To Prime or Not to Prime, That is the Question!

Heidi Baker Written by Be Jane's own Heidi Baker What is and how can it help you?
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  You've finally decided to take on that room in your house that you've been talking about for ages. You decide a new color is what will give the room a new lease on life. Way to go!  And it's about time!    Your first stop, the hardware store.

While looking for the perfect taupe color to go with your new suede couch, you ask for help on which paint is right for your needs. But instead, you're told you need a primer regardless of the type of paint being used.  It seems illogical: your goal is to change the existing color of the room to a color that's nearly white. Priming the old walls white would just be a waste of time, right?  Wrong. Up until a few years ago I thought the same way.   I would have thought, this is just some salesman trying to get me buy something else that I don't need. I mean it's just white paint. I found out the hard way that it's definitely not just white paint when I painted water based latex paint over an oil base. UGH!   And, yes, I do realize that oil and water don't mix. I just thought that only applied to when they were both still wet. My first appreciation for primer happened two days later when I brushed up against my newly painted closet door and realized that I was wearing more of my new paint job than the door was.  Not fun!

(See below for the primer that I finally used for this project when I did it the right way.) Now I'm not going to tell you it's essential to prime everything before you paint it, because it's not.   What I am going to tell you is that it is important to know what primers do and when it's important to use one.  For a start, primers help to ensure a professional-looking paint job. Let's be honest, no one wants to spend all that time and money for it to look like it was done by an eight year old.   Primer is one of the most basic steps to good-looking walls. It is a specially formulated product that is designed to: 
  • Increase the bond between the paint and the surface it goes on. It is particularly helpful with surfaces that were previously painted with semi-gloss or high gloss paints

    : Make sure to lightly sand the original painted surface with 220 grit sand paper both before applying the primer and in between coats. This will decrease the possibility of your new paint peeling off due to the lack of adhesion.)
  • Allow the paint's finished product to have the intended sheen (ex: semi-gloss, egg-shell, etc.)
  • Give the painted surface a uniform appearance. (If you start off with a smooth surface, you have a much better chance of ending up with one.)
  • Provide increased coverage of paint. Your paint will go farther when used on top of the right primer.

    TRICK OF THE TRADE: : If you are painting with a deep color, ask the store to tint your primer with half the amount of the same color as your paint. This technique allows you to cover your walls both quicker and with less paint.)
  • Prevent stains or marks on an old surface from bleeding through to the new coat of paint. Stains could be from water, dirt, smoke, or resins from knots in woods.
  • Protect metals to help resist against corrosion and rust.
The most common uses for primer are to seal bare wood, new drywall or cover wallpaper. 

  Jane Tip JANE TIP:   When priming over wallpaper make sure you ...

  1. Use a high-adhesion wallpaper primer
  2. The old wallpaper is firmly attached to the wall
  3. The rips, gouges, nicks, indentations, bulges and tears are repaired
  4. The walls are clean and smooth before rolling on the primer.

.....Trust us this is much easier than taking it off first!

  The first thing to learn is the difference between primers.  Yes, there are different types of primers.   Just like there are different types of paint finishes that work better for different projects. Primers vary depending on the different problems and applications. Though one thing does remain constant - regardless of the primer used, adequate ventilation is always very important. The following is a list of the most commonly used primers and what each one is used for: 


Acetate Latex Primer

This is used primarily for sealing new drywall in preparation for painting. This primer will seal the paper face of drywall and the joint compound. Without it these two will rob too much water from latex paint. (I learned this one the hard way when I used all my paint and didn't understand why it had barely covered the walls!)  PVA is not intended to be used on trim or other previously painted surfaces. Clean-up is with soap and water.All Purpose Primer


This is a more general term for a primer that was created to allow the strongest bond possible to solid and nonporous surfaces, like metal, glass, tile and thermoplastics such as laminated plastics (melamine and formica). It can be more difficult to work with than a conventional latex primer, but the payoff in the paint job's longevity makes it worth it. The clean-up is with soap and water.Shellac PrimerSHELLAC PRIMER-SEALER
Stain-blocking primer
This a primer used when a stain is coming through to your paint. Recommended uses are for water stains, though we feel that if you are trying to prevent stains from showing, it's better to be safe than sorry. We prefer that you use an oil-based or alcohol-based primer instead. We know there's nothing worse than having to redo a job because you didn't use the right product the first time. Use for over water based paints. Clean-up is with soap and water.  Oil Based

Stain-blocking primer

This primer should be called "Mommy's Little Helper" because it effectively blocks things like crayon, permanent marker, as well as grease and water stains. You will find it a bit more work as it doesn't clean-up with soap and water and the odor will linger longer than a latex primer, but it is one of the few ways to keep unremovable stains from bleeding through your paint. It can be used over latex or oil. Clean-up is with paint thinner.  
TIP:  When working with paint thinner, always make sure you are working in an area with adequate ventilation!Alcohol Based

White-pigmented shellac

This type of primer is impermeable, creates a strong bond, effectively blocks smoke stains and all of the tannins and resins in wood (these are the rings in wood that can show through and stain paint). It can also block pet odors. The only down-side to this product is that it can be brittle and damaged by UV light, so we recommend this for interior use only.  It can be used over oil or water-based paint. Clean-up is with denatured alcohol.Latex PrimerLATEX PRIMERThis primer contains more solids than the others on the list and is best used when the finish coat will be in satin, semi-gloss or high gloss. Once it has properly dried, it can be sanded to produce the smoothest possible base for the finish coat. It is to be used over water-based paints. Clean-up is with soap and water.
   Useful hints everyone should know when using primer: 
  • Just as when you use any other paint or chemical in your home, make sure to have adequate ventilation in your work space you.  We find when working with primer, the odors can get to you faster than paint, so we suggest you have a fan running and open windows where ever you use it. 
  • Also make sure you use protective eyewear whenever you are doing any form of painting.  These items don't seem dangerous until you get some in your eye.  Should this happen, refer to the back of the can and follow the first-aid instructions exactly. 
  • If you don't want to be speckled for days, we also recommend wearing gloves, long sleeves and pants as well as some type of hat or babushka to protect your hair, unless you're going for a punk white highlight look. 
  • Please take this seriously as non-water based primers only come off with caustic chemicals, or wear off over time.  Don't end up like ME, using the scratchy side of a scrub sponge and a dry loofah in the shower, hoping the primer would come off the day before I had to go to a black tie affair!

 Now you're primed and ready.  On your mark, get set, GO!  P.S. - The primer I used for painting water-based latex over oil was Benjamin Moore's FRESH START.  

Related links:

Learn how a Little Paint can Turn your Cabinets from Drab to Fab

How to paint wood grain

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