Tool Test: Earlex 5500 HVLP Spray Station
Despite years of practice and the best-flowing finishes I could lay hands on, my skills with a brush plateaued somewhere around “mediocre” on the quality scale. I had always dreamed of switching to a HVLP (high volume, low pressure) spray setup to avoid brush marks and get a more professional cabinet-shop level of finish, but assumed that anything affordable had to be junk. After reading some positive feedback on the Earlex 5500 ($300 at Amazon.com), including a positive review from some trusted folks at Fine Woodworking, I decided to take the chance on it being as good as people said.
This HVLP gun kit is close to ready right out of the box. The setup is simple: You have a turbine, a gun, and a hose that connects them together.
The turbine unit provides a space for setting the gun between uses, and a tall carry handle that will leave your other hand freed up for toting a gallon of paint, roll of masking paper, or cup of coffee. But beyond that, I can’t say much for the convenience and ergonomics of the turbine setup. First, the hose storage is a hassle to work with, forcing you to disconnect the 13 ft. of hose from gun and turbine for storage in the too-narrow slot. Also, the rocker-style on/off switch is not only located at the very bottom of the unit but also recessed back from the unit’s plastic shroud, making it hard to find. But most annoyingly of all, there’s no on-board storage for the tip-wrench, cleaning brush, and viscosity cup, all of which I consider must-haves on every spraying job.
The spray gun has just one point of flow-adjustment: a metal knob at the back that is opened up to increase flow, and screwed tighter to restrict flow. It’s a simple approach, and works well. At the business end, the air cap can be pushed in and rotated to 3 different positions: horizontal spray, vertical spray, and round, a tightly-focused pattern for getting into tight spots. The kit includes a 2.0 mm fluid tip, which is suitable for general purpose paint spraying, but I bought a 1.5 mm needle kit that offers an even finer spray (2.5 mm and 1.0 mm kits are also available. All aftermarket kits sell for $30-$35 each).
I mostly spray latex paint, so I’ll use that for this example, although other finishes are compatible with this tool as well. Fill the spray cup with paint to the bottom of the angled shoulder, then add one viscosity-cup’s worth of clean water, which thins your mixture by about 10%. Stir the contents thoroughly right in the cup until the paint and water are incorporated fully. Then attach the cup to the gun and do some test spraying to determine if the paint has been properly thinned (note: some paint/primer combo products you might need to thin up to around 15% or so, but I had fine results spraying Benjamin Moore Regal Select at about 10%).
Clean up is a cinch, requiring a wrench for just one part. At the back of the gun, you unscrew and remove the spray-control knob and slide out the stainless-steel needle (0.8-in.). At the front, unscrew the air cap ring, and then lift out the air distributor assembly to expose the fluid tip, which is loosened with the included wrench for removal and cleaning. The quart-sized, non-stick PTFE coated container has a wide-mouth top (wide enough to easily fit my whole hand into for easier cleaning!), leaving just the feed tube to flush out with water or solvent.
Bottom line: this kit offers very impressive results for $300. I had no trouble achieving smooth results. Even the first trial runs, which were a bit more plagued by orange-peel texture for my liking (a lack of paint filtration and overly open spray-control knob) looked better than having brush marks. Although some aspects of the turbine setup are awkward, and it lacks some of the features found on higher-end kits, this is a true bang-for-your-buck miracle.