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Painting RV Cabinets (and what I did wrong)

Y’all…I did it. I finished painting the cabinets in the RV. Somebody get me a drink.

I’d love to tell you a wonderful, uplifting tale about how it was an easy project and I enjoyed every second of it, but that would be a lie. This project sucked and I’m really glad it’s over. I CAN tell you it was worth it though, so at least this story has a happy ending. I mean, just look at how much brighter and less depressing the kitchen looks with bright white cabinets. Worth it.

before and after painting camper cabinets

Alright, let’s talk details (so you don’t make the same mistake I did).

As it turns out, RV cabinets aren’t the best. I’m sure there are RV’s out there with decent quality cabinets, but ours is not one of them.  The cabinetry in our camper is made to be extra lightweight, so it is made of thin pressboard and covered in a wood look paper. These cabinets make cheap laminate cabinets look like the holy grail of quality craftsmanship.

crappy RV cabinets

So when we decided to paint them I wasn’t really concerned with them turning out perfect, because that just isn’t realistic. The goal here is to remodel the RV as cheaply as possible, while having it still look freaking fantastic. And the cheapest way to do something is by using what you already have.

So I went up to the attic and sifted through all the leftover paint, and came down with a bucket of primer and a bucket of leftover latex shiplap paint. I figured these would work well enough…after all, they’re just crappy RV cabinets that will only be taking intermittent abuse.

I started by giving all the cabinets a light sanding to help the primer stick to the slick paper. Then I taped everything off and started in with the primer, which was a water-based Kilz.

priming RV cabinets

I primed the entire kitchen with this stuff before giving it the scratch test …and realizing that the primer did not even remotely adhere to the cabinets. Instead, it came right off at the slightest touch. So me, being me, decided everything would be okay in the end, and adding latex paint over top would probably solve the problem.

rv remodel - painting cabinets

As you may have guessed, more paint was not the solution. It still scratched right off, revealing my nemesis…that stupid, slick, fake wood paper. I, of course, have zero photo evidence of this, which I blame on my overly optimistic denial of the problem.

Time for plan B, which involves doing things the right way. For $8.

oil based primer for RV cabinets

That’s right, $8 worth of oil-based primer is all I needed to end the shenanigans.

This primer is amazing, it is what I used for all the cabinets in the house and it is pretty much bulletproof. If you are painting anything that isn’t drywall or bare wood, use this.  The downside is that it is oil-based, so it smells terrible and is a pain to clean up… but a disposable foam brush and some good ventilation will make it bearable.

Anyway, I primed the rest of the RV with this stuff. I didn’t even have to sand first, that is how well it worked. As far as what I had already primed, some of it I left, some of it I sanded and re-primed, and some of it I re-primed without sanding. How it all holds up will be an interesting experiment.

Despite the excellent primer, it still took five coats to cover the dark wood. FIVE COATS. If you are wondering what I did with my little bit of kid-free time this summer….well, this is it.

Also, caulk + painter’s tape is your best friend in situations like this; it makes your “I’m so over this” sloppy paint job look much more presentable.

caulking RV cabinets

Anyway, here are some more pictures of the finished product!

renovating an RV (how to paint the cabinets)
RV cabinets painted white
Don\'t make this mistake when painting RV cabinets!
white RV cabinets
how to paint RV cabinets
cabinet painting mistakes
paint camper cabinets
update RV cabinets

The color on the cabinets is Alabaster by Sherwin Williams, and I didn’t seal them. Not sealing cabinets is a really bad idea, but since this kitchen isn’t used often, I’m willing to risk it. Plus, I just couldn’t bring myself to spend any more time on these cabinets…I’m ready to move on to the walls!

If you prefer your information in video format, I have that too –


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  1. Great advise about using oil based primer. I would have done the same thing – who doesn’t like the easy clean up of water based products? Anyway, your cabinets look great and I can’t wait to see what you will do next!

  2. WOW ! It looks great ! Your trailer looks so bright and fresh . Can not wait to see your finished projects with your trailer.

  3. I was scrolling through the WOW party and saw your picture. I had to stop in and say hi. I painted our trailer last summer and I absolutely love it. I know you will love yours as well. I agree that the cabinets in campers are so cheap that it isn’t going to look perfect but that is okay. Are you going to redo the couch? I can’t wait to see the rest of the remodel. It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it.

    1. Thanks Katie! The cabinets really were a pain, but we just finished painting the walls and (much to my surprise) they weren’t bad at all. I am going to redo the couch, though I’m not great at sewing so it should be interesting. I think I’m just going to get creative with safety pins ;)

  4. Your story is my exact story right now! I’m so thankful to find your post! I primed with regular latex primer, came right off. So I went to sherwin williams and they sold me a latex bonding primer and said if that didn’t work they had no clue. We did as the said, we wiped all of the latex primer off with denaturized alcohol to remove the primer. We painted one cabinet with the special latex bonding primer and allowed it to dry. I did the scratch test today and it didn’t come off as easily as the regular primer did but it defiantly would scrape off. I was about in tears! I have some question: After priming with the oil based primer did you use oil based paint from sherwin williams as a top coat? and Have you noticed if it is holding up well not sanding the latex primer off first? Thank you so much for your post!

    1. I’m so sorry that happened to you too! I had only painted some of the kitchen cabinets before I realized my mistake, and I wasn’t sure what to do with the latex primer. I sanded it off a bit (not great) and went over it with oil primer in some spots and just latex paint in others. No consistency in my method at all. So far it is fine, but we haven’t started abusing it yet either (that starts this weekend!).

  5. What a difference that makes in appearance of the RV! So much less cave-ish. Do you think that would be a good primer to use for painting laminate furniture?

  6. Your camper looks Great!Thanks for the info on cabinets. About to tackle my sons RV for a makeover. Unfortunately a previous smoker had it so smelly oil base paint it is. Will picking up paint brush recommended. Floors will be another headache I’m sure.

  7. How did you paint the cabinets, roller, brush, or spray? I’m using a product called beyond paint and it recommends a roller, but can’t use a roller on the frame work. Not enough room for roller. Any suggestion would be appreciated.
    Linda Cross
    [email protected]

  8. Hey! I saw on your previous post that you used eggshelf finish for the walls. Did you use the same finish on the cabinets? I’m planning on painting my walls and cabinets the same white but I’m stuck if I should use the same finish! I’d love to be able to just buy the same paint but I’ve read a few articles about using satin on cupboards.

  9. Ashley,
    Thanks for the tips. Your RV. Looks so bright and cheery. I’m curious to know what type of RV did you do this painting remodel to? Did you ever paint the walls?

  10. That sounds great! This is a perfect way to make up for my cabinet so I have no reason to not try it. I will complete it before starting my new trip next month and I am very expecting about it. Thanks for sharing!

  11. I tried your way with Nuvo paint 10 days ago and the result I received over my expectation. I love this paint, it goes on smooth and drys with a beautiful shiny smooth finish. 2.5 quarts did my whole kitchen and a huge cabinet thing I have. I first bought the kit but needed a bit more for everything I needed to do. It does scratch if you drag something over it pretty roughly. But that is typical. So happy with my purchase

  12. Hi,
    I am attempting to paint my motorhome cabinets and used the primer you suggested. I painted everything! Today I went out and it is scratching off! It is not sticking! I am so upset! What the heck! It did NOT work for me! Now what????

  13. I’m considering doing my 5th wheel cabinets. It is now (retired) my home (Canada).

    Thanks for the visuals. Truly great story…

  14. I would have suggested a universal bonding primer from Menards. I just finished painting my 1980s RV cabinets without a hideous smell- it’s not oil based, and with only 2 coats, because we used cheap rollers with a bad nap.

  15. I love, love, love your honesty!! Thank you so much for sharing. I plan on doing my camper this spring. Your post gave me an epiphany! I will do the cabinets and leave the walls for the next project!! I was planning on doing it all at once. I am curious if you will use the same colour on your walls as your cabinets…

    Camper from Canada

  16. Painting an rv is the second most fun I’ve had in my life!!! I have found, by error, that using frog tape is very important cause I’m not a good painter, not even close. I am also not able to move the furnature so more taping is necessary. I was thinking about hiring a painter but I’m too cheap so I will just plug along, but the more I think about doing this job the more I procrastinate. Your pictures and explanations will help motivate me. thanks Curt

  17. Your camper looks great!!! Now after looking at this my wife wants to do this on our Class A Motorhome, guess who’s doing the work…me!! HAHAHA well, hopeully it’ll take me a day but I have a feeling it will take me much longer but by looking at your pictures white really does make everything POP!! So I guess, I’m going to be painting my RV as well and will using all your suggestions. Thanks for all the pictures and it looks wonderful!!

  18. What kind of primer did you use the first time? I usually use kilz 2 but i realize that is water based .

  19. Quick question! Will your trailer have to go through a harsh winter?
    Where I live we have relatively warm summers (+35-40C) but incredibly cold winters (-35-45C). I sooooo want to paint my trailer cabinets but terrified to see what will happen to them with the transition into winter and those super cold months.

    On a side note, your cabinets turned out beautiful! You’re frustrating shenanigans paid off, lol!!!

    1. I’m in South Texas so I can’t comment to how it will hold up in the cold. It easily survived the crazy crazy heat though, and my gut says the cold wouldn’t effect the paint.

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