Can Primer Be Used As Paint?

Anyone who has painting experience knows how important primer is. And while primer isn’t 100% necessary for certain types of paint, it substantially improves the durability of your paint job and prevents bleed-through from the underlying surface. In many cases, it’s the sole factor that determines whether you’d end up with an amazing or botched paint job.

But have you ever wondered if you can get away with using primer as the finish coat? 

 “Can primer be used as paint?”. In this post, we’ll address this very question.


While you can use primer as paint, you should only do so in very specific situations. And even then, don’t expect it to last as long as real paint. It’s not designed to resist the elements or typical wear and tear. 

That said, you can prolong the life of your primer with a protective top coat (e.g. polycrylic) just like with paint.

Can Primer Be Used As Paint? Do You Have To Paint Over Primer?

In most cases, you should paint over primer, or at the very least, apply another material to be the finish coat (e.g. sealant). Primers are usually not designed to be durable on their own, so they can easily be scratched or nicked by human contact. They are also not resistant to the elements, so using a primer as exterior paint is simply not practical.

You can maybe get away with using a primer as paint for interior surfaces that don’t receive a lot of traffic. It could be a small decorative piece or the top of a tall cabinet that doesn’t get used. As long it’s a surface that rarely comes into contact with anything, then a primer without paint or a top coat should be fine.

But if you’re serious about wanting to use primer as paint, consider sealing it with a top coat for protection. The top coat provides protection against all sorts of damage such as scratches, stains, or even water damage.

Water-based polyurethane or polycrylic top coat are recommended for sealing bare primer since they don’t yellow over time, unlike oil-based polyurethane. Most primers are white or gray, and a yellowing top coat will become more obvious on light surfaces as time goes by.

Related: Which Zinsser Primer to Use? A Side-by-side Comparison

What Happens If You Don’t Paint Over Primer?

For interior surfaces, leaving primer unpainted will cause your primed surface to rapidly accumulate dust. Primer is more tacky than paint even when dried. Without a coat of paint, dust, and dirt is likely to stick to your primed surface.

Also, since primer isn’t as durable as paint, it’s not enough to protect your “painted” surface from contact damage. Scratches and dings will be more obvious, as well as water damage. 

The above issues will be amplified for primer used as paint for exterior surfaces. Since the primer is exposed to more elements, it’ll deteriorate much more quickly. It’ll fade or chalk much faster than regular paint. And your “painted” surface will suffer damage due to the lack of protection. Sealing it with a top coat can only do so much. In short, for exterior surfaces, do not leave your primer unpainted.

How Long Can You Wait To Paint Over Primer?

Remember that paint’s purpose is to protect from mildew, sunlight, dust, grease, and usual wear and tear. Without a layer of paint on top, your primer is exposed to the harms above, and it isn’t designed to hold up on its own. 

Although you can wait a few weeks, it’s best to apply your paint sooner rather than later (as long as it has had time to dry). 

The dry time for your primer depends on the type of primer you’re using. Shellac-based primers are the fastest, only needing 30-45 minutes before they can be painted over. 

Most water-based primers can be painted over within just 30-60 minutes, but some may need at least 3-4 hours. Oil-based primers typically need 24 hours before they can be painted over. Check the product label of your primer for more information regarding its drying time.

Can I Wait A Week To Paint After Priming?

Painting a week after priming should be fine. 

You can wait a month or more (assuming ideal conditions) before you paint over your primer. After that, it’s likely that the surface will be too damaged or contaminated for paint to stick well. You will likely need to reapply your primer so that the paint can properly stick to it.

If your surface is more exposed to foot traffic or extreme weather, you may have to paint after priming sooner than later. The longer your primed surface is exposed, the more susceptible it is to contact water damage and dust.

Don’t Want To Paint Over Primer? Consider Tinting It!

Refusing to paint over primer isn’t recommended. However, if you really want to, you can tint it to change its color.

Tinting your primer opens up a whole world of colors. Want your primer to be green? Tint it green! Want it to be yellow? Tint it yellow! As long as there’s a tint available for your desired color, you can tint your primer to the color that you want.

There are pre-tinted primer products out there, but you can also tint your primer yourself. To do so, you only need a little bit of paint in your desired color. Mix it with your primer and you should have your DIY tinted primer. This has also the added benefit of mixing the protective qualities of the paint to the primer, making it a bit more durable than usual but only marginally.

Even if you’ve changed your mind and decided to paint over your primer, there are still benefits to tinting it. The biggest benefit of using a tinted primer is it cuts costs. This is because it reduces the number of finish coats required to achieve your desired color. It’s especially useful for paint that has a richness of dark and vibrant colors. Tinted primer is also very helpful when changing old paint colors from light to dark and vice versa.

Which Primer Is Best For You?

There are three main categories of primers you can choose from:

  • Oil-based primers
  • Water-based primers; and
  • Shellac-based primers

Oil-based primers can prevent most stains from showing through new coats of paint. These primers are effective for sealing porous surfaces, which allows the paint to adhere better. This makes them the ideal choice for unfinished or bare wood surfaces.

Water-based primers are more flexible than typical oil-based primers, and they dry much quicker. They’re less brittle too, which makes them much less prone to cracking. Another perk of using a water-based primer is the easy clean-up. You only need soap and water. Due to their greater resistance to cracking, water-based primers are ideal for outdoor applications. Products like Zinsser Bulls Eye 123 (available here on Amazon).

If you need a really effective stain-blocking primer, then a shellac-based primer is your best choice. Shellac-based primers are very effective in blocking tannin stains, which are essentially bleed-through from tree sap in the wood. Want to paint a room or surface that reeks of smoke and animal waste? A shellac-based primer can seal all that unwanted odor. 

Shellac-based primer is a bit more expensive than their oil-based and water-based counterparts, so only go for this option if you really need to seal in a serious unwanted stain or odor.

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