How Many Coats of Primer for Any Situation? You’ll Like the Answer.

painting coats of primer
One. Often none. Extremely rarely, two. I know what other websites are saying: 2 coats of drywall primer on new walls. Bunk.
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How many coats of primer short answer: all unfinished surfaces like new drywall need one coat of primer: it seals the pores. Repainting a wall? If the color changes are not drastic, no primer is required!

Quick Menu: Primers come in 3 basic flavors: latex—oil—shellac (these clean-up with water—mineral spirits—alcohol). In most cases, apply one coat of primer. All can be sanded for a nice smooth start.

If you just want to see them quickly:

  • For new (unstained) drywall: One coat of primer. You don’t need stain blocking power, so use this good but inexpensive drywall primer.
  • For re-painting walls, trim, etc: One coat of primer unless the new color is the same (or similar): the go-to primer is this medium-power primer. when changing from dark to light colors.
  • For unpainted wood: One coat of the right primer: (see caution below about latex primer and wood). Use a medium-power oil-based primer for most woods.
  • For nasty stains, ink, and worse: One coat of the big dog primer: this high stain blocking shellac Have rubbing alcohol ready for clean-up. Ah, B-I-N. Is there anything you can’t do? No, there is not.

Related:
Read all about Best Drywall Primer & 4 Simple Steps for Priming

Our tool post for every basic professional painter’s tools at the best prices we can find

Primer Rules:

We were asked to discuss how many coats of primer are needed in interior painting situations, but the question rarely comes up for us. Here are the basics. BTW, actually painting the primer coat can be very fast as it flows better than paint (Plus in the end 3 coats is faster from a quality point of view). Be sure to read the shortlist of what primer does for you just below the skinny.

♦ General rule: All unfinished surfaces need a primer. It will save you time and money, and look a whole lot better, but how many coats of primer should you apply? Almost all of the time, you only need one coat of primer! Not what they told you? Don’t listen to non-painter sites. They hire English majors.

♦ Tinting? Many primers can be tinted but not much because the tint affects its sealing performance. The paint store sales folks know what not to do. Careful if you D-I-Y. Learn about tinting here.

♦ How long does it take for a primer to dry?  Even the oil-based primer listed below dries fast: much faster than oil-based paint. Latex primer takes in average 30 min to 1 hour, and oil-based primer up to 3 hours. How long the primer takes to dry depends on the humidity and temperature of the room (cold and humid longer, obviously).

Caution: Water-based primers on untreated wood has, can, and will raise wood grain. Put the right primer on wood. Why? Tree rings alternate hard/soft and the soft rings grab more paint and expand, and dry that way: a smooth surface becomes bumpy. Oil-based primers are preferred for almost all wood.

How Many Coats of Primer:

  • How many coats of primer on new drywall? One coat of primer, if you use a quality primer (see related post above or just see it here for what we use: excellent primer at a great price). Be sure to read about the toxins in paint and primer. We also buy the Benjamin Moore Ultra-Spec (a contractor line): this is 5 gallons but keeps a long time (never let it freeze!) We use VOC-free paints or wear respirators.
    Rust-Oleum Corporation Low VOC 01501 Drywall Primer, 1-Gallon, White
    ×
    Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.
  • Glossy paint: One coat. Was it last painted with oil or latex? Major huge important. You must find out. The test is below*. Remember: latex paint will NOT STICK to an oil enamel surface. (This is not what oil primers are). If in doubt, you’re safe with Stix. It sticks. New to the world of primer, Stix is our go-to bonding magic. (BTW: You should still sand glossy finishes every time anyway). PS: Stix is made by Benjamin Moore (read about it on that website). Alternately: use a de-glosser, then prime with the Kilz Premium just below.
  • Walls—changing wall color: One coat.  Prime only when making drastic color changes (or when applying reds and yellows). Ask us in the comments or call a paint store about painting over dark colors with light colors or vice versa but yes you need primer. Our main latex primer is Kilz latex primer, a.k.a. Kilz Premium. Tip: reds cover best with gray primer. Yes, gray. Not making a big color change? No primer needed. Can you still use Kilz paint colors with primer? Sure.
    KILZ Premium High-Hide Stain Blocking Interior/Exterior Latex Primer/Sealer, White, 1-gallon
    ×
    Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.
  • Paint and primer in one? One coat. While it may contain some stain blocking elements, we don’t like it. Read our post on it. It’s slower than two normal coats (you have to keep checking to make sure your coat is thick enough). And we use the same tools you should use. (Crappy tools make you hate painting!) It is also more expensive in the end if you count time as money. We do. Kilz paint are considered to be the best value: Kils paint color choices are decent. See the photos below for how it often fails.
  • Bathrooms. One coat. Use a primer for high moisture areas: From Benjamin Moore—the famous Auqa-Lock. We don’t use this primer for half-baths—just the main latex primer unless there is a shower stall. How many coats of primer in a bathroom? one coat of primer is enough with a good quality primer.
  • Green board drywall: One coat. Treat just like the drywall above. This is also called drywall primer sealer, or drywall sealer.
  • Painted wood. One coat. Probably doesn’t need a primer (see about glossy trim and see about color changes above). But we do spot prime chips and worn spots with an oil primer for pine which is the most common trim wood, and the one that bleeds the most.
  • Unpainted wood.  One coat. Yes, always use a primer, and almost never use latex. We use oil primers with disposable brushes (actually we try to keep the old brush in the can!). If you want a smooth finish, fill the wood grain, you need to create a flat surface with a grain filler**. Paint and primer are not designed to fill holes. Oak grain probably needs a filler, but maple or pine could look fine with a coat or two of a coat of a decent oil primer. In any case, we mainly use this stain-blocking primer. Our latex choice would be Kilz Premium.
  • Stains. One coat of primer if it has stain blocking power, but it depends on the stain. We have a whole post about putting paint over stain. For water stains etc, all the tough stains, go jump to the shellac (alcohol-based) primer because you know it the problem will disappear. B-I-N to the rescue. Check you work when dry. Did stains bleed through? A 2nd coat (spot priming) may help.

Other less often asked about:

 

The only time we would ever ponder how many coats of primer to use is when our first product did not contain enough sealants (resins, etc) and some stains from the old surface managed to bleed through. Even so, sometimes, a primer will show stains when it is dry, but it has, in fact, stopped the stain right there: it will not allow the stain to bleed into the finish paint. Easy to test for this. When in doubt, B-I-N is the answer. B-I-N is the answer.

Zinsser B-I-N Shellac-Base Primer, 1-Gallon, White
×
Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

We had a reader write and ask why the dark areas near her radiator were bleeding through. Answer: Wrong primer. Some primers just seal drywall (and they are not very expensive). Others seal out nasty water stains and magic marker spots. Those are hard to seal, so you have to hit those spots with the nuclear option. Explained next.

The shortlist to know about primer:

  1. Primer works by filling porous areas of your surface—not all areas are the same because they look alike.
  2. Why not just use old paint as a primer? Because paints are not stain-blockers/pore-sealers. If you prime new drywall with regular paint (never use exterior paint inside), you will always see the taped seams through the top coats. See the first bullet point above.
  3. Even skimmed coat walls need a primer to achieve a uniform top-coat look. (Fine with one coat of a good drywall primer.)
  4. Water-based primers on wood can ruin it. Read the bullet point above about ‘unpainted wood’.
  5. Primers do not fill holes or grains in wood.
  6. Primers apply faster than paint and you don’t need to care how they look so you can go fairly quickly.

To re-paint glossy trim you need to know if it was painted with oil-based paint or not. Test it with acetone or in a pinch, rubbing alcohol. Put the solvent on a cloth or paper towel and rub the paint. Does it get gooey? It is latex. No goo, oil. Painting latex over oil: sand like a banshee (scratch every bit to create a bond for new paint), or use the Mother of all Toxic materials, de-glosser. This stuff evaporates like water on a red-hot skillet. Nasty. Wear your respirator!!

** Wood grain fillers really work. B00LEFQEQE There are 2 sizes but if you are doing more than a small piece of furniture, get large to save money. This does not fill large holes. You need wood filler for that. B000LNR4XC

This is a generic one coat paint of brown semi-gloss rolled onto some primer. The brown looked fine when wet. Now look:

This looked fine when wet. When dry, you see the truth.

Did we leave anything out? Let us know in the comments!

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Recent questions asked:
I want to paint green board drywall Lowes sells. Can I use paint with primer, Zinsser 123 primer, or the Kilz primer Lowes sells? Yes, you can any of those, but the basic drywall primer is less expensive and you don’t need to spend more. Next time you are at Lowes Kilz is sold there as is 123 Primer. Any of these are fine. The Kilz paint Lowes sells, if it has primer, is also fine. You can also get the Kilz Home Depot sells.

How many coats of primer on wood?
Somehow people got the idea you need more than one coat of primer on wood.

You just need the right primer. See wood above.
Will Zinsser cover stain? Yes, if you get the right one.
How long does it take for primer to dry before painting? Depending on where you live, less than an hour, sometimes more. The more moisture you add to the air, the slower it dries.
Does Zinsser cover stain primer work as a final coat of paint? No, all primers are soft and will literally rub off. You have to paint over primers.
Here is one way we use the least toxicity first: we start with a primer we feel will have enough stain-blocking power and if stains or colors bleed through, we hit the spots. This takes some experience, but it saves money and uses less toxic materials in the home.

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17 thoughts on “How Many Coats of Primer for Any Situation? You’ll Like the Answer.”

  1. Hello. I can really use your advice. I’m painting new beadboard walls. The board will be in two bathrooms and 2 bedrooms. My plan is to paint the beadboard with Kilz premium high hide stain blocking primer. My questions are:

    1. Do I need to prime both sides of the beadboard?

    2. After I prime the panels do I then caulk the seams and nail holes?

    3. Is it ok to have the printer tinted? I am planning to paint the same color with latex over the primer.

    Thank you for your help.

    Sincerely

    • Hi. No, and yes, and yes.
      The beadboard I know of is already primed at Home Depot etc, but if it is not, yes you really must and the primer you mentioned is excellent. Both sides? Not necessary unless you have leftover primer and nothing to do with it, then sure, why not? Cannot hurt, especially in a moist environment.

      Yes, caulk after primer.

      Tinting is ok, but if you do it yourself, be careful. Paint stores know how much tint can be added without affecting the property of the primer: too much and you lose your sealant properties… not so good. BTW, paint and primer in one: I’m not a fan. Better to be sure. Cannot trust advertising.
      If you want to DIY, search for ‘tint’ on this site. Grays cover so well–almost always the best

      So plan on primer plus 2 top coats. Get the brush and roller set up I often point to: lasts a lifetime for a homeowner and you’ll go fast, neat, and not dread painting next time.
      Hope this helps. If not, let me know.

      Brad

      • We are about to paint 2 bedrooms, both currently painted white. One will be a gray color, the other a sky blue. In the room that’s going to be gray, there was a test area that was painted red, and in the room that’s going to be sky blue, there was a slightly darker blue that was tested. Can we just put primer over the test areas? Or do we need to prime the whole wall/room to get things looking even? Thanks for your help.

        • You’ll do 2 coats so just spot prime should be fine. If you think you’ll try of one coat, you may see a difference between spot primed spot and the rest, so in either case you’ll be rolling 2x. I’ll reply to the other comment there. Good luck!

  2. Thanks for your excellent and helpful article!

    If you use an oil-based primer on softwoods can you then use a latex paint over the oil based primer?

    Thanks!

  3. We used Zinsser Cover Stain primer on the exterior of our home which has previously had multiple coats of an oil-based stain. The primer was allowed to dry for 30 minutes to 1 hour as stated on the can. We then applied a latex paint. The paint and primer have set for 5 days but the paint can be scratched off to reveal the primer underneath. The primer seems to be adhering well to the siding. The humidity has been high in our area during this time frame. Could it be that it will just take longer to cure or did something go wrong? Any advice you can give would be appreciated.

    • Oh boy, sorry to hear this. I will write to Rust-oleam the makers of Zinsser and ask for you…I may have more power since I help them and ask nothing in return. Yes, do wait a while and keep checking in various areas.
      What paint exactly did you put on? The problem is more likely with that.
      An interesting test: take a blow dryer and really heat up a few square inches, let rest, cool, then test adhesion. I’m with you.
      –brad

      • The paint is Valspar Duramax High Hiding Paint and Primer with all weather adhesion. It is supposed to be a highly rated paint. I’ll try the blow dryer test and see what happens. Thanks for your help.

  4. Brad,
    I have wood (fir) outdoor steps that primed and painted 1.5 years ago. They have partial sun exposure. All of the paint (Royal Porch & Floor) has peeled. I’m in the process of repainting and have primed with a heavy coat of Zinsser BullsEye 123. Should I use the Royal again or is there something better (I only need 1 qt)? Thank you.

    • Hi. I cannot remember if 123 is for exterior, but if it is, yes, go for it. I would use Benjamin Moores Block Out an oil-based exterior only primer. But the main point is that the prep really determines how long the job will last: you should not be out there in less than 5 years, unless you have very high traffic and intense sun, snow, etc.
      Scrape the loose paint very well: on our site is info on how and why and on the scrapers and how to file them ( a video of me sharpening) .. Just search for ‘scraper’ and you’ll find it.

      The paint for me would be Ben Moore’s Tough Shield or Sherwin Williams product, which I use less often so I do not know the name. Key point: remove loose paint, create bonding with primer and use the best deck paint you can afford. Good luck, b

  5. Oops, meant to ask separately, not reply to another comment.

    We are about to paint 2 bedrooms, both currently painted white. One will be a gray color, the other a sky blue. In the room that’s going to be gray, there was a test area that was painted red, and in the room that’s going to be sky blue, there was a slightly darker blue that was tested. Can we just put primer over the test areas? Or do we need to prime the whole wall/room to get things looking even? Thanks for your help.

    • Same reply! You’ll do 2 coats so just spot prime should be fine. If you think you’ll try of one coat, you may see a difference between spot primed spot and the rest, so in either case you’ll be rolling 2x. I’ll reply to the other comment there. Good luck!

  6. I have used BIN shellac primer on previously varathaned knotty pine and I love the cottage/ farmhouse look it has now! Do I have to paint a topcoat (of latex paint) or can I leave it as is? It has a whitewashed look to it as I applied the primer with a brush. I’d like to leave as is.
    Thanks

    • Yes, I know that look. Well, you could of course if you like it, but just know that it will take a beating: handprints cannot be washed etc. But when that time comes that you don’t like it anymore, you just paint. I don’t think there is a time limit (many primers have a min.and max time before paint should go on…this is for bonding reasons). If it does, in a few years, you can sand only and touch up primer on places it’s been scraped off, if you like…or re-prime then paint. Next primer would not need to be so extreme… just Kilz Original or such. Enjoy!

  7. Hi, Brad! Thanks for providing such an informative posting! I have a drywall ceiling that was painted with McCormick Match Point Interior Latex Flat Wall Paint (14012 Designer White). Some roof leakage caused water stains to appear on the drywall ceiling so I used KILZ Premium primer/sealer/stainblocker on the spots where there were water stains. I did have to apply more than one coat of KILZ to completely eliminate the appearance of the water stains. I waited a day before painting over the KILZ Premium using the same McCormick Match Point Interior Latex Flat Wall Paint (14012 Designer White). It’s been a few weeks since I did all of this and the areas that I attempted to fix are noticeably different in appearance than the rest of the ceiling, especially when the sunlight hits the ceiling.

    1. Do you have any idea where I went wrong?
    2. Are there any steps that I can take so that the treated areas are not noticeably different in appearance?

    I can provide a photo if that will help. Thank you so very much in advance for helping us internet DIY’ers become Picassos!

    • Hi. I don’t think you did anything wrong. first, the stain blocker sometimes shows some stain in the primer, but it is sealed even though it turns a bit brown. You probably did not need multiple coats, but no harm was done. Great that you have to original paint, but your problem is that (this is my best guess) that the old paint had faded. This is why I use the Ben Moore Ceiling paint: very good coverage in once coat and holds it’s whiteness. Tell that to Bob Dylan and he’ll have to write you a song. Anyway, yes a photo will help somewhat and I can post for others to see, but my advice is to repaint with a new ceiling paint, or if you still have a lot of your paint, do the entire ceiling. That will be fine. Then, don’t look up! PS, watch that movie with Ed Harris about Pollack: he hated Picasso! I love them both!

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