Paint Primer 101: Latex vs Shellac vs Oil Based

Are painting primers necessary? What is the best paint primer? Should I choose water based latex primer, or oil based primer, or shellac based paint primer? Oh my!

We had the same questions through our successes and failures trying to paint all kinds of surfaces for our DIY projects, such as wood, drywall, metal, plastic, laminate furniture, IKEA kitchen cabinets, and more.

paint primer test comparing shellac based primer vs water based latex primer vs oil based painting primers, shown here Zinsser 123, Cover Stain & BIN primer

Finally we decided to test 3 popular painting primers side by side. We will share our test results and compare the pros and cons of each paint primer based on adhesion, durability, limitations, and ease of clean up. 

* Some resources in article are affiliate links. Full disclosure here .

( Some of the helpful resources are affiliate links. Full disclosure here. )

Is paint primer necessary before painting?

First let’s look at a great example of the importance of the right paint primer: when high gloss oil based paint on a door got painted over with water based latex paint, without priming!

latex paint over oil based paint peeling

” Priming ensures better adhesion of paint to the surface, increases paint durability, and provides additional protection for the material being painted.” ( wikipedia )

Paint primer is necessary when painting stained, smelly,  or hard to adhere surfaces like smoke damage and odors, cedar wood bleed, metal, plastic, or laminate furniture. Primer also helps to save paint when painting porous surfaces like drywall or raw wood. 

Some surfaces do not require a primer such as previously painted or finished easy-to-adhere surfaces.

sand befor priming and painting

Our paint primer tests:

We cut 5 pieces from a glossy laminate mdf shelf, and did the following:

  1. no primer, no sanding
  2. sanded quickly with 200 grit sand paper,  no primer 
  3. sanded as #2,  one coat of Zinsser 123 water based primer
  4. sanded as #2,  one coat of Zinsser Cover Stain oil based primer.
  5. sanded as #2,  one coat of Zinsser BIN shellac based primer.
apply shellac based paint primer, water based latex primer, and oil based primer to laminate furniture mdf pieces

After the painting primers dried, we painted all the pieces using latex paint. We waited for the paint to dry and cure for 2 weeks,  then tried to scratch the paint off, using medium pressure, then heavy pressure.

Here’s what we found:

When we used no primer and no sanding, the paint came right off the glossy laminate with just light scratching.

paiting without primer tests show paint primer is neccesary for glossy surface

The piece that was sanded and without primer performed better. However, paint still came off with medium pressure scratching.

The rest of the test pieces are all sanded quickly with 200 grit sand paper, and painted with 3 different primers. Zinsser 123 water based primer,  Zinsser Cover Stain oil based primer, and Zinsser BIN shellac based primer. They all held up MUCH better than the first two in the scratch tests.

Comparison of water based vs shellac vs oil based paint primer

We decided to use the same brand for clear comparisons. You can find other great brands such as Sherwin Williams, or international brands that also make these three types of primers.

Water based primer ( aka Latex Paint Primer )

We used Zinsser 123 water based primer. Dry time: one hour. Best temperature for application: between 35f and 90f ( 2c and 32c)

paint primer test Zinsser 123 primer which is a water based primer

Adhesion and Durability

It held up well in our scratch test. Only little bits of paint came off when we used heavy pressure.

Pros

Very good adhesion. Low odor, super easy to use and clean up with water. Good for indoors and outdoors.

Because of the ease of use, we try to use water based paint primer as much as possible for our DIY projects, like how we gave this dated old fridge a $2000 new look, for less than $20!

Click to see what this fridge look like now!

Cons:

Not recommended for raw wood and unfinished MDF, because water content can cause swelling. For really glossy surfaces like laminate IKEA cabinets, the adhesion is not as strong as shellac primer.

Oil based primer

We used Zinsser Cover Stain oil based primer. Dry time: one hour. Best temperature for application:  between 40f and 90f (4c and 32c)

paint primer test Zinsser Cover Stain oil based primer

Adhesion and Durability

This oil based primer offers even better adhesion than the water based primer in our scratch test. Only little bits of paint came off when we used heavy pressure.

Pros

Good for interior and exterior projects, block stains and odor, hide dark colors, prevent tannin bleed, and seal exterior wood..

Cons:

Use in well ventilated space due to its odor. It’s also thicker than the other two primers, and brush marks are more visible, so you may want to sand the piece after priming and before painting . Clean up is more complicated, need to use mineral spirits.

Shellac primer

 We used Zinsser BIN shellac based primer. Dry time: super fast in 45 minutes. Wide range temperature for application:  between 0f and 90f  (-18c and 32c).

paint primer test Zinsser BIN primer which is a shellac primer

Adhesion and Durability

It held up the best in our scratch test. No paint came off even when we used heavy pressure.

Pros

Truly a great primer for tough to adhere surfaces. Hardens to a very durable surface. You can skip sanding on most surfaces. Permanently blocking stains and odors. It’s very thin and easy to apply.

Cons:

The strongest smelling of all 3! Use in well ventilated space. Wear gloves because it is super sticky and hard to clean! Not recommended for full surface exterior applications or very humid interiors, only spots.

Do NOT use shellac primer in a paint sprayer! Clean up is more complicated, need to use denatured alcohol or Acetone Nail Polish Remover, which also removes superglue, thus could ruin your paint brush! Ask how I found that out 😉

FAQ about paint primers

Can I used latex paint over shellac or oil based primer? Or oil based paint on latex or shellac primer?

Yes, you can use ALL 3 types of primers over or under latex and oil based paint. Some glossy surfaces will benefit from sanding first.

paint scratches on surface without primer

Is sanding necessary before priming?

Only on hard to adhere surfaces like plastic, laminate, oil painted, high gloss finishes, etc. However, it is important to clean the surface thoroughly so there is no dirt and grease before priming! Dr Bronner’s Sal Suds is our go to cleaner, you can dilute it a lot, it’s all natural and smells amazing!

How to make all natural, super effective & low cost green cleaning products easily. Download free printable recipe labels to easily make your own in future! - A Piece Of Rainbow

Check out our easy and super effective DIY green cleaning recipes with free labels!

Can I used primer as paint? What is the difference between paint and primer?

It is best not to skip the paint, because primers and paints have different functions.

Paint needs a relatively “rough” surface to be able to adhere well, primer provides the “rough” surface while sealing the surface to be painted.

Primer is dull so it can get dirty easily, and it is harder to wipe clean, so it is best to add at least a coat of paint over it.

This is why satin or semi-gloss paint is often used in bathroom and kitchen where mold might grow or wiping the walls regularly is needed.

Summary of our paint primer test:

The shellac based primer is the most durable and provides the best adhesion. However, it is not recommended for exterior use, and clean up is more challenging.

paint primer test comparing shellac based primer vs water based latex primer vs oil based painting primers, shown here Zinsser 123, Cover Stain & BIN primer

Water based primer is the most pleasant to use and the easiest to clean up. It is low odor, great for surfaces that are easier to adhere. For glossy surfaces, sanding is very important .

Oil based primer is great for raw wood and mdf, where water based primer may cause swelling or stain to bleed through. The durability and easy of clean up is between water based and shellac based painting primers.

Based on these tests, we are using water based primer on our IKEA hack vanity cabinet, and shellac based primer on our IKEA kitchen island. Stay tuned for tutorials! They are both high gloss enamel surfaces. But the powder room vanity does not have to endure high traffic and frequent use like the kitchen island, so a water based primer will be durable enough with proper sanding.

More painting ideas & inspirations:

Transform your kitchen easily with 25 beautiful kitchen cabinet colors and favorite designer kitchen paint color combos from farmhouse to modern glam! Paint color names for each kitchen with great designer tips! - A Piece of Rainbow
25 favorite kitchen cabinet paint colors with color names!

Hope our tests make it easier for you to choose the best paint primer for your project. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments!

14 Comments

  1. You said to not use a sprayer with shellac, is that because of the clean up or is there another reason? I have see other professional painters use HVLP sprayers with good results.

    • Do not use Alcohol based pigmented shellac. It is the most unmanageable wast of time and money and the vapors are harmful.

      30 years experience pro painter. DO NOT use Sherwin Williams Alcohol Based Pigmented Shellac. It is the consistency of water. It drips everywhere. It is very difficult to spread across surfaces with a brush. It is very harmful to breath in the vapors. If it gets in your eye doing ceilings it will sting bad. It will destroy good brushes and be prepared to throw away roller covers, roller cages and brushes. You can clean up with alcohol but it is not worth it. Use the Bin Zinnzer 123 stain kill. I have used it on water and smoke damage and it will also cover tannin knots in pine etc. Sherwin Williams has seen its better days and it changes the base color formula too frequently so it is difficult to get a color match on the same Sherwin Williams product as the formula of the base changes. If you want a good quality paint go with PGP. It puts Benny Moore to shame and is 2nd to none. My advice is free but of you don’t take it you will pay the price. Sherwin William alcohol based pigmented shellac is a failure and a waste of time and money.

  2. I love the shellac formula and find it cleans up super easy using an ammonia/water mix. Like easier than latex!

  3. Thank you for this effort. For Ikea Sektion cabinets, here’s my advice: SAND WELL BEFORE PRIMING! Following your advice, I did a light sanding followed by BIN Shellac primer and latex paint. Didn’t work. I had to remove it all with a putty knife (which was a lot of work). I then sanded everything with a palm sander with 180 grit paper until the gloss/sheen was gone. Now the primer and paint stick without scratching off. So ultimately a success, just had to do it twice.

  4. Thanks for this information! The most helpful one I have come across. I’m looking to paint our laminate kitchen cabinets and the amount of information online has been a bit overwhelming! But yours was great. Do you have recommendations about what sort of top coat paint you’d use over the primer on laminate? I had looked at the Zinsser Perma-white. Unfortunately it seems to only tint to lighter colours and I’m after a darker blue. Thoughts, suggestions, dos/donts would be appreciated! Many thanks

  5. So, you are painting/priming over PLASTIC, as that’s what that laminate surface is made of.
    It’s very important to know what you’re actually painting over before you start a job.
    Note that painting on plastic is often not a great idea, nor a common job, but it can be done if need be.
    As with any paint or primer, it’s best to only use it on surfaces and areas it’s recommended for, but pros as me know more than what we read on the labels. In other words, some paint products work great beyond what they’re recommended for. That’s why doing your test is a great idea, but there are better choices.
    So, in the case of painting plastic, I would de-gloss it real good with a red Scotch-Brite pad.
    That stuff will scratch glass, and that’s what you want.
    Then clean it good to get ALL the dust off.
    Then just use a good paint that’s recommenced for over plastic.
    > No primer needed. <
    Same with that door, no primer needed, just some good prep and paint.
    The less coats you need, the better. Use thin coats, not thick, and let then dry as RECOMMENDED between coats. Note that if you let a primer or paint cure between coats, then you will likely need to de-gloss it before the next coat.
    Also, Zinsser Perma-White is a "self-priming" paint that will stick to most anything, and likely would have done best in this test.
    As for spraying shellac, it's done all the time, with either an airless sprayer, an HVLP sprayer, or a compressor/cap spray gun. But you need to be a pro for that IMO.
    As for cleaning up tools with shellac, use ammonia, and then denatured alcohol if need be, NEVER use "Acetone Nail Polish Remover", ha.
    Lastly, "real" primers are mainly just for covering over unpainted surfaces before the paint. Zinsser has kind of broke that rule with their so-called primers. For example, it's somewhat just marketing the way they use "primer" on the label of 1-2-3, as it's basically the same soup as Perma-White but with less pigmnet, which is why it's cheaper.

    BTW, I'm a retired painting contractor and paint store manager, and I knew my Zinsser rep very well.

    • hi alex! thank you so much for sharing your experiences! i will totally try that scratch pad next time! i do see a big difference in adhesion when good primer is used, but like you said, scratching / sanding the surface is crucial! 🙂

  6. That was the best tutorial on paint I have ever read. It gave what you tried, what didn’t work, and how you fixed it. Introducing the sanding block to people who may not know what it is for and how it works( I have been using one for years and can’t do a project without it). I liked it because it was just long enough to get the FACTS in. I have read other information that was so lengthy and wordy that I quit reading it because of boredom. I check you blog weekly and enjoy the new posts, not so interested in seeing the old ones featured, but like that they are listed and I can go back to one of them and review if needed..

  7. Hi, I’ve signed up to receive your newsletter and access downloads. I cannot access the downloadable template I need for diy anthropologie knobs. Can you help please?

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