I don’t trust salespeople. Ever. So the first time the paint person at Home Depot told me that primer was different than paint and I needed it for my project, I smiled, nodded, and then skipped it.
I was very wrong.
The difference between primer and paint is that primer contains bonding agents that seal the surface of your project, and create a stable base for the paint. Paint is the attractive topcoat. When primer is used correctly, it saves time and money.
I know what you’re thinking: primer is an extra coat, and an extra thing to purchase. But keep reading, and you’ll see what I mean!
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The Purpose of Primer
Have you ever heard painting horror stories? The paint doesn’t stick to the project… Former colors bleed through the paint… The dried paint peels off…
Guess what? All of these are solved by primer.
Primer prepares your surface for paint, and depending on the type of primer you use, it can block colors and tannins, create a barrier between oils in the surface and the new paint, seal the project surface, and help paint stick to smooth surfaces.
See the ripped drywall in the photo below? When I ultimately fixed it, I used a shellac primer to harden the paper before painting, so I didn’t have a fuzzy wall:
Laminate (think Ikea furniture) is notoriously difficult to paint, because it’s too smooth and paint doesn’t stick. But a coat of oil-based bonding primer was all this cabinet needed to become paintable:
And if you’re trying to paint over oil-based paint, oil-based primer is necessary before modern latex paint will stick.
I’ll admit, most of the time when I reach for the primer, it’s for a furniture project or something that I think will have poor paint adhesion, not basic wall painting.
But there are times primer might save you money there too, so keep reading!
How Primer Can Save You Time and Money
How Primer Saves You Money
Lets compare costs. Basic, Zinsser 123 Water-Based Primer costs $32 per gallon at Home Depot and $25 per gallon at Menards.
(Oft. Inflation, y’all. I used to get this stuff for $17.)
Behr Ultra is roughly $38 per gallon, and their top-line paint, Behr Marquee is roughly $60 per gallon.
Primer is cheaper than paint.
And sometimes, you can use primer in place of a coat of paint.
To be extra clear: not always, and you will absolutely still need a paint topcoat, but if you’re doing a project where you’re going to need multiple coats of paint, often times a coat of primer will cut out a coat of paint.
Take these planter boxes (see the whole wall project on Youtube here.)
I planned to spray paint them, because I wanted an ultra-smooth look. But because spray paint is expensive, and I didn’t want to run through 6 cans trying to cover up the knots in the wood, I hand-painted two coats of primer on the planters first.
Then it only took a quick half a can of spray paint to finish the planters. It cost a fraction of what it would’ve if I’d done the whole thing with spray paint.
Most of the time, I use this technique with white paint, because primer is white, and I keep white primer in inventory.
But if you have a huge wall that you’re trying to cover, and you know you’ll use a whole can of primer, you can get primer tinted at the home improvement store when you buy it.
It probably won’t be anywhere near as potent a color as your actual paint will be, but it can help you get the benefits of primer, while slowly starting to transition the color.
It might be enough to cut out a coat of paint!
How Primer Saves You Time
Do you hate sanding? Join the club.
Well, I’ve got good news. Primer is a replacement for sanding.
If you use the right primer, you wont have to sand at all. Hooray!
The key here is to use Zinsser’s Oil-Based Cover Stain Primer. This stuff is a beast, and it’s my go-to primer for anything tricky.
Truthfully, most of the time I sand anyway, because I have a nice sander and it takes all of 2 minutes, but if you don’t have an orbital sander, priming in place of sanding can save a ton of time.
Dry Time and Other Possibilities
Fun fact: The dry time of primer is usually 1 hour. The dry time of most latex paints is between 2 and 4 hours.
So if you’re able to replace a coat of paint with primer instead, you won’t have to wait as long to recoat!
Additionally, when you use primer, you significantly reduce the chance of something going wrong, like the paint peeling off after it dries.
Saving yourself hours of extra work and frustration? Priceless.
Which Primer Do You Need?
Obviously, there are many primers on the market. I love the Zinsser line, and have used all three of their main primers for different purposes.
Here’s how I pick which one to use:
This is my go-to primer for basic, non-tricky projects. It’s a primer, it preps the surface, and it does a good job.
It’s the cheapest of the lineup, and it’s water-based, so it’s also the easiest to clean up.
If I’m not asking the primer to do anything difficult, I pick this one.
That’s how the decision happens in my head. I could probably give you a few more guidelines on what “not difficult” means, though.
To me, that means I’m painting wood/plywood/another surface that paints easily, and I’m not worried about tannins coming through the wood.
(If I’m not worried about tannins, then there are no knots, or I’m painting the piece a dark color.)
Basically, if you’re considering skipping primer, this is the primer you should use.
This is my go-to primer for tricky projects. Here’s a list of things I’ve used it for:
- Painting laminate furniture
- Painting brick
- Painting over oil-based paint (including spray paint!)
- Painting over lead paint
- Painting over glossy finishes
- Painting over dark woods or knots
- Painting over hard-to-cover designs
It smells bad, and cleans up with mineral spirits instead of water, which are the main reasons I’ll go with the Bullseye 123 if I think I can get away with it.
I usually try to apply the oil-based primer with disposable sponge brushes instead of nice paint brushes, since it’s easier to throw away the brushes when I’m done then actually clean them.
Price-wise, at Menards the two primers are actually the same, although at Home Depot the oil-based primer is $8 more.
This stuff is pricy, and to be honest, the only time I’ve ever used it was to deal with the drywall paper situation in the picture at the top of the article.
That’s because 95% of the time, Zinsser’s Oil-Based primer does the job, and I just don’t see the need to pay the extra money for the heavy-duty Shellac primer.
But, if you ever need to seal something really soft or porous (like drywall paper!) before painting, Zinsser’s Shellac Primer is the way to go.
It also claims to do a great job hiding water and smoke stains.
But… What Primer Should I Use For My Wall?
So, if you are just painting a basic wall, latex color A to latex color B, you’re probably fine with a combo “paint and primer” product.
Most of the medium to high end latex paints on the market these days have the primer built-in, and for a basic interior wall project, that’s enough.
But if you’re in a situation where you’re trying to go from bright red to white, you need to cover up a multi-colored design, or you think the initial paint is oil-based, you should probably use a separate primer first.
Zinsser’s Oil-Based Cover Stain primer is what I’d grab for all three situations. The smell will be strong, so try to plan to prime on a day you can open the windows.