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Color Me Happy: Choosing the Best Exterior RV Paint

Exterior RV paint is a lot more complicated than it looks. It’s not like painting the inside of your travel trailer, fifth wheel, or motorhome, though even that has its own set of complexities. It’s not a matter of choosing your favorite color and slapping the stuff on with a paint roller and a brush.

For the undiscerning amateur painter, walking down the paint aisle at the local Lowes or Home Depot is often a surprise. There are so many of them. There are primers, epoxies, acrylics, sealants, mattes, satins, semi-gloss, high-gloss, finishes, oil-based, latex, enamels, and every kind of variation and combination you can imagine. Exhausted yet?

All that comes before you choose one of a thousand colors, consider new RV decals, calculate expenses, and ponder the different tools you’ll need. In short, applying exterior RV paint is no simple matter. If you’re bound and determined to cut out the professionals and make this a DIY project, this little guide will set you on the right track.

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Consider the Material of Your Camper

A rig with a fresh coat of exterior RV paint is a beautiful thing, especially if you’re responsible for it. However, exterior paints, especially in RV and marine applications, come with a degree of scientific sophistication. Pre-paint preparation is a fine example of this. When you atomize your paint with an HVLP or airless sprayer, it needs to bond to the surface at a molecular level.

Without proper preparation, it cannot bond. The results will look fantastic, at least until the first bump comes along and an entire sheet of paint falls off. Preparation is key long before you hit up the paint aisle at the hardware store. The surface has to be “opened” so the paint molecules can bond, much like puzzle pieces or Legos.

How the surface is opened depends on the material. Aluminum and fiberglass are the two exteriors that dominate the industry. However, it’s often less about the material of the sidewalls and more about the original paint. After all, most consumers jumping on the DIY paint job bandwagon are improving an existing aesthetic, not painting the raw fiberglass or aluminum surface of an RV. But don’t worry. If you are painting the raw surface, we’ve got you covered there as well.

Your substrate will almost always be old paint unless you happen to be painting RVs as they come off the assembly line.

There are two things you need to know that are of the utmost importance in terms of paint durability, longevity, and a fantastic aesthetic: surface prep and bonding primer.

Types of Exterior RV Paint: Overview

Bonding primer is a given, and it comes before any exterior RV paint you choose to go with. Yes, it will double the expense of a DIY RV paint job, but it will also save you a lot of money and heartache in the near future. The rest boils down to your topcoat of choice. However, which one is the best, and what do they all mean?

Acrylic

Acrylic is a solid choice as an exterior RV paint, especially if you’re painting the raw surface of an aluminum RV. It’s water-soluble, flexible, deals with temperature fluctuations well, has UV protection, adheres well, and resists water. Since acrylic is a thin paint, it will generally cost more for the extra coatings. Acrylic is usually used as a combo for exterior paints, such as acrylic-enamel.

Latex

Latex is a water-based paint and, for the longest time, oil-based paints have always been the go-to RV exterior paint of choice, or exterior anything, for that matter. Fortunately, latex has come a long way, however, with all of the exterior strengths of acrylic.

It’s hard to give this one a solid ‘yes,’ though since long-term viability is still ever so slightly up in the air.

Enamel

Enamel is oil-based and provides the thickest single coat of the bunch. It dries slowly, but it also dries hard, creating a protective shell. Its slow drying time makes painting mistakes fixable. Enamels lack the sheen and aesthetic appeal of some other paint types and, depending on the color choice, may present a faded appearance over time.

One-Part Polyurethane

Easily one of the most versatile finish coats on the list, one-part polyurethane works with wood, fiberglass, steel, aluminum, and plastics. It provides UV protection and reduces the need for waxing, thanks to its shiny finish. It also improves aerodynamic performance and is a solid waterproofing choice. Surface prep for polyurethane is an exquisitely detailed and patient process, however.

Two-Part Polyurethane

Two-part polyurethane has all the advantages of one-part polyurethane, except the finish is harder, has a higher gloss appearance, and is much more expensive.

Epoxy

Epoxy paints are the primary exterior paints in U.S. Navy marine applications (Destroyers, LHAs, LPDs, etc). It’s heat-resistant, provides UV protection, has longevity, resists salt water (ideal if your RV spends a lot of time near the ocean or in a humid environment), and is waterproof.

Water-Based Versus Oil-Based Exterior RV Paint

For decades, oil-based paints have been the number one choice for exterior paints. In preparing for your exterior RV paint job, oil-based alternatives will probably cross your radar first. Oil paints typically dry harder but slower, while water paints dry faster and softer.

Oil paints also have a higher sheen aesthetic when completely cured. For beginners, oil-based paints provide more time to correct mistakes and will ultimately provide a higher degree of protection from water damage and corrosion. Water-based paints clean more easily, are less harsh on the environment (lower VOCs), and are best for fast-paced, DIY paint jobs.

They aren’t as durable in the long run and lack the moisture resistance of oil paints. If you’re going for a super-glossy look, water-based is the wrong choice.

Importance of Exterior RV Paint

Exterior RV paint is all about surface prep. Without surface prep, your topcoat might as well be made of cotton candy. Because that’s about what you’ll get out of it—a wildly colorful and attractive aesthetic, quickly followed by ruin, despair, and moving back in with your in-laws. Okay, maybe not that bad, but bad nonetheless.

With proper surface prep, the exterior-grade paint you choose will be how your RV presents itself to the world. There are a lot of tough choices in the above list, and RVers will all be happy to tell you their own personal preference. Ultimately, it’s a matter of getting what you pay for. Marine-grade epoxies and either one- or two-part polyurethanes will be your best bets in the long run. But that’s not to say the other choices are wrong, just less effective in terms of longevity.

Marine grade may sound like it has nothing to do with RVs, but it does, in most ways. Boats and RVs share many common characteristics. Some are aluminum, and some are fiberglass. Both require UV protection, waterproofing, corrosion resistance, flexibility, and a favorable aesthetic. The best exterior-grade paints will provide all of the above.

Climate Considerations

While temperature affects the curing process of exterior RV paint, there’s still a window in which most painting applications are optimal. You’re good to go in temperatures anywhere between 50°F and 85°F. Before you start, pay attention to the weather, especially if you choose an oil-based paint. Since they cure slower, the window for disaster is larger.

Aim for a humidity level between 40% and 75%. That will be more difficult near the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, or the Atlantic Ocean. In those cases, find an indoor facility, head inland, or wait until the fall. Avoid windy conditions whenever possible, especially if you’re going to use a paint sprayer.

Preparing the Surface

This is where all the fun science stuff begins. Your ultimate goal is paint adherence, and to achieve that, you have to open the way, so to speak. While bonding primer is often thought of as the ultimate necessity for a strong top coat to adhere, it’s not. It’s very important, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of the process.

Not only do you have to sand every square inch of surface on your RV, but you also have to sand your bonding primer. Why use the sander on the primer? Because even though the bonding primer is designed to adhere to a fresh topcoat, it still needs to be opened up, allowing the topcoat to bind better at a molecular level.

  • Remove all decals and graphics on your RV. A decal remover could include a heat gun, Goo Gone, or a simple putty scraper.
  • Lightly sand the entire surface with 100+ grit sandpaper (don’t dig too deep).
  • Wipe down the entire surface with denatured alcohol (regular alcohol is harmful to fiberglass RVs).
  • Carefully inspect the entire surface and ensure that it’s free of dust, chips, and contaminants.

Now, it’s time for the bonding primer, which is part of the surface prep. You can apply bonding primer with an airless or HVLP sprayer, a roller, or a paintbrush. You don’t have to be as careful throughout this step because you will sand the surface again, removing any imperfections, hairs, or fibers from the rollers, or excess primer build-up.

Give the bonding primer a full day to cure. Most bonding primers will provide you with a 7-day window for maximum topcoat adherence. When you come back, use 220+ grit sandpaper to lightly open up the primer and remove any imperfections. Don’t dig too deep with the sandpaper, as you don’t want to accidentally remove the bonding primer.

Application Techniques: Tips for Success

The pathway to producing the best exterior RV paint job starts and ends with a sprayer. Whether you use an HVLP or an airless sprayer, the former of which is more common at the residential level, it just looks better. The problem is not everyone is comfortable using one. Hold that trigger for too long or get the tip too close to the surface, and things go south in a hurry.

If you prefer to use a roller, a three-inch, high-density foam roller is the best choice. It produces the smoothest finish without leaving behind tiny fibers that come from wool rollers. While the three-inch sounds counterintuitive for a potentially large surface area, it’s easier to dip and use while also forcing you to concentrate on the smaller aspects of the paint job. This is crucial to a successful finish.

You should only use paint brushes for difficult-to-access areas and stick with the foam kind rather than the bristles. The bristles tend to leave tiny rows behind, which looks bad when it cures. No matter what you do, don’t overdo it. Gravity works against paint, just like everything else. If you put too much into a single coat, the paint will droop.

If you decide to spray paint, more prep work is necessary, mostly in the form of painter’s tape and masking up every surface you don’t want to paint. Place the tip roughly 8″ to 12″ away from the surface and move quickly with overlapping rows. The woman’s speed (in the above video) is correct, but, at times, her technique is not.

At the 2:01-minute mark, her technique is perfect, maintaining an equal distance up and down the painting surface. At the 2:25-minute mark, her technique is off, as she’s no longer maintaining an equal distance between the tip and the surface of the RV. It may sound trivial, but it creates entire rows of thin paint that sandwich rows of thick paint between them.

Maintaining Your Exterior RV Paint Job

First and foremost, ensure that there will be no adverse weather events, to the best of your ability, in the 24 hours following your paint job. For high-gloss or high-sheen finishes, don’t wax it. Rather, use a liquid polishing treatment and maintain a regular washing routine.

For low-gloss or low-sheen paint jobs, feel free to wax the finished product. The best way to maintain the aesthetic and overall appeal of your exterior RV paint job is to regularly wash it. You don’t have to go all wild and wash it every two or three days. Just establish a routine and keep it clean. Of course, try not to wreck it or let the kids anywhere near it with the bicycles, scooters, or anything else.

Conclusion

A DIY exterior RV paint job isn’t as luxurious and refreshing as it sounds. The good news is that nothing that looks fantastic ever comes from little effort. You can always get a professional to do it. There are marine industrial painters and auto detailers who would love to do it. Just prepare yourself for the exorbitant costs of labor, on top of an expensive paint purchase.

But, if you’re willing and have the time, there’s no reason you can’t complete the job yourself and make it look fantastic in the process. Just remember: surface prep, surface prep, and more surface prep. It’s the well-spring from which all of the best exterior paint jobs flow. After you’re all done, you own it, and you are free to display your immaculate, glossy paint finish to the whole world.

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