Air vs Airless Paint Sprayer – What’s the difference?

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Last updated: April 7, 2023

Know the difference between air vs airless paint sprayer, including their pros and cons.

Air vs Airless Paint Sprayer – What’s the difference?

When painting an extensive surface, such as a wall, car, or house, you may find a sprayer to be more useful and efficient than traditional methods. Sprayers provide you with speed and do not leave marks or drips like rollers and brushes.

But as soon as you make up your mind about getting a sprayer, you will have to decide whether it will be an air sprayer or an airless sprayer.

So, between air vs airless paint sprayer, which one should you choose? In this article, we will see how an air sprayer and an airless sprayer stack up against each other. We will compare them with regard to their application, material viscidity, speed, finish quality, transfer rate, cost, operating pressure, and so on.

Air vs Airless paint sprayer?

You should opt for an airless sprayer if you’re looking for speed or painting a larger project. But if it’s finesse and precision you want, especially for a smaller project, an air sprayer would suit you better. 

What Is An Air Paint Sprayer?

As the name suggests, an air paint sprayer is essentially a painting device that utilizes compressed air to atomize and release paint onto a surface. It consists of three main components – a pot or canister which holds the paint, a compressor that supplies air, and a hose where the paint is atomized into tiny droplets.

The hose is connected to a spray gun which delivers the paint droplets through a nozzle onto the surface.

Air sprayers are notable for their high precision and ability to produce less overspray. You can use them to apply different coating products, including paint, primer, varnish, and even ink, on any surface using “pressurized” air.

The most common type of air sprayer is the HVLP (high volume, low pressure) air sprayer. Here, the sprayer uses a higher air volume to aerosolize the paint but pushes it out at a lower pressure. This ensures more paint reaches the surface resulting in less overspray. Since low pressure is used, less effort is required on your part.

This makes air sprayers perfect for beginners and DIYers working on smaller projects. Also, their high painting precision and power make them more suitable for more detailed projects.

However, this type of sprayer does not work well with thick paints. For optimal results, you will need to thin the paint.

What Is An Airless Paint Sprayer?

Instead of compressed air, an airless sprayer uses high pressure to atomize and expel paint, producing an even spray pattern. This means that it doesn’t require an external compressor or turbine, unlike an airless sprayer.

The sprayer comes equipped with a motor-driven pump that creates the high pressure used to atomize paint into minute droplets or mist, which is released through a nozzle onto your desired surface. In most cases, the paint from an airless sprayer will often dry to a glass-smooth finish.

It is worth mentioning that because airless sprayers operate at such high pressure, they can apply thicker paint without thinning, filtering, or reducing the amount of paint in the can.

On the other hand, their high speed and pressure can be quite difficult to control. Most times, they operate at full power, which is why they must be handled carefully to reduce paint splatter and overspray.

Generally, because airless sprayers operate at higher pressures and release larger droplets, they usually produce more overspray; however, they work well with thick paint and cover larger surfaces more quicker.

Difference Between Air vs airless paint sprayer

You can tell the difference between an air paint sprayer vs airless paint sprayer just by the names. An air sprayer uses compressed air to expel paint, while an airless sprayer doesn’t use air but pressure supplied by a pump.

Besides their design and how they work, there are other differences to consider.  

  • Transfer Efficiency

Transfer efficiency (also known as transfer rate) is the fraction or percentage of paint delivered to the target surface. This means that when the percentage is higher, there’s less wastage, while a lower percentage means higher paint wastage.

In general, air sprayers have a transfer efficiency of about 90 percent, while their airless counterparts have about 40 to 50 percent.

This means that there’s less wastage with HVLP or air paint sprayers. 

With an airless sprayer, a large portion of the paint falls outside the substrate, which creates more overspray and mess. 

This means that, for the same project, an airless sprayer will require more paint than an air sprayer. Here, it is assumed that the substrate is of the same kind, and size and environmental conditions are the same. 

In other words, using an air sprayer will reduce painting costs. 

  • Performance

When we talk about performance, we are referring to efficiency and the quality of the finish produced by the different sprayers.

An air sprayer does a better job when it comes to changing the quality of the spray. This is possible because the pressure provided by the compressor or turbine is adjustable. This is not usually the case with the hydraulic pumps used in airless sprayers. 

In addition, air sprayers are handier and easily movable. They are also less noisy than airless sprayers and do better with small projects, especially when spraying vertically. 

However, airless sprayers perform better when spraying thick paint or covering large surfaces within a short time. But due to their high pressure, they often require little practice to operate. That is why they are commonly used by professionals.

Air sprayers, on the other hand, are easier to use and are common among beginners and amateurs. 

  • Pressure

Airless sprayers operate at a much higher pressure than air sprayers. Some models can operate up to 4000 psi, making it easy to spray thick materials without clogging.

The high pressure also means the sprayer will eject paint faster. This comes with instability and lowers accuracy, which can be a problem for inexperienced users.

On the other hand, most air sprayers have lower operating pressures, usually around 10 to 70 psi, making them a better option for beginners and safer for breakable items such as glass and thin metals. Remember to thin the paint first before using the sprayer. 

The exact pressure of an air sprayer is determined by the size of the compressor or turbine.

Whether you’re using an air sprayer or an airless model, you can adjust the pressure to meet your needs. It’s a good idea to test the sprayer on an inconspicuous area or scrap material before you paint the main substrate.

At the end of the day, pressure shouldn’t be too high as this often leads to overspray and could wear the spray tip. Likewise, too little pressure leads to irregular spray patterns and causes the project to take longer. 

  • Material Viscosity

Viscidity is the quality of being viscous, sticky, or cohesive. It is the flow property of a substance or fluid measured with regard to its internal friction. Applying this to paints means that thicker or denser paints have higher viscidity or viscosity.

Due to their high pressure, airless sprayers are better suited for more viscid substances (i.e., fluids with high viscosity). On the hand, air sprayers are more suitable for less viscid material because of their low pressure. 

This means that if you’re using an air sprayer, you have to thin the paint, but with an airless sprayer, no thinning is required. The high pressure in airless sprayers generates enough force to expel the paint onto the target surface. 

HVLP work best with thin paint, which is understandable since they cannot handle high pressure. So, you shouldn’t use enamel or latex paints with such sprayers. 

In general, make sure to read the user manual for your device so you will know which material it can handle. 

  • Safety

Safety is an important requirement when working with any type of sprayer, whether it’s an air sprayer or an airless sprayer. You should have all your protective gear in place before you commence your project.

Having said that, airless sprayers require more safety measures than HVLP or conventional sprayers. And that is mainly because they release more paint into the environment. 

To put it more simply, they produce more overspray, which can be attributed to their high discharge pressure and low transfer rate. As a result, it becomes compulsory to wear extra gear and work in a well-ventilated environment. The safety gear usually includes a respiratory mask, goggles, safety dress and boots, and hand gloves (rubber or latex). 

  • Finish Quality

Another key distinction between an airless paint sprayer vs. air sprayer is their finish quality. Finish quality has to do with the final appearance of the paint job.

Because air sprayers use air to atomize paint, they produce a finer and more refined finish. This is because, upon mixing with air, the material disintegrates into misty droplets. This makes an air sprayer ideal for detailed paint jobs. 

However, poor mixing of the material and air can lead to the formation of bubbles and other spots on the paint finish. In most cases, this rarely occurs unless you have a defective air spray gun or nozzle.

On the other hand, airless sprayers operate at high pressure and velocity, which minimizes the chances of the paint blending with air. As a result, they provide a bolder and coarser finish due to the high paint impact on the target surface.

Due to the high-pressure nature of the machine, you will need some practice to achieve proper layering and rhythm; otherwise, drips and lines may occur, and the final finish will look uneven or wavy. 

  • Application 

In terms of application, airless sprayers are better suited for professional painters. Their high operating pressure, speed, and faster drying time make them an excellent choice for painting large surfaces such as walls, ceilings, fences, tanks, and even whole rooms. 

On the other hand, air paint sprayers are best suited for smaller surfaces, especially when it’s an expensive material. They ensure less overspray and provide better finish details than airless models. Their lower operating pressure makes them easier to handle, which is why they are great for beginners. 

Having said that, there are many specialized airless sprayers targeted toward both DIYers and trained painting contractors. However, they tend to produce more noise than air sprayers. 

  • Cost

In terms of cost, we will look at the purchasing price of both machines and how much paint they consume. 

Air sprayers are generally cheaper than their airless counterparts. They typically cost around $20 to $100, while airless sprayers cost between $200 and $1000.

The higher cost of an airless sprayer is due to its size and expensive parts. 

Besides costing more than air sprayers, airless sprayers also use more paint. This is because they have a lower transfer efficiency and tend to produce more overspray. So, a high proportion of the paint is wasted. 

Also, the machine releases thicker paint (there is no mixture with air), so larger amounts of material are used. 

In contrast, air sprayers have a high transfer efficiency, meaning most of the paint hits the target surface. So, there’s less overspray and waste. Also, the machine cannot work with thick paint; it must be thinned first.

Furthermore, the paint is mixed with air (atomization) before being directed to the substrate. All these lead to less paint usage compared to an airless sprayer.

Having said that, an airless sprayer will offer you more speed so you can finish your painting projects in a shorter period of time. 

Air vs Airless Paint Sprayer

Pros and Cons of Air Paint Sprayer

There are many advantages and disadvantages associated with using a sprayer, whether it uses compressed air or high pressure. In this section, we will focus on an air sprayer. 

Pros

  • Cost less than an airless sprayer
  • Most models are portable.
  • The gun is safe to use
  • Has higher transfer efficiency and uses less paint
  • Provides more control over your project than an airless sprayer
  • Doesn’t spit paint or cause drips like airless sprayers
  • Produces a finer finish
  • Uses air and less pressure to atomize paint, so there’s minimal wastage of paint and energy.

Cons

  • More likely to get clogged
  • Requires an air compressor
  • It doesn’t work with highly viscous paint to material ( requires thinning)
  • Slower than an airless sprayer 

Pros and Cons of Airless Paint Sprayer

If you’re opting for an airless sprayer, here are some of the perks and cons to expect:

Pros

  • Doesn’t require an air compressor to operate
  • Offers higher pressure, leading to faster project completion (this makes it more suitable for larger paint jobs)
  • Doesn’t produce a finish with bubble eyes since there’s no mixing with air
  • No need to thin paint
  • Easy to set up and clean after use
  • Works well with thicker paint or material

Cons

  • Uses more paint due to a lower transfer rate
  • More expensive than an air sprayer ( not the most economical option)
  • Produces more overspray

Best airless paint sprayers

  1. Graco Magnum 262805 X7 Cart Airless Paint Sprayer

Whether you’re a DIYer or a professional painter, the Graco Magnum X7 Airless Sprayer makes it easy for you to power through your painting projects with speed and finesse.

It is equipped with a spray nozzle that is light and easy to handle; it also comes with a convenient cart that enables you to freely move the sprayer on the job.

One of the main highlights of the sprayer is the TrueAirless Spray Tip with SoftSpray Technology. This allows you to fully adjust pressure and control the paint flow for any project size.

You can reverse the tip (use the one provided or a larger one) to suit the coatings. Ideally, you want to use a larger tip for heavier coatings to prevent clogging.

The sprayer is equipped with a 25-ft hose for more convenience, but it can support up to 100 ft. of paint hose, allowing you to spray larger or elevated areas such as multi-story buildings. The wheels are quite large and maneuver over terrains easily.

Since the sprayer is airless, it doesn’t require thinning of paints, which is a huge time saver. Clogging isn’t an issue as it has self-unclog. 

In addition, overspray isn’t as bad as you would expect from a regular airless sprayer. The paint mostly gets in the immediate spray area that is not securely masked. So, ensure you mask areas you don’t want to paint or empty the room. 

Overall, for DIY homeowners or handymen who want to save money and time, the Magnum X7 Sprayer is an excellent choice. 

What We Liked

  • Suitable for interior and exterior surfaces
  • Doesn’t make noise
  • Produces nice, even spray
  • Reliable quality
  • Fairly easy to use and cleanup
  • Solid construction (built to last)

What Could Improve

  • May require mineral spirits

2. Graco 17A466 TrueCoat 360 DS Paint Sprayer

The Graco TrueCoat is another sprayer that works great with thick paint. As advertised, it doesn’t require thinning and can paint upside down.

The adjustable speed makes it suitable for both small and large detailed work, while the reversible spray tip allows you to reverse the tip when clogged so you can continue spraying. This ensures you have less downtime in your project while providing a smoother finish.

The sprayer is equipped with a piston pump that builds up pressure, making it easy to spray unthinned paint with ease. It works with any type of paint or primer and does a great job of covering in one coat. You can also use it with any stain as long as you clean it with water or mineral spirits. 

Cleanup is fairly simple. Just follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. You can also watch videos online. Basically, you will need to wash paint off the external parts, then run water through the device until it’s clear. The gun is very easy to dismantle and only takes a few minutes. 

Instead of traditional cups, the sprayer comes with a FlexLiner bag, which you can reuse or recycle when they become worn. 

You can switch the nozzle to spray vertically or horizontally.  

Like other airless models, it produces some overspray but not enough to cause significant runs, leaks, or clogs. 

Overall, we are impressed with the quality and performance of the sprayer. Some people may consider it a little pricey, but it’s well worth the cost!

What We Liked

  • Provides continuous spraying
  • Easy to set up
  • Can spray in all directions
  • Perfect for outdoor use
  • Doesn’t require thinning
  • Offers dual speed control for both small and large projects

What Could Improve

  • A little pricey
  • A bit loud

Best air paint sprayers

  1. HomeRight C800766 Finish Max Paint Sprayer 

With its simplified design that consists of a flow control knob, the HomeRight FinishMax is easily the best air sprayer for beginners. Whether you want to paint a new piece or refinish old furniture, cabinet, or trim, you can’t go wrong with this one. 

The tool provides a smooth finish and can be used indoors. It works with various kinds of material, including milk paint, chalk paint, latex, enamel, varnish, polyurethane, and even primer. For the best results, it’s recommended to thin the paint before use. 

To provide more versatility, the machine offers three adjustable spray patterns – vertical, horizontal, and round. You also get a control knob for the flow rate.

By combining these two features, you can use the device with almost any common paint or stain and produce different spray patterns and droplet sizes. This can be extremely important when trying to adjust the quality of the finish.

You can always replace the tip selection if they do not provide your desired finish.

As the name suggests, this is an HVLP sprayer, so it uses High Volume, Low-Pressure technology. But you will need a separate compressor to operate it. The unit itself weighs only 2.76 pounds, so it’s pretty light on the hand and reduces fatigue. 

What We Liked

  • Easy to refill
  • Lightweight design
  • Easy to clean
  • Great for beginners
  • Suitable for indoor use
  • Doesn’t produce much overspray

What Could Improve

  • Not suitable for large surfaces

2. Astro Pneumatic Spray Gun 

The Astro 4008 is not the average spray gun you find in most hardware stores. It is designed with speed and performance in mind.

From paints and primers to acrylics and contact cement, the unit can spray nearly everything to almost any surface. It’s built to ensure fast application of different fluids, including paint, primes, and even glues.

Being a pneumatic tool, it helps increase productivity while minimizing waste and saving you money.

One of its major highlights is its large adjustable fan, which provides superior atomization. You can adjust it up to 11″ from 8″ to cut job times and provide cleaner and more even coverage. Interestingly, you can hold the gun at any angle regardless of the fill level and not worry about spilling paint from the canister.  

The machine does require a compressor to run, specifically, a 3HP/7-12CFM compressor. Meanwhile, the operating pressure is around 50 to 60 PSI, which makes it perfect for small to medium-sized paint jobs. 

Remember to thin the paint properly before using the spray gun. Also, clean it out after each use. 

To get the best results, we strongly advise taking time to learn how to set up and operate the sprayer correctly. This involves setting up things like the air supply, fan size, spray pattern, and fluid rate.

You will find helpful tips in the instruction manual, or you can look up many YouTube videos online.

What We Liked

  • All-purpose sprayer (suitable for various fluids)
  • Easy to put together (has two-part construction)
  • Easy to clean
  • Perfect for small paint jobs
  • Lightweight and portable (also easy to handle during operation)
  • Solid construction 

What Could Improve

  • Too small for larger surfaces 

Can Airless Paint Sprayers Be Used Indoors?

Due to the high risk of overspray associated with airless paint sprayers, they are better suited for outdoor use. However, you can also use them indoors when you need to paint a large surface, such as a wall or an entire room.

Ideally, you should use them when painting an empty room or before you move into a new house.

You must take extreme precautions to protect yourself from the paint fumes. Open all the windows and doors to ensure good ventilation. If possible, use block fans or an air purifier to neutralize the paint odor. Also, opt for a spray gun that won’t splatter paint recklessly all over the room.

In general, air or HVLP sprayers are a better choice for interior paint jobs because they produce the least amount of overspray. But they are less practical when painting large surfaces or substrates.

Does an Airless Sprayer Use More Paint Than a Roller?

Yes, they do. Airless sprayers use about 33 percent (or a third) more paint than rollers. The extra paint comes out as overspray and is caused by the high pressure of the sprayer. However, you can control the waste by maintaining proper pressure throughout the duration of your project.

Having said that, most people still prefer sprayers over paint rollers due to their speed, which saves you a lot of time. Also, their ability to get the paint on the target area and reach the narrowest of crevices is something obviously lacking with rollers. So, in many cases, choosing a sprayer over a roller will be worth it!

Air sprayers are more comparable to rollers when it comes to paint usage because they produce less overspray.

Overall, in addition to overspray, you will need to factor in the paint in cleanup – the paint that remains in the power roller, hose, or nozzle (if clogged) at the end of the project.

Application Tips & Precautions for Using Air & Airless Paint Sprayers 

  • Before using any sprayer, read the instructions in the manual that come along with it. This will enable you to know the capacity, viscosity, and type of paint to use.

  • Also, inspect the sprayer for possible issues such as clogs or leaks. Make sure it’s in good condition, and keep it on a level surface if it’s not a handheld model. 

  • To prevent any change in texture, especially when you view the project from different angles, it’s best to keep to one pattern. Either spray horizontally or vertically and continue that way till you finish the project.

  • To prevent clogging, especially when using a conventional sprayer, ensure you mix the paint well. 

  • Always use the correct tip size and hose length (if you’re using an airless sprayer). 

  • For airless sprayers, it’s best to start with low pressure, then build up till you find what works for you. Once you do, maintain the right pressure throughout the project.

  • If possible, opt for non-oil-based paints since these can easily clog the sprayer. Also, you never want to spray a wet surface as this can negatively impact the final finish.

  • Try not to tilt the sprayer at an angle, as this can create an uneven coating. Instead, point it straight at the target surface. Also, it shouldn’t be too far or too close to the workpiece. Keep it about 12 inches away. 

  • Another thing that can cause an uneven finish is when you fan the sprayer. So, make sure you avoid this. 

FAQs – Airless Vs Air Paint Sprayer

Can You Use a Paint Sprayer With an Air Compressor?

It depends. Not all paint sprayers require a compressor. For instance, an airless sprayer doesn’t need a compressor to emit paint since it uses high pressure to atomize fluids. On the other hand, an air sprayer will require a compressor because it uses pressurized air for atomization.

Is it Worth Using a Airless Paint Sprayer?

If you’re working on a medium or large painting project, such as decks, interior and exterior walls, and fences, an airless paint sprayer will definitely come in handy. It’s super high flow rate will save you time while providing a fine finish.

Can You Use Airless Sprayers Without Thinning Paint?

Yes, you can. Most airless sprayers is that they can spray thick paints without thinning. However, some handheld models or HVLP may require adding up to 20-30 percent of water. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to check the manufacturer’s instructions before you start spraying.

Can I Leave Paint in My Sprayer Overnight?

Yes, you can, but this is not recommended. Storing paint in the sprayer for long periods can potentially affect the sprayer’s mechanism and shorten its lifespan. It’s best to always keep the unit clean by giving it a good wipe and storing it away every time you finish using it.

Can You Paint a House with an Airless Sprayer?

Yes, an airless sprayer is highly productive for large spaces like a house or a long fence. The high painting speed ensures it delivers a lot of paint in a short period. This enables you to cover large house surfaces or areas faster.

Do Airless Sprayers Have Less Overspray?

No, they don’t! Airless paint sprayers tend to produce more overspray because of their high speed and pressure. One way to minimize this is to keep the pressure as low as possible. Also, use the right spray tip and improve your spraying techniques.

What Type of Paint Sprayer For Trim Airless Vs Air?

For paint jobs with finer detail, such as trims, molding, cabinets, or window frames, an air paint sprayer or HVLP is highly recommended. Due to their low pressures, air sprayers offer an exceptional degree of control and allow you to achieve more painting precision.

Do Airless Sprayers Use More Paint?

Yes, they do. Compared to other spraying models, especially an air equivalent, airless sprayers have higher chances of overspray. Their transfer efficiency is just around 40-50 percent, so they tend to “waste” more paint.

Content Summary – Air Vs Airless Paint Sprayer

To conclude, air sprayers and their airless counterparts complement each other. The best option for you will depend on what you’re painting and the type of paint you’re using.

In general, airless sprayers offer more speed and are best suited for larger surfaces such as walls, sidings, and large cabinets. However, if you’re painting a smaller surface or something that requires more attention to detail, such as trimming, then an air sprayer or HVLP would suffice.

Regardless of the option you choose (i.e., if you don’t pick both), using a sprayer will make your job a lot easier compared to traditional painting methods such as rollers or paintbrushes. Remember to put your safety first. Wear your gloves and mask, and other safety gear.

Let us know if you have any more questions about choosing between an airless vs air paint sprayer. Until then, happy spraying!

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