Many of us here at The Family Handyman have used small paint sprayers in the past with limited success, so we wondered whether the current batch was an improvement. We decided to test some to find out. We focused on small sprayers under $200 that could spray latex paint and other water-base finishes.
A quick survey of readily available sprayers revealed two categories: airless sprayers with a small built-in pump, and high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) sprayers that rely on a vacuum cleaner–type turbine. In the past, most handheld sprayers were the airless type. They were often nicknamed “buzz guns” for the loud buzzing noise created by the pump. Recently, however, more consumer-grade HVLP sprayers have become available, and we decided to concentrate our efforts on this group.
Unlike airless sprayers, most HVLP sprayers in this price range can't shoot unthinned latex paint. However, they have a few advantages that we think make them worth considering. First, they're quieter and the noise they make is less annoying—more like a vacuum cleaner. Plus, they put more finish on the project and less into the air, which is better in many ways. And finally, the good ones apply a very fine and controllable finish that enables a beginner to successfully finish woodwork, cabinets and furniture.
Our test revealed a large variation in spray patterns. The less expensive sprayers with smaller turbines and plastic spray tips produced a pattern that was spread out with foggy edges and large paint spatters. On the other end of the spectrum, the Graco sprayer produced very fine paint particles in a tight spray pattern with minimal spray beyond the edges, allowing you to get a super-smooth finish with good control.
The Wagner PaintREADY and PaintREADY System can both spray unthinned latex, but the resulting finish has a bit of texture. We cheated on the viscosity recommended for the Graco and Rockler sprayers and were able to spray unthinned latex with them. We suspect this was due to the more powerful turbines and the good-quality needle and tip sets on these two sprayers.
The sprayers that produced the best finish had brass needle and spray tips, just like pro-grade HVLP sprayers. These tips are removable for easy cleaning and can be replaced if they wear out. The Rockler sprayer includes two different size needles and tips for efficient spraying of thicker and thinner material. You can order other tips for the Graco sprayer from Graco.
All the spray guns have a shield on the tip that can be adjusted to spray a vertical stripe, horizontal stripe or round pattern. Some require you to loosen a large nut before adjusting the pattern, and you end up with paint on your hands in the process. The Graco gun has a lever that you simply push from side to side to change the pattern. It's easy and foolproof. The Wagner PaintREADY gun also has an easy-to-use spray pattern adjuster.
All the spray guns have an adjustable flow control to change the amount of material being sprayed. Most have a threaded stop near the trigger that you turn in or out. This limits the trigger movement and changes the position of the needle relative to the spray tip, essentially changing the size of the spray tip opening. The Black & Decker spray gun has an adjusting knob where the hose enters the gun. The knob is easy to turn, and an indicator graph shows the setting. The Graco gun has a nice thumbscrew adjuster.
Wagner allows you to spray unthinned latex and thinner materials by providing two front ends in its PaintREADY System. all the other sprayers we tested spray thinned latex paint only, although the Rockler sprayer includes two needles and tips so you can optimize the spray pattern for thicker or thinner material.
Manufacturers claim all kinds of features, but here are the ones we think are the most important. Besides the features we mention, you may see claims about easy cleaning or additional adjustments. The truth is that all of these sprayers require disassembly for thorough cleaning, and the only adjustments you really need are for the spray pattern and the paint flow.
A powerful turbine
While airless sprayers are rated by how many gallons per hour they can spray, HVLPs are usually rated by the wattage of the turbine. The theory is that the higher the wattage, the more pressure the turbine can create. and higher pressure allows better atomization of the paint and allows more viscous (thicker) materials to be sprayed. Wattage is only one part of the equation for a good sprayer, but in general, more is better. The Rockler turbine is rated at 1,000 watts, with the Wagner PaintREADY System turbine coming in second at 540 watts.
How We Tested
All of these HVLP sprayers include thinning instructions and a “viscosity cup” to help determine the right amount of solvent—in our case, water—to add. We started by thinning a few gallons of water-base paint enough to meet every sprayer manufacturer's recommendation so we could compare the sprayers with the same viscosity of paint.
Then we sprayed a band of paint for eight seconds with the spray tip held 1 ft. from the surface. We compared the coverage, spray pattern and paint particle size. This gave us a good idea of each sprayer's performance. Next we practiced on walls and raised-panel doors to get some real-world experience. Finally, we compared features and components. Read on to see what we discovered.
Graco, which has made professional-grade sprayers for decades, has ventured into the consumer market with this HVLP sprayer. And you can tell Graco has experience making sprayers. The spray pattern is well contained with very little spatter. Paint coverage is great, and the paint particle size is small enough for a smooth finish.
Features we like include the spray-pattern adjusting lever on the front of the gun, the pro-style metal spray tip and onboard storage of gun and hose. Graco includes a DVD with instructions for using the gun. This sprayer received high marks for the quality of the spray and well-planned features.
Wagner's PaintREADY System includes a separate turbine and hose, and two “front ends” that snap onto the spray gun handle, allowing you to spray thick and thin materials efficiently. The additional pressure supplied by the stand-alone 540-watt turbine provides a little better spray quality than you get from the sprayers with onboard turbines. This kit is a good choice for maximum versatility, but the fine-finish sprayer still doesn't rival the finish quality of the Graco or Rockler.
Wagner has a long history of making small, consumer-grade sprayers and offers many models of both airless and HVLP-type sprayers. This HVLP sprayer with built-in turbine is a solid performer that can apply a better-than-average finish with properly thinned material. This “double-duty” model includes a larger, 1-1/2-qt. material cup for larger exterior projects. If you don't want to spend more than $100 on a sprayer, we think this one is a good choice.
The PaintREADY sprayer (available through our affiliate program with Amazon) is the only HVLP sprayer in this group that's intended for use with unthinned latex paint. And Wagner acknowledges that the paint particles are not as fine as those from the other sprayers, resulting in a “textured” paint surface. Our tests confirmed that this sprayer can handle unthinned latex paint and that the paint surface has a little texture when dry.
This sprayer would work well for exterior projects where a fine finish isn't necessary. But we wouldn't recommend it for spraying woodwork, cabinets or furniture. This is a good sprayer for its intended use, but if you want more versatility, consider spending a little more money for the PaintREADY System.
The Rockler sprayer (available through our affiliate program with Amazon) doesn't include any fancy features, just a powerful turbine and a no-nonsense spray gun with a pro-style metal tip. After the Graco, this sprayer applied the best spray pattern with even coverage and a well-confined pattern.
This is the only sprayer in our test that includes a choice of two tip and needle sets for spraying thick or thin material. The more powerful turbine allowed us to use thicker paint with this sprayer.
This sprayer applied the least amount of paint among the sprayers tested. But this doesn't mean it's a bad sprayer, just that it will take a little longer to apply the same amount of paint. The twist knob located on the back of the gun makes paint flow adjustments easier than with most other models we tried. This gun isn't our first choice, but it would work great for small projects.
Hands-on With HVLP Sprayers
If you've never used one, you'll be surprised at the easy-to-control spray of an HVLP sprayer. The turbine sounds like a vacuum cleaner and blows a stream of low-pressure air that puts just enough pressure on the paint in the container to push some up into the stream of air flowing through the gun. There it's broken up by the spray tip and blown onto the surface.
Consumer-grade HVLP turbines like the ones we're looking at in this article lack the power to do a great job with unthinned latex. So the first thing you need to do if you're using water-base paint is to thin it. each of the sprayers includes a funnel-like viscosity cup for this purpose. To use it, you fill the cup and time how long it takes for the paint to run out through the funnel. you thin the paint until it runs out in the specified amount of time. Strain the thinned paint through a mesh filter and fill the paint container to get started.
One problem we discovered when using thinned paint in HVLP sprayers is that it's very easy to apply too much paint, which results in runs. Plan to apply several thin coats rather than one or two thick ones. also read the instruction manual for tips on setup, spray techniques and cleanup procedure. With a little practice, we're sure you'll be able to master an HVLP and apply a professional-looking finish on woodwork, cabinets and furniture.
Wagner makes several versions of handheld airless sprayers. The Power Painter Max shown here (available through our affiliate program with Amazon) includes a flexible paint pickup tube so you can spray at any angle, a two-speed pump, and an adapter and hose so you can spray from a paint can instead of the attached paint container.
In addition to being powered by an 18-volt lithium ion battery, this Ryobi airless sprayer (P650K) (available through our affiliate program with Amazon) includes a pro-style reversible spray tip that allows you to clear the clogged tip easily by simply twisting the tip 180 degrees.
As the name implies, these sprayers don't rely on a stream of air to propel the paint. Instead, the paint is drawn into a small cylinder and pressed out under high pressure by a piston. The piston pump is what makes these guns noisy. Because there's no air, a lot more paint comes out of the spray tip. The high pressure created by the pump allows the guns to spray unthinned latex paint, but it also creates a lot of overspray and fine particles of paint dust in the air. That's why these sprayers are better for outdoor use or new construction where the overspray and fine paint dust aren't such a problem.
Airless sprayers can be a little finicky since the piston must be kept clean and lubricated, and the spray tip can clog easily. If you're willing to spend a little more money, there are two handheld airless sprayers on the market that include a pro-style reversible spray tip. The Ryobi (shown) and the Graco TrueCoat sprayer both have tips that you can spin 180 degrees to blow out clogs. The Graco model also allows you to exchange tips for different spray patterns. But these sprayers cost $180 to $200, well above the average.
If you don't mind the noise, need to paint large surfaces quickly, and don't want to mess with thinning the paint, then an airless sprayer is a good choice. For less overspray and a finer finish on interior projects, HVLP is a better choice.