The Power Tool that Makes the Money


There are a few tools that I consider essential to making a living. Most professionals in the U.S. live and die by the table saw. I don’t. But I think that’s because I don’t use sheet goods much.

For me, it’s a three-way tie between the planer, my old 14” band saw and my HVLP system. The planer and the band saw are – I think – obvious choices. The HVLP system might be a bit of a surprise to some.

My first woodworking job was in college at a door factory where I assembled and finished entryway doors. That was my first taste of spray finishing, and I have an apparent knack for it. As a result, I’ve always had a spray system on hand – mostly cheapos. A spray system can save days of work compared to applying finishes by hand. Today was a good example.

I’m finishing the parts for three Roorkee chairs, The parts have lots of facets, coves and tapered mortises and tenons that need to be finished (or look finished) to be presentable. Each Roorkee has 10 parts (plus two replacement stretchers), so I had to finish 36 parts today with garnet shellac.

While shellac dries quickly, getting it into tight corners and mouldings with a brush, rag or pad is a challenge. With a spray system, a job that should take eight hours takes less than one hour. And (my opinion is that) the results are superior.

Even when I want the final finish to look hand-applied, I use the spray system to build up a few preliminary coats. Then I apply the final coat of paint, shellac or lacquer by hand so it looks less than perfect. Is that cheating? I don’t believe in the word when it comes to making ends meet.

With spray systems, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get great results. I started out on a Binks systems – arguably the best. Now I use a cheap Earlex 5500 (basically a converted vacuum cleaner) that produces the same results. I can spray anything except latex.

Honestly, the equipment is not as important as thinning your material properly and simply knowing how to spray intelligently. Before buying the Earlex more than 10 years ago, I had a Fuji spray system, which was the budget leader back in the 1990s. (However, do stay away from the Wagner systems at the home centers. I have yet to produce a decent finish with one of these. Which is curious.)

There’s a learning curve with a spray gun, just like with any tool. I can teach people to spray (decently) in about an hour. Learning all the tricks takes a little longer (two hours?).

If you struggle with finishing, maybe your problem isn’t a result of the medium. Maybe it’s the messenger.

— Christopher Schwarz

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23 Responses to The Power Tool that Makes the Money

  1. Pe Mac says:

    Spray booth? Exhaust fan? Respirator?


  2. BeDressel says:

    I’ve only sprayed flat panels or boxes. Not much experience with multiple chair parts. Any tips on spraying the multiple chair parts? Stand them all up, hang them by the tendon socket?


    • I’ve tried hanging them. The turbulence from the gun moves them around. And you get runs and sags if you aren’t careful.

      I spray them flat. I arrange them on battens on top of sawbenches (this avoids blowback). I shoot one side, wait five minutes, flip them over and shoot the other side. Shellac dries so fast that this is the quickest way possible.


  3. Dan Katz says:

    Good to know..for small stuff like pierced carvings with shellac (10″ x 10″) would an air brush be better?


  4. mike says:

    Many woodworkers seem intimidated by spraying. The magazines run a dovetail article every issue but only cover spraying once every 15.5 issues. Maybe that is one reason why. It was also an early skill for me and one I am glad I have.


  5. Keith says:

    I am thankful for people like Bob Flexner. Most project-oriented articles go on for pages and photos on construction methods and end up with a short paragraph that can be condensed to six words — “apply the finish of your choice.” I am also appalled by the number of people that think every project needs the one and only finish — poly.


    • tsstahl says:

      Pashaw! There is more than one finish: gloss or satin poly. 😉

      For the past several years I’ve experimented with polyurethane on wear surfaces and other finishes on the supportive bits. I get great color results with water based poly and “bleached” shellac. Just my experience.


  6. Jesse Griggs says:

    I love your version of cheating! Mine (small hobbyist scale) is to brush on 2 or 3 thick coats of shellac. Then, finish by French polishing to smooth things out. I usually don’t even bother sanding. It’s so much faster than just French polishing and i think looks just as good.


  7. Rachael Boyd says:

    I use a HVLP system I picked up at a yard sale. I think I have seen it at HF but it works great and you are right about thinning when you get it right it flows perfect. The only time I use poly is for table tops that get heavy use. I don’t like polys.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. ctdahle says:

    I like the finish I get with my Earlex sprayer, the application is fast, and I’m pretty confident in my ability to spray. I would spray all the time if I could do it outside. Unfortunately we have two seasons here, the cold windy season (-4 last night and I won’t see +40 until March) and the dusty windy season. I have to spray indoors. If I could create space to set up a permanent spray booth that would help. Still, I have an arrangement of hooks on the ceiling and a system of tarps I can set up pretty quickly for spraying as long as the shop is otherwise pretty orderly.

    But there’s this other big roadblock; I just can’t figure out how to efficiently clean up the spray gun. I consider it a personal flaw, but it seems to take me hours to get the gun clean.


    • mike says:

      It takes me about 5 minutes.

      I run some clean solvent through the gun with the turbine turned off (water, alcohol or lacquer thinner, depending on the finish). I then disassemble the gun and brush the parts with solvent. If I am feeling ambitious I reassemble and run a few tablespoons of acetone through the gun to rinse away the residue of whatever solvent I used. Disassemble and lay rhe parts on a paper towel to dry, and then into their storage container. And that is it.


  9. Tom Rathbun says:

    I purchased a Wagner commercial three stage HVLP in ninety five, it’s going strong today. I build tables of all sorts, even up to twelve foot conference tables, never has let me down. You are right. The Wagner HVLP’s at home stores are not worth the money.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Steven Poetzl says:

    What sprayer would you recommend that would also spray latex? The description of the 5500 says it sprays latex but you seem to disagree.


    • Of course they *say* they spray latex. But you have to thin the crap out of it to the point where it’s not worth it.

      I don’t spray latex generally, so I don’t have any worthwhile advice. Sorry.


      • John Koenig says:

        My Rockler HVLP (made by Earlex) came with a 2.5mm tip. It says it sprays unthinned latex, but I had thin it about 15%. Three coats seemed to work great, which is what I would do brushed or rolled anyway. Nothing sprays as beautifully as shellac.


    • mike says:

      In my experience you can spray GF Milk Paint (which is acrylic) with an earlex if you thin about 10% with water. A Fuji 3 stage would probably do better. I was mostly happy with my Earlex but had upgrade fever and bought a Fuji 4 stage and it can shoot thicker finishes without a problem.


  11. Finn Koefoed-Nielsen says:

    I’ve only really used HVLP finish as a decorator – mainly for staircase balusters and fancy plasterwork.
    Talking to a high-end kitchen manufacturer a while back, everything gets sprayed but they always “tip off” the final coat with a fine brush – this means that any further touchups down the line (installation can be a tricky business…) aren’t so obvious. So yeah, brushing on the last coat for that perfect imperfect finish is a charitable act!


  12. Steve P says:

    If I already have a 30 gallon compressor, is there a gun that would give as good of results as that earlex. I’ve heard good things about that sprayer on forums, but would rather take advantage of my compressor and one less big machine to store in the garage. Any ideas there? Also, is it harder to get DNA in that part of the country? Seems like cali is making it near impossible to buy DNA.


    • Dave says:

      Tim Rousseau out of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship sings his praises for the Critter spray gun for his finishing. It’s cheap too. I myself don’t have experience with it but I hope this helps.


  13. Dave says:

    Perhaps a bit tangential but I’ve been considering an airbrush for dyeing my leatherwork (which I had gotten into since making my first Roorkee chair). Since leatherworking more, I enjoy the flexibility/agility that’s possible keeping undyed veg-tan on hand and dyeing pieces for each project as needed. However, dip-dyeing is messy, noxious, takes a long time to dry and recondition, as well as wastes a lot of dye. Sprayed dye dries quickly, so there less delay waiting before I can handle it, and since it uses a lot less dye I can tolerate the higher per-unit costs of small volumes and stock a greater variety.

    I’m just a hobbyist but it seems as though most leather folk who sell their wares incorporate air brushes, if they doing any dyeing at all.

    Just thought I’d share.


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