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How Does Spray Paint Work?

spray paint cans - top view


Spray paint is a very convenient way to paint. It enables a very smooth finish without the need to own - or clean - expensive spray equipment. Spray paint is also a fantastic way to cover hard to paint surfaces like railings, hard to reach places, wicker and other intricate surfaces.

The paint is forced through a spray tip (actuator) that atomizes the paint into a fine mist as it is forced through the tip. The mist settles onto the surface as small drops which coalesce into a smooth coating as it dries.

But how does spray paint work? We all know what a spray paint can looks like, but beyond the cylindrical can and the depressable nozzle, what is happening inside a can of aerosol spray paint to make it work?

Cross Section of Aerosol Spray Paint CanCross Section of Aerosol Spray Paint Can - While Spraying

An aerosol can of spray paint has several components:

  • Actuator (aka nozzle or tip)
  • Spray can - usually tin or steel
  • Actuated valve
  • Tube
  • Shaker ball (usually glass)
  • Paint
  • Solvents
  • Propellant


The paint used in spray paint is usually a fast-drying paint that atomizes well. Most common types of paint used in spray applications are lacquer or acrylic enamels which air dry (single component) as well as two-component paint such as urethane or epoxy that starts to dry when mixed together. This article covers the single-component air dry types of spray paint.

The solvent is usually a blend of materials to reduce the paint to its optimal viscosity for spraying. If the paint is too thick it won’t atomize or spray well.

The propellant is usually a compressed gas that stays liquid while under pressure in the can. The most common propellants are hydrocarbons like propane.

The spray can, while held upright, will have the paint at the bottom of the can where it can enter the bottom of the tube. The propellant and solvent, in liquid form, mix with the paint. To the extent there is room in the can, the propellant turns to gas and maintains the pressure. Once the nozzle is depressed and opens the valve, the paint is then pushed up the tube and out the nozzle. As the material leaves the can the pressure is reduced allowing more liquid propellant to change to gas, thus maintaining the pressure and pushing more paint out of the can.

This explains why spray paint only works when held upright. If the paint isn’t at the bottom of the can where the tube is, then the paint doesn’t get pushed out. If you depress the tip while holding the spray paint can upside down, you’ll get a little paint since some is already in the tube, but once that is gone only gas will come out. The liquid is at the other end of the can away from the tip. (Tip: Whenever you are done spray painting you should always spray the can upside down for a few seconds because it clears any paint out of the tube so it remains clear for the next time you want to use it. Otherwise that paint can dry in the tube and permanently clog the can.)

MyPerfectColor offers the largest selection of colors anywhere including difficult to match industry standard colors such as Pantone, RAL, Federal Standard and Munsell, matches of many powder coats including Tiger Drylac and IFS Coatings as well as matches of any major paint brands including Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore, Behr and much more.

Please contact us with questions about spray paint, touch up paint or any other questions you may have.

FAQs about Spray Paint

What is spray paint made of?
Spray paint is usually comprised of solvent-based paint that dries quickly. The fast-drying feature allows you to finish your project quickly and achieve a smooth finish. Spray paint is usually OK for inside or outside, but make sure whatever you choose is durable and suitable for interior or exterior applications. MyPerfectColor uses an acrylic enamel which sticks well to plastics, metal, fiberglass, glass, acrylic, powder-coatings, cabinets and primed or previously painted wood. The acrylic enamel is a durable, high quality coating.
What colors are available in spray paint?
MyPerfectColor has the largest selection of colors anywhere; offering spray paint in over 250,000 colors. For special colors unique to you, take advantage of our custom color matching services.
What is the use of spray paint?
Spray paint has many uses. For businesses, spray paint is often used for touching up equipment, fixtures and product that gets damaged during production, transit or installation. It is also commonly used for custom-color projects, or to make ancillary components match up to the rest of the components or to make things blend in (like painting security cameras to match the color of the building) or during the refurbishing process. Spray paint is also used by businesses for painting signs, displays and exhibits and for building models and prototypes during new product development. Homeowners use spray paint to paint railings, in wall speaker grilles, hvac vents, crafts and accessories, furniture, cabinets, bicycles and many other projects.
When will I get my spray paint?
All spray paint is made to order. Most orders ship within 2-3 days and 70% of orders ship within 48 hours. If you need guaranteed shipment within 1 business day we do offer an Expedited Production option available during checkout. If you have any questions or concerns please contact us. Learn more about Delivery Times.
What sheens are available for spray paint?
MyPerfectColor offers spray paint in 5 different sheens ranging from flat to gloss, so you can choose the gloss level best suited to your project. Learn more about sheens.
How many spray cans will I need?
A standard sized spray can will cover about 20 square feet per coat, but this depends on how thickly the paint is applied and the amount of overspray. It doesn't hurt to have an extra can or two to ensure you enough paint on hand to complete your project. You can always get more, but it will interrupt your project and there may be variation in color due to batch differences. It is usually best to apply the paint in multiple thin coats.
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