Buyer’s Guide: Paint Primers
For a great finish, start with our top tips for choosing a paint primer—and don't miss our roundup of top-favorite picks!
Whether you’re painting the living room or a patio table, applying a prep coat of primer to the surface can improve adherence, prevent peeling, and reduce the number of coats needed to finish the job. While all primers contain more resins and less pigment than paint, formulas vary from product to product. The right primer for your project depends on the environment you’ll be working in, the surface you’ll be painting, and your preferences for the timeframe of the job and its final look. Read on to find out what makes a quality paint primer and why the below options rank as our top favorites among the best paint primer options available.
- BEST ALL AROUND: Rust-Oleum Primer
- BEST FOR WOOD: KILZ Original Multi-Surface Stain Blocking Interior Oil-Based Primer/Sealer
- BEST FOR METAL: Rust-Oleum Protective Enamel
- BEST FOR GLOSSY SURFACES: KILZ Adhesion High-Bonding Interior Latex Primer/Sealer
Important Qualities in Paint Primer
Consider the following 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 usually 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—also known as paint-and-primer combo products—let you prime and paint a surface in a single step. But these two-in-one products 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 or gray. You can use either color as is without tinting it, or you can have the primer tinted to a shade that’s slightly lighter than your topcoat. 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.
Our Top Picks
BEST ALL AROUND: Rust-Oleum Primer
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 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.
Tintable, oil-based KILZ Original blocks out water-based stains and a range of odors, including smoke. It works particularly well on stain-prone surfaces like kitchen or bathroom cabinets—or frequently used items of furniture like barstools. That said, KILZ Original can also be used on drywall, plaster, masonry, brick, metal, and glossy surfaces like tile. 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.
BEST FOR METAL: Rust-Oleum Protective Enamel
Halt the formation of rust on bare, painted, or lightly rusted metal with this interior/exterior oil-based primer. Rust-Oleum’s clean metal primer is sold in a half-pint container that covers up to 55 square feet, is ready to re-coat in two hours, and should ideally be topped with an oil-based paint. This primer goes on smoothly and evenly and adheres well to clean metal surfaces (and even some surfaces that aren’t perfectly clean).
BEST FOR GLOSSY SURFACES: KILZ Adhesion High-Bonding Interior Latex Primer/Sealer
If you’ve been putting off painting a tile backsplash, a lacquered chair, or your aging gutters, you can get the job done with this tintable latex interior/exterior bonding primer designed for adhesion to glass, plastic, tile, Formica, vinyl, glazed brick, metal, and still more glossy surfaces. Sold in a one-gallon can that covers 300 square feet, KILZ Adhesion High-Bonding dries in one hour and provides an excellent foundation for either latex- or oil-based topcoats.