Primers are not designed to cover dark or intense colors. I have seen this advice given so often on Internet bulletin boards and even in magazine articles. I imagine the primer industry loves it, but if you read the labels on just about any can of primer, nowhere will it suggest this as a purpose.
If you have a dark-red room you want to paint light taupe, don't bother with painting an entire coat of primer first just to cover. It will be a waste of time and money. Just do two coats of your taupe. Even if you prime the walls, you will still have to do two coats of taupe over the primer.
The term "cover" refers to how large an area your paint will cover. The correct term for how well paint hides the underlying color is "hide," As in "high-hiding" paint or primer. Most primers are low-hiding because they are not designed to hide.
PVA or drywall primers serve several purposes. One is to provide high hide over new drywall.
Some intense colors, like blue-based reds, will take up to six coats to hide a previously white wall. There are tintable, high-hide primers that can be tinted to a shade close to your finish paint, allowing you to get away with painting two or maybe three coats, instead of a total of six.
Any primer can be tinted to a shade similar to your finish coats. Have the paint store do this for you. Primer comes in white, but it doesn't have to stay that way.
Primers are used to provide excellent adhesion and bonding, to seal water-soluble stains (like water stains, knots, magic marker and so on) and to inhibit or stabilize rust. Painting fresh latex paint over old latex paint usually needs no primer at all. If you're painting over weathered, glossy surfcases or oil-based paint, priming is a really important step.
Products like KILZ and BIN provide outstanding adhesion and stain sealing, especially in their original shellac formulas. Do not even think of painting over unpainted, lacquered woodwork or oil or alkyd paints without using a primer of this type. Your finished job will peel and scratch easily, and there is really no solution but to remove all the paint back down to the original finish and start all over again. It's either that, or live with it and touch up frequently.
PVA or drywall primers are inexpensive and high hiding. They provide a tight bond to new drywall, while providing a fairly opaque surface for your finish coat. To tell the difference between unprimed drywall and primed drywall, firmly press a piece of adhesive tape to the wall. If the drywall was never primed, most likely you will yank all the paint off, right down to the drywall, when you remove the tape.
Whether interior or exterior, wood should be primed. This serves a number of functions, from inhibiting tannin and knot stains and preventing rot to ensuring your finish coats will be more weather- and scrub-proof. If you have scraped exterior trim or siding down, use a high-quality breathable primer over all bare and weathered wood. This will easily double the life of the paint job.
Before repainting the outside of your home, go to the side of your house that gets the most sun, usually the south or west side. Run your hand over your siding. If a chalky residue comes off on your skin, you must thoroughly powerwash and scrub your house, or prime it with an oil-based primer. Exterior paints described as self-cleaning are designed to wear off over the years, along with soot and discoloration. The best exterior paint will not adhere to this surface and will be peeling everywhere within a year.
All good metal primers inhibit rust. If you have something that is too severely rusted to clean down to bare metal, there are rust stabilizers that turn the rust black and inert when painted onto the corroded metal. These typically can be painted over within an hour.
There are many other primer types that perform various functions: sealing and waterproofing cinderblock, zinc primers for steel, epoxy concrete sealers, and so on. For the most part, these are not used much on residential homes. If you have a question, check with your local paint store.
Whether you are doing the project yourself or hiring a painting contractor, being aware of some of the proper procedures is always a good thing.
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