Top 5 Best Paint Primers For Wood (2020 Review)

Are you looking for the best paint primers for wood?

You're in the right place!

In this ProPaintCorner Review, you'll discover:

  • What are the different kinds of wood primer?
  • What to look for when buying a paint primer for wood
  • Our top wood primer picks

And much more!

Top 5 Best Paint Primers For Wood (2020 Review)
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Rust-Oleum Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3
  • Mildew-resistant
  • Stain blocking formula
  • Multi-surface
  • Mildew-resistant
  • Stain blocking formula
  • Multi-surface
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KILZ Original Multi-Surface Primer/Sealer
  • Good stain blocker
  • Versatile primer
  • Fast-drying
  • Good stain blocker
  • Versatile primer
  • Fast-drying
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Zinsser Cover Stain Interior/Exterior Oil Primer Sealer
  • Adds shine
  • Sands easily
  • Small project primer
  • Adds shine
  • Sands easily
  • Small project primer
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Rust-Oleum Advanced Synthetic Shellac Primer
  • Strong stain blocker
  • Seals knots, sap, tannin
  • Fast dry time
  • Strong stain blocker
  • Seals knots, sap, tannin
  • Fast dry time
View on Amazon

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Rust-Oleum Painter’s Touch Latex Primer
  • Indoor/outdoor use
  • Low-odor
  • Nice color selection
  • Indoor/outdoor use
  • Low-odor
  • Nice color selection
View on Amazon

Our Overall #1 Rated Pick

(updated 6/17/2020)

Zinsser's Bullseye 1-2-3 is our top selection for wood primers. 

Incredibly versatile, both on wood and other porous surfaces, this primer provides excellent enamel undercoating.

A fast-drying interior surface primer, the 1-2-3 will go outside and do exterior priming also.

Once you've laid it down, go ahead and put on any type of paint as a topcoat. 

When painting wood, applying a quality a primer seal coat such as this will prevent any chipping or cracking that otherwise would eventually occur.

That's been the reputation that Zinsser's Bullese has had with their 1-2-3 formulation for quite some time now. We simply went with the best.

What Is The Benefit Of Using Primer On Wood?

Primed wood is protected wood. What primer does for a wood surface is to create a physical moisture-barrier between the sensitive wood material and your decorative top-coat above.

Wood is organic, meaning it can decay, rot, get mold, mildew-- the list goes on. By priming it, you put a seal on it like you'd vacuum seal food to keep it fresh. 

Your primed wood surface allows everything you put above that surface, which is typically just your top-coat, to look its best.

It also ensures better paint adhesion meaning your topcoat paint will stick to your wooden surface better. That means no bubbles, no peeling, and a flat, smooth, professional-quality finish. 

The way wood primer works is by fusing all the various, loose wood particles together and smoothing the surface out so that your topcoat paint can adhere evenly and look attractive once dry.

Read More >> What Are The Best Paint Strippers For Wood?

What To Consider When Choosing A Paint Primer For Wood Surfaces

Your situation will determine the primer you use for your wood priming effort. You'll want to assess the type and quality of the wood. Is it finished or unfinished; painted or not? 

Then, you'll also want to consider your intended use of the wooden object. 

If you were painting a set of wooden cabinet pulls, you'd want to use a primer that worked well with a gloss or semi-gloss topcoat, as high touch surfaces are best finished in gloss.

If you need some encouragement getting started, especially if this is your first time, watch this professional painter, Justin Bailly, demonstrate how you might apply a product like the Zinsser 1-2-3 over dark stained wood, using a simple trim brush.

He ends up applying a second primer coat to totally block out those wood grains that he wanted to be covered. 

So it ended up being two coats of wood primer, then he said he intends on going back and covering that with his tinted topcoat, using a small roller. 

Paint-safe

Be on the look-out for those primers that contain high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Get to know the safety implications related to the inhalation of these compounds. Suffice to say, you could potentially die from the improper use of paint. 

That sounds like an impossible statement, but it's true.

Oil-based paints generally will be higher-VOC, therefore higher odor. Latex paint primers will be low odor, low-VOC, and easier to clean off skin.

While they may be cumbersome and uncomfortable to some, respirators are essential for any painting, priming, or staining task that involves high-VOC materials.

Also, always keep your work area well-ventilated with windows and interior doors open, and any fans you have on, circulating and pushing air across your interior space towards open windows.

Dry time

If your surface allows you to choose between various primers, consider fast-drying latex primers if your schedule won't allow for the slower dry time of an oil-based wood primer.

Read More >> What Are The Top One Coat Paint + Primers?

Did you know: You should always prime wood before painting because primers have a high-solids content that allow you to fill in wood grain. This creates a much smoother surface for painting!

What Are The Different Types Of Paint Primers For Wood?

There are a variety of different primers that you may try for your wood priming projects. They range from your more common oil and latex-based varieties to traditional products like shellac. 

Whether you choose this one or that will depend more on your particular situation.

What's the condition of the particular wood surface you intend to paint?

Let's identify the best primer to use for each scenario. 

Bare Wood

Bare wood that's never been stained or painted is a perfect situation for either an oil primer or a latex primer. 

If the particular piece of bare wood that you're painting is untreated or looks like it has an especially porous surface, then err on the side of caution, and go with an oil-based paint primer.

These are slower-drying, but provide better adhesion and are easier to sand than latex or water-based wood primers.

You certainly could get away with using a water-based primer on bare wood, but expect it to raise the fibers in your grain. That will add to your dry time and your sanding efforts as well.

Painted Wood

On surfaces that already have paint on them, oil-based paint primer is best.

Regardless of the paint color that you're painting over, oil primers are best over old paint, particularly when the sub-surface is wood, because they penetrate old paint. 

Chalky or dusty coating on your painted wood surface? See any cracking? If so, then yes, you definitely need an oil-based primer.

MDF, Particle Board, Plywood.

You may choose to prime these cheaper composite wood materials depending on your intended use case.

If your goal is simply to apply paint to the panel to protect it from weathering and to add a top-coat that would be decorative, then a primer is a good choice. 

In any case, you are best off using an oil-based primer on your MDF and plywood boards.

A water-based primer will not work on MDF and will work poorly, if at all, on plywood. The thinner material will seep into the pores between the wood particles and absorb the material causing it to swell.

Don't forget to sand your panels before priming, rough grade sandpaper is enough. Then, prime the sides of your panels while you're at it for maximum weather protection. 

Stain Blocking

Let's paint a picture of this one. Suppose you have a shiplap accent wall in your kitchen that's supposed to be a stark bone white. And it totally was... that is until you accidentally splashed it with spaghetti sauce.

Now you need a stain-blocking topcoat primer/sealer to address this stain that's ruining the otherwise perfect paint job you have there.

Our premium pick, Zinsser's Cover Stain is a stain-blocking primer intended for wood use that's stout enough to withstand exterior use.

One caveat to the Zinsser Cover Stain recommendation for stains is in the case of solvent-based stains such as those from crayon, grease, scuff marks, and ink. 

These are actually best covered by a tinted water-based stain-blocking primer. Our overall top pick, the Bulls Eye 1-2-3 from Zinsser is an effective latex-based primer for blocking these solvent-based stains.

Read More >> What Are The Best Ways To Get Primer Off Your Hands?

What Is The Best Way To Use Paint Primer On Wood?

How you see fit to apply the wood primer is mostly a matter of preference and the scope of the project. 

To brush it on, roll it, or spray primer on wood is entirely up to the situation and the individual doing the painting.

Prepare your surface

Regardless of how you intend to apply your paint primer onto your wood surface, you'll want to first wash it clean of any dust, debris, and loose particles that may be resting on its surface.

Then, sanding with medium-grit sandpaper will make your wood surface that much more amenable to receiving primer as it is applied. 

Once you've sanded it well-enough, go ahead and dust off the surface once again with a damp rag. 

This will ensure that it's all set and ready for primer.

Our Reviews Of The Best Paint Strippers For Wood

Cover up to 100 square feet of surface area with this one quart can of white Bulls Eye primer.

While it can be used on nearly any surface, 1-2-3 happens to be great on wood.

Any high pH surface, like painting new concrete, is an especially fitting application scenario for Zinser's Bulls Eye 1-2-3 formula.

Consider this your "whole-house" primer-sealer. Compatible with both oil and latex-based top-coats, its versatility is noteworthy.

Pros

  • Mildew-resistant
  • Stain blocking formula
  • Multi-surface

Cons

  • A bit thin
  • Slow to dry

For your dollar, you likely won't find a better stain-blocking primer.

It's oil-based, so you'll have some heavier smells and more stringent worksite ventilation needs, but KILZ Original primer/sealer is great on wood.

Now be mindful, that this is intended for interior use only.  It's great for priming new wood trim that's going in along your baseboards. 

You might also spray it on crown molding or wainscoting, whether you intend it to end up white or another color.

Pros

  • Good stain blocker
  • Versatile primer
  • Fast-drying

Cons

  • Not for flooring
  • Goes on thick

Water, nicotine, and smoke stains are some of the key baddies that you'd go after and try to cover with one coat of Zinsser's Cover Stain.

This is our overall best premium wood primer pick and it's arguably the best exterior primer choice for wood on our list as well. It works with all paints and sands easily.

This blend is all about its ability to cover whether it's used as an exterior paint primer on your wood bird feeder, or as an interior primer on those decorative crayon drawings your children made, it covers great.

Pros

  • Adds shine
  • Sands easily
  • Small project primer

Cons

  • Very high build
  • No mildew resistance

What does an advanced, synthetic, shellac primer do that those other non-advanced primers won't?

On wood, this B-I-N Advanced formula seals very well. 

This white primer seals knots, sap, and wood tannins like none other. 

Use it inside for whole surface interior priming and outside for spot priming as needed. 

Be careful using this primer in exterior uses where it will be in direct sunlight as the shellac could soften. 

As a nice perk, this primer is well-known for its ability to adhere to IKEA furniture.

Because this formula is shellac-based, you'll have to use mineral spirits to clean your equipment.

Pros

  • Strong stain blocker
  • Seals knots, sap, tannin
  • Fast dry time

Cons

  • A bit thin
  • Pricey

The Painter's Touch is a great value for its reasonable price and about 20% better coverage in square feet per quart than most other wood primers.

This Painter's Touch covers up to 120 square feet of surface area and dries fast also, in 30 minutes.

It's also water-based so you can use it for a nice low-odor wood primer so long as you're not covering any stains.

Pros

  • Indoor/outdoor use
  • Low-odor
  • Nice color selection

Cons

  • A little smelly
  • Flat seems glossy

The easy-cleaning, all-surface, name we all trust, Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 wins our overall top pick.

It's a great wood primer with mildew-resistance and is known to rarely ever blister or peel. 

Zinsser actually advertises that you don't need to sand prior to applying this primer. 

Of course, you won't hurt anything by sanding, but they're so confident in their paint they know you don't need to sand before using it.

Check out the lowest price now on Amazon!

Final Thoughts on Using Paint Primers For Wood

When people think primer, they're usually thinking about drywall primer. And you absolutely do need to prime uncoated drywall before putting down topcoat, even if you're using a brand of paint that's advertised as paint and primer in one.

It's good to use primer on wood surfaces if you have the time, materials, and ability to do it.

Can primers be tinted?

While most painters use their primer layer as a base with one or more top-coat layers eventually painted over it, there are still reasons why you might want to tint your primer.

And, for those situations, you absolutely can tint some primers.

In fact, provided your base is the same, you can accomplish a DIY primer tinting simply by pouring some of your topcoat into your primer. You could start with about one part top-coat to about 4 parts primer, provided your primer is white at first. 

That will give you a tint towards the shade of your top-coat and will help you hide your primer coat better with fewer top-coat layers to follow.

Once again, make sure you're mixing like paints with like; that means oil with oil, latex with latex.

Will your wood grain telegraph stain, grain, and knots?

As we've discussed, priming bare wood can be particularly challenging as those deep natural grain lines, knots and tannin marks tend to push through some primers and topcoats.

This video goes into why oil-based primers are a safe bet if you're painting unprimed wood.

Meet Your Pro Paint Corner Author

RJ Parker

RJ Parker

My first job as a painter’s assistant at the ripe young age of 13 charted a path ahead in my life that would gravitate around painting. Now as a freelance handyman and writer, I paint both with the brush and with words. If I’m not edging-in trim or rolling on a top-coat, you might find me out in the fields tending to a flock of goats. Literally. No lie. Or, perhaps you may catch me engaged in my other favorite pastime, eating. It’s fair to say that I’ve painted outside the lines, so to speak, prior to finding my natural stroke. Now, these misadventures and mishaps that I’ve experienced don’t have to happen to you. My mission at ProPaintCorner is to continue painting remotely through the advice, inspiration, and confidence that I give to my readers.

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RJ Parker

RJ Parker

My first job as a painter’s assistant at the ripe young age of 13 charted a path ahead in my life that would gravitate around painting. Now as a freelance handyman and writer, I paint both with the brush and with words. If I’m not edging-in trim or rolling on a top-coat, you might find me out in the fields tending to a flock of goats. Literally. No lie. Or, perhaps you may catch me engaged in my other favorite pastime, eating. It’s fair to say that I’ve painted outside the lines, so to speak, prior to finding my natural stroke. Now, these misadventures and mishaps that I’ve experienced don’t have to happen to you. My mission at ProPaintCorner is to continue painting remotely through the advice, inspiration, and confidence that I give to my readers.

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