4 Best Water Based Primers: Reviewed, Rated & Compared

Depending on the specific job, using a primer before you paint can be a great idea. It can help ensure proper adhesion of the paint to the surface, and using a primer first can help achieve a more consistent appearance in your final coat.

While initially you may see primers as something that only increases the cost of the project; primers can improve the appearance of, and enhance the life of the paint.

If you’re in the market for the best water based primer, the Rust-Oleum Bulls Eye 1-2-3 primer is a great choice.

You will find three basic variations of primers on the market: oil-based, latex and pigmented shellac primer. Here’s what you need to know about each one.


These primers work well with latex and oil-based paints so they are versatile for a variety of applications. You can use an oil-based primer on wood, steel and other metals. It is also possible to apply them on top of the existing paint. Oil-based primers are good at killing stains and preventing further stains.

The downside to oil-based primers is they tend to take a while drying. In addition, they release a large amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can be harmful to people and the environment. You will also need to use harsh thinners and solvents to clean up your applicators and brushes after use.

Latex-based (water)

Latex-based primers are water-based and ideal for using on unfinished drywall. They are flexible and dry quickly. In addition, they are less brittle than an oil-based primer. This means they are less susceptible to cracking and peeling.

You can use a water-based primer on softwood such as pine as well as concrete, brick and galvanized metals. Water-based primers are also easy to clean. It is a breeze to clean up brushes, rollers and sprayers after using a water-based formulation. You’ll find that most variations of water-based primers are low in VOCs or have none at all. This makes them a much healthier choice compared to oil-based or shellac primer.


These formulas have been around for centuries and have been geared toward sealing wood as well as other surfaces. They are the best at stain-blocking and work well with water or smoke damaged areas. They have even been known to seal in the smell after smoke damage.

Shellac primers can prevent water, rust and smoke stains from occurring. They are used on wood, plaster, metal and plastic surfaces. These primers are fast-drying and tend to be highly adhesive but come with a large amount of VOCs. They also aren’t as versatile as a water or oil-based primer. For clean up, you will need to use denatured alcohol.

Benefits of a Water Based Primer

Water-based primers have been a no-brainer choice when looking at the options. There are several properties that neither of the other options can offer.

First, they are easy to clean, unlike oil-based primers which require harsh solvents and shellac which will require denatured alcohol. In addition, they offer a lower amount of VOCs than the other varieties. This isn’t just a plus for the environment but will protect your family’s health.

Water-based primers can be used for a variety of surfaces including soft woods, concrete and galvanized metals. On top of that, you can use water or oil-based paints with these primers, making them extremely versatile. If that wasn’t enough, you’ll find that water-based primers dry fast. This means you can move on with your project quickly and get back to life sooner.

Paint Primer Buying Guide

Primer has many applications, the most popular of which is a base coat for colored paint to adhere to. You use primer on bare metal or wood to give your paint a surface to bond with. Before you go and buy any old primer, there are some things to think about.

Form of Primer

There are two basic forms of primer; They can come in a liquid that is brushed or rolled on or in a spray form that can be used with a canister sprayer. The spray form primers will usually come in a spray paint can of their own, where you shake to mix and then point the nozzle and spray. For small projects, spray primer may work just fine. Larger projects, such as walls or fences, need a liquid primer for more thorough coverage.

Type of Primer

The type of primer you select is important. Aside from all the factors listed below, you will want to get the right primer for the job. Primers are not general-purpose cover-ups. There are primers specifically designed for metal, wood, drywall, etc. Whatever project you are working on, you need to select the right primer type for the job.

Stain & Odor Resistance

Certain primers will have more properties than just bonding. You can use primers to cover stains on drywall that would otherwise bleed through. There are also primers that mask odors, prevent mold and mildew, and can even dry out sheetrock if you happen to have a spray-happy cat running around.

Drying Time

Before you can paint your colored paint, the primer needs time to cure, set, and dry. For time-sensitive projects, you will want a primer with a quick-cure or fast drying time. To make sure you get a finished and professional look, though, you need to allow the primer full time to cure.

Some applications will require you to sand the primer and apply a second or even third coat. Make sure you know how much time to allow between coats to prevent the topcoat from running, cracking, or peeling.

Finishing Color

While there are many shades of primer available, the actual color doesn’t matter much, since it will be covered with your chosen top coat color. However, you want to get a shade of primer that will allow the color paint to show nicely, while not bleeding through. The general rule is to use a grey or dark shade primer for dark colors and a light or white primer for bright colors.

4 Best Water Based Primers Reviewed

1. Rust-Oleum Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Water-Based Primer

Zinsser 02004 Bulls Eye 1-2-3 All Surface...
  • Interior/exterior use on new or previously...
  • Water-based formula seals uniformly and will...
  • Dries to the touch in 35 minutes, ready to...
  • Has excellent stain blocking resistance and...

The Rust-Oleum Bulls Eye is a great choice if you’re searching for the best water based primer for the job. The well-priced provided can includes one quart of primer. This single can covers 100 square footage of material and has good overall coverage.

The 1-2-3 primer also includes a rust-inhibiting substance (ironic name?) making it very well suitable for metal surfaces.

While you don’t need to sand beforehand with this primer, you’ll want to ensure that the surface is cleaned so the primer can do it’s job properly. However, proper preparation before hand and sanding will ensure the best overall finish.

A primer such as this will be great for both interior and exterior application, and tends to work very well on higher pH materials like concrete. And it truly does stick to almost anything, making painting a breeze. If you’ve had materials where paint just won't stick, this might definitely help.

This is seriously a primer that will definitely add to the look of your paint. It’ll make good paint look great and will make only average paint look good.

Pros & Cons of the Rust Oleum Water-Based Primer

Now you may be wondering how this stacks up against other primers, or even simply just using a second coat of paint instead. Firstly, a water based primer, especially a good primer such as this costs less than paint. Using a coat of primer first before painting will be less expensive than using two coats of paint.

As mentioned earlier, because of the nature of this primer, you don’t have to sand beforehand. The formula allows the primer to be able to stick to most surfaces provided the surface is cleaned prior to application.

The Rust-Oleum primer, like all primers of this nature do clean up very easily. You’ll have no issue cleaning up after you’ve finished the job simply by using soap and water. Another plus to using the Rust-Oleum 1-2-3 primer first instead of multiple coats of paint: less cleanup time.

This primer is no exception to the quick drying ability most primers have. It should dry in about 30 minutes, allowing you to paint a room quicker than doing two coats of paint instead.

However, this primer like most other water based face primers when applied may show the surface underneath it slightly. On some materials, especially darker ones, you may prefer and have to do a second coat of primer to cover this. This is also generally easily remedied, as one coat of paint should cover underneath nicely.

We wish the sizing options on amazon would be different as well. One can (one quart) is generally only enough for small jobs. The pack deal also featured is 6 cans. A half gallon and gallon can option which are available in stores would be great if they were still on amazon.

2. KILZ High Build Surface Healing Primer Interior Water-Based Primer/Sealer

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This unique formula applies in thick layers and is capable of hiding surface imperfections. It can also be sprayed on to leave a level 5 finish.

Use this product on drywall or any damaged, textured surface. That means it’s ideal for masonry, paneling, stucco, painted metal, plaster, some glossy surfaces and wood.

This primer dries to touch in just 30 minutes and you can recoat in an hour. When it’s fully dry, it can also be sanded. Then, apply a topcoat of either water or oil-based paints to finish off your look. One gallon will cover 100 to 200 square feet. If you want to spray it on, you just need a 0.017 to 0.021 tip.


  • Applies in thick layers
  • Can be sprayed
  • Ideal for many surfaces
  • Dries to touch in only 30 minutes
  • Covers 100 to 200 square feet per can


  • Only covers minor imperfections
  • Expensive

3. KILZ Adhesion High-Bonding Interior/Exterior Latex Primer/Sealer, White

KILZ Adhesion Primer, Interior/Exterior, 1...
  • A good bonding primer is essential to ensure...
  • KILZ Adhesion is a unique latex primer...
  • Bonds to tough-to-paint surfaces including...
  • Use on most interior and exterior surfaces...

If you need to paint on a surface that might have trouble adhering, this is a good bonding primer option. You can use it on PVC, glass, Kynar, Formica, tile, vinyl, chalky paints, glazed brick, fiberglass, metals and gloss finishes. Then, just apply a topcoat of oil or water-based paint.

This primer is ideal for most exterior and interior surfaces that require a secure bond. You can even use it under lacquers, epoxies plus products that contain solvents like Xylene. You can purchase this formula in a quart container or gallon. It’s a long-lasting formula as a gallon covers approximately 300 square feet.

You also have the option of spraying, brushing or rolling this formula. Within 30 minutes, KILZ Adhesion dries to the touch and is ready to recoat within the hour.


  • Excellent for adhering to tough surfaces
  • Usable indoors or outdoors
  • Available in a quart or gallon
  • Gallon can cover 300 square feet
  • Dry to touch in 30 minutes


  • Many reviews seem to come from a free product
  • Has a faint odor

4. KILZ MAX Clear Maximum Stain & Odor Blocking Interior Water-Base Primer/Sealer

KILZ Adhesion Primer, Interior/Exterior, 1...
  • A good bonding primer is essential to ensure...
  • KILZ Adhesion is a unique latex primer...
  • Bonds to tough-to-paint surfaces including...
  • Use on most interior and exterior surfaces...

This water-based primer offers a lot of choices for the customer. There’s a clear or white formula, plus you can opt for a gallon container or 5-gallon container, which is ideal for larger projects.

This is the most expensive option on the list, but it works on various surfaces. Apply it to your rafters, drywall or subfloors with ease.

What makes this formula unique is the mildewcide that’s inside the primer. This protects against the growing of mildew.  The Max formula also blocks out severe stains that have been caused by nicotine, water, tannin, rust, felt markers or ink.

One gallon of this primer covers 300 to 400 square feet. You can also easily brush, spray or roll this on. This non-flammable formula is also low VOC and low odor.


  • Available in clear or white
  • Contains mildewcide
  • Available in a gallon or five-gallon container
  • Gallon can cover 300 to 400 square feet
  • Low VOC and odor


  • Expensive
  • Doesn’t cover pet smells well

Which Job Are Primers Suitable For?

Any unfinished surface should be primed before painting. This includes wood, metal, concrete and drywall. I know it seems easier to overlook this step, but your results will be disappointing. When you apply paint to an unprimed surface, you will battle peeling and cracking in the future.

If you are working on a previously painted surface, you might not need to prime the area. The only time that it would be necessary is if you are switching between an oil-based or latex paint. Then, scrap and sand the surface before application. Many water-based primers can be used with both latex and oil-based paints, just be sure to read the manufacturer’s recommendations on the can.

Primer often seems like an unnecessary step, but it can save money and time later. Using primer makes it possible to hide imperfections and reduce the number of coats needed for a smooth finish. Aside from the longer life you can expect from a proper priming job, many formulations also offer mildew protection which is a plus on your completed job. A general rule of thumb is that all preparation is worth it in the long run.

Dedicated Primer vs Self-Priming Paints

Painting projects aren’t without their choices. One of those choices is to go with a dedicated primer or purchase a 2-in-1 style paint and primer combo, also known as self-priming paints.

While this is a personal preference, the tie generally goes with the dedicated primer. Self-priming paints use an adhesion additive that works as a primer to bond the paint to the painted surface.

However, in most general applications, the paint is more expensive, has fewer color options (though this is rapidly changing), and needs to be continuously mixed to keep the bonding particles from settling to the bottom.

While you may save time with 2-in-1 paint, it can be more frustrating than it is worth. A dedicated primer will do its job without fuss, and you know exactly how much primer is on the surface. If you need to sand out impurities, the primer layer allows you to do that without needing to reapply colored paint afterward.

How to Apply Primer

You can apply primer with the same application methods as regular paint. You can brush it on or use a spray can for smaller projects, or you can use a roller for larger areas that need coverage.

For the savvy among us, you can use your paint spray gun with a primer tip (0.017 of an inch orifice) to quickly and evenly apply the primer.

No matter which method you go with, the primer layer will make the finished product professional and smooth. Your colors will stand out better, too, making you even more satisfied with your choices.


The Rust-Oleum Bulls Eye 1-2-3 is definitely the top rated water-based primer currently on amazon for a reason. If you’re looking for the best water based primer for a smaller job, this one fits the bill perfectly.

Don’t settle for jobs done only half properly. If you use a primer and good preparation beforehand, you’ll end up with a professionally done painting job.

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