HVLP vs Airless Paint Sprayer

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Paint sprayers are a staple in any professional painter’s tool kit, but they have applications for DIYers, as well. These machines quickly apply paint and other liquids to a variety of surfaces, leaving behind an even, blemish free coat in next to no time at all.

If you’re not sure which kind of paint sprayer to choose, read on to find out the most important differences between two types of sprayer: airless, and HVLP. 

What Is an HVLP Paint Sprayer?

HVLP stands for ‘high volume, low pressure’. HVLP paint sprayers are used to quickly apply thin coats of atomized paint to surfaces such as wood, drywall, and metal. Sprayers can do more than just apply paint -they can also be used to spray polyurethane, varnish, lacquer, or wood stain

Atomization is the process by which liquid paint becomes a fine mist, thanks to the introduction of pressure. 

Man holding an HVLP spray gun

‘High volume’ indicates the amount of paint that moves through the spray gun. ‘Low pressure’ refers to how quickly and forcefully the paint is forced through the nozzle, and also corresponds to the speed and force of the spray. 

The best HVLP sprayers allow everyone from professionals to DIYers to apply a variety of finishes and paints to surfaces.

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What Is an Airless Paint Sprayer?

An airless paint sprayer is powered by a pump and a piston. These work in tandem to pressurize paint (or other liquids), which can be fed through the spray gun from an attached container or, in some cases, through a hose to a large bucket. 

This pressure forces the paint through the nozzle of the spray gun, where it atomizes (breaks down into small, airborne particles). The size and shape of the spray tip dictates the pattern of the spray as it moves from the nozzle to the surface being sprayed. 

The most common design for spray tips is a fan shape. They can be large or small, depending on the desired shape of the spray and the thickness of the fluid that is being sprayed. 

In the context of airless sprayers, ‘airless’ refers to the fact that these types of sprayers create pressure through pumps and pistons, rather than being powered by compressed air. This can be confusing, since the pressure is still used to force air into the paint, which causes it to atomize into a fine spray or mist. 

HVLP vs Airless Paint Sprayer

Now that you understand the basics of HVLP and airless paint sprayers, dive deeper into the specifics of these two powerful machines. 

Similarities

The similarities between HVLP and airless paint sprayers include their tendency to use more material than tradition application methods, the speed at which they cover a given area, and their adjustable settings. 

Material Wastage

With brush or roller paint application, there is very little wasted material, as paint is transferred directly from the applicator to the surface. Airless and HVLP sprayers coat surface quickly, but they use much more material to paint the same area. 

This is due to overspray – atomized particles of paint that settle on surfaces other than the one you were intending to paint. Up to 40% of material may be wasted when using an airless sprayer, increasing your material costs. 

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An HVLP sprayer produces less overspray and therefore wastes less material – the rate of material loss may be as low as 20% if operated with great technique. While this is less than airless sprayers, it is significantly more than using traditional application methods like brushes or rollers. 

Speed

Both airless sprayers and HVLP sprayers coat surfaces in much less time than rollers or brushes.  

However, the time and effort required to mask off every surface that you don’t want painted may cancel out the time saved by using a sprayer vs more traditional paint application methods. 

Adjustability

With both kinds of paint sprayer, there are a number of variables that can be adjusted using the controls. These variables include: the amount of pressure used to atomize the paint, the spray pattern, and the way in which fluid is fed into the spray gun. 

Person spraying fence with an airless paint sprayer

Find the best sprayer for furniture in our in-depth review.

Differences

There are many similarities between HVLP and airless sprayers, but also many important differences. From a technical standpoint, they include the paint feed mechanisms, the source of the pressure used to atomize fluid, and the parts that each sprayer contains. 

From an operational perspective, airless and HVLP sprayers differ in the recommended amount of pressure used, the presence of a fluid needle, and the likelihood of creating runs during application. 

Feed

An HVLP sprayer has a fluid chamber that feeds the paint into the spray gun. When the chamber runs out, you must stop spraying to refill the cups. 

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Airless sprayers have fluid chambers, too, but many models have an additional capability to feed paint directly from the bucket, which saves significant time.

Airless sprayers are usually siphon feed, which means that the pressure is used to create a vacuum that sucks the paint into the gun. HVLP sprayers are usually gravity fed, as their low pressure operation doesn’t have the power to create a vacuum. However, some airless sprayers are also gravity fed. 

Pressure Source

An HVLP paint sprayer generates pressure through use of a turbine or compressor. 

The pressure for airless sprayers is created by a pump and piston. 

Pressure Requirements

Airless sprayers typically operate between 2,000 and 5,000 pounds of pressure per square inch (PSI). By contrast, HVLP sprayers can operate as low as 10 PSI. 

Spray Tip/Fluid Needle

An airless sprayer forces paint through a spray tip attached to the nozzle, drawing directly from the hose. 

HVLP sprayers contain a fluid needle to control the flow of paint to the nozzle and keep paint from leaking back into the hose.  

Paint Thickness

The amount of pressure used to force paint through an airless sprayer means that many models are able to spray even unthinned paint. 

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HVLP sprayers, which operate at much lower pressures, require paint to be thinned before use. They are designed to handle thin and medium viscosity liquids. HVLP sprayers will not work properly if you attempt to spray unthinned paint. 

Clean Time

Both airless paint sprayers and HVLP sprayers must be thoroughly cleaned after every use. 

To properly clean an HVLP sprayer, you should disassemble the spray gun and clean the fluid needle. Airless sprayers take less time to clean, because the entire system can be flushed with water — no disassembly required. 

Runs

Paint sprayers lay down a fine mist of paint. The coats are usually too thin for running or dripping to be a concern. However, when you overlap a recently coated area, the extra thick layer of paint can sometimes run. 

This is less likely to happen with an HVLP sprayer than with an airless sprayer, because the spray is so much finer, leading to less material build-up on the surface. 

Read our reviews of the top sprayer for cabinets.

Man using an HVLP spray gun to paint furniture

Major Differentiating Factor

The major differentiating factor between airless and HVLP sprayers is the amount of overspray they produce. 

Due to the high pressure required to operate an airless sprayer, it generates much more overspray than an HVLP sprayer. In fact, use of non-HVLP sprayers is restricted in some areas, due to environmental concerns. 

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Overspray has an immediate impact on the air quality of your spraying space. When used outside, the wind can carry this overspray into your neighbor’s yard or onto the street, where it may settle on cars, houses, and plant life. 

Not only is overspray detrimental to vegetation, it’s also difficult and costly to remove once it has settled on the surface. Using an airless sprayer outside could get you into trouble with your neighbors, your homeowner’s association, or the local environmental agency. 

Because of the low pressure used to operate HVLP paint sprayers, they produce much less overspray. However, it is still important to cover any surface you don’t want painted, and to spray outside only on calm, windless days.

When to Use an HVLP Paint Sprayer

Use an HVLP paint sprayer for small projects, to increase control and reduce overspray. Metal railings are a perfect application for HVLP paint sprayers due to their small size.

The spray of paint from an HVLP paint sprayer is much easier to direct and control without painting any unintended surfaces. 

If your local regulations prohibit the use of non-HVLP paint sprayers, you must follow those guidelines.

When to Use an Airless Paint Sprayer

If you already own an airless paint sprayer, or have significant experience using one, it probably doesn’t usually make sense to switch to an HVLP paint sprayer. Overspray from airless sprayers is something to pay attention to, though.

Check with your local environmental agency before using an airless sprayer. There may be a penalty or fine associated with contravening local restrictions. 

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Airless sprayers work best for interior surfaces, where there is less of a concern about affecting other people’s property with overspray. They are particularly well suited for painting large surfaces such as walls, as overspray is less of a concern in these environments. 

Another benefit of using airless sprayers to paint large areas is that they often have the capacity to feed paint to the spray gun directly from a large container of paint. This is much more convenient than repeatedly refilling the fluid chamber. 

Which is Better, HVLP Paint Sprayer or Airless Paint Sprayer?

Unless you’re a professional painter who spends all day coating large surfaces, an HVLP paint sprayer is the better choice. They do a better job of controlling overspray, and can be used for both detailed and broad applications. 

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.