To Spray or Not to Spray?

Rob was curious about whether you spray finishes in last week’s eZine editorial, and boy oh boy, do you folks have plenty to say about it – on one side of the spray gun debate or the other! – Editor

 Some of you love spraying, or you spray on occasion, with caveats. – Editor

“I don’t know why people shy away from spraying a finish. If you have an air compressor, you can use a low-cost conversion gun to spray. For example, Harbor Freight sells one for about $30. For small jobs, I’ve even used a pancake compressor. You can use it on larger projects if you break the work up: do one side, let the compressor catch up, then do the other side, etc. A spray gun makes all the difference in the quality of the finish. You just can’t get the smooth finish with a brush that a spray gun gives you. HVLP guns don’t have a whole lot of overspray, so you can spray in your garage, especially if you do with the garage doors open. I mostly shoot waterbased finish but occasionally I also spray shellac. It helps to have two guns, with one dedicated to each type of finish.” – Mike Henderson

“I have to admit, I do both. I have several spray guns: an HVLP Husky brand, a cheap Asian import siphon gun, and a small Devilbiss HVLP, and I even have an airless system for painting. Admittedly I have no training with spray guns, but I never let that stop me from trying it. The equipment is cheap enough, provided you already have an air compressor that’s capable of supplying enough volume. I try to avoid using the guns for anything smaller than a large box — or roughly 4 to 5 sq. ft. of surface area. I find it more time-consuming to clean a gun after a small job than doing it in a conventional manner. Maybe I am doing something wrong but I really get compulsive about disassembly and thorough cleaning after each use. I prefer the quality of finish that spraying accomplishes, and if I have something that really needs to be perfect and is small, I would probably spray it just to get that level of perfection. I also want to add that more than likely, most others out there (me included) are confused about what type of finishes work best in a spray gun, how to prepare or dilute finishes to be sprayed, and, is there something better and more durable or harder than what we are used to applying by hand. I would like to try some of those clears or lacquers that get hardener added to them. Maybe an article could be written and some videos made about choosing and using spray finishes, and the results of different finishes on different woods. Maybe it could include using different styles of guns or even doing a shootout on some of the guns on the market! Keep up the good work.” – Kevin Hanes

“I was a no-spray guy for many years. I would brush, wipe, rub, and whatever I could come up with to get the job done. Then, to my surprise, I was given a spray gun as a gift. It is a good-quality HVLP detail gun made by GRACO. I bought a small in-line drier and a regulator, set it to 40 psi, and taught myself to spray. The directions for the gun were easy to follow, and after a very short time I was spraying full-size projects with no runs, drips or errors. I use fast-drying varnish or poly thinned with naphtha, and it dries in a few minutes — no dust problems or homes for errant flying insects. I drape my shop with plastic, so dust and dirt is not a problem. Wish I had done this years ago. Have no fear, spraying is easier than you think. I use a respirator and change the filters often. I am very pleased with myself for joining the 20th century.” – Ron Popp

“I have been spraying my projects for years. It is easy to learn, and such great finishes are available that can be used in the shop without a booth. Expensive? Not at all when you consider how much time and money it saves if you were to have a pro do it instead.” – Dave Myre

“I do spray finishes on my large projects and have even set up a temporary spray booth in my shop that has now been there for five years. I believe the real issue is the potential for a real mess. Before the booth I tried spraying in the garage, only to spend the following weekend polishing the overspray off of my car, which I parked on the street 60 ft. away. Controlling the overspray is the big-time consuming hassle in my opinion. It is not the cost, because I now use an inexpensive HVLP gun ($80) and get terrific results. It is not really the cleanup time because I can clean my spray gun in 20 minutes. The hassle is the right space and location for a controlled spray booth. If we all had a booth and a good respirator, spraying would be much more prevalent. Can’t wait to see your results from others woodworkers.” – Bruce Kondracki

“I have spray equipment and I use it. It is faster than anything else and delivers a better, more uniform finish (unless you like brush marks.) I spray polyurethane, stains, shellac and lacquer (my favorite.) I find cleanup is easier than cleaning brushes, and I can lay down more finish in less time. The only downside is that I have to wear an appropriate respirator and work outside. If others only knew how easy and satisfying spraying is, they would add this to their repertoire.” – Denver Rebar

“I have a full range of spray guns — detail, full size, latex and HVLP — but I don’t use them on small projects because it takes more time in clean up than building the project. I reserve my spray equipment for large projects such as cabinets and larger pieces of furniture.” – Rusty Aurand

“I have airless spray equipment but am a little puzzled as to the best material to use. Currently I use pre-cat lacquer. I’ve been told CAB Acrylic Lacquer would be a better choice. It’s water clear.” – Ken Koehn

“I really suspect the reason some don’t have spray equipment is due to the mess that spraying finishes makes. I only spray on larger projects and then it takes a lot of time to isolate the spray area from the rest of the shop. A dedicated spray area requires a lot of space and needs to be virtually dust free, which is nearly impossible in a woodworking shop. Love your eZine.” – Gerald Jones

But, many of you aren’t so trigger happy, and some wouldn’t touch a spray gun with a 10-ft. badger brush. – Editor

“Every time I look at what’s involved in the cleanup, I change my mind about getting a spray unit. I guess laziness trumps a rare nicely sprayed finish! I mostly use stain and poly. If there’s painting to be done, that falls to my wife or daughter.” – Al Micucci

“I have a Rockler (spray unit) but have not used it yet. Here’s why: A) It’s in the attic, out of the way until I have a project for which it may work. B) My bench top had to be rebuilt and is still underway. C) Timidity, due to a felt-need for more complete instruction than I have found so far. Wondering if you plan on having a major article in Woodworker’s Journal about spray finishing for noobs?” – Ned Moore

“One of the factors against spraying finishes is that it equates with mass-produced stuff with a heavy spray coat of poly covering any hint of character. I know that’s not an accurate assessment, but my prejudice remains. As a result I’ve always preferred laboriously hand-applied finishes – rubbed oil or French polish. They don’t come out better necessarily, but I think they do, so I’ve avoided the whole spray thing.” – Tim Douglass

“I have spray equipment but I really need a spray booth. I sprayed a hope chest once with lacquer and couldn’t see 10 feet in my shop (with the overspray). I also had to cover all my equipment.” – Tom Hinaman

“Here’s why I’m not spray gun gaga: 1) Cost of the equipment; 2) Training to do it properly (finish is expensive); 3) Having a place to spray that doesn’t incur the wrath of the owners of items caught in the over spray … my wife’s car for instance. Basically, that is it. Cheers.” – John Verreault

“I have two spray guns and know that they do produce an excellent finish but I just don’t use either … well, maybe on rare occasions. The vast majority of my projects are small — primarily boxes. While my sprayer does a good job, I find that I usually spend about 30 seconds spraying each coat of finish. An aerosol spray can of finish is more practical than spending considerable more time cleaning my spray gun.” – Greg Little

I wish the magazine would stay with basics. The paint sprayer isn’t for basic woodworkers nor is the CNC router or any laser carving equipment. This stuff is for advanced woodworkers and computer junkies. A paint brush or rollers can do most (finishing). A paint brush and a carving knife as well as the basic power tools are what people should be learning: they are reasonably priced and you can improve on all of it as you can afford it. I want to learn the basics and not let a machine do all the work. That isn`t wood-crafting, it’s duplicating exact replicas for sale to pay for the machine. As far as I can see, people want unique, hand-made or one-of-a-kind items. If I want the same as everyone else I will go to Walmart and buy cheap stuff everyone else has at a low price.” – Bob Barsi

“Lack of money, lack of clean spaces … wipe-on finishes work well for the cabinetry and furniture I build.” – Don Borgerding

“I have a small sprayer, and I usually make smaller-type projects. I would use the sprayer, if it wasn’t such a hassle to spend more time cleaning it than using it. So, I buy spray cans of lacquer or poly … no clean up. If someone made a sprayer in which the finish could stay in a container and have no or minimal cleaning requirements, then I would use one, because spray cans are expensive.” – Rich Matselboba

“I am a 75-year-old beginning woodworker who has already invested quite a bit of money on a table saw, miter saw, planer, jointer, etc. I am at the point where investing more money in a finishing tool would not be wise until I have mastered what I already have on hand. And I ain’t even close yet. If I live to be old enough to do that, then maybe I’ll try it.” – Jaypeay Jerry Price

“Equipment cost is a consideration of course, but to me the biggest drawback is the cleanup and a need for extra ventilation in the shop. It is much easier to discard an expendable brush and not deal with overspray. Also if done correctly and using the proper materials, the results are equal.” – Christian Helwig

“There are two main reasons I don’t spray finishes as much as I should. The clean up is more work than the spraying. And, the equipment will only spray the thinnest material. If you dilute the material it takes more time than applying with a brush.” – Dickie Bone

“I have a 230-volt compressor in the garage and a Porter-Cable HVLP spray gun. Several years back, I used both to finish several furniture projects with a pre-catalyzed lacquer finish. However, most of the projects that I finish are small things for my wife in her campground business office. I end up using a cheap imported bristle brush that I can clean easily in the laundry tub in the basement. For me, it comes down to the amount of cleanup effort afterwards.” – Lee F. Howland

“I bought a sprayer that’s still in the box, in order to paint the doors in our new house. (I have read the instructions and have gone online for more info.) The doors have primer on them and have been ready to go for a while. Lots of reasons for the delay, but the main one is my concern about the mess, cleanup, overspray and lack of confidence at being able to complete the job. Probably also a touch of procrastination.” – Gord McKay

“I do not spray because I don’t have space for a spray area. My shop is in the garage, which is subject to temperature and humidity extremes in Missouri. I apply finish in the basement on a (covered) pool table where temperature and humidity are controlled. I brush or use wipe-on. I use low-VOC finishes because I have no active ventilation system. I have been doing this for 40 years and it works for me. I think I would not like the waste of overspray and equipment cleanup.”- Tom Fuhremann

“For me, it’s a space issue. The compressor could be outside my shop but then there would be the issue of storing all the spray equipment. After use, I would have to move the compressor from outside my shop to a storage area other than my shop. Then there is the issue of a spray area safe from overspray with good ventilation. There are more issues, but space is one of the biggies.” – John Kriplean

“OK, Sherlock (or is it Dick Tracy for that quick-draw conclusion about spraying). Cost is a large factor, but so is storage — having an area that is suitable for spraying (I would have to build a clean room environment), and a place to store all the equipment. Then, it will in all probability only get used a few times a year. Spray equipment is a very nice way to get a great finish, but it is primarily for use on projects that are, say, bigger than a breadbox, but not just everyday items. Even the special boxes that I make for the gals in my family are so easy to finish by hand that set-up, cleanup, and all that goes with the effort is just not worth it. I feel that the money would be put to better use acquiring some nice woods for these special people. Should I get into larger projects, then I may be able to justify it, but that is not the case now.” – Bob Hoyle

“I have several spray devices in my arsenal. However, I don’t remember the last time I used one. Many years ago, I tried spray finishes, and I got pretty good at it, but ultimately I was less than impressed with the results. I could spray a finish, build it up, then rub it down, but it was still a thin film on top of the surface of the wood. My tastes changed, and I found that I liked rubbing in varnish better than spraying laquer. So I have this collection of spray guns in the drawer. Wanna buy one? I did use a spray rig to paint a car one time. I was pretty proud of it, but my wife hated it. She’s no longer my wife but I still have the spray rig and I sold the car for 500 bucks. On the other hand, the compressor that I bought to use with the spray guns is still in use and going strong, and I use it almost every day, if only to blow dust off of something I’m working on or top off the air in my tires.” – Royce Engler

“I’ve had an Earlex sprayer for several years, but I seldom use it. I mostly use either an oil finish or oil-based urethane. For these, there is no advantage to spraying vs. ragging or brushing. Cleaning up the sprayer after each coat just takes too long. Spraying lacquer is faster because of the fast dry time between coats, but the result is less durable than varnish. Also, I don’t have a spray booth, so I have to do it outside in the backyard. The fumes are not good for our neighbors. Waterbased products usually dry fast enough to leave the material in the sprayer between coats, and the smell is reasonable. But I hate the cold color. So the sprayer languishes in the woodshed, while rags and foam brushes see lots of use.” – Keith McKinnon

“My “current” reasons for not owning spray equipment: 1) Small projects (pepper mills, grill tool handles, etc.) that require multiple coats but use a small volume of lacquer. I felt the cleanup and maintenance of a sprayer would be too time-consuming. 2) Cost of a decent system. 3) Lack of knowledge on how to use one. 4) A good space in the shop to leave a system set up vs. just grabbing a spray can.” – Pete Krull

“My primary deterrent is a place to spray finishes without getting overspray on other things. I’ve set up “tents” of large appliance boxes to put objects in (in my garage) so I can spray without the overspray escaping, but it’s a nuisance to do that all the time, and I often end up using a brush for paint and a foam brush for other finishes, instead. Also, while I have used sprayers and a lot of aerosol cans, I am by no means a professional, and getting even coverage without runs or drips is sometimes difficult and frankly, frustrating. Hope this is useful.” – Dan Shaughnessy

“The time to set up and clean my sprays means it has to be a big complicated project before I grab the airless sprayer. Why not use a spray gun? Well, there’s the mess, bounce and needing a booth or well-ventilated area. Heck, I even have a finish room to store my spray gun and my airless sprayer. Then there are other issues: mixing and filtering the finish, making sure it’s the right cut, filling the jar, adjusting the nozzle, setting the spray pattern, finding the face mask, turning on the vent, spraying the finish, fogging the room — and anything else in the general area — with finish. Once I’m done, I have to empty the jar, add a solvent or water, clear the gun, un-plug, disassemble and clean the entire device, all the way down to the little spring, rinse in solvent again, and dispose of the solvent. What’s not to love?! Or, I can dissolve a bit of (shellac) flake in alcohol, shape a pad, wet it, pad a bit of pumice and shellac in and enjoy the shop music. And watch the magic of a hand-rubbed shellac begin its build. Cleanup? Just put the pad back in the shellac and cover the jar. No solvents to correctly dispose of, no electric required and ah, the silence. Or, if needed, a brush for slightly bigger projects. Now if I was a finish carpenter with miles of base, trim or panels in a rough-finished job, I’d hang an airless gun on both hips and have at it.” – Stephen Swingle

“I do not use a sprayer because of the cost, but mainly because I do not have the room. To keep from spraying everything I wouldn’t want covered I would need to build a spray booth. In my small shop, I don’t have any place to put more tools, let alone a booth dedicated to spraying. And, it would need to be easier and cheaper than to use a brush or wads of rags.” – Jim Cottingham

“I do not have room for a spray area, plus my shop is in the basement and I am concerned that my wife’s sensitive nose will object to the odors. Also, I have not seen any advantage to spraying in the finished product. Now, I have sprayed many projects when I was working (I am a journeyman patternmaker). But, these were all done in large spray booths with proper venting and filtration — things I do not have at home and cannot see how I could.” – Mike Holden

“As most of my projects are small it is more practical to use a brush.” – R.Barbour

“It’s not the cost of equipment (HVLP guns can be had very reasonably), it’s my lack of knowledge about the challenges associated with maintaining the gun and, more importantly, the challenges of creating a safe indoor spray booth. Because spray finishing outside doesn’t seem like a recipe for success.” – Brian Perry

“The biggest bother with spraying, I think, is the space to do it. I once bought an HVLP spray gun, and when I got home I was all excited to start spraying and looked around to find a space to do it. Guess what? No place in my shop was a safe or dust-free space! So I went out and got all the parts to build a “spray booth” using 3/4-in. PVC pipe and plastic drop cloth, along with some other stuff — fan, filters and such. Then I needed the space to build this spray booth. Fortunately I have a large basement, so I was able to build it right next to my shop.” – Pat Ruggiero

“The main reason I don’t use spray finishes is the lack of a proper set-up for spraying. Usually I’m just finishing one item, and it’s easier to brush on the finish. I do use an aerosol spray can to do small items. I will use a spray gun outdoors if conditions are right and I have lots of things to finish. Thanks for the great job on the eZine, I look forward to every issue.” – Dick Fermanian

“The pro to spray-finishing: You get a great finish. Cons: It is very messy in a shop unless you have a dedicated spry booth. Building a spray booth is time-consuming and requires space and needs proper ventilation. Spray gun cleanup takes too much time. Paint has to be thinned to the right viscosity. All in all, it is much easier and quicker to use a spray can or to just brush on the finish. Love your magazine.” – E.  DePoy

“I do not use spray equipment for two major reasons. First, my shop is in my home’s basement. I do not want overspray floating around the area getting on everything. And second, my furnace and hot water heater are in close proximity to my work tables. I’m not comfortable with a possible fire situation. During the dog days of summer and the cold mid-winter days, opening basement windows for proper ventilation is not really desirable. So I stick with brush or wipe-on finishing. You have a great magazine. Thanks for all the hard work you put forth in publishing Woodworker’s Journal.” – Wally Richardson

“I have a spray gun. It is a top feed, one-pint capacity and has a needle designed for thinned oil-based paint/stain. It works well, but I rarely use it. I usually build one-of-a-kind, personalized projects like jewelry boxes, picture frames, small tables and so forth. When building a single piece, it isn’t worth hooking up the gun, thinning the stain, test/test/test until it’s right, then (finally) spraying the piece. Then spending the next hour cleaning the gun. Just not worth it when I can take a rag and wipe on the finish in minutes. I built a large baker’s cabinet/hutch a few years back. It was a rustic-type painted piece and I used the gun to spray the primer. It worked well for that, but I brushed the final coats. Also, there are other needles available for my gun, but after doing hours of Internet research, I decided that I didn’t know enough chemistry to venture outside my comfort level. All seemed very confusing and complicated to the point of being overwhelming. I bought my spray gun expecting to use it to improve the look of my projects, but I quickly learned that it was way too much hassle. Woodworking is my hobby, and learning the myriad of techniques, settings, viscosity, etc., etc., is not worth it to me.” – Richard Franks

“I have the cheap Rockler sprayer. I have used it several times, but with the limited amount of spray finish I do and the small size of most of my projects, I spend more time cleaning the sprayer than I do using it. It is far easier to just use a spray can.” – Al Phelps

Still others are on the fence about spray-finishing or looking for some good advice. – Editor

“I have considered (spraying) many times over the years. Yes, there is a cost, particularly for HVLP guns, but the main drawback for me is how do you learn how to use these guns? Many of my projects are boxes of some sort and I don’t know how to spray into an open box without getting ‘runs’ in the finish. I know that mastering this skill would greatly reduce the time it takes to apply finish by brush. I do have a good air compressor and two spray guns that I use for painting, where the items to be painted are ‘open’ and do not require spraying into a box. I’m now in my late 60’s, but it’s not too late for this ‘old dog’ to learn a new trick … if I knew who could do the teaching.” – George Ross

“I have had HVLP spray equipment for many years but haven’t used it much lately. I used the Festool finishing program for a while but found the exterior finish very poor, so I gave up on that. Then for exterior I found a new marine finish that has the quick drying feature of a lacquer, so brushing seven coats on a 150-lb. outdoor bench worked out well. It survived this last winter showing no signs of any change whatsoever.” – Howard Van Valzah

“I do not spray because of (the lack of) room for a booth. I purchased an HVLP a long time ago and had to end up spraying the project outside. I would like to finish that way, but as I said, no room. Keep up the good work.” – Ed

“In last week’s question about spray finishing you made me ponder the possibility of going back to this application. I agree that you need the proper tooling, which I have, but I found that setting up the spray booth in my shop was too time consuming. I have sprayed stain, urethanes and even paint with great success, but again setting up a temporary paint booth became too much of a hassle. If I had some space to dedicate to this task I would spray all my finishes. I do not have this convenience, so I have to set the booth up every time. Any suggestions on an easy setup?” – Ronnie Iles

“I have a woodshop that is about 1,000 square feet. Even with the size of my shop I do not have an area that is set aside for spraying. I suppose it could be arranged, but I have a fair number of tools and it would require me to make changes to the plan. Another reason is because I am retired, the cost of getting set up is a little too steep for me. I have purchased a cheap sprayer but had less than good results with it. I did not practice a lot with it and that may be the reason. But I think the biggest reason was, it was cheap and didn’t give many options. I would like to get into some spraying and need to see what is available that I can afford for the amount of time I spend in the shop. My summers are very hot here, so the summer is out for the shop. I use it mainly in the late fall and winter, and then I have to fit it in with my golf.” – Gerald Berg

“To be honest about it, I feel like I just don’t have a place that is dust-free enough to use a spray finish. I have a small shop with limited free space to use for spraying. However, I have recently purchased an HVLP sprayer and look forward to trying it out. I don’t feel like it will give me the results I am hoping for but it’s worth a try.” – Joe Peacock

“Spraying needs to be done outdoors on a near-windless day, or in a spray booth of some sort with a lot more exhaust capability, due to more rapid evaporation than padded or brushed finish. That’s a big complication in a small shop. Also, for small projects, aerosol spray cans are not always an awful choice. I’ve also become quite fond of padding on finishes, using either a painter’s pad or a cotton-in-a-stocking pad. Build isn’t as fast, but it feels like I have more control. A spray gun requires decisions: Rockler’s cheapie HVLP? A better turbine-driven HVLP? Conversion finish, which would require a bigger compressor than I’ve got now? Or the most recent generation of airless guns, which ought to be a major win? It may be hard to find someplace where we can try spray guns and learn what they can do for us before investing in them, unless there’s a school or club in the area that can be persuaded. Having said all this, I’m interested in trying a spray gun when I start working on projects large enough to justify one. I just don’t feel a need yet.” – Joseph Kesselman

“I worked for 47 years as a paint chemist, applying all sorts of finishes, so here’s my take. If a woodworker is not willing to learn how to apply a good polyurethane varnish with a brush and chooses to wipe an oil on and be done with it, they will be very much disappointed with their immediate results with sophisticated (spray) equipment. There is the cost, care and feeding of the application equipment to consider. There is the location where the finish will be applied that can require control of the air make-up to prevent dangerous increases in flammable solvent vapors, humidity control and human breathing conditions. A finish properly applied with a spray gun is easy and a thing of great beauty. Under the proper conditions it is almost infallible. But, as I tell my kids, I was not born full-grown knowing what I know now. It takes practice, knowledge and understanding … Many will want to spend a great deal of time and money to create, then want to slap on an inferior finish and then wonder why it looks like what they expected. Choosing a good-quality varnish and learning how to apply it with a good-quality brush over properly sanded substrate will save a craftsman a lot of time, money and grief. Of course, if you like to spend significant amounts of money on new toys, I have just convinced you that I am a smart aleck.” – Richard Melton

“My wife bought me a homeowner quality sprayer, so I promptly went out and bought the paint for a lingering “honey-do” project. Then I built it. Then I read the instructions for the sprayer: Not really recommended for latex paints. The paint I bought? Latex, naturally. The project is growing a long beard waiting for me to do something. I have no idea what the right thing is. Should I thin the paint with water and drive on? Buy oil-based and bury the latex? Buy a Fuji 5 and thank my wife profusely for her encouragement?” – Rob Casey

“I have a home shop (one-stall garage) that I would love to spray in but my concern is the ventilation. I would purchase the equipment but I am not comfortable with the overspray floating throughout the small shop that I have. Any suggestions?” – Greg Drew

“I have an HVLP gun, three guns that connect to my air compressor and a full-blown airless paint sprayer, so why don’t I use them more often? Cleanup is my biggest deterrent. Using any of my guns means at least a half hour or more of cleaning after the project has been shot. If the finish requires several coats, that can result in a lot of cleanup time. Of course if I fail to get the cleanup 100% correct, then I have an even bigger cleanup problem when an opportunity comes up to use the guns again. Consequently, I use wipe-on stain, wipe-on Watco oil and/or wipe-on poly, where I don’t have to clean up the blue paper shop towels. My second deterrent is the lack of a spray booth: my shop is all on wheels and has to be rolled out onto the driveway before I can do any work (no room in the garage). Overspray does not endear me to my neighbors so I have to either move everything to a far corner of the yard or come up with some system to protect the area. Finally, the protective gear: in Florida (where I live) with high temperatures and humidity, wearing a face mask and goggles is no fun. Of course I could skip the protective gear with some of the finishes, but even the most benign clear coat on the inside of my lungs just doesn’t seem like a good idea. So when do I actually use my spray gear? When I have a LOT of material to cover, such as more than two sheets of plywood for a spray finish and even more square footage if I’m rolling paint. I have used the gun to spray paint only once on a chair, when I needed to have a nice white finish prior to distressing the project. I’m looking forward to your thoughts and suggestions to solving some of these problems so I can get more use out of my equipment.” – David Sandlin


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