Before you paint new drywall—or any unpainted surface—paint primer is an essential first step. “Primer provides an even layer for your paint,” says Pat Dempsey, owner of Renaissance Painting in Des Moines, Iowa. “New drywall has a variety of surfaces, including tape, mud, and screws. If you don’t prime first, your paint will have shiny, uneven areas showing through.”
Also, you should apply primer before painting bare wood, stained surfaces, or dark surfaces. This prevents those surfaces from bleeding through and requires fewer coats of paint. “You want a different type of primer, depending on whether you’re painting interior or exterior, drywall or bare wood, or whether you have stains or odors to worry about,” Dempsey says. “But the right primer is the great equalizer. It creates a great surface for your paint.”
We researched the best drywall primers based on formulation, intended usage, effectiveness, VOC levels, and price.
KILZ 2 All-Purpose Interior/Exterior Multi-purpose Water-based Wall and Ceiling Primer
Can be used on many surfaces
Masks light to medium stains
Covers dark paint
Doesn’t cover heavy stains
KILZ 2 All-Purpose Interior/Exterior Multi-purpose Water-based Wall and Ceiling Primer is a great all-purpose primer at a good price. It can be used indoors or out, and it works especially well on previously painted surfaces; besides drywall, it's effective when applied to interior or exterior wood and masonry. This primer is mildew resistant, lower VOC than many other KILZ primers, and has minimal odor.
The manufacturer claims KILZ 2 is effective when trying to change colors, and it does cover dark paint, as well as light to medium stains. It is also somewhat effective in masking previous odors. But if you have heavy stains, extreme odors, or bare wood, we recommend using a primer specifically meant for those purposes instead.
Also, KILZ 2 should cover surfaces painted with a semi-gloss finish. But, as with most primers, you should clean and scuff-sand the surface before applying the primer. The manufacturer claims this primer can be ready for a second coat in as little as 1 hour.
Price at time of publish: $24/gallon
Size: 1 gallon | Formulation: Water-based | Intended usage: Interior/exterior multi-purpose | VOC: Low VOC
Valspar Pro Interior PVA Water-Based Wall and Ceiling Primer
Great for new drywall
Not for exterior use
Not low VOC
PVA primers are specifically designed to be used on new, unpainted drywall. These water-based primers are generally priced low, and contractors often use them on large, new construction projects to help keep costs down.
Valspar Pro Interior PVA Water-Based Wall and Ceiling Primer is a great, economical choice, providing a nice, even surface over highly porous drywall, whether brushed, rolled on, or sprayed. This product is fast-drying and mildew-resistant, and dries to the touch quickly, often within an hour. (However, it may take up to 4 hours before the surface is ready for an additional coat.)
While the manufacturer claims you can apply this to painted drywall, as well as plaster, wood and masonry, we recommend one of the other primers listed in this article.
Price at time of publish: $14/gallon
Size: 1 gallon | Formulation: Water-based PVA | Intended usage: interior new drywall | VOC: Not low VOC
Valspar Interior Multi-Purpose Water-Based Wall and Ceiling Primer
Can be used on numerous surfaces
Blocks light to medium stains
Covers dark paint
Has no VOCs
Not for exterior use
Doesn’t block heavy stains or odors
Use Valspar Interior Multi-Purpose Water-Based Wall and Ceiling Primer on interior drywall, wood, and masonry. It's a fast-drying primer that can cover dark paint and light to medium stains while emitting zero VOCs and little odor. It's available at a great price for a variety of indoor uses and can be applied with a brush, roller, and spray.
The manufacturer claims this product dries within 1 hour of application and is ready for a re-coat within 2. Also, while the manufacturer says a gallon can cover up to 400 square feet (the area of a two-car garage), we have noted that this is probably far more than you actually get.
Also, while a good choice for interior projects, this product isn’t meant to be used outdoors, in mildew-prone areas, or to cover heavy stains or odors.
Price at time of publish: $18/gallon
Size: 1 gallon | Formulation: Water-based | Intended usage: Interior drywall, wood, and masonry | VOC: No VOC
Best for Mild to Moderate Stains
Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Interior or Exterior Multi-Purpose Water-Based Wall and Ceiling Primer
For use on a variety of surfaces
Blocks light to medium stains
Covers dark paint
Has low VOCs
Has low odors
Doesn’t cover heavier stains
Thinner than some other primers
Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Interior or Exterior Multi-Purpose Water-Based Wall and Ceiling Primer Stain and odor coverage is a water-based option that can be used on multiple interior or exterior surfaces, including drywall, concrete, wood, and metal. We like that this product is low VOC, low odor, and mildew resistant.
This product is fast-drying: slightly over a half hour to the touch, and ready for a second coat in 1 hour. Sanding shouldn’t be necessary, according to the manufacturer.
It does a good job concealing light to medium stains and odors. However, for heavy stains and odors or for painting raw wood, we recommend an oil-based or shellac primer especially made for those purposes.
Price at time of publish: $33/gallon
Size: 1 gallon | Formulation: Water-based | Intended usage: Interior or exterior, multiple surfaces including drywall, concrete, wood, or metal | VOC: Low VOC
Zinsser Cover Stain Interior or Exterior High Hiding Oil-Based Wall and Ceiling Primer
Can be used use to mask fire, smoke, water damage
Can be used on bare wood, wallpaper, and cabinets
Not low VOC or low odor
Not mildew resistant
Pat Dempsey, our expert consultant, especially likes oil-based primers for bare wood indoors or out. These primers can prevent tannins in many woods from leaching through the paint and leaving unsightly discoloration.
Zinsser Cover Stain Interior or Exterior High Hiding Oil-Based Wall and Ceiling Primer is great for blocking significant stains and odors. We recommend this oil-based primer for covering especially tough marks such as fire, smoke, nicotine, and water damage. It also can be used on surfaces that are difficult for water-based primers to adhere to, including wallpaper, as well as wood cabinets.
As with any oil-based primer, this product isn’t low-VOC or low-odor, so be sure to use it in a well-ventilated area.
Price at time of publish: $19/quart
Size: 1 quart | Formulation: Oil-based | Intended usage: Interior/exterior, especially for stain-blocking and raw wood | VOC: Not low-VOC
Zinsser BIN Interior Multi-purpose Shellac Wall and Ceiling Primer
Permanent stain blocker
For use on a variety of surfaces
Alternatives cost less
Not low VOC or low odor
Zinsser BIN Interior Multi-purpose Shellac Wall and Ceiling Primer is by far the most expensive primer we recommend. But it also gives the best results when it comes to permanently blocking the toughest stains and odors. We also like that you can use this product on drywall, wood, stucco, brick, metal, and cabinets.
We note this product is effective when used on surfaces damaged from fire, water, or rust. It also effectively masks sap, tannin, lipstick, and creosote, and can be effective in painting over very dark colors. Our paint expert, Pat Dempsey, especially likes using this product to cover wood knots, rusty nails, and stubborn water stains.
As with any shellac-based primer, this product isn’t low-VOC or low-odor, so be sure to use it in a well-ventilated area.
Price at time of publish: $75/gallon
Size: 1 gallon | Formulation: Shellac | Intended usage: High-hide primer for permanently blocking the toughest stains and odors, interior or exterior | VOC: Not low-VOC
Best Zero VOC
PPG White Interior General Purpose Primer Zero VOC
Zero VOC, low odor, no fumes
Comparatively priced with alternatives
Not for outdoor use
May not cover stains or dark colors
If you’re sensitive to chemicals and odors and you want a primer with low environmental impact, PPG White Interior General Purpose Primer Zero VOC is a great option. This product’s low odor makes it a good choice if people or pets are in the building while you’re priming. But above all, we recommend this water-based product as a good general-use interior primer for a variety of indoor surfaces, including new drywall.
This all-purpose primer works best when you use it as the first step to painting over light colors and stains. The manufacturer claims it sprays or rolls on well. It should dry to the touch within 1 hour and be ready for a second coat within 4.
This is not an odor-sealing product; we recommend alternatives in this roundup for that functionality.
Price at time of publish: $21/gallon
Size: 1 gallon | Formulation: Water-based | Intended usage: Interior general-use primer | VOC: No-VOC, low odor
Our top choice is KILZ 2 All-Purpose Interior/Exterior Multi-purpose Water-based Wall and Ceiling Primer, a popular low-cost primer good for drywall and many other surfaces. This product is low-VOC, fast drying, and effective for priming everything from new drywall to general interior and exterior paint jobs, including those involving dark paint, and moderate stains and odors. For a no-VOC product that covers stains and preps drywall well for re-painting, we recommend PPG White Interior General Purpose Primer Zero VOC.
What to Look For in a Drywall Primer
Water-based latex primer prepares your drywall surface for most paint jobs. Water-based primers tend to emit fewer odors than other types of primers and come in low-and no-VOC formulations. They also make for easier cleanup than other types of primers. Water-based primers usually are effective in covering dark paint and moderate stains and odors. But to cover heavy stains and odors or bare wood, opt for a specialty primer such as oil-based or shellac.
PVA primer is a type of water-based primer, specially formulated to prime fresh drywall. It is often an especially economical choice but isn’t meant to prime other surfaces.
Oil-based primer covers heavier stains and odors that water-based primers can't. It also can prevent tannins from leaking through raw wood and causing dark, unsightly stains. Oil-based primers tend to have stronger odors and fumes than water-based primers.
Shellac primer is generally the most expensive option, but it’s the best choice if you need to permanently block especially heavy stains and odors, or block wood knots and rusty nails from bleeding through your primer. Shellac tends to have stronger odors and fumes than water-based primers. It also requires denatured alcohol for cleanup.
The drywall you are priming has a definite on the primer you purchase. Some primers are formulated only for interior surfaces; others work better only on outdoor surfaces; and you may find some products that are designed to effectively prime both.
Most interior primers, especially water-based products, lack the formulations to coat the mildew, stains, and rougher surfaces of primers intended for outdoor surfaces. So any interior primer you use on an outdoor surface is unlikely to prep the surface for paint that adheres well and endures inclement weather.
What about the reverse? You can use left-over exterior drywall primer on an interior surface. But those oil-based or shellac-based products, which are formulated to cover outdoor stains and rougher surfaces, aren't needed on new interior drywall. Also, those outdoor products tend to have stronger odors and emit more VOCs than interior primers. So, at the very least, avoid them in smaller, closely confined rooms.
If you’ve felt somewhat light-header or nauseated after priming or painting in an enclosed area, you’re reacting to volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These chemicals are emitted from primers and paints as they dry, as well as other household products such as some cleaners. Many people can experience headaches and other symptoms when exposed to them. Some VOCs are also probable human carcinogens. Check the label on your primer or other household product to see if it contains VOCs. Some primers are formulated to have low VOCs or no VOCs, and this roundup recommends two no-VOC products.
Does every drywall surface need drywall primer?
To achieve a clean, even surface on drywall, whether new or existing, you should prime it first with at least a water-based primer. This is because drywall installations include a variety of materials such as the drywall board, mesh, tape, drywall screws, and drywall mud. These materials have different colors, consistencies, and levels of porousness. Primer gives your drywall a nice, consistent surface to help your paint go on smooth and adhere well, without different materials showing through.
What’s the best drywall primer for new drywall?
If you paint new drywall without priming it first, you’re likely to end up with splotchy, uneven areas. We recommend water-based primers as the best primer for new drywall. Some water-based primers, such as PVA primers, are made specifically for new drywall and aren’t meant for other surfaces. Latex primers can be used for new drywall, as well as for other indoor or outdoor surfaces. Oil-based or shellac primers are made for heavy stains and odors, or specialized for wood, metal, or other surfaces. You shouldn’t use those specialized primers on fresh interior drywall although they are perfect for prepping exterior surfaces.
What’s the best primer for already-painted drywall?
It is likely that previously painted drywall already has been primed. For that reason, you may be able to use paint that has primer included without having to apply a new primer coat. Before you prime the entire surface, we recommend painting over a small segment of the drywall with such a product. After it dries to re-coat status, apply paint to see if you get the look and consistency you want.
Can you apply drywall primer with a paint sprayer?
It's complicated. Some paint professionals say spraying-on drywall can ensure a more even coat than you can achieve by brushing or rolling. Others point out that some primers, particularly oil-based primers, may be too thick to apply with a sprayer. And then there’s the caution that sprayed-on primer can cause fibers to rise up out of the surface. The best advice when shopping for a primer is to check the label and ask a store employee about whether your intended product is spray-capable.
A number of experts recommend “back rolling”—using a bare roller on a surface upon which you've just applied primer. This way, you work the primer into the surface for better adhesion, and smooth down any fiber “cowlicks” that have emerged as the result of spraying.
Why Trust The Spruce?
Missy Keenan is a freelance writer with more than 2 decades’ experience as a journalist and communications professional, with a special interest in all things home and garden. She has written hundreds of articles for publications, including Do It Yourself, Secrets of Getting Organized, DSM, and Glamour magazines; USA Today; The Des Moines Register; and Iowa Gardening. For this article, Keenan consulted with Pat Dempsey, owner of Renaissance Painting in Des Moines, Iowa, and spent hours researching products online.