Types of Paint Applicators and Their Uses

Paint applicators covered in dry yellow paint on rustic, blue painted wood.

When you take on a painting project, there are several different applicators and accessories at your disposal. In order to choose the right tool for the right job, here’s an overview of what your options are and what they are for.

Airless Paint Sprayer

Airless sprayers eject paint at high pressure. An electric airless paint system consists of a paint container, high-pressure pump, motor, handle and housing, and pressure regulator. Extension nozzles, longer suction tubes, extra nozzles, and viscosity measuring cups are optional accessories.

Used when painting large areas with the same color, or painting intricate surfaces such as furniture or grillwork where other tools will not reach all surface. The choice of spraying tip depends on paint consistency, but generally the thinner the paint, the smaller the tip needed. Paint consistency also governs pump pressure.

Thinner materials such as stains, lacquers, enamels, and sealers require less pressure than heavier materials such as house and wall paint. Paints that have been formulated for brush or roller application may be too thick for spraying. They should be tested first and thinned if necessary.

Foam Brush

Foam brushes have handles like regular brushes, but a foam pad replaces the bristles. They are considered disposable because they are inexpensive, but most are durable enough to be cleaned and reused.

Paint Brush/Wall Brush

Also called a flattening brush, it generally comes in 3 to 5-inch widths and is used for painting larger surfaces, such as ceilings, floors, chimneys, etc. It is available in natural bristles (generally used for applying oil-based coatings) and synthetic filaments (for water-based paints).

Radiator Brush

Also called hockey stick due to its shape, it is used to paint hard-to-reach areas. Its sash is positioned at 45-degree angle on a long handle.

Stain Brush

This is a wider brush generally available in 4 to 6-inch widths. Many types feature natural white China bristles for working with oil-based stains, sealers and wood toners. They are also available in synthetic filaments.

Trim Brush

Used to paint trim and smaller, detailed work, it is also called a sash brush. it is generally available in 1 to 3-inch widths. They came in natural bristles (generally used for applying oil-based coatings) and synthetic filaments (for water-based paints). The end of the bristles or filaments (called the sash) can be square (flat) or cut at an angle (angular) for cutting in delicate trim work. With square trim brushes, the end of the brush is trimmed flat or horizontal. With chisel trim, the end of the brush is cut to a dome-like shape, which increases taper and cutting-in properties.

Varnish and Enamel Brush

Commonly used by professional painters for applying a wide variety of paints and stains, it is known for holding and delivering more paint than other types of brush. Some have satin-edge finishes on the bristles for enhanced performance. They are recommended for both interior and exterior painting and available in natural bristles (generally used for applying oil-based coatings) and synthetic filaments (for water-based paints).

Corner Pad

A corner pad is a paint pad shaped in a 90-degree angle to allow for easy painting of corners.

Extension Pole

Generally from 1 to 16 feet in length, an extension pole makes roller painting both faster and easier for hard-to-reach areas. They enable the user to stand on the floor instead of a ladder when painting high walls or ceilings. Some poles are adjustable, or telescoping, to handle a multitude of painting situations, usually extending in 6-inch increments. Some include quick-release adaptors for easy tool changes.

Paint Pad

These lie flat on the surface, allowing the user to avoid spattering. Most pads are made of mohair or foam and can apply either latex or oil-based paints. Some models have guide wheels or trim tabs that guarantee a straight line at the point of intersection.

Paint pads are also an excellent way to apply waterproof coating to a deck or fence. Attached to a long handle, they eliminate bending and stooping and can be washed and re-used.

Paint Roller

Great for their speed of application this is a tool consisting of a frame that holds the roller cover and a handle with an extension socket on the end to allow the user to add an extension pole. Standard wall rollers are 7 to 12-inchs wide. Some rollers have shields incorporated into the structure of the tool to combat spatter and drizzle.

Smaller rollers, called trim rollers or mini rollers, work well on woodwork and other small areas that cannot be painted with standard rollers. They are available in many different sizes and shapes, depending on the area for which they are designed.

An advanced roller is the paint stick, which pumps paint straight from the handle or the can to the wall, where it can be rolled on with the attached roller. The advantage is that the user does not have to deal with drips or messy trays.

Roller Cover

Available in natural or synthetic fibers, the density of the fiber determines the roller’s ability to hold paint and spread it evenly. Inexpensive rollers that become matted or fail to spread the paint produce a mottled finish, regardless of the quality of paint. They may also leave lint on the painted surface.

Mohair covers are especially good for applying enamel, while lamb’s wool covers are excellent for alkyd paints, but not latex. Synthetic fibers make good all-purpose covers. In fact, about 95 percent of all roller covers are synthetic.

Smooth roller covers (with a 3/16 or ¼-inch nap) are used for painting walls, floors and fine finishing. Medium rollers covers (with a 3/8 or ½-inch nap) are used for sand-textured walls. Rough rollers covers (with a 3/4 or 1-inch nap) are used for light stucco walls and masonry floors. Extra rough covers (with a 1 1/4-inch nap) are used to paint brick, block, masonry and stucco.

Texture roller covers are designed specifically for applying texture paints. Some are foam with patterns etched into the surface. Others have deep, looped material. Texture roller covers have large diameters to accommodate the heavier consistency of texture paints. They’re ideal for clear finishes, however, most brands are not recommended for use with lacquer or shellac, which have chemical formulas that destroy the foam.

Proper Applicator Care


Clean the brush immediately after each use, before the paint has a chance to harden. For oil-base paint, use the proper solvent. For latex-base paints, clean with warm, soap or detergent water solution. If brush does not clean thoroughly, clean in paint thinner and rewash in warm detergent solution.

Comb wet bristles with a metal comb. Return the brush to pouch supplied with it, or wrap in foil or heavy paper, with bristles smooth and flat.

Store flat or suspended from a nail or hook, so that bristles are straight and the brush is not resting on bristles. Don’t allow any brush to stand on end in either paint or water. And don’t soak a brush in water; it will damage either the filament or the epoxy setting and cause the ferrule to rust.

Rollers and Pads:

Clean after every use, removing excess paint by rolling or pressing on a newspaper, then washing in proper solvent or water. Dry and wrap to store.

This guide on the types of paint applicators and uses will get your next room makeover rolling. Just don't forget to care for them properly so they and the many jobs to come.

Courtsey of NRHA.org

Pam Estabrooke, district manager of ProTect Painters, contributed to this article.