Archive for the ‘Renovation’ Category

Pineapple season

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Weather-wise this is one of the most pleasant times of year to be in southern Arizona.  It’s neither hot enough for air conditioning, nor cold enough for heat, and with abundant sunshine because this is one of our dry seasons.  We haven’t seen substantial rain in weeks.

Little wonder that this is when I find myself working the hardest on projects all over the house and both Airstreams.  The Caravel plumbing job is done, tested, and hopefully reliable.  Everything works perfectly.  My only job now is to take the trailer on a shakedown trip, perhaps across the county (potentially no small jaunt, since Pima County is 9,200 square miles) and camp in it for a night to thoroughly test all the work.  I am very confident in it but in this case I’m subscribing to Ronald Reagan’s philosophy: “Trust, but verify.”

(I’m also thinking of another less-famous Reagan turn of phrase: “I feel like I just crapped a pineapple.”  This wasn’t a fun job, but it feels great now that it’s done.)

The Safari, to its credit, is hanging in there just fine. Good for you, Safari.  I tweaked a few things after we got home in September, and while there are other projects in the wings, it needs nothing at the moment.  We are free to go camping.

And we might, if we had the inclination.  But when we were full-timing in the Airstream we found that in some ways this is the least interesting time of year.  The short days, even in the southernmost reaches of the continental US, meant that after about 5 p.m. we’d be back in the Airstream for a long dark night.  In the desert southwest, the temperature plummets after dark and so on those nights when we were in a national park with a ranger program to attend at 8 p.m., we’d have to bundle up like it was Alaska, in order to sit through an hour-long talk in the outdoor amphitheater on chilly metal benches.

So instead we tend to stay home in November and December, except for a break around New Year’s, and I try to get things done so that we can take off later in the season.  It’s also a good time to catch up personal maintenance, so this month I’ve had the full experience afforded the average 50-year-old American male, including a flu shot, a Tdap booster, (Tetanus, Diptheria & Whooping Cough), a examination here and there, dental cleaning, orthodontist, and the threat of having a sigmoidoscope shoved up where the sun don’t shine.  Yee-ha.

(OK, having written that, I do have to wonder why I’m not hitching up the Airstream and driving as far away as I can … Then I remind myself that I’m trying to set a good example for my daughter.)

One use of the time has been to read several very interesting books.  One has been “The Great Brain Suck” by Eugene Halton. Don’t read it if you are thin-skinned (because he skewers a certain group of Airstreamers) or if you can’t stand wordiness.  Halton could have used a good editor to trim down his prose, but his observational skills are razor-sharp.  I would hate to have him review me.

Another one has been “Salt: A World History,” by Mark Kurlansky.  Admittedly, you have to be a history buff to really love this one.  It’s not a foodie book.  He takes the common thread of an ageless essential (salt) and shows how it permeates most of the major events of world history. Salt has caused and prevented wars, changed governments, nourished some societies while crushing others, and literally enabled society as we know it today.  I picked it up while visiting the Salinas Pueblos National Monument in New Mexico, where salt trading was a crucial element of survival for the Ancient Puebloans.

Mercedes 300Dx3

I’m sure I can blame the nice weather for this next item:  I have joined a gang.  We’re not particularly scary, but we do clatter around town in a cloud of diesel smoke.  Not exactly “rolling thunder” but at least “rolling well-oiled sewing machines.” Like Hell’s Angels Lite.

We are small but growing group of old Mercedes 300D owners in Tucson who share knowledge, parts, tools, and camaraderie periodically.  In the photo you can see the cars of the three founding members, blocking the street.  We call ourselves the Baja Arizona W123 Gang.  Perhaps someday we’ll have t-shirts and secret handshake.  Probably the handshake will involving wiping black oil off your hands first.

The rest of my time has been spent working the “day job.”  At this point I am glad to say that the preliminary event schedules for both Alumafiesta, and Alumaflamingo have been released to the public (and that was two more pineapples, believe me).  There’s still quite a lot of work to be done on both events, but at least now we have an understanding of the basics.  To put it another way, we’ve baked the cake, and now it’s time to make the frosting.  If you are interested in getting involved with either event as a volunteer, send an email to info at randbevents dot com.

The question now is whether I will tackle a major project on the Safari, or just lay back and take it easy for a few weeks.  The project would be to remove the stove/oven, re-secure the kitchen countertop (it has worked loose), and cut a hole to install a countertop NuTone Food Center.  On one hand, this isn’t an essential thing just yet, but on the other hand, I’ll be glad if it’s done before we start traveling extensively next February.  I only hesitate because it might turn into a bigger project than I bargained for.  You know how projects have a way of doing that.

Hmmm… pineapple, anyone?

 

 

Lessons from the Caravel

Friday, November 8th, 2013

This past week I’ve been digging back into the Caravel, in an attempt to get it back in fully-functioning condition by mid-November.  You might remember that last February I was working on that project, and abandoned it because I had to switch over to working on the Safari.  Those Safari projects (re-flooring, building new cabinetry, etc.) took all spring, and then we went on the road in May.  Now that it’s fall and we are back at home base, I’ve finally got a chance to finish the plumbing.

Actually there were three general areas of work to be done on the Caravel, of which the plumbing was only one.  I also started building a new dinette table to replace the heavy one we have been using, and there was the super-annoying propane regulator job that morphed into complete replacement of the regulator, hoses, mounting bracket, and hitch jack.

The hitch jack was still needing to be done when we got back.  It turned out that the original manual jack on the Caravel was welded into place, so I couldn’t remove it myself.  (Someday I plan to learn welding.  I’ll be checking the local community college for courses.)

I hate calling tradesmen, because (a) it’s hard to find a good one; (b) few of them return calls; (c) even fewer will actually show up.  My historical success rate has been to get one good worker for every five or six calls.  So I was geared up for the worst when I started seeking a mobile welder to come over, but got lucky this time and got a guy with only four calls.  One other said he would come over “next week,” but that was in July.

Caravel welding hitch jackJohn showed up and right off the bat I could see he was very experienced. Over the phone it took 30 seconds to describe the job, and since he owns a travel trailer himself he knew exactly what was necessary.  He   got the jack out in 20 minutes, and the new one went in pretty quickly too.  It is bolted in place, not welded, so I can get it out myself next time.

Caravel safety chainsWhile we were at it, John torched off the old—completely inadequate— safety chains and welded up a new set.  The whole job took about an hour, plus a few minutes the next day for me to wire up the power leads.

So that ended the saga that began with a new propane regulator.  One down, two to go …

I left the plumbing in what I earlier described as an “80%” state.  This turned out to be pretty close to the truth, as long as you remember that the last 20% takes 80% of the time.  I was hoping to complete the job in about 10 hours.  After a week of tinkering with it, I think I’ve already using up my allotment of time.

The problem is rookie mistakes.  I learned a lot of things doing this job, but chief among them are:

  1. Don’t ever re-use anything from the original plumbing.  I had set out to avoid that mistake (see photo below of some of the old plumbing I threw out), but then I went and re-used just one piece, a brass winterization valve that was screwed into the water heater, because it was so firmly stuck in the threads that I couldn’t get it out.  And guess what piece leaked when time came to pressure-test the system?Caravel old brass
    Well, necessity is the mother of invention, so I did eventually get that brass valve out, and if you enlarge the photo you can see quite clearly that the shutoff has been leaking for some time.  All that green corrosion is the tell-tale, and that brings me to the next lesson:
  2. Buy good quality parts.  I can’t see any way that it pays to buy cheap plumbing fittings.  All the stuff I removed was low-grade and it was all failing after a decade.
  3. PEX is great stuff, but it only works if you remember to actually crimp the fittings.  Last February I left a few of the first crimp rings un-done “just in case” I needed to disassemble later because I’d made a mistake.  By November, I didn’t remember that.  You can imagine the spray of water that occurred later.  (Doug R gave me the advice to pressure-test with compressed air instead of water.  I didn’t take that advice, and I should have. It’s not fun chasing leaks with a towel.)
  4. You need a LOT more of everything than you think.  I bought 100 feet each of blue and red PEX tubing, 100 crimp rings, eight swivel fittings, a box of brass elbows, six shutoff valves, and many other bits.  I ran out of swivel fittings, crimp rings, and shutoffs, and nearly ran out of elbows.  Why?  Because I didn’t realize exactly what was going to be required (and I wasted a lot of crimp rings making mistakes).  It’s astonishing to me that I used most of the 200 feet of PEX tubing that I bought.  It’s only a 17-foot trailer, for cryin’ out loud!
  5. It’s a lot easier to re-plumb if the cabinetry is out.  I would have had this job done in a fraction of the time if the trailer were bare, instead of fighting to crimp copper rings inside a closet!

Caravel old plumbing The job still isn’t done, but it’s getting close.  Eleanor has been squeezing herself into the closets and under-sink area to do some of the tricky crimps.  We spent most of last Saturday together in there, and we may yet spend a chunk of this coming Saturday in there too.  The plumbing is fully assembled, so the next job is to do more leak-testing, re-assemble the interior furniture that we removed, clean up, and then in a few weeks we’ll take the Caravel out for a road test and shakedown weekend.  The third project, the dinette table, can wait until later.

 

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.

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.

IMG_2161

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.

Mobile Internet, part II

Monday, April 15th, 2013

OK.  I’m sitting here looking at my fingers as I type.  I see three small cuts (nicks from sharp aluminum edges), three broken nails, and one knuckle scuff.  I have been fighting the mobile Internet installation, and finally won.

When I started on the project Saturday I figured it was a two or three hour job:  pull out all the old gear, run a new antenna cable, mount the new antenna, and then install the new gear.  No big deal.  But every step of the way, I was tested.  This was an exercise in beating frustration, which is part of why it took two and a half days to complete.

Nothing would go right the first time.  Now, I can admit that some of the trouble was the result of my inexperience with some things, but I’m not a total noob, so there’s a piece I can attribute to some other force:  bad karma, juju, luck, biorhythyms, alien influence, whatever.  Nothing was as easy as it was supposed to be, and when I realized how things were going to be, I decided I would stick it out even if it took all week.

The big problem was the antenna.  The old antenna was something called an NMO Mount, which means that the installer made a 3/4″ hole in the Airstream’s roof that I would have to plug.  The new antenna requires a side mount (it was designed for buildings rather than RVs) and so I had a very limited range of places I could put it, unless I wanted to fabricate a custom aluminum bracket. I very nearly did, but then found that the bracket upon which the TV antenna rests made a perfect mount.

[NOTE added 5/14/2013:  I'm an idiot.  I should have just returned this antenna and done some more looking.  Since I went through this nightmare install, I discovered a replacement that would have just screwed right onto the existing NMO mount, avoiding the need to run a new antenna cable and seal up the old hole.  I would recommend this antenna to anyone who wants the same 4G performance but with a much lower profile:  Laird Phantom.]

Airstream antennaThis location was ideal:  away from metal objects on the roof that might block the signal (such as the solar panel and air conditioner), low enough that the antenna will clear the carport entryway, and right where I can easily inspect it.  I had to run the coaxial antenna cable through the base mounts that hold up the front solar panel.  That was actually one of the easy problems, solved with the purchase of a 1/2″ drill bit and two rubber grommets.

Antenna closeup

The simplest path to the electronics cabinet was through the existing 3/4″hole in the roof.  I thought I was being clever to use the old antenna wire to pull through the new one, but the old line kept snagging.  So I used the old antenna wire to pull through a few feet of slick & smooth plastic vacuum line (left over from the Mercedes 300D renovation), and then used that to pull the new antenna line through–and discovered that the new one wouldn’t quite fit through an internal brace inside the Airstream’s ceiling.

I tried everything to get that wire through, wiggling it, greasing it, pushing it and pulling it, but it just wouldn’t go. I even drilled little holes behind the overhead cabinet to try to locate the problem.  By the time I had exhausted every possible approach, the entire overhead cabinet and doors were completely removed along with one of the ceiling mounted JVC speakers, the curtains, one power outlet, a 12 volt outlet, the coaxial cable outlet, part of the white vinyl wall covering, and (just for good measure) the obsolete DVD changer.  With the tools burying the dinette table and bits of fiberglass insulation, sawdust, and aluminum shavings everywhere, the Airstream looked like it was still on the assembly line.

Airstream wire chaseIn the end, there was nothing to do about it.  The new antenna cable was just too large to fit through that hidden constriction. After sleeping on it, and consideration of the idea of relocating the entire electronics cabinet, there was really only one practical solution left.  We drilled a fresh hole in the ceiling and ran the wire down the ceiling about four inches to a point where it could disappear again.  A plastic wire chase helps minimize the visual impact.

There were many more challenges, but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say that nothing could be taken for granted.  Every splice was suspect, every hole was in the wrong place, every trick I tried was confounded, and in the end the job took about eight hours, not counting three stops at the hardware store.

Airstream Internet install completeBut finally, it works.  The picture shows the install. It’s a little cluttered looking in the photo.  In reality we have more useful space in the closet than we had before, because I neatened up a lot of the DC wiring and tied up the excess.  That little plastic bag at the bottom contains a 12vDC + wire that is leftover from two installations ago and is still hot.  I’m keeping it in case I need more power in this cabinet later.

There’s a little more work to be done on the roof.  I still have to seal up the rest of the 3/4″ hole from the old antenna, where the new antenna line emerges. I never did find the right caulk locally, so I’ve got a tube on order from an eBay seller.

I’m in the Airstream now, using the new wireless Internet system to write this blog.  The reception is fantastic even in the brick carport (router reports -53 dBm).  I can’t wait to try it out in a remote place during our next trip east.

Since I started this project, I noticed that Kyle and Kevin both went with similar equipment.  Since Kevin is an engineer/publisher who must get online daily when he’s traveling, and Kyle is a full-timer who does Internet consulting, I figure we are in good company.  The transition to 4G technology is raising a lot of questions for people, so I may do a seminar at Alumafandango (Oregon, Aug 6-10) on that subject.  (By the way, if you’re planning to come to Alumafandango, now’s the time to register.  Spaces are filling up quickly!)

Updating the Airstream’s wireless Internet

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

As soon as we got  back from our trip I started ordering things for the coming Airstream maintenance and upgrades.  So beginning on Friday, interesting boxes have been arriving at our doorstop.  Many more are due this coming week.

The first package contained a new cabin air filter for the GL320.  That dust storm really got into everything, and so I decided I’d change the cabin air filters and check the engine air filters.  They were all better than I expected but the cabin air filter was definitely due because it wasn’t changed at the last service.

Today’s package contained my new wireless Internet kit.  As I mentioned, our Cradlepoint CTR500 has been obsoleted by the manufacturer and isn’t reliable with the new 4G networks, and the roof antenna on the Airstream goes back to the 2G days (and isn’t compatible with the frequencies Verizon uses today for 4G LTE, which are in the 700 MHz band).  Plus, I got tired of not being able to get online in fringe areas, especially when everyone else seemed to be getting along fine.  Turns out they are all using “boosters,” and so I finally broke down and got one, along with everything else.

Airstream wireless InternetI spent about 20 minutes on the phone with Vanessa from the 3G Store to work through the technology needs and make sure everything I was going to order would be compatible.  I already had the core of the system, a Verizon wireless data card capable of using the new 4G LTE network (specifically, a Pantech UML-290). The bottom line for everything else was about $360, including:

  • Cradlepoint MBR-95 wireless router.  This is the device that takes the signal from the Pantech UML-290 and makes a private wireless hotspot that all our devices can use.
  • Wilson Sleek 4G-V signal booster cradle (thanks to Jay & Cherie for the tip).  This amplifies the signal from any device you put into the cradle, 3G or 4G. It’s really designed for car use but will work fine for our purposes.  The Pantech will get strapped into the cradle with a rubber band.
  • SureCall omnidirectional fiberglass antenna with ten feet of low-loss cable, and an adapter to connect to the Sleek.  This antenna is a bit of a monster, 9.5 inches tall and about 3.5 inches wide at the base.  It’s much larger than the antenna it is replacing (which was the size of a shot glass) but hopefully offers better performance too. The specs call for a 2-3 dB gain.

All of this stuff will get wired up in the cabinet that we have reserved for electronics and DVDs, near the TV set.  I’ve already got a 12v connector that fits the Cradlepoint, leftover from a previous installation, and a 12 volt socket which will take the cigarette lighter adapter for the Sleek, so we’re all set for power.

The antenna will be mounted to the side of an aluminum leg of one of the solar panels.  Clearance is a challenge:  I bought this 9.5″ antenna because the Wilson RV antenna that most people use is 18 inches tall and won’t clear the entryway of our carport.  This one will just barely make it.  It will be interesting to watch as it comes out of the carport the first time.  If I’ve miscalculated, we might lose a Spanish tile or two in the process.

Before going to all the trouble of running the new antenna wire and putting mounting screws in place, I hooked up the full kit in the house, and dropped the antenna out the window.  After the usual firmware upgrade and some configuration, the first test, using only the Pantech without the Sleek booster, yielded a good signal of -69 dBm, which is not surprising since we are in a city.  Then I put the Pantech card into the Sleek cradle, which boosted the signal and sent it out to the external antenna, and as I watched the signal improve to -43 dBm.  That’s a really good increase, and better than what Wilson promised for the Sleek booster with its standard antenna.

The actual installation will be in the next few days.  I’m looking locally for the appropriate polyurethane caulk (Sikaflex 221, Vulkem/TremPro 635, or similar) to seal up the antenna wire where it passes through the aluminum, and so far am striking out.  I can order an $8 tube of it with $10 shipping from many places, but that’s annoying so I’m trying to find an acceptable substitute in Tucson.  I suppose I can always go over to the local RV store and get something that will work, but in the past the “white box” caulks they tend to sell have been disappointing.  They just don’t last, and I’d rather not have to get up on the roof next year to do this job again.

The real test of this new gear will be this summer when the Airstream is in Vermont.  Reception at our parking spot has always been marginal, to the point that I have to borrow a friend’s office to get work done efficiently.  It would be nice to be able to work from the Airstream as I’m accustomed to doing. And when we are traveling, it looks like the addition of the big antenna and booster will help me get online in more places, and I’m all for that.

 

Last-minute cabinet

Sunday, March 24th, 2013

It’s Sunday night and our prep time has run out …

We’ve had a great week with our courtesy parkers Kyle & Mary & Kathryn.  Now we are entering the second planned phase of our time together.  Kyle & Mary hitched up the 34-footer and left early this morning for Anza-Borrego, and we are due to follow them on Monday.

They left behind a souvenir: daughter Kathryn.  She and Emma are virtually inseparable so we opted to keep Kathryn here for an overnight and let the two girls travel together in our car tomorrow.  Having two of them hasn’t been much harder than having one, probably because they are keeping each other entertained, and so Eleanor and I have had time today to get serious about prepping the Airstream for travel.

My projects aren’t done but the trailer is good enough.  Kyle pitched in this week to help with building the new furniture, which was the last major project. By Wednesday I could see I wasn’t going to have time to complete it, but with Kyle’s help we at least had the first unit of three installed by Saturday.  This first piece includes the laundry bin and shoe cubby.

It took a while because we were working with salvaged pieces of lightweight plywood from the previous cabinet.  This stuff is great, much lighter than ordinary plywood, and already laminated with the correct wood grain pattern that matches the rest of the trailer, so it was too good to just toss out.  The black melamine plywood I had purchased earlier was too prone to chipping at the edges when cut, and even the black melamine edge banding was chipping when trimmed.  It was never going to look good, so I abandoned the melamine plywood and came up with a scheme to use the lightweight Airstream plywood with solid aluminum strips as edge banding.  A two-part epoxy turned out to be the best adhesive.

Aluminum trimmed edges

Each piece had to be inspected, oriented so that prior holes and damage would be hidden, cut to size and length, then glued up with aluminum strips.  Then we sanded the aluminum clean of blotches and sprayed clearcoat on it.  The results were great but it took too long for a project that I had intended to complete before we hit the road.

I kept the fold-out credenza as the centerpiece of the new furniture, and built around it.  The salvaged strips became facia, trim, and legs.  I used the black melamine plywood for interior shelves, since the chipped edges don’t show once everything is trimmed out.

Temporary installWhat you see in the picture is only about 1/3 of the final piece.  To the right (rearward trailer-wise) of the laundry cabinet/credenza we’ll have a microwave cabinet, and further right we’ll have a recycling bin, plus some misc other storage.  I’ll have to finish it later in April when we get back.

The picture shows a temporary top made out of a scrap of MDF and quickly sprayed with polyurethane.  The actual permanent countertop will be continuous all the way down the length of the trailer to the bulkhead you see in the background.  This will be about six feet by 18 inches.  We haven’t decided what we’re going to make it from, but I’ve got a few ideas.

The balance of the weekend has been spent re-packing the Airstream.  It’s 7 p.m. and we’re still not quite done packing but it will be done tonight with a few last-minute things to be done in the morning.  The next two weeks or so will be on the road, so I’ll try to blog at least every other day as we go.

 

Safari so good

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

We’re still working on the Safari and I’m watching the calendar now.  We’ve got about a week before it’s time to head out for the next trip, and in that time we need at least five days to clean and re-pack the trailer.  That may seem like a lot of prep time, but it’s always complicated when you travel as a family, with a chef, and with an office.  If we were childless, ate out for most meals, and didn’t have a business, packing would be much simpler but our travel would probably be less interesting too.

Having about a week to go means I need to get the projects wrapped up or at least in a condition where Eleanor can work around me.  Right now the Safari is cluttered with tools and supplies, and there are still small items to be resolved.  These “little things” always take more time than they should, it seems.

Furnace chase

For example, on Thursday we reinstalled the furnace chase that runs between the dinette benches.  This is just two pieces of plywood stapled together to form an “L” that covers up the furnace ducts.  The problem with this job was that Airstream originally nailed the chase to the floor and to the wall, then stapled the wood together.  When we removed it, we had to pull the nails and I couldn’t re-nail it without also pulling the staples (and potentially ruining the piece).  So the best fix was to cut new wood braces (one of which you can see in the photo above) and screw them to the floor.

I found a scrap of Douglas Fir and cut two pieces to be the braces, then drilled holes, then screwed them into place. Then we screwed the chase to the wood braces with #8 screws and finish washers.  Now, if we ever need to get in here again, we can remove the chase in less than a minute.

This isn’t a hard job, but in the end the whole thing took about 30 minutes, and it was just one of many “little things” that the Safari will need before it’s ready to hit the road again.

Another little job was to make the new entry door threshold from Black Walnut, to match the new floor.  I cut and shaped it on Friday, and sanded and finished it with several coats of polyurethane on Saturday.  Because the floor wasn’t even across the threshold, it took about six or seven test-fittings and careful sanding (first with 100 grit, then with 220 grit) to get it to be an exact fit.  This project probably consumed another hour or so, but I think the end result was worth it. In the images below you can see the original oak threshold and then the new walnut one.

The white wall covering in the Safari is looking pretty ratty.  It’s a fabric that approximates the fuzzy side of hook-and-loop fastener, and in fact Velcro will stick to it very well.  This stuff gets black marks from any kind of aluminum abrasion (such as screws or rivets moving on the wall during travel) and that black stuff is aluminum oxide.  It’s extremely hard to clean.  The white fabric also picks up dust, stains, and lots of other things, so the long term result is that it looks terrible.  The only effective way we’ve found to clean it is to use a product called Dealersol, which you can’t buy at retail.  This is sort of like dry-cleaning liquid: it mysteriously picks up horrible stains and they evaporate in a cloud of unhealthy Volatile Organic Compounds. It smells for a few days and probably causes a dozen fatal diseases in lab rats, but it does work really well.

Since we can no longer obtain Dealersol or anything like it, we tried a simple Rug Doctor with the usual cleaning solution, and it had no impact at all on the stains.  So at this point we are stymied.  The white fuzz can’t be removed because it is strongly adhered to the aluminum interior skin.  Even if peeled off, a significant adhesive residue remains on the aluminum.  I’ve tried cleaning the adhesive off, but it takes other nasty chemicals and the walls never look good even after many hours of effort.  So it seems our walls will continue to show their years of use, until the day comes that we are going to gut the trailer and replace the interior aluminum wholesale.

(Believe it or not, I’ve done that before.  Long-time Airstream Life readers may remember Project Vintage Thunder, in which Brett & I gutted and refurbished a 1977 Argosy 24 including removing most of the interior skins and replacing them with shiny new aluminum.  The results are very nice, but it’s definitely not a weekend job.)

Setting that problem aside, I decided to push forward with the new cabinetry project.  For several years we have had a combination laundry/microwave cart that we rigged up with an off-the-shelf chrome wire rack and a sheet of white Melamine plywood.  It has worked but we could do better.  I’ve had thoughts of building something more permanent and more functional.  We’d like to have a bigger space for collecting recycling, a bigger and more secure spot for a microwave oven, and more space for shoes by the door.

The recycling requirement might strike you as odd, but we recycle extensively at home (about 75% of our household waste is recyclable thanks to a really excellent program in Tucson) and we hate to toss out glass, paper, and plastic when we are traveling.  The problem when traveling is that it can be a long time between recycling opportunities, because most campgrounds don’t offer recycling.  (This is a travesty in my opinion.  RV’ers already have the reputation of being resource hogs.  Here’s a great opportunity for the industry to improve its image and they ignore it.)

So the new cabinet design I’m working on will allow convenient and roomy space for those things we have that Airstream didn’t build into the trailer in 2005.  The end result will be fairly simple, just some shelves and a top, but it will be a big improvement for us and it will be an interesting challenge for me.  On Saturday I went out to get supplies for this project, and Eleanor and I removed all the furniture on the curbside of the trailer including the interior wheel well cover, and then I did some measuring and thinking about how it should all go back together.  More on that later this week.

Today we are expecting courtesy parkers to arrive, our friends Kyle, Mary, and Kathryn.  I expect some upheaval, as Kathryn and Emma are deeply bonded by common interests and attitudes of 12-year-olds, and of course we’ll want to do what we can with Kyle & Mary while they are here.  Still, I’ve got to work on this cabinet project every day if there’s any chance of getting it installed in time for the upcoming trip to California.  It should be an interesting week.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine