Best Primer for Kitchen Cabinets

Updated on November 25, 2017
Matt G. profile image

Matt is a professional painter sharing house-painting tips, related product reviews, and his experience in the trade.

Do Cabinets Need to Be Primed?

Stained kitchen cabinets should always be primed before painting, preferably with two coats. Even painted cabinets should be primed, unless they were primed before and the paint is in good condition with no visible tannin bleed.

When you use the right primer, it should seal the surface of cabinets and bond really well with wood and paint to prevent rub-off when cleaning. If you paint directly over stained cabinets without primer, tannin and the existing stain will bleed through the paint, no matter how many coats are applied, resulting in a hideous paint job.

Oil-Based Primer vs. Latex

One of the biggest mistakes made when painting cabinets is using latex primer instead of oil. Products like latex Kilz 2 and Bullseye 1-2-3 won't completely seal wood to keep tannin from leaking into the paint. Latex primer is also soft when dry and rubs off easily.

Nobody likes the odor, but oil-based primer seals the surface of cabinets the best, preventing tannin bleed. Oil primer dries harder and sands nicely too. Paint bonds really well to oil, using a good paint of course.

With all the different primer available, buying the right one can be confusing, and even the folks at the paint store can give you the wrong advice. I have worked with several products, but there are three I really like for priming cabinets.

Zinsser BIN Shellac Primer

BIN is a shellac-based primer that I use when spraying cabinets. The milk-thin consistency of BIN makes it splatter easily when brushing and rolling, but for spraying, it's awesome. The primer lays out nicely over cabinets that have been cleaned and sanded. When spraying doors horizontally, the material levels out really well on grainy oak, seeping into cracks without having to roll it.

This product is an excellent sealer that bonds well with wood. The dry time is fast, typically under one hour, allowing for light sanding and a second coat the same day. If you spray BIN, you need to clean the sprayer with either ammonia or denatured alcohol, not paint thinner. You can brush and roll this product fine too, but with the fast dry time, the primer will start to get gummy if you don't work it onto the surface fast enough.

The cost is about $42 per gallon at regular price, as of this writing, but you can buy BIN at many paint stores, except Sherwin Williams, using discounted account pricing.

Zinsser Cover Stain Oil-Based Primer

Cover Stain oil, not the newer latex version, is a good primer sealer and bond coat for kitchen cabinets. At roughly $22 per gallon, the price is half the cost of BIN. Like most products in its category, the smell is horrible. Whether spraying or rolling, gloves and a respirator are highly recommended.

Cover Stain doesn't level as nicely as shellac-based primer does, but for brushing and rolling, the slightly longer dry time is a little more forgiving. The primer is a lot thicker than shellac, so when using a brush and roller, a light coat should be applied to avoid heavy texturing that would show through paint unless sanded.

The primer sprays fine with an airless sprayer, but a bigger spray tip is needed, preferably size .015 to .017, otherwise the material won't atomize well, resulting in fingering when spraying.

I prefer shellac primer over oil because it dries faster. Material build-up in corners doesn't stay wet for hours like oil does. But if you plan to brush and roll, this product won't splatter as much as shellac. Once completely dry, it sands easily for an excellent bond with paint.

Sherwin Williams ProBlock Oil Primer

Pro Block is sold exclusively at Sherwin Williams stores. It performs very similar to Cover Stain, except it doesn't sand as easily, in my experience. It dries very hard and seals surfaces exceptionally well.

The smell is probably the worst of any oil-based product I've used, but it bonds really well with wood and paint for a uniform finish. If your cabinets have tough stains that won't come out after cleaning, Pro Block will seal them in.

You can spray this product, or use a roller, but like Cover Stain, the thicker consistency can cause rope texturing when rolling if you apply too much. It takes a little practice, but imperfections can be sanded out before painting. This product can also be used for priming stains and patches on drywall.

Questions & Answers

  • I'm painting Oak kitchen cabinets with a clear finish that don't have huge open grain issues. I plan to do it with a roller-brush, and top it with BM Advance. The biggest goal is a smooth finish at the end. What do you think I should do?

    If you're brushing and rolling the cabinets, Cover Stain will be less messy to work with. BIN shellac primer is very thin like milk and goes everywhere when brushing it, but it seeps into the grain much better than Cover Stain because of its consistency. If you change your mind and decide to spray the cabinets, use BIN. That's what I use when spraying my cabinets and it works great. Cover Stain does sand easier, but both will give you a smooth finish after sanding, but BIN levels out a lot better and you can recoat in 45 minutes. Cover Stain takes hours to dry.

  • Have you used Kilz original oil-based? If so, how does this compare to Cover Stain oil-based?

    Yes, I've used Kilz oil-based primer many times for blocking stains on drywall, but I haven't used it for priming cabinets. Cover Stain works as a stain blocker and a bond coat. I like Cover Stain because I can use the leftover primer for exterior projects. Kilz original is interior only. The Kilz oil-based primer, not latex, would probably be fine as a cabinet primer, but again, I've never used it for that purpose so I can't vouch for it as a cabinet primer, but it's a good product. Most acrylic latex paints bond well to it. I use Zinsser BIN shellac primer on all my cabinets now.

  • Which primer is the least toxic and the best at preventing mold?

    You can add a mildewcide additive to the primer if you're concerned about mold developing.

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