Can you paint drywall without primer?

Hanging drywall is a pain, so it’s absolutely tempting to try to skip steps when you can. So can you paint drywall without primer? It seems like an unnecessary step, but is it?

Why conventional wisdom says to paint drywall with primer

can you paint drywall without primer
I painted this scrap of drywall with one coat of Kilz all-purpose latex primer, tinted similarly to my topcoat, and one coat of mid-grade latex paint. Note how even the color is.

Freshly installed drywall absorbs paint extremely readily. Primer has two jobs. Primer’s first job is to give paint something to stick to. But its second job is to seal the surface, so more of the paint stays where you can see it, rather than soaking in and fading. This lets you cover the wall with fewer coats.

Nothing says you have to use primer. You can just paint the bare drywall. But you’ll have to use more coats than usual. It may take three or even four coats. So skipping the primer doesn’t really save you time or money, because you end up using more paint, and wasting whatever time it takes to apply those additional coats.

So if you’re looking to save time and money, here’s a trick you can use that gives you better results in less time, instead of trying to paint drywall without primer.

What to do instead of trying to paint drywall without primer

Instead of trying to paint drywall without primer, try this trick. You’ll love it. Use tinted primer.

What is tinted primer? When you go to buy paint, you have the store tint the primer to match your paint as closely as possible. They may not be able to match it exactly, because there usually isn’t as much room in the primer can for tint as there is in the paint can. So that means the primer usually is a bit lighter than the paint. But the tinted primer is much easier to cover than plain white primer. I actually prefer when it doesn’t quite match exactly, because then I can more easily see the parts I missed. If the color matches but the sheen doesn’t, the paint won’t look good. Also, the tinted primer makes it easier to see if you missed a spot when covering white drywall.

Paint your drywall with the tinted primer, then apply your topcoat of paint. I find I can get the drywall covered with one coat of primer, then one coat of good quality paint, then following up with spot touch-ups once the top coat is dry. The coat of primer doesn’t even have to be perfect. Just slap on the primer, and then apply the top coat like it matters.

PVA primer, intended for the first coat on fresh drywall, is cheaper than an all-purpose primer. If the store will tint the cheap PVA primer, you can use that instead. But some stores won’t tint that. Paying extra to step up to the cheapest Kilz or Zinnser primer on the shelf may be worth your time, rather than driving all over town. I’ve used both Kilz and Zinnser all-purpose primer for this, and both work equally well. You might also consider just buying the all-purpose primer anyway, since the leftover primer will be more useful for other projects. All-purpose primer works much better if you ever decide to use it to repaint over existing paint.

What about paint and primer in one?

I like paint and primer in one, but I don’t use it instead of a dedicated primer. The expensive paint and primer in one still requires at least two coats to cover fresh drywall. A good primer costs $10 per gallon less than a good paint. So it’s cheaper to use a coat of quality primer, followed by a coat of good paint.

If I can get a paint-and-primer-in-one for around $25 a gallon, I’ll use it. It’s definitely better than the paint that costs $15 per gallon. Given three grades of paint, priced at $15, $25, and $35 per gallon, I find I need two coats of the cheap paint, even with a tinted primer. The higher-priced grade of paint doesn’t let me skip the primer on fresh drywall, so I go with the mid-grade paint.

The paint that costs $35 or $45 a gallon works best to repaint a room that’s already a neutral color. In those instances, you can usually get an acceptable paint job in a single coat. To cover red, pink, yellow, and bright, loud shades of other colors, you’ll need a good primer first, no matter what kind of paint you use for a topcoat. As a landlord, every house I bought had one room like that, if not several.

One more trick to save money and time

I like to buy both paint and primer in 5-gallon buckets, unless I’m absolutely, positively sure I only need a single gallon to get a job done. You get a nice price break on the five-gallon quantity. The five-gallon bucket costs about the same as four individual gallons of paint, so it’s like getting a fifth gallon free. But the five-gallon buckets also save you a lot of time. Instead of messing around with individual roller trays, you can get a mesh tray that fits into the side of the bucket so you can roll straight out of the bucket. This saves the time of filling trays and reduces waste. The mesh tray also cleans up much faster and easier than the traditional trays.

I also find it’s much easier to get the lid back onto the five-gallon bucket to seal it tightly. Individual cans can last for years if you remember to wipe all the paint off the rim so the top seals tightly. With a five-gallon bucket, the lid always seals tightly. That means when you need to do touchups in a few years, you can just mix up the paint again and the paint will be fine.

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