Best Primer for Enamel Paint

Enamel paint is always a great choice when it comes to wood furniture painting. It holds up extremely well against wear and tear, making it a great choice for furniture in high-traffic areas of your home. Oil-based enamel paint specifically is extremely durable.

However, while enamel paint is more durable than most paints, prepping your surface before applying paint is still critical to ensure your paint coat is as resilient as possible. It’s important no matter what to prime before applying enamel paint.

The question is, what primer should you use with enamel paint?

In this post, we’ll discuss the best primers for enamel paint.


The best primer to use before applying enamel paint largely depends on the type of wood you’re working with. For example, a stain-blocking primer (such as shellac primer) works best for mahogany wood.

Does Enamel Paint Need Primer On Wood?

Possibly the most important benefit of primer is it improves paint adhesion. Primer creates the ideal bonding surface for paint to adhere to. Without a layer of primer, it can be difficult for some paints to “stick” to certain surfaces. 

However, although primer helps the paint adhere to wood surfaces, enamel paint is well known to adhere extremely well to most surfaces even without primer.

Naturally, you might wonder if enamel paint needs primer on wood.

When using enamel paint you may be able to get away without priming first. However, even though enamel paint adheres well without primer, for the best results, use a primer anyway. A base layer or primer is a sure-fire way to make sure your paint sticks well and won’t easily get scuffed or rubbed off. It’s especially important to apply primer to high-gloss surfaces that paint has a very hard time adhering to.

Primer is also particularly important in the following cases:

  • Dark wood furniture: Dark wood such as walnut and mahogany tend to be high in tannins. Tannins are essentially chemicals found in wood sap that can leave yellowing stains in your paint unless you treat the wood with primer first.
  • Upcycling furniture for high-traffic areas of the house: Possibly the most important benefit of primer is makes the overlaying coats of paint more durable. Because paint bonds to primed surfaces so strongly, it becomes very resistant to scuffing and scratching that would otherwise wear away the paint. That said, when upcycling furniture in high-activity areas of the house, applying primer first is a must. 
  • Trapping stains and smells: Water stains, urine stains, cigarette smoke stains and the smells that come with them can be sealed in with the right primer. 

Related: Water-based Enamel Paint vs Oil Paint: A Side-by-Side Comparison

Best Primer For Enamel Paint

Enamel paint is often oil-based, but there are water-based enamel paints as well. Some recommend using water-based primers with water-based enamel paint and oil-based primers with oil-based enamel paint. In truth, this isn’t completely necessary in most cases. Oil-based primer is compatible with water-based enamel paint and water-based primer is compatible with oil-based enamel paint in most cases. 

Whether you have water-based or oil-based enamel paint isn’t as important when choosing a primer. Ultimately, the right primer for your enamel paint largely depends on the surface you’re painting and its condition. Your personal preferences in regard to primer also matter. After all, there are key performance differences between oil-based and water-based primers that can sway your choice of primer. 

Oil-Based Primers

Oil-based primers are different from water-based primers for a few reasons. However, the main benefit of oil-based primers is they tend to be hardier than water-based primers. These primers also tend to adhere well to weathered outdoor wood surfaces since the primer penetrates deep into the wood grain. 

That said, oil-based primers are great for surfaces like trim or outdoor furniture. Any outdoor wood surfaces warrant a particularly durable primer for added protection against the elements. Oil-based primers are great for indoor surfaces as well, but they are best used on high-traffic areas of the house that need extra durability such as doors or trim. 

Aside from the amazing durability and strong adhesion, oil-based primers can also prevent stains from showing through new coats of paint, which is ideal for wood surfaces. To an extent, they can prevent tannins from bleeding through layer of paint.

Oil-based primers are also great for sealing porous surfaces, which creates a smooth and even surface for paint to adhere to. This makes oil-based primers ideal for unfinished or bare wood, be it for interior or exterior use.

Although oil-based primers have amazing benefits, there are some notable downsides. For one, they often take a long time to dry. They also release high amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be harmful if you’re heavily exposed to them in a poorly ventilated area. Be sure that your work area is well-ventilated when using oil-based primers and enamel paint.

For exterior projects, we recommend the Zinsser 03504 Cover Stain Oil-Based Primer. It dries faster than most oil-based primers and has great coverage. It can also be used for interior projects too.

For interior projects, we recommend the KILZ Original Interior Oil-Based Primer. It does a great job at sealing surfaces and trapping odors. 

Related: Can You Paint Acrylic Over Enamel? Follow These Steps…

Water-Based Primers (Latex Primers)

Compared to oil-based primers, water-based primers are more flexible. As a result, water-based primers are less prone to cracking as the underlying wood surface expands and contracts as seasons change. 

One of the key benefits of water-based primers is they are relatively easy to work with. Often, they are less runny compared to oil-based primers, making it easier to avoid drippage on the floor. They also release low amounts of VOCs, making them safer for human health and the environment. In turn, water-based primers don’t produce a strong odor, unlike oil-based primers. The lack of odor emitted from water-based primers makes it much more tolerable to apply the primer indoors. 

Not only are latex primers easy to use but you can easily clean up spills with just soap and water. Oil-based primers on the other hand require more powerful cleaning solutions such as mineral spirits to properly clean up.

Certain water-based primers can used on exterior surfaces, however, water-based primers are commonly used on interior surfaces such as walls and ceilings. 

If you’re planning to use a water-based primer, we recommend the Zinsser 02004 Bulls Eye All Surface Primer. It’s suitable for both exterior and interior use. It can adhere to many surfaces and has great coverage.

Shellac Primers

Although generic oil-based primers have excellent stain-blocking properties, for severe stains and odors, shellac-based primers are best. These primers can block stains from:

  • Water damage
  • Fire damage
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Urine
  • Mold and mildew
  • Rust

Additionally, if you’re working with wood that has high tannin content (such as cedar or mahogany), shellac-based primers are your best choice. Tannins are essentially chemicals found in the natural sap of wood that can bleed through multiple layers of paint. If not properly treated first, this bleed-through can cause ugly yellowing, that is particularly noticeable on white paint. Shellac-based primers are designed to block the tannins from bleeding through to your enamel paint.

Do note that shellac primers aren’t as versatile as oil-based or water-based primers- they really should just be used only when you are treating wood high in tannins or surfaces contaminated with stains. They also give off a strong odor and are high in VOCs, so make sure that your work area is well-ventilated.

Zinsser BIN Shellac-Based Primer is one of the best shellac primers available. As typical of shellac primers, it is a heavy-duty primer that does a great job of blocking stains. 

Related: How Long Does it take for Enamel Paint to Dry

Consider Enamel Primer Spray Paint

Primers also come in spray paint form. If you’re working on a piece that has an irregular shape, it can be hard to primer in all the nooks and crannies with a brush. With spray primer, that won’t be much of an issue.

As long as you have a steady hand, it’s easy to create a smooth and even finish with spray-on primer. On the other hand, by using a brush, you can create pesky, uneven brush marks that need to be sanded down for a completely even finish. 

You need to be careful though when using spray paint. You might overspray on an area of the surface, and that could be troublesome to repair. Note that spray paints also come in smaller amounts compared to primer paint in cans.

For an oil-based primer spray paint, we recommend the Zinsser by Rust-Oleum 3609 Primer. For a water-based primer spray paint, we recommend the Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Primer with Turbo Spray System. And for shellac primer spray paint, the Zinsser BIN Shellac-Based Primer in spray paint form is a great choice. 



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