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12 Painting Mistakes Made by RV Owners (and How to Avoid Them)

Watch out for these frustrating problems encountered by people who painted the walls or cabinets in the interior of their camper or motorhome.
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Watch out for these frustrating problems encountered by people who painted the walls or cabinets in the interior of their camper or motorhome.

Painting your RV interior can be rewarding, but it can also be pretty discouraging when things don’t turn out like you had planned.  In this article I share some painting problems encountered by other RV owners so you can hopefully avoid these frustrating experiences when painting inside your own camper or motorhome.

1. Inadequate surface prep

Preparing a surface for painting is a tedious and time-consuming job that many people want to figure out a way around.  Although there are several different ways to accomplish the task of surface preparation and even a few products that claim to allow you to skip it altogether, your safest bet is to use a time-tested method and good old-fashioned elbow grease.  One RV owner learned this lesson the hard way when she tried painting her laminate cabinets, shown below, without priming first, and the paint started peeling off later.

Paint peeling off faux wood laminate RV cabinets after they were painted without using primer to prepare the surface first

by Ashley Logsdon

To avoid this problem, you need to make sure the surface your painting has a texture the paint can “grab on” to.  The best method for creating a surface paint will adhere to depends on what type of material you’re painting, which leads me to another common mistake….

2. Using paint or primer that’s wrong for the surface

I remember an incident when was younger where I accidentally used interior latex paint on some exterior trim on our house.  My dad told me it would need to be sanded and repainted, but I couldn’t see what the problem was…until a few months later, when the paint started cracking and flaking off.  That experience taught me how important it is to use the right kind of paint for whatever project you’re doing.

You can find lots of great information online that can help you determine which paints, primers, and prep methods are best, but to save you hours of searching for advice on Google or Pinterest, I’ve also created a PDF guide to help you figure out the best way to approach your painting project.

3. Not reading the instructions for the products being used

One RV owner I know 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 off her laminate (fake) wood cabinets, and she ended up having to strip and sand it all off and redo the whole project.

This RV owner had to redo her painting project because she didn't sand first.

Later, she found out that the paint company’s website actually did say to sand first!  Lesson learned: while blogs and Facebook can be a great resource for gathering information and learning from others’ experiences, it’s no replacement for reading and following the product’s instructions!  Also, what worked for one person might not work for you because you might have a different situation in your RV.

4. Using cheap paint brushes

You can get a value pack of several paint brushes for about the same price as one quality paint brush, but using a cheaper brush can result in brush strokes showing or bristles falling out and sticking to the paint.  Personally I like Purdy brand paintbrushes, but I know a lot of people like Wooster brand as well, although I’ve never tried that brand myself.

5. Planning to fix mistakes later

Some paint got on this trim piece when we were painting our RV walls, but we noticed it was easy to scrape off so figured we would just worry about it later.  A few months later (ha!) when I finally got around to it, I discovered the paint wasn’t quite so easy to scratch off!  It’s going to take some serious work now to fix this mistake, and I still haven’t gotten around to it yet!

Wipe up mistakes right away when painting in your camper or motorhome so you don't end up like me.

by Ashley Mann

6. Not waiting long enough for the paint to cure

As you can see from my experience described above, paint scratches off pretty easily the first few days after painting and becomes more durable after it has cured for several days or weeks.  Try to avoid doing anything that might scratch the paint (like moving wooden furniture through a narrow hallway – don’t ask me how I know not to do that!) until it has had plenty of time to cure.  And if your paint does scratch within the first week or so, don’t despair or feel that your project is a failure!  Give it at least a week before determining whether there is actually a problem with paint adhesion or if the paint just hasn’t cured long enough.

7. Painting when it’s too cold, too hot, or too humid

After accidentally leaving a space heater on in her RV while this paint was drying, the owner of the RV pictured below came back a few hours later and discovered the paint had developed a splotchy appearance while drying.  Another RV owner reported a similar experience when condensation built up on her RV walls when she was painting during the winter with the heater running.

Fortunately the residue visible in this photo went away after the RV owner wiped down the walls with a damp rag.  She still isn’t sure exactly what caused the problem, but one way to avoid problems caused by heat and humidity is to read the instructions on the can of paint or primer to find out the optimal temperature and humidity level for your project.  You may need to run a dehumidifier while painting in some climates.

Newly painted walls in this camper developed a mysterious splotchy residue after a space heater was aimed at it.

by Kaysha Conrad

8. Using homemade chalk paint

One RV owner I know 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.

I’m not saying homemade chalk paint will never work.  You might get lucky, and maybe you’re on a tight enough budget that the extra risk is worth it to you.   But if you are at all worried about your paint project not turning out well, using a highly recommended name brand can remove some of the risk factor and increase your chances of ending up with a result you love.  Additionally, if you do have problems, you may be able to get a refund (I actually got a refund once on some spray paint that came out drippy and uneven), but it’s unlikely that a paint company would guarantee their product if you use it in some way other than how it was intended.

Related article: RV Owners Who Painted Their Cabinets

9. Painting over seams that may shift during travel

I don’t actually consider this to be a mistake since I’m not sure it could have been anticipated, but it was a problem faced by RV owner Christina.  The first time her RV 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, Christina suggests scoring seams with a razor blade after the paint has dried and before the RV is moved.  Christina has written more about her experience with RV painting on her blog.

Score paint covering seams between trim pieces after painting inside a travel trailer or motorhome.

by Christina LaPlaca

10. Not testing colors first

I was going for a light gray when I chose the paint color for my walls, but it ended up looking almost white in the direct sunlight on the wall inside one of my slides.  I also have a friend who recently painted her living room, and what she thought was a warm taupe ended up looking more mauve on the wall.  That same friend also once painted a bathroom a color that was supposed to be gray but ended up looking baby blue.

One way to avoid going to the time and expense of painting only to be disappointed with the color is to buy a sample size of the paint first (available from any paint store for just a couple of dollars) and paint a test area or paint a poster board and hold it next to the rest of your decor in different types of lighting.

Related article: 9 Tips for Painting RV Walls and Cabinets

11. Waiting too long to remove 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.

Removing painter's tape too late can cause paint to peel.

by Nathalie Elisabeth

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.

12. Trying to do it all in one coat

When you’ve bought a type of paint that was advertised as requiring only one coat, it can be frustrating to see the old wall color showing through, but that doesn’t mean you should just roll the paint on thicker.  A thick layer of paint, or going back over painted areas before they are fully dry, can interfere with drying time and result in an uneven finish or leave visible brush strokes or marks from the paint roller.  In my experience, it’s better to just plan on having to do two coats.  Then if you find you only need one, you will be pleasantly surprised!

Free painting guide

To help you get a general overview of the basic process and materials needed for an interior painting project, I’ve created “The Quick Start Guide to Painting Your RV Interior”, a free PDF download that you can use as a reference to guide your research and help you know what questions to ask.  You can have a copy emailed to you by filling out the form below.

Watch out for these frustrating problems encountered by people who painted the walls or cabinets in the interior of their camper or motorhome.


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24 comments

  1. Sherry 19 April, 2018 at 11:57 Reply

    Thank you for sharing these ideas

  2. Sally 19 April, 2018 at 13:54 Reply

    we had a leak in our air condition which caused the ceiling of RV to show a stain, the ceiling seems to be a fabric materail, our rv is 2003 Damon Challenger wondering how I could paint it to cover the stain, any ideas

    • Ashley Mann 21 April, 2018 at 12:06 Reply

      Hmm I don’t have personal experience with painting the fabric material, but generally I would recommend Kilz brand primers for covering water stains. If I was going to try painting it myself that’s probably what I would use, but since it’s fabric have you tried looking up ways to clean water stained fabric?

      • Sally 24 April, 2018 at 07:08 Reply

        yes I tried all kinds of things to get rid of the water stain the fabric is almost like a carpet low pile of course, and white and where it leaked it likes rust colored… thanks I am going to go to home depot see if they have any fabric paint…thanks

  3. Julie 21 April, 2018 at 16:14 Reply

    We definitely made the mistake with leaving the tape on too long. We did the ceiling in our slide first and didn’t take the paint off until all FOUR coats of paint dried. Bad move! We are also in danger of #5 if we don’t stop procrastinating on fixing our mistakes.

  4. Angie 24 April, 2018 at 05:49 Reply

    My rv cabinets are laminate but the trim around the cabinets are covred with something like wallpaper that is peeling off in most places other places it us really glued on. It looks horrible ive pulled it off where i can but need advice on how to remove it completely. I plan on painting both the walls and cabinets and trim. We had some wirk done and now there are holes in the wall. Small ones how can i fill those holes before i paint

    • Ashley Mann 25 April, 2018 at 21:25 Reply

      If you fill small holes with spackling paste and sand over them they shouldn’t be noticeable after painting. As for the peeling laminate trim, I would probably need to see a picture to be able to really advise, but I would probably just try to glue it down where it’s loose and use spackling or joint compound to fill gaps to create a smooth surface for painting.

  5. Katie 26 April, 2018 at 13:31 Reply

    So many great tips! We had paint on our window trim for probably 4 months before actually cleaning it off because we kept thinking we would frame the windows, hahaha. Luckily that came off with a magic eraser or rubbing alcohol. You may wanna try that on your trim, but I know wood is different than metal so it may not be so easy since it’s been a while.

    I thought it would be fun to try a different brand of chalk paint on our lower kitchen cabinets. To be honest, I didn’t think anything would go wrong, just that I’d gain experience with a different brand that I could share with others. Ugh, it turned out to be WAY more work, especially with finding the best sealing options, and I wish I would have used regular paint like I did on our uppers. I haven’t been able to get my photos to reflect the color right either which is super annoying. Gotta love the lessons learned from experience!

    • Ashley Mann 26 April, 2018 at 14:14 Reply

      Thanks for the tip about the magic eraser – I have some paint on a window trim also so I will try it there. Also good to know about the chalk paint – can you share what made it more work than regular paint? Was it a different consistency to work with?

  6. Ramona 12 May, 2018 at 06:12 Reply

    I have a 2001 pop up camper. So cute. Brings back childhood memories with my grandma and siblings. Good times. I want to share these experiences with my husband.

    I want to give it some piazza. I’m a carpenter and woodworker. I know to to clean surfaces with TSP and sand everything before painting. But something you haven’t mentioned is spraying cabinets. My thought was to remove them to paint them. Then cover with polyurethane afterwords. I anticipate it taking at least a week to allow for proper drying. I’ve used this process on furniture with success. But…your mention of humidity, condensation from temperature changes and camper movement made me think about any consideration I need to know. Thoughts???

    • Ashley Mann 13 May, 2018 at 22:28 Reply

      I haven’t had as much experience with spraying as I have with brush and roller, but I would imagine just like with other methods it would work as long as the surface was properly prepared and instructions on the label were followed as far as temperature, drying time, etc. Here’s an article that might be helpful and inspiring to you – it shows pictures of a whole bunch of pop-up camper makeovers, and if you click the link below each you can read about them in more detail, which may include information about the techniques they used for painting. Good luck! Sounds like a fun project!

  7. Dave Botsford 13 May, 2018 at 21:53 Reply

    Great list of do and don’t items. As a retired painting contractor I would add 2 items: 1. Don’t bite off more than you can chew! Take your time and be thorough with each phase. 2. For problem stains and priming over wallpaper, laminate, etc. try shellac primer (Bullseye by Zinsser) or good oil based primer. water based primers can moisten and sometimes lift off a porous substrate.

    • Ashley Mann 13 May, 2018 at 22:33 Reply

      Thank you for your additional tips! And for letting me know that as a paint professional you like my list! 🙂

  8. Dee Fluce 18 May, 2018 at 00:12 Reply

    I just bought a 1969 Giles camper. It’s in surprisingly great shape but it’s been stationary lake side for years and won’t be moved because of the trees grown up around it. So, I am remodeling. The first thing I did of course was to paint, being it was all paneling and dark wood. I primered with kilz first and still had to roll on three coats of white but I’m still worried about peeling especially in the bathroom. So, now I’ve decided to wallpaper the bathroom instead. Any advice on what brand of wallpaper would be best against molding or peeling?

    • Ashley Mann 19 May, 2018 at 13:21 Reply

      Sorry, I don’t have personal experience with using wallpaper in a camper. If you’re on Facebook, I would suggest asking the members of the group “RV Interior Ideas” what types of wallpaper have worked best for them. Have you had a problem with the paint peeling already? If not, you could also try it just to see if it works…since you used a good primer, as long as you follow the instructions as far as what type of paint over to use over that type of primer, I would think it should work, if you still preferred to go that route.

  9. pauline 18 May, 2018 at 22:31 Reply

    I recently purchased a camper. The previous owners had painted cabinets and choice walls. My best guess is they used latex paint. As far as I can tell no primer was used. Yet paint has held up well. I would like to paint over the previous paint. My question is should I use oil primers and paint or should I use latex base paints? She really needs TLC.
    Thanks for any help

    • Ashley Mann 19 May, 2018 at 13:15 Reply

      Hi Pauline, in researching the question of latex vs. oil based paint, I have seen people say you should never use oil based paint over latex based paint, and others who say it’s the other way around, that you should never used latex paint over oil paint. I think to be safe I would try to stick with the same type of paint that was used previously.

      For your cabinets, I would recommend using a paint stripper such as this one and then thoroughly sanding them (if they are real wood) before using a primer, then a paint. If they are laminate the same process should work minus the sanding so as not to damage the laminate surface; instead you might use a plastic scraper to remove the old paint after applying the stripper, and you will probably want to use a bonding primer such as Glidden Gripper.

      For the walls, I would do a bit of research to find best methods for painting over latex paint, but typically I would say sand to rough up the existing paint (but not to remove it), and then paint with a latex paint + primer. You shouldn’t need a second coat of primer as long as the bottom layer of paint is holding up well and as long as you are using the same type of paint that was used the first time.

      That’s my advice! I would also suggest asking a paint professional at a paint store for a second opinion!

    • Ashley Mann 21 May, 2018 at 10:42 Reply

      I have heard of others having success with spray paint on their cabinets! Did you go through a lot of cans?

  10. David 21 May, 2018 at 18:16 Reply

    I’m thinking about painting the cabinets in my camper, but it just looks like a 1/4 inch board with a paper like sticker with a wood grain printed on it. My concern is how do I strip it and get it ready for primer? And also when I apply primer I’m afraid that the moisture from the paint will lift off the sticker, Any suggestions???

    • Ashley Mann 22 May, 2018 at 09:52 Reply

      What you are describing sounds like a type of laminate wood. If you Google “how to paint laminate wood cabinets” you can probably find some info about it; I’ve also linked to blog posts written by RV owners who successfully painted this type of material my Ultimate Guide to Painting Your RV Interior.

      Since the purpose of stripping is to remove old paint and varnish from wood, you don’t need to strip it, and you also don’t want to sand it because you might tear through the wood grain sticker. I suggest thoroughly cleaning it, then lightly sanding it with a fine grit paper to roughen the surface just a bit. Then I would use either a cabinet paint specially designed for this type of application, or a bonding primer such as Glidden Gripper followed by latex paint. Alternatively, I have seen some RV owners who used spray paint on that type of material instead of regular primer and paint, but if you have a lot of cabinets to paint that could get expensive.

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