Is a Paint Sprayer Worth It?
Consumer Reports helps you decide whether this is the right tool for your next painting project
A few years ago, when a homeowner mentioned spray paint, they were likely referring to a can—with that little rattling ball—they picked up at a hardware store or home center.
But over time, spray-painting has grown to encompass a category of tools that can make projects around the house, from painting a door to staining a whole fence, easier and faster.
Benefits of Using a Paint Sprayer
Some manufacturers claim that spraying can be 10 times faster than painting with a brush or roller. Speed is certainly part of the allure, but it’s not the only benefit. With projects that have a lot of hard-to-reach corners, angles, or sides—think baluster spindles, the slats in an Adirondack chair, or the nooks and crannies of furniture—a handheld sprayer can be easier to work with than a small brush or roller.
For surfaces with a factory-sprayed finish, such as primed molding or doors, kitchen cabinetry, and furniture, a paint sprayer will produce a smoother, more professional-looking surface. And with a little practice, it’s possible to achieve a more uniform layer of paint with a sprayer compared with a brush or roller.
Airless Paint Sprayers vs. HVLP Paint Sprayers
There are myriad ways to spray paint, but the two options designed for homeowners are airless sprayers and high-volume, low-pressure sprayers, or HVLP. Both types can handle a range of oil- and water-based finishes, from thinner stains to thick paint-and-primer-in-one. And both come in a variety of sizes, from handheld portable to larger stationary machines.
The airless models (sold at Home Depot and Lowe’s) aimed at homeowners range from smaller handheld versions you preload with up to a quart of paint and run off a power cord or a rechargeable battery to large, plug-in electric sprayers on wheels, which siphon paint right out of a 1- or 5-gallon can. All airless sprayers work the same way: A pump pulls the finish from a reservoir and forces it through the gun’s tip at high pressure, breaking it up into uniform droplets. Handheld sprayers usually operate at about 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch; larger ones, at about 3,600 psi. (Take care not to aim the sprayer at anyone, including yourself.)
While airless sprayers use a pump to build pressure, HVLP models (sold at Home Depot and Lowe’s) use a turbine motor, which pressurizes the paint container and also helps create a uniform, atomized spray. There are few battery-powered HVLP models on the market. Typically, the handheld models require a power cord and can spray up to 48 ounces (1.5 quarts) of paint at a time, which is held in a container attached above or below the gun. The larger HVLP systems have two parts, where a stationary compressor or turbine connects to the spray gun and paint reservoir with an air hose.
As the name implies, HVLP sprayers tend to work at much lower pressure. This uses less paint, provides a finer, buttery-smooth finish, and can make it easier to learn proper spraying technique. HVLPs are also well suited to detail work, such as trim, cabinetry, furniture, and doors, because they add less velocity to the paint, making them easier for a homeowner to control. They’re also safer should your hand come in contact with the tip.
A few brands dominate: consumer-grade Wagner and prosumer and professional brands like Titan and Graco. Wagner has a “high efficiency airless” sprayer, or HEA, with a much lower pressure that it claims will boost the amount of paint that sticks to a surface by 55 percent. For larger tasks, where you’ll be using 3 or more gallons of paint, an airless sprayer system may be a better fit—generally, professional painters use airless sprayers to quickly cover big surfaces, such as lots of rooms or spaces with vaulted ceilings, and to paint building exteriors.
Keep in mind that if you want to use a paint sprayer without buying one, you can rent a sprayer from a home improvement store.
Should You Use a Paint Sprayer?
Using a paint sprayer is more involved than you might think. Here’s the lowdown.
You’ll need to prep for errant spray. Airless sprayers, in particular, tend to have a lot of what’s called overspray because of the velocity caused by the high pressure. Some paint will bounce off the surface you’re spraying and can land anywhere, from floor to ceiling to windows. So you’ll have to set aside time to mask/prep areas you likely wouldn’t need to if you were using a roller or brush. That includes windows, floors, and molding indoors, and trim details and hardscaping (brick patios, stone walls, wooden arbors, etc.) outdoors.
“Generally, it can take at least three times as much time to mask when you’re using a sprayer versus a brush or roller,” says Don Easton, a painter in Woodland, Calif. Keep in mind that masking may take less time with a brush and roller, but the actual painting will take a lot longer than it would if you used a sprayer.
The paint and maybe the sprayer itself need to be prepped. You can’t just stir the paint the way you can when you brush or roll. In less-powerful HVLP systems, a thicker paint, like paint-and-primer-in-one, usually needs to be thinned with water or an appropriate paint additive. Even powerful airless systems need the paint to be strained, a job you’ll need to do at home.
“A lot of times people don’t strain the paint first,” says Trevor Hayward, a painter in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Then you get a paintball that will clog up your gun or your tip.”
If you’re using one of the larger machines, you’ll also need to prime the sprayer, which means filling its hose with the paint or stain before you can start attacking the project.
Outdoor jobs may be impeded by wind. While all paint reacts to heat and humidity, wind can make a mess with a sprayer. A lot of pros will move parked cars and use drop cloths to protect things like a driveway or plantings when spraying the outside of a house with an airless sprayer. You should take similar precautions. Wind can pick up during a project and you don’t want to have to stop and rush to protect an area you just sprayed or didn’t plan on spraying.
Cleanup for most finishes can be easy. Like a quality roller or brush you hope to use again, all sprayers need to be properly cleaned after each use. If you’re using a water-based paint or stain, tidying the gun afterward is relatively simple.
“You can clean these up a lot faster than you think,” says Jon Beaton, vice president of product management at Wagner. Provided it’s basically empty, “just dump it in the sink with hot, soapy water.” However, if you’re using an oil-based coating, you’ll have to spray a solvent—like mineral spirits—to remove any paint from a sprayer, and then run the tool again with water to remove the solvent.
How to Achieve the Finish You Want With a Paint Sprayer
Your technique and the smoothness of the surface you’re spraying contribute to the quality of the finish you can achieve.
Regardless of the type of sprayer you use, plan to practice with it.
“The first thing I tell people new to spraying is to put water in [the unit] and spray it on anything,” Beaton says. “Spray it on the side of your house to get a feel for what it’s like and what to expect the first time you pull that trigger.” Besides the house, you can practice spraying paint on cardboard boxes or scrap sheets of plywood.
Homeowners often stand too far away from the surface and move after pulling the trigger.
“Hold an HVLP sprayer’s tip 6 to 8 inches from the wall; an airless sprayer, 12 inches away,” says Paul Stein, the Vancouver-based CEO of Trusted House Painter, a network of painters in the U.S. and Canada. Pros always move their arm before pulling the trigger so as not to leave a noticeable deposit of paint at the start of a stroke.
As for the surface quality, don’t assume you can achieve a mirror finish unless the surface is glassy smooth to begin with.
“If you’re spraying a wall that’s had three or four coats rolled on, you can’t spray and get a mirror finish on that surface,” Beaton says.
Because spraying leaves a different texture than a brush or roller, there will be a slight discrepancy in the look of the paint where walls meet the ceiling or trim. Beaton suggests that you cover at least a foot from where the ceiling meets the wall and around doors and windows. Then spray everything right onto the masking so that you have a consistent finish up to the masking’s edge. Also note: If you have to touch up a sprayed surface—say you had water damage and have to make a drywall repair—use the sprayer again or the fix will be obvious.