Friday Quick Tip: Perfecting Primer

This isn't the first Friday Quick Tip about primer and it probably won't be the last. There's been some discussion on primer in our local community and it inspired me to post a few tips on fixing problems you are having with spray primer.

First, make sure you are starting with a primer, not a spray paint. Paint is not primer and there are some hobby primers out there that are pretty inexpensive. No reason to use the wrong tool for the job.

Once you've got a proper primer, pretty much any spray primer can give you good results as long as you use it properly and in the right conditions. The expensive spray primers are a lot more forgiving than the cheap ones, but if you know how to use the particular brand (or don't mind diagnosing the problem and fixing your technique) then you can get good results with any hobby primer.

Before we start looking at some pictures, let's consider the anatomy of the spray can. The nozzle is connected to a tube that runs down to the bottom of the can. That's where the paint and solvent are located (with a little propellant mixed in) and the rest of the can is taken up by propellant. When you turn the can and spray upside down to clear the nozzle, you're blowing propellant out. A lot of times the propellant is also a solvent, so keep that in mind when working with the can sideways to reach into those tight areas.

When you shake the can you don't need to go nuts, since you're just mixing the solvent and paint that may have separated. If you shake too much you'll agitate more propellant into the solvent/paint mix and you'll get a sputtering nozzle when you spray, which usually means splatter and an uneven coat. I never shake any primer more than ten seconds, even the Armory primer that people tell me really needs to be shaken well. But be sure to shake a little as you go along, especially if you are spraying a large batch of models.

So now you're spraying your models and things are not coming out right. Here are a few common problems and how to fix them.

Oops, you didn't shake the can enough. With some primers this is really hard to do-- the model above was sprayed after not shaking the can at all, but some primers need a little more agitation. If you see shiny streaks on your first few models, but not the rest, then shake the can more. The tell tale signs of extra solvent in the mix are the shiny spots that look like they've been hit by an ink wash. You might also see some bubbling or blistering and an inconsistent coat. The paint and solvent isn't mixed enough and you're not getting a layer of primer that will stick well to the model. This problem often shows up if you are batch priming and have let the spray can sit too long between shaking.

Darn, too far away. Whenever you see this rough coat and feel a flaky, powdery texture you are holding the can too far away from the model. The problem is that different brands of spray paint like different distances. I've found that the Armory spray works best in close, probably 4"-6", and the Citadel spray likes to be a little but further away, maybe 8"-12". If you are seeing this nasty texture but spraying at your normal distance it could be a lack of humidity. If you switch brands of spray also be sure to do a few tests to make sure you are familiar with the ideal spray distance of the new brand. Either way, when you see results like above, move closer.

Ah, the model of the impatient sprayer. Caking and cracking usually mean that you are either too close or moving too slowly. Spray in short puffs, keeping the can moving and remember what they say about several light coats being better. Yeah, they aren't just saying it to take up more of your time. Sometimes you can see cracking or bubbling from over-shaking a can and getting too much propellant mixed into the can. If you suspect over-shaking, just put the can down for at least 5 minutes.

Every primer can give you good results if you take the time to figure it out. Just pick a primer that fits your budget, patience level or one that is available at your local store. You'll probably ruin a few models along the way but remember that priming is like any other painting skill: the more you work at it the better you get. Getting the priming done right will take practice but if you get good results it makes the rest of the painting job that much easier.

And besides, that cracked and detail-obscured Ork will make a great statue once you paint it with a stone effect.

Ok, let's see 'em: hit us with some links or stories of your worst priming disasters!


  1. Yeah, a great post with a few useful pointers, thanks!

  2. That's a really useful post.

    I've had a few problems priming before, mostly with temperature/humidity problems. I learnt very quickly not to prime on hot sunny days after ending up with a furry carnifex! Didn't know about the 'shiny problem', so that's good to know.

  3. Would you say that any primer can give good results? including the primer that Walmart manufacturers despite miniatures being quite it's focus?

    I have tried some and where i know my priming skills are not fantastic, have seen paint literally beading off the model. Is that due to a crappy primer or a crappy technique?


  4. I swear by the Citadel primer. Best I've ever used and I don't plan to ever try anything different.

    My horror story come from the Citadel Roughcoat spray. I barely shook it and got nothing but solvent. I shook it a tiny bit more and got nothing but a gelatinous ooz coming from the nozzle. I promptly tossed the whole can in the trash to cut my losses.

  5. @Matt I've heard of the Walmart primer, but never tried it myself. Is it the Walmart brand, right? Do you have a picture of it? I'll go grab a can and test it out, but just want to make sure I get the right stuff.

    @oni I have trouble with that Roughcoat too. I can't figure it out after trying some different techniques. It either looks like nothing is coming out or is so think it doesn't come out at all. I wouldn't call it paint, maybe gunk is better, so maybe it really needs some special technique or very specific conditions to use.

    I've found you can get a great rough coat by just using normal primer from too far away-- like the chunky one in the pictures above. And it is a lot cheaper. :)

  6. It's late, but i'll see if i can find it sometime tomorrow and snap a quick pic.

    I remember that it was so terrible that it really pushed me away from spray priming. I decided to try the Gesso approach but after experimenting with it found that when watered down it didn't like going on plastic models. So i started buying the cheap $1 spray paint (i know not the best idea) to work as a primer for the gesso. I may have just been watering it down to much but i felt it was obscuring to much detail without being watered down to that level.


  7. Excellent article mate, actually learned quite a bit.

    Don't suppose you have one of matt varnishing do you? I really need to varnish my models but I've heard so many horror stories, I'm scared off pointing a can on matt spray at them.

  8. This entry has some time but mate, excellent article!

    As some of you, I prefer Citadel primer but the best primer I had ever use is Tamiya primer. Anyway, in a cost-quality comparative, Citadel wins.

  9. @ RealGenius - I suppose that why GW discontinued it.

  10. One warning about Walmart brand spray primer. Like all other generic store brand merchandise, the spray primer is another manufacturer's with the store's label. As this manufacturer often changes from shipment to shipment, you should check for optimum spray distance each time you buy more.

  11. technically not a "Primer" story but it involves primer: I had just finished a monster regiment of flagellants, 50 strong painted for a Games Day table. I picked up the can of varnish and headed for the door. I hit the figures with the varnish and they turn jet black. I look at the can. I've picked up primer rather than varnish. I proceed to assault a door with my forehead for a while then go back to the painting table...