Primer Before Paint: When You Need to Prime Your Interior Walls Before Painting

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High quality paints and primers continue to get better and better as the years go by. Not only are the formulas better and provide better coverage and more saturated colors, many high-quality paints are now no- or low-VOC, meaning they’re healthier for you, your home and your home’s air quality.

One question we still get from homeowners, however, is if you need to prime your interior walls before painting. Years ago, many painting professionals recommended primer nearly every time you painted. But today, with these high-quality and effective paints on the market, many homeowners may never need to crack open a can of primer.

When You Need to Prime Your Interior Walls Before Painting

What You Need to Know About Primer and Paint

Before we tell you when you should use a primer on your next interior wall painting project, let’s first explain what primer is and what it does.

What is primer and what does it do?

Primer looks a lot like paint, but has a higher concentration of solids plus an adhesive binder in it. It essentially seals the surface and provides a smooth and clean area for paint to adhere. In some ways, it’s more of a glue or sealant than a paint.

When do I prime walls before painting?

There are a few cases in which you will always need to prime before you paint.

1. If the surface is porous

Always prime your walls before painting if the surface is porous. The surface is porous when it absorbs water, moisture, oil, odors or stains. For example, brand new drywall is a very porous material. Both the paper that covers it and drywall mud are compromised by water or moisture when they are not sealed first with primer. This material will literally absorb your paint right into it if you don’t prime first.

Untreated or unstained wood is also very porous. If you’re thinking about painting over that old wood paneling in your study, or painting a set of shelves, you will want to prime first.

2. If the surface is glossy

Glossy surfaces are hard for paint to adhere to. If the wall is covered in a high gloss paint, enamel or if the wood paneling has been shellacked, you could paint coat after coat and never have it stick.

While these surfaces will definitely need primer, we would also recommend a light sanding or scuffing beforehand as well. This step will ensure your walls’ surface has enough texture so both the primer and paint can adhere perfectly.

3. If the surface is stained

use primer before paint on stained interior walls

If your walls have any stains on them (old water damage, smoke stains from cooking or candles, kid “art” projects), you’ll want to prime first. Since primer acts more like a sealant/blocker, it will seal these stains in so they won’t leak back or show through the paint.

Before you prime over stains, however, it is extremely important in some cases that you fix any problems that led to the staining in the first place. For example, if you have old water stains, make sure that the leak is fully repaired before you paint. It will cause more problems later (with staining as the least of those problems!) if you don’t.

4. If the surface has an odor

If the previous homeowners or tenants were smokers, had pets, were victims of a fire or cooked strong smelling foods, the walls themselves have likely soaked up and retained those odors. A high-quality primer will seal in and eliminate odors and prevent them from returning.

Ask any homeowner who didn’t prime over old smoke or pet odors…they’ll tell you the smell came right back. That’s because regular paint doesn’t have the right structure to keep those odors away permanently.

5. If the color is changing drastically

prime before paint interior walls

You’ll mostly need to prime before painting when you’re going from a very dark color to a very light color. Paint colors that are very saturated will show through lighter, less saturated colors. If you want to save yourself the hassle of five or six coats of paint, prime over that fire-engine red before you put up that picture-perfect white. Often the most popular primer color to cover extreme colors or prepare the wall for extreme colors is grey. Studies have shown that it helps the human eye diffuse extreme colors.

You may also want to prime before painting if you’re switching between two very saturated colors. Priming the walls will help you get a better idea of how the new color is applying and covering. It can be helpful to ask your local paint store to tint the primer for you ahead of time (most are white), which can also help you gauge the effect of your new color.

What about paint-primers?

The new generation of paint-primers (also known as “self-priming paint”) is a thicker paint with primer added. Many of these paints are great and provide amazing coverage. The paint manufacturers advertise one coat coverage, however achieving this is very rare. However, these paint-primers can’t tackle every job, especially the ones listed above. If you’re in one of the situations above, you’re far better off taking the time to prime the surface properly before adding paint.

For drywall, badly stained walls or high gloss paint, we recommend bringing in a professional paint company for the job. They’ve worked with these scenarios hundreds of times and will use the right primer to cover, seal and prepare the surface for painting. Plus, they’ll complete the project quickly and neatly, saving you hours on your weekend warrior time.

Get Expert Help Priming and Painting Interior Walls

Our professional paint experts are ready to prime and paint the interior of your home. We’ve worked with many clients to make sure their walls are properly primed and sealed and ready for paint. Contact us today for a free interior painting quote.

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