Choosing the Right Primer

By Scott Sidler • June 23, 2014

Choosing the Right Primer
Image Credit: epantha / 123RF Stock Photo

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!


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70 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Primer”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. I need sone advice on a bonding primer and the right paint for my interior doors. I have done a few already, some of the doors have paint lifting where it meets the jamb. (Not sure what you call it). I have used Kilz premium but I have been told its not a binding primer…is this my problem?

  5. We are trying to paint an old brick planter (interior) of our church. It looks like it has a clear already sealer on it. I went to Sherwin WIlliams to purchase their masonry primer and they said that none of their primers will work since the brick was previously sealed and that I would need to hire a 3rd party who specializes in this type of sealant removal first. Does this sound right? Is there a primer product out there that we can use to go over the sealed brick for painting? Help please!!

  6. Hi Scott, I have enjoyed using XIM Peelbond primer before for some various projects and am looking at some of the other products they make. One is called XIM Restorz which is solvent based and they say duplicates the sealing properties of both alkyd and shellac. They go as far as calling it a Shellac substitute. Would you assume that it is comparable durability to a Shellac product?

  7. im staining my exterior fiberglass door and have a oiled based stain sikkens proluxe window and door
    i want to prime first what should i use ?

  8. Good Morning! I make signs (indoor and outdoor), mostly out of pine due to the cost. I made a sign for a customer that has hung in their pool shed (covered, so not exposed directly to the elements) for a few months and the resin from the pine has bleed through… I’m assuming to to the extreme heat we’ve had… I did use the BIN 123 primer for this project. I’m in the process of re-doing the sign and have been directed to use the BIN 2 primer. I did a tester board yesterday and boy does it dry bumpy (looking for a much smoother finish)! Is there anyway to smooth this surface out or can you suggest a better primer/process for such projects? Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated! Thank you! Tracy

  9. hi, i recently bought a galvanized steel stock tank. and i am converting it into a bathtub. I am planning on painting the inside and the outside. I have heard from multiple people to prime it using zinsser bulseye 123. but on the label it says that it shouldnt be used in places that will be getting wet. if you could please help me out and recommend me a primer to use for the galvanized steel bathtub that would be really awesome.

    oh and you get extra brownie points if you could also recommend a paint brand that would be able to be used in the tub!

  10. Looking for primer advice for exterior LP smartside 4×8 paneling installed on a run in shed. The shed was just completed and I am looking for the best product to seal to exposed edges to stop moisture absorption.
    The PPG permanizer plus has been recommended for this type of application when the wood/composite is showing signs of wear or delamination but not sure if it is necessary or appropriate for new panels. Your thoughts?

  11. Scott!!! This is so cool! I’m at lowes trying to decide if bulls eye 2 is as good as bulls eye 123 and did a quick google search. Started reading this and wanted to see if it was sponsored by anyone so I look at the title and saw that I’m building along with Scott Sidler! Had no idea you were such a big name I’m the craftsman world but now I’m going to stick around the blog and see what else I can learn! So great to sort of “hear” from you! Wishing you guys all the best!

    1. Hi Mindy,
      My name is Alyssa and I work for The Craftsman Blog. On behalf of Scott and all of us, I wanted to personally thank you for leaving such an encouraging comment! The world could use more of that 😉 I’ll be sure to pass this along to Scott! I hope you have a wonderful Monday!

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