Which Zinsser Primer to Use?

by Sam Wood | Last Updated: 02/09/2021

Zinsser primers are known for their quality, and more and more people are recommending them to new users. But this brings with it its own problem, which one do you use? It can be really confusing, especially to new users, after all, they all claim to do nearly the same thing. So where are there so damn many of them?

Which Zinsser Primer to Use

For covering tough stains such as graffiti and also dark woods Zinsser Cover Stain is your best bet. For porous surfaces and ceramics such as tile Bulls Eye 123 is the Zinsser primer to choose. For blocking odours and also priming glossy surfaces such as kitchen cabinets then you should choose Zinsser B-I-N

What Is The Difference?

All three of the main Zinsser primers are different types of paint. B-I-N is a Shellac based paint, Bulls Eye 123 is water-based paint (and works well with Zinsser Allcoat, which is also water based) and Cover Stain is an oil or solvent-based paint.

Zinsser Primers

Zinsser Primers

Solvent Based
Zinsser Cover Stain Primer/Finish Paint 1 Litre
£13.85 (£13.85 / l)
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09/23/2021 04:36 pm GMT
Water Based
Zinsser 123 Bulls Eye Primer/Sealer Paint 1 Litre
£16.99 (£16.99 / l)
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09/23/2021 04:36 pm GMT
Shellac Base
Zinsser B-i-n Primer & Sealer 1Ltr
£27.67
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09/23/2021 04:36 pm GMT

Well that’s all well and good I hear you say, but what does that mean, and what the hell is a shellac base?

Most people are now usually familiar with the difference between water and oil/solvent-based paints. Water-based paints are usually better for the environment, a lot easier to clean your brushes after use and don’t are generally safer. Oil/Solvent-based paints tend to be a lot thicker, require special chemicals to clean up after use but also are regarded as better quality paint. So where does a shellac paint fit into this well-established hierarchy? And just what is Shellac?

Shellac

Straight from Wikipedia. Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. It is processed and sold as dry flakes and dissolved in alcohol to make liquid shellac, which is used as a brush-on colourant, food glaze and wood finish. Shellac functions as a tough natural primer, sanding sealant, tannin-blocker, odour-blocker, stain, and high-gloss varnish.

It is commonly used in ladies nail polish as well as being a central element to “French Polish”.

How does it paint

Much more similar to a water-based paint than solvent paint I would say. it is thin out of the tin and dries very quickly. One thing you notice straight away with Zinsser B-I-N at least is how well it covers. It feels incredibly thin on the brush but covers like a much thicker paint would.

Clean up is a pain though. It is even harder to clean than oil/solvent-based paints. White spirit won’t work, neither will brush cleaner, you need to use the special Zinsser B-I-N cleaner, Methylated Spirits or an Ammonium mix to clean it. If you want a more in-depth guide we have a full article on how to apply Zinsser BIN.

Interior Surfaces

Each of these primers works better or worse on a wide range of surfaces, so it’s not as simple as saying use this outdoors and this indoors. So to make things easier I have made this handy guide that shows you which surface each of these Zinsser primers is best suited to.

A tick means this is a highly recommended paint for this surface, a dash means it will work but another primer is better suited and an X means it is not recommended.

Zinsser Primer Guide - Interior Surfaces

Zinsser Primer Guide – Interior Surfaces

Exterior Surfaces

So straight off the bat, Zinsser B-I-N is only recommended for spot exterior use, which means it isn’t really recommended for any large exterior surface.

Zinsser Primer Guide - Exterior Surfaces

Zinsser Primer Guide – Exterior Surfaces

My Testing

So all these charts are helpful, but nothing helps you know how good paint is as actually using it does. So I set to doing some testing of my own.

The Laminate Test

To start with I will be painting some laminate wood that I happened to have at the workshop. I will use all three of the Zinsser primers along with Rustins quick-drying primer thrown into the mix as well.

I will paint the laminate with each different primer, let it fully cure and then try and scratch it off and see what’s what!

The Laminate Test

The Laminate Test

Bulls Eye 123

Let’s talk a little about the Bulls Eye 123 paint. Firstly, give your tin a really good shake before opening. Mine had separated a lot, and it hadn’t even been sitting around a long time.

Next, I would like to talk about how well this paint covers, particularly for water-based paint. You can see in the photo below just how well it is covering the dark laminate, so far so good!

The Bulls Eye 123 Being Painted On

The Bulls Eye 123 Being Painted On

Cover Stain

Like the Bulls Eye the cover stain had separated a lot in the tin, so give it a really thorough shake before even opening the tin. It mixed back together nice and easy so no problems here.

What I will say about this paint from my first impressions are that it is very thick and has exceptional covering properties. It is a little yellow rather than white like the Bulls Eye is.

The Cover Stain About To Go On

The Cover Stain About To Go On

B-I-N

This is my first time using B-I-N and again it needed a good can shake before use as the paint had separated.

This paint feels really thin, smells weird but covers exceptionally well.

The B-I-N Before It Goes On

The B-I-N Before It Goes On

So here is a photo of all of the primers on the laminate. Out of shot, the Rustins has also been painted on, along with one area which will just have the topcoat with no primer. This will serve as our control.

All the Primer on, You Can See How The Cover Stain is Yellow

All the Primer on, You Can See How The Cover Stain is Yellow

This photo really illustrates the cover power of the cover stain paint even when compared to the other Zinsser primers.

Now with a top coat applied

Now with a top coat applied

Scratch test

Now I will try my best to scratch the paint off the laminate. To do this I will use a piece of rough-cut timber and run it across the top of all the samples harshly.

This will really test if the primer has stuck well or not.

The Punisher

The Punisher

Above is the wood that I will be using. I am going to try and apply an even amount of force to each sample but there are no guarantees. I’m trying to be as scientific as possible but I understand my method has its limits.

This Was The Top Coat Only

This Was The Top Coat Only

This piece of the laminate was just painted with two coats of the topcoat. You can see how it has scratched away from the surface quite badly. This definitely wouldn’t hold up as a floor finish but remember that this is just here to be our control. Painting Laminate with zero prep is not a good idea, and if you are not convinced why not read our can you paint laminate flooring article.

Next up is the Rustins Primer & Undercoat. I threw this into the test as I had a tin in the workshop and I thought it would work as a good demonstration of a regular primer.

The Rustins Primer & Undercoat

The Rustins Primer & Undercoat

For the next piece, we have the Zinsser Bulls Eye 123, which is the water-based primer.

The Zinsser Bulls Eye Results

The Zinsser Bulls Eye Results

So the Bulls Eye fared a little better than Rustins but certainly not an amazing result. Onto the next primer.

Now this is more like it from the Zinsser BIN

Now this is more like it from the Zinsser BIN

This is much more like it, an outstanding result from the BIN. It has stuck really well to a tough surface to paint. Only a couple of very small scuffs in the middle to report.

Can the Cover Stain go even better?

Not even a scratch

Not even a scratch

It certainly can, not even a scratch on it!

Laminate Test Results

So that’s a definite win for the Cover Stain, followed closely by B-I-N. Then the other three were a long way behind, I would give third place to Bulls Eye 123, but only just.

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Wood by name, wood by nature. I am a fully qualified, time-served, award-winning joiner with an NVQ Level 3 in Carpentry and Joinery as well as an HNC in Construction. Beyond my joinery qualifications, I have also earned a degree in building surveying. I believe these qualifications make me perfectly positioned to provide expert advice on many different areas of DIY as well as share all of the tips I have picked up in over a decade working on building sites!