Specs and Tester's Comments

Anatomy of a Winner

Detailed Tool Features

By Michael Springer
Photos by dotfordot.com

To keep busy during these hard economic times, many builders, framing contractors, and other tradesmen are turning to remodeling work. Homeowners are staying in their houses longer and choosing to make improvements instead of upsizing to a new address, and those who have to sell are often desperate to spruce up their homes so they'll stand out in a dismal real estate market. As a result, remodeling projects are a lot easier to come by than jobs at new-housing developments.

But switching focus from building to remodeling is no easy feat. Remodelers tend to be jacks-of-all-trades. They rely less on subs than large-scale builders do, and handle much more of the work in-house. This is especially true now. Guys who used to spend their time running from bid to bid are concentrating on their hands-on skills to keep the work flowing. They're hanging rock, setting tile, and doing their own painting – even more than they were before, during boom times.

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Credit: Photo: dotfordot.com

Faced with this kind of sink-or-swim adaptation, contractors need tools that can add to their professional versatility (and, ultimately, to their bottom line). That's why we chose airless paint sprayers for this issue's tool test. These tools (which painters simply call "pumps") are great for putting down a lot of paint efficiently, indoors and out. Even if you're backrolling to even out the sheen on an interior wall, applying the paint with a sprayer instead of constantly dipping a roller keeps you moving – which keeps you competitive. For the three-dimensional surfaces (and sheer square footage) of exterior siding and trim, spray application is a necessity. And for fine trim and paneled doors, careful spray work can give you the finish you want – a smooth, evenly applied coat without brushmarks – fast. It takes practice to get really good at using these pumps, but the learning curve is forgiving and the work is actually pretty fun. The first time you paint an entire finished basement in just a few hours will likely put a satisfied smile on your face. It sure did for me.

Like other power tools, airless paint sprayers can be dangerous if used unsafely. If you spray your skin in close proximity to the spray tip, you can fall victim to a horrendous injection injury that could lead to amputation. Our tester shared horror stories of guys he knew in the trade who lost fingers, hands, and even a section of abdomen to such injuries. On the other hand, tool-rental shops will send these tools home with just about anybody, with no requirement for training. So our advice is treat the business end of the sprayer like a loaded gun and be very careful.

For our test, we gathered nine pumps, ranging from midlevel budget models to a few suited for everyday use on smaller jobs – they just had to be able to handle the pros' requisite .019-inch tip. Our painter of 25 years used them with interior and exterior latex paints to determine their worth from a full-time painting contractor's point of view.

These pumps are on the small side compared with the models a pro paint crew usually uses; pro rigs are typically capable of powering extra-long hoses with multiple spray guns running off one machine. Nevertheless, the single-gun units we tested generally impressed our painter – all were capable of putting out a suitable coat of quality latex paint. The least of the tools had too many compromises to be worth using, in his opinion, but to his surprise he found the winner proficient enough to take the place of one of his larger units for daily use on residential sites.

Winners

The performance results of our test support the old adage "You get what you pay for," as the units basically ranked right down the price line, with components and features commensurate with cost. The Airlessco LP 500 took top honors with output that seemed effortless and a commercial design built for hard work and tough conditions. The Graco Ultra 395 came in second with pro performance and advanced control features shared by only the top two pumps. Third place went to the Titan Impact 440 and fourth to the Graco 390. These four in the top tier are considered suitable for pro-level use on a consistent basis.

The midtier starts with the Graco 190 just edging out the Titan Advantage 400. Beneath these (in order) are the occasional-use tools, the Titan XT 420, Wagner Twin Stroke 9175, and Milwaukee M4910-20. If you're in the market for a pump you'll use only a handful of times per year, these lower-end units will put out the paint well enough, but they lack the convenience and durability of pricier models and don't quite make the cut for a solid job-site airless sprayer when compared with the other choices.

Dave Archuleta of Dave's Painting in Denver contributed to this test.