have found that you don’t really need the O-ring if you put a little Chapstick on the threads. So, if it falls apart, no big deal. If you don’t have bubbles in the cup when you press the trigger, you’re OK.
The head was on extremely tight. I had to put the body in my woodworking vise and use a 6 inch crescent wrench.
The trigger now fits better. It can no longer be installed the wrong way.
The rocker and needle tube are totally different. Here is a comparison. The upper parts are the new brush, and the older parts are below.
The rocker is now unattached, and the needle tube is kept from rotating by a groove in the bottom that rides on a screw in the bottom of the body. It is just like the Master G-22 airbrush. And, as in the G-22 the rocker is difficult to re-install. I had to use a pair of tweezers. Your best bet is to just leave it alone. The new parts will not work in an old body.
Another curious change is the length of the handle. Here it is next to the older version. The new one is on top.
Not only is the handle shorter, so is the needle. So, if you put a new needle in an older handle, the ball will be inside where you can’t grab it. And, if you put an old needle in the new handle it will stick out way past the end.
The brush sprays just like the old one, which is good. The new rocker doesn’t have the problem the old one had, as it rides further up the trigger. Centering of the nozzle in the spray regulator is good.
Harbor Freight has clearly gone to a new supplier, and it is an improvement. If you compared this airbrush with a real Badger 150, you could tell the difference. But it does produce decent results.