Many homes today have the oak colored glossy trim, baseboards, and stair rails popular in the 80’s & 90’s.  Clients often call wanting these stained areas painted to bring their home  more up to date.  This process can be very labor intensive.  It truly begs the question, is there a better process that can save money on labor?  And further, what is the best primer for painting stained wood?

Standard Process

The standard process to cover stained trim is to sand, prime, and then paint a couple of coats of paint.  The end goal is to get the best bond between paint and the stained surface so the paint won’t peel off.  The way to get the paint to bond is to apply a primer.  When covering a glossy surface like a baseboard that has a lacquered or polyurethane finish, you typically must prep that surface for the primer and paint to adhere.   The primer and paint will peel off very easily if that glossy surface isn’t prepped the right way. . 

Our Testing

We started our research by talking to paint manufacturers such as Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore, PPG, and Behr/Home Depot.  We asked, “what is the best primer for painting stained wood”?  The answers were pretty consistent in that, the newer water-based primers will do the trick.  

There is a lot of information out there touting oil-based or solvent-based primers for this type of project.  However, these primers are more difficult to work with, and not environmentally friendly. It was nice to hear from these paint manufacturers that the best primer for painting stained wood does now include water-based primers.

Oak stained cabinet doors were used to test these primers.  We felt these doors would represent the most common wood that clients want painted these days.  We believe the cabinet doors will react the same as a baseboard or stair rail which is finished in the same glossy finish.

To Sand Or Not To Sand

As you can see in the video, we tested bonding by performing different levels of sanding.  On one side of the door we did no sanding.  On the 2nd side, we did a light scuff sanding.  Then, on the 3rd side, we did a full sanding of the surface area. 

Next, we painted different primers on each door.  We applied each primer to all 3 sides of each door.  We then scratch tested after 24 hours, and then again after 38 days of curing.   As professional painters, we know from experience that products can transform over time.  Their properties can actually change and form a stronger bond the longer it is left to cure. 

Top Performers

We experimented with lots of primers for our tests to find the best primer for painting stained wood.  The top performers we found were: Seal Grip from PPG, Stix from Benjamin Moore, Sherwin Williams Extreme Bond Primer, and Behr Bonding Primer from Home Depot.

High-End Primers Tested

The higher-end Sherwin Williams Extreme Bond Primer had great results in the area of bonding.  There was a very minimal difference between the non-sanded side vs the sanded side when we tried to scrape it off with a metal scraper.  However, the tannins did come through on this primer showing the yellow color of the oak underneath.  It seems to work very well for bonding but not necessarily as a stain blocking primer.

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We then tested the Stix primer from Benjamin Moore.  The Stix primer had similar results with the bonding when testing for the best primer for painting stained wood.  It bonded very well. Even though there was slight wear on the non-sanded side we scraped, it still performed great overall!  

Next up was Seal Grip from PPG. It performed very well and the non-sanded side continued to surprise us.  The non-sanded side held its bond strong when we tried to scrape it off with a metal scraper.  Just like the Sherwin Williams and the Stix, there wasn’t a noticeable difference between the sides that we sanded vs the non-sanded side.

Behr Bonding Primer was the next primer we tested.  The Behr had great bonding performance and stain blocking.  It did allow scuff marks from the scraper but didn’t scrape off, even on the non-sanded side. 

Lower Priced Primers Tested

Kilz 2 All Purpose Primer was another popular one tested in our search for the best primer for painting stained wood.  This was the least expensive primer we tested but a very common one so we wanted to include it in our testing. The Kilz 2 seemed to go on thinner than the others we examined.  Further, we were able to scrape off the primer on the non-sanded side where we couldn’t with the others.

In our testing, the higher-end primers did outperform the less expensive alternatives. So, it appears you actually do get your money’s worth with the higher end primers! 

Surprising Results!

There was definitely a difference between the lower priced vs the high-end primers when it came to sanding.  In these lower end primers, we were able to scrape the primer off with a fingernail on the sides that weren’t sanded.

However, with the high-end primers we were quite surprised with the results. The bonding strength did not seem to be affected by sanding. The non-sanded areas performed just as well as the fully sanded areas. This is great news since the labor expense for sanding is so high!


In the category for best primer for painting stained wood, our results found two top performers.  They are Sherwin Williams Extreme Bond Primer, and Behr Bonding Primer. These top two primers were the very best at bonding in both the 24 hour test and the 38 day test.   A close 3rd was Stix from Benjamin Moore.

The surprising results were how well these higher level primers resisted the scraping with a metal scraper.  Even when scraping on the non-sanded sides!  As professional painters, we’ve always known the best way to complete a job like this is to sand first. However, this in-depth experiment has shown us these newer high-end primers may allow another choice for the homeowner.

We still believe one of best ways to paint stained wood is to fully sand, prime, then paint.  However, if you’d like to try your own experiment like we did, you may decide you’d rather save some money on the labor, and just go with priming and painting.  Especially if the results don’t really prove a better job with sanding.

Paint Pals has been serving Northern Colorado since 2009.  Contact us for a free estimate