10 Spray Painting Tips and Tricks For Creating A Smooth Finish

Learn how to avoid spray paint drips, cracks and bubbles with these spray painting tips and tricks that will ensure a smooth finish.

Spray painting is one of my favorite ways to quickly update almost anything, from pieces of furniture (like my bar cabinet makeover) to crafts (like these mason jar candle holders). But it can be a bit tricky to get an even finish that is free from drips, cracks and bubbles, which is where these spray painting tips and tricks come in handy.

Spray painting tips and tricks

Spray Painting Tips and Tricks

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I am a big fan of spray painting.

Mostly because it is easier to get paint into all of the small crevices when you spray it, and it dries so quickly that your projects get finished much faster.

The only problem is, I am not very good at using spray paint. I never seem to be able to get it to go on evenly. And the surfaces never seem to be as smooth as I would like them.

I have learned the hard way (by experience) that there are some things to do (and some things not to do) if you want your spray painted projects to be successful.

I’m sure that some spray-painting gurus will disagree with some of these. But this is what has worked for me. So I thought I would share what I have learned about how to get a smooth finish with spray paint.

Keep reading to see my spray painting tips and tricks that will produce a smooth finish.

1. Prevent Drips: Don’t Spray Paint Vertically

Board with spray paint drip

Generally speaking, spray paint drips like this one mean that you’ve put on too much paint.

However, I find it’s almost impossible to avoid them when you are spray painting vertically.

Spray painted boards

It is much easier to get an even finish when you only spray paint surfaces that are facing up.

That way, even if you spray a little too much, the paint will even itself out.

On the other hand, as soon as you spray a little too much paint on a vertical surface, you will get drips that are very hard to get rid of! (There’s lots of sanding involved.)

Cupboard ready to be spray painted

You may say, that’s really easy to do it you’re spray painting some boards…but what about a shelf unit like this one that is already put together?

I spray all of the surfaces that are facing up, and then flip it onto the next side so that I can spray the next set of upward-facing surfaces.

It takes a little longer because sometimes you have to wait for a side to dry before you can turn the item over.

But I think the results are worth it.

2. Eliminate Blobs: Be Careful When You Turn Pieces Over

When you are flipping boards over to paint the other side, or setting the boards out for round 2 of painting, be careful where you put them down.

Plastic sheet with spray paint on it

Although the paint on the board may have dried well enough for you to touch it, the paint that is sprayed all over the plastic drop sheet (or whatever you were using to protect the surface) probably hasn’t.

Spray paint blob on board

Large pieces of somewhat wet paint will peel off that protective covering and stick to your board (as you can see).

And they are really hard to get off cleanly…you usually have to sand them and re-paint.

Cover wet paint with a fresh sheet of plastic
Cover wet paint with a fresh sheet of plastic

I have found the best way to prevent this, is to put down a fresh piece of plastic whenever you move painted pieces off your work area.

In this case, I was using an 8′ long plastic drop cloth and my table is only 3′ wide, so I could just fold the end over to cover the area…and that solved my problem!

3. Avoid Cracks: Don’t Spray Too Thick

Board with spray paint that has cracked

If you spray the paint on too thick, you might start seeing some cracks in the paint like this one. Take it from me…they are really hard to get rid of!

So the lesson learned is to do at least 2 thin coats of paint (and 3 is even better).

Since you can re-coat spray paint in a few minutes, doing a few passes on it doesn’t take that much more time.

I have also found that painting against the grain with the first coat and then with the grain on the second coat provides really good coverage.

If you really want a smooth finish, do a light sanding between coats of paint to remove any little bumps.

4. Prevent Bumps: Don’t Spray Paint In Direct Sun

Board with bumpy spray paint

If you read the instructions on most spray paint cans, they will actually tell you not to spray paint in direct sunlight.

But I have never paid that much attention, until I started getting this really rough finish in the paint.

Apparently if it’s too hot, the paint dries in the air before it hits the surface and causes these little bumps.

Sanding is definitely required to fix this issue!

5. Get Even Color: Shake the Can Well

Spray painted board with uneven finish

This is another one of those “follow the directions” things.

I had never really noticed that much difference between shaking the can a lot and shaking it a little…until I went to use this Antique White spray paint.

All of a sudden I started to get streaks of off white (the color I was going for), mixed with streaks of light brown (definitely not the color I was going for).

Shaking the can for at least a minute gets rid of the problem…and taught me that the instructions are right!

6. Stop Finger Fatigue: Use a Spray Trigger

Spray paint can with a spray trigger attached painting a chair

If you’re going to be doing a fair amount of spray painting, spending a few dollars on a spray trigger* is definitely worth the investment.

Trying to hold down that little spray paint button gets tiring really fast!

The spray trigger make the job a lot easier, and saves on finger fatigue!

7. Speed Up The Process: Buy More Paint Than You Think You Need

This is one area where I find the instructions on the can aren’t usually right.

I never seem to get as much covered area out of one can as they say you should…which could be related to all that over spray…a lot of my paint ends up on the drop cloth 🙂

In any case, most spray paint instructions will tell you that you can re-coat within a few minutes.

But if you leave it to dry for more than an hour then you need to wait 24 hours.

So, if you don’t get enough paint, you’ll have to make a run to the store, and chances are you won’t be back in time to meet that 1 hour time limit.

Which means waiting another day to finish the project.

So buy more cans than you think you need. You can always take them back if you don’t use them.

8. Save Your Energy: Don’t Use Spray Paint for Plywood Edges

Plywood edge that has been spray painted

If you’re trying to paint the edges of plywood boards…don’t use spray paint.

Because the layers of paint are so light, it doesn’t fill in any of the rough bits and the surface ends up looking like it wasn’t painted.

It doesn’t seem to matter how much spray paint you put on it, it doesn’t get much better.

And you’ll probably end up with excess paint on the surfaces around the edge.

A brush with some regular latex paint works much better.

9. Get An Even Finish: Use a New Can For The Last Coat

Spray paint cans

When you’re about to put on the last coat of paint, it pays to open a new can.

The paint spray from a new can is usually more uniform and easier to apply evenly (just make sure to shake it well).

Once you get down to the bottom, the nozzle may be getting blocked, and the paint is less likely to come out evenly.

10. Avoid The Mess: Use A Spray Shelter

Spray painted glass in a box used as a spray shelter

I usually try to do spray painting outside…the fumes are really strong!

But if you do have to spray paint indoors and you don’t want paint everywhere, use a box to contain the over spray.

Obviously, you’ll need a box that is big enough to surround whatever you’re painting…so the larger the item, the bigger the box will need to be.

Small spray paint shelter

If you don’t mind spending some money, you can also get a special spray shelter* that does a really good job of preventing the paint from getting everywhere.

How To Spray Paint Outdoors

Spray paint tent outside with furniture inside

A larger paint tent* is available for when you are spray painting larger pieces.

It’s especially useful when you are painting outside since it comes with a “door” that you can close when you’re done.

That keeps all of the dust and bugs off of your furniture until you are finished.

And there you have it…my spray painting tips and tricks for a smooth finish. Hopefully, some of them will work for you, too!

Other Spray Painting Projects You Might Like

Have comments or questions on our spray painting tips and tricks? Tell us in the section below.

This post was originally published on March 30, 2016 but was updated with new content on October 14, 2020.

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  1. Thank you for sharing the tips! When the project is complete how and where do you recycle/dispose of empty spray paint cans.

    1. Hi Lee…in my area, they will pick up spray paint cans with the trash. You can probably check with your local waste management department to see how they want you to dispose of them.

  2. Aimee Gilbert says:

    Thank you for this article!! I’m embarking on my first “spray paint job” on my own and your tips will definitely be used! Wish me luck !!
    Aimee Gilbert

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      Good luck, Aimee! I’m sure it will turn out great!

  3. Thank you so much for these very practical tips. I am not crafty at all, so this article will be very helpful for something I’m attempting for the holidays: painting 4″ craft rounds to make Christmas ornaments. Do you think sanding in between coats is needed for something like this? Also, do you use primer and/or sealer?

    Thanks, again!

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      Hi Lisa…I don’t bother sanding between coats when I’m spray painting those craft rounds. But if you’re picky about how smooth the finish is, you could. I usually use spray paint that has primer built in, and give them an extra coat to make sure the wood is covered. If you’re not using that kind of paint, I would prime them first. It makes the top coat cover better. I don’t bother sealing them either. But if you want to make sure the paint doesn’t get scratched, you could. (I would test the sealer first. Sometimes they change the look of the paint.)

  4. William F. says:

    I will definitely start applying these tips & tricks going forward. Hope the finish results are pure magical.

  5. Christopher Yurek Clow says:

    Thank you for these tips. I shall now increase my order by a factor of two, better that third coat than barely two.

  6. Susan Palomino Campos says:

    Thank for spray paint tips. So helpful for future use for my artwork on canvas. For outdoor use tent for Protection . Trigger attachment to avoid finger spray fatigue. Good to avoid that!

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      I’m glad you found them helpful, Susan.

  7. Wanda, this is a great tutorial on spray painting! So many, all of them really, useful tips that will make any spray painting project go much better. I do have one question: do you have any thoughts on paint sprayers? I am about to start redoing two 4-poster full size rice beds for a guest room. They are beautiful, but fairly scratched up in several places. I’m painting them matte black and have been toying with the idea of buying a paint sprayer. I haven’t bought one because of the price for a good one and I’m not sure I can justify the expense. We actually have one that we bought, gosh, more than 20 years ago, so that is a factor as well.

    I appreciate any advice you have. I foresee a lot of sanding in my future!

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      Thanks, Delanie! I have a Homeright Finish Max handheld paint sprayer that I love. It’s easy to use, not that expensive and it actually works very well (I didn’t think it would given the price). Here’s the post where I talk about using it to paint furniture: https://www.fromhousetohome.com/how-to-prep-and-paint-furniture/. And yes, it sounds like sanding will be your new hobby for a while 🙂

  8. Will spray painting over a brush painted wood surface that also has a gloss layer on top – will the spray paint adhere? I’m wanting a more smooth look. I am thinking of spraying a glossy clear paint on top. Or whatever you suggest.

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      Hi Bob…I think you will need to sand the surface first to remove the gloss (and any brush marks), otherwise the spray paint will likely peel at some point. It will also make sure the surface is smooth so that the gloss paint will look good.

  9. Thank you for the box tip to help with overspray when indoors, e.g bathroom fixtures.

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Susie 🙂

  10. Great ideas. I want to paint the hood over my stovetop. Can I spray paint it or would brush be better? It would entail staying upside down ?

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      Hi Madolyn…I think spray paint would create a smoother finish than the brush, but it won’t work very well if the can isn’t upright when you’re spraying. It would be much easier if you can take the hood down to paint it and then put it back up.

  11. I like all your articles, but this one had some of the most useful info for me. Thank you.

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      Thanks, Grace! I’m glad it was helpful 🙂

  12. Kathleen Grady says:

    Re: the comfort grip /paint trigger
    It seems the paint manufacturers are always getting creative with the tops of their spray cans. I have had difficulty making them fit. I always shop for the paint and forget to consider the can!
    Appreciate your tips.

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      That is true, Kathleen! I have run into the can not fitting the paint trigger issue, too. It usually helps if they are both made by the same manufacturer 🙂

  13. Tami Murray says:

    I wish I would have read this prior to spray painting my kids slide for the swing set. I live in Arizona and sprayed in the shade but it was still about 85-90 that morning. It dried I. My garage but dried all bumpy/textured and makes it impossible to slide down now. Is there anyway to fix this so they can have a smooth surface or is it toast?

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      Hi Tami…you can sand it to get rid of the bumps and re-paint it. It’s kind of a pain to do, but it is possible.

  14. Thank you. I’m just learning and a couple of your tips will get me over some hurdles. 🙂

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      You’re welcome, Tina. I’m happy they were helpful 🙂

    2. I suggest buying quality spraypaint. Spending a little more money is well worth the extra expense. Read reviews before you buy. Not all spraypaints are created equally!

      1. Wanda Simone says:

        Thanks for the tip, Maria! You’re right…buying good quality spray paint makes a difference.

  15. Great ! I thought I was a pro..but I learned new things!👍👍

    1. Wanda Simone says:

      Thanks, Vicky! I’m happy you found it helpful 🙂

  16. Really appreciate these tips, Wanda, as I’m about to get going my first spray paint project soon. For a smooth finish, you suggest a light sanding between coats. What grit would you recommend be used? Should I also sand the surface before putting on the first coat? I’m aiming for a smooth high gloss finish on wood, which currently has a glossy finish with several light scratches and bumps in the surface. Certainly welcome any further advice you might have for this effort. Thank you.

    1. Hi Candace…yes, if you want a really smooth finish, you’ll want to sand the wood first to smooth out the bumps and scratches. I would go over it once with an 80 grit sand paper, and then do another pass with a 120 grit sand paper for that. For the sanding between coats, use 180 grit. In my experience, high gloss spray paint goes on best with multiple thin coats (rather than a couple of thicker ones). Good luck with your project!

  17. This is THE best article I have found about spray painting! Every other one I read didn’t talk about the “real” issues – wet spray paint on plastic sheet sticking to next item to spray, how tired your trigger finger gets, HOW to do it outside. You’re a good send – thank you for true, useful tips!!!

    1. Thanks, Jenn! I’m glad you found them helpful 🙂

  18. All of those tips are really helpful!! It seemed as you were reading my mind, I did all of the things you wrote about so I learned the hard way. I wish I had read your post when I started to spray painting stuff. By the way, I always wondered why sometimes I got cracks on the paint and I know the reason now.

    Thank you for sharing with us at Sweet Inspiration party!! Pinning! Have a wonderful week!

    1. Thanks, Pili! Hopefully the spray paint tips will prevent someone else from making the same mistakes! Thanks for hosting the Sweet Inspiration link party!

  19. Hi. That was so informative. Thanks for the help. One question: I don’t understand why if you don’t do the second spray in an hour you have to wait 24 hours. Thanks!

    1. Hi Lil…this isn’t something I have actually tried (I do follow the instructions for some things 🙂 )…but I’ve heard that the paint dries on the outside but hasn’t really dried on the inside, so when you go to put the next coat on, the new coat of wet paint causes the existing paint to wrinkle. I’ll have to try that out (not on a real project)…and then add it to the list 🙂