Primer paint

A primer paint can have different functions: it makes sure your new paint will hold, it seals pores so you'll need less paint, levels the surface and it helps the new paint color to hide. Special primers can block stains or enable you to paint over difficult surfaces like tile or plastic. Each surface needs its own kind of primer paint.

You might have to choose between their most desired features - they can be either color-matched, or great in blocking stains and smells. Some primers are also especially low on VOC.

lady using a primer paint

When to use a primer paint first?

  • New woods and drywall need to be sealed or primed before painting, to block tannine and to make the surface less absorbing.
  • when you new color is much lighter or darker than the old one, a colored primer saves you one or two paint layers
  • If you want to paint over an old painted surface with a different kind of paint, you need a primer to make the new paint hold
  • When the surface is glossy, you need a primer to give the new paint some grip on the surface (and avoid peeliing) - and some preparation. This goes especially for painting tile, wall-sockets etc.
  • Old stains often bleed through from within, into your new paint - the right primer can block them. Even bad smells (pets, fire damage) can be blocked with a special primer
  • If the old surface is peeling, preparations are necessary. But there's also a bonding primer for that.

If you'll paint over a surface that's not too dirty, with about the same color and the same kind of paint, you can skip the priming. Still, primers have a better hiding capacity than finishing paints. Click here for more on paint rollers.

What primer paint do you need?

Wall primers

If your wall was painted over with latex which didn't get really dirty, you won't need to prime unless you want a different color. In that case, you might want to use a colored primer. A primer is thicker than a finishing coat, and you'll be sure to finish in two coats. Color-matched latex primers come in two qualities:

  • This vinyl-acrylic primer, goes over matte and cheap latex paints (and new drywall). It's not expensive, yet it's color-matched.
  • This one has a better quality, it goes over all latex and acrylic paints (all-purpose latex primer). It's also color-matched.
If your wall was painted glossy, it's best to take a heavier quality of primer - one of the Zinssers (scroll down to 'troubleshooting primers').

Walls make a big surface, wich will evaporate a relatively big amount of VOC - even latex and acrylic paints emit some gas. The healthiest products (for you bedroom or the nursery) available are: no-VOC Kilz primer/sealer, no-voc smart primer, or dura-soy waterbased alkyd paint (hides and primes in one layer). Dura-soy can be color-matched. Check here for more on low-voc paint

Colored primer paint

Colored primer paint

A colored primer helps a lot if you intend to paint new (different) colors, especially when the new color is much lighter or darker then the old one. If you don't prime, it's likely you'll need to do three or more coats to make it hide. A primer is thicker than a finishing paint, and if it's the same color as your top coat, it saves you at least one paint layer (and maybe even two). Here you can order a colored primer for latex or acrylic paints - in exactly the same color as your top coat.

Another great hiding-power paint is Dura-soy, an alkyd waterborn paint - it's very thick, and claims to prime and hide in one layer. It's also one of the most sustainable paints around (and it can be color-matched).

If you need a primer for fixing trouble (glossy/difficult surface, stains), there's no color-matched primer paint. But this one (zinsser bullseye deep tint) can be tinted towards your top-coat color.

Heat reflective primer paint

Heat reflective paint is an insulating paint, it helps to regulate your indoor climate. It really helps in rooms that are either too cold, too hot or have moisture problems, and people have reported savings on their energy bills between 20 and 40% - both in hot and in cold areas. There are two kinds of heat-reflective primers available, a low-voc acrylic primer (white), and a heavy-duty aluminum-ceramic primer (grey). But also regular primer paints can be made heat reflective, by mixing the heat-reflective component (ceramic powder) trough the paint. The insulating effect is best when it's used in two layers (primer and top-coat, or two top-coats).

how to apply a primer paint

Troubleshooting primer paints

Some primers are real troubleshooters. The waterbased ones can be tinted towards the top-coat color

  • For blocking stains and graffiti, use Zinsser-BIN shellac primer or Zinsser bulls eye waterbased primer.
  • For really bad smells or fire damage, use shellac primer, or the zinsser-BIN (shellac) transparent sealer.
  • For painting over difficult and glossy surfaces (old paint layers, metal, tile, plastic, pvc), both zinsser-bin and zinsser bulls-eye will do the job. BIN dries faster, and bulls-eye doesn't make bad smells.
  • When mildew problems are actually moisture problems, heat reflective paint can be the answer - it also regulates moisture.
  • This primer is water-based and can be painted over with acrylics: Zinsser bulls eye). It goes over all paints, metal and tile. It blocks stains, tannine, graffiti and rust, and has no bad smell. This version if it can be tinted (colored): bulls eye deep tint
  • For really difficult stains (like waterstains, nicotine) you might want to use Zinsser coverstain. It's an oil-based primer and thinned with turps. Also good for enamel underpainting (the underground for smooth highgloss layers)
  • New drywall is best done with a drywall sealer - this is to prepare it for painting over.
  • For preparing the hanging of new wallpaper on drywall, take Zinsser shieldz.

Primer paint for new wood

The first paint layer on a clean wood surface will make the wood fibres swell and harden, making a very rough surface. Sanding can help here, and also a good primer. Another issue when painting wood is tannine ('wood color') bleeding into the paint from within. The waterbased Zinsser bulls-eye is probably the best option.

For a thick and smooth paint layer, use an enamel undercoater. It creates the best possible surface for semi- and high-gloss paints.

Latex and acrylic primers

Latex and acrylic primers can be used, when you're sure that the underlying surface is also latex or acrylic paint. The advantage of them would be: they're a bit cheaper, and you can have them in a specific color. Which can be either the same of your top-coat color, or just a bit different for creating a faux-finishing effect. Click here for more on the effects of underlying paint colors.

Shellac primer paint

Shellac comes in a transparant form (sealer), and as a white pigmented primer paint. With a sealer, you can keep the old background color. It dries very fast, and sticks to anything. The downside: you'll have lots of VOC during the job. But once dry, shellac is considered non-toxic. Shellac also sticks to difficult surfaces like tile, metal, plastic (light-switches and wall-sockets). Scroll down for other trouble-shooting primers paints.

Different paints contain different chemicals, which can play a role when the older paint layer is less than five years old. If paint over an old paint layer and you're not sure what it's made of, a primer can block those chemicals. In that case, it's best to use a primer that was designed to go under the top-coat of your choice - or a shellac primer (not for acrylics).


Related pages:



Oil Painting Techniques

Acrylic Painting

Watercolor painting

Color Schemes

Interior Painting techniques

Interior Painting Ideas

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