Tips for Painting RV Walls and Cabinets

Today I want to talk about painting RV walls and cabinets!  If you have a camper, new or old... it probably came out of the factory decorated in various beautiful shades of shit brown, complete with the ugliest wallpaper and fabric you imaginable. It's almost like all of the camper manufacturers made a pact that all campers would be functional but ugly. For most of my life, I've had a camper and the lack of both interior and exterior aesthetics has always been a mystery to me. (My best guess is that brown hides dirt better and doesn't require as much cleaning?) When we started looking for a camper, I knew that the first project I'd tackle would be painting the RV walls and cabinets. I'm strongly opposed to fake, shiny vinyl pretending to be wood... so I'd have to cover it up ASAP. 

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The RV that we ended up buying had actually already been painted grey with teal accents by the previous owner. At first glance, this was great because I thought they'd already tackled the hard part of the painting... which is getting the paint to adhere to the walls. However, after inspecting their handiwork.. it was clear that they had just slapped the paint on without any preparation. This lead to the paint peeling off and looking really awful up close. Their lack of taping before painting was also very apparent with grey smudges in many places. 

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By the time I actually got to painting the RV walls and cabinets, I'd done an extensive amount of research to ensure that I didn't screw it up. After actually executing the project - I must say, it was actually really easy and has made a HUGE difference in the vibe of my RV. Follow the next instructions on how you can give your camper a quick and prolific makeover!

Prepping RV Walls and Cabinets for Painting

As with regular house painting, the real work is in the preparation. If you're painting your RV walls and cabinets, it's imperative that you clean and sand them first. In case you've never taken a close look at the walls and cabinets in your RV...they are typically made of vinyl or laminate. Both of these surfaces are shiny and much slipperier than drywall and normal wood that you would find inside your brick and mortar house. 

Painting Prep Step 1: Clean RV Walls and Cabinets

Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) is the best product to clean your camper/RV walls and cabinets with. Another option is white vinegar mixed with water.

The first step to painting RV walls and cabinets is cleaning them! In order to get the paint to stick, you'll want the cleanest surface possible. The product that I most commonly saw recommended for RV wall/cabinet cleaning in online forums was TSP (trisodium phosphate). It works well to remove the smoke/grime/grease build up on old camper walls, which is your ultimate goal in this step (and the key to your overall success with interior RV painting!) Since I was just covering an old paint job, I wasn't as concerned about the paint peeling off as I would be if I were painting the original shiny vinyl/laminate walls. So, to clean my camper, I used a spray bottle of white vinegar mixed with water (about 50/50) and then wiped everything down with a rag. This was another popular option that I read about online, and I already vinegar, so I decided to give it a go. It seemed to work well, but if you're painting over the OG shiny wood walls or cabinet, I would definitely recommend picking up some TSP from your local hardware store. Painting is tedious, it's best to the prep work right the first time! 

Painting Prep Step 2: Sand RV Walls and Cabinets

After you're done thoroughly cleaning all of the surfaces you plan on painting, it's time to sand! I used 80 grit sandpaper and a medium grit sanding block that I picked up at Rocky's Ace Hardware and lightly sanded all of the RV cabinets and walls. There were some areas that the laminate walls had started to peel, so I focused extra on getting these parts smooth. (I didn't actually succeed at smoothing these parts because the previous owner painted over the peeling but, oh well!) If you're painting your RV walls and cabinets for the first time, definitely make sure that you sand them down thoroughly.  This will be another advantage when it comes to keeping the paint from peeling. 

Painting Prep Step 3: Taping RV Walls and Cabinets

Thick blue Scotch painter's tape is my pick for prepping RV windows and cabinets for painting

Taping is, in my opinion, the worst part about painting... but also the most essential to a satisfactory outcome. I'm pretty messy and if we're being honest... pretty bad at painting. Nothing about the way I paint makes sense, and often results in a sloppier outcome than I'm looking for. Since I know this about myself, I spent extra time taping and covering every little thing in our camper that I didn't want covered in white paint. This included taping over the light switches, outlets and windows, as well as covering the floor, chairs kitchen appliances in plastic. (This may have been overkill but I'm realllllllly a huge mess). If I have one recommendation about taping... it's to use high quality painters tape. I'm a huge proponent of buying things at the dollar store... but good painters tape, in my opinion, is worth paying a little extra for. I used Scotch Blue Painters Tape in a wide width because it gave me a little more wiggle room for errors and was easier to work with.Feel free to take your time while taping off your RV walls and cabinets. The more precise your taping is, the less issues you'll have once you remove it after painting. 

Choosing Primer for RV Walls and Cabinets

When choosing paint and primer for your RV walls and cabinets... it's really important that you use two separate products. A 2-in-1 paint and primer is not going to cut it for painting RV interior. If you skip any step in this process... don't let it be the primer. I promise you'll regret it. Based on my extensive research, Glidden Gripper Primer is like the holy grail of RV interior primers. In every blog post, facebook group and forum I've checked... this has been the product that they swear by. I would highly recommend using this if you have access to it. Since we were discovering and dealing with extensive water damage issues when I was getting ready to paint... I decided to use Kilz Premium because of its mildew resistant properties. I knew that I was taking a risk using a less adhesive primer, but the trade off seemed worth it at the time. (So far, so good!) I only had to apply one coat to cover the existing paint, but when I primed the small area of unpainted vinyl fake wood it was only slightly less consistent. 

Choosing Paint for RV Walls and Cabinets

 For my paint choice, I chose a white semi-gloss latex paint from Ace Hardware (store brand, called Royal). I was initially planning on going with a water based paint, but the Ace Hardware associate lead me toward the cheaper option. (You know I loveee to save money!) I had to apply 2 coats (as expected)... but it came out great!  I'm glad that I went with the semi-gloss because it's easy to clean. Since I finished painting, we've ripped down and replaced the ceiling.. and I was able to easily wipe down the cabinets after to look as nice as they did when I first painted them. Unfortunately, since our camper has become an active construction site... some of the paint has already been scraped off by tools, and stray ply-wood. I suspect that this would have been an issue regardless of the products I used.. but I figured it was worth mentioning! Other than the damage we've already caused to our newly painted RV... I'm super happy with the outcome. I never imagined painting my RV walls and cabinets would make such a big difference in how spacious my tiny camper feels.

TIPS for Painting RV Walls and Cabinets

  • Don't rush! The outcome of your RV interior paint job relies on your patience in the preparatory stages.

  • Pick a color that makes you feel good! I personally like lighter colors for small spaces, because it brightens up the room and creates the illusion of more space. White, yellow and Tiffany blue have been my favorite RV interior paint colors. I also dig vibrant colors as accents. (For example: teal cabinets, white walls).

  • Prime! Prime! Prime! ...seriously though. Please, don't forget this step unless you hate yourself.

  • Watch out for drips! We didn't pay enough attention in the priming phase and ended up with some visible drips that were dried into the paint.

Before painting  (Yuck)

Before painting (Yuck)

  • Have a variety of trim brushes and small rollers available for painting. Campers often have many hard-to-reach areas that can only accomodate a small brush. I also found that using a small roller was effective for large areas like doors, but for every other spot, it ended up making a mess due to too much paint. (That may have been user error too haha)

  • Don't paint or prime when it's cold out! I wanted to get started during the winter, but didn't realize paint and primer need a higher temperature to cure properly. Make sure you shake the paint before using it!

  • Don't forget your before and after pictures! Here's mine!

After painting!  (Yay!)

After painting! (Yay!)

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