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Roller Painting Your Van

Learn all about roller painting your vans and campers with this article.

Learn all about roller painting your vans and campers with this article.

Roller Painting

So, why roller paint?

Well, once your van gets to a certain age, it becomes less viable to pay for a respray, particularly for the size of the vehicle. Another reason is you don't need any special equipment, and you don't need a garage to do it in.

When you can completely refresh and repaint that old van for under £50 ($75), then it really makes sense to roller. The paint finish can be as good as a respray if you take care with the process, but even for a first attempt, a really good acceptable finish can be achieved.


Preparation is always the key to a good paint finish regardless of what method you use. Once the paint goes on all the blemishes will be highlighted and can spoil what would be an otherwise smart van.

Fill all the little holes and rust spots. Sand down smooth to around a 600-grade finish. You don't need to sand the whole van, but I would recommend it as it gives the paint something to key to. Finally, wash everything down to remove dust and grease. This final part is the most important.


Masking Up

Next step in the preparation is to mask everything you don't want the paint on. Sounds obvious but what you will find is that because you have so much control over where the paint goes, there may be a lot less masking than you think.

For example, there is no need to cover the windows completely. You don't get overspray with a roller, so you only need to mask the edges of the windows. The same applies to lights or any other edges to large areas.

I would recommend tricky areas like door handles are completely masked, but these are small areas so its not such a big deal. Later on, when I applied some of the last coats, I didn't use any masking at all.


The Paint

Now here comes the important bit. Essentially, you can use this technique with any paint type but obviously your not going to get a high gloss finish using emulsion. I would also not recommend household gloss paint either although it is possible.

The paint type I used is a product called Rustoleum. This paint has several advantages. It doesn't need an undercoat. It has rust inhibiting qualities, it dries slowly and has some self-leveling properties. An added advantage is that it can be thinned down using ordinary white spirits.

There are several other paints with similar qualities on the market but essentially a good quality paint that is designed to be applied without an undercoat and suitable for metal should be the type that you look for.

Painting Equipment

in addition to the masking tape, there are a few other pieces of equipment you will need.

  • A decantering tub (preferably a plastic one)
  • A roller tray
  • A roller handle
  • Lots of gloss foam rollers
  • Bottle of white spirits (or whatever thinning agent your paint requires)

The gloss foam rollers are the key to getting a great finish. These are close cell foam and can be bought in packs of about 16 for a few pounds. Buy plenty as you will find they disintegrate or come off their roller tubes quite a lot. On average, I used about 10 rollers per coat.

Thinning the Paint

To achieve the best possible finish, you need to thin the paint. This allows you to build several coats up but also prevents bubbles usually associated with rollering.

During the whole painting process, the aim is to keep the bubbles to a minimum. Bubbles will create a variety of blemishes to your final finish. At best it will be an orange peel finish similar to a cheap spray can, at worst it will be little volcanoes.

Pour some paint into the decanter tub and then add some thinners. Take care not to introduce bubbles when pouring. The number of thinners will depend on the paint type, the temperature and a number of other factors, but the consistency should be something resembling slightly thick milk.

Continuously stir the thinners to ensure a really good consistent mix. Fold it rather than whisk it and do it by hand, not with a drill or anything. Remember no bubbles.

Take care not to over thin or the paint will lose its coverage, test on some spare metal to ensure that it still has good coverage. Once you're happy, pour the mixed paint into the roller tray.

Applying the Paint

OK, we're ready to start painting. With the paint in the roller tray, soak the roller in the paint. Just allow the roller to fill naturally and soak up the paint into the foam. Don't squeeze it as that will form bubbles. Evenly coat the roller and then start to roll off the excess in the tray.

Now for the moment of truth. Gently apply the roller to the panel of the van. Use only the weight of the roller on the panel and roll smoothly. Roll in one direction, ie up and down, overlapping each roll. Gradually spread the paint along the panel. Then roll the same paint that has been applied the opposite direction. For example, if you have worked across the panel up and down, now roll the panel left and right. What we are trying to achieve is an even spread of the paint.

You may get some runs but just roll them out. Keep a light pressure at all times and remember the paint will go a long way. Work over any bubbles that appear and keep the roller moving.

After a few minutes, you will find the technique and the rest of the job will become quite easy. Don't rush and roll out any lines that appear. The less pressure you use, the fewer lines and bubbles you will get.

Working Your Way Around the Van

I would recommend doing a panel at a time using the natural panel lines as a start and stopping point. This way you can plan your attack and have convenient rest points to mix more paint or change rollers.

Vertical panels are fairly easy, horizontal ones like bonnets require a little more care that your sleeves don't brush the paint. I left the roof until last, in fact, I painted it a couple of days later and treated it as a separate job. Speaking of the roof, I was quite lucky as my van has ladders attached to the rear doors and a substantial roof rack to stand on.

If you're not as lucky as me, some innovation may be required to paint the roof, but most panel vans will allow you to stand on them. Just make sure you start at the front and make your way backwards, or you may paint yourself into a corner.

Ridges and other small areas can still be got to with the small rollers but any really awkward places may need a paintbrush to finish off. These spots may be better done with neat unthinned paint to prevent runs and ensure a good thick coat.

Trying doing a panel at a time.

Trying doing a panel at a time.

By doing so, painting should come easier.

By doing so, painting should come easier.


This is the hard part now. Rustoleum is touch dry and usuable after a couple of days. It is not truly hard though for about two weeks. What you will find is that the paint will level out and look better and better each day until it is fully cured. I have found with experience that the longer it takes to dry, the better the final finish.

Once the first coat has fully hardened, rub down using 800-grade paper with plenty of water and a drop of detergent. This prevents the paint from burning and gives a smoother finish. Concentrate on any blemishes and don't worry if you rub through in places to get the smoothness you need. When you have rubbed down the whole van, you are ready for the second coat.

The second coat is applied exactly the same as the first as is the third or any additional coats. Rub down between coats to ensure a good finish. It is possible to achieve a completely glass-like finish better than a spray job if a little care is applied.

Alternatively, you can achieve a very acceptable result with just a single coat and have the whole job done in a day. Adding additional coats and rubbing down spreads the job over several weeks but is worth it in the end.

Doing several coats of paint is worth it.

Doing several coats of paint is worth it.

Final Notes

Using the technique, a 2.5l tin of paint, thinned down will give a good 3 coats on a Transit LWB van. With the rollers and tubs etc the total cost of a repaint is well under £50. Many people who have seen my van are amazed at the quality of the finish and simply couldn't believe it was rollered.

Have the confidence that you can do it—it is very easy—and buy quality paint. Added to your preparation you could actually add value to your van and of course, you can have it any colour you like.


This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: I'm just wondering which Rustoleum you used for this article? Do you have a link at all? I'm about to do my mk6 transit van. This is one of the best articles I've found so far.

Answer: My apologies for the late reply