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Choosing the Right Primer

Using primer should be an easy choice before any paint job. You don’t always have to prime before painting, but in the end it saves you time and money. Priming helps your paint cover in less coats, last longer and look better. It’s a win/win/win (if there is such a thing!)

Choosing the right primer is paramount to making your paint job last. Using the wrong primer (or no primer at all) can actually cause paint failure if you’re not careful.

Did you know?

  • Oil-based primer on galvanized metal will fail almost immediately
  • Latex primer won’t work on Cedar
  • Shellac primers can’t be used outside

There are a lot of specifics you need to know about which primers to use and when. In this post, I’ll give you the low down on the most common primers and when to use them for the greatest results. I’ll also mention a few special primers that most people don’t know about, but can be very helpful.

Download my Free Primer Guide to know which primer to use and when!

1. Latex Primer

Latex primers have come a long way in the last 30 years and they are good for a variety of applications. Most can be used inside or outside, but check the label before you buy to make sure it is compatible for your planned use.

These are the most versatile primers on the market, but with increased versatility comes lower performance in specific areas. Think of latex primer as the jack of all trades and master of few. One big advantage they have is that they are vapor permeable and allow things to breathe.

Some good varieties are Kilz Premium Latex Primer, Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Water Based Primer.

  • $15-25 per gallon
  • Water clean up

2. Oil-Based Primer

These primers are fairly versatile as well and can be used on both interior and exterior applications. They do have some specific abilities that owner’s of old houses will find especially useful.

Oil-based primers are excellent stain blockers. Whether it’s wood tannins from cedar, cigarette stains or water stains, these primers cover better than their latex cousins. Unlike latex primers, oil-based primer is not vapor permeable which can be a mixed blessing. For sealing up exterior wood from the weather, that’s great, for covering plaster or drywall not as good maybe.

Oil-based primers also sand smoother after drying than latex primers, which can tend to gum up sandpaper. Oil-based primer really penetrates bare wood and protects much better than latex for this reason.

Some good varieties are Kilz Complete, Sherwin-Williams Fast Dry Oil Primer,

  • $15-25 per gallon
  • Mineral spirits/thinner clean up

3. Shellac-Based Primer

Shellac-based primers have been around a looooong time. These primers are pretty powerful stuff and their price reflects that. At nearly twice the cost of latex or oil-based, shellac-based primer is the ultimate stain blocker. If this primer won’t stop a stubborn stain or wood tannin, then nothing will.

The adhesion of shellac-based primers is also second to none. They can be applied almost anywhere indoors and used as a spot treatment only outdoors. These primers are best saved for really stubborn stains or repainting cabinets and other items where a hard, smooth and durable finish is required.

Some good varieties are Zinsser BIN Shellac-Based Primer, Sherwin-Williams White Pigmented Shellac Primer

  • $40-55 per gallon
  • Denatured alcohol clean up

4. Specialty Primers

Sometimes you need a specialty primer to get the best results. Most of these aren’t in the hardware store aisles. You’ll need to go to the paint store because these are very specific primers that perform head and shoulders above the rest in their recommended application.

  • Masonry Sealer/Primer – Masonry is very pourous and you need a primer specifically designed to fill those pores and provide a good base for your paint job. Use these for brick, concrete, block, or stucco.
  • Bare Metal Primer – Certain metals don’t accept regular primers very well. I use a xylene-based primer for things like steel windows to make sure the paint will last.
  • Bonding Primers – Really thick alligatoring paint and rough surfaces with slightly peeling paint can be improved with a bonding primer which helps to lock everything down tight to the surface. It’s not fool proof, but it does help.

Not sure which primer you need? I created a FREE downloadable PDF chart just for my readers. Download it by clicking below and print or save it so the next time you have a project come up you can figure out exactly which primer I recommend.

The Craftsman’s Guide to Primers
Download it now!
Subscribe Now For Your FREE eBook!

77 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Primer

  1. I would like recommendations for a self leveling primer for my cabinets. I have looked and see none that claim self leveling and my cabinets are MDF with the paper overlay, which is in good condition other than there has been some small bubbling in areas from heat exposure I believe…

  2. Can a primer be used as a white wash over pressure treated lumber without coating with anything else? What would you recommend for a white wash that will leave the look of a little wood grain coming through?

  3. I have already applied two coats Zinsser 1-2-3 primer on my bathroom ceiling. I am going to be spraying Homax ceiling texture before doing the final coats of paint. My question is (because the primer has a gloss finish), do I need to lightly sand the primer in order for the Homax texture to adhere? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  4. I’m repainting old wood clapboards on the north side of my home. Much of the paint is stable enough so I’m sanding, repairing and feathering any peeling spots or cracks, will spot prime, then topcoat the entire surface. This side gets the least sun and is prone to mold/mildew. What’s the best primer to use here?

    Thank you very much.

  5. I have a clear oil painted wood plank siding in the front of my house, the wood is always sticky and we tried to paint it over with water based primer then a coat of color but the bubbles keep coming up especially in the afternoon when the sun heats up the new paint. What shall I do with it? Shall I use an oil based primer to paint the wood plank first.

  6. What is the best primer to prepare 35 year old stained wainscoting with multiple layers of a sand & seal/polyurethane to be painted?

  7. Any feedback on primer to use?
    My experience with Kilz 123 is that it doesn’t cover very well. It seems like it’s been subjected to cheap overseas manufacturing or something. Very disappointed in the performance of that paint. I’m embarking on a job to restore an 1890 Queen Anne.
    The first job is removing all of the exterior paint down to the wood and starting over. This needs to happen after a while because the old paint fails and the new paint won’t help. I’m using a Speedheater to do that job. So far, so good.
    Soon, I’ll be getting ready to prime and want to know what the recommended primer people use; one that will actually last.
    I plan to use Sherwin-Williams paint for final color and I really respect the quality of their paint. So far, their primer seems to be top notch.

  8. Looking for a primer for redwood in northern Wisconsin. House is painted white over redwood siding. There a places on the siding where paint just does not stay. Can paint one summer, following summer the same patches painted are bare wood again. Want to put a good quality prime paint on and then a cover coat of white paint. Find primers for natural appearance,but not color paint siding.

  9. About using Kilz INTERIOR OIL based (the classic one) on EXTERIOR. My answer is YES YOU CAN 😉 I’ve gone through hundreds of gallons of that stuff doing exterior work. It’s oil based and sticks great. The “premium” KILZ is basically the same stuff in a different can. Maybe it has extra “oxides” in it but for the price, you’ll never actually see any of them. I’ll use the classic Kilz on exterior any day before buying the cheap-o stuff. The only place that Zinsser stuff belongs is in the trash can.

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