When it comes to fine finishing and production work, paint sprayers offer a faster and more efficient solution than traditional painting methods like rollers and brushes. HVLP and airless sprayers are two of the most popular paint sprayers and are well known for being very similar, especially with how they deliver the paint material.
However, at their base, both pieces of equipment possess distinct features and facilities. The most profound one being the mechanism behind their operation, which ultimately determines who and where you can use them. So, what are the differences between an HVLP vs airless paint sprayer? Let’s find out!
HVLP vs. Airless Paint Sprayer?
The main difference between an HVLP and an airless paint sprayer is their pressure rating. HVLP guns operate at a much lower pressure (8-30 PSI), while airless sprayers have a higher pressure rating (over 1000 PSI). This makes an HVLP more suitable for smaller jobs requiring precision, while airless sprayers are better suited for larger jobs.
What is an HVLP spray gun?
HVLP, or High Volume, Low-Pressure sprayer, uses compressed air (low pressure) to move a high volume of material or paint. In other words, the system uses less pressure to spray paint.
Most HVLP spray guns have two separate chambers – one for the air and the other for the fluid.
The fluid chamber is a built-in cup that holds the material to be sprayed, so there’s no need to draw paint from a separate bucket. The air is usually supplied by an external compressor, but sometimes, it can come directly from the gun.
Atomization occurs when the paint and air meet at the top of the gun. This creates tiny droplets that leave the spray tip. The way the paint is delivered through the tip allows for accurate distribution, leading to a very smooth finish quality.
Since they use low pressure, HVLP guns are easier to control and appeal to both DIYers and professional painters. They work best with thinner materials like latex and are commonly used for smaller projects.
What is an airless paint sprayer?
While HVLP requires compressed air to atomize paint, an airless sprayer doesn’t use air – hence the name “airless.” Instead, it uses high pressure supplied by a motorized pump to push the paint out of the system. This allows the gun to spray a higher volume of paint or material at a faster speed.
The pressure of an airless sprayer can reach limits of 2000 PSI, which is why it requires a lot of caution to use.
Having said that, an airless gun is an ideal choice when you need to paint a large area in less time. Common examples are walls, fences, and large cabinets.
HVLP vs Airless Paint Sprayer: Differences
Differences in Functionality
The main difference between an HVLP and an airless spray gun is the mechanism or how paint is atomized. In an airless sprayer, paint is delivered through pressurization, while an HVLP uses a compressor/turbine.
In other words, an airless sprayer doesn’t need a separate compressor to function. Instead, it uses the piston in a pump system to siphon paint and force it through a small orifice in the spray tip. HVLP guns, on the other hand, need a compressor or turbine system to atomize the paint. The compressor pumps air which is used by the gun to atomize paint.
HVLP systems usually have a cup attached to the gun, which holds the paint, while airless sprayers draw paint from a separate can, except for handheld models.
Operating pressure and efficiency
Even though both HVLP and airless guns move a high volume of material, they operate at different pressures.
An HVLP sprayer operates at low pressure, usually around 8-30 PSI. On the other hand, an airless sprayer can operate up to 2000 PSI to deliver the fan pattern. This makes it the more powerful option. Not everyone can control such high pressures, so you must know what you’re doing if you’re using an airless gun.
When translated to efficiency, this results in a higher transfer rate for HVLP sprayers, around 80-90 percent, whereas airless sprayers have a transfer rate of 50-60 percent. So, HVLPs are generally more efficient and use less paint than airless guns.
The low pressure of an HVLP gun is due to the use of a compressor or turbine. The tool can only generate as much pressure. So, the exact PSI of the gun depends on how powerful the compressor is.
Another distinction between HVLP guns and airless sprayers is the amount of overspray they produce. Because HVLP sprayers run at such low pressure, they typically produce less overspray. As a result, less paint is wasted, and you won’t have a lot of mess to deal with after painting.
In contrast, airless spray guns produce more overspray, which is expected since they operate at a much higher pressure. So, you’re more likely to create more mess with an airless gun.
Having said that, even at low pressure, you can still ruin furniture and floors with an HVLP gun if you don’t mask the area properly.
HVLP guns work best for thin paints due to their low-pressure atomization. They can also be used for medium-thick materials. Examples of paints you will use include enamels, latex, sealers, and stains.
However, for something thicker, such as epoxy, an HVLP will not suffice. You will need something more powerful – an airless sprayer.
Airless sprayers are able to spray a wider range of materials because of their high-pressure system. And most of the time, you don’t need to thin down the paint. Some of these materials include varnish, lacquer, epoxy, oil paint, and polyurethane. In contrast, airless sprayers are less effective for thin materials such as stains and sealers. The high pressure of the system will cause more overspray.
Although you don’t need to thin paint for an airless sprayer, it might be a good idea to do so when you need a finer finish. This is often the case when painting a large decorative piece rather than a wall or siding.
Before selecting a sprayer, you always want to check the manufacturer’s recommendation on what to use to get the best results.
Type of finish
The lower operating pressure of an HVLP paint sprayer allows it to produce softer paint and a finer finish than an airless sprayer. Also, with HVLP, you have more control of the paint flow and the thickness of the coating.
Having said that, while the atomization in airless sprayers results in a coarse mist and a smoother finish, it is still possible to achieve similar results as an HVLP. You just need the best HVLP spray gun with the correct size and type of spray tip.
Regarding safety, HVLP sprayers are generally considered safer than airless sprayers.
Nevertheless, both tools are powerful and come with their own fair share of risks. So, it’s extremely important to follow the safety precautions in the manuals to minimize the risk of accidents.
The increased risk associated with airless paint sprayers is due to their higher operating pressures, which makes them more difficult to control. In fact, the pressure generates enough force to break glass, curve metal, and even pierce the skin. So, they must be handled with great care.
Airless vs HVLP: Similarities
HVLP and airless sprayers also have some similarities. Let’s look at the main ones.
Both tools offer a faster solution than traditional methods (brushes and rollers) and are much more advanced.
Cleaning both tools requires you to go through certain procedures, which can be time-consuming. These include pressure relief, washing the hoses and guns, and so on. Prep work can also be a hassle.
Both pieces of equipment have a learning curve. You have to learn how they operate, how to prime and de-pressurize them, what distance to hold the gun, how to move your hand, etc. But once you get a hang of these, they are very easy to use.
Both systems require you to use a gun. Normally, you would push the trigger on the gun to release the paint.
Even though their operating pressures are different, both tools move a high volume of material. However, they tend to consume more paint than a roller or paintbrush.
Both tools generally create overspray, but the wastage is usually more in airless systems.
Pros & cons of airless paint sprayer
Here are the pros of using an airless sprayer:
- Speeds up the painting process (delivers more paint in a shorter time)
- Perfect for large jobs such as home wall, warehouse, fences, etc.
- Suitable for all paint types (handles thick materials with no thinning)
- Ideal for professional contractors and painters
- Creates a super smooth and even finish without streaks or brush marks
- Doesn’t require an air compressor
- Highly movable and gets into hard-to-reach spots
Perfect for large jobs such as home walls, warehouses, fences, etc.
Here are the cons of using an airless paint sprayer:
- More difficult to control the paint and a higher risk of injury (not best for beginners)
- Has lower paint transfer rates (creates more overspray)
- Cost more than HVLP guns
Pros & cons of HVLP spray gun
Here are the pros of using an HVLP paint sprayer:
- Has a high transfer efficiency (up to 90 percent)
- Provides more control which makes it great for beginners
- Some models have many spray patterns, which increase the versatility
- Handheld turbine-powered models
- Adjustable controls allow you to adjust the spray pattern and fluid flow to suit your needs
- Generally cost less than airless guns
- Low-pressure requirements
- Doesn’t waste as much paint as airless sprayers
- Produces softer and finer finishes
- Less masking and prep time compared to airless
Here are the cons of using an HVLP sprayer:
- Slower than airless sprayers
- Most materials usually require thinning before use
- Not the best for large projects
When Should You Use an HVLP Spray Gun?
An HVLP is ideal when you need to paint or stain a smaller surface, such as a deck, cabinet, or small piece of furniture. The lower pressure of the system enables you to paint with more precision and reduces wastage.
In general, an HVLP is perfect to use in these conditions:
- Detailed work, such as touch up or when you need a fine finish
- Small to medium-sized projects
- When you are working with thin to medium-thick paints
- Car repair and finishing
- Woodworking applications
- Repair work
- You are a beginner and need more control rather than speed
When Should You Use an Airless paint sprayer?
Here are some instances where it might be more appropriate to use an airless sprayer:
- Large projects such as painting your home exterior
- Commercial and industrial buildings
- You’re professional
- Spray foam insulation
- Staining decks and fences
- Applying thick coatings
- Painting locomotives
- Spraying construction projects
Overall, an airless sprayer is perfect if you have a large surface to paint or thick coatings to apply. This is why it’s ideal for professionals.
HVLP vs airless for cabinets?
Generally, you could use either of the two options to paint a cabinet. An HVLP sprayer works best if you’re painting a small cabinet and want a more precise finish. It’s assumed you’re using paint that has been thinned out.
An HVLP is also better for vertical spraying of cabinets since it operates at a much lower pressure, so you’re less likely to encounter runs.
But, from a production standpoint, an airless sprayer would be more suitable as it allows you to paint multiple doors at a time without having to refill a cup frequently. This makes your job quicker. Having said that, if you’re looking for a finer finish, an HVLP gun is the way to go, though it will take longer to spray and complete the job.
Is HVLP or airless better for woodworking?
For woodworking, we generally recommend an HVLP sprayer over an airless sprayer. This is because most woodworking projects require thinner coatings. So, an HVLP gun will provide a more even application and better finish. An airless sprayer is better suited for thicker paint, such as latex, which is commonly used on walls.
Nowadays, technology has advanced. Many airless systems now provide the option to use “fine finish” airless tips, which makes it possible to get a great finish on your woodwork.
3 Best HVLP Paint Sprayers
The Fuji Mini-Mite comes ready to use right out of the box. It has a minimal learning curve but will take your painting to the next level.
As the name suggests, this model is an upgrade of the Mini-Mite 3 with a more powerful 4-stage turbine. The MM4 (Mini-Mite 4) turbine generates about 8.5PSI. This allows it to be used with a range of materials (high to low viscosity), although thinning might be required for some coatings. In general, less paint thinning is required compared to a 3-stage model.
Everything in the unit seems to be metal besides the tubing, all of which are built into a compact unit.
The sound level is similar to that of a vacuum cleaner, but it’s quieter than previous models, so it’s totally bearable. Notwithstanding, you can still wear hearing protection.
Other notable features include a pattern control knob to adjust the fan pattern, a high-quality 25-foot hose, and an air control valve to reduce overspray.
Altogether, there are pattern orientations – circle, vertical and horizontal. Extra air cap sets are available, but you have to purchase them separately.
The Semi-PRO is perfect for DIYers who want to achieve professional-type finishes. As the name suggests, it uses a 2-stage gravity system to deliver a softer spray and super smooth finish. You can use this on cabinets, doors, shutters, and even walls.
The unit includes a stainless steel nozzle and needle, a 25-foot hose for connecting the turbine, a metal turbine case for storage, a 1-quart bottom feed cup, and a handy gun holder to keep everything organized. There are a few simple adjustments to make in order to set up the gun; once this is done, you can start using it straight away.
The 25-foot hose provides plenty of reach and features an air control valve to control the paint flow. This helps to minimize overspray and bounce back.
The gun has a 1.3mm air cap but can support other sizes between 0.8mm and 2.0mm. The 1.3mm spray tip is suitable for thin to medium paint. For something thick such as latex, you want to thin it to the right viscosity before spraying.
The unit also includes a brush and a wrench to help with cleaning. We recommend wearing earplugs as the turbine is usually very loud.
The Earlex HV5500 uses a 3-stage turbine to provide a superior finish on woodworking projects. It can be used to spray various materials, including lacquer, shellac, urethane, varnish, oil, latex, and many more. However, in most cases, you will need to thin down the paint in order to spray it with the gun.
The 1 qt. pressure-fed spray gun is designed to provide superior comfort and performance. It features an air cap that rotates in all directions, allowing you to spray the most difficult objects from any angle.
The spray pattern is fully adjustable, which means it can spray from a tiny line to a wide fan. But we found the power was best suited for thin lines.
The gun is all-metal, while the 1.3mm tip is stainless steel. The PTFE coating on the paint container also provides added durability compared to a plastic container.
The 3-stage turbine has a pressure limit of 5.5 PSI and can spray various coatings, including thin and thick materials ranging from chalk paint, shellac, varnish, milk paint, lacquer, and stain. The unit also comes with a 25-foot hose for easy movement and flexibility.
3 Best Airless Paint Sprayers
The Graco Ultra Handheld Sprayer offers portability on the job and is ready to use right out of the box. It runs on two DeWalt X.R. lithium-ion batteries included in the package.
The tool is specifically designed for smaller jobs, both interior and exterior, as well as special projects. Besides being lightweight, it’s one of the more ergonomic models and comes with RAC X FFLP spray tips to reduce overspray.
It is ready to spray in seconds and delivers a nice smooth finish without thinning. The paint goes on evenly and looks very professional when dried. And yes, it can spray upside down.
The included batteries allow you to take on small and medium-sized jobs without running out of power. However, the gun holds only a small amount of paint, so you have to refill it several times during work. So, it’s probably not the best option for larger projects.
A larger reservoir would have been better, but it would have made the tool heavier.
The Titan ControlMax is a 5-gallon tank airless sprayer designed for serious DIYers and handymen. Thanks to its High-Efficiency Airless (HAE) technology, it has much less splatter and overspray than most standard models. The new control provides more control and a forgiving spray pattern, resulting in more consistent finishes.
Like most airless units, the tool is capable of spraying unthinned paint. But we found that this works best if it’s latex paint. This is a huge time saver considering how time-consuming prep work can be.
Specifically, it sprays unthinned paint and stains up to 0.33 gallons per minute – thanks to its variable speed pump. Compared to a roller, the machine paints three times faster, which makes it perfect for large projects such as decks, doors, fences, and more.
Besides operating up to 1500 PSI, it can spray up to 300 gallons of paint per year.
The gun itself is all-metal, while the hose length (the one included in the package) is 50 feet. If you want, you can extend the hose to 100 feet for longer reach.
Wagner Control Pro
The Wagner Control Pro 190 is the latest member of the Control Pro series and has the most advanced features. It is built for high-efficiency airless spraying and delivers professional-looking results.
Like most Wagner units, it uses the High-Efficiency Airless (HEA), which significantly reduces overspray while delivering a consistent, soft spray pattern. It is three times faster than a roller and thus allows you to cover more areas in less time.
The pressure limit is 1600 PSI, which makes it one of the more powerful models, so it needs to be handled with care.
The unit is capable of spraying up to 500 gallons of paint per year, which provides a lot of leeway for residential projects. Only professional painters really use that much.
Although the power cord is short, the unit comes equipped with a 50-foot hose to enable you to spray even the biggest projects. This is complemented by a 0.7 HP HEA pump that lasts up to three times longer than similar models – thanks to its rebuildable fluid section.
The pump can spray both thinned and unthinned paint as well as stain material.
FAQS – airless vs hvlp
Can you spray a car with a HVLP sprayer?
Yes, you can. HVLP sprayers provide a high volume of paint at low pressure, which makes them perfect for painting cars, as they provide even coating without expelling too much paint onto the surface. It’s perfect for smaller detail areas such as the bumper, fender, and body panel.
Who Should Use an HVLP Paint Sprayer?
Anyone can use an HVLP sprayer, from novices and DIYers to hobbyists and professionals. However, because it operates at a much lower pressure than an airless sprayer, it is best suited for small projects, which makes it more convenient for beginners and DIYers.
How Much Does an Airless Paint Sprayer Cost?
The cost of an airless paint sprayer can vary depending on the brand, size, capability, and complexity. There are brands that cost as low as $200, while some cost over $1000.
Can You Spray Latex Paint With an HVLP Gun?
Yes, an HVLP gun can be used to spray latex paint, but it needs to be thinned with water and mixed properly before spraying. The amount of water to add depends on the brand and quality of the latex paint. It’s usually a good idea to start with 10 percent water, then add a little bit more if the paint is still thick. Do this until you get the desired consistency.
Do You Have To Thin Paint for an Airless Sprayer?
No. If you’re working with water-based paint, oil-based paint, or latex, thinning is not necessary. Airless sprayers are essentially designed to work with unthinned paint. However, there are a few exceptions, such as when the paint is too thick, or you’re spraying a thicker liquid, such as Elmer’s glue.
Do You Have To Thin Paint for an HVLP Sprayer?
In most cases, thinning is required when using an HVLP gun. The low-pressure system of the gun makes it less effective for spraying high-viscosity paints, such as latex or oil-based paint. HVLP sprayers generally work best with thin paints. You can check your manual for the correct ratio of water to paint to use.
Do airless sprayers use more paint?
Yes, airless sprayers tend to use up to 33 percent more paint than rollers. The extra paint comes out as overspray and drifts away from the target surface. The lower transfer rate of an airless sprayer is due to its high pressure.
Can I spray house paint with HVLP gun?
Yes, you can. An HVLP gun can apply thinner and more even coats with minimal overspray and good precision. This makes it ideal for interior projects. However, it’s a bit slower than an airless sprayer and may be less practical for a larger room or surface.
How long can paint stay in a HVLP sprayer?
You can leave paint in a HVLP sprayer for up to 3 days. Anything more, the paint will dry up and clog up the machine. It’s best to clean the sprayer after each use. You can take short breaks while working with paint in the sprayer but letting paint sit for long periods can affect its mechanism and shorten its lifespan!
Conclusion: Is HVLP better than airless?
As we’ve seen, both airless and HVLP guns offer superb finishes. The question of which one to choose depends on the nature of your project.
An airless sprayer is ideal if you’re spraying a thick material and have some technical painting experience. It offers more speed and is perfect for bigger projects. Unfortunately, the transfer rate of the gun is low, which leads to paint wastage and more overspray.
On the other hand, if your goal is to get a quality finish rather than speed, then an HVLP would be ideal. It offers more precision and doesn’t require much experience. It is better suited for thinner materials and smaller jobs.
We hope we’ve answered all your questions about airless vs. HVLP spraying, and you’re now in a better position to decide what is best for your project.