Primers are easily the most essential, and often most over-looked step in painting. Get the primer wrong and you may have a disaster on your hands as your paint begins peeling, allowing bleed through, or easily chipping off.
Get your primer right, and you’ll have a great looking and long lasting paint job for years to come.
Zinsser Smart Prime is one of the newest primers on the market from one of the best known brands for paint primer, Zinsser.
Ready to start your project? Purchase Zinsser Smart Prime here.
What To Consider When Looking For a Primer
Primers are extremely important in painting. Choosing the right or wrong primer (or skipping to use one altogether) can make or break a paint job and vastly impact the longevity of your paint job.
A good primer will help make sure that your top coat adheres property to your substrate, give you a more even/better looking final sheen, hide stains, give a smoother finish, and prevent stains from bleeding through.
There are many benefits to using a primer and if you are ever questioning if you should prime a surface, I always tell people that its better to use a primer when you didn’t need to than to not use one when you should have!
There are 5 main categories you need to consider when looking at primers:
- How well they seal surface to block stains from bleeding through.
- How well they bond to surfaces. This prevents future peeling and chipping.
- How well they sand. This helps create a smooth surface for top coats.
- How well they level and flow. This helps create a smooth surface for the final coat.
- Safety. How high of a VOC content do they have?
Often times when you’re painting, you need to figure which one of the categories above is most important and choose your primer accordingly.
But occasionally, we find a product that not only does well in each category, but actually beats the competition in nearly every category.
For me, this has been Smart Prime by Zinsser. This primer is amazing and has become my go to product for priming kitchen cabinets, exterior spot priming (I use Peel Bond for peeling houses), priming ceilings, water stains, sealing wood tannins, and more.
In simple terms, these are water based finishes that look like oil base finishes and have all the features and benefits of an oil based finish without the high VOCs and paint thinner clean up.
Zinsser Smart Prime has taken this idea and improved upon it greatly. Not only is Smart Prime a water based finish, but it has an even lower VOC content than almost every water based primer I’ve used while out performing both water based primers, oil based primers, and even other hybrid primers on the market.
Zinsser Smart Prime Uses
I’ve been using Zinsser Smart Prime for roughly a year now. My main use for Smart Prime is for priming kitchen cabinets before painting.
Kitchen cabinets can have all kinds of problems and priming is extremely important. First off, they are often coated in a layer of food and hand grease. I always wash and sand my cabinets, but I still need a primer that can handle the grease in case of missed areas or left behind residue.
Oak, which is one of the main woods I paint over when painting kitchen cabinets, is notories for tannins that bleed through. Tannins are basically tanic acids that come out of the wood when moisture is present and looks like brown stains in your paint finish (most noticeable on white finishes). In the past, water based primers could not properly seal these tannins in and I had to use an oil based primer to prevent tannin bleed through. Smart Prime does a great job of sealing in these tannins.
Smart Prime is also great at bonding to glossy surfaces, another issue with kitchen cabinets or any other wood trim (such as windows and doors) that you are painting in your home. A primer that doesn’t bond well to glossy surfaces will end up causing your top coat to easily scratch off and chip.
Smart Prime is also great for hitting water stains on ceilings or on kitchen/bathroom walls before painting.
I personally don’t use Smart Prime on exterior surface all that often. I’ve only used it for spot priming and typically go with Peel Bond when priming exterior surface as it is the best primer around for preventing exterior peeling.
How To Apply Smart Prime
Brush and Roll
The easiest way to apply Smart Prime is with a bush and roller. Apply it as you would any other paint.
My Favorite Brush For Kitchen Cabinets: Purdy Clear Cut Elite
You can also easily use an HVLP sprayer to apply Smart Prime. This is actually my preferred method when spraying kitchen cabinets. To get a perfect atomization with my Titan Capspray 115, I like to thin Smart Prime with 20% water. So if I measure out 50 oz of primer, I add in 10 oz of water and it sprays perfectly.
My personal favorite HVLP sprayer is the Wagner Flexio 5000.
- Read My Review On The Wagner Flexio 5000 (Publishing first week of January 2023).
- Purchase The Wagner Flexio 5000 on Amazon.
Airless sprayers can easily handle Smart Prime straight from the can unthinned. I’ve sprayed many ceilings with smart prime using my Graco Magnum Pro X17 and Graco Magnum X5.
Features And Benefits
Interior and Exterior Use
Having a primer that can be used on both interiors and exteriors is fantastic. I always keep Smart Prime on hand but still go with Peel Bond on many exterior priming projects.
Amazing at Stain Blocking (especially oak tannins)
One of the most important jobs of a primer is to block out stains such as water, oil, oak, cedar, grease, crayon, rust, and tannins. I can confidently say from experience that Smart Prime does a great job of this.
Fast Drying and Recoat
Having a product that dries fast and can be recaoted quickly is essential when painting for profit. Smart Prime typically dries in minutes if humidity isn’t too high and can be recoated in an hour. The higher the humidity, the slower the dry times.
Great Adhesions – Even To Glossy Surfaces
Many people don’t want to sand due to releasing dust particles or even lead into the air. So having a product that can bond well to un-sanded glossy surfaces is important. While I haven’t personally tried to paint over glossy surfaces without any sanding, I can say that Smart Prime has out performed all other water based and hybrid primers that I have used when it comes to bonding. This is one area that I have noticed that a true oil primer still outperforms.
Mold and Mildew Resistant
Mold and mildew resistant is an important feature when using primers and paints in bathrooms, kitchens and basements.
Cleanup with Water
One of the best features of any hybrid primer is the fact that you can clean it up with water. Busting out paint thinner to clean an oil based primer is awful and you need to dispose of the paint thinner properly when done, not fun.
VOC Content & Smell
I was absolutely shocked to read just how low of VOC content Smart Prime has. It also has minimal smell. I’ve used Smart Prime on construction sites and occupied projects and nobody even knows I am painting.
Smart Prime has 25 grams of VOCs per liter. So that you understand just how amazing that is, here are a few comparable products:
- Kilz Original Oil Primer: 442 grams per liter
- Kilz 2 Water Based Primer: 100 grams per liter
- Benjamin Moore Stix: 87.6 grams per liter
- Sherwin Williams Multi-Purpose Water-Based Acrylic-Alkyd Primer (very comparable): 31 grams per liter.
- Benjamin Moore Advance Primer (very comparable product): 44 grams per liter.
As you can see, Smart Prime has about as low of a VOC content as you could hope for in a primer.
Volume of Solids By Weight
Volume of solids by weight is an overly simplistic way to tell the quality of a paint, but it does give you a good idea of the quality of a product.
Volume of solids refers to how much of a paint is solids and how much is liquid. The solids are what is left behind when the product is dry, so in theory, the higher the solids, the better the paint.
- Zinsser Smart Prime: 50% Solids
- Sherwin Williams Multi Purpose: 40% solids
- Benjamin Moore Advance Primer: 41.5% solids
- Kilz 2: 30% solids
- Benjamin Moore Stix: 40% solids
Alternatives To Smart Prime
Benjamin Moore Stix
Stix is a water based bonding primer and it is fantastic. If you’re looking for a primer that offers great bonding capabilities, you won’t go wrong with Stix.
Purchase INSL-X Stix Here
Read My Full Review Here
Benajmin Moore Advance Primer
Advance Primer is Benjamin Moore’s version of a water based acrylic alkyd (hybrid) primer and is the accompanying product to their amazing hybrid enamel Advance. Advance is my absolute favorite finish when painting kitchen cabinets. It is all I use and recommend. The primer is also great and I’ve never had issues. But Zinsser is cheaper and has the slight edge in performance.
Read my review on Benjamin Moore Advance Kitchen Cabinet Enamel
Purchase Benjamin Moore Advance Here
Kilz 2 Water Based Primer
I actually use Kilz 2 a lot. I use it a lot because it is incredibly cheap and performs good enough for a lot of projects. For example, I recently used it on a 5000 square foot home where the previous owner was a smoker. I primed every ceiling, wall and sub floor in the house and it took roughly 60 gallons. At roughly $13 a gallon, I saved nearly $1,020 by using Kilz 2 instead of Smart Prime. I did have to hit a couple of bleed through spots by hand afterwords, but it was completely worth it.
Purchase Kilz 2 Here
Read My Full Review here
Kilz Original Oil Based Primer
I don’t use original Kilz anymore. I value my health too much and I no longer have any situations where I am ok using this product. As you can see above it’s VOC content is huge.
Zinsser Smart Prime is one of the best, if not the best primer on the market in my opinion. I have no affiliation with Zinsser and have no affiliate links to the product in this post. I honestly just believe this is the best primer on the market at the moment. I use it on all of my kitchen cabinet projects, anywhere a high performing primer is needed, and I recommend it to all my friends and family.
Ready To Learn More?
Check out our Painting Kitchen Cabinets hub page for everything you could want to know about cabinet painting including costs, how-tos, reviews, and more.
Sunday 30th of January 2022
My husband and I are building a wall of cabinets by purchasing stock cabinets from Home Depot and intending to pain them to match existing kitchen cabinets. When I wasn't able to find Zinsser Smart Prime locally I used Valspar stain blocking bonding primer/sealer. My question is: do you think I can still get a good finish result with BM Advance, or should I order Smart Prime and add a coat over the Valspar before finishing with BM Advance satin?
Sunday 30th of January 2022
Thank you for your quick reply. One more question, please. Can you recommend a paintbrush for applying the BM Advance in satin finish? Many thanks, Carol.
Sunday 30th of January 2022
You can absolutely still get a good finish. Valspar is a good brand. Make sure it's covered well, sand in between coats, and move on to applying the Advance.
Thursday 30th of December 2021
Hi Ryan, your blog and posts have given me the courage to tackle my own refinishing project. I'm stumped though at the primer stage. I've not been able to find zinsser smart primer and read somewhere that bin shellac is also great. I do see that it requires denatured alcohol to clean up. I went ahead and bought a wagner sprayer as well for the project. Is there any advantage /disadvantage that I should expect or go extra mile to find a water /hybrid primer as well? I intend on using your sherwin williams recommendation for the hybrid top coat. Thanks in advance! Ps your grain filler Trick works amazing.
Saturday 22nd of January 2022
Hi Bal, Great to hear that you're going to tackle this project. I personally avoid products like shellac these days and prefer to use low VOC products. This is why I really like Smart Prime. But there are some other good products like INSLX Stix and Zinsser Extreme Adhesion Primer. Glad the filler worked for you!
All ABout Wallz
Friday 20th of August 2021
Been painting for 25 years and have been through the whole oil based mess and trying to find the best primer over and over again. (whether it be water or oil). Tried all of them with no REAL satisfaction since i am getting lazier as i age :) When i heard about Smart Prime from a Miller Paint rep, i was skeptical since he told me so many positive things about it and no negatives. I have to say, i have never been more shocked in a primer before! Easy coats, fat drying, fast second coat, oil performance without the oil, very low odor, and very very good durability! My only complaint is that why didn't more people in the industry and stores know about this and recommend it to me way sooner? Even today i mention it to paint stores and they've never heard of it, even the Miller stores where i usually get it from! (they just dont stock it at certain ones). This is the best find ever if anyone is looking for the greatest all in one primer. I do a lot of old stained wood painting color change and every primer i've used turns to a 'yellowish' tint from the bleed out, and i hate using any oil based product. The Smart Prime has NEVER let me down with the bleed through! I can't recommend this product enough. My only complaint is the Zinsser should market this product better so people know it's out there. The best primer ever in my opinion. On a side note, Behr has a hybrid paint with this same technology (other manufactures do to, but i've liked the Behr product more) and i really love it also for the actual paint. Especially on cabinets or trim.
Sunday 15th of August 2021
I primed my cabinets with Zinsser 123 water based. I am getting bleed through. Can i spray over the 123 with the Smart primer?
Sunday 15th of August 2021
Yes, you can add another coat of primer to help seal the bleed through. If the bleed-through is just in a couple of areas, you can hit those areas with a spray can of kilz as well (this is what I do) rather than re-prime everything. Good Luck!
Saturday 17th of April 2021
Hi Ryan, I am in the process of painting my oak kitchen cabinets. I have always purchased my products at a local Benjamin Moore store. My recent visit to purchase Zinsser Smart Prime Water Based Primer was not pleasant. The guy helping me told me I was making a BIG MISTAKE by not using an oil based primer product for my cabinets and that "most people" listen to the experts, but if that was my choice.....(A****) I explained that I had done a lot of research before making this decision. He was extremely rude. Anyhow, I removed all doors and drawer fronts, cleaned them (they were very clean already), sanded them with Random Orbital Sander, applied 4 coats of white Aquacoat grain filler (sanding with 320 grit between each coat) I just finished applying 2 coats of the Smart Prime, again sanding in between coats with 320. Then I applied 2 coats of Benjamin Moore Advanced Waterborne Alkyd Interior Satin paint in "White Dove" sanding with 320 between coats. I have done only wall boxes so far. HERE COMES THE QUESTION! LOL Before I apply the second coat of Smart Prime to 21 doors and 8 drawer fronts....is 2 coats of this primer (along with 2 coats of paint) going to keep oak tannins from bleeding through? I have worked so hard for several weeks I just need to be sure before going any further.
Thank You, Wendy (Also, the Aquacoat Manufacturer said either oil or water based primer was okay to use over their product.)
Tuesday 20th of April 2021
@Ryanc, Thank you for getting back to me so quickly, it was perfect timing! I actually just finished my light sanding after the first coat of Smart Prime on doors/drawers and I do see some areas that could be a problem. I will definitely try the Kilz Original before applying the second coat of Smart Prime.
Thanks again, fingers crossed :)
Tuesday 20th of April 2021
Sorry to hear about your store experience. Here's the thing to remember, while they may deal with paint every day, they typically have very little real-world experience. Also, they may have an incentive to push certain products. I have no incentive for you to use Smart Prime (unless you buy it on Amazon, which rarely happens), I could recommend any primer on here, I recommend it because I've used it on my projects with complete success.
Tannins are tricky and the one area where oil primers outshine water-based primers. I always keep a spray can of Kilz Original and spot prime any tannin bleed through after the first coat of primer. Works perfectly and I end up with 4-5 small sprays of oil vs shooting the entire kitchen. The harm to the environment, the harm to my body, and the extra paint thinner expense isn't worth it to use oils on the entire project. I hope this helps!
Sounds like you're going above and beyond on your cabinets, they should turn out great!