Primer for Furniture Painting; Is it needed?

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Let’s talk about primer for furniture. An essential part of the prepping process. Or is it?

Most quality furniture paints now have an all-in-one-formula, which promise that priming and top coating is no longer needed.  But is it true?  Can you skip priming your furniture before painting? After all, it would be a great time saver and cost cutter, if primer was no longer needed. 

Let’s dive in and see if primer is still for your projects.

Table of Contents

What the Heck is Primer Actually?

Primer may look like most paints and is even applied like a paint.  But, it’s not a paint!

The formula to create primer is different from a paint.  And the purpose of both paint and primer are vastly different. 

Paint is considered decorative.  It is created to coat a surface and dry like a flexible film. The flexible surface is necessary so that paint can move, expand, and contract with wood. However, its gripping ability is limited. Which is why you need to remove old finishes from a surface and scruff sand to provide paint a chance to adhere.  

Paint and Dirt = disaster.

Dirty piece of furniture prior to cleaning for painting

Primer works very differently than paint.

It is designed to create a stable base for paint to adhere to. Primer is formulated to fill and cling to the item it is put on. Imagine it as filling the pores of the wood project you are working on, while creating a surface which paint can grip onto tightly.  

Primer is Velcro for Paint.

While paint is flexible, primer is less so.  However, as it bonds and seals the wood, it will move with it.  

When is Primer for furniture painting necessary?

Phew, this is a tough one.  It may be easier to list when you don’t need primer for your project then when you do. I personally consider that primer is a must have in furniture painting when your project requires any of the below.  

Stain Blocking

Primer is the go-to for furniture refinishers when dreaded bleed-through happens.  There is nothing worse than the panic that occurs when you start seeing that pinkish-red hue bloom through your light-coloured paint.

Bleed Through on Primer
Photo Curtesy of Joy & Grace Designs
But what is bleed-through?

Bleed-through occurs when the natural resins, tannins or even stains (such as nicotine) are leeching up through your paint.  Unfortunately, paint itself cannot block these stains from rising through the layer of paint that you have added.  As they seep up through your paint, it will cause discoloured patches (often in a pink hue) to form.

Darker coloured paints can occasionally mask the bleed-through stain, however over the long term, it will become more and more noticeable. 

Luckily, one of the main purposes of primer is to stop bleed-through from occurring.  As mentioned, primer is designed to bond to the wood.  It is also designed to coat and contain all those elements within the wood which would normally rise through your paint layer. 

Bleed through caused by a knot
Photo Curtesy of The Black Sheep
Bleed Through on primed furniture
Photo Curtesy of Joy & Grace Designs

Two cases of bleed through.  Bleed through can look very different from project to project, but tends to take on a brown or pink-ish colour. 

Odour Blocking

Like the stain blocking properties of primer, it also works to block odours from seeping out of the wood.  The primer creates a barrier which not only stops tannins from rising through to affect your paint, but it also stops the unpleasant smells from escaping.

While cleaning can go far in removing smells from your furniture, it unfortunately cannot get to those smells that are deep within the pores of the wood.  Take cigarette smells for example.  Unfortunately, the cigarette smell penetrates deep into wood pores.  Simple cleaning will not remove these smells.

Can smells really be that strong?

I had a client who had a gorgeous mid-century modern piece which they bought second hand.  While it brought a retro charm to their living room, it unfortunately also brought the smell of the cigarettes of the previous owner.  No matter how much they had cleaned it over the years, the faint smell remained.  Eventually they brought the piece to me, as the veneer edging was peeling, and they were tired of the smell that they just could not get rid of.  

I tackled the project with shellac as my primer and the smell was sealed in. 

Veneer repaired on a piece which was primed for odour blocking

High Traffic Pieces

For pieces which you expect high traffic to occur, such as hallway tables, nightstands, coffee tables, you want to ensure that the paint adhesion is at it’s strongest.  The primer base will support your paint strength in a way which paint alone cannot achieve.

Raw wood - Uneven Absorption

Raw wood tends to absorb paint differently. This is because it is a porous material.  You may have previously worked on a project where two coats of paint were sufficient for most of the project. However, there are spotty areas which required you to add a third coat. These spotty areas can also create a very unprofessional finish.

Spotty paint absorption is a common occurrence with raw wood. The wood is simply absorbing the paint in different ratios across the surface.  By using primer, you can end up using less paint as you are stopping the uneven absorption.

Previously Stained Pieces

Dark Stains are notorious for causing bleed-through.  Should you find yourself refinishing a piece which had been preivously stained, you will need to take the time to prime the piece before painting. 

Dark stained piece prior to priming for furniture
Primed furniture which was once dark stained
Dark Stained Cabinet Painted Green after priming

This dark stained piece, required 4 coats of Zinsser B.i.N. to stop the bleed-through prior to painting. 

Milk Paint and Primer

I am giving milk paint a special mention here, as it is probably the only paint which Primer isn’t needed for. 

This is due to how milk paint bonds directly to wood.  While other paints dry as a flexible film over wood, milk paint bonds with wood.  It needs to sink into the pores.  That is what gives milk pain it’s unique look. 

By adding a primer underneath you may compromise the milk paint look. 

My only concern would still be using a light coloured milk paint on a high tannin, soft wood.  I would consider a different paint for such a task.

Milk paint bonds with wood

What types of Primers are Available?

Gosh, there are so many types of primers available on the market.  It can be so hard to choose what is the right primer for your project.

Today, nearly every paint company sells their own special primer.  Uniquely formulated for their paint, or so they say. And they don’t recommend you using any other type of primer. 

I suppose that you really can’t blame them for marketing in this way.

Personally, I have gone from having multiple types of primers on my shelves to no longer use primers from the main furniture paint brands.  The costs vs the quality was not on par with that of my preferred primer.  And at the moment of writing this, I had not yet found there to be any incompatibility between primers and paints from different brands.

There is an exception though.  Choosing an oil primer and then a water-based paint, will cause paint failure.

primers for furniture - Zinsser B.I.N, Home Made shellac and Wise Owl

Oil Based Primers

I can’t really say much about oil-based primers, as I have never worked with an oil-based primer. I predominately work with water-based paints and mixing oil and water is a recipe for disaster. 

Everything I have read about oil-based primers however, states that they are better at tannin and stain blocking then water-based.  

Water Based Primers

My experience with water-based primers has met limited success.  For hardwood or veneer projects which have limited tannins, they worked just fine. Especially when I opted for dark paints.

My choice for water based primer would be Wise Owl.  For the projects which I do not expect to run into tough tannin bleed through.

I am very cautious with water based primers as I have had one dresser where over the years the knots from soft pine are coming through. 

Obviously not all primers provide the same protection. 

Water Based Primer from Wise Owl

My Personal experience with water based primers

Luckily this item is in my home and my son really could care less about the knot showing on his dresser. He’s easy to please when it comes to home furnishing.  I, however, see it every time I enter his room.  It’s like an evil eye watching me, reminding me, to only use quality primers in the future.  

The primer in question was from a hardware store paint brand Histor. It was my very first furniture project, and I opted for Generic hardware store paint and primer for wood. 

You live and you learn.

The knot did not come through while I was painting it or in the first weeks afterwards.  Imagine if this piece had been sold. It could have caused a dissatisfied customer.  Our reputation and customer satisfaction is important for small refinishing businesses.

This is the reason why I almost always reach for shellac-based primers for pieces I sell.

Pine Dresser after painting and priming with water based primer
Pine Dresser After 4 years with water based primer, bleed-through

Same Pine Dresser – 4 years apart.  Pine knots coming through the water based primer. Large knot coming through on 2nd drawer.

Shellac and Shellac Based Primers

Shellac based primers are the work horse of the primer family. There doesn’t seem to be anything that they can’t cover and block. This is due to shellac being a resin, which essentially seals in anything which may bleed through to the paint.   

Zinsser B.I.N. is the only primer I am currently buying or I make my own wood shellac.  I have never had either product fail in terms of paint adhesion or bleed through. 

So, is it the holy grail of primers? Unfortunately, there is a downside to shellac primers and that is the smell and clean-up. Shellac dries hard and is not water soluble.  So, cleaning your paint brushes can be a struggle.  I opt to maintain my shellac brushes with rehydration.

How to make your own shellac - tools required
Zinsser B.I.N. Primer - well used can

Tinted Primers

Oil, water, and shellac primers often come in white or another tinted colour.  The benefit of purchasing a tinted primer for darker colours, is that it can minimize how many coats you may have to paint later.  Painting a dark colour over a white primer requires far more coats then is you were to use the same paint colour over a grey tinted primer.

Pure Shellac can be clear or come in a variety of tinted colours.  It is known for its abilities to enhance and bring out a richness in the wood grain tone.  If you are looking to only paint portions of your project, you may want to opt for a de-waxed shellac and paint directly over the shellac layer.  If you are unsure if this is the right method for you, check out all the pros and cons of wood shellac.

How to apply Primer on Furniture

Sure, primer looks like paint, but can it be applied like paint? 

In many ways you can opt to add your primer like how you would your paint.  Via brush, roller, or sprayer.  The steps for prepping your furniture piece will also remain the same.

Preparing Furniture for priming

Firstly, you should complete the two key steps in all furniture prep work.  Cleaning and Sanding. I cannot stress enough how important these two steps are for the longevity of your project.

Check out these step-by-step instructions on how to clean before furniture painting. 

For sanding, you need to ensure that you achieve a good scruff sanding.  That is that you remove the glossy finish which may be already on your furniture piece.  You can achieve this by hand sanding or electric sanding.  There are so many sanding tools which you can opt for that will make the sanding process easier.

How to clean furniture before painting pin

Application Methods of Primer

As mentioned, the application methods remain like those of applying paint. You can opt to use a brush to get in those nook and crannies and a roller for larger, flat surfaces.  If you have available a sprayer, you can also opt to make the process quicker and simply spray your primer.

Hesitant? Check out how to apply wood shellac with a paint brush.

Easy applying shellac with a brush

Achieving a smooth primer coat

When adding your primer, opt for thin layers.  I find sanding between coats of primer works best with thinner layers.  Primer as a tendency to be thicker in nature than standard paint and sanding out brush strokes can be more work.  Therefore, thin layers are better.

Once you have added your first coat of primer, take the time to check your piece for flaws.  Primer (especially white primer) can highlight all the imperfections in your wood, such as dings, dents, cracks, and deep wood grain. This is an excellent time to wood fill and sand.  By doing so, you can ensure you get all the imperfections now, before you have applied your paint.

Between coats of your primer, you will want to also sand.  Primer, especially shellac-based primer, tends to be thick and can cause brush strokes.  Taking the time to sand between your coats of primer will ensure a smooth surface for your paint to adhere to.

If you added thin coats of primer, consider completing 2 to 3 coats for hard woods with low tannins (maple or birch). Or 3 to 4 coats for softer woods with knots or woods with higher tannins (mahogany and cherry for example).

3m between and finishing sanding pads for wood
Sanding between coats of shellac

I personally choose to use 3M Finishing pads for sanding between coats or primer, shellac or paint.  They are often available in your local hardware store.

Painting over Primer on Furniture

If you took the time to wood fill and sand prior to adding your second coat of primer, you should have a rather smooth surface to paint on.  As primer minimizes paint absorption, you should find that 2 coats of paint will be sufficient to cover your primer.

Paint and Primer All-In-One Products

I know I mentioned all-in-one paints at the beginning and left you in suspense. In perfect conditions, these paints truly are all-in-one products.  Unfortunately, perfect conditions are almost never possible with vintage furniture. I personally view these products as simply tougher paint and I still opt to primer my pieces. 

If your piece is for your personal use, low traffic and not a raw, soft wood, you could consider skipping the primer and testing out the full capabilities of the all-in-one paint.  However, if you are running a small business where reputation and quality is key, you should seriously consider spending the extra money to use a quality primer. Factor the primer into your overall cost and include in your sales description that a quality primer and paint was used to ensure optimal durability.  

Frequently Asked Questions

I personally opt to use shellac or a shellac-based primer on my furniture projects.  De-waxed shellac works with water-based paints and topcoats, while still strong enough to cover knots in pine wood. Furthermore, shellac brings out the natural warmth in wood and for projects where you will leave wood exposed, it gives you the best of both worlds.  Great looking wood and primer in one.

If your project is for your personal use, is a low traffic piece, is not raw, soft wood and does not have any odours or tannins to block, then yes, you could consider skipping primer. 

However, if you are opting to sell the piece, consider spending the extra money to prime.  It will support the longevity of your piece.

Often paint companies will recommend their own primer to be used with their paint.  I personally believe that this is more marketing then because the paint will fail on another primer.  I recommend that you ensure you purchase a quality primer and don’t skimp to save money.

This can differ between primers.  Always read the instructions on the primer label itself.  It is important to adhere to the recommended drying time.  If you recoat with primer or paint before the recommended time, the original coat may not yet be dry.  Once recoated it may not dry correctly at all and cause failure in your project. Check out the difference between drying and curing time, to better understand their importance in the overall process.

YES!  I personally am not a fan of sanding and if it could be skipped, I would be the first one skipping it.  To ensure your project has a smooth finish, you need to take the time to sand between all coats of primer and paint.  I use sandpaper with a grit of 180 for the first layers of primer.  For the final coat of primer, before I would paint, I use 3M finishing pads in-between layers.

The most likely cause is that your piece wasn’t cleaned sufficiently. Wax is notorious for causing primer and paint to fail.  You will unfortunately need to remove the primer and start the prepping process over.  I cannot stress how important proper cleaning and sanding is for furniture painting.  

Walls are made from another material than wood.  The primer will therefore be formulated for that material and not for the wood which you are working on.  I would not consider risking your project with a primer not designed for use on wood. 

Final Thoughts

Primer, with the introduction of the all-in-one paints, is becoming the forgotten cousin at the family reunion. It’s common place to see reels on Instagram of paint failing a scratch test or of bleed through ruining the snowy white buffet.  Each time the refinisher declares that they will never forget to prime their pieces again. 

Even with these blatant reminders, it is commonplace to see people risk forgoing this key component of prep work. Is it out of laziness or cost cutting? I’m not sure, but you wouldn’t skip cleaning or sanding a piece.  So, why skip priming?

Together cleaning, sanding, and priming is the holy trinity of refinishing prep-work. 


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Hey, I'm Sarah, the owner of Bold Wallflowers.

I'm on a self-taught journey through furniture refinishing and restoration, loving every experiment in my workshop.

Join me as I share my discoveries and gained knowledge with our vibrant community of fellow refinishers!

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