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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!

77 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Primer

  1. 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?

  2. 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!!

  3. 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?

  4. 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 ?

  5. 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

  6. 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!

  7. 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?

  8. 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!

  9. Hi. I’m prepping our kitchen cabinets before painting. While cleaning them , some paint peel off, and some were like peeling small strips of paper. The wood is oak, but not sure if the panel is oak or plywood. Right now they’re painted espresso color, and I want them white. Do I use zinsser shellac or zinsser cover stain? Thanks.

  10. I’m using cement board for a shower surround. Primed it with latex water blocking primer. I want to apply epoxy paint for walls. Will the epoxy bond to the primer or do I need to aply a coat of bonding primer first.

  11. Hi. I’m removing popcorn ceiling on 1600 square ft. interior and then skimming and painting all walls and ceilings (call me crazy). Previous owners had some odd smells to say the least, including smoking (not heavy but still detectable) so I am intent on odor blocking absolutely everything – walls, ceilings, even floor boards before new flooring goes in. I would rather over do it than go through a full repaint only to have the odors return. My understanding is that before I apply the new skim coat I should prime w odor blocker. Not sure if should use the BIN shellac for this (and what is the impact of impeding breath ability) or if Kilz Max latex would be sufficient? All walls are previously painted. The ceilings have the popcorn sanded off so it is down to the paper in most areas. For this reason I think the primer must be rolled not sprayed. The basement will be gutted as it’s the worst so new drywall and insulation going in there. There I plan to use Kilz PVA for the drywall primer – but debating if I will need to prime the framing to block any odour that may have been absorbed into the wood. Haven’t yet found any info that really points in the right direction, so hoping you can provide some advise.

  12. Hi Scott,
    I have new raised panels made of poplar going on the exterior of a porch. I was told to prime them with a shellac based primer. I see you advise against shellac for exterior use. Can I cover over with oil based primer or wont that work?

  13. Hi!

    I have glossy slate small tiles on my fireplace (inside). Is it possible to use a primer like Kilz or Zinsser to paint over it? It’s so dark I would prefer a lighter color.

  14. Hi Scott! Thank you for being here?
    I just sealed a section of 3/4″ MDF with Bulleye shellac in the can. Seemed to seal pretty good, and I gently sanded it with 320g after it was done. I wan’t to use the Metallic Blue Cobalt rustoleum enamel paint as the general color and I’m not sure what to use as a primer. This is a going to be a pedal board for all my guitar stompboxes, distortions and fuzzboxes. It won’t be used outside or in tough environments, just maybe have my foot graze it now and then. A thought a matte clear coat may look nice also, after a few applications of the Metallic Blue Cobalt spray paint.

    Thank you !
    Phil Donovan

    1. An oil based primer is my choice. And you probably won’t need a clear coat since you are using an enamel paint. That should be hard enough to avoid too many scratches and Knicks.

  15. What is the beat primer for a previously unpainted concrete ceiling in condo? I am planning on using BM Waterborne Ceiling paint for the topcoat. Thanks

  16. I’m getting ready to paint French provincial bedroom furniture and used zinsser latex primer. I had a small child scratch one drawer & it left a mark. Do I have to sand the drawer and can I change to an oil base primer & paint over the latex without redoing all the drawers

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