During one of our trips in July, my wife's and my air mattress sprung a midnight leak. If it's happened to you, you know. We woke up in a plastic taco, smooshed together like meat and cheese. Of course, there are times when such smooshing is not such a bad thing. However, this was more of a get-your-armpit-out-of-my-nostril kinda thing. So I began the business of building the dinette when we came home. It becomes a bed in the evening and a table during the day.
There were lots of people who have done this work before me. I read hours of blogs and posts on www.airforums.com. In the end, I sat in the end of the trailer with sticky notes, a pencil and a carpenter's square. I measured, wrote, erased, and measured again.
A few bloggers/posters mentioned how there is never enough counter space in a camper. One lamented that he made his benches too deep (his were 24"). This was one of those decision I sweated over. I measured every chair in our house, from the dining room to the couches. Eventually, I decided to make my benches 20" deep which would allow for an oversized table.
Furthermore, I decided on 14" from floor to top of the bench (not including the eventual cushions). Fourteen inches would be too low, but I figured on 5" thick cushions. That is also thicker than most, but I had an epiphany I'll tell you about further down.
Anyway, I'm very happy about my measurements. The benches feel deep enough and the table feels big - even big enough for board games in rainy weather.
After I measured, I drew everything out on the plywood. Then, I used cheap firring strips (1x2s) from a box store, 1/2" (I think) plywood for the top of the benches, glue and screws. You can see the photos above to see the progression, but it was pretty straightforward work.
I was worried that the 1x2s would be too weak, but it is incredibly strong. I faced the benches on the vertical sides the thinnest ply I could get. It actually measures 3/16" with my tape measure, but I don't think that is the nominal measurement. Of all the luck, it is the exact same thickness as the original bulkheads, so I have the right material for that future step, too.
Next, I made the table:
I apologize, but I must have forgotten to take pictures during this process. Basically, I took the same plywood, reinforced it with scraps, and used a laminate sheet to cover it. I made a few mistakes along the way - I am new to router work and scratched my new table before it ever got placed. But as my wife so kindly put it, "We have kids." Nothing stays scratch free for long...
After the table, we made made cushions. This was the most out-of-my-comfort-zone project yet. I've never used a sewing machine; Sara had one from high school. She was convinced we couldn't do it, but that's how I normally start a project.
Here's the epiphany I had about cushions: Foam for cushions is very expensive. Very. I wanted thick comfortable cushions. After all, these cushions become our bed. We priced the foam at the local fabric store and I had heart palpitations. Then I got online and found a mid-quality memory-foam mattress. It was about 1/5 the price. Would it cut right?
So when it arrived, I measured out all of our cushion dimensions on it. We bought a cheap electric turkey knife and I cut. It was exceedingly difficult to hold the knife perfectly vertical. (If you are reading this blog and considering copying me, I cannot emphasize this enough.) We used two tables for support, cutting down the middle. I was very careful, but I still was FAR from perfect. Fortunately, our plans for the cushions (youtube video here) made the fabric about a 1/4" shorter in all three dimensions than the foam. This tension caused my foam-cutting mistakes to be unnoticeable.
We ran out of foam for the corners. I'm waiting until I buy the foam for the bunk beds to fill in the corner rounds. In the end, I am very proud of the cushions.
You might notice a difference in the table legs above. I initially tried to put two legs in the center, to maximize ease of entry/sitting. However, that was very unstable. So I added a third leg. This worked perfectly. We slept well once those 5" memory foam cushions were installed!
We are finally catching up to present day. A week or so ago, I realized that the days were getting cooler. The tub and sink still needed to be worked on in consistently 60° weather, and those days were fleeting. The tub and sink were both very scratched (the sink had a hole) and they were almond color.
The reviews about this type of epoxy paint for tubs all said that the brush-on version was easier to do well. I'm not sure; it was very difficult.
I followed every step to the T. I washed and scratched and washed some more. In applying, it took 4 thin coats (the box said two), but it finally covered. Now, if there's one handyman skill that I feel semi-pro in, it would be painting. I'm good at it. I can paint a straight line without tape, just sayin. So, when I say this was the most difficult paint I've ever used, please realize know that's saying something. No matter how hard I tried, I still got drips and waves. I'm going to call it "textured".
In order to get bulkheads and bunk beds into place, the finished floors needed to be installed.
Before I started, I put one more skim coat of floor leveling compound over the seams and bolt heads. The manufactured vinyl laminate is pretty good at overcoming imperfections, reportedly, but I wanted the best, smoothest subfloor I could manage. After that dried, I installed a border for where the cabinets will be. At $2 per square foot, I didn't want to pay for laminate under them. Plus, this is a floating floor, so it's not supposed to go under.
I searched all over Billings and found the vinyl laminate that I wanted. It was a grey faux-wood from an orange box store. After buying it, I had to run to Costco. They had a nearly identical vinyl laminate for about 2/3 the price. So I returned the other and went with Costco. It's also worth mentioning that I bought the click-together version. I understand the "grip strip" version is not as durable.
Really, click together planks are like Legos. They need to be tapped into place with a wood block and hammer, but otherwise they are simple. Still, it took me part of two days to do it. I needed to make many cuts and stagger the planks in an eye-pleasing way. I wish I had the cushions in for the picture, but they're in the house. You'll have to imagine. I love seeing this transformation from ugly to beautiful.
My next step is bulkheads, bunk beds and rough freshwater plumbing.
All of this work happened in April, May, and June of this year. I'm sorry for the delay in writing, but at the time it was all I could do to get ready for camping. Since then school started. Now that I finally have my feet under me, I can sit down to write and remember.
I wired in two wall sconces and an led strip on a dimmer switch first. Those were the easy ones.
Next, I wanted task lighting. The two areas that need task lighting are in the galley and in the hallway/kids bedroom area. For this lighting, I bought led pucks that sit flush with the ceiling. They are really quite amazing little lights. They are about 1/4" deep and barely sip electricity. Using a hole saw, I cut out holes and ran wire. I also needed to build a temporary box to hold the electrical panel.
Using my old car battery, they lights will last for about three nights of normal use. The wall sconces are not LED, yet, so if we use them the battery dies pretty quick. I'm going to purchase two new fully sealed AGM batteries for next season.
The screens were scratched and dirty. That was easy to replace; in fact, I had leftover screen from a hailstorm a few years back. All that's needed is a cheap (less than $5) plastic tool and new roll of screen. There's a plastic cord that holds the screen in, but it was in good shape and I reused it.
However, the frames were corroded. The corrosion was deep and resisted coming off, even with steel wool. I heard that there were some specialty power tools for this kind of thing. But before I went and bought yet another tool, I decided to try my orbital sander. I discovered that my orbital hand sander (with normal 60 grit paper) put a very attractive pattern of scratches into the aluminum. The finish went from smooth to scratched-on-purpose. I like the scratched look much better, actually. I don't know if the pictures do it justice. It looks very intentional. Designer even.
Bellypan and Plumbing
There was a little plumbing to do before insulating and sealing the bellypan. The bathtub and both sinks needed drain lines into the grey water tank. Then, I used 1" foam board and reflective tape (to keep it in place until the bellypan went back on). I reused the old bellypan aluminum to save money. I had to patch holes, but aluminum is expensive. I also figure the bottom will eventually look grubby again. After it was all done, it was remarkable to see an intact underside. The belly has been open for a long time.
Also, I built a dinette on the inside this summer. Next time I'll show how I've began to create furniture on the inside. I even learned how to use a sewing machine.
It has been over two months since my last post! In future posts, I will retroactively describe the construction over the last two months, but WE'VE BEEN CAMPING!!! In July, we took 4 camping trips and each was very different from the others.
Cascade Campground, Inaugural Trip for my birthday, Red Lodge, MT
Our first trip was on my birthday. We pulled Eisley up to Cascade Campground in Red Lodge for two nights. There was one other group in the campground, but they were quiet folks, too. It felt like we had the whole mountain to ourselves.
Cody Rodeo, at a KOA in Cody, WY
This trip was the opposite of our first. We stayed in a packed KOA. It was little more than a parking lot with a pool. This was not our favorite version of camping, but it allowed us to go to the rodeo. The rodeo was awesome!
Basin Campground, in the Beartooth Mountains, Red Lodge, MT
This campground is pretty close to our first site, but the experience couldn't be more different. We went on a weekend instead of midweek. It was packed, but that kinda became the best part. We bumped into close friends with kids the same age as ours. Instead of a quiet, family-oriented experience, we had a very social one. The kids ran around playing while the adults sat around the fire and enjoyed good conversation.
Yellowstone National Park
For this trip, we decided to give our little-engine-that-could some well-deserved rest. Our small SUV has handled all of our local trips with determination and aplomb, but this trip to Yellowstone had several mountain passes. We rented an F20, 3/4 ton truck to pull Eisley up over the Beartooths, though the park, and back. It was awesome.
Despite having been to the park many time and the crowds being the worst we've ever experienced at Artist Point, we felt like Yellowstone itself gave us a personal tour. We decided to hike down to the lower falls - in the distance of 3/8 of a mile we became the only people on the trail. It was a steep, switchy trail, but it was only a 3/8 mile! We sat and had a snack with the falls all to ourselves.
We stayed at Canyon Campground, in the middle of the park. Our campground was full (we reserved one of the last sites about 10 months ago), but it was quiet and felt comfortable. You could tell other people were there, but not close enough to bother.
Lastly, on the way out a mama grizzley and her cub chose to walk right in front of our truck. We were the only people on the road (at first) and it was like they were there just for us.
There were many moments where I was sitting in a camp chair reflecting on all of the work of the last two years. These days were the result of the hard work, good advice, and help from my friends and family. My kids' lives have been enriched. My wife and I have shared memories. Summertime and the living is easy.
I'm pretty sure I babbled. That's the kind of thing I do when I'm nervous. I was turning over this baby that I've been working on for two years. Babbling is also the exact wrong way to communicate that I know what I'm doing.
Awe, hell. I don't know what I'm doing.
Eisley had a 55 year old axel. While many things are wonderful about a vintage Airstream, the axel is not one of them. I'm not an axel expert (which was abundantly clear to the folks at Ratco, more on that in a bit), but I understand that torsion axels have internal rubber rods under. The rubber rods flex as the trailer bounces down the road. Over time, however, the flex wears out. The torsion arm then sags and there's no flex in the system.
In order to get a new axel, I needed to find someone who makes axels for vintage Airstreams. Fortunately, one of the gurus I mentioned in a previous blog makes brand-new replacements. After a few emails determining exactly what I need, Collin Hyde shipped out an axel. I chose an axel that has a slightly higher clearance, for the tanks and for mountain roads.
However, buying the axel was the easy part. The old axel was welded on, so it needed to be cut off with precision. Next, a new mounting plate needed to be made so that the new axel has the right thing to mount onto.
Third, the mounting plates needed to be welded onto Eisley. If the rest of it wasn't tricky, this is the step that gave me shivers. If the plates are welded even fractions-of-an-inch incorrectly, the alignment would be off. If the alignment is off, then the trailer pulls down the road cockeyed. Tires wear out quickly, gas milage is off, extra stress on the tow vehicle, etc. Finally, the axel gets bolted on. Suffice to say, this one was beyond my skills.
So I had the axel shipped to Ratco, a local axel repair shop. Locally, they are very well known as the best in the business. Several people told me, "If you have an axel job; they're the best."
Despite their high reputation, I was a bit of a nervous wreck. They were professional and cordial, but I kinda had the impression that they were hearing my instructions much like I hear parent suggestions for my classroom. They smiled and nodded and then disregarded most of what I said. Fortunately, it's pretty clear they know their business better than me. (My sorry-but-not-sorry apologies to any parent offended...)
When they called the next day, I was sure they were about to tell me about some problem (that's my story for all repairs on Eisley). Instead, they said I could come pick it up. Eisley was ready to roll.
When I picked Eisley up, they wanted me to know that Airstream was 3/4" off when it built the frame. If I noticed a slight difference in where each wheel sits inside its own wheel well, it was because Airstream got it wrong, they hadn't. Ratco uses a laser to measure very precisely each side of the axel to the hitch, to get the alignment perfect. One wheel well is fractionally closer to the hitch than the other. So there is an appearance that one wheel is further forward than the other, but in reality the are precisely aligned. To be honest, I can't see it. I love that kind of precision and it certainly gives me piece of mind.
Perhaps the easiest way to see the difference between the old axel and the new axel is where the wheel sits in the wheel well in the old and new system:
I'm a little behind in my writing, Eisley's been home for almost a month and I've been working on the floor, split-rim wheels, shocks, and trim. Next time.
If you are a pro, look away now.
This post is about exactly the type of thing that the pro's don't do. I'm very happy with my work; it looks clean and new and very comfortable. But if you are a professional restorer, you know what's coming and you're shaking your head. I chose to paint the interior, knowingly, brazenly, unapologetically. And I used latex paint. Latex.
So the problem is that the "paint" from 1962 is a vinyl product called Zolotone. It is actually a really great product and is the ideal paint to use even today. It is applied with a commercial sprayer in multiple coats of different shades and colors. From about a foot away it looks like a uniform color, but get in close and it is really lots of tiny dots - kinda like a Seurat painting. You know the famous one at the park?
Supposedly, one could wash the Zolotone paint and grime came off like eggs on Teflon. In truth, there was some of that effect way back when I first washed the skins before taking them out. I scrubbed pretty hard. But years and years of grime, cigarette smoke, and cooking stained the walls. Some things just can't be undone.
The professionals have the equipment, time, and money to restore or respray the Zolatone. I refuse. Next, many amateurs (padawans, if you will) choose to paint with an oil-based paint. There is some anecdotal evidence that oil-based sticks better to the Zolatone. Ppphhhfffftt! Oil-based paints are far more brittle over time and sun exposure affects their color more significantly. I can't imagine putting an oil-based paint into a bouncing-down-the-road, sun-drenched travel-trailer.
Instead, I went to my local Ace Hardware and bought the nicest interior satin latex paint I could. (One of these days I need to write a post about Ace Hardware. The store manager once told me, "I feel like I'm part of your project" because of all the help he's give me. It's true.) Anyway, I purposely bought the highest grade of paint (which I wouldn't normally do) and it wasn't cheap. The results are below.
Lastly, Eisley is missing from her gravel pad. (Don't worry, it's a good thing.) More on that next time.
Well, I'm home with a sick boy today and I figured its a good time to update my blog. As you can see above, the skins are in! Yay! It was a ton of work over this month.
First, on a nice day I finished bolting the floor down. I bolted the u-channel in the walls to the floor and to the frame wherever possible. Then I used stainless steel screws and repeated the process. Unfortunately, I forgot to get pictures of the process, but I've posted pics before of the bolts.
Next, I replaced the brake/running light sockets. They were all sparky and fiery when I hooked them up to power. I can assure you that "sparky and fiery" are not qualities you want in lights. I took pics:
I forgot to get pics of them all lit up. Next time around.
If you happen to read this because you are restoring an Airstream, know that there is an extra bulb/filament in the tail light assembly. I guess back in 1962, three filaments (in two bulbs) were required. One was the running light, one was the turn signal, and one was the brake light. In modern cars/trailers, the brake light flashes as the turn signal. (When you apply brakes with the turn signal on, both rear lights illuminate and one flashes.) So, I basically played with the filament combinations available until I got one that made the brightness levels about equal. I didn't really need to replace the dual-filament socket with a dual-filament socket, I just did.
Next, I installed the socket for the shore power:
This is the how electricity will enter the system. It is AC power- the same type as a standard household circuit. The difference in how the plug looks is that it accepts up to 30 amps. The typical household outlet is 15 amps. The difference in outlet/plug means that Eisley can accept more power in than is available through a normal outlet. Think of it like a garden hose versus a firehose (though not so extreme). You can get a ton more water into your system if you're feeding it with a firehose. Just for reference, I think the input into most houses is 200 amps, which gets distributed through your home's electrical panel. Eisley will have a 30 amp distribution panel in the rear closet. Eventually, a converter will take AC power and charge the batteries.
Next came the rather labor-intensive and tedious task of finishing the foam board insulation and taping the seams. Finally, it came together with riveting the interior skin back on.
You may have noticed that the pics are all from the rear of the trailer. The front skin under the window of the trailer isn't installed yet because there's some buck rivets that I need to install from the outside. But Eisley is ready to roll . . . all the way to the shop to have a new axel installed. More on that next time.
Well, it got cold again here in MT and I didn't have the will to get under the Airstream in 30°F weather a second time. I really need to bolt the u-channel to the perimeter of the floor and frame. Those bolts (and stainless screws) are what hold the shell to the frame. But in order to do that, I need to lay on my back in the snow-slush under the trailer. No thanks, not this weekend. I'm on a deadline now, so if the weather doesn't cooperate, I'll have to do it soon. For right now, I've got enough to work on before that becomes pressing.
So, while I wait and hope for a warm weekend, I worked on the insulation and a solar bulkhead pass through. In the photos below, I drilled a small hole in Eisley's roof to allow the wires from a solar array to pass through the shell. Then I installed the pass through and sealed it up.
I don't like making new holes in the shell, but I make up for it by really gooping on the sealant. The grey sealant is called "Vulkum" by people in Airstream restoration, but it is really brand-named Trempro 635. It took me a while to realize they are the same thing. Vulkum was the name for it in the days of yore -- which, not incidentally, is where most Airstream restorers seem to come from . . .
Then I worked on the insulation. Because I have not bolted the u-channel to the floor/frame, I can't insulate all the way to the floor. The insulation will cover up what I need to do. But, I was able to insulate the entire roof and upper walls!
On the lower left side of this pic, you can see the shiny aluminum bubble rap, called Reflectix, that is the outer layer of insulation. The inner layer is R-Max foam board. It has the highest R-value of any material realistically available. Between the Reflectix and the R-Max foam is all of the electrical wiring, the vent tubes and spacers. This creates an air gap between the two insulations that is supposed to increase the efficiency of both types of insulation.
Another full day's labor looks like a few minutes of work. One of the fun parts is having my son come play in the trailer when I'm working. Now that all the bad stuff (mouse poop, asbestos) is gone he comes and helps or plays. Today's work was mostly above his head (and mine), so he just played. I'm a little lax with his screen-time minutes in the trailer -- they are normally rationed -- because I like his company.
The rough wiring is nearly done! I've got all the wires pulled, taped in place, and ready for the final layer of insulation. I also engineered a new solution for vent stacks from the waste tanks. I put them inside the walls. (I'm sure my friends who are *actual* engineers are cringing right now.) In the post below, I'm going to walk through the electrical choices that I made and I'll explain the new vent stacks.
I ran separate 12V hot (black) and neutral (white) wires for the following circuits. With the exception of the wires from umbilical cord (various colors, see last post) and a line strictly dedicated to the CO/Propane detector (green), all my 12V DC lines are 10 gauge. This is a bit overkill on wire size, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.
There are three vent stacks that exit the roof. These vents allow the waste tanks to vent any built up gasses to the atmosphere. Moreover, in order for the sinks & tub to drain into the tank, the displaced air needs somewhere to go.
In 1962, these stacks were hard pipes coming out of the tanks, from the middle of the floor up to the roof. I guess if I was trying to restore Eisley to 1962, I'd need to put them back the same way. That's never been my goal. I think they're ugly. So I bought flexible tube and fittings and buried the vents inside the wall. I used 1" I.D. tube, which should be plenty for atmospheric venting - particularly since this isn't getting the constant use of a home system.
I didn't get very good pictures of the vent holes from the inside or the new rooftop covers. The vents will tie into the plumbing system whenever (next year?) I get interior plumbing installed.
Lastly, I'm bolting the second half of the subfloor down and installing the final layer of insulation. More to come on that process next time.
I'm not sure if I've already mentioned this, but I'm regularly surprised at how long every step takes. Sara says this is because I teach 1st grade. Whole lessons can take as little as 8 minutes. The number of unique plans we complete in class in a day usually number well above 10. I started wiring a few weeks ago. In my mind I think, "First step: pull all the AC wire. 20 min. Second step: pull all the DC wire. There's a few more lines to do in DC. Maybe about 30 minutes. Third step: solder and heatshrink. 20 more minutes? So I should be done in two hours, tops." But, I'm still wiring.
Anyway, I started by deciding on the best place for the new electrical panel. I decided to put it in the streetside closet nearest the bathroom. However, I haven't bought the panel because I'm planning on buying an all-in-one converter & distribution panel. It's pricy and my budget/savings is getting to the I've-got-to-make-hard-decisions point. We will camp this summer, but probably not with working electricity.
From this spot, my helper and I ran all of the AC wiring.
He took a bunch of photos of me too:
Basically, it just takes planning for each outlet/AC line. I planned lines for possible AC outlets, kitchen appliances, bathroom outlets, and an extra line for air conditioning. I'm not planning on putting in an air conditioner (we will mostly camp in the mountains), but I want everything there if I change my mind someday. Then I drilled new holes, installed rubber grommets to protect the wires, and pulled the wire.
Next, I moved onto the DC wiring. For those that might not know, Airstreams have two different electrical systems. Alternating current or AC (all the yellow wires above) is your typical house current. It only works inside the Airstream when plugged into shore power - like at a house or RV park. On the other hand, direct current, or DC, is essentially battery power. There will eventually be two deep-cycle AGM batteries that power the lights, water pump, assorted appliances, safety detectors, etc. Most of the electrical functions of the trailer will run off of DC power. A charger that runs off AC will recharge the batteries once they get drained. In addition, there is an umbilical cord that runs from the tow vehicle to the trailer that powers and controls all of the running lights, brake lights, and turn signals.
I started by rolling all the spools of wire randomly around the trailer. It turned out that dealing with 6 spools of heavy wire requires a system. So I built a little cradle.
Each of those wires is a different color for a different function. In addition, the some are different gauges:
So that's where I'm at. I assure you that it's taken me longer than two hours. I think I'll be done with running wires, soldering and heatshrinking in about 45 minutes.
I'm not an Airstream Jedi, yet. Airstream Jedi would have sounded presumptuous, like I know what I'm doing. That couldn't be further from the truth. Padawan is a title I can hope to live up to.
Knots Per Hour
My friend Mike is building an airplane. Check it out.