NEO for Iwata Review

I've been asked a number of times when I would add reviews of Iwata airbrushes.  My answer has usually been that my pockets aren't deep enough.  The other day, I worked up my courage and sent an e-mail to Gary Glass, the president of Iwata-Medea.   I wrote that I had this web site with some tips and reviews, and I asked him to look it over and see if he would like some Iwatas included.  To my surprise, he wrote back the next day and said sure, he would send me a couple of airbrushes.  It turns out Gary is a really nice guy.  So, I said that since my site is sort of aimed at beginners, a Neo would be nice.  Gary sent me two, both the siphon and gravity fed models. 

The Neos are almost as controversial as the Aztek.  Comments about them range from "it's great" to "it was junk and I returned it".

Here they are in their colorful boxes.  Note, they are made for Iwata, not by Iwata.  The back of the box says "Assembled in China from components of Taiwan".  So, they are not genuine Iwatas, but Iwata does guarantee them for 5 years.
You can find them on the Iwata website, but you have to go in the back door.  The home page doesn't mention them, but a Google search for Neo finds them here, under products airbrush.  And, the manual can be viewed here.  They are obviously aimed at first time airbrushers, hence the name Neo and the low price.  Curiously, Coast Airbrush sells the siphon model for $10 more than the Gravity fed, even though they are basically the same airbrush.


You couldn't miss these in the store if you walked by them.  Notice the hole so they can be hung on a display peg.  It's clever packaging.  At first, I thought there was no manual.  But, it's there.  It's under the foam insert, which is difficult to remove.  Something pointing that out would have helped.  But, it's just a single sheet anyway with three steps that basically say: hook up air hose, add paint, and push down and pull back trigger.  For cleaning, it says add cleaner and spray until it's clear.
On the back of the sheet it says "For further in-depth tips and info, please go to www.iwata-neo.com".  If you go there, you will find the main Neo page.  And then, if you click on the model, it will take you to a page with specifications and a link to the on line manual.  It's a little cryptic and I think it would have been much easier if they had just put a sticker in the box with a link to the manual.

Neo CN Gravity Fed



The CN comes with two screw-on cups or it can be used with no cup at all.  According to Iwata, the large cup is 1/3oz., the small cup is 1/16oz. and the body will hold 1/32oz. without a cup.  Both cups have a rubber O-ring seal.

The CN weighs just 77g by itself.  It's 89g with the large cup and 82g with the small one.

The interchangeable cups are nice, but I have a hunch most users will just leave the 1/3oz. cup on.  You can still use just a couple drops of paint if you want.  And, that's the only way the airbrush will fit back in the box.

First impressions

The finish on these is beautiful.  They are just really pretty.  The balance is good, and they are very comfortable to hold.

The trigger action is firm, but smooth.   The trigger has a front and back.  The back surface of the shaft is flat and there is an undercut in the top to allow it to be pulled all the way back.

There was one red flag however.  When I removed the head of the CN, I noticed a typical Chinese rubber O-ring under the nozzle.  As you can see on the right, it is already sitting unevenly.  Whether this is a problem , we'll have to see.

I am using Iwata's terms for this review.  What Badger refers to as a tip, they call a nozzle.  And, what Badger calls a spray regulator, they call a nozzle cap.







Here is a view into the cup opening of the CN.  Access is good, but it's kind of narrow down there.



















Parts Breakdown


The CN came apart easily.  All the threads are nice and smooth and feel accurate.  The nozzle cap and nozzle threads had some sort of grease or sealant on them.  And, the tiny O-ring between the air valve and body has some kind of grease for lubrication.

I removed the adjustment screw for the needle seal, but the seal itself didn't fall out and I didn't want to risk damage by poking on it.  I couldn't find in the spec's what it is made of, but it is white and looks like Teflon.

The nozzle is the tiny screw-in type.  The manual warns not to over tighten it.  If you do, you're going to either break it or strip the threads.  It would also be easy to cross thread.  Start it with your fingers and use the wrench to just snug it up.  I made a holder our of heat shrink sleeving to make it easier to start.

The air valve comes apart easily with an allen wrench.

The needle shafts are 0.046" in diameter like the Master G-22.  The CN has a 0.35mm nozzle and the BCN, bottom feed has a 0.50mm nozzle.
Here are the two needles on the right, with the CN the upper one.
The BCN has a slight double taper.





Spares

The manual has a parts diagram, and all the parts have part numbers.  So, I checked Coast Airbrush for spares and found that they only carry five parts.
    .35mm and .50mm needles
    .35mm and .50mm nozzles and O-ring
    and the needle cap (this one is strange because that cap just protects the needle and it's never going to wear out)

The .35 and .50mm nozzle caps are not carried.

So, if you bung up that little nozzle O-ring, you will have to buy a nozzle for $11.75 to get another one.
There may be other sources for spares, and this condition could be temporary, since it is a brand new product.
By the way, the warranty does not cover the needle or nozzle, as these are subject to normal wear.  It also doesn't cover damage caused by negligence.  So, if you drop it and something breaks that's not spared, I'm not sure what you can do.

Trying it out

I put some water in the Neo and checked for bubbles and it was OK.  Then I pulled back on the trigger and nothing came out.  Nothing but air and not much of that.  I tried different pressures and adjusting the nozzle in and out, and once with about 30psi I got a little squirt with the trigger about half back.  I tried a bunch of things until finally I installed the Neo BCN nozzle cap on the CN.  Suddenly it worked.  I sprayed some food color and it was not as fine as I would expect from a .35mm tip, but it wasn't too bad either.

So I did some measuring with my little microscope.  The air opening in the CN nozzle cap is just about 0.022 inches in diameter, which leaves a very narrow space around the nozzle for air to escape.  In the past, I've made this same measurement on a borrowed Iwata HP-C with a 0.3mm nozzle and the nozzle cap opening measured a whopping  0.034 inches.  The Neo was being starved for air.  It turns out the Neo BCN nozzle cap has an opening of about 0.030 inches, which explains why it works.

Another problem was nozzle centering.  As I feared, adjusting the tightness of the nozzle against the rubber O-ring changes how it centers in the nozzle cap opening.  I've found in the past that this centering is important to performance.

Here are photos of the CN and BCN nozzle caps



On the left is the CN nozzle showing the narrow air passage and the nozzle off center.  On the right is the BCN nozzle.  The air passage is still pretty narrow, but centering is good.

I sent Gary an e-mail describing what I found, and he wrote back right away and said he would send a replacement.  He couldn't just send spare parts, because they are not available yet.  And, he said he would contact the manufacturer about the problem.  I am sending him the bad CN for their analysis.

Joanna Murphy, Iwata's customer service lady shipped me another one.  The box was still factory sealed.  The first thing I did was to put some water in it and try it out.  It sprayed fine.  Then I tried some food coloring on a paper towel.  Here is a sample on the right.  The air coming out still feels like a whisper, but the brush details really nice.  Maximum coverage at about 3 inches was a little over 1/2 inch.

I removed the cup after spraying a cupful of food coloring and was surprised to find that the threads were clean.  I really expected to find coloring on them.

I removed the nozzle cap and examined the nozzle with a magnifier.  There was no rubber O-ring visible.  It turns out that when installed correctly, the O-ring is fully inside the body of the airbrush, and the nozzle has face to face metal contact.  This is different than the Master G-22 and should result in more reliable alignment.  Sure enough, the nozzle aligned well inside the nozzle cap opening.

I measured the nozzle cap opening and it was 0.024 inches in diameter.  That's only 0.002 inches more than the problem airbrush.  But, combined with misalignment of the nozzle, that difference was enough to mess up the spray characteristics of the first brush.  Because the clearance between the nozzle and nozzle cap is so small in this airbrush, tiny errors can make a major difference in performance.  Maybe this explains some of the variation in the reviews that I've seen.

Neo BCN Siphon Fed

I won't show a parts breakdown of the BCN, because it is really the same airbrush except for the method of feed.  Instead of  .35mm, the BCN has a larger .5mm nozzle, needle and nozzle cap.  It comes with a bottle.  Iwata doesn't offer cups.  But Badger and Paasche cups and bottles fit.  There was some kind of grease on the nozzle cap threads that made it hard to loosen.  It bugged me so I cleaned it off with some lacquer thinner.

The BCN weighs 79g by itself, and 94g with a Badger 1/4oz. cup attached.

Trying it out

I did my usual doodle with food coloring on a paper towel.  I used a Badger cup.  The BCN had a very nice narrow pattern with excellent trigger control.  It will do a really fine line.  Maximum coverage for painting models is about 3/4 inch.

Probably, the best bet for cleaning this brush and the CN is to flush with cleaner and wipe the needle.  The little nozzle is too tiny to mess with each time.  But, like most airbrushes with an adjustable needle seal, there is a narrow channel around the needle from the seal to the paint inlet that may accumulate paint over time.  It's about an inch long.  Normal flushing is probably not going to clean it out, and eventually the needle may stick.  At that point the channel will have to be cleaned somehow.  The threaded hole the nozzle fits in is too small for a pipe cleaner.  The smallest size airbrush cleaning brush I have will fit if you jam it in, but it gives me the willies to do that. 


One possible solution is shown below.  Squirting solvent from the rear could flush out dried paint.  But, be sure to remove the air valve if you do this with anything that could damage the little O-rings.  Another possible solution is an occasional soak in an  ultrasonic cleaner.

Conclusion

I think Iwata has contracted with a Chinese company in order to compete better with the cheap Chinese brushes that are flooding the market.   Whether this is a good decision or not remains to be seen.  Hopefully, it will encourage users to eventually upgrade to a real Iwata.  But, there is some risk here.  If the brushes are poor performers, it could hurt the Iwata brand name.  On the other hand, if they are too good, buyers may never see a need to upgrade.

It looks like the Neo's manufacturer is having some problems.  Gary says they are working hard to correct that.  And, I believe that if you got a bad one, Iwata would make it good.  Replacement parts availability is marginal right now, but this could improve in the future.  Because not all parts are spared, you might want to avoid doing any modifications, such as clipping springs.

The Neo's are very capable airbrushes.  But, are they the best choice for beginners?  Well, if someone has never touched an airbrush before, I would have to say no.  They are just too delicate.  The fine .35mm needle of the CN, and the tiny, easy to break nozzle with the O-ring are potential stumbling blocks.  If both models had larger compression type 0.5mm nozzles, I think they would be much better suited for this purpose.  

Another potential pitfall is the narrow gap between the nozzle and nozzle cap.  If a user should press too hard when installing the needle, or let the needle slam forward when the trigger is released, it could cause the nozzle to flare like a little trumpet.  This is true of any airbrush.  But, with Neo, there is so little space for air flow to begin with, that this would most likely soon affect the spray pattern.   A new user could have a hard time figuring out what was going on.  It might not be obvious, even under a magnifier.  Even without distortion, the minimal air flow is going to make thinning more critical. 

And, it would have been nice if Iwata had included better documentation.  But still, the Neo's are certainly a better choice than the no-name Chinese brushes you see so much of.  The name Iwata does mean something, and I'm sure they will stand behind them. 

My sincere thanks to Gary Glass and Joanna Murphy of Iwata for sending me the samples.

Postscript

I heard from Gary Glass, and he said they will absolutely stand behind this airbrush.  So, if you are having a problem with one, be sure to contact Iwata.

Post Postscript

I got a follow-up e-mail from Gary.  He wrote that, after my review they took a closer look at their manufacturing and testing processes and found some areas that could lead to mistakes.  These have been corrected and should result in, in Gary's words, a better end user experience.  That makes me feel pretty good.


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