How to Choose and Use Primer for Your Next Painting Project

Bob Thomas


When it comes to painting projects, choosing the right primer can make all the difference in achieving a professional, long-lasting finish.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll cover everything you need to know about choosing and using primer, including its purpose, types of primer, and step-by-step instructions for applying it correctly.

Quick Summary

To choose and use primer effectively, follow these steps: 1) Understand the purpose of primer, 2) Determine the type of surface you're painting, 3) Choose the appropriate primer, 4) Prepare the surface, 5) Apply the primer, and 6) Allow the primer to dry before painting. By following these steps, you'll ensure a successful and durable paint job.

Understanding the Purpose of Primer

Primer is a preparatory coating applied to surfaces before painting.

It serves several key functions:

  • Enhances paint adhesion
  • Provides a uniform surface for paint
  • Blocks stains and odors
  • Protects the underlying material

Different Types of Primer and Their Uses

There are various types of primer available, each designed for specific surfaces and purposes.

Here are the most common types:

  1. Oil-based primer
  • Suitable for wood, metal, and some plastic surfaces
  • Ideal for high-humidity areas
  • Blocks stains and tannin bleed
  1. Latex (water-based) primer
  • Works well on most surfaces, including drywall, wood, and masonry
  • Easy to clean up with soap and water
  • Quick drying and low odor
  1. Shellac-based primer
  • Excellent for sealing severe stains and odors
  • Works on wood, metal, plaster, and plastic surfaces
  • Dries quickly but has a strong odor

Choosing the Right Primer for Your Surface

To choose the right primer, consider the surface you're painting and the specific needs of your project.

Here are some guidelines:

  • For new, unpainted drywall or plaster: Use a latex primer specifically designed for these surfaces.
  • For wood: Use an oil-based primer to seal knots and prevent tannin bleed. If you prefer a water-based product, choose a high-quality latex primer with stain-blocking properties.
  • For metal: Choose a rust-inhibiting primer designed for metal surfaces.
  • For masonry or concrete: Use a masonry primer to ensure proper adhesion and sealing.

Preparing the Surface

Before applying primer, it's essential to prepare the surface properly:

  1. Clean the surface: Remove any dirt, grease, or debris using a mild detergent and water. Rinse thoroughly and let it dry.
  2. Repair any damage: Fill holes, cracks, or gaps with an appropriate filler, and sand smooth once dry.
  3. Sand the surface: Lightly sand the surface to create a smooth, even surface and promote adhesion. Wipe away any dust with a tack cloth.

Applying the Primer

Follow these steps to apply primer correctly:

  1. Stir the primer: Mix the primer thoroughly to ensure even consistency.
  2. Pour primer into a paint tray: Pour a small amount of primer into a paint tray or bucket, being careful not to overfill.
  3. Apply primer with a brush or roller: Use a brush for small or detailed areas and a roller for larger surfaces. Apply in thin, even coats, working in a "W" or "M" pattern to avoid streaks and overlap marks.
  4. Use the right tools: Choose a high-quality brush or roller designed for the type of primer you're using.
  1. Apply multiple coats if needed: For surfaces with severe stains or heavy textures, multiple coats of primer may be necessary to achieve a uniform, sealed surface.
  2. Clean your tools: Clean brushes and rollers immediately after use with the appropriate solvent (mineral spirits for oil-based primer, soap and water for latex primer).

Allowing the Primer to Dry

Before applying paint, it's crucial to let the primer dry completely.

Drying times can vary depending on the type of primer, temperature, and humidity levels. Generally, most primers take between 1 to 24 hours to dry.

Consult the manufacturer's instructions for specific drying times and conditions.

Once the primer is dry, you're ready to apply the topcoat of paint.

By choosing and using primer correctly, you'll create a solid foundation for a professional, long-lasting paint job that enhances the beauty and durability of your surfaces.

Frequently Asked Questions Section (FAQs)  

Q. What is the purpose of using primer before painting?

  A: Primer serves as a base layer that seals and prepares surfaces for painting, ensuring better paint adhesion, uniformity, and durability.

It can also help cover stains, hide colors, and improve the overall appearance of the paint job.

Q. How do I choose the right primer for my project?

  A: Consider the type of surface, existing paint or stain, and the desired finish when selecting a primer.

There are three main types of primers: oil-based, latex, and shellac-based.

Consult paint manufacturers' recommendations or seek advice from professionals to determine the best primer for your specific needs.

Q. Can I skip using primer and just apply more coats of paint?

  A: Skipping primer can lead to poor paint adhesion, uneven color, and reduced durability.

Although using multiple coats of paint might temporarily hide imperfections, it is not a substitute for the benefits that a primer provides.

Q. How many coats of primer should I apply?

  A: Usually, one coat of primer is sufficient, but some surfaces may require multiple coats to achieve a uniform, sealed surface.

This can be necessary for surfaces with severe stains, heavy textures, or when making drastic color changes.

Q. How long should I wait for the primer to dry before applying paint?

  A: Drying times can vary depending on the type of primer, temperature, and humidity levels.

Generally, most primers take between 1 to 24 hours to dry. Always consult the manufacturer's instructions for specific drying times and conditions.

Q. Can I use the same brush or roller for primer and paint?

  A: It's best to use separate brushes or rollers for primer and paint, as they may require different cleaning methods.

Additionally, using separate tools helps ensure that the primer's properties are not compromised by paint residue.

Q. What's the difference between oil-based and latex primers?

  A: Oil-based primers are known for their excellent adhesion and stain-blocking properties, making them ideal for surfaces like wood and metal.

Latex primers are water-based, easier to clean up, and dry faster. They are suitable for most interior surfaces, including drywall and plaster.

Q. Can I use a paint-and-primer-in-one product instead of applying separate primer and paint?

  A: Paint-and-primer-in-one products can be suitable for minor touch-ups or surfaces that are already in good condition.

However, for surfaces that require significant preparation, a separate primer will likely provide better results in terms of adhesion, durability, and appearance.


Choosing and using primer is an essential step in any painting project, ensuring a successful and durable finish.

By understanding the purpose of primer, selecting the appropriate type for your surface, and following proper application techniques, you'll be well on your way to a professional-looking paint job.

Remember to consult paint manufacturers' recommendations and seek advice from professionals if you're unsure about which primer to use. 

Suggested Products: 

  1. KILZ General Purpose Interior Primer: This versatile primer is suitable for a variety of interior surfaces, including drywall, plaster, and wood. By using KILZ General Purpose Interior Primer before painting, you can achieve a uniform, durable finish and better adhesion for the paint.
  2. Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Water-Based Primer: A fast-drying, all-purpose primer that adheres well to multiple surfaces, including glossy surfaces and those with mild stains. Applying Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 before painting can help create an even base and improve paint coverage.
  3. Rust-Oleum Clean Metal Primer: Ideal for use on metal surfaces, this oil-based primer offers excellent adhesion and corrosion resistance. Using Rust-Oleum Clean Metal Primer before painting metal surfaces can ensure a long-lasting, smooth finish.
  4. Benjamin Moore Fresh Start All-Purpose Primer: This high-quality, acrylic-based primer provides excellent adhesion and sealing properties for a range of interior and exterior surfaces. Applying Benjamin Moore Fresh Start All-Purpose Primer before painting can help achieve a professional-looking, even finish.
  5. Sherwin-Williams Harmony Zero VOC Primer: A low-odor, environmentally friendly primer that provides excellent adhesion and stain-blocking properties for various surfaces. Using Sherwin-Williams Harmony Zero VOC Primer before painting can contribute to better indoor air quality and a more uniform paint finish.

About the author 

Bob Thomas

A fully certified interior decorator and house painter , Bob Thomas brings immense expertise and knowledge amassed from many years of hands-on experience with residential, commercial and specialty painting and decorating projects of all sizes and scopes.

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