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Airless Paint Sprayer vs. HVLP: Which One's Better?

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Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.

Whether you're painting your cabinets, house siding, or the walls inside your home, paint sprayers are versatile tools for both fine finishing and production work. As a professional painter, I can't imagine being without my sprayers for my painting projects.

Paint sprayers cut project completion time in half and make painting a lot easier. While using a paint sprayer for the first time might seem intimidating, it's easy to learn the basics. I own three airless sprayers and one HVLP, and I use them interchangeably for different projects.

My GX-19 Finish Pro airless sprayer.

My GX-19 Finish Pro airless sprayer.

My Graco 9.5 HVLP sprayer.

My Graco 9.5 HVLP sprayer.

Airless and HVLP Differences

The main functional difference between these two sprayers is the way the paint is atomized when sprayed. An airless sprayer does not use a compressor. Instead, it uses a pressurized pump and piston to siphon paint to the gun through a fluid line, forcing it through a small orifice in the spray tip to atomize it.

An HVLP (high volume, low pressure) sprayer uses a compressor, or a turbine, to atomize paint. This sprayer holds paint in a cup attached to the gun or in a remote pressurized pot. The spray gun uses a fluid needle and nozzle while an airless uses a spray tip.

  • The over-spray factor: Since airless sprayers spray paint at a much higher pressure, they produce more over-spray than an HVLP sprayer. For example, when I spray enamel and pre-cat lacquer with my GX-19 airless, I'm typically spraying at around 2,000 PSI, but with my HVLP, I spray around 10 PSI for the same material. That's a big difference, but even at low pressure, you can still ruin floors and furniture from over-spray without careful masking in advance.
  • The finish: An HVLP sprayer atomizes paint at low pressure and produces a finer finish than an airless that sprays at significantly higher pressure. You have more control over paint flow and coating thickness. You can dial in a perfect spray pattern to get a super smooth finish. You can achieve similar results too with an airless, using the right size and type of spray tip. With my airless, I use the green Graco FFLP tips. These tips have a slightly smaller orifice to produce a finer finish with less over-spray.
  • Thinning: Most airless sprayers are powerful enough to pump paint to the gun without having to thin the material first, but paint must be thinned with an HVLP. The orifices in the gun are small and clog when the material being sprayed is too thick. Thinning your paint takes a little experimentation to get the right viscosity. Thinning paint for an airless isn't necessary for spraying and rolling walls or siding, but it's a good idea for fine finish work to prevent orange peel.
  • The clean-up: There is more clean-up with a cup sprayer, and if you don't keep the orifices on the fluid nozzle unobstructed, the gun will clog and spray an uneven fan pattern. You have to disassemble the fluid needle and nozzle inside the gun, along with the cup and the filter inside. It takes me longer to clean these parts than my other sprayers that only need to be flushed out with clean water and the filter washed off.
Me priming a small set of cabinets with my HVLP sprayer.

Me priming a small set of cabinets with my HVLP sprayer.

Airless Paint Sprayer vs. HVLP for Cabinets

For me, an airless sprayer works best for spray painting cabinet doors, at least from a production standpoint, unless it's a small kitchen with less than 10 doors. With an airless, you can work directly out of the paint container and spray multiple doors at a time instead of having to continuously refill a cup. An HVLP works great too, but it takes longer to spray and finish the job.

The Best Sprayer for Cabinets

Either type of sprayer works fine, but I spray cabinets with white lacquer instead of paint, using my Graco GX-19 airless and a rotating spray rack. My sprayer includes an on-board hopper that holds close to two gallons of material. I use this sprayer for all of my larger cabinet painting projects and my Graco 9.5 HVLP sprayer for small projects. I have used the 9.5 sprayer for larger projects too, including a staircase I painted black and white, and I had to refill the cup too many times.

  • The finish quality on cabinets: While an HVLP does produce a fine finish with the right set up and paint that's been thinned properly, an airless sprayer is awesome for spraying lacquer and paint too at a faster rate. I spray Sher-Wood Hi-Bild lacquer on cabinet doors and it lays out like glass using my airless. With water-based enamel, some thinning is needed to help the enamel level out without orange peel.
  • Vertical spraying: An HVLP is better for vertical spraying small projects than an airless, especially if you're new to spraying. You're far less likely to get paint runs because you're spraying at a much lower pressure. An airless cranked up to 2,000 PSI throws a lot of paint onto the surface quickly. It's very easy to get runs if you overlap too many times.
  • Paint spits: Airless sprayers spit paint when you release the trigger. To avoid paint from spitting onto the surface you're spraying, you have to get into the habit of releasing the trigger beyond the substrate, not over it. Cup sprayers don't spit paint at all, making them the best choice for spray painting bookshelves and other tight spaces, or cabinet frames with a built-in wine rack.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Matt G.

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