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To Roll or To Spray – Getting Paint Where You Want it

May 25, 2020

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Painting can be an arduous chore, especially if the surface you must paint has unique challenges.  Intricate detail work, trim, lattice, or extremely rough surfaces can be a problem for traditional paint application methods. 

The choices for application come down to using a paintbrush, a roller, or a spray rig of some sort.  Each method has advantages and disadvantages depending on the type of paint, the surface you are painting the size of the surface.  In most instances, if you are painting walls or other large, flat, and regular surfaces, the two choices are to use a paint roller or a paint sprayer.  How do you choose the right tool for the job you are facing?

Going Airless

Professional paint contractors typically use airless paint spray rigs for their jobs.  You can find these systems for sale at your home improvement or paint store but expect to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars for this type of equipment.  There are smaller, less expensive options for homeowners.  You may opt to rent an airless paint sprayer for your painting task, which is a viable option.  However, before you pull that spray rig into your home and starting shooting paint at the walls, there are some advantages and disadvantages you should consider.

Advantages to Going Airless

  • Speed - In most instances, you will find that using an airless paint sprayer is much faster than the conventional roller.   The ability to spray continuously without having to stop and reload paint every few minutes plus the broader swath that most airless guns produce can significantly decrease the amount of time it takes to paint a given area.
  • Coverage – Airless paint sprayers deliver a consistent and even layer of paint over the surface.  Even the roughest brick can be easily covered, and the airborne paint can get into cracks and imperfections quickly. 
  • Effort – In many ways, using an airless spray rig is much less work.  The motion used to sweep the airless spray over the surface can be managed by almost anyone.  Because the pump is remote, all you are handling is the spray gun and some hose, the weight is minimal.

The Disadvantages to Airless Paint Sprayers

  •         Keeping the paint where you want it – Airless paint sprayers deliver paint by pressurizing the pain and then blasting it into fine particles at the tip of the spray gun.  Any time you put paint in the air in small droplets, some of it is going to go where you don’t want it.  Overspray means that the process of preparing the space you want to paint can be much more involved when using an airless paint rig.
  •         Airless Rigs can be paint guzzlers – Just priming the pump and filling the hose on some airless paint rigs can take a half-gallon of paint.  That’s paint that is eventually going to be wasted as your flush the rig during cleaning.  Also, not all the paint reaching the place you want it to stick.  Some paint loss occurs due to overspray and bounce from the surface you are painting.  Some experts believe that airless spray rigs only deliver about one-third of the paint used to cover the surface.  The rest of the paint is lost.
  •         Time – Applying paint with an airless paint sprayer is certainly faster during the actual application of the paint.  However, if you consider the time required to prep the area you are spraying and the time and effort to clean the spray apparatus after the job, you may find that the overall time needed to use an airless sprayer is much longer than using a roller.
  •         Safety - There are several issues of safety with using an airless paint sprayer.  As with any mechanical tool that uses electricity and has moving parts, you must follow some basic safety rules.  Known issues of safety with airless paint sprayers include:

o   Inhalation Hazards – Because you are aerosolizing the paint, it becomes an inhalation hazard.  The use of the right protective gear, including respirators, eye protection, and protective garments, is a must when operating an airless paint sprayer, especially in a confined space like a house.

o   Explosion and fire – Turning a volatile or flammable product like lacquer or some oil-based paints can become an explosion and fire hazard.  Many painters have learned this lesson the hard way when an errant spark or static electricity has ignited a fire or caused an explosion in the area where they are working.

o   Pressure – Airless paint sprayers deliver paint to the tip of the spray nozzle at extreme pressures.  Getting a finger, hand, or arm in front of the spray nozzle can inject paint under the skin or even cut the skin.  Such an injury can have serious health implications

  •         The Learning Curve – Airless paint sprayers are indeed relatively simple to use. There is a learning curve.  Technique still is vital to getting a smooth, even finish.  Learning how to use the airless paint gun effectively takes some practice.
  •         Cost – Good airless spray rigs can be costly.  There are ongoing costs as well for repair and replacement parts, spray tips suitable for different kinds of paint, and the additional paint that is needed to compensate for the losses experienced in the operation of the spray rig.

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Getting on a Roll

The old standby for most homeowners and do-it-yourselfers is the paint roller.  This simple piece of equipment has been the preferred method of applying paint to large flat surfaces such as walls, ceilings, and floors for many years.  New technologies in fibers and the design of the rollers have made using a paint roller easier in many cases and can produce beautiful, flat painted surfaces.

The Roller Advantages

  •         Cost – Let’s face it, compared to buying or renting an airless paint sprayer, roller covers are cheap.  Even the most expensive top of the line paint roller cover is a fraction of the cost of an airless paint sprayer, even the small handheld rigs.
  •         Simplicity – Put the roller on the handle, dip it in the paint tray, and put paint on the wall.  You can’t get much simpler than that. There are no steep learning curves, no operating instruction to wade through, and no extension cords or hoses. 
  •         Less Clean up – For most of us, the cleanup of a paint roller consists of pulling the roller cover off the handle frame and tossing it in the trash, followed by the plastic paint tray liner and a wash of our hands. 
  •         No Overspray or drift – The paint tends to stay on the roller.  Admittedly there can be splatter and drips if you aren’t careful, but the problems associated with airborne paint droplets drifting through the house to settle on any surface are not present.
  •         Safety – The absence of aerosolized paint when using a roller significantly lessens the types of safety equipment you need.  A good paper dust mask and some protective glasses are all that is necessary in most instances when using a paint roller.

The Downsides to Rolling it On

  •         Coverage – It is harder to get even and smooth coverage on the surface you are painting with a roller.  Typically, there is a heavier coat of paint near the point you first apply the roller, and the coverage gets progressively thinner as you spread the paint outwards.
  •         Reach – Painting high ceilings or extended areas can involve using extension handles that can be awkward.  Trying to reload paint onto a roller at the end of a ten-foot extension handle in a small area can be a puzzle. 
  •         Effort – Running a roller overhead for several hours can be taxing on your arms and shoulders.  The repetitive motions and the pressure required on the roller to extract paint, especially on rough surfaces, can be tiring.  No doubt using a paint roller can be physically challenging for some people.

How Does Rolling and Spraying Stack Up

Deciding whether to roll or spray should be based on several factors.  Looking at the things that you may face in your house painting task on a one to one comparison may help you decide.

Task Roller Sprayer
Rough Surfaces Rollers can cover rough surfaces, but it usually takes more effort and longer to get good coverage and to fill the small gaps and imperfections in the rough surface Spray rigs excel at covering uneven surfaces.  The ability of the airborne paint to get into and fill gaps, cracks and odd angles makes an airless paint sprayer the champion at applying paint to uneven surfaces.
Large Areas Paint rollers can do an effective job of covering larger areas quickly.  Airless paint sprayers can deliver paint quickly and efficiently to large areas.  The spray rigs that can draw paint directly from a five-gallon container make it possible to paint huge areas without stopping or interruptions.
Ease of Use There isn’t anything much simpler than a paint roller.  Paint rollers are quick and easy to use, don’t require a lot of preparation, and can be very efficient in some situations. While the actual application of paint with a spray rig is easy, the prep work required and the cleanup following the painting can make using an airless paint spray system much more labor-intensive and expensive.
Prep Work How much prep work you need to do depends a lot on the area in which you are working?  If you have floor coverings to protect or you have contrasting trim or other areas you need to protect from splatter and drips, the prep work can be a bit more involved.  Overall, less prep work and forethought are required with a roller. The problems with the aerosolized paint drifting and getting on any nearby surface requires anyone using a spray rig in a confined space such as a home to pay careful attention to preparing the area for painting.  Barriers across openings, covering of any surface not to be painted, and completely masking windows and any surfaces not to be painted can be time-consuming and problematic.
Cleanup Cleanup after using a paint roller is usually quick and easy.  The roller is a consumable and goes in the trash along with the paint tray liner and any rags or paper towels used. Cleaning up an airless paint sprayer can take as long as the paint job.  The pump and hose must be flushed entirely with clean water or solvent, and the spray gun should be cleaned carefully with attention to the tip.
Cost Paint rollers are cheap when compared to the cost of most airless spray rigs.  Even if you are buying the entire package with the roller frame, paint tray and liner and roller cover, you are going to spend far less than what you will pay for the least expensive airless spray rig on the market. Good airless equipment is expensive.  Expect to pay at least several hundred dollars for the lowest price rig at the home improvement store.  If you want professional-style equipment, you can spend thousands.  You should also consider the ongoing costs to purchase replacement and repair parts, new tips for the spray gun and special additives to paint to get the quality of finish you want.
Finish Paint rollers can deliver excellent results on the finish.  They may leave some slight texture from the roller, but the better the roller cover, the less noticeable the surface texture will be. Airless sprayers can apply an ultra-smooth finish without brush marks or roller texture marks.  However, the quality of the finish produced by an airless paint spray rig is dependent on the technique and skill of the person running the paint gun.


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Our View

For most homeowners who are wanting to paint a few walls in their home, or perhaps refinish the kitchen cabinets, our view is that using a high-quality roller is the better option.  Overall using a paint roller is less expensive, quicker, and easier for the average do-it-yourselfer.   Painting large areas and surfaces is not a chore that homeowners face regularly.   The cost of a good airless spray rig is hard to justify when it may see use once every 4 to 6 years.  

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