Thoughts on Primers


Alkyd paints and primers are virtually off the market now. When I first started painting, I was told that oil was superior because of the wear and tear it withstood. However today’s latex bases are so good that there is little difference, and safety factors and ease of cleaning make the decision simple for most.

zinsser bin primerI’ve been really, really impressed with the shellac-based Zinsser BIN Primer when there are knots or stains (food, oil, etc.). I’ve had success with one coat only, though often add a second spot layer over stains or knots. I also use this when covering plastic or metal or laminate. It apparently sticks to any surface without sanding although I sand EVERYTHING. It also dries quickly, usually within 30 minutes.

Mild disadvantages of a shellac-based primer, which may actually turn some painters away, include:

  • You must stir and stir and stir and STIR to get the contents mixed thoroughly, and then use it immediately.
  • It is fairly strong smelling.
  • The brushes do not clean up with water.  Soap and ammonia are needed – see more about my technique under “Paintbrushes and How I Clean Them”.
  • It is runnier than most so care must be taken to avoid drips. Coverage is always semi-transparent and seems thin.
  • It is wise to use it up within 6 months. The cans don’t show an expiry date but after 6 months most shellac mixes lose their potency.

I have used a variety of latex primers when the wood is knot-free, stain-free, and odour-free. I purchase top quality brands because one can lasts long enough to make the higher price of no concern… and coverage is better.  Latex primers are almost odour-free and tools wash easily with water.


Use white primer under whites or pale colours like creams, soft yellows and pastels.

Light grey primer is perfect for bolder yellows, oranges and reds, plus greens, blues, and purples. These colours layer nicely over it with the paint colour popping right from the first coat.  Perhaps it’s because the grey beneath is simply gentler on the eye. Grey primers do NOT work well with pastels – more coats are required, and at first the grey gives a dusky cast.

Colour-tinted primers work well under their respective colours, but remember they’re never as bold.  For instance, a “red-tinted” primer will startle you when it turns out bubblegum pink! They’re really useful for walls, but in my case, when the same primer is used for many small items, the unusual tint is of little value since I may not use the same colour for some time. I’m then left with a weird primer that I try to get rid of under a completely different paint.  It seals as perfectly as ever, but any scratch or dent on the finished product reveals the oddly coloured primer beneath. This leaves no room for error in detailed areas such as corners or carvings.

A final note: Despite what anyone may say or whatever brand of paint is used, I repeatedly discover that satisfactory paint colour coverage requires at least two coats.


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