Over the past several days we've been splitting our DIY time on many different projects all over the house. From routine maintenance items, like putting a fresh coat of paint on the cast iron front stairs and urns...

...to individual "punch list" items from the lengthy list Wendy put together over the winter after she decided "our house is starting to look like we don't give a crap that it's looking horrible."

Yes, that's our grill cover. Yes, that's moss growing on it. Yes, that's a hole in it so it's really no doing anything to protect. No, we're not happy with ourselves. Yes, we should be ashamed. How do we drown our pool of sorrows filled by our own self loathing? We visit puppies at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, that's how. (We were thrilled to learn these darling babies have now found a foster home!)

And going out to happy hour (actual post happy hour photo taken and then texted to unsuspecting friends).

But while we've been knocking out these short term or one day projects, expressing disgust with our home, and taking needed breaks for happy hour and puppies, we've also been working consistently on our efforts to improve and get comfortable with our HVLP sprayer gun while painting our antique buffet turned vanity.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. One of the most important aspects of being a capable DIYer is one's comfort level with the various tools and techniques necessary to get any given job done well. Experience combined with comfort are the building blocks of the confidence necessary to look at a project and decide you're going to both take it on yourself, and ultimately own it. But this doesn't come without taking that first step and building your familiarity.

The past several weeks, while I've been getting aquatinted with my new HVLP sprayers, has been a little bit of a bumpy road while getting the hang of it under the various paint types and approaches. But I'm ready to plant my preliminary flag of occupation (not yet victory) on Mount Paint Sprayer and begin refining my techniques to achieve a better finished result.

Now that I'm feeling pretty good about where I stand, I want to share some of my decidedly amateur experiences with you. It's my hope that it may help you decide that an HVLP sprayer may be a great thing to round out your Toolbox and help you achieve the look you want on your smaller paint projects.

I've already shared our experience with priming our vanity carcass using the sprayer, and that turned out pretty well, but primer is an already thinned paint, easy to work with, and allows a little room for error. I knew I'd need to put in a bit more effort and research when it came to applying the top coat. It is, after all, my goal to have a beautifully smooth painted vanity that is in the same color as our custom not-quite-white trim color.

The first thing I investigated had to do with the all important step of thinning the paint. In order to achieve atomization (the point where the paint is broken into little droplets by the compressed air, which can be evenly sprayed on the surface), the paint has to be sufficiently thinned. Too thick and it will just spit spray paint splatters and clog the gun. Too thin, it becomes a high powered water gun. With the primer I just added some water to achieve my desired result. When it came to our paint, I wanted to be more exact and not risk the color or quality by using water. I purchased two items to perform this step of the process, a latex paint thinning additive called Floetrol...

...and something called a viscosity cup.

The responsibilities of these two items go hand in hand. The Floetrol is added to the paint and mixed thoroughly to thin it without affecting its color or method of application. It also promote's the paint's ability to "lay down" and smooth itself out while it dries, so it's even good for the brush painter that wants fewer brush marks or to maintain a wet edge longer.

The main things you have to remember about using this is that it extends dry time, and the paint goes on thinner. The thinner paint requires more coats to achieve the same coverage, and the more fluid paint means more possibility of sagging if applied in too thick of a layer on a vertical surface.

The viscosity cup's role is to help determine if the right level of viscosity has been met for optimal HVLP sprayer operation. Whenever I think about viscosity, I think back to my high school physics classes on the subject, then I always think about motor oil commercials talking about "viscosity breakdown." The more viscous a liquid is, the thicker it is. That motor oil commercial is talking about how the relatively thick, or viscous, oil starts to thin over time, which is the same thing I want to do to the paint. As you add a thinning agent to the paint, you are effectively lowering the viscosity.

The idea with the viscosity cup is simple, it's supposed to tell you when you've lowered your viscosity enough to reach the ideal level for your sprayer. To do this, you fill the viscosity cup with your thinned paint, then you time how long it takes to empty out of the small funnel at the bottom. The ideal viscosity will be met when the time it takes the fill line of your paint to reach the bottom of the cup is no more than 30 seconds.

When I tried this before thinning, the paint took over 90 seconds to run completely out.

The paint we're using is a Benjamin Moore paint and primer combo, and it started out quite a bit thicker than many paints. The Floetrol bottle label suggested adding one quart to each gallon, but for our purposes I ended up using a full quart for about a half gallon of paint.

After very very very thorough mixing, I checked with the viscosity cup and achieved my 30 second empty time.

Through the wonders of blogging, I'll say I did it all in one shot. But in reality, it took quite a bit more guesswork. I think I must have added, mixed, and timed, about 20 times before I reached the 30 second mark. It pays to be thorough, and I didn't want to screw this up.

Once thinned, I poured my paint through the strainer and into my sprayer's cup, ready to get to work. Now you might think you just jump right into spraying. But you have to first make some adjustments to the gun to ensure your paint it ready to be applied. The two primary adjustments are with the paint volume through the material knob (usually the top knob on the back), and the trigger depression through the fan knob (middle knob on the back).

These two knobs control just how much paint gets into the body and how it sprays onto the surface. I've heard that you start with the top knob fully closed (clockwise) and middle one partially open. The middle knob controls how far you can pull your trigger back and how much air gets through, which controls the pattern the paint sprays onto the surface, and the top controls the paint flow.

I set up a piece of cardboard so I could adjust the spray until I achieved that solid bullseye shot, rather than an oblong spray of speckled paint, then I started painting.

The job tends to go quickly, so there's really not much time for photos. But I've found it's best to keep the trigger pulled and spray as consistently as possible. I start spraying not yet on the piece, then allow the spray to cascade over the whole thing.

Since I'm a rookie, after the first coat I ended up with a saggy drip or two that I had to deal with. I was slightly crushed at my amateur ways, expecting to be some sort of an HVLP phenom, but I knew how to fix this issue. This happened because I applied way too much paint on an area. I have to keep reminding myself that "thinner is better." (You can see that I started to sand this just a tad before the photo, but then I thought "hey, this is something I should probably photograph to show everyone my rookie mistake.)

After a full dry, I grabbed some sandpaper and got to work. First, using an extra 120 grit pad I had laying around, I took off the major ridge of the drip. 

I followed that up with a little 220 grit paper over the lump to smooth the who area, then hit the whole rest of the vanity with the 220 again.

Leaving a smooth surface, I was ready for the next coat, and my next adventure as a sprayer. I'm getting really excited about this newfound capabilities as an amateur HVLP paint sprayer person. I even told Wendy she's free to find random furniture on the street that she can bring back and I can now paint. This opens a whole world of possibilities.

I can't wait to both get to the finished result, and share it all with you. This is a much longer process than I anticipated, but I'm taking my time to ensure I get it right. All told I'll end up with 2 coats of primer and 3-4 coats of paint. Not too bad, all things considered, but it takes a while when you're waiting days between coats our of pure laziness. 

Do you have any experience with HVLP sprayers? How am I doing? Be gentle, I'm not sure my amateur status can handle a pro's critique. 

Comments 13


5/23/2014 at 12:46 PM

Yeah, HVLP are a pain at first but seriously SOOO much easier to use than the Graco sprayers that everyone in the blogosphere seems to love. We bought a Graco for a hot minute before I returned it for an HVLP. You just can't beat the finish. Have fun!


Full disclosure, I have both the HVLP and the Graco. I'll eventually talk about the Graco and my opinion, but I sort of feel like you do. There are projects where the Graco works well, but the HVLP has advantages in paint usage, easy of use, cleanup, control, and quality, as far as I'm concerned.

5/23/2014 at 1:32 PM

Cant wait to see the vanity finished! HVLP guns are a whole lotta work to get used to, but worth the reward. This comes from a girl who painted her first car (purple) while in highschool. In a bedsheet paint booth set up our garage no less. Don't worry, it was under Dad's supervision and instruction. (My DIY thriftiness runs deep.) I did however have one drip on the hood that drove me nuts.

I don't have a HVLP at our current place due to the fact I only have a wee bitty compressor, and in all truth, if I really wanna spray I can just head to my parents place and get paint on their garage floor.


That's an awesome story. I can totally identify with the paint drip issue. I would focus on it even if nobody else would ever see it.

5/23/2014 at 3:21 PM

Hey Alex...thanks for sharing the experience with HVLPs. I've gone down that road as well. I used one to paint our entire deck and fence, which took forever between having to back brush and the gun's tiny paint container. Since I was using stain, I didn't bother with getting a viscosity cup then, but I did get one later in hopes of using it to paint our trim and built ins for our basement that we were finishing. As I researched the best way to use latex paint in an HVLP, everything I read made it sound like I would have to thin it out way too much for it to actually be effective, even with the huge compressor I had bought for this purpose (something like 9.4CFM at 40PSI). So I'm totally interested to see how the final results turn out. But in the end, I got an airless sprayer instead. Everyone says you don't have the control with an airless, and that you'll have more overspray, but I found that Graco makes these fine finish tips that basically double atomize the paint, and they come in really small sizes (only a 4" or 6" wide spray pattern, so not a lot of overspray). Anyway, I'm a huge convert to the airless since I don't have to thin paint, even the really heavy stuff, at all. And the price of entry wasn't bad either. I ended up getting a sprayer from Harbor Freight down in Woodbridge, and with a coupon it was less than $200. Might be something worth thinking about. You could even try mine out if you want.


Wow, a whole deck! That's dedication with that little paint cup.

I've got a Graco sprayer but only the stock tip. I'll have to check out the smaller ones as that would be very useful.

5/23/2014 at 4:26 PM

Alex, thanks for the detailed instructions.

How long did it take the paint to dry between each painting session?

Did you clean the sprayer after each application while waiting for the paint to dry? If not, please explain what you did between paint applications with the sprayer.



Our thin coats seem to be about 1-2 hours to the point where it's dry to the touch, and about 4 hours before I can sand without gumming it all up.

Yes, I did clean the sprayer after each use. It's a little bit of a pain, but easy enough with latex paint.

5/27/2014 at 1:35 AM

(Side note: The form never remembers my website for some reason, but still keeps my name and e-mail handy).

You're doing fine with the spraying, as far as I can tell. It's totally normal to have runs, and even the pros will get them every once in a while, and you just have to sand them out (as you did) and re-coat. Same if the finish ends up with too many little "dust nibs" on it.

As far as the thickness/thinness of your paint/varnish I go by experience (by eye/by feel) and I tend to prefer slightly thinner over thicker, simply because the finish will be smoother with a thinner mix (especially with paint - less of an eggshell texture). The drawback, however, is that the thinner it is, the easier it is to get runs.


Thanks, will need to check on that bug. Should be easy to fix.

I've been doing a little thinner than I need to now and I feel as you stated. As long as I keep it thin enough and use a small enough tip I'm getting really good results out of the thinner paint.

I've seen mixed info on the possibility of applying a coat of poly over the paint. Some people say to avoid it at all costs, while others say that a coat of water based poly over latex paint works well. I've talked to one pro that says he uses it all of the time, even though you're not supposed to. Have any words of wisdom on this?

5/28/2014 at 2:01 PM

Nice spot in the latest Washingtonian, Wendy!

5/2/2019 at 9:07 PM

Your doing great. I refinish cabinets for a living. You should look up a paint that Sherwin Williams sells for painting wood (furniture) call Hydroplus. They can match any SW color. It sprays great and has an added hardener to make it feel like a lacquer base paint. The best thing is it is a water base paint, so fumes or harsh chemicals. And you don’t need to dilute. I can shoot an entire kitchen in three days, one day primer, sand then shoot first coat the next day and sand with 320 - 400 grit and shoot again and let dry overnight. This paint is amazing. I have a store in Orlando that I get the paint from. It’s worth checking out.

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