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Choosing the Right Primer

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!


Subscribe Now For Your FREE eBook!

75 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Primer

  1. I am painting my houses poured concrete foundation. My house is 98 years old and has multiple layers of paint i have scraped off all loose paint. I was looking at zinsser 123 and zinsser block filler. Both acrylic. I need the primer to seal smooth and stop pealing is there another product that would work better?

  2. Hi there, Thank you for the wonderful information provided here. I’m about to paint my 1950’s wood kitchen cabinets. They are in good condition and appear to have a shiny lacquer. The guy at my BM paint store recommended insl-x WB bonding primer, STIX. I am wondering if this is the best choice or just the best product he had? What would you recommend? Also, would TSP be good to use? And if so would I use it before or after sanding?
    Thank you for your time.

  3. I have popcorn ceilings with (smoke?) stains. What type/nap of roller should I use with Bins Shellac or Kilz oil-based primer? And would I need to paint over it with flat paint or just leave as-is?

    1. Shellac primer might be a bit of overkill for the whole ceiling. Kilz with a 3/4″ nap roller should be just fine. If you don’t like how that looks add a coat of flat white ceiling paint.

  4. Hi there! Love the blog.

    Question – We bought new pine windows and are painting them ourselves. I used Kilz latex and have a water based paint to finish the job. Do I need to add a clear coat to seal the windows in the event we by accident leave them open and get some rain? Should I have used oil based primer for the first coat? Thanks!

  5. My husband and I just purchased a house built in 1964. According to the home inspector he considered the paint to be original however in notably chalky condition. Other than that, all painted walls were viewed as being in quite good condition. All other walls (not painted, but with wallpaper) have some wall prep work needed. So for nearly 50 years these walls have not seen any painting.

    We plan to use Benjamin Moore Aura paints throughout the house, however would really appreciate guidance on selecting the best primer for these chalky walls. Also, should we be washing the walls ahead of time before starting the priming work? We would greatly appreciate your guidance.

  6. Ughh! I have a serious problem. My house was built in 1959 and all of the window jams are still in good shape, and i want to get sash replacements for them. Last summer, the old paint which looks like a latex paint was peeling off all of the sashes and a little up the brick mouldings. I decided to repaint all of the window sashes. TONS of prep work,,scraping, cleaning, sanding, filling. I used 2 coats of Zinssner oil base stain block primer, then 2 coats of Rustoleum Enamel. They looked real nice, until I noticed in the middle of winter all of them were peeling, blistering, and cracking. The Zissner primer did not bond to the bare wood, or to the old paint. I called Zinssner and they told me it was a moisture problem, and offered to give my money back, or new material. I’m scared to paint them again because of all the work it requires could be wasted once again. I don’t know what to do,,any ideas?

    1. Steve, often when there is peeling paint down to bare wood it can be a moisture problem like you said. If you used any chemical stripper that might also cause this problem if it wasn’t neutralized enough. Also don’t paint in direct sunlight and make sure you give enough drying time before any rain. If you do all that then my advice would be to try a different brand primer and paint on just one window and see if the problem recurs. If it does it’s likely vapor drive from moisture issues inside the house. It might be an HVAC problem or venting issues in the attic but if there is too much moisture inside it will push the exterior paint off on its way out.

  7. Thanks for such great info. There are so many products now it’s hard to figure the real differences. I have an unusual situation and your thoughts are appreciated. I have 1/4″ top nailed unsealed oak flooring circa 1959. I am covering with Quietwalk and laminate as it’s too thin to refinish, but is tight enough as a good subfloor. Part of the flooring had been airing in the garage after my dog opened a quart of salmon oil which seeped between boards and spread on the unfinished backs of the oak. I hope I can use a stain blocker and reinstall as subfloor. Any suggestions on the best product or if you don’t think any product will work. I cleaned with tsp, packed in kitty litter, etc. But because the wood was old and dry the oil had soaked in really deep. Also I’m in california so I also have to be careful that the stain blocker formula is not different due to our chemical restrictions. Thank you. I know 1/4 ply can be used but hate to add wood to landfill if the following week can be salvaged, but I also want to avoid a mystery odor when our summer temps hit.

  8. I’m fixing up a old workshop and have likely made a huge mistake. I replaced the twisted/rotted pine trim with hardie board trim then primed the entire exterior, trim and all, with Zinsser BIN shellac based primer. A buddy recommended it and I moved ahead without reading the label. Have you heard of any success stories when doing so or am I in for a huge crack and peel head ache? If so, any suggestions?

    1. If you’re in a warm climate then you may be in some trouble. The shellac can melt in direct sunlight and high heat which is why it isn’t recommended for exterior. The best bet is to wait and see. You may be a lucky one who gets away with it.

  9. I have a 1905 built craftsman that I’m completely renovating. This entire process has been a huge learning experience. That saying, “they don’t make them like they used to” is sone true with this home. The entire outside is 6″ redwood siding with red cedar shingle accents. My question is I replaced about 600 Sq ft of the original redwood siding due to damage with redwood (wasn’t cheap or easy to find) My question is what type of primer would you recommend to cover the bare redwood?

    1. Any oil based exterior wood primer will do a nice job at sealing the tannins in the wood so you don’t get any bleed through. Slow dry primer is best if you can afford the time.

  10. You state: Oil-based primer on galvanized metal will fail almost immediately. That scares me! I have a 25,000 sq ft roof. We have been wire brushing,power washing the rusty spots with TSP, and applying KILZ Complete by brush at the recommendation of a BEHR rep. So, far I have applied 22 gal and just ordered 30 more gal. I was then going to apply a BEHR DTM using a sprayer after power washing once again.

  11. What type of primer can I use to paint my brass shower doors? I want to make them into a chrome like finish.

  12. I looked at a Den that had built in book case and ceiling columns that had been stained and lacquered. The home owner wants the wood to be painted, what type of primer will adhere to the wood? What is the best paint to finish the work? Thank you

  13. Need to paint popcorn ceilings and they have water stains on them, what should I use? And on some of the wall bad water stains and the walls are plaster and they are textured, what should I use? Do you like kilz or zinsser better? For the popcorn ceiling should it be sprayed on and not rolled and do you recommend the whole ceiling and walls done with the primer? Thank you so very much.

    1. Laurie, you can definitely roll the primer onto popcorn ceilings. For heavy stains I would use the Bins Shellac-based primer to spot prime the trouble areas. Then paint the whole ceiling with a flat white ceiling paint. You should be good to go!

    2. Popcorn ceiling have a water based adhesion. DO NOT use a latex paint on popcorn. It will all come raining down on your head as the latex beaks the adhesion bond to the ceiling. Oil based paint will not.

      I used Kilz oil based low odor primer. Along with a segmented slit foam roller(sold by Wooster) to deal with acoustic/popcorn texture. This paint and roller combination worked flawless!!! Not one flake of popcorn (vermiculite) released onto the roller. I did an entire 10 room house with this success.

      You will need to paint in one direction only. Not rolling back and forth. Once you have applied the paint, let it dry to a protective “shell”. Now finish the ceiling by painting in a 90 degree direction to the first coat. Done perfect without issue!

  14. The ceiling paint is our master bathroom keeps peeling off — we cant have an exhaust fan due to a concrete attic floor above (apparently required in my area as a fireblock for homes with cedar roofs); any suggestions on primer/paint that will better stand up to steamy room conditions?

  15. Scott I am going with it! Have just picked a Sher Cryl gallon for top painting my likely southern yellow pine windows that have been stripped to bare wood and sanded fine with 180 grit. Now the question is: I’ve had to use epoxy ton some surfaces and joints (on the outside only, have not joined them together) and have read a recommendation to use a shellac primer (like B-I-N, though I have intentions to use the Sherwin Williams brand shellac) because it will work best for epoxied areas. Instead of doing spot priming with shellac primer, and then going with my standard long dry penetrating oil primer on the rest where there is only bare wood, no epoxy (about 95% of the window surfaces) I plan on just using the high quality shellac over everything at one time.

    Thoughts? Am really following your advice to the letter with my project for my own home–thanks for the fantastic blog!!!

    1. Shellac primer can only be used as a spot treatment on the exterior because the shellac has a tendency to melt in direct sunlight and high heat conditions. Check with whatever the epoxy manufacturer recommends but keep those tips in mind. I’ve found that oil-based primer is more than sufficient inside and out on wood windows.

      1. I have just primed my storms with B-I-N and now read that it is not suitable for exterior use! What do I do now? Must I strip it?

        1. If it fails then it’s time to strip and start over but you may get lucky depending on climate and exposure and it will hold up. It struggles in extreme heat and direct sun since the shellac can re-emulsify. I’d watch and see. Fingers crossed!

  16. I’ve been told by a local paint shop in a historic district that the best way to paint previously wallpaper plaster (not previously painted) where the wallpaper and most residue was removed with oil based primer and then an oil based paint like BM’s Calcimine Recoater. I am not leaning towards using oil based paint on the walls (I find the benefits of oil may not be necessary on plaster walls) but I am planning on using a BM oil primer.Any thoughts on this Scott?

  17. I never knew oil based primers were not good for galvanized metal. Is this something I should have known from reading labels, or something learned from experience?
    The one area of my outside painting that has failed is a galvanized metal architectural design piece.

    1. Mike, not sure if it is on the labels, but the solvents in oil-based paint react with the zinc coating on galvanized metal causing quick paint failure. The best way to paint galvanized metal is to scrub it pretty well with soap and water to remove some of the haze and then prime with latex or even paint latex paint directly on the metal. Weird, I know!

  18. A few years ago I learned of something called “Seal Grip”/ “Permanizer Plus” from Pittsburgh Paints, especially formulated for “distressed wood”. I learned about it from a painter in Minnesota that specialized in whole house repaints. He swore by it. Even though it is about twice the price of most latex primers, I have used it as materials are cheap compared to the labor on my cedar shingled Queen Anne. I want the paint job to last forever. I have sometimes had cedar bleed “into” the primer coat, but never into/through the next coats. I think they call it an acrylic urethane or some such (cleans with water).
    It is a little difficult to find. The paint stores I have found it at say it is not a top seller (like I said, it is $$$), but that those who do use it will not use anything else.

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