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Airstream Walls and Bedroom Construction

The part that is the most fun (and most time consuming) is here – interior construction! Mary and I debated for a bit about what the finish should be on the interior – should it be painted cabinetry, natural wood, etc? Ultimately, we decided that the entire interior would be clear finished maple.

This was for two reasons – first, it looks amazing and modern which fits an Airstream. But second, it’s readily available at Home Depot and Lowe’s, including maple-veneered plywood. Which makes life a lot easier. Worth noting – the plywood from Lowe’s is superior to Home Depot, and Lowe’s carries a bigger selection of maple boards.

First up, the interior walls. The only real walls in the trailer are the bathroom, and a divider wall for the bedroom. These are all 1/4″ plywood. I saved the aluminum channels from the old walls, which were already bent to the curves (and lined up with the old screw holes.) This made wall installation easier and gave me confidence I was hitting the right targets so things (like the bathtub and toilet) would like up correctly later on.

Unfortunately, the channels themselves were not useful as templates, as they flexed once removed from the wall. So I had to create a “story pole” that measured the curve at fixed steps (in my case, every 3 inches) and transferred those measurements onto the plywood. I rough cut from there and tuned the curve until it fit well.

After cutting the walls, I did several dry fits to understand how it would all come together and make sure I accommodated any other components that were necessary. Things like making sure I knew where light switches would land, reading lights would attach, etc. It also took awhile to figure out how to do the corners. Ultimately, I found that Airstream wall construction is surprisingly similar to constructing road cases for music instruments. In road case construction, they make corner channels to joint pieces of 1/4 material together, for example. I picked up lengths of 1/4 satin anodized aluminum channel and 1/4 edge molding.

Once I was satisfied with the dry fit and felt I had everything planned out, I attached the walls and got all of the details installed. That includes committing to installing the bathtub – I got it fully riveted in and, where the rivets would be exposed on the outside wall, used binding screw posts, which have a flat aluminum head and are reasonably flat on both sides. Just to help add some sound deadening, I did put mineral wool in the walls on either side of the bathroom, as these were double walls with a cavity to hide the plumbing vent stacks.

During the time we’ve also been working on looking ahead to pick some of the soft goods finishes. I reupholstered the wooden cornices over the front windows and got them reinstalled as well – and we decided on the fabric to use for curtains (now I will have to refresh on sewing…but I do have my grandmother’s sewing machine here.)

Next up is constructing the frames for the beds. This unit is a “rear twin” – so there are two twin beds in the back (the dinette up front will convert into a queen, so the trailer sleeps 4.) The face frames for this are maple, while all the interior wood is select pine. Most was built using 1×2 boards to save on weight, and they’re put together with pocket screws and glued butt joints. Each bed has three drawers underneath on the portion facing the interior, and then an exterior-accessible storage compartment in the other half. I had to build a divider which served three purposes – structural support for the mattress, divider of spaces, and mounting point for the drawer slides.

One of the things I have for the Airstream is papers showing drawn plans. Whenever I need to build with wood, I find it easier to sketch it out and document what I need. You can see my plan for the bed cabinets below.

I will be building drawers for these – the fronts will be shaker style, with simple boxes backing them.

All of the maple – walls and cabinetry – is finished the same way. First it is given two coats of Zinsser “SealCoat” – which really is just clear, dewaxed shellac. The shellac brings out the detail in the maple. Between each coat it is lightly sanded. Then it is topped with three coats of General Finishes Gel Topcoat Satin. In between each coat of the satin, it is rubbed with fine steel wool. The final coat is rubbed with steel wool using soapy water, which makes the surface silky smooth. It looks and feels great.

Shortly after finishing the beds though….snowmageddon happened.

On December 17th (also my birthday), we woke up for what was supposed to be 12-18 inches of snow, only to find out that overnight we had actually received 35. When we went to bed, there was only 4-5 inches on the ground – our area just got under a very snowy part of the storm. If you drove 20 miles north or south, they got 10-12 inches. Our area (Greater Binghamton) was all over the news for how much snow we got. So, I spent the better part of the next week digging everything out before I could really get back to work.

Airstream Plumbing, Heating, and Gas Installation

With the primary interior painting completed, it’s time to start working on getting the mechanicals in order. Rebuilding a travel trailer is basically like constructing a tiny house – it has all the same components, usually just scaled down to fit and be reasonably portable.

Before I started on those, I did finish up the work on the exterior patches where the old hot water heater was. I got some replacement aluminum rub rail trim and patched it into the hot water and battery compartment patches, then installed the standard blue trim rails around the trailer which (other than polishing likely in the spring) finishes the exterior work. While I was working on this, I did get the bumper back from the car repair shop – it had been bent previously, they straightened it out and braised the aluminum back together – for $26!

For this renovation, one of the basic rules we follow can be summed up pretty much as: don’t fix what isn’t broken. This applies to the layout of the trailer as much as any pieces we might be able to save. We are not moving walls, expanding bedrooms, switching the location of the shower, etc. We’re basically taking the whole trailer apart, cleaning up what is salvageable, then rebuilding it back the way it was using new materials where necessary. This greatly reduces the engineering needed and for the most part the layout of the trailer was done correctly the first time, I don’t need to second guess it.

The first mechanicals item up was the heating system. The air conditioner in an Airstream is a roof-mounted unit, but the primary heat is a compact propane furnace which has ducts feeding the front and back of the trailer and provides some minor ducts into the floors to warm the tanks (making the trailer a solid 3-season unit, but not a cold weather one.) It also so happens that the duct along the side wall going to the back is used as a structural support for the shower enclosure, but because the original was not always sealed well, you can see it got a little rusty. Fortunately I just sent the specs to a local sheet metal fabricator and they had a part ready in an hour, for $50. I got some new 2 inch round duct to feed heat to the tanks and moved the flanges from the old to the new. The other pieces had some rusty corners, but that was taken care of with some wire brushing, rust dissolver and a coating of cold galvanizing compound. Once these were set, I dry fit everything together to see how it all works and make any adjustments.

During this time, we were trying to figure out what to do with the doors on the overhead compartment in the front end cap. Ultimately we decided to try painting it and chose a bluish gray tone. I dismantled the unit, painted the parts and re-assembled everything there as well. It turns out we really liked the color contrast, so we’ll be adding more blues inside the trailer as we get to the next steps.

The next mechanical was plumbing. I had previously installed a new exterior city water inlet and now put together a plan for how to lay out all of the plumbing. Other than the initial connections from the inlet port and the tank to the pump, I used PEX piping. PEX is very easy to use and is freeze proof to boot. I did have to use braided hose (per specification) to the pump and from the city water inlet port. Also given that the cost was not very different, I elected to put shut off valves on each connection that feeds a faucet or appliance. The system has a low point drain (helps in winterizing), small accumulator tank (helps minimize pump cycling and prevents “bursts” when turning on water), and connections for kitchen sink, shower, bathroom sink, and toilet. I added stubs going into the rear storage compartment to add some sort of outdoor shower\faucet in the future, though I have not been able to figure out how I want to do that yet, so they are capped.

Since the plumbing was coming along, I also was looking ahead to how to attach things to it. I reinstalled the drain lines and vent stacks (salvaged from before!) and also was going to need to clean up the sinks and shower pan. Cleaning the sinks was pretty straightforward since they are stainless steel. They got a cleanup with baking soda paste, then a vinegar rub and finally a touch of olive oil to polish them. The bathtub on the other hand needed a paint job. I picked up a product called “Tough as Tile” – it’s a product you paint on and once cured, is supposed to be super hard. Prep is key here, so this process took several days to complete – making sure the surfaces were all cleaned up and old caulk and residue removed, etc. Ultimately you put it on in several coats, with the finish improving after each one. But it has to be done at very specific intervals per the instructions, meaning I had to pick a day I could do all of it from start to finish. Being that it was painted on with a roller, you can tell if you look closely (and my roller, even though it was not supposed to, had lint that got into the finish…grr.) However, the end result came out pretty good for what it is and once installed it will look decent. In the picture you’ll also see the new Excel on-demand hot water heater. It’s in the same place as the original, but it does not need an external access hole.

The final mechanical was the gas lines. Just like the water lines, this required a fair bit of planning. You have a primary trunk line (1/2 inch) that then breaks off to individual lines (3/8 inch) feeding each appliance There’s lots of tees, flare nuts, valves, etc. You have to plan it out – I drew a diagram on paper – so you know how many of each different part to order. Gas lines like this use soft refrigerant copper tubing and you use a flaring tool to create the end that connects together. A flare nut (which has to be on the tubing before you flare it!), then compresses the connection together, creating a sealed fit. I installed lines going to the four propane appliances – furnace, stove, refrigerator, and hot water heater and put shut off valves on each one. I then extended from the hot water heater and created an external quick-connect port near the rear. This will come in handy when you want to run a grill.

I still have to leak test the mechanical systems, but that should not be a huge issue. Now that the mechanicals are done, its on to planning and building the interior spaces. The really fun part!

Airstream Interior Painting

Now that the Airstream has been moved down to its regular location, we’re moving on to the next steps, which is any final bits needed to close up the ceiling panel and interior painting.

First, we got some good rain (which we needed)…of course it showed four spots that I still had very small leaks in. One near the replaced picture window (rivet leak), one on the door hinge bolts (runs through the threads), one at the back curb side (unclear initially), and one in the stack windows on the street side.

Ultimately, the leak for the picture window and stack windows were straightforward – hitting it with Captain Tolley’s Creeping Crack Cure a few times sealed up wherever it was leaking. The rear curb side turned out to be a loose screw holding in the awning support bracket – upsized the screw for a tight fit then multi-layered sealed it during re-installation with butyl caulk and Trempro 635. The door hinge bolts were more of an issue. I tried multiple things to stop it – covering the bolt heads, more Captain Tolley’s, etc. Nothing would work. I did not want to take them out because the door works and is square and the bolts are a bit rusty. I could be creating more problems than I am solving. Ultimately my solution was to simply deal with the drip leak. Because it ran alongside the aluminum door edge, I used sheet plastic to encase the area all around and created a run for the water to drip down to the belly pan area, where it will evaporate\drain out. Keeping it off the wood floor so it does not rot is the ultimately goal. Success!

To close up the ceiling I needed to clean up the wiring bundles and complete any items, like the solar panel port, that needed installation. I also had to cut all the holes and prepare the wiring for the LED puck lighting we were installing. This took some time because there are a lot of wires to work with. Ultimately I needed to tuck and zip tie wiring where appropriate, then carefully work insulation into the areas around it. Unlike the original layout, we are also putting the overhead lights on regular switches, and had them in three groups (Front, kitchen\middle, bedroom.) I had pre-ran wires for the switches before we installed the insulation. When that was completed, I spent an evening getting the ceiling panel re-installed, which was a chore in itself. It is also 20 feet long, but it slips into two channels on the ceiling, so it was mostly a task of working it in and not accidentally bending or damaging the channel as you do it.

I took the time to do a tape layout on the floor as well to help us visual where things would land. This allows us to think more about the next steps as we move along too.

Finally, we’re on to painting. Stephen has been asking and looking for ways he could help – helping do the primer coat turned out to be a great way for him to contribute. We did a single coat of Insl-X Aqua Lock Primer Sealer. The interior walls are aluminum covered in a vinyl. Over the years, the glues in them can surface and become tacky – often called “mouse fur.” So the Aqua Lock is a product to prevent that from happening, and give a good base for paint.

Last, we put on a good coat of finish paint. We are using a color that we we use in our house – a historic preservation color known as “Outlands Subtle Taupe.” It’s a relatively neutral light gray. Getting things painted made a huge difference in how the interior looked – gone were all the color variations and markings from the old interior attachments, and now the whole place is a single, unified color.

Up next is electrical installation, repair of the rear bumper and more interior finish bits.

Airstream Interior Skins and Moving

In our previous post, we left with the interior insulation being completed. At this point, we’re now beginning to really put back together all of the various pieces and components that we previously took apart.

The first and biggest part is to get the interior aluminum skins back in and re-attached properly. This starts with the end caps. These are molded plastic parts that fit the complex curves in these areas. This was a multi-person job – my nephew popped over to lend some muscle help to Mary and I so we could get them pushed into place and riveted back up. It was a struggle, but eventually we got it fitted back in tightly and hit (most of) the existing rivet holes. Our choice of insulation might have made this a little more difficult – mineral wool is more dense than fiberglass and while I made sure the batts were flush with the ribs, it’s quite possible that we had to compress them somewhat as we fit things together, meaning more effort on our part.

Hitting those rivet holes brings up a good point – we have been careful while doing disassembly\reassembly to plan out what we can and can’t reuse. Generally if it was metal, it can be cleaned and re-used, and if not it has to be replaced. When it comes to attaching things with rivets, it’s far, far easier to re-use the existing rivet holes. One, it means you are not drilling additional holes into things (leaving other existing holes unfilled) and, two, when attaching the skins and caps back on, hitting the rivet holes help you to know that you got a tight fit that matched the factory without having to do lots of additional measuring and checking.

After the end caps, I steadily worked on installing the panels. The pieces on the ends go on first, and I was able to use the lap markings to make sure I put them on in the correct layered order, which makes them look visually correct (ie, horizontal lines match across the trailer, etc.) These panels are small enough to be a one-person job. Given the new sub flooring that was installed, sometimes I did have to trim the bottom edge of the panels a little for a good fit. There is also a bit of investigative work here – I need to put rivets in to hold the piece up, but some rivet holes are lapped with other pieces that I have yet to put in, so they are left with no rivets until later. This took some time and sometimes I had to remove fresh rivets I put in.

After the panels for the ends are installed, the next step is the long panels running down the sides. You might think that it would be easier to put these panels vertically so they are easier to handle, and it probably is. But Airstream installs them in very long single panels from front to back. I do not know this definitively, but I suspect\assume it has to do with adding structural integrity – the long panels riveted down the length likely add rigidity once attached across multiple ribs. The exterior panels follow the same pattern.

These panels are installed from the bottom up, in three rows on each side. The lowest panel is very straightforward, the middle panel is a mild hassle…but the top panel is an absolute, terrible, no good beast. It fits into a concave curve, is 20 feet long, weighs 100lbs, and wants to flop and bend repeatedly. My nephew came over again to help, along with my brother in law. It took all four of us to do it, and we probably could have used another set of hands still. Getting the top panels up took a lot of effort – we first tried putting them in by attaching the bottom edge and working our way upward, but ultimately could not flex it correctly to hit the rivet holes. Going the reverse direction – pinning the top and working our way down – was more successful. Using this method we got the panels hung and mostly pinned, leaving the lower rivets to be done later by Mary and I. To do those, we had to work rivet by rivet, pushing the panel up into place to get the holes where the panels meet to line up and then line up over the attachment hole in the rib. It was a bear, but it got done.

On the subject of rivets. There are an enormous number of rivets on these interior panels. I bought a bag of 1,000 rivets in bulk…and used them plus at least another 500 or so bought locally in smaller packs. There are a LOT of rivets. Airstream likes to note there are somewhere around 4,000 rivets in the average trailer.

With the panels installed I got prepared for another big step – moving the Airstream from the side of our road into its “regular” home in our backyard. I was a little hesitant to move it around before installing the panels since I knew they added to the rigidity of the unit. A few years ago we built a shed (I really should post “part 2” of that…) and I ran electric to it (50amp) as well, so it offers a great location to park it and offer utility connections. We plan on having the Airstream be used as a guest house for friends when not being used to travel.

The updates here on the blog are actually several weeks behind where I currently am at – will be posting a bit more frequently as I catch up to my current progress.

Up next, paint and interior bits!

Vintage Airstream Insulation, Wiring, and Subfloor

We’ve been making steady progress on our Airstream renovation project. In the last update, we had put all of the exterior bits back on, water tested and replaced a bad piece of belly pan aluminum. I did forget to note that I moved the power inlet port, replacing it with a SmartPlug 30A connector (big upgrade from original), added an exterior cable\antenna jack, and moved the city water inlet onto the street side of the trailer from the underside.

Next comes the subfloor, wiring and insulation install. Airstreams of this vintage used pink fiberglass insulation underneath the floor – they would lay a long batt across the frame and then sandwich it between the wood and the frame member to hold it up off the belly pan. This falls into the category of “seemed like a good idea at the time.” Fiberglass insulation wicks water, is faced with a paper vapor barrier, and it just so happens that rodents absolutely love it as nesting material. Needless to say, it led to lots of problems. Their competitors, like Avion, used polyiso foam board, which is much better.

A brand new Airstream coming off the factory today uses only reflective foil insulation under the floor. This is plastic bubble wrap coated with aluminum on each side. It provides some insulation value and most of its power comes from being a radiant energy barrier – it prevents heat from passing through effectively. I wanted to go one better than this, so in addition to reflectix (the common name of that insulation), we would add batts of rock wool insulation at the same thickness as the walls – this assembly has an insulation value of about R8 or 9 and provides a radiant barrier. I did some trial and error with placement and, once satisfied, we began to put in the flooring. Each piece received a coating of TotalBoat Penetrating Epoxy, and the cut edges got a coating just before installation as well. This will help minimize any wicking of moisture into the wood as well.

To install the flooring, we start at the ends. We have chosen to do a “shell on” renovation, meaning we did not detach the upper shell from the trailer frame and separate them. Doing shell off allows you to replace the flooring in full sheets just like the factory, but it creates a lot of additional work re-attaching the two parts together, particularly if your trailer is, overall, in good repair. So for our project, we put each sheet in as two parts, and made all of the joints line up with existing trailer beams. The curves were by far the hardest part, taking a lot of trial and error to get correct. Overall it took about a week working in the evenings to get all of the floor pieces cut and installed. As I went along I re-installed the various elevator bolts that secure the frame through the floor and to the shell. I did hold out the last piece for awhile to allow easy access to the waste tanks while I was still re-installing the valves and making sure they were sealed.

After the flooring was installed the next step was making sure the interior wiring was completed. I saved all of the low-voltage (12V) wiring, which was in good repair, but replaced the 120V city power wiring, in part because we were adding several receptacles and I wanted to upgrade this wiring from regular household Romex-style wiring to “boat cable.” Boat cable is upgraded power cable made for, as the same implies, boats…which are basically always wet. Instead of solid wire, it is stranded and tinned (the copper wire is coated with tin.) This makes it much more flexible, resistant to breakage from flexing, and resistant to corrosion from moisture. Stephen helped me tear out all of the existing wiring, then I spent the better part of a week working through all of the existing wiring. This meant taking out wiring that was no longer needed, such as the tank monitoring wires (replaced by a single wire system), and relocating certain components to the new locations in our layout (ie, pump switches, light switches, etc.) I also took this time to review all of the connections in the 12V panel and, using the owner’s manual wiring diagrams, ensured everything was correctly installed. I added two solar panel ports as well – a front-mounted port for a portable system and a roof port (fed by 6 gauge wire) in the event we ever want to add panels in the future. Along with this, I installed the rear monitoring\backup camera and the antenna for the cellular booster.

With wiring all cleaned up and ready, insulation came next. I have been a big fan of rock wool\mineral wool for many years now. It is vastly superior to fiberglass insulation in basically every way and in a project like this it makes a lot of sense to use. It repels water, is fire resistant, and is rot\mold resistant. It is easier to handle and install – you can cut it with a serrated knife like a loaf of bread and it is dimensionally stable, so it will friction fit into many openings without additional tools. To install it in an Airstream, you have to cut it down – the walls are only a bit more than 1.5″ thick. So you take a standard 2×4 insulation batt (nominal thickness about 3.5 inches) and slice it in half. On the upper portions of the shell I also installed reflectix against the aluminum skin – this should act as a moderate thermal break, reducing how quickly heat from the sun transfers into the interior side.

Installing the insulation is time consuming, but really satisfying. You see a lot of real progress as you work, and overall its like putting together a puzzle to get everything to fit. On the upper portions I did have to use a light spray adhesive (similar to the factory) so the insulation would stick until the interior panels are put back in.

Next up, re-installation of the interior panels and beginning to work on all of the inside bits.