Tips for painting RV cabinets

Adventure 5 min read

Over the past few years, there has been a significant uptick in people wanting to update their RV interiors. The driving force behind this movement is the outdated decor and darker colors that come in most manufactured RVs. You’d be surprised at how much a coat of paint can change the feel of a space.

RV cabinets

A side note before we get started—there are paints that state no sanding or primer is necessary. While this can be the case in some instances, it depends on the type of paint being used and the surface being painted.

Generally speaking, you’ll find two different types of cabinets in RVs: wood cabinet faces or particleboard covered with a wood veneer. Either way, following the steps below will help make sure your paint adheres and stays on the surface you’re painting, giving you a new look that lasts.

Here are a few tips for painting RV cabinets:

Prep

Before painting your cabinets, you’ll first prep the surfaces you plan to paint, which includes the following steps:

  • Clean
  • Sand
  • Prime

Clean

First, clean up the area and prep it for paint. Rather than attempt to paint the cabinet doors while attached, consider taking the extra time to remove them, along with any attached hardware.

By painting the cabinet doors elsewhere, it’ll be easier to create better coverage and more professional results. You can even find portable paint tents for this purpose. Removing the cabinet doors will also make it easier to clean and paint the base of the cabinets.

Before painting, you’ll want to clean any surface you plan to paint. This will remove dirt, grime, or grease and provide a better surface for the paint to adhere to. TSP is a popular option and is what we used to clean our RV walls before painting them. However, as we moved forward with other paint projects, we used Simple Green cleaner, a more eco-friendly option.

Sand

Unless you’re attempting to remove layers of old paint, the next step should be relatively quick and easy. Lightly sand any surface you plan to paint.

The point of sanding is to create a smooth surface, remove shine, and give the paint something to grab on to. Unless you’re trying to smooth out a highly textured or recently repaired area, this will be a quick, gentle job that doesn’t require an electric sander. In most cases, it’ll only take a few seconds in each area. And yes, you can even do this on non-wood surfaces.

Since you removed your cabinet doors and hardware, you shouldn’t need to tape off any edges, aside from any areas that require it on or around the cabinet base.

Prime

With your cabinets clean and lightly sanded, it’s time to prime them. I used to think paint with primer mixed in was the same as using actual primer, but have since learned that’s rarely ever the case. And this is especially true if you’re painting a surface with stains, knots, smells, or made of a material such as wood veneer.

Bonding (or gripper) primer will be your best bet, especially if painting faux wood cabinets. The consistency is thicker than your average can of primer, so it can be slightly more challenging to work with, but the coverage is much better. This can also help smooth out any texture imperfections in the surface you paint.

Read the instructions on your primer before you use it. The instructions give you essential information, such as dry time, cure time, and recommended temperature guidelines. In most cases, you’ll want the first coat to be completely dry before painting another layer of primer. Otherwise, the paint could eventually come off in strips, which is the last thing you want after spending so much time prepping and painting your cabinets. And if you bump or nick the paint before the “cure” time, it will have a higher chance of chipping.

Another perk of using primer is you won’t need as many coats of paint, which can ultimately save you money since primer is less expensive. In most cases, one coat of bonding primer is all you need, with two max.

Pro Tip: Water-based primer is recommended when using a water-based topcoat such as Latex, although an oil-based primer could work (check your product instructions first).

Paint

Now that all of your pre-painting work is complete, you can apply the first coat of paint. Depending on the paint you use and various other factors, you’ll likely need two coats for the best results. As a general rule, the higher the quality of paint used, the less paint you need.

Ways to paint

We painted the cabinets in our RV with a paint sprayer and other areas using an old fashion paintbrush and roller. Whichever way you choose will work, although a paint sprayer could make the job quicker—especially if you plan to paint the cabinets and other areas of your RV the same color. Using a sprayer may also make sense if you plan to prime all of the walls and cabinets simultaneously.

As far as rollers go, I didn’t always understand what the nap size represented. I would then wonder why the surfaces I painted had different results.

The nap represents the height of the fibers on the roller, and bigger naps are generally used on surfaces with a lot of texture, or if you want to create more of an orange-peel texture. Lower naps are used on smoother surfaces or for a smoother finish.

Woven rollers are generally used on walls and ceilings, while foam rollers are typically chosen for cabinets because they provide a smooth finish. Again, this all comes down to preference, but don’t forget that quality counts and a cheap roller may not provide the results you want.

Types of paint

  • Latex paint is a popular option to use on cabinets, but there are more options available for you to consider. This includes water-based options with similar characteristics to an oil-based paint that can be beneficial if used on kitchen cabinets. Most of these will include some sort of acrylic enamel or waterborne alkyd mixed in.
  • Chalk paint is a non-toxic, water-based paint that requires little to no prep before painting. In some cases, you don’t need to sand or prime a surface before painting it with chalk paint. However, it’s far from perfect. In fact, prep is still recommended on certain surfaces, including those made of laminate. We used chalk paint on our bathroom vanity, which is made of real wood, and it turned out awesome. We did clean and lightly sand it first, but skipped the primer and didn’t have any issues.

Ultimately, only you can decide which paint and application process is the best option for your RV cabinets.

Protect

While a protective topcoat isn’t necessary for the walls, it’s a good idea to seal cabinets that will get a lot of use, like those in the kitchen and bathroom. This adds durability and makes them easier to clean.

There are countless sealing options available, from water-based to oil-based to waxes, and all with a variety of finishes. There are also several eco-friendly options on the market.

You’ll want to choose the sealer that’s right for your situation and the finish you’re looking for. Just remember, if you’re painting your cabinets a light color, you’ll want to stick to a water-based sealer, as oil-based options can yellow over time.

Painting RV cabinets is relatively straight forward and easy to accomplish. However, it can also be time-consuming, so take your time and be patient. In the end, you’ll be thrilled with your newly transformed space.

And remember, whether you’re a pro at painting RV cabinets or maybe just getting started, be sure to keep everything you love protected with Progressive. To learn more about comprehensive RV insurance, click here. 

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