Archive for March, 2008

Tears, Cracks and Holes, Oh My!

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

Sometimes small repair jobs are more perplexing than large ones. For instance, if a skin segment on an Airstream is badly dented or ripped open the only choice is to remove and replace (or cover up) the damaged segment with a new one. This can be expensive, yes, but there is no other choice and the repair is apparent.

Less apparent repair choices are those that involve minor but annoying damage. Small dents, scratches, tears and holes are examples. The dilemma is how to do the repair without turning it into a major undertaking or that requires professional help. Remember the first rule of restoration (and refurbishing or repair) is to do no harm. In other words, the fix shouldn’t create a bigger problem.

Just recently one owner was asking for ideas on how he could repair a small hole to the exterior skin of his Airstream. A very small hole, let’s say one that is less than a quarter inch in diameter, can often be patched or filled with a rivet. Since there are hundreds of rivets already in place an extra passes unnoticed.

In this case though, the hole was too big for a rivet. So, here are some other suggestions that can be done on your own.
Apply sealant then rivet a scrap piece of aluminum sheet over the hole. Use only aluminum rivets with aluminum mandrels such as Olympic rivets, or closed end blind rivets or equivalent water resistant blind rivets. Standard Pop style rivets that have an open end tend to let water in. This repair is rugged and effective but visually obvious. It might also be overkill since four holes for the rivets will need to be drilled just to cover the one.

An alternative is to use aluminum tape for spots where a hole or tear is too big for a rivet, but too small for patching with a scrap of aluminum sheet. Be aware that there are different thicknesses of tape, so shop around and get the thicker, heavier gauge. If a stronger material is needed or desired then stainless steel tape can be substituted. However, SS tape does not blend in as well since it has a different sheen.

Prior to applying the metal tape gently remove burrs to make the edges of the hole fairly smooth. For best results tape should not be applied to a cold surface. If it is a cold day then warm the surface with a hair dryer. Clean the surface around the hole with acetone to remove all oil or polish.

Most often the tape can only be applied to the outside. However, if you can get to the hole from the inside, apply a piece there as well. Then cut a small piece of scrap aluminum sheet to the same dimensions of the hole and place it in the hole just to act as a spacer. The tape on the inside will hold the spacer in place. Then apply a piece of aluminum tape to the outside. This sandwich makes for a stronger and somewhat better looking repair.

The tape can be removed and repositioned or redone (albeit with some difficulty) provided it hasn’t yet been smoothed down or left in one place for too long. Once positioned correctly, rub the tape firmly so that the adhesive is fully in contact with the surface. The adhesive becomes more permanent as time goes by and is water proof.

I taped a small hole in my trailer five years ago as a temporary fix, but it is still in place and in good condition. The repair is down low where the skin wraps under the trailer, so it is inconspicuous. This is an easy low cost fix and that is its advantage. Some purists may think that tape should only be used as a temporary fix, but it is never the less a practical solution especially on the road. Aluminum tape, and not just duct tape, should be in everyone’s toolbox while traveling.

Other suggestions for repairing or covering up small holes are to use an appropriately sized stainless steel bolt or screw with a backing plate and sealant.

More inventive suggestions are to turn the hole into something useful. Mount an antenna in that spot, or cover it with some sort of placard such as a manufacturer’s badge. If the hole is large enough, possibly an accessory, such as a courtesy light can be mounted and wired into place.

Antenna patch
A previous owner left a dime sized hole to fill… so I filled it by mounting a CB antenna.

I’ve done this myself with a dime sized hole left by the previous owner. I mounted a CB antenna. In the accompanying photo you’ll notice that the cable has been looped. This is to keep water from following the cable into the trailer.

The main thing is that the hole should be patched so that it is weather proof and hopefully also aesthetically pleasing. Good luck!

About the Author

Hi, my name is Forrest McClure. I've been writing for the magazine since its inception. My wife and I travel with our 1966 20' Globe Trotter or our 1986 32' Excella. So, my primary interest is vintage travel trailers.