Stop Thinking About Buying A Spray Gun

All of the woodworkers I know like the woodworking part, but most of them dislike the finishing part. They have a great time using their tools to craft something beautiful and useful and then get paralyzed when it is time to wrap it up. They want it to come out perfect, or at least really good, and are sure that they are going to mess it up. Usually, they have tried applying a finish with a brush, or a roller, or a cloth, or all of the above and more, and the results were never great. It is possible to get a good finish with a brush or any of the above, but it isn’t easy and usually comes up short of perfection.

In the quest for a better finish, many woodworkers ask me about spray guns and spraying in general. They are looking for a better finish, a finish that is easier to apply, and a finish that makes their hard work shine. Their reasons for not already owning a spray gun are numerous, but when I am asked if they should purchase a spray gun, my answer is always a loud and excited, “YES!”, followed by, “What in heck are you waiting for?”

I have owned two Fuji Q4 HVLP systems like this with a bottom-feed gun, and both worked great.

I have owned two Fuji Q4 HVLP systems like this with a bottom-feed gun, and both worked great.

On my list of essential woodworking tools, a spray system ranks near the top, only after a table saw, jointer, and planer (and, logically I suppose, after sandpaper). I use a spray gun on nearly every project and for a multitude of reasons, with the main reasons being quality of finish, speed, speed and speed. Quality of finish is self explanatory, but the triple speed thing may need a bit more description.

With a spray gun, the application is fast (speed #1). From spraying stain to applying the last coat of finish, the spray gun can move some material quickly. There is no faster way to get finish from the can to a project, short of just dumping it on. If the gun is working well and the finish is flowing nicely, I can often put down finish as fast as I can move.

The spray gun also allows me to use fast-drying finishes (speed #2) like lacquer or conversion varnishes, which are impossible to apply any other way. With lacquer products, the finish is often hard enough to sand and be recoated in just 15 to 30 minutes, compared to a full day with oil-based polyurethane. Lacquer dries so fast, that I often spray parts just before heading to an install, throw them in the bed of my truck, and they are ready to install by the time I get to the job site. It can’t get much faster than that.

The best part for me, not being the most fastidious of woodworkers, is the time it takes to prep the spray area when using lacquers (speed #3). Besides covering areas from potential overspray, there is no prep required. I usually spray right next to my table saw or anywhere that I have room in the shop and do nothing about the dust. I just blow off the piece I am about to spray and get on with it. The finish dries so fast that dust doesn’t have time to get in it. I literally do nothing before I spray, even if I am standing in a pile of sawdust (the piece I am spraying is on sawhorses and not in the pile of dust, of course). I would never even think of working like this using something like an oil-based polyurethane, which seems to pull in dust from everywhere. (Quick note: I do use the gun to spray slow-drying finishes too, but the spray area needs to be clean and dust free, and I would prefer to skip that here in the speed, speed, speed section.)

Besides the above four advantages, I am often asked additional questions when it comes to spraying, but I must warn you, the answer to all of them is still, “Buy a spray gun!” Here are some of the most common questions:

  1. Can I spray ________ with it? Yes, YES, yes, yes and YES! You can spray any liquid finish by changing its viscosity and/or your spray tips, if needed. It is no different from a brush – a spray gun is just a vehicle to move finish from the can to the project.
  2. I don’t have anywhere I can spray inside. Can I spray outside? I think outside is the best. Spraying outside requires no exhaust fans and usually provides ample space to work. Plus, it is just nice to be outdoors. I often move outside to finish large projects, or if I am out of room in the shop and need to spread things out. The best outdoor spot is a garage (with the door open), which has good ventilation, controlled wind, and a shield from the sun – a lot like an actual paint booth.
  3. What about the fumes when I spray indoors? Yes, there are fumes when spraying solvent finishes, but they can be dealt with quickly and easily. First, spray near a window with a fan in it (instant paint booth). Second, wear a mask while spraying. Third, don’t spray when your wife is home.
  4. Won’t the overspray get on everything? Sort of. The spray gun will shoot finish beyond the workpiece (overspray), but most of it will land in the form of dust. Fast drying finishes like lacquers dry almost instantly in the air, so only overspray close to the workpiece is wet and sticky. Even the overspray on the floor directly beneath the sawhorses just sweeps up.
  5. Isn’t a spray gun a pain to clean-up? No. If you stick to solvent-based finishes, like lacquer, that dissolve with lacquer thinner you only need to clean-up when the gun isn’t working right and then only by soaking the parts in lacquer thinner. If I am spraying lacquer, I treat the gun just like a can and leave the finish in it until the next time I spray. If you are using finishes that aren’t soluble after they dry you can’t be so cavalier, but it still isn’t a big deal. Often, it is only a matter of spraying the solvent through the gun until it is clean.
The Apollo turbine HVLP, shown here with a gravity-feed gun, is another spray gun I have used which produces great results.

The Apollo turbine HVLP, shown here with a gravity-feed gun, is another spray gun I have used which produces great results.

After I berate someone for not already owning a spray gun and then tell them over and over again to buy one, the next question they ask is usually, “Which one should I buy?” My answer is simple, “Not a cheap one.” I have used several different high-quality, name-brand HVLP spray systems, and all of them did a good job. There are, of course, subtle differences in the way the guns work and some may be better than others, but none of the higher-priced systems will be a bad purchase. I have personally used HVLP systems from Fuji, Apollo and Graco, and all of them give similar results. At the same time, it is worth noting that I have used cheap no-name guns, and they were painful to use. The spray was splotchy and the guns would only put down a wet finish in the very center of the fan pattern compared to the entire width of the fan pattern from a good gun.

This Graco 2-quart pressure pot system I currently use is an older model, but gives good results. With a newer system expect a smaller gun and an even better spraying.

This Graco 2-quart pressure pot system I currently use is an older model, but gives good results. With a newer system expect a smaller gun and an even better spraying.

When selecting an HVLP gun there are lots of choices, and again, as long as you don’t buy a junk gun they are mostly just different, and not necessarily bad. I currently use an older HVLP system made by Graco. It has a turbine and a small compressor that pressurizes the 2-quart pressure pot for the gun. I use a pressure pot because it holds more finish, so I can refill less often and keep moving. Plus, with the pressure pot system the gun profile is small to fit into tight spots. For most uses and especially for those of you that don’t even own a gun, one without a pressure pot is fine, leaving you only to decide on two items, the type of gun (bottom-feed or gravity-feed) and the air delivery system (air compressor or turbine).

As far as the guns go, I prefer the bottom-feed gun because it holds more finish, and since it is the type of gun I started with, it just feels right. At the same time, I know several people who use gravity-feed guns with no complaints. They like that the gun is a little lighter and fits in smaller spaces, and they don’t mind refilling as often. Between the two there really is no bad choice.

These Graco Airpro HVLP spray guns are a good example of guns that run on compressed air. They are available (from left) in a bottom-feed gun, a gun for use with a larger pressure pot, and a gravity-feed gun.

These Graco Airpro HVLP spray guns are a good example of guns that run on compressed air. They are available (from left) in a bottom-feed gun, a gun for use with a larger pressure pot, and a gravity-feed gun.

The air delivery system is the other area to focus on when deciding which system to purchase. The guns can either be powered by an air compressor or a turbine, and you get to choose which makes the most sense for you. Again, neither is wrong or bad, just different. First off, do you own a large compressor (5 hp, 50-gallon tank)? If you do, and you don’t need to be portable, you can save some money and just buy a gun. If you don’t, I wouldn’t recommend buying a big compressor just to spray. I would spend the compressor money on a turbine unit because it is very portable. I know I often take my gun with me to the job site or just outside, and I appreciate not having to lug around a giant compressor just to spray.

Here are the key decision points to address when purchasing your new system:

  1. Do you already own a large compressor and don’t need to be portable? If you already own a large compressor you can save money by only purchasing a compressed air gun. Don’t buy a big compressor just to spray, spend the money on the more portable turbine system.
  2. Would you like to use your spray gun outside of the shop, maybe at the job site or at your house? Turbine systems are the lightest and most portable. If you need to take your spray gun with you, pick a turbine. If you are only spraying in the shop, either a turbine or compressed air system will work.
  3. Are your jobs big? Bigger jobs (full kitchens, for example) require more material and may benefit from a system that can hold more finish. If you are spraying very often or are consistently spraying large jobs, think about a system with a pressure pot. Otherwise, stick with a gravity-feed gun or bottom-feed gun. Note that even large jobs can be sprayed without a pressure pot, but will require more refills.
  4. Do you have extra money? Here’s your chance to spend it. None of the good spray guns are inexpensive. Expect to pay $800-$1,000 or more for a complete turbine system. And, remember, don’t buy a cheap one.

If you have been thinking about buying a spray gun, stop! There is no reason (except for money) to think about it anymore. Start living your woodworking dream and buy one. No one, and I mean no one, has ever been unhappy knowing that they had a good spray gun to use whenever they needed it. You will use it so much more often than you think, and, though a good spray system is expensive, it may make you actually enjoy finishing.

If you have any concerns about using or purchasing a spray gun, let me know below in the comments section. I am certain that I can allay any of your fears and maybe even answer a question or two.

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

14 responses to “Stop Thinking About Buying A Spray Gun”

  1. Jeremy newton says :

    Great article I’m one of those guys that has long stood and stared at the spray guns and wondered………do I or don’t I? Now I think I have my answer and thank you for it. Over the last couple of years I have began to to use lacquer almost exclusively this is why you post realy got my attention. So I do have a question what do you mean that you just leave it when you finish there is no clean up. I’ve been told that if you don’t clean out the hose and gun and everything it will clog it all up this has been truthfully one of my big hang ups on buying such a system. Could you explain this a little more. I love your post keep up the good work.

    • wunderwoods says :

      Jeremy,
      If you use pre-catalyzed lacquer (solvent-based), it will break down with lacquer thinner. If your gun gets clogged or gummed up, just soak it in lacquer thinner and you are ready to go. Since I don’t clean as much as I should, I will keep spraying until the gun doesn’t shoot well and then spend a little extra time cleaning it. Again, it is mostly soaking the gun in lacquer thinner with the possible addition of a little elbow grease.
      If you took a little extra time each time you sprayed to clean the gun, you probably would never have an issue. I just can’t make myself do it.

  2. Dad says :

    You’re not going to work tomorrow are you?

  3. Dave Vitale says :

    Scott,
    Another great post! You left out one item that I thought you would include – use of Trans-Tint (on sale at Rockler right now by the way). Super easy to just add it right to the material canister full of lacquer and spray away!

    • wunderwoods says :

      Dave,

      Great idea. I do want to talk about TransTint and decided to make that its own separate post. As you know, I use them a lot and have a lot to say about them. Sounds like it may be time.

      • Dave Vitale says :

        I finally took your advice and tried it. They are expensive but a little goes a very long way. I was trying to repair a worn maple raised panel from the hall bath vanity where the finish had rubbed off. It was fun to try different colors and mixtures in water on maple scraps until I got it close – when I applied it to the panel it worked amazingly well.
        I just finished a batch of the Cub Scout crosses that we made (44 of them) and I knew that it was time to use the HVLP sprayer. The Tint gave them just the right amount of color to warm them up. Thanks for the advice.

  4. Leo Weisman says :

    I have a big compressor already. Do I need a special type of HVLP air gun to use with it, or will any quality HVLP air gun do the job.

    Years ago we used Deft lacquer at a tech school where I took an evening class. We always left the gun full.

    Leo Weisman, the self confessed tool hound and occasional builder of nice things.

    • wunderwoods says :

      You will need one for a compressor. The air is delivered to the gun differently between a compressor and a turbine and needs to be handled differently at the gun. A turbine is high volume low pressure, while a compressor is typically considered low volume high pressure. The compressor gun adjusts the pressure at the tip to deliver the air at low pressure. When purchasing a gun look at the air inlet to be sure you are getting the right one. At the bottom of the handle a compressor gun will have fittings or openings sized for a compressor. A turbine gun will have a much larger fitting or opening, big enough to handle a garden hose. Also, the handle itself will have more girth on a turbine powered gun.

  5. Piper Bridwell says :

    So thankful I found your post. I own a small business and redo (paint) furniture. I pretty much am commission pieces only and need to knock them out pretty quickly because I always have a waiting list. I have a Graco True coat II, and am tired of it clogging up and totally messing up a piece when it randomly decides to spit out large drops and stop working mid project. I am willing to pay for something super nice that can spray lacquers and oil. Looking for something easy to use/clean since I am going through different paint colors each week.. I work inside a small studio, and don’t need to move it all around. What would you suggest? Thank you!
    Piper

    • wunderwoods says :

      Piper,
      Almost any good quality HVLP system will make your painting more enjoyable. As mentioned in my post, I currently run a Graco HVLP with a pressurized gun and I am happy with it. The pressure pot makes for a smaller gun that can be used at any angle, both very good points. Before this gun I had a couple Fuji guns, which also worked great. A couple friends of mine use the smaller system with no complaints. I used the Q4 because it had more power and could spray heavier materials. I have used the Apollo systems and they are great too. You will be happy with any of them. The best thing about the HVLP systems is that they are easily portable. I take mine with me all of the time.

  6. bruceproctor says :

    What is a good spray gun for spraying WB poly (General Finishes) over epoxy resign on table tops? I have a gun from Harbor Freight (really cheap) but get a poor pattern and it leaks at the lid (no gasket).

    • wunderwoods says :

      I am a fan of Fuji or Apollo, but as I mentioned in my post, only the really cheap guns are unusable. Any of the higher-end brand name guns work way better than the one that you were trying to use. Remember, buy a spray gun and don’t buy a cheap one.

  7. AnthroDoc says :

    Thank you. You have spared a new woodworking many hours, weeks of years of anxiety. I now know precisely what to do, thanks to the clarity and honestly of your commentary. A nice and unexpected gift today from a fellow St. Louisian, although I live in the Bay area now.

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