Tag Archives: vintage airstream

Airstream How to Sew Upholstery

One of the last big projects left on the interior is the upholstery for the front U-shaped dinette. We knew that we wanted some sort of faux leather for durability and cleanability but we went back and forth over what to use and what colors to pick. I ordered different samples and we hemmed and hawed a bit – do we want to upgrade to Ultraleather, or go with something like Naugahyde? Blues or browns?

In the end, we decided this was one of the things that you touch the absolute most in the Airstream, so we decided Ultraleather was the way to go, and choose the adobe color way as it would fit well with the wood tones and not compete with the colors and patterns in the curtains (and to a lesser extent the countertops.) While figured out what kind of cushions to make, I also decided we would use underlining fabric on the non-visible faces of the cushions which provided both grip and significantly reduced the cost.

I also debated how fancy the cushions should be. Should they have a French seam? Do they need welting? How should I build the inside of the cushion? Does it need polyester wrap? For these, I landed on: Basic box cushion design with hidden seam stitching, no welting, and polyester wrap around all of the cushion foam.

The first step was to get a giant sheet of foam delivered and a huge roll of polyester fiberfill. I then cut the various cushions out of this foam sheet – all cushions have 4 inch foam inside of them. I then wrapped each cushion in polyester and stapled the edges together using a standard stapler. This is a common way to attach the polyester and the cushion cover edges make it so you can never feel the staples in this arrangement. It’s much easier than gluing on the fiberfill.

Now we are on to preparing the fabric. Measuring out and cutting the fabric is a challenge given the size, I mostly did this laid out on the floor. Once the pieces are cut, they are assembled and sewed similar to the curtains where you sew them together on the wrong sides then turn them right side out, in this case through the zipper face.

The most difficult cushion was the curved back – it took me awhile to figure out how to create this, but ultimately you cut 4″ thick strips matching the curve, then glue them into a stack of the correct height.

I’m really pleased with the completed look – once the cushions all came tougher, it really achieved the finished look I had in mind.

Airstream How To Make Curtains

At this point in the project, I’m now mostly into the soft goods and finish work. The project is in the home stretch! In this post I’m going to go into detail about how I made the curtains.

We decided on what fabric we would use (Premier Prints Bloom in Maya color way) for the curtains several months ago, but I was still a undecided on the construction method. How simple should they be? Do they need a backing liner? Pleats or no? Do they split in the middle or go to only one side? I used a sample of my curtain fabric and hemmed the edges to test – it didn’t hold shape very well and looked kind of cheap when I did a test install. After much Internet research I came across an older blog post from another Airstreamer called Straw Cottage that had a great post on how she made her curtains. When I saw her post, I knew that was how I wanted to do it. Of course, this was a more complicated way to make them. I’ll go through the steps in detail here.

First of all, the key to getting nice taut curtains in the Airstream is buckram. Buckram keeps the tops and bottoms of the curtains stiff to help them hold shape and look nice. I also decided that lined curtains would look best too, though our Airstream has double pane solar tinted windows from the factory so fading\heat gain are less of a concern for us. I used a basic white bed sheet as the liner material which is inexpensive and works well.

Now that I have my materials, the next steps are to cut the fabric to size. Some small upfront things: You need to remember a seam allowance (I did 1/2 inch.) When sewing curtains, you match the pieces inside out (the fronts face each other) while sewing and turn it right-side out after completion to get a hidden stitch. Also, I wanted the sides of the curtain material to “wrap” around the back. Doing this prevents the liner material from peeking out when looking at the completed curtain. So, I determined the size of the curtain needed and cut the curtain material with a 1/2 inch seam allowance on the top and bottom, but a 1 inch seam allowance on the sides. For the liner, it has a 1/2 inch on the top and bottom and no seam allowance on the sides. It’s difficult to explain and hopefully the pictures will help, but when you do this and press the fabric, your seam will not be on the edge and instead will fall 1/4 inch from the edge on the back, making it nearly invisible. You can see this in the pictures below showing the progression of how to measure, pin, sew, turn right side out and finally press the sides to create the crease. Note this stitching is *only* the two sides. Top and bottom is next.

With the sides completed and the curtain turned the right side out you now need to add buckram to the top and bottom and sew it in. I used a four inch buckram and thought it looked good, your preferences may be different. Buckram gets cut to size and then inserted into the top and bottom of the curtain. Once inserted I wrapped the curtain fabric around the top edge so it will be hidden. Then you pin it in place and sew it in at the top and bottom – that means four total stitches, two for each piece of buckram as that holds it in place. This stitch will be visible in the finished curtains, so I used a short straight stitch. Make sure you stitch your corners carefully to capture where the various edges meet for a nice finished look.

The last part is curtain tabs. Airstreams typically have two types of curtain tabs – G and T. G tabs are most often used for side curtain tracks where the tabs will be hidden behind the finished curtain. T tabs are used for applications where the track is above the curtain and it dangles down. There are of course exceptions over the years. Our Airstream uses G tabs almost exclusively. You will need a *lot* of curtain tabs. I used around 175 for all of my curtains. I used a zig-zag stitch set to be very short and went back and forth many times to provide strength. Some notes: I spaced my tabs about five inches apart. You need to leave space at each end of the curtains – the outside to allow for a snap to be installed and the middle to allow for overlap between the two curtain edges. At the middle edges of each curtain I also put two tabs close together. This helps with both strain relief and how the curtains look – the end tab keeps the remaining curtain straight so the two meet nicely, while the second tab allows the curtain to form natural pleats when opened. The last part is to install the curtain and put snaps on. Snaps go on some of the outside edges where there are privacy concerns. When installed they pull the curtain towards the wall, closing up any gaps. They’re not really visible in my pictures, but there are snaps at the top and bottom of the outside curtains. They are easy to install yourself, the kit includes the proper tools to get a professional finished look.

With all of these steps completed, you now have a finished and installed (pleat less) curtain. Next – a run down of how I made the upholstery.

Airstream Cabinetry

In the previous post, I detailed the work done building the dinette and the bathroom cabinetry. But there’s still a lot of other cabinetry left to do – the kitchen wall, a housing for the refrigerator, a small entertainment system area, microwave cabinet and a big bank of drawers we are referring to as the bar (because it has a bar-height countertop on it.)

Weight is always a strong consideration when building. The original curb weight of this trailer was just shy of 4,700lbs – which for a 31 foot trailer, is not particularly heavy. Airstream made fairly extensive use of (then relatively new) plastics for all sorts of things to cut weight.

I, however, am building most everything out of wood. In most cases, wood is heavier than plastic. Also, the visible pieces are maple – which is a dense, heavy hardwood. So, I spent a lot of time considering construction methods to minimize weight. A lot of people renovating Airstreams head to Home Depot or IKEA and pick up cabinet boxes, chop them up until they fit, and use those. This method works, but the cabinets are heavier. I instead opted to build a series of face frames out of relatively small 1×2 dimensional maple, then attach them using 1×2 select pine to aluminum L channel on the wall. This method means there are no cabinet walls and the support for the cabinetry comes from the multiple attachment points between the wall and face frame. It also makes the entire assembly lightweight.

First up is the refrigerator cabinet. This cabinet is a little unique compared to the others because we are putting in a standard Dometic-brand RV refrigerator and it will have a flue (chimney) requiring venting. These units run on electricity as a primary and propane as a secondary fuel. They also use a different technology to cool than your home fridge. Instead of a compressor for cooling, they are an “absorption” fridge. In this type of fridge, the refrigerant is ammonia and heat is applied to the ammonia as it cycles through the system. Through this process, heat is removed (absorbed) from the fridge interior and pulled outside. Because it only requires heat to function, it can work on propane without any issues. These refrigerators require a reasonably tight box to install and then there are two vents, one at the bottom and one at the top in back. First I built a frame out of pine, and a frame frame out of maple, then applied 1/4 maple plywood to the completed frame. It is installed in place with aluminum F-channel to the wall and any joints are closed up with butyl caulk in the back. The top of this cabinet has a countertop of maple veneer with a fluted aluminum edge. I chose to use maple veneer instead of a laminate (formica) because the upper part of the fridge is not space meant for things like setting drinks down, etc.

Because the vents for the fridge were pre-existing, I built that cabinet first since its placement effectively determines the precise size of the rest of the cabinetry down the line. The next cabinet houses the microwave, which has a drawer in the middle and hatch on the bottom for kitchen storage. This frame is then directly attached to the frame of the microwave cabinet to make them stable and keep them all straight and in line.

After installing the microwave cabinet I have the dimensions for the bank of drawers. This is a 9-bay opening with six drawer fronts and three drop-open doors to access the utility equipment (breaker panel, water pump, vacuum) at the bottom. When completed, all of the doors will all be shaker style in maple with maple plywood insets.

All of these are done with pocket screw joinery (except the cabinet doors which are just glued after being cut. Because there are no sides to each cabinet, I also needed to install wood rails to mount the drawers slides to. To make this process easier, I attached whole pieces of aluminum angle to the wall for each wood rail to land on. Doing it this way turned out to be much easier than the process I used in the bedroom because I can align the rails with a square as I install them, ensuring they move smoothly. In the bedroom I spent a lot of time adjusting the slides since they only had “end cap” attachments.

Next, on the other side of the fridge I built a small console for holding the entertainment system – a small TV and the Furrion DVD entertainment system. It’s a single unit that can play DVDs to the TV, has a radio, bluetooth, be surround sound for the TV and pass HDMI signal through to the TV from connected devices. The unit has a two shelf bookcase as well. The shelves have a small lip on the front to prevent things from spilling everywhere during transit, too. Just to make this cabinet complicated, it also has a radius curve identical to the one from the dinette.

Last up is the kitchen cabinets. This one is also complex – there are technically three parts to this cabinet – the end cabinet with the radius curve, the oven and furnace mounting location, and the sink area. The furnace determines the precise location of the cabinets to start since there needs to be an opening large enough at the bottom to service the unit later. The same process was used to build this as the bar cabinets – maple frame frame with 1×2 pine supports.

As I was finishing these cabinets, I was also dry fitting the countertops and preparing them for lamination too. In the end, these came out looking the way I expected, too.

Next up is flooring, countertops and drawers!

Airstream Dinette and Bathroom

In mid-December we received a massive amount of snow. That, combined with the holidays (celebrated on our own, pandemic style) slowed me down for a few weeks. I mostly did planning until after New Years before getting back into building things.

Once I got back into the swing of things though, I began working on the drawers for the beds. This meant constructing the box and a front. The drawer boxes are 1/2 inch maple plywood and the fronts are 1×3 maple boards. All are given a finish (drawers 1 coat shellac, 1 coat finish…drawer fronts get the typical 2 coats shellac and 3 coats finish.) I picked up a simple shaker router bit kit and an inexpensive router table to make the drawer fronts. I did a little practice on some scrap pieces and once I was comfortable built out the six drawers.

Hanging the drawers in the cabinets was actually the hardest part of this – because of how I constructed everything, I needed to use the special “face frame” mounting hardware kit, which has a plastic receptacle for the drawer slide in the back. Getting that lined up and adjust correctly was a bear, but I did get everything installed and working. When completed I installed a 1/4 plywood base for the mattress and put some drawer pulls on.

Next up was work on the bathroom. The vanity cabinet was very simple – because I needed lots of access space, I chose to build a sliding door frame. Everything under here is mechanical and because of the hot water heater we are just going to leave it as a mechanical space. I picked up some aluminum sliding door track as well and after some trial and error attaching it to the wall, eventually got everything installed and ready for the countertop. In the last picture you can also see where I put a reinforcement in for the bathroom shower wall – as 1/4 ply, it was flexible, so I attached a finished 1×3 maple to the side and face-screwed it using aluminum screws which really tightened it up.

While I was working on these, I also took a little time to finish a minor refurbishment of the ceiling vent wants. I did not want to go through the hassle (or expense) of adding fancy-pants Fantastic Vents, so I picked up some large-sized 12V extra-quiet electronic cooling fans and tried them out. Eventually I landed on the large 200mm x 200mm size which is quiet and moves a lot of air. They hook directly to the trailer’s existing 12V system and are mounted to the crossmember with a pair of zip ties and I glued small rubber pieces (from a rubber washer) to the contact points to act as a vibration isolator. In the end, they work great and make very little noise.

The most time consuming of these projects was the dinette. It had a lot of different things working together that would each be problematic if they didn’t work out. First, the dinette has to be sized comfortably – proper seat cushion height and depth, proper table height, etc. The dinette converts into what amounts to an oversized queen bed as well. You need cushions that can cover the table when it is lowered, so you have to also plan the dimensions of your cushions relative to the tabletop so that they can fit across and fill the space to create the bed. If not, you have to carry (and store) the cushions for that purpose. Instead, we designed it so the seat backs are used for this purpose when the dinette is in “bed mode.”

In addition to cushion measurements, the table dimensions had to be considered before construction as well. We ultimately decided on a 40″ square table, which is more than adequate for 4+ people to sit around as needed. I ended up pre-building the pieces in the basement where I had enough room to lay them out and test the sizes I wanted until we were satisfied with the results.

Once installed, I had to dial in the plywood tops. In this case I used 1/2 maple veneer plywood. It weighs more than the 1/4 inch, but I had bigger spans that it needed to cross and wanted to preserve storage space access beneath the seats. I found the fastest way to get the plywood fitted was to bring the piece down, chop the corner and then dial it in with small cutting adjustments. You can see my progression in the pictures.

One of the other things that I really wanted to incorporate into our design was radius corners for the cabinetry. This will make the finished cabinets look really nice and has the added bonus of eliminating a corner to hit yourself on. Building them took some thought – I created a radius template on paper, transferred it to a thin hardboard and then attached that to cutout pine “blanks” and used the router with a template bit to create the piece. Then I used 1×2 stock as stringers between the pair of curved templates, covered it with flexible plywood and then put maple veneer on the finished product. It was a fair bit of extra work, but I’m really happy with the results and feel it was worth the effort.

Next up is construction of the refrigerator cabinet as well as kitchen and storage cabinets and installing a bunch of electronics! We also placed orders for lots of things for the next steps – mattresses for the back, foam for the front seats, fabric for curtains, fabric for seating, etc.

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.