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Do You Need to Prime Drywall Before Painting It for the First Time?

Drywall paper and joint compound absorb paint differently.

After you're done hanging drywall, and all the seams are taped and finished, you need two coats of paint to give the wall its final appearance. Before you apply those, however, you need to seal the drywall and mud with primer. If you paint over fresh drywall with regular wall paint, you'll have a hard time getting an even finish. You may get acceptable results by using self-priming wall paint.

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Drywall Primer

Drywall primer is not the same as paint. Its main ingredient is polyvinyl acetate (PVA), the same ingredient in carpenter's glue. Its job is to seal the porous surfaces of the paper and dried joint compound and make them more receptive to new paint. The PVA in the primer adheres better to unfinished drywall than does paint, and paint adheres better to primer than it does to drywall. Primer comes in various grades, and a high-build variety fills in small nicks and ridges in the joints better than paint, giving the wall a smoother overall appearance.

Two Coats of Paint

It's tempting to try to save money by applying two coats of regular latex wall paint as an alternative to using primer. The first coat is bound to soak in, because the latex binder isn't as strong as PVA. It also doesn't form the thin, adhesive film that PVA does, so the second coat is also likely to soak into the porous joint compound. The result is an uneven paint job that will probably need a third coat. Paint is more expensive than primer, so you haven't saved any money by going this route. Instead, you probably will end up spending more.

Self-Priming Paint Vs. Tinted Primer

Self-priming paints are designed to help you avoid painting three coats to get even coverage. They contain the same binding material as primer -- PVA -- but also enough solids to build a finish in two coats. If you prefer to use a specialty paint, however, or a paint that you already have around the house, you can simulate a coat of self-priming paint by adding tint to a high-build primer. The tinted primer won't be the same color as the topcoat, but it should be close enough so that one coat of wall paint will finish the job.

When You Need a Primer

Certain situations call for a primer instead of a self-priming paint. One of these is when you are painting over stained or water-damaged drywall. You need a high-solids primer to prevent bleed-through and uneven coloring. You should also prime drywall before hanging wallpaper on it. The primer seals the paper and joint compound so that the wallpaper glue doesn't soak in and dry out. A primer is also useful when you're repainting a wall that has a gloss coat. Applying primer after deglossing the paint with trisodium phosphate ensures that your topcoat will apply evenly.

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