Tag Archives: vintage airstream

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.

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 Electric, Exterior Patches, Screens

Now that we’ve got the big job of the interior shell painted, we’ve moved on to all the dozens of little tidbits that come after that. As winter is approaching, I’m also trying to get other minor exterior things completed before it becomes too cold to complete them effectively.

First up was completing the installation of the waste valves. I had installed these previously but had not completed the exterior panel and extension rods to hold it all in place. When I glued up the ABS pipes a few months back, I noticed that on one side I had made the angle of the valve very slightly downward. Ultimately this required me to put a slight bend on the completed valve extension rod to accommodate it. Frustrating, but it is what it is.

Then I installed all of the interior lights (which are 12V low-voltage) and figured out how to attach the dimmer switches – the wiring for these was a bit different than a typical household switch in that it required me to bring a neutral to the dimmer. I sort of knew this, but didn’t think much of it until I went to connect the switch and had to work through the configuration. The basic difference is that the way a 12V dimmer works requires a neutral (three wire) connection, while a regular 120V dimmer does not (two wire.) Fortunately the place where I have the switch has a neutral for other purposes, so I just used that.

I also used this time to insulate and re-install the wheel well covers. There isn’t a lot of space in these, so I had to cut the insulation in half again to make it fit (so, R-3.75.) Here again, a minor oversight – I replaced the water fill port, and the new one sealed so it needed a separate vent. Aesthetically, I stacked them on top of one another. I didn’t give a second thought at the time to the fact that the vent inlet would now sit about one inch above the inner wheel well cover. Probably isn’t a big deal, but may interfere with a drawer in that instance.

I spent a lot of time thinking about what to do with the hot water system. Originally, there was a 6 gal, propane-fired hot water heater. They still make essentially the same model which I could get for about $450 and it would slip right into the existing cutout. But, I felt there had to be something better. Ultimately, I found that several Airstream folks have been moving towards a unit from Excel that is both vent-free and tankless (on demand.) And then the price of it dropped to $149. Sold! This meant that I could close up the cut-out completely meaning one less opening that can leak.

Up next was work on the screens and electric. Mary and I had some discussions about what the best approach was for the screens. Initially I was gung-ho that I wanted them returned to aluminum (they were painted off-white a the factory.) I did a test of paint removal and…it was painful. It became clear quickly that getting the frames cleaned would be an enormous amount of work and they would not really be that great looking anyways. So I bagged that and we looked at paint colors. Ultimately we decided that we would paint all of the metal trim such as door covers, screen frames, etc, using Rustoleum Hammered spray paint in Brown. This quickly covered all flaws in the metal work and, because it wasn’t aluminum color, it didn’t look like we were trying to make it look like original aluminum (one of those pet peeves we have about design.) The knobs on our window controls got a coating of gloss white after a hit of liquid deglosser, and I glued on new fuzzy seal – Airstream changed to black fuzzy seal the week before I ordered (from gray), but I think the black matches better with our colors anyways. the fuzzy seal goes on the frames where the operating arms pass through to close up the space from bugs.

Finishing the 120V electric wiring meant that I no longer had to run an extension cord through the window to power things, so I was eager to get it done too. As mentioned in a previous post, I saved the 12V wiring but replaced all of the 120V with boat cable (basically, wiring made to withstand more of a beating.) Also, the receptacles previously were “speed boxes” – a relatively cheap unit that allows you to cut back the insulation of a wire, stretch it across some channels, and clip the back onto the front, enclosing the wire and making contact. When completed, the unit itself does not need to go into another wall box. While this is a bit simpler, speed boxes are generally junk. So I upgraded to using blue shallow-depth plastic boxes which are then riveted to the interior and Leviton Decora outlets. Fitting everything in was a challenge in its own right, though. It took a good week of working (among the other projects) to get all of the outlets completed. When completed I plugged in the new city power plug (30A SmartPlug) and put a tester in every outlet. I also checked the function of the polarity light, just to make sure it was working as expected. On the 12V side I added some new receptacles – a standard cigarette lighter adapter in one spot, and three really cool USB charging receptacles with power buttons so they are not vampire draws on the battery system.

Next up is getting all of the rub rail and belt line trim installed on the exterior, and setting up the plumbing and drain lines.