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Painting the walls and cabinets is one of the things that makes the biggest impact when renovating an RV, but it can also be pretty discouraging when things don't turn out as you had planned.
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In this article, I will share the exact process countless RV owners have used to achieve great-looking, professional-quality results when painting RV walls and cabinets. I'll also share some painting problems encountered by other RV owners and tips for how to avoid these frustrating experiences when painting your RV interior.
An Overview of the Process: How to Paint RV Walls and Cabinets
Whether you're painting RV cabinets, walls, or both, the general process is this:
- Make a plan. Decide what colors you want to paint, and where. Will you paint the RV ceiling? Will you paint the trim along the tops of your walls to match the walls? Will you rent a sprayer or use rollers and brushes? When will you do your project? These are all questions you'll want to answer before heading to the paint store.
- Determine what products to use. What type of paint to use in an RV interior, as well as the best type of primer to use on your RV cabinets, depends entirely on what types of materials you'll be painting. Solid wood requires a different process than pressed wood covered with vinyl laminate. Later in this article, I'll cover the best products to use for painting an RV interior.
- Do all your prep work. This includes removing or covering furniture and flooring, cleaning all the surfaces you intend to paint, removing cabinet hardware, and taping off or covering countertops, light fixtures, and anything else you don't want to get paint on.
- Sand & prime (if needed). I'll go into more detail on this later, but the best way to be assured of good results when painting RV cabinets is to apply a good bonding primer before painting. You'll also need to sand any solid wood and scuff the surface of wood veneer and laminate surfaces.
- The actual painting part. This may involve renting a paint sprayer and spraying your entire RV interior, or it might just mean using rollers and paint brushes to paint in sections.
Read on for more details and the answers to all your questions about the best type of paint to use for RV interiors, whether you really need to sand and prime, how to paint fake wood in an RV, whether or not it's necessary to remove the wallpaper in an RV before painting, and much more!
Supplies You'll Need for Painting Your RV Interior
To paint your RV interior, you'll need the following:
- Paint (obviously)
- Primer, probably (more on that later)
- Sand paper or sanding blocks
- An electric sander – optional, but it will save you a lot of time!
- Chemical stripper – optional, can help with removing varnish from cabinet doors
- Painter's masking tape
- Plastic for covering things you don't want to get paint on
- Paint brushes and rollers
- Paint trays and/or other containers
- A paint sprayer – This is optional, but recommended if you're painting your entire RV interior. You can rent one at a home improvement store such as Home Depot, or you can buy a small one.
As you can see, the cost to paint a camper interior can really add up, so you'll want to budget accordingly before beginning your project.
How to Paint RV Walls
To summarize, this is the process I recommend for painting RV interior walls:
- Remove wall paper border if needed.
- Make sure the walls are clean.
- Cover flooring, appliances, etc. with plastic and tape off trim, baseboards, fixtures, etc.
- Repair holes and uneven spots (see below). Sand smooth and wipe off dust.
- If your wallpaper is smooth, lightly sand it to create a slightly textured surface.
- Use primer if needed or desired. If you're planning to paint your cabinets, you may want to prime both the walls and cabinets at the same time using a sprayer (having already done the necessary cabinet prep work described later on in this article).
- Use a roller + brush or a sprayer to paint as many coats of paint as needed for complete coverage, following instructions on label for paint drying time and climate conditions.
How I Painted My RV Walls
RV walls are actually quite a bit easier to paint than RV cabinets. In my own RV, I decided paint only the walls and not the cabinets. You can see more photos of RV's with painted walls and unpainted cabinets here).
To prep my RV walls for painting, I first removed the wallpaper border, using Goo Gone to clean off the adhesive residue. Then I lightly cleaned the walls with water (I believe I used a little dish soap to clean off the Goo Gone).
Then I painted the walls with two coats of Valspar Signature Latex Base Paint + Primer All-in-One in eggshell finish using a roller for larger areas to avoid brush strokes, and a good quality angled brush for corners, edges, and small areas.
I was happy with the results and never had any issues with the paint peeling, scratching, or fading later.
FAQ's About Painting RV Walls
Do You Need to Use Primer on RV Walls?
Many people start with a coat of primer on their RV walls before painting. The purpose of primer is to help paint adhere to a surface, but because my walls were slightly textured, I didn't experience any problems with paint adhesion, so if you're not planning to paint your cabinets, I don't think it's necessary to take that extra step.
If your RV walls are totally smooth, it would not be a bad idea to play it safe and paint the walls with bonding primer before painting them your final color. Additionally, if you are planning to paint both your walls and your cabinets, you will probably save time by using a sprayer to give everything a base coat of primer before painting your walls and cabinets whatever colors you choose.
What's the Best Paint for RV Walls?
Any good brand of interior latex paint will work provided you have started with a good primer. If you're not planning to paint the cabinets, you can skip the primer and use an interior paint + primer as long as your RV walls have some texture to them. In this case, the only brand I have personal experience with in an RV is Valspar Signature Latex Base Paint + Primer All-in-One.
Is It Necessary to Remove the Wallpaper from RV Walls Before Painting?
No! You do NOT want to remove the wallpaper as it is not actually wallpaper but is actually bonded to the wall paneling. If you remove the wallpaper, you'll be left with sticky adhesive all over your walls that will be difficult to paint over.
If your walls are damaged, you will want to remove any peeling or bubbled wallpaper and repair any damage you find underneath. Then you can either replace the damaged paneling, or replace the wallpaper in that one area, or if it's a small area, you can use spackling to smooth out the surface before painting. If there is a difference in texture, you might choose to cover that area with decorative wallpaper after painting.
Should You Clean with TSP to Prep RV Walls for Painting?
Lots of people on the internet advise using trisodium phosphate, a.k.a. “TSP”, to clean RV walls before painting, but in most cases, it's really not necessary. TSP is good for cutting through grease, so if the walls of your RV are greasy or grimy or nicotine stained, then TSP is a good choice for cleaning them. But if your RV walls aren't visibly dirty, a rag damp with water will do just fine for wiping off dust.
Additionally, some brands of primer and paint specifically say on the can to NOT use TSP because it can cause a chemical reaction that prevents the paint or primer from adhering, so be sure to read the label on your paint can. If you feel something stronger than water with a little dish soap added is needed and your paint can says not to use TSP, you can use a product called “TSP Substitute” as an alternative.
How to Paint RV Cabinets, Trim, and Other Woodwork
The first step for painting any woodwork in your RV is to figure out exactly what material it is, because the process will be different depending on what it is. These are the materials most commonly used:
- Solid Wood – Most often used for cabinet doors and some decorative trim.
- Laminate Wood – Pressed wood or particle board covered with a vinyl “sticker” printed with wood grain. Often referred to as “fake wood”, and sometimes used in combination with solid wood.
- Wood Veneer – Plywood with a layer of real stained wood on top. Used more frequently than laminate wood in more expensive RV's. Often used in combination with solid wood.
Prepping Solid Wood Cabinets and Trim
If your RV cabinet doors are made from solid wood, you'll achieve the best results by stripping and sanding them before applying primer.
I know quite a few RV renovators, and all of them remove real wood cabinet doors and thoroughly sand them before priming and then painting. Yes, all this is more work, but this will ensure that you achieve a professional looking result that will retain or increase your RV's value instead of taking a chance that it will end up looking like an amateur DIY project.
Prepping “Fake” Wood (Laminate and Veneer) Before Painting
The issue with painting laminate RV cabinets and veneer trim is with getting the paint to stick. Below is a photo of what can happen if you paint RV cabinets without adequate preparation. The owner of the RV shown below painted her cabinets without using any primer, and the paint eventually began to peel.
The problem is, you can't sand laminate or veneer the way you can sand real wood. If you sand wood veneer, you risk sanding through to the plywood or particle board, creating a rough surface, and you can't thoroughly sand laminate because it's plastic (or paper) and will tear.
The best process for painting “fake wood” is to sand it very lightly, just enough to rough up the surface a bit, and then give it a coat of bonding primer, followed by the interior cabinet paint of your choice.
The Secret to a Professional Finish
One thing most professionals do when painting RV cabinets that really sets them apart and keeps them from looking too “DIY” is to use a sprayer to paint them instead of a brush. This is how you achieve a smooth, even finish with no brush strokes.
You can purchase a small handheld paint sprayer that will work great for painting cabinets, although if you are planning to paint your entire RV interior you'll probably save time and frustration by renting a larger paint sprayer at a home improvement or paint store.
If you use a handheld sprayer, you may need to thin the paint a bit with water to prevent it from clogging the sprayer nozzle. (Follow the instructions for whatever sprayer you choose.)
Overview of the Process: How to Paint RV Cabinets
Combining all of the information above, these are my recommended steps for painting RV cabinets:
- Remove the cabinet doors and drawers.
- Clean all surfaces to be painted. Use TSP or TSP Substitute if needed to remove grease and grime, followed by water to remove the TSP.
- Thoroughly sand solid wood surfaces to remove varnish. A chemical stripper can be used if desired.
- Use wood glue to repair any peeling laminate, and repair cracks, holes, and uneven surfaces using wood filler.
- Lightly sand “fake wood” surfaces to help with adhesion, then use a damp rag to wipe off dust.
- Tape off and/or cover with plastic everything you don't want to get paint on.
- Paint all woodwork with bonding primer, including both “fake” wood and sanded solid wood. If you're painting your walls as well, you can paint them with the same primer to save time if you wish.
- Use a paint sprayer (preferable) or a high-density foam roller to paint cabinets and woodwork with as many coats of paint as necessary to achieve even coverage. Be sure to follow the instructions on the paint can for proper temperature and drying time between coats.
FAQ's About Painting RV Cabinets
Do I Really Have to Sand the Cabinet Doors? What About the “No Prep” Methods?
There are RV owners who have blogged about using chalk paint, “no prep” cabinet kits, and other processes to paint directly over the wood without sanding, and some of these people say they achieved good results. I've read quite a few blog posts from RV owners who used Beyond Cabinet paint, and I used to recommend it until I received this email from a subscriber:
Then there's the owner of this RV, who told me she had read a blog post that said she wouldn't have to sand her cabinets as long as she used a certain kind of paint. Unfortunately, the paint ended up peeling, and she ended up having to strip and sand it all off and redo the whole project. Later, she found out that the paint company's website actually did say to sand first!
I'm not really sure of all the specifics in either case, but stories those that are why I think it's safer to go ahead and do the extra work of sanding and priming. However, if you are determined to avoid this step, there is an oil-based primer called Zinsser Cover Stain which the company claims will stick to “all surfaces without sanding”.
RV owner Ashley describes on her blog how she successfully used this primer on her RV cabinets after the first primer she tried would not stick and had to be removed.
What's the Best Brand of Primer to Use for Painting RV Cabinets?
I recommend two brands of bonding primer based on having talked to many RV owners who have achieved good results with these brands:
- Sherwin Williams Extreme Bond Primer – Most RV renovators I know use this brand.
- Glidden Gripper Primer – This brand has been around longer and was the brand most RV owners chose before the Sherwin Williams primer was introduced in 2020.
What's the Best Paint for RV Cabinets?
There's no one answer to this question because there are several good brands of paint on the market, and everyone seems to have a different favorite brand. I would suggest going with one that is labeled as a “cabinet enamel”, and I would also recommend using a latex base paint instead of an oil base paint because the cleanup is much easier and the smell isn't as strong in a small space.
Can I Use Chalk Paint on RV Cabinets?
This is an example of one of the “no prep” types of paint some RV owners have blogged about using. Because I don't personally have experience with using chalk paint to paint RV cabinets and none of the professional RV renovators I know use it, I can't recommend it. Additionally, it's more expensive than regular cabinet paint, so that's another good reason to not use it.
One RV owner I talked to decided to save money by making her own chalk paint using a recipe she found online. She had used homemade chalk paint successfully before when painting furniture, but when she used it to paint her RV cabinets, it ended up peeling off. Because she made it herself, she doesn’t know exactly what caused the problem, and she ended up having to sand it all off.
If you are a fan of chalk paint and are planning to use a reputable brand, I would recommend first trying it in a small area like a bathroom and seeing how it does before using it throughout your whole RV.
General Questions About RV Painting
Should I paint inside the cabinets?
That's up to you. Some people don't. One RV renovator I know uses canned spray paint on the insides of the cabinets because it's easier to reach the corners. You could paint the insides of your RV cabinets in a fun contrasting color, especially if your cabinets are white.
Personally, because I like a neat look but also don't like extra work, I would paint everything visible that is finished wood or laminate, but leave any “wallpaper” unpainted as long as it doesn't clash with your paint colors since it is a lighter color and would look like a lining for your cabinet. You could also cover the backs of the cabinets with pretty wallpaper.
I WOULD at least paint the backs of the cabinet doors. I've seen photos of RV's with the cabinets painted white but the backs of the doors left unpainted, and I think it looks very unprofessional and would probably detract from the value of your RV.
Should I Paint the Ceiling of my RV?
If you paint your walls and cabinets bright white, your white ceiling may appear off-white or yellow unless you paint it to match, so most RV owners who are going for the clean, white look choose to go ahead and paint it too.
If you paint your walls a darker color, leaving your ceiling unpainted will probably look just fine as long as it's not stained or yellowed. If your ceiling does have staining, first you'll want to be sure you've eliminated the cause of the stain (a leak, for example). Clean the stain as best you can (I recommend spraying water stains with hydrogen peroxide), then paint over it using a stain blocking primer such as Kilz.
Can I Paint a Carpeted RV Ceiling?
You can, and many RV owners have! The texture may be end up kind of “crunchy” though. I would tend to favor cleaning it rather than painting it. Another option would be to cover it with strips of lightweight paneling so that it looks like a wood plank ceiling. You can see an example of a renovated RV with a faux plank ceiling here.
Is It a Bad Idea to Paint an RV Interior White?
I often hear people say white cabinets will get dirty too easily in an RV. My viewpoint is that it depends on your lifestyle, and how okay you are with cleaning regularly.
If you have small kids and/or dogs, you may want to avoid white cabinets so you don't end up spending a lot of time scrubbing fingerprints and paw prints. If you only use your RV for camping and don't want to spend your vacation time cleaning, you might avoid white paint for the same reason.
But if you like the look of white walls and cabinets and don't mind a little extra effort to keep them clean, then I would say just go for it! And maybe keep a few Magic Erasers on hand. 😉
Additional Tips for Your RV Interior Painting Project
Here are some things to consider before beginning an interior painting project in your camper or motorhome to help make sure you get a result you are happy with.
1. Compare multiple sources before deciding on your approach.
While blogs and social media can be a great resource for learning about other people's experiences, keep in mind that there are multiple factors to consider when choosing the right products and methods for a paint project, and just because a certain product worked for one person doesn't mean it's necessary or even right for your project.
Don't let anyone make you feel like you are bound to fail because you didn't do things exactly the way they did; there are multiple products and methods that may work equally well. Gather and compare information from as many sources as possible, including a paint expert your local paint store, before making a final decision about which methods and products to purchase.
Talk to the people at your local paint store and get their advice on the best products to use for the surface you're planning to paint. Another great resource is the RV renovator community on Instagram. Many professional RV renovators are happy to answer questions if you send them a message. You can find a list of RV renovators here.
2. Read all labels and instructions.
Carefully read the label of any primer, paint, or preparation product you plan to use, both before purchasing and again before using, and make sure you follow the instructions.
For example, Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) is a heavy-duty degreaser commonly recommended in Facebook groups for cleaning walls prior to painting, but this chemical can actually react with some types of paint and prevent it from adhering properly, and some paint labels say not to use TSP; if cleaning is needed, there are other products that may work just as well and won't cause this problem.
Paint labels also tell you the ideal temperature range for using the paint and how long to wait between coats. Painting in an environment that's too cold or too hot can keep the paint from drying evenly, and painting another coat of paint before the first coat has thoroughly dried can cause it to scratch or peel later.
3. Buy paint samples to test before deciding on the color.
Paint colors can look completely different on your wall in different lighting than they looked on the card in the store next to all the other colors. Grays can appear blue, browns can appear purple, and colors can end up looking lighter or darker than you expected.
To avoid investing a lot of money and effort into a project only to end up hating the color, test your top color choices. To do this, purchase a small test amount of each color you're considering, and use it to paint a sample area or a few sample areas inside your space.
Of course you will be painting over this later, but if you're worried about painting the actual surface (or if the surface hasn't yet been adequately prepared for painting), you can instead paint a piece of poster board and move it to different areas. Look at the colors in different types of lighting–during the day and at night–and compare it to fabrics, flooring, and other elements in your house to see if it matches.
Paint stores will happily sell you a small test amount of multiple paint colors, usually for less than $5 per container. Lowe's (and probably Home Depot too) often runs half-off sales on these, often around Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend I've noticed.
4. Use the right tool for the job.
Cheap paint brushes and rollers can leave bristles and lint behind in your paint and cause brush strokes to appear. Spending a little extra on a quality, soft-bristled paint brush and better quality rollers will help you achieve a more professional looking result with less effort.
For example, for cutting in next to trim and along the ceiling, a cheap paint brush can be difficult to control and can cause you to make mistakes, but a quality angled brush holds just the right amount of paint and easily glides along the surface. With proper care and cleaning, a quality paint brush can be used for multiple painting projects. I recommend Purdy and Wooster brand paintbrushes.
5. Keep in mind that your RV will be moving.
The first time the RV in the picture below was moved after the cabinets were painted, the paint covering some of the seams between cabinets and wood trim bubbled up as the RV shifted during transit. To prevent this problem, the owner of this RV suggests scoring seams where you've painted over a crack with a razor blade after the paint has dried and before the RV is moved.
6. Be careful with painter's tape.
If you remove painter's tape while the paint is still wet, you might accidentally smudge the paint, but if you wait until it's completely dry, the tape might peel the paint off with it, which is what happened in the RV pictured below.
By removing the tape while the paint is still tacky but not completely liquid, the tape can easily break through the paint but won't cause it to smear. If you do notice that the paint is coming up with the tape, use a razor blade to score along the edge of the tape so the tape can be pulled off without bringing a layer of paint with it.
Something else to watch out for is using painter's tape on fake wood that may tear easily when the paint is removed, like you see in the photo below. (I believe this would mainly be a risk for cabinets with a paper laminate rather than the more modern vinyl laminate.)
7. Anticipate mistakes.
Even though we might try to be careful, mistakes do happen. Cover everything you don't want painted with plastic. Keep a rag nearby (damp with water for latex paint and paint thinner for oil-based paint) to wipe off mistakes as soon as they happen. Use a razor blade to gently scrape off mistakes that have already dried. Paint that has already dried will become more difficult to remove after a few days because the paint will have cured.
8. Allow plenty of time for drying and curing.
Each coat of primer or paint needs to be completely dry before another layer is applied on top. Read the label on the can to see exactly how many hours you need to wait; usually overnight is the minimum.
After the project is completely finished, it will take several days or even a week for the paint to cure, so take care when moving furniture during this time as the paint can be easily scratched. This is normal! If the paint does get scratched accidentally, just sand the area and touch it up and allow a little more time it to dry and cure.
Get Step-by-Step Help With Your RV Painting Project
How would you like to have a professional RV renovator who has painted dozens of RV interiors tell you exactly which products to buy and show you what to do each step of the way?
You can have exactly that with The RV Paint & Prep Online Course from RV Family Renovators, a professional RV renovation company that always posts amazingly helpful DIY RV renovation videos on their Instagram page. You will learn a ton just by scrolling through their feed, but they've also published a , one of which covers the interior painting process from start to finish.
Here's a description from their website:
Rachel of @RV.Family.Reno has tried every product, experimented with every procedure, and done all the guess work, so you don't have to!
This RV Renovation Digital Paint and Prep Bundle is a step-by-step deep dive into properly sanding your RV, preparing your RV for the painting process, priming your RV with RV specific primer, and painting your RV so it will be durable and last!
Through the use of video tutorials, up close shots, timelapse videos, and accompanying materials such as shopping lists and tool recommendations, Rachel will provide you with all the information you need to successfully paint your RV to create the home away from home or the home on wheels you have been dreaming of!
In addition to her series of online courses about renovating RV's, Rachel also offers remote consultations, so you can schedule a one-on-one call with her to get help with your project if you get stuck.
RV Interior Paint Ideas & Color Inspiration
Want to see examples of RV's with painted interiors and get paint color ideas for your RV interior? Check out these other articles from RV Inspiration:
- Before and After Photos of 10 RV Makeovers
- RV Renovations with Some of the Cabinets Left Unpainted
- Boho-Style RV Renovations
- Farmhouse Style RV Makeovers
- RV's Decorated with Beach Themed Decor
- Amazing RV Renovations I Found on Instagram