Best Primer for 3D Prints (Recommendation and Tips)

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - banner image

Are you preparing to paint your 3D printed parts? If you’re a miniature painter or scale modeler using 3D printing, then you’ll want to know that any good paint job starts with a great primer undercoat.

In this article, I share my experience with the painting process of 3D printed miniatures and models. Using an appropriate primer before applying acrylic paints is the key to great results.


TL;DR: What is the Best Primer for 3D Printed Parts and Models?

If you’re in a hurry, check out the top 3 primers for preparing 3D prints for a great paint job:

  1. Vallejo Surface Primer (All purpose brush-on or airbrush primer)
  2. Rust-Oleum Primer and Filler (Great for larger models, fills and smooths build lines)
  3. Testors Enamel Primer (Recommended aerosol spray primer)

Key Points

  • The type of primer you use depends on how smooth you want your 3D printed surface
  • For best results with PLA printed models for an acrylic paint job, you may want to use a few coats of a primer and filler
  • Wet sanding removes material between primer/filler coats for an even smooth surface
  • Spray on primers, including aerosol or airbrush primers, or regular brush-on surface primers work great on both PLA or resin miniatures
  • Gesso is an easy-to-apply, water-soluble, all-purpose budget primer for larger 3D printed models

One of the great things about 3D printing is that you can print your own models and miniatures. But, if you want to paint them, you’re going to need a good primer. Now let’s take a more in-depth look at each of these points.


How to Determine What Primer to Use for 3D Prints?

3D printed parts can have a wide variety of finishes, from smooth to very rough. The type of primer you use depends on how smooth your 3D printed surface is.

If you have a very smooth surface, such as those from DLP or SLA resin 3D printers, you can probably just use a regular brush-on primer. If your surface is rough, you may want to use a spray-on primer or an airbrush primer.

You can also use a high build filler primer, such as putty, spackle, or gesso. This will help to smooth out any imperfections in your 3D print. Just be sure to sand the surface in between primer + filler coats.

For best results with PLA printed models for an acrylic paint job, for example, you may want to use a few coats of a primer and filler.

Do you want to see how this “Alien Crab” resin 3D print was painted? Check it out.

Wet sanding between coats of primer/filler will remove any material that has been added, giving you an even smoother surface. A damp tack cloth will help remove any residue from the sanding process.

Of course, if you’re planning to paint a 3D printed miniature with fine detail and texture, then a primer + filler combo isn’t a good choice. Spray paint and primers with filler formulations often cover up those details really easily if you’re not careful.

Worse, a high build filler primer, e.g., automotive primers, will quickly obscure those fine details and textures without much chance of recovery. You can’t go back. For such cases with small 3D printed miniatures, it’s best to just use a regular brush-on primer or apply thin coats of spray on primer.


What is the Best All-Purpose Primer for 3D Print Models?

There are a few different types of primers that can be used on 3D printed parts. These include spray-on primers, airbrush primers, or regular brush-on surface primers.

Here are the top 3 primers I recommend for any 3D printed miniature or model:

Each of these have their merits for priming 3D printed models and parts, with pros and cons.

Gesso is an easy-to-apply, all-purpose budget primer for 3D prints. However, it can be difficult to achieve a smooth finish with gesso, and it can also crack if your 3D printed surface is too rough.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - gesso bottle from liquitex
Gesso is a thicker medium that you can thin with water. Apply in thin layers for best results. Be careful not to overwhelm fine details.

If you’re looking for an all-purpose primer that is easy to apply and doesn’t require any special equipment, then a surface primer like Vallejo Surface Primer would be a good choice. Check out this article for how it can be applied to miniatures.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - Vallejo surface primer grey brush on spray primer
My all-time favorite primer for any scale model or miniature, including 3D prints.

However, surface primers are not as durable as a volatile spray-on primer on 3D prints and may not adhere as well to a very rough 3D printed surface. It’ll be easier for you to paint, too, if your primer coat sticks.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - resin 3d printed sculpt
This 3D printed bust has a lot of fine surface detail. A good primer should coat well while preserving these textures for the best paint job possible.
sprayed on vallejo surface primer - Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS
You can see how I airbrushed Vallejo Surface Primer (Panzer Gray color) on this resin 3D printed sculpt.

For this reason, I recommend applying surface primers in multiple coats for a uniform surface. You may also want to use a spray booth if you’re applying these spray on primers indoors.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - primed miniatures alpha legion space marines Warhammer 40k
Models from the Warhammer 40k universe often make a showing on my painting table. Here I started with a normal airbrush applied primer, which helped me with this paint job using metallic paints and a wide array of washes.

In this case, Testors Enamel Primer is a good choice for undercoating any 3D printed model. It’s an aerosol primer that can be sprayed on and dries quickly. A great alternative to Testors Enamel Primer is Tamiya Surface Primer.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - Testors Spray Enamel Primer undercoat for model kits
A classic for a reason.

Tamiya Surface Primer is a very popular primer for scale model plastic kits, gunpla, and 3D printed miniatures. The use of spray can type primers has a tried and true legacy when painting plastic scale model kits.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - Tamiya Spray Primer for 3D printed parts
Tamiya, a trusted brand by scale model builders everywhere.

Note, however, that aerosol primers are generally not as user-friendly, or inexpensive, as a brush-on primer and can be difficult to control when spraying small 3D prints.


Best Spray Primer for 3D Printed Models

The best spray primer in my opinion is the Tamiya Surface Primer or Testors Enamel Primer, as mentioned above. For 3D printed miniatures or models, I highly recommend either aerosol spray primers. Each comes in a rattle can and sprays reliably.

Of course, you’ll need to follow the instructions, e.g., avoid spraying in cold weather or in high ambient humidity. The same goes with normal spray paint, too.

grayscale photography of space - Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS
I’m not sure if you’re worried about splatter. But, when you try and spray aerosols in cold weather, you may see this splotchy result. Keep your rattle cans close to room temperature (25C or 75F) for the best spray experience. Photo by Huebert World on Pexels.com

I have used these aerosol primers on many different types of 3D printed plastics, including ABS, PLA, and PETG. They also work great for preparing 3D printed resin surfaces for paint jobs.

While the printing process even from the best 3D printers creates tiny lines on a model, these primers work well to hides these imperfections while preserving find detail.

miniature, car, model - Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS
I just love photos like these of miniatures.

I recommend getting either gray or white colors for the Tamiya and Testors primers. This is important because it helps you see the coverage as you’re applying it.

The lighter tone also helps maintain shadow contrast over an unpainted model, which helps when you get to the painting process.

The gray tone in my opinion is the best choice for primer color because it gives you flexibility when painting with all kinds of color schemes.

I’ve found that two or three thin coats works best with these spray primers. When dry, these primers provide a good foundation for paint to adhere to.


Recommended Primers 3D Printed PLA or ABS Parts

For the hobbyists or modeler with larger pieces, e.g., terrain, big sculpts, who 3D prints with ABS or PLA filament, I strongly suggest using some type of primer + filler coat.

READ MORE: BEST GAP FILLERS FOR MINIATURES AND MODEL KITS

Here are two useful primers for larger 3D printed PLA or ABS parts:

A primer and filler spray provides a very strong foundation for paint to adhere to, while also filling in any imperfections in the surface of the 3D print. Rust Oleum makes a great 2-in-1 primer/filler that comes in a rattle can.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - Rust Oleum Spray Primer 2 in 1 filler primer
This filler and primer is awesome for creating smooth surfaces on FDM printed models. Intersperse coats with sanding for the smoothest primed coats possible.

Rust-Oleum is the same brand that makes a host of spray paints for automotive applications. It is applied to any 3D printed surface or other materials like a spray paint. Krylon Fusion also makes a highly rated primer paint spray that is awesome for preparing 3D printed objects for the painting process.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - Krylon Fusion All in One paint primer spray can image
Skip the basecoat with primer and paint combos. There are hobby game brands, available, e.g., GW/Citadel or The Army Painter; but they can be expensive.

How to use an aerosol spray primer on 3D printed models

When spraying aerosol primers, work in a well-ventilated area and wear gloves, e.g., nitrile gloves, and respirator mask. In other words, use recommended personal protective equipment (PPE).

Keep the nozzle more than 6″ away from the 3D printed surface and move the spray in a circular motion to avoid over-coating your working area. Using circular motions to spray the primer gives you more control over the application.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - paint blocks for elevating parts for spray applications
Place these paint blocks under your 3D printed model, e.g., terrain piece or large parts, and keep on spraying.

If you’re having trouble with spraying all the exposed surfaces on your 3D print, then try using a painting block or spray paint stand to elevate the surface.

RELATED: NEED A “THIRD-HAND” TO SPRAY YOUR MINIATURES?

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - Citadel painting handle with flexible arm and clips for holding small parts
Looking for an extra “hand”? Citadel makes painting handles with flexible arms and clips for holding small parts. Use them for spraying 3D printed parts or other things.

After the first coat, let the primer dry for about 10-30 minutes. Apply a second coat, a third, or more, if needed. Sanding in-between coat applications will create a much smoother surface as the build layers on your 3D printed PLA part fill in with the primer.

Once the primer is dry, you’re ready to start painting your 3D print!


When Should You Use a Brush-on Surface Primer for 3D Prints (PLA or Resin Miniatures)

Depending on the printing materials, you’ll want to consider using a surface primer. Even the best paints won’t look good if your preliminary step with a primer coat isn’t done well.

The advantage of a brush-on spray primer is that you can more easily control the amount of primer being applied. This is especially important with smaller 3D printed parts.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - clear resin 3d printed star wars X-wing
Here I’m 3D printing a Star Wars X-Wing using clear resin.

Additionally, you don’t have to worry about over-spray as you might with a aerosol primer. Another advantage of brush-on primers is that they come in a wider variety of colors. So, if you want to add a little color to your 3D print before painting it, then a brush-on primer is a good way to do that.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - Gray PLA filament terrain print in progress nozzle visible
This is my 3D printer hard at work making a small terrain feature for decorating a model’s base.

The best brush-on primer that I’ve used is the Vallejo Surface Primer. It’s a water-based primer that is very easy to apply with a brush. You can find this primer in both gray and white colors (among the many others). See my full review and tips using Vallejo Surface Primer on wargaming tabletop miniatures.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - commission paint job blue painting and printed base
The base on this model was 3D printed, primed, and painted using the techniques I show you here and elsewhere on the site.

A cool fact about primers: Most primers have an auto-smoothing property that tightens across the coated surface as it dries, kind of like stretching plastic wrap over dishware. This stretching, tightening process happens as the solvent within the primer evaporates.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - PLA printed terrain building Fallout model
My PLA printed post-apocalytic building for Fallout and Infinity Miniature games.
Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - Fallout 3D printed Terrain ruin paint job
After priming the model, I painted this using an airbrush and a variety of different weathering techniques.

When the primer dries, it leaves behind an even coat that helps paint stick. If you apply multiple layers of a high quality surface primer, you can achieve a very smooth topcoat that’s perfect for painting finer details. Of course, this means it may take more coats (and work) to hide 3D printed build lines.


How to Get a Smooth Surface on 3D Printed Models

Here are some tips for getting a smoother surface on your 3D printed miniatures and models:

Prepare your 3D prints

Remove print supports with flush cutters or the edge of an Exacto knife. Make sure you’ve UV-cured your photopolymer resin, and appropriately sanded support marks on the model. These are ways your finished print will be ready for the first coat of paint.

Always start with a very thin initial coat of primer

For best results with any primer, always start with a very thin layer. This will help avoid any primer puddles or drips that can ruin the look of your painted model. If you’re spraying your primer, you can use paint blocks to elevate your 3D prints to access hard to reach areas.

Apply your primer using appropriate methods

For thicker type primers, such as Gesso, you may need to wet sand between coats. A tip for priming resin miniatures is to ensure you’ve removed support marks. Using a pen engraver, like the battery-operated one I use, or even nail buffing sticks can help remove these small nubs and fine lines.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - Pen engraver generic portable battery operated tool
You can use a battery-operated pen engraver to speed up support scaffold removal.

For thinner surface primers that you can brush-on or spray with an airbrush, you should have no issues with puddles or runs if you apply in thin coats. For more details about how to properly apply brush-on primers, check out this article.

Wash and rinse your model before priming

To avoid paint primer issues, always make sure you’ve removed any oils or residue from your 3D printed model. As mentioned, use flush cutters or sand your 3D prints before priming.

Best primers for 3D prints - primer for 3d printed miniatures and models - primers for 3D prints PLA resin ABS - Warhammer 40k 30k objective marker printed with support resin
I printed this objective marker for a friend to use with his Tyranid Warhammer 40k army. Notice six alien eggs denoting that this is “Objective #6”.

To wash your prints, I recommend using isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and water for this. Simply apply the mixture to a lint-free cloth or tack cloth. Soap and water may also work well for non-resin printed materials, e.g., PLA or ABS.


Sanding a primed surface works for FDM printed models

In the finishing process for preparing a 3D printed model, sanding a primed surface can help to create an ultra-smooth base for painting. This is especially true when working with FDM printed models that may have small layer lines or other imperfections on the surface.

When sanding a primed 3D print, it’s important to use a very fine grit sandpaper. I usually start with a 500 grit sandpaper and work my way up to a 2000 grit paper. This will help to avoid any scratches or marks on the surface of the print.

It’s also important to use a light touch when sanding. You don’t want to remove too much primer from the surface of the model. Just focus on lightly sanding any imperfections on the surface of the print.

Clear coating will protect the surface of your painted 3D models

With 3D printing, a finish coating with a clear coat varnish will protect the work you put into the model. The top coating acts as a barrier against moisture and other environmental insults to the surface of your model.

There are several great brands of clear coat varnishes you can use and I recommend. For those wondering about the difference between gloss and matte clear coating, check out this comparison article.


If You Could Only Choose One Primer for Painting 3D Printed Miniatures and Models?

In my opinion, the best primer for 3D printed models is Vallejo Surface Primer. It’s perfect for brush-on or airbrush application and provides a smooth, even coat that’s perfect for painting.

If you want to avoid brush marks entirely from any painting, then spraying on Vallejo Surface Primer is the better way to go.

Vallejo surface primer for painting 3D printed models and miniatures - photograph of printed Warhammer tank
I painted this 3D printed tank and photographed it on my kitchen dining room table.

Spray on paints also make it easier for a smoother application, even helping you add gradients, e.g., zenithal highlighting, to your paint job. Take a look at this article for more information about how to thin paints for airbrushing miniatures.


Summary Table: Recommended Primers for 3D Printed Models

Image Primer Product More Details
gesso for 3d prints Gesso  Check Price
vallejo primer 3d printing Vallejo Surface Primer Check Price
spray primer 3d printing Testors Enamel Primer Check Price
tamiya primer Tamiya Surface Primer Check Price
automotive primer 3d printing Rust-Oleum 2-in-1 primer and filler Check Price
krylon all in one paint primer Krylon Fusion paint and primer Check Price
primer filler 3d printed DupliColor automotive primer Check Price

Conclusion

So, there you have it! I shared my overview of primers I recommend for preparing 3D printed miniatures, models, and more for a great paint job.

Whether you’re using an airbrush, paint brush, or spray can, applying a primer coat to your 3D printed model will help you achieve a beautiful paint job. Just remember to start with a thin layer and sand between coats (if necessary).

Do you have any tips or tricks for priming 3D printed models? Any favorite primers I missed?

Let me know in the comments below!

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