Do you know when you do and don't need to use primer when painting a wall? Our experts explain, plus answer more of your burning primer questions.

By Caroline Biggs and Rebecca Norris
August 16, 2019
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Janelle Jones

Applied before painting, primer is a type of preparatory coating designed to help paint adhere to surfaces so it looks better and lasts longer. "Primer is almost always necessary when preparing a surface for painting," says renovation expert Christopher Totaro of Warburg Realty. "Especially if a surface has never been painted then you can be sure that primer must be applied first." Not only does it seal a surface so paint can bond to it, but it also helps to even out surfaces for a smoother overall appearance. Here's why priming is such an important part of the painting process.

It Evens Out Surfaces

While walls typically look smooth or uniformly textured, they're not always created that way. "In the case of an interior wall, when the drywall is installed, you also have drywall screw holes and both have different porosities," says Benjamin Moore field development manager Mike Mundwiller. "The benefit of using a drywall primer is to gain adhesion and even out the porosity of the surface so that your finish coat can provide even sheen, color consistency, and possibly even better touch-ups." Drywall isn't the only surface that needs evening, though. The same is true of bare wood. You should always prime textured surfaces, as it evens and seals the area before paint is applied.

It Helps Switching Wall Colors or Textures

Tired of your bright red statement wall? If you're planning on going lighter, you're going to need to add a primer to your cart. The same is true if you're planning to switch to a different paint texture like glossy to flat. By priming the walls first, you'll help create a new even base layer for whatever color or texture comes next. That said, if you're switching wall colors but staying within a similar shade range, priming isn't required, but it never hurts to do so.

It Masks Stains

See a stain on your wall? Or maybe there's discoloration from age or water damage or fingerprints, whatever the case may be, a primer can help. "If the walls have specific problems, you should search out the primer which overcomes all of the challenges at hand," says Mundwiller.

It Hides Imperfections

In addition to stained walls, remember that filling any nail holes or dents can leave a pretty noticeable patch if not properly prepped for paint. "If you're ever doing a patch in drywall or fixing any imperfections in a given material, you'll want to spot prime the area so that when the paint is added those certain areas don't stand out," says Jared Knoll of  Knoll Construction.

It Reduces the Amount of Paint You Need

Along with sealing and smoothing your surfaces, Totaro says primer also reduces the amount of paint you'll have to use to get the job done. "Primer has a high solids content so it doesn't soak up nearly as much paint as an unpainted surface does," he explains.

When to Use Self-Priming Paints

Although using a separate primer and paint is usually what the experts prefer, self-priming paint has a time and a place says Mundwiller. "If you are painting over a previously coated surface that is in good condition (no water damage, discoloration, or stains) and you don't anticipate adhesion problems when you put on the new paint, a separate primer is usually not necessary," he says.

Chalk paints are another example of when you can skip the primer. "I invented Chalk Paint because, as a working mother of three sons, I simply didn't have time to faff about with priming," says paint expert Annie Sloan, whose renowned line is perfect for painting furniture and DIY projects without priming. "I needed to be able to paint brilliant finishes and effects on surfaces with enough speed to pick up my boys from school in time."

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