I have painted the exterior of multiple campers, from a vintage trailer to a 90’s RV. I’m going to share the simple technique I use and how well it holds up!
Let’s Talk Exterior Paint Jobs
How do you paint the exterior of a camper or RV? Do you spray it or roll it? Do you use a special auto body paint? Do you seal it with some sort of top coat?
How I painted the exterior of my RV is the most frequently asked question I get, and the one I’m most embarrassed to answer!
“Why?” You may ask.
Well, I kind of break all the rules.
I realize I’m going to get some flack for this and some people are going to shake their heads and raise some eyebrows.
I don’t follow the rules for auto-body painting and maybe not even for camper painting.
**I roll the paint on using regular exterior paint**
I don’t spray it, I don’t use auto paint.
I don’t use a foam roller, I don’t tape things off.
Sometimes I don’t even remove the decals (gasp!).
You can shake your head in disgust now.
Go ahead, you know you want to.
“Done” is better than perfect!
Q: Is it perfect?
Q: Is it way better than before?
Q: Am I embarrassed to be seen with it after it has been painted?
Q: Was I previously worried about being mistaken for a mobile meth lab?
Q: Am I worried about it now?
Q: Does it hold up?
The “Right” Way
I always assess a project before diving in and using any one method. I will always inspect the decals and attempt to remove them first. Generally, I follow the rule that if the camper is less than 20 years old, I’ll remove the decals before painting. If you would like to attempt to remove the decals, you will want to try the following supplies:
- Decal removing wheel
- Or this one
- Goo Gone
- Sticker remover spray
- Plastic scraper
- Label and sticker remover
- Heat Gun
The proper way to paint an RV exterior involves removing decals, power washing, taping and covering windows and then spraying on an automotive grade paint with a paint sprayer. This might be the correct way to do things, but I honestly believe it’s not the only way. I’m all about using whatever method you can confidently execute. If rolling on paint is in your wheel house and the idea of using a paint sprayer is too intimidating, then let yourself off the hook.
When Not to Paint
If a good power washing transforms your RV and gives it new life, skip the paint job! If you can successfully remove decals and find your RV looks remarkably better, then skip the paint. If your RV is less than 10 years old, chances are you shouldn’t paint it. We now own a brand new travel trailer that I would never dream of painting, but we did remove the decals! TIP: Decals come off easily on brand new RVs because they haven’t baked on over time.
When You Should Paint
If your motorhome looks like a rolling meth lab, you should paint. If you’re embarrassed to go anywhere because of how bad your RV looks, you should paint. If the exterior is damaged and you’ve had to do repair work that left obvious patches, you should paint. If you’ve been turned away at certain campgrounds based on your RV’s appearance, you should paint.
Here is what I do to prep the surface before painting:
- Lightly sand areas where the decals are bubbling or peeling up
- PLEASE NOTE: you can try and use a heat gun or a decal removing buffer that fits on a drill to remove the decals first. I have personally had very little success with removing decals, so I’ve opted to paint over them many times! This will really depend on the year of your camper, what kind of siding you have and type of decal. I figured if they’ve stayed on for 20+ years, they can hold up to a layer of paint.
- Power wash everything, including the roof
- Allow to dry thoroughly
- Seal up corners and around all windows with a paintable caulk. I like DAP Extreme Stretch Sealant
- Do any repairs to the roof or siding before painting. Make sure everything is water-tight and clean
- If you are repainting a newer trailer with a shiny exterior, you may want to consider lightly sanding or painting first with a primer like Stix Bonding Primer
Read: Our 90’s RV Renovation
Let me talk for a minute about decals. I wasted an entire week of my life trying to remove the decals on our Salem Cruise trailer. I bought a special decal removing wheel for my drill, I used a heat gun, I used a putty knife, you name it. Those things would NOT come off. Now, the siding on that particular trailer was wavy, not smooth. I think removing decals from a smooth sided trailer is easier. I vowed that day never to waste that much time again. I will always inspect decals and attempt to remove them, but if they look like they aren’t going anywhere and the camper is more than 20 years old, I will likely just paint over them.
Does the paint hold up around the decals? Well, I would say for the most part it does. Our much older RV with smooth sides is holding well. The newer trailer with wavy sides started to lift a little and I had to touch up the paint. I think newer decals may eventually bubble and lift, but if your RV is older than 20 years, they stay put. It’s really hard to predict what your exact situation will be.
Can you see the outline of the decals under the new paint?
Only when you stand very close.
But not bad enough to bother me!
I always recommend the use of a good gripping primer first, because it’s hard to predict how well paint will adhere to different surfaces. If you are painting straight over an aluminum sided trailer, you will want to use a primer that is meant for direct to metal application. With that said, I have had pretty good success with Behr Marquee exterior paint and primer in one. It goes on nice and smooth and covers beautifully without the uses of an added primer or extra coats. It has almost always covered in one coat and held up well.
I used a low luster sheen (eggshell) on the exterior of our 50’s vintage trailer because there were so many dents and imperfections in the siding and I wanted a finish that would camouflage them better. The draw back to this, is that dirt doesn’t slide off or clean off as nice as a high gloss. I used a satin finish on our newer trailer and semi-gloss on our current RV! I’m always experimenting.
I was reluctant to paint over the decals on our current RV with a semi-gloss paint, but I wanted to see if a semi-gloss would appear more professional. I’m not sure I really see much of a difference.
- Gripping Primer
- Latex Paint
- 3/8″ nap roller (you could also use 1/4″ nap or a foam roller for a smoother finish)
- Angled brush
*I experimented with an oil based paint once and it cracked and flaked off! Oil based dries to a harder finish which may be too rigid for a moving vehicle (at least that’s my theory).
Painting the Cab
Are you wondering if I did anything special for the cab of our RV?
Do you really need to ask?
In all fairness, I did stop and contemplate it for a while!
I considered all the crazy things I have painted in the past and wondered if painting a CAR with a paint roller was going to look super trashy.
In the end, I just went for it and never looked back!
Pros and Cons to Rolling
So why did I choose to roll the paint instead of spraying it?
Well, I’m just more confident with a roller.
I’ve never been a fan of taping and covering everything up to protect it from the over spray. It’s just easier for me to cut-in around everything with an angled brush and roll the rest on. Would a sprayer produce a more even, smooth finish? Probably, yes. But, because of painting over the decals, I have always figured the roller will produce a slightly textured finish that will hide the decals.
Once the paint has dried and cured, I added fun vinyl decals! I made sure the surface was clean and dry before applying. They have held up great with no special sealant needed. I also got a fun vanity plate for the front of the camper. I also painted the door pink!
Find them here:
How Well Does it Hold Up?
I am always asked how well this method holds up. In my experience, you may have little spots that need touching up after a season of travel, but overall it holds well. The spots that show signs of wear first, are around the headlights and front bumper of a motorhome, and around the latches and handles of storage compartments. These high traffic areas take quite a beating, but even so, I have only ever seen mild chipping happen over time. Overall, I feel that the improvement I get from painting and ease of this method are worth a few little chips here and there. I always keep paint on hand for touch ups. To extend the life of my paint job, I top with a soft wax.
Please let me know if you have any other questions!
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