Don’t let model making put you in hospital

It won’t do for me. Now.

I’ve previously adopted a relaxed approach to health ‘n’ safety when it comes to modelling and mini painting.

During my adventures in model making over the years there have been plenty of near scrapes with hot soldering irons, glued fingers and errant power tools. Only the other day a transformer fell off my work bench leaving me nursing a particularly nasty bruise on my foot.  And I’m sure everyone has cut themselves at least once with a scalpel or craft knife but I put these down to part of the fun of modelling.

And then there was that incident with the rotary tool sanding disc that shattered sending pieces flying inches past my head. That was admittedly a bit troubling but it’s only happened once…

TLDR: Spray painting – airbrush or rattle can – and other model making activities can be dangerous for your health. Dust masks and the like don’t cut it for small particles and paint fumes. The mask I’ve found to offer the best protection, comfort and robustness is 3m 7503 Reusable Half-Mask with the 5935 Particulate Filter

Just recently however I developed a sore throat after painting and gluing and it set my mind wondering.

Given a sore throat is a symptom of Covid-19 I had the test but this came back negative.

Paint and model making particle sizes

Reading about Covid-19 however started me thinking about particle sizes. Was I underestimating the risk of air brushing, spray paints and other materials I routinely use in my loft man-cave? Should I be using a face mask for miniature modelling?

This article on the particle sizes of various substances includes a chart comparing the various sizes of air born particles and gave me some pointers.

Paint particles come in at .1 to 5 microns. Ash, that I use for ground cover on models and dioramas, comes in at between 1 and 100 microns. And the dust from clay, that I work with lot for buildings, comes in at less that 1μm.

This was a bit meaningless. I don’t know about you but when the conversation is about objects millionths of a metre in size I can’t really comprehend it, I thought Z scale was small 🙂 But reading that “particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter can get deep into your lungs and some may even get into your bloodstream was concerning.

Worse, according to the EPA “particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest risk to health”. The risks of breathing in all those paint particles when I’m painting and spraying started to become more tangible.

The dangers of paint particles

Further reading was uncomfortable. Effects on the body of breathing such particles apparently include:

  • irregular heartbeat,
  • aggravated asthma,
  • decreased lung function,
  • increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.

That final point caused a sharp intake of breath…

I was also more than a bit concerned about the first symptom. I’ve had an irregular heart beat for as long as I can remember and attributed it to ‘just one of those things’ but I’ve also been making and painting models for as long as I can remember.

An uncomfortable possibility dawned.

The odd cut finger is something I can tolerate for now but damage to my heart and lungs is something I couldn’t countenance.

I do have a spray both with an extractor fan that connects to an external vent for airbrushing. This reduces the amount of spray mist and fumes around but not all of it and I don’t use it all the time. Something else was needed.

I looked into respirators and face masks.

After a few days research I’d learned more about mask ratings and the levels of protection than I wanted but also understood the Filtering Face Piece mask protection rating (known as P1, P2 or P3) and the now often talked about Covid-combating-N95 grade of mask.

My mask requirements

Given the particle size of the paints and model making materials worked with something better than the standard dust mask or cheap masks now so common is required.

I’m no expert but for the particle sizes present and their concentrations when spray painting, a rating of P3 seemed appropriate.

It also needs to be easy to wear and fit when wearing my head visor.

I occasionally spend long periods hunched over plastic figures or landscape applying different layers of colour so it needs to be comfortable and adjustable to reduce strain.

Finally, it’ll be surrounded by other tools; so needs to be tough and able to survive chance encounters with knives, soldering irons, drills and the like.

The mask that meets these needs

best mask for model paintingAfter a few false starts, I’m now using the  3m 7503 Reusable Half-Mask with the 5935 Particulate Filter

The filter has a P3 rating giving the protection wanted while the mask itself has been comfortable to wear, provides a good seal and doesn’t cause any discomfort or breathing difficulties in use.

It’s also rugged and has already had a couple of knocks and scrapes with a scalpel.

It now hangs above my paint station ready for whenever I pick up a spray can or airbrush and can be regularly seen on my face (much to the enjoyment of my boys, apparently I sound like Darth Vader with it on).

Sadly, it can’t solve any damage inflicted by my childhood model painting but my sore throat will hopefully ease in the coming days and it’ll keep me out of ER for respiratory problems at least.

> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.

Full disclosure: I spend days, weeks perhaps months testing modelling and model train products for the reviews on Model Railway Engineer and have used hundreds of tools, accessories and materials over many, many, years. No money or gifts were exchanged for this review. I bought the product at the normal advertised price and without the supplier knowing it would be reviewed here. The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, B&Q, Amazon or Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here:

    • Unused an in their box, 5 years. Im use, it varies depending on use. I replace them once I notice difficulty in breathing through them. Sorry, I can’t give a definitive duration but it depends on usage and how quickly the filters clog up in your environment. Andy

  1. Great article on the health dangers from paints etc, would you say the mask you recommended would protect from fumes from adhesives such as Tamiya super thin?
    Many thanks

    • Hi John, I’ve just tried it using Tamiya liquid cement. Without the mask, I can smell the cemenet as soon as the bottle is opened, repeating this a few minutes later with the mask on and I couldn’t smell it at all; even when leaning directly over a model I was applying it to for a several minutes. Hope this helps. Andy

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