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If I were doing it, I would usually prime and paint before installing the cabinets. My painter for this project says he'd prefer that I install everything before he paints.

Do I need to use a sealing primer on the new drywall behind where the cabinets will be installed or can I leave it unsealed?

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The painter doesn't want to come back for touch-ups after everything is installed, he wants to do the job once and not have to come back. –  Tester101 Sep 4 '12 at 15:43
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@Tester101 yes, I would agree, but he will likely come back to touch-up after the tile and stone goes in. He wants to paint before the tile goes in because they will almost certainly be using damp sponges... and on unsealed drywall the med/tex is water soluble. –  Matthew Sep 4 '12 at 15:46
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Yes, you should prime the whole surface.

Sealing/priming helps prevent penetration of vapors and moisture from the air into the drywall. If you don't seal the entire surface, even though it's behind cabinets, penetration can happen - mind you it's not going to be significant but it can happen.

Plus the time involved to paint behind those cabinets that aren't there yet is minuscule.

This is unrelated but I don't understand your painter's objection. Painting a wall with no cabinets on it is orders of magnitude easier than painting a wall with cabinets already mounted. With cabinets in place, you've got to tape edges, you risk getting paint on your new cabinets, you've got a much harder time accessing the exposed wall (cabinets get in the way), and so forth.

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In addition, kitchens generate airborn grease that can seep behind cabinets, especially near stoves, and those unprimed porous surfaces absorb the grease (and the smells). Also, if cabinets are ever moved, priming later is much harder based on the absorbtion of the mositure and grease. –  bib Sep 4 '12 at 15:57
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+1 on the smells, oil and grease. Been there, a coat of paint is easily cleanable if you have open-back cabinets or ever decide to replace them. It can get everywhere amazingly. –  Fiasco Labs Sep 4 '12 at 16:40
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