Primer-Angie’s List

A quick primer on interior painting

A painter works on a feature wall of this member's kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Angie’s List member Kathleen M. of Ypsilanti, Mich.)A painter works on a feature wall of this member’s kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Angie’s List member Kathleen M. of Ypsilanti, Mich.)

Date Published: Dec 06 2013
by Doug Bonderud, Angie’s List Contributor

If you’re tackling an interior painting project, you have important choices to make when it comes to color, shine and overall aesthetic. But one of the most critical decisions comes before paint ever touches a wall or ceiling: Do you need primer?

There’s conflicting information about primer and its uses, with some homeowners sure it’s just another type of paint while other are certain it’s crucial for any paint project.

So what’s the bottom line on the bottom coat? Is primer really the place to start?

Paint versus primer

Paint and primer look the same. You apply both are with a brush or roller, they take a similar period of time to dry and they come in latex and oil-based varieties. So you can understand why the average homeowner might think the two products perform an identical function, but they don’t.

Primer contains what are known as resins that allow it to penetrate porous surfaces such as wood or drywall and create a surface bond. This allows paint, which contains pigments, to adhere effectively. The result is a finish that has fewer bumps and brush marks and that lasts longer. It’s also sealed against water damage from without and chemical seepage from within, so it resists bleed-through from previous paint colors, oils from wood surfaces or rust from metal walls.

Primers are less durable than paint and aren’t made to withstand long hours in sunlight or inclement weather. Paint, meanwhile, won’t bond as well to slick or oil-coated surfaces when used without primer, significantly decreasing its lifespan. You’ll need both to produce a great finish.

Which to use when

Primer comes in two types, just like paint: oil and latex-based. Both have specific applications. If you’re painting new wood, you can use either latex or oil-based primer. Wood with stains or high tannin content like redwood or cedar requires a stain-blocking primer. Drywall needs a latex primer because oil-based products will create an uneven surface by affecting the drywall’s grain, resulting in an imperfect finish once you apply the paint. Rusty metal surfaces need a corrosion-resistant primer, whereas shiny materials like glass or tile need bonding primers.

Before you start any interior painting job, make sure to clean the surface thoroughly. For wood, this means stripping off any excess oil and sanding down any large knots. For metal, this means scouring off any rust. And for drywall, make sure to sink screw heads just below the paper so they don’t create “pops” in the finished product.

You can find specialty primers that cover up stains or smells, like smoke or damage due to animals. You should apply these only as necessary. Expect to pay between $10 and $20 for a one-gallon can of basic primer, and $20 to $30 for a one-gallon can of stain or smell-blocking primer.

Primer pro tips

Follow these tips when prepping your primer:

  • In some cases, you won’t need primer. The most common is when a surface has been previously primed and painted because new paint will adhere to an old coating with no issues.
  • If you’re covering dark or very bright colors, you’ll want to use a primer or consider spot-priming areas that have some oil bleed-through or have stains.
  • Tint your primer slightly to the color of your paint, which you can accomplish by adding a small amount of paint to the primer and thoroughly mixing. Tinting can help improve the overall finish of an interior painting job, especially if your final color is very dark or quite bright.
  • If you’re looking for a perfect finish, especially in a room with existing paint, consider hiring a professional.

2-in-1 paint and primers

You may also have heard about 2-in-1 paint and primer solutions that claim to have the benefits of both. These products have received mixed reviews, in part because paint and primer cannot be mixed together in the same can. Chemically, this is just not feasible.

Instead, manufacturers create high-quality, very thick paint that acts as both a primer and paint, so long as you use two coats. One coat of a 2-in-1 product may work for a previously painted wall, but will not be enough for a fresh surface. Expect to pay double the cost of normal paint, up to $50 for a one-gallon can.

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