Using the right primer can make or break your paint projects, but it is one of the most misunderstood parts of painting. Learn what primer does, when you need to use it, and what type is best.
A big post packed with information about priming before your paint might not sound very exciting, but it is going to save you from making so many mistakes.
I’m talking about the kind of mistakes that can turn a quick DIY project into a headache that stretches into multiple weeks.
I know because I’ve made them all.
When I first realized how magical paint is for updating basically anything, I jumped in with both feet. And I quickly learned that there is a lot more to a successful paint project than slapping on some paint.
I’ve already shared my best tips for knowing when you need to use sealer on painted furniture and today I’m answering all of your questions about primer.
Trust me – this is going to save you from so many terrible painting mistakes.
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What does primer actually do?
Basically, primer prepares a surface for paint in a bunch of different ways.
- Priming first makes your paint job more durable and long-lasting.
- Priming slick surfaces gives paint something to stick to.
- Priming porous materials like brick or drywall helps seal the surface so it doesn’t absorb as much paint.
- Priming raw wood and wood furniture helps seal in the wood tannins so your paint job doesn’t yellow.
- Priming walls helps cut down on the coats of paint you need when making a drastic color change.
- Priming doors and trim previously painted with oil-based paint allows you to repaint with water-based paint.
Is priming necessary before painting?
This is where things get complicated. Priming before you paint adds extra work and time to your project so it’s very tempting to skip it whenever possible.
Sometimes you absolutely need to use a primer before painting and sometimes it’s no big deal to skip it. It all depends on what surface you are painting and what type of paint you are using.
When do I need to use primer?
If you don’t need to use a primer every time you paint, how do you know when to use it? There are a lot of factors to consider but here are some basic guidelines.
If you are painting something that has never been painted before, you should start with primer. This includes furniture, bare wood, wall paneling, drywall, doors, etc.
Basically, anything that has never been painted needs primer. The primer gives the paint something to stick to and also seals in anything that might mess with the paint (like wood tannins, knotholes, and grease.)
I’ve got more specific info about when to use primer for refinishing furniture here.
If you are painting something with a very slick surface, you should start with primer. If you paint directly onto a slick surface, the paint has nothing to stick to and will scratch right off.
Primer gives the paint something to adhere to. This includes laminate furniture, metal, plastic, furniture with a slick, glossy finish, and anything else that is very smooth to the touch.
If you are painting something that may have been previously painted with oil-based paint, you may need primer.
Oil-based paint was used to paint trim, doors, and even furniture for many years because it was much more durable than water-based paints.
But water-based paints have come a long way. They are more durable than they used to be and they are also much more environmentally friendly than oil-based paints. Plus they are much easier to work with and clean up.
So you may find yourself in a situation where you want to use a water-based paint on something that was previously painted with oil-based paint.
But you can’t simply paint water-based paints like latex paint over oil-based paint. The old saying ‘water and oil don’t mix’ applies to paint too. If you paint a water-based paint over an oil-based paint, it won’t adhere well.
That time I painted over all our off-white oil-based paint trim with white latex paint. It peeled off at the lightest touch. Lesson learned.
Instead, you need to first use an oil-based primer. Once the primer has cured, you can paint over it with water-based paint without a problem. (If you aren’t sure if your item was painted with oil-based paint, there’s a simple test you can do.)
Primer can also be helpful when you are painting with certain colors. Red paint is notorious for needing many, many coats to get even coverage.
If you start with a primer tinted pink, you can save yourself a few coats of paint. Also if you are painting something black, a gray-tinted primer will cut down the coats of paint you need.
And if you are painting white over something that was very dark, a coat of white primer will make the process go much faster.
Are there different types of primer? Which is best?
There are many different primers available but they mainly fall into two categories: water-based primers and oil-based primers.
Water-based primers like KILZ and Zinsser Bullseye can be used on bare drywall or when painting a room a new color. Water-based primer is great because it cleans up easily with water, dries quickly, and doesn’t have a strong smell.
Oil-based primers like Zinsser Cover Stain do have a very strong smell and should only be used in rooms with good ventilation.
These primers take longer to dry and you will need to clean your brushes and other supplies with mineral spirits rather than simple water.
So why would anyone want to use an oil-based primer? In certain situations, oil-based primer works much better than a water-based primer.
- If you are painting something that was previously painted with oil-based paint, you need to use oil-based primer before using any water-based paints.
- If you are painting dark wood furniture or certain raw woods, oil-based primer effectively seals in wood tannins while water-based primers often fail. Sealing in wood tannins can help prevent your finished product from yellowing.
- Oil-based primer sticks to almost any surface, even when water-based primer can be scratched off.
Basically, oil-based primer can adhere to any surface and seals in anything that could potentially mess up your paint finish.
Priming my porch floor before repainting.
Both oil-based and water-based primers are available in spray versions as well as brush-on versions. Spray primer doesn’t go far and is much more expensive per fluid ounce.
But if you are working on a small project or anything with a lot of curves and details, it can make the job go much faster.
When can I skip primer?
Okay, I realize that it is sounding like you need to prime all the things every time you want to paint something.
But there are times you can skip the primer.
- If you are painting walls that have been painted before.
- If you are painting doors and trim that have been painted before. (And they weren’t painted with oil-based paint).
- If you are using a special paint that doesn’t require primer including most chalk paints, milk paints, and some other specialty furniture paints. (Keep reading for more info on this.)
What about chalk paint and other paints that say you don’t need to use primer?
There are lots of amazing paints out there that claim you don’t need to prime before using them. Chalk paints, mineral paints, and other boutique paints often claim they can be painted right onto any surface without a primer.
And these paints are correct – when used on certain surfaces, they don’t require primer at all. This is because they generally don’t need a primer to be able to stick to most surfaces – even surfaces like wood furniture or metal that other paints wouldn’t stick to well.
The issue is that primer also serves other purposes beyond simply helping the paint stick.
It also helps seal in those pesky wood tannins that love to ruin a beautiful paint job just as you are finishing up the final coat.
So if you are painting dark wood furniture or certain raw woods, you still need primer even when using chalk paint.
Even though the paint will stick without it, if you don’t properly seal your piece with primer, wood tannins are likely to lead to yellowing and blotchiness in your paint finish.
Yellowing of white furniture paint caused by wood tannins.
How do I apply primer?
You apply primer pretty much the same way you would apply paint. You can apply it with a roller or a brush. Or you can just spray it on if it is spray primer.
Just remember that if you are using a water-based primer, you can clean all of your brushes and supplies with water and if you are using an oil-based primer, you will need to use mineral spirits to clean everything.
What about paint + primer in one?
Why do we need a primer at all when most gallons of paint already have primer included?
A few years ago, most paint companies started labeling their latex paints as paint and primer in one.
It makes a lot of sense. Instead of applying paint and primer separately, why not just combine them and save lots of time?
Unfortunately, paint and primer in one is a lot like shampoo and conditioner in one. It sounds like a great idea (especially to marketers), but it just doesn’t work very well.
Paint and primer in one is a premium paint that typically provides better coverage in fewer coats, but it doesn’t do any of the other things a good primer does.
It doesn’t seal in wood tannins or stains or adhere to slick surfaces.
This is fine when you are repainting walls or anything else where primer really isn’t essential anyway. But if you are painting bare wood or dark wood furniture or laminate furniture, paint and primer in one is not going to cut it.
Trust me. I’ve tried it and want to save you from making the same mistakes. As great as it sounds to be able to combine two steps in one, don’t do it. You’ll just end up with extra work in the end.
Does it really matter if I skip the primer? What is the worst that will happen?
The worst that will happen is your paint job will be ruined. Not only will you have to start over and repaint, but you will probably also have to do lots of extra work to remove the bad paint job before you can even begin again.
If you don’t use primer when you are supposed to, there is a good chance your paint will scratch off, become yellowed, peel off, or need many, many coats of paint to get good coverage.
Definitely not the beautiful, fresh coat of paint you were hoping for.
What is the best primer?
My favorite oil-based primer is Zinsser Cover Stain. It does get fumey, but I have used it on old furniture, laminate countertops, floors, porch floors, brick, and more and it has never failed me. Whenever I try to take a shortcut and skip it, I almost always regret it.
Hopefully, I’ve answered all of your questions, but if not, feel free to ask in the comments. Here’s to lots of beautiful flawless paint jobs in the future!
I’d love for you to share this post on Pinterest!
Other painting tips you may find helpful:
- How to Paint Furniture for the Perfect Finish Every Time
- The Best and Worst Sealers for Painted Furniture
- The Best Paintbrushes for a Perfectly Smooth Paint Finish
- Learn from my Mistakes: The Right Way to Paint Latex over Oil
- How to Get Perfect Paint Lines with Painter’s Tape
HVAC contractors says
Hello, good recommendations, very useful article. Previously, I did not know about the primer, I decided to make a chest of drawers and covered it only with paint. The result was not the most beautiful, I did not know what the problem was, then my friend told me that I also needed to use a primer. The next time I painted furniture it turned out much better, it is important to use a primer too. Thanks for the great info, have a nice day!
I wish I would have seen your site before I started painting my dark furniture with white chalk paint. This is my first time doing this and of course it began yellowing about an hour after painting my night stands. I wanted to paint my armoire also but didn’t want to make the same mistake. So I went to Lowe’s and asked about primers, told them what I was painting (dark wood with polyurethane) and they told me to get the Zinsser 1-2-3 primer (water based). Some areas-especially the doors have turned yellow. Now I know after researching that was the wring primer-lol. I have the Zinsser shellac based primer now. I tried to sand by hand to remove some of the water based primer but that is quite a chore and I still see yellow. I will use a sander today. Any other tips?
Ah man, I’m so sorry that happened. I think the people at Lowes probably give ok advice about painting walls but most don’t seem to realize painting furniture is completely different! I think a light sanding to get everything smooth should be all you need. With the shellac primer, you should have much better luck!
Hello, it’s disappointing when you give your favorite oil based primer but you don’t mention your favorite water-based primer. Did I miss it somewhere in the article?
Good point! I usually use an oil-based primer even when painting with water-based paint, because it is really superior for sealing in wood tannins and stains and adheres so well. But when I do use a water-based primer, I usually use Zinsser Bullseye water-based primer.
I’m going to attempt to paint a cedar chest that was previously painted looks like a wash in green but painting with BM Advance Hale Navy but not sure if to use cover stain or the zinzer Waterbased. I wanted to use the cover stain but Home Depot said they didn’t tint the primers. So I bought the water based in gray. Not sure if this is the correct primer to use. Thank you!
I prefer the oil-based because it works for absolutely anything. But water-based primer will also work in a lot of circumstances. Since you are painting over something that was previously painted, using a water-based primer should be fine. Good luck with your chest!
Trish Van Buren says
I have a 100 year old lakefront cottage in Eastern Ontario with dark (cedar?) panelling on the ceiling and walls. It is a seasonal place so experiences large temperature fluctuations (-30C to 34C). I don’t know what the boards were treated with but they can still sometimes get a little tacky in humid summer weather. I want to paint the whole room but am concerned about crackling, bubbling, or other paint adhesion failures. Do you recommend BIN shellac primer then cover with any acrylic paint? Do I need to wash and sand the surfaces first ( that would be a huge job…. in itself). Someone told me to use a paint with a high perm rating so moisture can get through yet BIN seems to have a very low (.4) perm rating. Any advice would be much appreciated.
I am not an expert on this by any means, but my understanding is that permeability has to do with how quickly moisture is able to pass through the material. If there is already moisture in your wall, you don’t necessarily want to seal it in with a water-tight paint. If I were you, I would probably use a a shellac or oil-based primer because they would adhere well. And then I would probably use an exterior (water-based) paint over that. Exterior paints are designed to hold up well to temperature fluctuations and moisture so would probably do well here. And I would definitely recommend washing the surface first. If the walls are super slick, if the finish is peeling, or if they have rough, damaged areas, sanding is also a good idea. But if none of those apply, you should be able to just clean and then prime. Good luck!
Mel Max says
What do you do when a oil base paint was used then the trim was already painted with a latex paint. Can I use the oil base primer then repaint with a latex paint or do I have to sand off the first coat of latex paint that the previous owner put over the oil base paint????
Oh no, that sounds like a mess! I’m assuming there is loose, peeling paint or else you probably wouldn’t know about this situation. If that’s the case, I would start by scraping/sanding all of the paint that is at all peeling or loose. You don’t have to remove all of the paint but anything that is the least bit loose has to go. Then you should be able to use an oil based primer over the entire thing and paint with latex.
I’m getting ready to paint old 80’s mobile home slick paneling. I’m thinking about using a liquid sanding product then a primer before I paint. What primer would be best for this?
I would use Kilz adhesion primer – it usually sticks to surfaces that other primers don’t stick to as well. The Kilz primer should stick, but if for some reason, it doesn’t seem to be adhering well, another good option is Zinsser oil-based primer. It will be fumey so be sure to open the windows and wear a mask. But this primer sticks to anything. Good luck with your mobile home!
Christine Lockwood says
I have purchased an older mobile home. On trying to spruce up my bathroom, I started by trying to remove the wallpaper border around the walls. On steaming the border off, the paint underneath started to peel off the wall. This uncovered what appears to be “wallpaper” what I believe to be VOG. Apparently, before painting over this VOG, they did not prime first. The question is… Do I have to remove all of the rest of the paint off the walls first, or can I sand any loose paint off and then prime over the paint and go from there?
This is a tough one – it’s really hard to say without seeing the situation. If it was me, I would scrape and sand any paint that was loose at all and then primer with an oil-based primer. Good luck!