A good finish is one of the basic tenets of any kind of woodworking. Yet, how many of us have seen our umpteen hours of careful planing, joining, cutting, gluing and sanding a project undone by a bad finish? The finish is even more critical for professional cabinetmakers. How “good” a finish looks is the sole guideline for many customers’ evaluation of quality work. Dovetailed drawers, book-matched grains, and fine joinery may go unnoticed. But a sprayed-on, perfectly smooth finish, even on some cheap, stapled-together, butt-jointed, assembly-line cabinet, leaves the strongest and probably most favorable impression.
In the past, the only way most cabinet shops could get a spray-applied finish was to subcontract with a spray shop. HVLP (high-volume, low pressure) spray gun systems have changed all that, making high-quality spraying technology available and relatively affordable for most shops.
We asked Paul Smith, owner of Fuji International in Toronto, to fill us in on HVLP.
“HVLP is designed for fine finishing,” Paul explained. “If you want to spray an automobile, a piano, a guitar, furniture or machinery, this is the perfect solution. Paint, enamel, or lacquer and it’ll spray every known coating. There’s very little overspray and very little bounceback, so it appeals to small shops and cabinet makers.”
Fuji International makes a line of HVLP spray systems and accessories. The name Fuji was selected in 1986 by the original owner to capitalize on the perception of Japanese quality. When Paul bought the company in 1990, he thought about changing the name, but the company’s dealer network didn’t want to lose the name recognition they’d already established. Paul stuck with the name, but noted that the Fuji systems are made up of 96% North American content!
All systems include a spray gun, 3 or 4-stage turbine engine, paint cups, and one spray tip. The Q3 and Q4 Systems were specially designed by Paul to reduce motor noise.
“The 3-stage is powerful enough for any type of fine finishing,” explained Paul, “but if you really want to spray latex house paint a lot of the time — even on household trim –you would be better off with the 4-stage system. The motor’s got the extra oomph required to atomize heavier paints.”
According to Paul, Fuji’s customers are using HVLP sprayers for everything from lacquer to clear coats, urethanes and colors, and even melamine paint and which ends up looking like a Formica application. The size and pattern of the spray is set by dialing a collar on the business end of the sprayer. Size of the spray can range from a 1/8″ line (with the gun held close to the work) up to a 15″ wide pattern. For most purposes, the gun is held 6 or 8 inches away from the work and set for an 8″ to 10″ vertical pattern.
“Spraying solids or clearcoats is relatively simple but let’s say you want to put a brown stain on a table. If I gave you the gun and you’d never sprayed stain before, you’re going to go a little faster then a bit slower, going to overlap unevenly, and you’ll probably make a mess. So we tell people to go ahead and use the spray gun to spray it on, but wipe off the stain so it’ll be even.”
Regardless of the medium, safety is important. Even with reduced overspray, lacquer fumes are toxic and combustible and a match or pilot light could cause a serious explosion. In addition to checking local regulations, Fuji recommends that sprayers use a breathing apparatus and have a setup that extracts the fumes from an enclosed room. On the other hand, waterborne products are not combustible and can usually be sprayed anywhere. And regardless of the base, cleanup is easy. At the end of the day, just wipe out the cup and fill with two or three inches of solvent and spray through into a rag (to avoid filling your shop with fumes). Water can be sprayed into a bucket then refill the cup and repeat. When the spray runs through clear, you’re all set for next time!
“Most applications are relatively easy to master.” He noted, “though there are other specialized tips available, the two standard sizes –1 mm or 1.4 mm — are all that 95 percent of our customers need for fine finishing. Both tips offer the same range of size patterns, the 1.4 just puts out more paint than the other. Only if you planned on spraying really large areas — walls and ceilings — and using thicker paint, would you need the larger 2mm or 3mm size.”
Without a heavy compressor to deal with, HVLP system portability is a big feature with cabinet shops. As Paul explained, “you finish the cabinets, spray them and the next day you transport and install them. But let’s say you put a little gouge on them on the way and there’s always something that happens. Just fill it in with some plastic wood, sand it, dial in a little round pattern, turn down the air, turn down the paint and using the gun like an airbrush, blend it in for a perfect repair. Right in the home! Or say the customer wants his old cabinets — the ones he’s keeping — to match the new ones. Of course you can do the old doors in the shop, but for the cabinets, you can close the doors of the kitchen, put drop cloths over the kitchen counters and the floor, dial in a small six or seven inch pattern and put on a couple of coats. The low pressure allows you to spray right in the home. And it’s going to look like brand spanking new cabinets.”
Fuji sells its spray systems through large catalog retailers such as Amazon.com, although parts and accessories can be purchased direct.
According to Paul, more and more cabinet shops are discovering the advantages of HVLP sprayers. They ensure that the finish is just as good as all the hard work they put into each piece, and they’re easy (and getting quieter) to use.
“If you can use a brush,” Paul noted, “you can use an HVLP sprayer.”