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Best Primer for Kitchen Cabinets

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Matt is a professional painter who owns and operates his own painting business, specializing in interior and exterior house painting.

Before making a decision, read this quick and helpful article to get an expert take on the best primer for kitchen cabinets.

Before making a decision, read this quick and helpful article to get an expert take on the best primer for kitchen cabinets.

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.

Using latex primer on cabinets is not a very good idea. They often do not completely seal wood and can also rub off when they dry.

Using latex primer on cabinets is not a very good idea. They often do not completely seal wood and can also rub off when they dry.

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 the 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 primers 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.

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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 the 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.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Hi! I am painting my oak kitchen cabinets. I read your advice and went with BIN primer. I sprayed on 2 coats. I am now painting with SW Emerald urethane trim enamel. I am doing my second coat right now and I think I am seeing some tannin bleed through in a few areas. Help! I am devastated as I have put so many hours into this project. How can this be fixed?

Answer: Oak cabinets need to be primed with BIN shellac primer, or oil primer, to prevent bleed-through. There are some newer BIN products like the advanced synthetic version, which I've never used. I use the regular BIN shellac primer and never had any problems with bleed through. Cabinets also need to be sanded and cleaned to remove surface contamination. Sometimes there will be a few tannin spots on a couple doors that the primer didn't completely seal. You can use a spray can of oil primer to spot prime those spots. If there's tannin bleed everywhere then it sounds like the wrong primer was used and the doors would need to be primed again. If the grain wasn't filled too, that might be part of the problem. Filling the grain fills the deep valleys and cracks in the wood that can be difficult to work the primer into when spraying. A coat of grain filler levels out oak. You can also try spraying a little heavier as it's possible the primer isn't seeping into the cracks enough to block the tannin.

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.

Question: I'm getting someone to paint my new kitchen cabinets. She does not want to use oil based primer. Said it's horrible to work with and I won't be able to stand to stay in the house for 3 weeks because of the smell. She said the latex works just as well. I paid alot for these cabinets and want to make sure I'm getting a good paint job. Is this true or should oil be used and what do you recommend?

Answer: If the cabinets are new and already painted, latex primer is probably fine. Oil primer is good when you're painting stained cabinets. Oil primer dries harder than latex and it seals the surface. The primer only smells bad the day of application, not weeks after. Open a window and the odor is gone when the primer dries.

Question: Have you ever used Sherwin-Williams Extreme Bond Primer? If so, what are your thoughts?

Answer: No, I haven't used Extreme Bond Primer. I do know though that because it's latex, the primer will not seal in wood tannin. If you're working with an oily wood like oak, I would use an oil-based primer.

Question: I have a Graco Magnum X7. I don’t believe you can spray BIN shellac through it because of the fire hazard. Wouldn’t BIN in a spray can be preferable to brushing cabinets?

Answer: Spraying in general is preferable to brushing cabinets, but based on my experience with spray cans of primer, they don't always perform the same exact way as primer from a gallon can. I don't know why, but that's been my experience with oil primer. I've used spray can BIN to spot prime without issues, but not for spraying entire doors. You could test a couple doors first before spraying all of them, or you could rent a professional airless sprayer to spray the BIN. Some paint sores rent Graco sprayers. Ask if they have a Graco 395 for rent. A contractor sprayer like this can handle BIN without a fire hazard.