Does “Paint and Primer in One” actually work?

Homeowners and DIY enthusiasts have almost certainly heard their favorite paint company advertise a product that eliminates the need to prime. “Paint and primer in one!? My lucky day!!” This is what the average consumer is undoubtedly led to believe. But there are many misconceptions about this type of product and what it’s intended to do.

 

What’s the Hype vs. the Reality?

Over the past decade, almost every paint manufacturer has designed a product that appeals to the DIY market.  Behr started the trend, and soon others like Sherwin WilliamsBenjamin Moore and PPG followed suit.  In many cases, they just updated their existing paint product labels, adding “paint and primer in one”, “self-priming paint”, or similar language. It’s a clever move, since most homeowners want to save steps, save money, and above all, keep it simple.  Given the choice between buying a can of primer PLUS a can of paint, or just “paint and primer in one”, who wouldn’t choose the multi-use product?

The issue is, do these products work?  What are the pros and cons? How much do they save you time, and how much is just clever marketing?

 

The Reality – Most of these products don’t contain any primer!

 

What makes a “paint and primer in one”?  Usually just a higher concentration of “solids”, which are the materials in a paint that provide what painters call “coverage” or “hiding ability”.  So, a “self-priming paint” is just a thicker paint that is more likely to hide the underlying color that you’re painting over.

 

Well, isn’t that what you need to do anyway??  Maybe.

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A Lesson on Primer

 

Many people have heard the general advice that you should “prime before painting”, but they can’t tell you why. Paint and primer are not the same.  Paint is the “fun stuff”, the color coat that provides instant gratification when you roll it on and see your vision for your space come to life.  But primer gets your wall (or woodwork) ready to paint in the first place.  Can you skip it?  Most of the time, the answer is No.  Here’s why:

 

Your paint might not stick to your surface if it’s not prepped right.  Or it might take you way too many coats to get your color nice and solid.  You’re taking a massive gamble just to save a step.

 

So what does “prepping the surface” mean?  It depends on your surface!

 

Raw wood  –  needs either an oil-based or special latex-based primer to seal it, so it doesn’t swell from the wet paint you’re going to put on it.

Raw sheetrock, drywall, or joint compound  –  these are the materials you used either to add a new wall, apply fresh texture, or patch over a hole in your wall.  These materials are porous and extremely chalky, and need to be sealed with a primer that matches their pH level, before top-coating with paint.  Otherwise, you could be wasting time, money and energy applying multiple coats of paint on your porous surface before you finally achieve a nice, solid coat of color that won’t come off at the slightest touch.

Slick, glossy surfaces like tile, glass, or brand-new cabinets or furniture  –  Hard, smooth surfaces like these require a bonding primer, which is specially formulated to stick to the surface.   Otherwise you can scrape your nice pretty paint off later with your fingernail.  We’ve seen it happen, many times!

Walls that are stained from a water leak, cigarette smoke, etc.  –   You need a “stain-blocking” primer to seal out water stains, crayon marks, smoke stains, and such.  And if you’re dealing with odors, you’l need a shellac-based primer (not the funnest stuff to work with).  Regular “paint and primer in one” products don’t have those kinds of stain blockers, and would allow those stains to eventually seep to the surface of your freshly painted walls.  It might seem like you’ve covered any stains when you first put it on, but the chemistry of the underlying stain often reacts with the paint and will reappear like magic (the bad kind) after several months.

Metal surfaces, like patio furniture or guard rails  –  you need a “direct-to-metal” primer, that will stick and will prevent rust.

Oil-painted surfaces, like most older woodwork (baseboards, doors, windowsills) in many homes  –  if you’re going to paint over these, you probably want to use a water-based “latex” or “acrylic” paint, so that you don’t have to deal with smelly oil paints and the nasty paint thinners that you’ll need to clean up when done.  But water-based paints don’t stick to oil-based surfaces.  You need a primer first.

 

And finally, the one type of surface that can take a “paint and primer in one”:

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Walls that are already painted in a latex paint, and are a drastically different color from what the new color will be.

Okay, this is the only scenario where a thick, self-priming paint “might” work.  A thicker paint will cover better, after all.  And your walls were presumably already primed before they were painted the first time.  So the priming has been done for you.

By the way, you’re probably not going to save any money this way.  These paints are pricier than just primer + paint, and you may still need extra coats.  Again, it’s a gamble!

  • Just make sure the entire surface was primed and painted already.  If you’re painting over a bedroom where you just patched a hole with fresh drywall and joint compound, please use a primer rated for drywall, because nothing will truly bond to that surface unless it’s primed.  Ever stuck some tape to a wall, maybe to put up a poster or your child’s artwork, only to have it peel the paint away when you remove the tape?  I’ve seen even the most delicate tape remove paint from walls that have not been primed, more often than I can count.
  • Incidentally, if you’re painting a wall red, that’s a whole different story.  Red tints in paint are more transparent than other tints, meaning you need many more coats to get that nice, solid red look.  Painting with a primer tined gray before you bring out the red paint will save you time and frustration.

 

To recap:

 

Many people ask me when and where should I use this product, and does it really mean I don’t have to prime? (Often they’re hoping that if my painters use a “paint and primer in one”, it’ll save on labor costs and I can give them a cheaper estimate for our services.)  Again, the short answer is No. You cannot replace the act of priming if you are dealing with raw surfaces such as raw wood, bare drywall, metal, or cement, or with glossy surfaces such as new cabinets or oil-based woodwork. Primers are made to seal raw surfaces, they generally have more adhesive qualities and are designed with a flat “sheen” (no shininess or glossiness), so that your color coat of paint will stick to it well.  It is appropriate to use a “self-priming” paint when you are changing colors over a previously primed or painted latex-based surface. After all, the actual benefit of this product is its coverage abilities. It’s a “high solid content” paint (it’s thicker, basically) that has the ability to “self prime” over contrasting colors or going from a light-colored paint to a deeper one.

 

Remember:  priming and painting are two separate processes.

 

You can’t skip priming and achieve professional results. These steps shouldn’t be melded together to try and save time, because fixing the problems that arise from not priming are harder to resolve than the time it takes to just prime and paint in the first place. 

Long story short, priming is something you do before you paint, and “paint and primer in one” products are just a clever marketing tool to convince the homeowner they’ll save time. Really it just means this paint covers over obnoxious colors easier than most. If you’re repainting your purple bathroom to an off-white, then sure, go ahead and use this product.

 

Save the “paint and primer in one” for those times when you’re repainting a wall in a new, dramatically different color!  Otherwise, please prime first with the right primer, then apply your color coat.  Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.