Brushing vs. Spraying Paint: Which is Best?

By Scott Sidler November 24, 2014

I get asked a lot why we don’t spray our primer on window sashes. Just the other day one of my employees asked the question, hoping they had thought of something that might make our jobs easier and the work move faster.

Brushing vs. Spraying Paint
Image Copyright: Lisa Young

While spraying on paint and primer is much faster the gains in speed come at a cost. In this post I want to look at some of the pros and cons of both so you can make an informed decision when the time to repaint comes.

 

Spraying Paint

There really is no faster way to apply paint than using an airless sprayer. You can cover an entire wall in minutes instead of hours, but like everything, speed doesn’t always equate to quality. Here are some of the key benefits of using an airless sprayer.

Benefits

  1. Incredibly fast application
  2. One coat coverage
  3. Smooth finish free of brush/roller marks
  4. Can get into hard to reach areas

So why wouldn’t everyone just spray everything all the time? Well, there is a downside to spraying too.

Negatives

  1. Long prep and clean up time
  2. Uneven coverage (sometimes too thick)
  3. Uses 2-3 times as much paint as brushing
  4. Poor adhesion
  5. Can’t paint on windy days

Applying paint with an airless sprayer can be very challenging if you don’t have a lot of practice using the sprayer. Like any tool, airless sprayers take a lot of practice before you can apply a smooth even coat of paint. Beginner’s will get over-spray, drips and runs, they’ll often have an uneven coat with some spots of heavy paint build up and some spots that are just too thin.

Paint spraying also uses 2-3 times as much paint as brushing or rolling. Not all of that extra paint goes onto the house either. Most of it ends up wasted in the hose line or as over-spray.

Even with these issues there are some tight spots like around utilities that can’t be done cleanly without spraying and you really can’t beat the speed.

 

Brushing Paint

It’s the old-fashioned way of doing things so I probably love it, right? To be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with brushing on paint. It’s slow and tedious and often results in brush marks if I’m not careful, but nothing gives me control like applying paint with a good brush. Just like with spraying, let’s look at some of the benefits and negatives of brushing.

Benefits

  1. Excellent control
  2. Very good adhesion
  3. Even, uniform coverage
  4. Gets paint into nooks and crannies better than spraying

So far it looks like brushing solves the main problems we faced with spraying, so we should always brush, right? Not so fast.

Negatives

  1. Slow, laborious application
  2. Can require 2 or more coats
  3. Can leaves brush marks
  4. Obstructions make for difficult application

Nothing come close to the control you get with a quality brush. You can cut in tight corners and paint nice straight lines that are impossible to attain with a sprayer. For detail work the only acceptable way is to use a brush. Yes, it is slow, but you will get an even, uniform coat of paint and much better adhesion than with spraying alone.

 

How to Get the Best of Both Worlds

Now that I’ve got you all twisted up thinking neither one is better than the other I want to offer you a solution that will change the way you paint.

Often with old houses the best answer lies in using yesterday’s techniques combined with today’s technology. Painting is one of those times.

In my studies and day to day practices I have found the best way to apply paint is by applying with an airless sprayer and “back-brushing.”

Back-brushing is the practice of brushing over paint that has been applied with either a roller or sprayer. To do it properly you’ll need a helper.

“But this seems like more work. Why would you do this?”

Using this technique you are able to get the paint onto the surface quickly and brush it in before it dries. Back-brushing forces the paint into all the nooks and crannies, evens out the coat and works the paint into the surface giving you better adhesion for a lasting paint job.

You see, what slows you down when you apply paint with a brush is that you can only load so much paint onto the brush at a time. By spraying and back-brushing you can cover large areas almost as quickly as by spraying alone. You get the benefits of both systems and eliminate most of the negatives.

Can you say win-win?

Have you tried this before? What do you think works better? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

 

17 thoughts on “Brushing vs. Spraying Paint: Which is Best?”

  1. I’m currently refinishing my oak kitchen cabinets. I’ve tried brushing on the paint and rolling it, but neither technique gives me the glass smooth finish I want. There is always either brush strokes or a hint of texture from the roller. Should I try spraying the paint? If you spray on the paint, do you also spray on the primer as well?

    1. Robyn, brushing rolling or spraying can all work as long as the paint can level out. Oil based paint dries slower and can level better or try adding some additives like penetrol or floetrol to the paint to slow drying times and help you get a better finish.

  2. I need to paint slatwall. It’s a paint grade slatwall, so need to prime first than paint. I don’t have metal inserts , so have to paint inside also. What is better to use , spray or roller?

  3. Sir Scott,

    I have question regarding the mechanization in the Apartments. If I have out of brush or air less spray, which are the best parameter to look after. Is it really true that paint consumption will increase to 2-3 times (as you mentioned). Waiting for your reply.

  4. i am 60 yrs old. I have a 2 story 2 thousand sq/ft house that I’ll be painting the same color as the last pain’t job. That was 10 years ago with a brush, a 2 man crew and 6 weeks and $4,000.00 later it was painted white. No colored trim, just white. Caulking and weather slowed them down. This time I will be by myself with an airless sprayer. I have a lot of experience with metal spray painting but little on composite siding. If I spray first coat in 80 deg sun and by they time I’m done with the first coat, it’s already dry to the touch where I started. If I carefully apply a second coat immediately, do you think it would hold better and if not how long do you think it will hold up

  5. Hello,
    I’m considering painting my home with a brush because the surface area is really small (house is mostly large windows and brick) 1957 Mid Century Modern ranch house, really the only areas to be painted are surfaces between windows, soffits, roofline,and some beams. The surface to be painted is an aluminum wrapping the structure that is very smooth… will using a brush leave obvious brush marks? (is that a given?) Just seems like a lot of prep work for a little bit of spray application.

    Thanks!
    Carl

  6. This might be tough to answer …. How do you paint your house during this crazy wet weather. Can says: Don’t apply if you expect rain within X amount of hours. I’m wondering if I should try to find some oil base paint. Thanks

    1. Ray, it’s tough to paint in the wet months. You really Just have to wait for dry days and work when you can. Oil based paint won’t fair any better if it gets wet before it dries.

  7. I like the thought of rolling on paint, I am well aware of the waist draw backs of spraying, but if your working with an un-even metal siding surface like I have to, rolling is tossed out the window.. I appreciate all the comments I’ve read here, but sometimes a brush is the “one and only way”.. Had fun reading what all was wrote here!!

  8. I have painted several houses over the years using an airless sprayer and back brushing. I agree with what you said about it. However I no longer spray because of the drawbacks you mention, especially all the masking and waste. I find that rolling and back brushing has most of the advantages of spraying with none of the drawbacks. I set up a roller kit in a bucket so I can use a bucket hook and hang it off my ladder. I screw clips to the bucket so that I have a wide and a narrow brush with me. At the end of the day I clean out the brushes and put the bucket in a plastic bag. When I am done with the roller I use a painters tool and get all the paint off the roller and then wash it out and put it in a ziplock bag to reuse. I have been painting professionally for 30+ years.

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