The Best Paint Primers, According to DIYers and Pros
Prep those indoor and outdoor paint projects to get professional quality results with these top-rated paint primers.
Whether you’re painting the living room or a patio table, applying a preparatory coat of primer to the surface first will improve adherence, prevent peeling, and reduce the number of coats needed to obtain beautiful results. While all primers contain more resins and less pigment than paint, plus solvent and additives, formulas vary from product to product. The right primer for your project depends on the environment of the work, the surface itself, and your preferences for the timeframe of the job and the final look. Read on to find out what makes a quality paint primer and why we’re calling the following products the best paint primers.
- BEST MULTI-PURPOSE PAINT PRIMER: Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Primer
- BEST PAINT PRIMER FOR INTERIOR WALLS: KILZ General Purpose Interior Latex Primer/Sealer
- BEST PAINT PRIMER FOR CABINETS: KILZ Original Multi-Surface Stain-Blocking Interior Oil-Based Primer/Sealer
- BEST PAINT PRIMER FOR METAL SURFACES: Rust-Oleum Flat White Clean Metal Primer
- BEST PAINT PRIMER FOR GLOSSY SURFACES: KILZ Adhesion High-Bonding Latex Primer/Sealer
Important Qualities in Paint Primer
Consider the following factors before purchasing paint primer:
Paint primers come in three formulas: interior/exterior, interior, and exterior. Interior/exterior primers, suited for indoor and outdoor use, and exterior primers, for outdoor use only, both contain additives that stave off UV-related fading and moisture-related mold issues; they also add flexibility to withstand frequent outdoor temperature changes without causing the paint to peel or crack. Interior primers, formulated without these additives, are only suitable for indoor use. Interior/exterior primer is your best bet if you’ll be doing a range of painting jobs, indoors and out, and want to save on the costs of buying separate interior and exterior products.
Different primers adhere better to certain surfaces.
- Bare wood: Apply an oil-based or latex primer to wood that has never been stained or painted to help seal the porous surface. Keep in mind that oil-based primers tend to emit more VOCs (smelly pollutants) than do latex primers.
- Drywall: Apply a latex primer to drywall, as oil-based primer can raise the grain and make the surface look even.
- Stain-prone surfaces: Use a stain-blocking primer on stained wood, bare wood with high tannin content that can bleed out (e.g., cedar or redwood), interior walls with water or smoke stains, or cabinets/trim with grease stains. It will cover stains and keep them from bleeding into and discoloring top coats. Choose latex stain-blocking primer if the stains are solvent-based (e.g., crayons or grease) and oil-based stain-blocking primer if they’re water-based (e.g., water-based wood stain, smoke, or tannins).
- Painted wood: An oil-based primer is best for painted wood that shows chalking (a chalky powder on the surface as the paint binder degrades) or chipping; it will dry into a denser, smoother foundation to minimize these imperfections.
- Metal: Choose a rust-resistant oil-based primer on metals such as aluminum to avoid the formation of rust, which the water in latex primer can promote.
- Glossy surfaces: Bonding primer, formulated to stick to glossy surfaces, is a must for the slick likes of glass, plastic, or tile.
Dedicated Primer vs. Paint-and-Primer In-One
Self-priming paints a.k.a paint-and-primer combo products let you prime and paint a surface in a single step. But these two-in-one products, available from many top-rated paint brands like Behr and Valspar, are only recommended if all of the following are true:
- You’re not painting bare or stained wood.
- Your painting surface has no stains or signs of peeling.
- You’re repainting a previously painted surface in the same color or going from a lighter to a darker paint color.
- You should use separate paint and primer to improve paint adhesion in the following situations:
- You’re painting bare or stained wood.
- You’re painting over a surface that has stains or is peeling.
- You’re switching from a darker to a lighter paint color.
- You want to use a paint with a different base than that of the primer (e.g., you want to use an oil-based primer but a latex paint to take advantage of the rot resistance of the oil primer but the lower VOCs and faster drying of the latex paint).
- You want to cover an old oil-based paint coat with a latex paint coat. You need an intervening layer of a dedicated primer for optimal adhesion of the latex paint.
Primer usually comes in white and gray color options. You can use either color as is without tinting it, or have the primer tinted at the paint store to a shade that’s slightly lighter than your topcoat; this service is usually free of charge if you buy the primer from the same store. Tinting primer, which requires buying a primer labeled “tintable,” generally achieves a deeper, richer, and more uniform final color, but is particularly recommended when:
- You’re going from a darker to a lighter color. The tinted primer reduces the number of paint coats needed to hide the darker base coat.
- You’re going from a lighter to a dramatically darker color, e.g., light blue to black. The tinted primer ensures that even if the topcoat is uneven, no patches of white or gray primer will show through it.
Pay attention to the “dry to recoat” time specified on the primer packaging—an indication of when the primer is dry enough to be recoated, either with another coat of primer or with paint. In general, latex primers have a shorter dry-to-recoat time of no more than one hour, whereas oil-based primers need one to three hours before they can be recoated.
Top Picks for the Best Paint Primer
Here are our top five picks for best paint primer based on the above factors and consumer reviews.
BEST MULTI-PURPOSE PAINT PRIMER: Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Primer ($14.56 for one quart)
Rated 4.3 out of five stars by more than 230 Amazon reviewers, this versatile, tintable interior/exterior latex primer adheres as strongly to drywall as it does to wood, concrete, masonry, metal, and glossy surfaces like tile, so it can be used to prime walls, furniture, fences, and more. The water-based formula that blocks solvent-based stains (like grease) and resists mildew and peeling comes in a one-quart can that covers a total of 100 square feet (one 10-by-10-foot wall). It dries to recoat in one hour and can be used with latex- or oil-based topcoats. Available from Amazon.
BEST PAINT PRIMER FOR INTERIOR WALLS: KILZ General Purpose Interior Latex Primer/Sealer ($27.52 for one gallon)
Although it can be used on brick, plaster, masonry, and wood alike, this tintable interior latex primer works like a dream on drywall thanks to a unique water-based formula that minimizes surface imperfections like uneven texture and can be tinted to any wall color of your choice. Amazon customers rated it four out of five stars for a smooth application “like butter on bread” and a generous gallon-sized container with a coverage area of 300 square feet. It offers a speedy dry-to-recoat time of one hour and works with latex- or oil-based topcoats. Available from Amazon.
BEST PAINT PRIMER FOR CABINETS: KILZ Original Multi-Surface Stain-Blocking Interior Oil-Based Primer/Sealer ($16.39 for one quart)
Rated four out of five stars by Amazon reviewers, this tintable oil-based interior primer handily blocks current and future water-based stains and odors from smoke, wood tannins, markers, and more. You’ll appreciate how it works on stain-prone surfaces like kitchen, bathroom, and craft room cabinets, trim, and frequently used furniture, yet it’s versatile enough for wood, drywall, plaster, masonry, brick, metal, and glossy surfaces too. The quart-sized container covers between 300 and 400 square feet, dries in one hour and can be topped with latex or oil-based topcoats. Available from Amazon.
BEST PAINT PRIMER FOR METAL SURFACES: Rust-Oleum Flat White Clean Metal Primer ($8.98 for one quart)
Seal the metal and halt the formation of rust on bare, painted, or lightly rusted metal furniture, fences, and more with this interior/exterior oil-based primer with a rust- and corrosion-proof formula. Rust-Oleum Clean Metal Primer is sold in a one-quart container that covers 100 square feet, is ready to recoat in two hours, and should ideally be topped with an oil-based paint. Amazon customers gave the product 4.3 out of five stars for going on “smoothly and evenly” and sticking even to “surfaces that aren’t perfectly clean,” ranging from wrought-iron fences to garage door trim. Available from Amazon.
BEST PAINT PRIMER FOR GLOSSY SURFACES: KILZ Adhesion High-Bonding Latex Primer/Sealer ($41.38 for one gallon)
If you’ve been putting off painting a tile backsplash, a lacquered chair, or your gutters, get the job done with this tintable latex interior/exterior bonding primer designed to stick to glass, plastic, tile, Formica, vinyl, glazed brick, metal, and other glossy surfaces. Sold in a one-gallon can that covers 300 square feet, the latex primer that scored 4.6 out of five stars on Amazon dries in one hour and provides an excellent foundation for latex- or oil-based topcoats. Available from Amazon.