Archive for the ‘Maintenance’ Category

A Mixmaster, a Mercedes, and a zombie

Monday, July 15th, 2013

When I’m TBM I must admit that I don’t eat as well as during the rest of the year, when Eleanor is here to cook.  But it’s an opportunity to eat like a bachelor, and believe it or not that’s not entirely bad.  It inspires independent thinking, for one thing.

Sure, the blueberry/chocolate smoothie wasn’t my biggest success (nor the caramel/bacon smoothie).  And my annual survey of Tucson’s Sonoran hot dog stands (ongoing at the moment) is a health fanatic’s nightmare.  It doesn’t matter.  The essence of TBM is trying new things, following sudden inspirations, and taking small risks to uncover the answers to questions nobody cares to ask.

This can encompass culinary topics as well as almost anything else.  For example, which is the best zombie movie of the past few decades?  The only to be sure is to watch as many of them as you can. I personally favor old-school classics like “Omega Man” with Charlton Heston and Anthony Zerbe, but I recognize I may be in the minority with that choice.  More recently “Shaun of The Dead” with Simon Pegg & Nick Frost could be a contender for its relative originality, and I think “I Am Legend” with Will Smith deserves a vote.

As you might be able to tell, I’m not a huge fan of the straight horror-style zombie flicks filled with shuffling idiots.  I like the ones with something new to push the theme forward, while respecting the genre.  To keep my research complete, Rob and I went out to see a late showing of “World War Z” last week.  I thought it failed to have a good plot climax, but it was good to see that the movie industry is still revisiting this tried-and-true theme.  Zombie movies are sort of self-mocking, since the movies themselves are often “undead” versions of those that came before.

Another aspect of TBM has been the traditional buying of an unnecessary car.  I haven’t blogged all the cars I’ve bought over the past few years, but basically I seem to find one every year or so, and then sell them a year or two later after sorting them out.  The green Mercedes 300D was only bought last fall and I am planning to keep it for a long time, so I told Eleanor I would not break with tradition and not buy a car this summer—and then promptly discovered a flashy red Miata at an estate sale and put a bid in on it.  To be fair, I called her first and she encouraged this irresponsibility, because she wants it for herself!  (I lowballed the bid so we probably won’t get it anyway.)

At the same sale I found a Sunbeam Mixmaster Model 12 (made from 1957-1967) in fairly good condition.  Eleanor already has a Mixmaster Model 9 (late 1940s) that was handed down through her family, which she still uses regularly.  We thought the Model 12’s beaters might be interchangeable with the Model 9 beaters, but as it turns out the Model 12 won’t release the beaters at all. I’m going to have to take it apart to fix that problem, and while I’m in there I’ll clean up the gears and motor parts, and re-lube it with new food-grade synthetic grease.

Two Mixmasters is really more than we can use, so I’m not sure what we will do with the Model 12 after I’ve fixed it up.  Right now I’m admiring it as a great example of durable American mid-century mechanical design.  It just looks good sitting there, and it’s amazing to me that these old machines still work as well as they do after fifty or sixty years in the kitchen.  It’s also neat that they are still so inexpensive and easy to find, despite being antiques.  I paid $22 for this one complete with beaters and two original milk-white glass bowls, all in good condition.

Sunbeam Mixmasters model 12 and 9These Mixmasters are analogous to my Mercedes W123: built in abundance, well-designed, long-lasting and hence beloved.  In a way they represent a pinnacle of engineering, because they achieved everything that could be hoped for at the time.  I wonder if the builders knew that they’d created things that would not be surpassed for durability by anything to follow.

I really like things like that, machines that are timeless in both design and function.  I’m not a fan of disposable industrial design.  “Disposable” is for Kleenex.  This bias is probably most of the reason why we have Airstreams, too.  Of all the things we own, the mid-century products are the ones I respect the most.

The machine that makes my smoothies is another antique, a Sunbeam Vista blender from the 1960s. When it just keeps working for decades, why replace it?  In that vein, we recently acquired the final bits we need to install a NuTone Food Center in the Airstream Safari.  The NuTones are highly sought by some RV owners because they are designed to be mounted in the countertop (thus saving valuable space when not in use).

We had one in our 1977 Argosy 24 known as “Vintage Thunder,” and kept most of the accessories that we’d collected for it.  The NuTone motor is permanently mounted under the counter, and you just pop whatever appliance you want on the power head at the countertop:  blender, coffee grinder, juicer, mixer, food processor/slicer, knife sharpener, etc.  Collecting the accessories is easy on eBay but the prices tend to be high these days because they’re out of production.  Our final piece was the motor base, and we got one of those from David Winick at Alumapalooza.  I plan to install it over the next winter, when I’ve got to get under the kitchen countertop to re-fasten it anyway.

Speaking of Airstreams kitchens, the Caravel’s new dinette table has been cut.  The dimensions are identical to the current table, but by using solid poplar instead of plywood/ash/Marmoleum, it is 8.1 pounds lighter (23.1 lbs).  That may not seem like a lot, but it makes a huge difference.  We’ve trimmed the weight by 26%, enough to allow one person to heave it out of the wall mounting bracket and convert it to a bed without help.  And it looks better already.  Neither Eleanor nor I were crazy about chunky look of the previous table.

I’ve got to let the wood settle for a few days before I proceed with sanding, shaping, finish, and hardware, so for now it’s just resting flat on the floor of the living room.  It may also require a little bracing underneath to ensure that the table never warps.  I’ll get to that over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to contemplate why it matters to me to fine-tune the Caravel, a trailer that we hardly ever use and are seriously over-invested in.  It’s really for the same reason that I’ll take two hours to disassemble an old kitchen mixer that we really don’t need, and carefully clean & lube it so that it can work as designed for another few decades.

You could look on it as a form of recycling, but it’s more than that.  The 1948 Sunbeam Mixmaster Model 9, the 1968 Caravel, the 1971 General Electric P7 oven, the 1984 Mercedes 300D, and the 1970s era NuTone could all be replaced by modern equivalents, but none would be as durable, or as inspirational to me.  These things seem to deserve attention and respect and repair.

They were made to last, in part because they were built in a time when “value” meant more than lowest price.  More importantly, they have lasted, proving their designer’s principles were correct. If you want to make a product today that will last for ages, you don’t need to guess the future—you only need to respect good design.  Not to get too romantic about it, but those few antique machines we still use and value prove that great principles endure.

Just like zombie movies.



The hangar queen

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

I mentioned in the previous blog that our 1968 Airstream Caravel is a bit of a hangar queen.  I’ve come to accept that, viewing it as (a) an heirloom for Emma to use someday; (b) an investment vehicle (so far a spectacularly bad one, since we have more invested in it than market value); (c) an interesting ongoing project to advance my general “handyman” education.

The last rationalization is probably the best one.  The Caravel has advanced my education in woodworking and plumbing in particular.  Someday I may even put those skills to use in the house, although I never seem to be as motivated to work on house projects.  Houses are sort of boring—they don’t move.

In the next few weeks the Caravel will get some more attention, this time in the area of the A-frame.  I bought a replacement hitch jack for it because … well … to be honest, because of a long series of stupid events.  Let’s see if I can get this all straight:

  1. Last February the propane regulator began to leak, so I bought a replacement.
  2. The replacement regulator had the red/green “flags” which indicate if the tank is empty or full on the “front” of the regulator, but on the Caravel the regulator is supposed to mount facing the rear.  This meant that the flags were not visible.  The spare tire blocked any view of them.
  3. Rather than returning the regulator for one with the flags on top because that would be “too much trouble,”  (and therein lies my big mistake) I decided to mount it facing forward.  This was more complicated than it would seem.  The job required numerous hardware store trips, a longer main hose, replacement “pigtail” hoses to the tanks, a pair of brass elbow fittings, four stainless screws, and numerous washers so that the mounting hardware would fit correctly.
  4. With that job finally done, I discovered that the handle of the manual crank hitch jack collided with the new regulator, making it very difficult to raise and lower the trailer’s tongue, so I decided to replace it with a power hitch jack.
  5. When I attempted to remove the original hitch jack, I discovered that it had been welded into place.

And that’s where I am today.  I didn’t have time to deal with it back in April and May, when I was doing a lot of work on the Safari, so I set the problem aside.  Now that I’m back—and lacking a tow vehicle—the only way to proceed is to get a mobile welder out here to cut out the old hitch jack and then re-weld the necessary plate for the new one.  I’ve made a few calls and should have someone out here in the next week or two.

If I were smarter I would have simply returned the propane regulator for the right one, and avoided this entire mess.  This debacle is going to end up costing about $400 counting all the miscellaneous parts, welding, and jack.  But at least I can console myself with the knowledge that now I’ve got a fancy power hitch jack on the trailer that we never use.

In the interest of continual investment for little actual return, I have also taken the dinette table out of the trailer to have it re-made.  The table we have currently was overbuilt by a well-meaning friend and weighs far too much to be easily handled when converting it into bed mode.  The same shop that built the black walnut countertop for the Safari a few months ago will duplicate the Caravel dinette top in poplar, which should be considerably lighter.  I’ll shape it, finish it, and attach the hardware in the next few weeks.

The plumbing project that I began last spring is about 80% complete.  With the hot weather this time of year, I’m not inclined to go out to the carport to finish that job, even though the Caravel has air conditioning.  It feels like a job to be done in the fall, when we return from Airstream travel and the Tucson weather is perfect for projects.  Around here, that means November and early December.

Someday soon this trailer is going to be absolutely perfect.  I’ll have to take it somewhere.

I break for motorcycling

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

There wasn’t much time to catch up on life after we returned from Europe, and the frequent rain in Vermont didn’t help.  You might think that having a few rain days would help office productivity, since the distraction of a sunny day at the lake wasn’t tempting me away from the laptop, but really I wasn’t in the mood to get back to heavy desk work and the rain just made me want to stay in bed in the Airstream.

This has been one of those cold Junes, with lots of thunderstorms and humidity.  Among other things, it put a serious damper on my plans to go motorcycle touring, but then over the weekend we had a little break.  Saturday morning we had a few hours of decent weather, and so the local “gang” got together, four of us (three BMWs and a Honda).  Not willing to risk a long ride lest the weather change again, we rode down to Vergennes (the smallest city in Vermont, one mile square) and got breakfast at the local cafe.

Sunday was the only really good weather day, and coincidentally the day of a charity ride to benefit an animal shelter.  We joined up with a few dozen other avid Vermont motorcyclists (a category which implies people of strong character since motorcycling in Vermont’s climate requires patience and resilience) at Cycleworks in New Haven VT and went on a really nice tour of about 95 miles through Addison County.

IMG_2418Now, I grew up in this area and have spent part of almost every year of my life around here, and still this tour brought me on some roads that I’ve hardly ever seen.  It reminded me of the beauty of the Vermont countryside–the roads that don’t go conveniently in a straight line, bringing you past the old farmhouse architecture, the rolling green hills and fields, and much more if you will only take the time to drive them.  If it weren’t for this charity ride I probably wouldn’t have gotten out to see all of that.


At this point I had my eye on my impending trip to Tucson.  Whatever I needed to do in Vermont had to get done quickly (and while the rain was paused).  In the afternoon following the ride, I got up on the roof of the Airstream to clean off all the organic debris that had covered it in the past four weeks.

There was a lot, even more than we usually get, thanks to some tree that flowered extensively and dropped thousands of buds on the roof.  In the weeks of June rain, all of those flowers decayed to brown mulch, mixed with sticks from the locust tree, and it was really a mess up on the Airstream’s roof.

IMG_2422Usually this job gets done at the end of the summer, just before we leave, but this year I’ll be doing it twice.  It’s really not comfortable getting up on the roof when it is wet and covered with decaying plant matter.  I take some precautions to avoid slipping off, but still it feels dangerous with all the slippery gunk.  At the Airstream factory they have a neat harness rig from the ceiling that keeps service center workers from falling off roofs.  I wish I had a Willy Wonka skyhook here.

Lately we’ve had a strange problem with the water pump in the Airstream.  It will sometimes refuse to shut off after we’ve run the water.  Rather than stopping automatically when the pipes are pressurized it continues to run at its lowest level, making a sort of perpetual moaning noise.  We thought at first that the pump’s shutoff switch was going bad, but after a while I traced the problem to air trapped in the water pipes.  The pump can’t get the water pressure up if there is air in the line (because air is very compressible), so it keeps trying forever.

Running the pump briefly with all faucets open (including the shower, outside shower, and toilet sprayer) lets the air out and cures the issue for a while but after a few days it recurs. At this point I’m thinking the problem is in one of the fixtures, perhaps the shower valve, letting air in and somehow trapping it, but I haven’t managed to narrow down which one is the culprit yet.  In any case, the pump itself seems to be fine.  I checked it for leaks last week.

That’s about as exciting as it got this week.  I took care of a few other small things, packed my bag, and headed to the airport on Tuesday.  Vermont is east of me now, along with E&E, and the next phase of summer begins with the new blog post.  Temporary Bachelor Man is coming up!

Pre- Alumapalooza 4

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

The blog has been quiet the past couple of days because we’ve been deep into the Alumapalooza pre-event routine. We’ve settled into a pattern for the set-up of these events, which started before we arrived.  This year we have a slightly larger staff than before, and they are all really excellent, so the workload for us has gotten much lighter.  When we pulled in to Airstream’s Terra Port on Saturday, everything was so well under control that there was little to do but get updated, and on Sunday instead of joining the goody-bag assembly line, I was able to spend the day with Super Terry doing some maintenance to our Airstream.

Airstream Safari CircleThe maintenance was primarily about inspecting our tires and wheel bearings.  It has been over three years since the bearings were re-packed, and many miles, which is far beyond the usual RV industry recommendation.  Paradoxically, our heavy and regular use of the trailer is one of the reasons we’ve gotten away with it. Sitting still isn’t great for the bearings, as it offers an opportunity for condensation to get in.  I’ve also periodically checked the bearings to ensure they are running cool, and whenever a wheel is up in the air I check for smoothness & quietness of rotation.

Still, it has been nearly two years and probably over 12,000 miles since the last time Super Terry and I took the wheels off to check things out, so it was definitely overdue.  We found that the Michelin tires are still doing well, but wearing more on the outer edge of the tire tread, so we took them over to the Wal-Mart Super Center in a nearby town to get them flipped.

Airstream Michelin tire wear 2013-1

Now the white-letter side of each tire is facing out, and the tires have been swapped from side to side so that they will have the same direction of rotation.  This should even out the wear a little.  Based on the wear I saw, I’d guess we could get about 50k miles out of them.  They’ve already gone over 30,000 miles, and the date code says they are five years old so they are probably going to “age out” before they wear out.

Airstream Parbond caulk-1Our inspection revealed that the brake pads were fine except on one wheel, where the disc caliper sliders had gotten dry.  When that happens, only one brake pad gets all the wear, so we replaced that set of brake pads and re-lubricated the caliper sliders.  Otherwise all was good.  Super Terry re-packed the wheel bearings, and re-applied gray Parbond (a sort of thin caulk used for small seams on the exterior) to a few spots that needed it, and that completed our day of maintenance.

Over the weekend I had a few minutes to look around Jackson Center to see what has changed.  We knew that the Cafe Veranda, the best restaurant in town, had closed.  The building is still for sale.  I hope someone buys it and turns it back into a B&B.  It’s a gorgeous house and has some interesting history.  I’ve heard that Wally Byam used to stay there many decades ago.

The one-screen downtown movie house, the Elder Theatre, is in danger of closing for the same reason as many other old independent screens across the country.  The mandatory change to digital projection is too expensive for this little Mom & Pop operation, and so they’ve launched a Kickstarter effort to raise $25,000 to save the theater.  Check it out and pledge if you love the little village of Jackson Center, OH.  This country is going to lose hundreds of little downtown theaters if they can’t make the digital conversion this year.

Phil’s Cardinal Market, the old grocery store, has been replaced by a spankin’ new Family Dollar store.  It’s nice to see some investment in the downtown.  It just opened last week and seems very fine.  This week the Alumapalooza-goers will flood it and probably clear it out of milk and bread, as they usually do.

On Monday the big deal of the day was the arrival of the tent.  Normally the tent crew arrives in the late morning and has it up by 2 or 3 in the afternoon, but this year things ran late, so we didn’t have a chance to get in there and set up our stuff (lights, sound, kitchen, Internet, refrigerators, etc) until after 6 p.m. This was an inconvenience but really not much more than that, so overall I would say setup went extremely well this year.

All weekend we’ve had early arrivals showing up and parking in the Service Center parking lot.  At this point I think we have about 25 Airstreams there, plus another ten or so staff trailers in the Terra Port, and probably 6-10 more service customers.  Everyone gathered on the grass for the Memorial Day cookout, which was a huge success.  The rain we had gotten in the morning cleared up for the afternoon and early evening.  It rained again last night and there is still the occasional patter on the roof as I type this (at 6 a.m. Tuesday) but the forecast is calling for improving conditions all day and fabulous conditions through Friday.  Only a little rain and not too much heat is a pretty good week in JC this time of year.

Airstream guitar Yesterday Dave Schumann showed up and took a few of us into his office to show off a new Airstream guitar.  So far only two have been made, but Airstream will get more and sell you one for $2,250 if you are interested.  One of our attendees is going to play this one on stage this week.

All week Eleanor and I have been practicing for the new Aluminum Gong Show, which is a featured part of Alumapalooza this week.  We’ve got a little routine which involves both of us and a ukulele.  If the performance is not great, at least it will be entertaining.  I am hoping a few more people sign up to be in the show.  Any act is welcome, even pet tricks.  It just has to be a minimum of 90 seconds long and a maximum of four minutes.  If you are attending Alumapalooza you really don’t want to miss this show, trust me …

It’s time to get moving now.  This is going to be one of those days where we do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.  By 8 we will have a caravan of staff trailers heading out to the field, and by 9 parking of the general attendees will begin.  Alumapalooza begins now!

All systems go

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Our countdown to the summer-long trip is into the single digits now, and so it is time to run the “Airstream systems check.”  This is a routine that I started integrating to our pre-trip prep about a year ago, after we had to cancel a long-awaited trip because the brake actuator died while the Airstream was stored.

Although that situation was sort of a fluke (the actuator was part of a run of bad units that were later recalled), it demonstrated that we can’t take our Airstream for granted.  It is almost nine years old now, and has seen heavy use.  This spring I’ve been going through the areas of the rig that have shown wear.  Through a process of refurbishing, repairing, and updating it has been put back into good shape, better in some ways than it has ever been.

In addition to all the stuff I’ve blogged, a few smaller projects got done in the past week.  For example, I added LED light strips to the under-bed area.  These turn on automatically when the bed is lifted, thanks to a magnetic switch.  It was a surprisingly painful job, because I had to squeeze myself into the front storage compartment to connect wires, but worthwhile because before we never could see well when rummaging around in that storage area.

IMG_2174While moving the backup camera I discovered a second main ground wire, hidden inside the rear bumper compartment.  This one was also somewhat corroded, despite being a bit more protected, so for good measure I disconnected it and cleaned it up as I had the front one.  I also lubed all the locks and hinges with graphite, replaced the two big zerk fittings on the Hensley (they have special spring-loaded plungers that tend to wear off), replaced a bad cabinet spring latch, and other such simple stuff.

Since we’ve fiddled with the flooring, furniture, plumbing, windows, antennas, camera, hitch, belly pan, refrigerator, bathroom sink, and microwave in the past couple of months, it seemed especially important to do a good road test before we hitched up for the real thing.  I recruited Mike, and we towed the Airstream down to the local highway truck stop, the TTT.

IMG_2173A good local truck stop can be a boon.  At the TTT we were able to get months of desert dust and last summer’s bugs finally washed off the Airstream, then go around to the CAT scale to get weighed (and re-weighed after adjusting the weight distribution a little), and on the way there and back were had opportunities to check the brakes and dial in the hitch head adjustment on the Hensley.  (This latter adjustment is crucial, as an off-center hitch head will cause the trailer to push the tow vehicle off-course in a hard braking maneuver.  We only had to do this because we disassembled the hitch for painting, otherwise it’s a “set and forget” item.) If we’d been in the mood we could have topped up the diesel and had lunch at Omar’s Highway Chef, too.

Mike kept the ladies at the TTT front desk entertained while I went through the CAT scale.  The report told me that the Airstream was lighter than it has ever been when loaded for travel with full water, at about 7,260 pounds.  It has run as high as 7,800 pounds, but usually less.   We haven’t yet finished loading some of our stuff, so when we leave it will probably be right around 7400-7450, which is fine.

While we were at the TTT I had a chance to walk around and inspect the tires, see if anything came loose (especially things I fixed!), and adjust the strut jacks on the hitch to move a little more weight to the front axle.  I went around for a second weigh and verified that the tweak moved another 60 pounds forward. (By the way, our hitch weight came out to 660 pounds, or 9%.  People often assume it’s much higher because of the size of the trailer, but it has always been around 9-11%, verified over the years by truck scales.)

The road test to and from the TTT verified that the new position of the backup camera is awesome.  With the high mounted position I now have a clear birds-eye view of the traffic situation behind us—three lanes wide.  I’m going to really like that when we get into heavy traffic situations like Dallas/Ft Worth. It’s also more useful when backing into the carport.

The test tow was about 40 miles roundtrip and it verified that everything seems tight, right, and ready to go. No surprises.  Even the new cellular antenna clears the carport entry as planned.  And it’s shiny again.  So all systems are “go” for launch.  We just need to get the crew on board and that should happen by the end of the week.

Drilling a hole in the Airstream

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

I drilled a hole in my Airstream.

Of all the jobs to be done on the Airstream this spring, this one scared me the most.  Anticipating it was worse than building new cabinetry, worse than de-greasing the hitch & sanding off the rust, worse than laying inside the front compartment and re-wiring (I’ll tell you about that one later).

The backup camera I installed on the Airstream three years ago has been very useful, but I made a serious mistake when I put it on the rear bumper.  That location was easy to reach but far too low.

As a result, car lights and setting sun would create glare, making the camera useless at dusk or at night.  I found that I needed the camera much more while towing on the highway, for situational awareness (i.e., what’s happening behind me) than I needed it for actually backing up.  So losing the camera’s functionality because of glare was a real annoyance.

Also the low position gave me a great view of the stripes on the highway and the bumper grill of the car behind me, but not of cars further away.  Because it’s a “backup camera” the field of vision is very wide, like a fisheye lens, and so the useful distance range isn’t long.  To get any sort of overview of the traffic situation it needs to be mounted up above the roof of the average car.

I knew all this after the first season of towing, but I also knew that the only way to get the camera up where it belonged would require drilling a hole in the rear dome of the Airstream.  Not a small hole either, but a whopping 5/8″ hole to fit the cable connector through.  I have never drilled a hole in the body of the Airstream before.  It’s sort of a forbidden thing, in my book, because every hole is a new chance for a leak, a spot that must be maintained with caulk, and something you can never un-do.  Remember, I just had to deal with a 3/4″ hole that was drilled in the roof eight years ago for the original cell phone antenna.

At least that hole was up on the top where nobody can see it.  This particular hole was going to be right smack in the middle on a very expensive & very visible piece of shaped aluminum, where a virtual waterfall is created every time there’s rain.  If I screwed it up, I’d be looking at an ugly patch forever.

This may explain why I put up with the inadequacies of the camera mount for three years.


With all the other projects completed, and perhaps a bit of bravery inspired by their relative success, I had no excuse to avoid this one any longer.  The re-routing of the cable was easy: it was already in the bumper compartment, and from there it took only two holes inside the rear compartment to run it up into Emma’s bedroom.  A four-foot length of plastic wire chase from the hardware store hid the wire as it ran up Emma’s bedroom wall, and then … I had to face the final cut, right through two layers of aluminum, some fiberglass insulation, and out to the cold, cruel world.

In a previous blog I wrote that you should think several times before putting a hole in the Airstream’s skin.  I thought about it for weeks, running through all the possibilities in my head to ensure there was no other way, and that I had a plan for every possible screw-up.  I ran a piece of blue tape down the centerline of the trailer from the clearance light to the license plate, measured and measured again, then dusted off the dome, applied several layers of protective tape on the aluminum, and drilled a small “test hole” 3/16″ in diameter.  (If this hole had been wrong, it would have been relatively simple to plug it up with caulk.)

It was right on the money, so I continued through larger drill bits, eventually ending up with the monster 5/8″ drill.  Emma didn’t make me feel any better about this when the drill poked into her bedroom and she shouted (through the closed window), “Wow, that’s a big hole!”

The camera is now in place, secured by a very high-bond double-sided automotive tape, and sealed with Vulkem 116.  I wish I had gray or black Vulkem for this, because the white caulk smears look stupid on the black camera mount, but eventually I’ll get my hands on some and re-do it.  In the meantime, it works and the view from the camera is much better.

So I drilled the Airstream, and survived.  But I don’t want to do it again anytime soon.

Customizing the Airstream again

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

After a good run of posting every two days for a while, I had to shut up and focus entirely on work.  I have been monumentally busy the past several weeks, but you don’t want to hear about that.  The most interesting part of it (Airstream-wise) has been finishing up the cabinetry project that I began before our last trip to California and Nevada.

Airstream Safari cabinet areaIf you haven’t read back that far, here’s a re-cap:  We wanted to get rid of the tired old laundry & microwave rack that we whipped up while full-timing, and make the area more functional.  I removed everything on the curbside of the trailer from the entry door to the refrigerator wall.  Originally this was a fold-out credenza with two huge chairs, as shown in the floorplan.

Those chairs took up too much space and we got rid of the first one before we had even towed a mile.  (As far as I know it is still serving as bachelor apartment furniture in Ohio.)  The second one exited while we were full-timing.  We stopped in Florida for a few days and a friend fabricated a counter extension to run along the curbside wall (atop a narrow shelf that isn’t depicted in the floor plan).  We bought a cheap wire rack at a housewares store and muddled the whole thing up into a storage space for a microwave and a small laundry bin.  This was a little crude but it worked for six years.

Eventually we started keeping our recycling in a little cardboard box behind this wire rack, and shoes began to collect beneath the rack.  Then we added a catalytic heater on the wall by the refrigerator.  Eleanor began storing water jugs on the floor behind the rack, too, and we noticed that the recycling bin was often too small.

The point of all this is that gradually we had modified the space to suit our style, and we had noted what didn’t work about it.  After eight years it was safe to conclude we had a clear pattern of use and our “wish list” was based on experience rather than infatuation.  So when Mike & I ripped up the old floor, rebuilding the curbside storage was part of the plan.

I finally finished it last Friday, and I’m very pleased with how it came out, considering that it was a mish-mash of old and new materials.  I tried to re-use as much as possible of the Airstream plywood because it’s very lightweight, and to keep the look somewhat reminiscent of the factory styling.  The fold-out credenza is still there, but it has been moved to a new location further forward and off the wheelwell.  (Kyle and I did that a few weeks ago, and you can see how it was done in the earlier blog entries.)

Added to it is a new microwave shelf suitable for a 1.2 cubic foot microwave, a shelf below the microwave for one of Eleanor’s large pans (probably a cast iron skillet), a black recycling bin that is twice as large as our old cardboard box, room for two 12-packs of canned drinks or four gallons of drinking water, space for the sink covers/cutting boards and a few paper bags, a much larger shoe cubby, the same laundry bin, and a semi-hidden storage shelf for small items like headlamps.

The big win of the whole thing is the huge new countertop, made of black walnut with four coats of polyurethane.  It measures 18″ x 71″ by itself (8.8 square feet), and gains another couple of square feet when the credenza is fully deployed.  With three people in an Airstream and lots of things going on simultaneously, you can never have enough tabletop space.

The only thing we lost in this conversion was a magazine rack, which I will replace later when we find a wall-mounted rack that we like.  No rush on that.

To build this thing took far longer than I had hoped.  That’s partly because I didn’t make it easy on myself.  I didn’t like the standard steel L-brackets that were available at the hardware store, so I bought lengths of 3/4″ aluminum L-channel and cut brackets from it on the table saw, then drilled four holes in each of them.  They aren’t as stiff as the steel brackets but they are a lot lighter and still strong enough.  Plus, they’re aluminum—need I say more?

The Airstream didn’t make things easy either.  You can’t count on square, level, flat, plumb or tight in a travel trailer.  Things move, and they need to flex during travel.  So every cut was “custom,” to accommodate gaps, unevenness, and just plain awkwardness resulting from the original construction.  Eleanor and I had to stop several time and ponder ways to cover up unexpected issues.  I also had to design the cabinet to be light, strong, and yet able to flex a little where needed.  Overall, I think the job probably took about 30-40 hours and at least a dozen hardware store runs.

So it feels great that it’s done, and I think it looks pretty good.  Sure, the black walnut doesn’t match the original furniture color, but I don’t care.  It looks much more sophisticated than the original stuff.  Because the shelves are black melamine, and the microwave and recycling bin are black, they all tend to visually disappear so cabinet doors are unnecessary.  Eleanor even found black no-skid material to line her pan shelf.

For those who are interested, here’s a bit more trivia:  We used the 3/4″ aluminum L-channel to make trim edges and lips for the shelves. It’s screwed to the melamine with 3/8″ stainless screws.  The microwave is attached to the shelf with self-adhesive Velcro and a security strap (made of aluminum) screwed to the side.  A low vertical divider holds the recycling bin in place.  We found the little organizer (pictured with the headlamp in it) at The Container Store.  The countertop, despite being solid wood, weighs only 19 pounds.  The entire structure weighs about 35 pounds, not including microwave, which is probably less than the original furniture and the two chairs we pitched out.

The key here is that this design suits our way of life when we are traveling.  We need convenient, reliable, practical, and durable stuff.  We aren’t glampers or weekenders, we’re long-distance travelers and we live in our Airstream for months at a time.  Your needs will probably be different.  Customizing your Airstream is just like customizing your fixed-base home: everyone has their own needs.

I have never met a full-timer or long-distance Airstream traveler who hasn’t modified their Airstream quite a bit.  Even people with brand-new trailers do it.  So if you haven’t yet, my advice would be to think about what you do, what you carry along with you, what you most feel is lacking in your interior, and starting planning a few small customizations of your own.  It’s easy to start with something as small as an organizer or a hat hook.  But beware—despite the many hours this latest project took, I can tell you that modding the Airstream is addictive.  There will be more in our future.

Grease is the word

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

I haven’t been looking forward to this most recent Airstream job.  For a couple of years the A-frame on the Airstream (the front part, for those of you who don’t have a trailer) has been looking pretty ratty.  Paint chips from rocks have turned into unsightly spots of surface rust, and the orange paint of the Hensley hitch has faded, then gradually fallen off, leaving large patches of rust.  The paint on the top of the power hitch jack has chipped off too.  It’s getting embarrassing, like the interior floor was before we replaced it last month.

The problem with the job of repainting the hitch and A-frame is that there’s a ton of prep work and it’s messy.  The Hensley is loaded with grease, which over the years has congealed with dirt and coated not only underside of the hitch itself but also the chains, coupler, and about a third of the A-frame.  After removing all the hitch parts with the assistance of Mike, we dumped them into a large tub and degreased everything with industrial-strength degreaser and heavy brushes, then washed everything.  This job took about an hour, and by the end of it much of the black grease was transferred to our bodies and clothes.

Then we scraped the loose paint off with metal scrapers, and got the surface rust off with a wire brush attached to the power drill, leaving a surface of remaining paint that resembled a cracked dry lake.  It was not pretty, but it was already an improvement over what was there.  It really needs a good sandblasting and powder coating, but I’ve decided I will do this quickie scrape and re-paint just to get another year or two, and then I’ll take the whole thing into a professional shop for a proper & smooth job.

The A-frame was less of a problem because Airstream used real paint (rather than that orange stuff that Hensley uses).  It held up very well over eight years of heavy use and many miles.  We only needed to touch up spots with the wire brush (after washing), and then wash again to remove all the dust.  It should paint up nicely.

IMG_2131After a lot of consideration, I’ve decided to paint the entire A-frame area in flat black.  The Hensley parts will also be black, except the part that was orange which is now a metallic pewter.  Black hides the grease a little better, and it’s an easy color to match for touchups.

Those of you who own Hensleys might be wondering if I’m going to put the stickers back on.  I have an entire set of replacement stickers, including the serial # label, but I’m going to keep them on hand and install them after the hitch is professionally stripped and coated.

You might recall that I complained of our LED lights flickering when the water pump was running.  I had considered several possible causes and solutions, including using heavier gauge wire to the pump, and adding a capacitor.  I realized that all the solutions were aimed at the same symptom: voltage drops when the 12 volt electrical system was heavily loaded.  And since nobody else with the LED lights seemed to be having the problem, it seemed most likely that I should try to find the cause of the problem rather than trying to patch it.

IMG_2132With that in mind, the most obvious place to look was the main trailer 12v ground, which is (on my trailers) is located under the main frame on the street side, just in front of the spare tire.  There’s a fat bare copper wire that runs to a little copper clamp that is in turn bolted to the frame. Since we were in that area with the wire brush, I disassembled the clamp and found quite a bit of corrosion on the copper and the steel frame.  I brushed everything back to shiny and reassembled, then tested, and voila!  no more flickering lights. I’ll coat the area with dielectric grease to reduce future corrosion.

We used to know when the main ground needed cleaning because the Actibrake disc brake actuator would suddenly stop working.  This happened a couple of times (Four Corners)  (FL panhandle) and I got used to doing roadside clean-ups of the ground wire.  The replacement Dexter brake actuator we have now doesn’t seem to be as sensitive to low voltage.  So now the LED lights are our warning signal. I think as warning signs go, flickering lights is far better than having no brakes.

The next job will be to paint everything.  This time of year we get a breeze almost every afternoon, so we’ll either paint this evening around 6 p.m. if things have calmed down, or early tomorrow morning.  Then, re-assembly, re-greasing, and adjusting of the Hensley.

In between major jobs like this I’m working on the cabinetry and other small tweaks too.  For example, yesterday I replaced four bellypan rivets with the big “buttonhead” ones because the pan was starting to come loose in the back. I also fabricated a small plumbing chase from leftover pieces of black walnut, to replace the factory one.  The list of Airstream jobs that was a page long is slowly shrinking, and two of the four “big” jobs are nearly complete, so although time is short I think we’ll be ready to go to Alumapalooza in three weeks.

A sticky subject among Airstreamers

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

In the Airstream universe you will find a curious phenomenon: passionate debates about caulk.  That’s because the constant movement of all parts on the road causes all travel trailers to leak eventually, and a good caulk is our first line of defense against rain penetration.  Rather unfairly, Airstreamers get more of this debate than owners of other brands, mostly because Airstreams have been around for so long, and so many of them remain on the roads after decades of use.

An Airstream might easily be re-caulked a dozen times over its lifetime.  In contrast, “disposable” cheap travel trailers tend to get chucked into a landfill when they start to leak because they’re starting to fall apart too. You don’t hear the owners of those talking quite so much about re-caulking. They’re busy re-financing.

Another reason Airstreamers love to talk caulk is the aluminum construction of an Airstream.  Silicone caulks don’t adhere as well to aluminum, so we tend to go for polyurethane caulks that are more expensive but stick like crazy and stay gooey for a long time. But what caulk is the “best”?

For decades, the gold standard of caulk for silver trailers was some gray stuff called Vulkem.  These days Vulkem is just a brand name, applied to various formulations of polyurethane caulk made by Tremco.  I use Vulkem 116 but you can also get TremPro 635 from the same manufacturer, and a few variants. Either way, it’s great stuff.  It’s sticky like hot salt-water taffy and adheres to aluminum like glue, once cured it flexes a lot without breaking its seal, and it’s designed for exterior use (only) so it’s UV-resistant and completely waterproof.

Finding the stuff is the problem.  Lots of online sellers offer it but since a tube is anywhere from $6-14 and shipping tends to add $7-9, you want to get it locally or combine it with another order to duck the shipping charge.  Locally it’s sometimes available through Home Depot or Fastenal, but here I couldn’t find it stocked anywhere so I had to order it.

OEM caulk starting to break down after 8 years?

OEM caulk starting to break down after 8 years?

You can always go to the local RV store and find products that claim to be roof caulk.  I’ve tried a few and had uniformly disappointing results, especially the “self-leveling” type.  Those RV-store caulks seem to be made for the disposable RV market, because they all break down in a few years under sunlight and start to crack, then leak.  You can go on the roof of my Airstream and see what things (vents, antennas, etc.) have been caulked with the standard products; they’re drying out and starting to crack around the edges.  I will have to go up on the roof sometime, scrape all that stuff off, and re-caulk.  It’s not a job I’m looking forward to.

You can also see the things that were caulked with Vulkem or TremPro.  They’re still soft and pliable, even sticky, after years of UV exposure.  When I removed the old cellular antenna a couple of weeks ago, the caulk exposed to the UV was hardened but intact, and still waterproof. Around the base of the antenna the caulk was still gooey.  Think about that: the antenna was installed in 2005 and the caulk on it stuck to my fingers like fresh glue after eight years!  I’ve got it sitting here on my desk, just because I like to pick it up and marvel at it once in a while.  (Yes, that’s super-geeky but hey, it inspired this blog you’re reading.)

And eight years is nothing.  I’ve taken apart sections of my 1968 Caravel and found Vulkem contained inside joints and seams that was still good.   That Vulkem was probably decades old.

So that explains why I was willing to wait a week to get a tube of Vulkem 116 from an online seller. I used it to seal up the antenna hole for the cellular Internet booster.  The hole was 3/4″ and the cable was only 1/4″ so I used a set of rubber grommets to fill in the gap, plus a 2″ tall rubber “boot” that I found at Ace Hardware.  This formed a small tower on the roof, from which the new antenna cable emerges. Then I caulked the beejeebers out of the whole thing, sealing it completely.

IMG_2120Two days later, the caulk still feels like it was fresh from the tube, and since it cures very slowly (just 1/16″ of an inch per day at 75 degrees F & 50% humidity) I expect it will take at least a week due to our low humidity.  Fortunately, the Airstream isn’t going anywhere for four weeks.  I’ll get back on the roof in late May to check on the antenna cable again, after having towed the Airstream 2,000 miles to Ohio, just to confirm that the seal is flexing appropriately at highway speed and not developing any gaps that could cause a leak. I’m pretty sure it will be fine.

There are a few challenges with using this stuff.  First off, the fumes are stinky and toxic, which may be why it’s not approved for indoor use.  I would not use this in a workshop without having windows open and a fan.  Second, it’s trickier to shape and smooth than silicone caulk, because it sticks to everything.  The old “wet finger” trick that you use with silicone won’t work—it’ll stick to your wet finger.  I strongly suggest wearing disposable vinyl gloves when you work with it, and bringing along a bunch of paper towels for cleanup.

IMG_2116Third, saving the leftover tube is a bit of a pain.  It’s hard enough to obtain that you don’t want to lose the leftovers between jobs.  Some people put it in the freezer, which I think is a bad idea because the smell of the caulk can ruin your food, even through a plastic bag.  I like my ice cream to taste like Oreo Mint, not vanilla Vulkem.

We’re trying an experiment instead.  We wrapped the nozzle in plastic kitchen wrap, and then vacuum sealed the entire tube with Eleanor’s Food Saver.  (Eleanor wants me to mention that this was her brilliant idea, and I’m glad to do so.  If I open the tube in a year and find it congealed then it will be Eleanor’s terrible idea.  But it should be fine.)

Replacing the Hehr window operators

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

I did warn you that the next few weeks would be mostly about Airstream maintenance, didn’t I?

The job list on the Safari is pretty long, so I’m trying to tackle at least a piece of a project every day.  The past few days Eleanor has been helping me with preliminary bits of the rest of the storage cabinets I started before our last trip.  We’ve figured out how we want to assemble the cabinet and glued up some trim pieces with aluminum strips, as Kyle and I did before.

I’ve also had the countertop made by a local wood shop. It’s black walnut, measuring about 18″ x 69″.  You might think that would be monstrously heavy, but I had it planed down to 5/8″ thick so it’s just 19 pounds.  Not lightweight, but reasonable for solid wood. We think it looks fantastic, even before final shaping and finishing, and I am really looking forward to seeing it finally installed. I’ll post pictures in a future blog.

One of Saturday’s little tasks was to tackle one of those common annoyances in the Safari-class Airstreams.  Those trailers used a type of Hehr window that opens at the bottom third of the glass.  The window operators (cranks) are made of cheap pot metal and they eventually strip and fail.  We’ve got two failed window operators in the trailer and a few others showing signs of imminent failure.  (You’ll know because you have to spin the window crank quite a while before it finally “catches” and starts to move the window.)

This is a job that the dealer will probably charge an hour’s labor to do, but you can do it yourself in less time.  The trick is finding new replacement window operators.  They’re called “torque operators” and they are Hehr part #008-192 if you’ve got the window knob on the right (as seen from inside the trailer).  I found them online for about $8, and bought three figuring that we’d need a spare soon.

Replacing the torque operators only requires two tools, a Philips screwdriver with a narrow handle and a regular (flat-bladed) screwdriver.  The job is a little tricky, and I was wishing someone would document it, so photos are below to illustrate most of the steps. In short:

  1. Inside the trailer, open the window fully if it still works.  Remove the black knob by removing the screw in the center.
  2. Outside the trailer, remove the two small black screws in the hinge just above the movable part of the window glass.
  3. Open the window (if it didn’t operate by the knob) and pop out the C-clips on the arm hinges (one on each arm).
  4. Pop the arms apart using the flat bladed screwdriver (one on each side).
  5. Now you can lift the window all the way up and either pop it out of the hinge or slide it sideways until it comes out of the hinge.
  6. Again using the flat screwdriver, pry the lower end of the spring off the upper arm so that the arm can move freely.  Be careful not to puncture the screen with the spring.  Do this on each side.
  7. On the right side, remove the screws that hold in the mount for the round bar.  The top one will be hard to get to, so this is where the narrow handle of your screwdriver is crucial.
    replacing Hehr window operatorOn the left side, remove the three screws that hold in the torque operator.  Again, the top one is a pain to get to.
  8. Drop the round bar down on the right side, then the left.  It should come out now, with the torque operator attached.  Might take some wiggling and cursing.  Don’t let the springs and arms fall off, because that will just make your life harder.
  9. Remove the torque operator and note what a piece of crap it is.  Scratch your head and wonder why they didn’t make it out of more durable material.
  10. Replace with a new torque operator, and wiggle the whole assembly of bar, springs, arms, and operator back into place.
  11. As they say, “installation is the reverse of removal.”  Riiiiiight.

Getting the top screw back in on each side is a pain. I taped the screw loosely to the driver and that helped, or you could use a magnetic bit.  Getting the window back in the hinge is a hassle too.  It takes a little force.  A helper would be useful here, although I managed to do it myself in a few minutes.  The rest is pretty easy.

I’ve still got one more torque operator to replace on the other side, but with the Airstream in the carport I can’t get to it right now.  That will be an on-the-road repair sometime in May or June.  The third operator will sit in the box of spares until the Window Failure Lottery is complete and we have a known loser.  And now we can open up a window in the bedroom and let in the air again!


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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine