Holiday Refit: 10 Airstream Fixes

After 11 weeks on the road, we pulled into my parents’ SoCal driveway with a medium size list of things to fix, tweak, switch out or alter. Here is the list, the first few in order of importance/annoyance; the rest are a bit “in the weeds” but we include in case those undergoing a restoration can learn from our experience!

1.Trailer brake lights. In Oregon, we had a “sudden stop behind a semi on the highway don’t know if we are gonna make it” scare, which made us think hard about how well the folks behind us could see our brake lights, especially obscured by the bikes. Ben wanted lights that would somehow blend in and found these bright LEDs to attach to the Airstream bumper. He spent a good amount of time making sure the install was clean, and of course, functional!IMG_4296

2. Closet renovation. At first we had a small closet with a hanging rod and one of those hanging sweater things. The “sweaters” always fell out, and of course we just don’t have a lot of clothes to hang. We do have clothes to roll up, stuff, and most importantly to store in a sort of purgatory when we are planning to wear them the next day. Hence the new closet with shelves only. We’ll get it a bit more organized, but as a quick fix I made a couple of “drawers” out of cardboard boxes, covered them with contact paper and made rope handles. It’s working out great! The purgatory “bins” are the bottom row – Ben added that wood divider at the last minute so we’d each have our own side. Good idea. IMG_4058-03. Curtain tabs instead of metal hooks. I made the curtains and I guess to save a little time/labor I attached them to the rods with metal hooks. Boy were those a pain. They were hard to open, close, the hooks were always coming off and when we drove, the rods would often fall off. I retrofitted them by sewing on tabs (much harder to do on a machine after the fact) and they are working like a dream now.

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4. Woodwork – a few things that a little woodworking helped to make better. Clockwise from left: a “dam” to block errant water flow in the shower (the eucalyptus is new too!); Ben fitting and making fiddle rails for the dinette/bed cushions; and a little platform to raise our pantry cabinet so the door opens / closes more smoothly – it had dragged a bit on the floor before.

5. A little metal work – hanging, bolting, etc. which really all come down to creating more/better storage. Left to right: Some new hooks in the shower to hang our dirty laundry bags. Also in the bathroom – Ikea had these nifty metal shelves and one is up now to hold my main toiletries bag to make more room on the counter top. Finally, we already had the bread box, but now it’s bolted down!

6. Trailer hitch The paint on the weight distribution bars had been coming off and there was some surface rust. Ben scraped the old paint off, sanded and repainted with  POR 15. It’s a Reese hitch system which we are loving overall, but we were surprised the paint deteriorated so quickly.

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7. Bucket We swapped our “Pacific blue” bucket (in which we keep chocks, stabilizers, etc) for a new gray one (from Target). For many (snobs) in the wooden boat community (from which Ben hails), Pacific blue is an obnoxious, thoughtless, in your face color for boat accessories. It did NOT blend in with the Airstream, especially in pics. Ben hated it. (Can you tell?)

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8. Polish And finally – in my mind we were only going to do it if we had time – in Ben’s it was gonna get done no matter what: a quick and dirty polish using S-grade Nuvite polish and the cyclo polisher. The truck got a nice washing as well. IMG_3991

9. Jettisoning some stuff So, our truck bed was crammed full, and we did some hard sorting and left behind stuff we hadn’t used and came to realize we likely wouldn’t miss: a foldable kayak and accessories, a metal detector, sewing machine, exercise bands (kept the yoga mat), some clothes (see pile below; but added my slippers, which I had foolishly thought I wouldn’t want), our tent (kept the sleeping bags).IMG_3987

10. Storage Hammock Where to store produce that doesn’t need to be refrigerated? We had tried everything and we bought and installed this gear hammock (from a marine store of course). It was hard to pick a practical spot that wouldn’t stick out too much – we settled for above the sink. IMG_4056-0

So, off we go, 2nd leg, Southwest here we come, on our way to Ben’s family in Dallas for Christmas, with hopefully a shorter refit list so we can enjoy family and put the rest of our time and energy into rooting for the Sooners (Ben’s alma mater) in the playoffs!

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Everything’s going down the drain – hopefully!

So, picture this scenario: I come back to my Airstream after a glorious day of hiking the most gorgeous canyon trails, where it was hot. And dusty. I’m exhausted, and all I want to do is take a real shower in my own home before kicking back for crispy time, to watch the sunset with a snack and a cocktail. Will I settle for a bird bath, maybe a full body wet wipe or the undependable campPlumbing sketchground showers? No!

I asked Ben Barker, amateur Airstream restorer, what he has done to make my dream possible.

Ben – why did you begin your foray into the plumbing systems with the shower drain in particular?
There are three drains in the Airstream – kitchen sink, bathroom sink, and shower. And I knew the shower would be the most involved. I started with its drain line, because, though I’ve never done this before, I understand it’s harder to run water drain lines than it is to run supply lines. Makes sense: drains use hard piping, with glued connections, so by nature they are more permanent and have less room for error!  By contrast, we’ll use PEX tubing for water supply lines – PEX is pretty flexible and much more forgiving as it snakes its way around the trailer.

How did you plan for the work? Were you starting from scratch?
The gray water tanks and the main drain line from the tanks (located in the middle of the trailer, underneath on the axle) to the dump valve in the rear bumper of the trailer, were already installed. This existing main drain line would be like the main artery  – the “drain highway” –  so I planned out from there how and where to lay the shower and the shower drain. We had to work within the constraints of the bathroom size, the curves of the walls, the size of the water heater, how tall both Meg and I are, etc. as we finalized the location and the materials for the shower itself.

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Bathroom layout from top: shower, water heater (sink will go on top), toilet

What did you do first? AND WHAT WAS IT LIKE CUTTING A HOLE IN THE BOTTOM OF THE AIRSTREAM?
First we put the newly acquired solid surface (Swanstone from Lowe’s) shower pan into position. For some reason, and I’m not sure why, the shower has to drain directly into the drain highway (if the dump valve is closed, the water then diverts to the gray tanks.) For both the kitchen and the bathroom sinks, the water drains into the gray tanks via their separate pipes; when the tanks are emptied, the contents travel down the drain highway on their way to the dump valve near the rear bumper.

Ben underneath the Airstream, checking, installing, adjusting the plumbing.

Ben underneath the Airstream, checking, installing, adjusting the plumbing.

Drilling holes in our fancy new Nyloboard subfloor always makes me a little nervous, but I told Meg there was no turning back, and I summoned the courage and boldness of all the amateur restorers before me and I drilled an exploratory hole in the middle of the shower drain, through the subfloor, hoping and praying the drill bit would emerge somewhere close to the main drain line I was trying to tap into (I had measured of course, but you never know). Then I went underneath the trailer to see how close: with the belly pan removed I could see that yes! the hole was close enough to the main drain line (and thankfully, hadn’t penetrated it!).

So, the rest was easy, right?
Riiiiiiiiiiight…I cut the main pipe to install a T fitting connecting the shower drain to the drain highway. Instead of using the traditional P trap, I used a device from Vintage Trailer Supply called a hepvo which is great for RVs. It’s a self-ventilating one-way valve which essentially keeps water or gases from coming back in once they’ve gone down the drain so to speak.

Then I plugged away at framing out the shower pan, working around and within the constraints for the rest of the bathroom – finessing the water heater placement, wanting to maximize storage, leaving room for the door to open, etc.

So many plumbing parts gathered, but which is the right one?

So many plumbing parts gathered, but which is the right one?

In the meantime, I made multiple trips back and forth to Virgil’s to find a compatible drain to marry up the Hepvo device with the main drain line. Many trips. I ended up cannibalizing a small sink drain I already had and turned that into the main shower line.

So, does the shower drain work? Will Meg’s dream come true?
After hooking everything up, tightening screws, doling out silicone, I did a bunch of leak tests with the garden hose resulting in minimal drama – just a few adjustments here and there.

However, in the final test, the shower backed up and almost overflowed!  We soon realized we had

Oops! On your test, don't put more water down the drain than the tanks can hold!

Oops! On your test, don’t put more water down the drain than the tanks can hold!

Garden hose critical to plumbing tests.

Garden hose critical to plumbing tests.

maxed out and completely filled the 30 gallon water tanks. So we began the process of dumping the water, though of course, carefully.

Twelve 2.5 gallon buckets of water were recycled to give John’s rose bushes an extra drink this week.

Any more to this story? What should we look for next?
The frame out of the bathroom included the installation of the on-demand water heater, a PrecisionTemp RV 550 NSP from Vintage Trailer Supply.  I spent some time on the phone with the manufacturer – the installation directions always seem to have a few blanks to fill in, and I found what turned out to be an extra screw rattling around inside. The heater has an exhaust pipe which required a trip to the auto parts store this time–parts to extend the exhaust pipe.

And, we are still researching/debating shower surround – we’ve considered everything from tile, to solid surface, to stainless steel and now we’re coming back to wood – cedar planks like in a sauna. Some negatives to that, but we’ll try to work around those and figure it out as we go.

Lunch break - Ben loves pictures! And lunch breaks!

Lunch break – Ben loves pictures! And lunch breaks!

And???? And, I’ve promised you [Meg] to install those curtain rods so you can hem the curtains and finish that project.

Right, get on that please! More coming soon on curtains, the refrigerator, oven, kitchen storage, and a trip to Home Depot to buy stuff!

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Doors!

If the past few days had a theme, it would be doors…and windows…and a hinge.

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Clothes closet up top, air conditioner stored and rolled out when in use from bottom compartment.

First up in our recap, the combo sliding (up/down) closet and air conditioning door. The closet is on the curbside, just forward of the bathroom. We knew the clothes closet would have to share space with the air conditioner (we opted for a portable, rolling unit instead of a rooftop one). At some point a few months ago when Ben was scoping everything out, he asked me to bring out a dress on a hanger so he could see how tall to make the closet. Well I’m not sure what the point of that exercise was, because the closet is four feet tall. But it is beautifully framed out in redwood; the doors are redwood with luan panels inset.

One more lament, and I’ll let it go: we came upon the idea of doing sliding doors, thinking that would be the best use of limited space. I now realize we will not have a “back of the closet door” on which to hang things. 😦

To make the door panels, Ben used the table saw – ran the luan through multiple times with the blade so low it was only nicking the wood – and the result is a fake beadboard panel that is thin enough to fit in the the doors. When seeing it finished, I pronounced the door beautifully rustic, which Ben took as a half insult. JK – he agrees – high design rustic = cool.

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Bathroom door, old factory glass

The bathroom door, also of redwood and luan, went pretty smoothly. It includes a glass panel, to let a bit of light in both ways. It’s that greenish industrial glass, with chicken wire. It’s definitely vintage, definitely from eBay, though if you believe Ben’s description of it on Instagram, we also *know* it’s from an old factory. Probably. It made it here in one piece from Maryland wrapped in a wool blanket and 3,000 miles of positive thinking.

He needed a miter gauge to closely fit the various pieces of the frame and panel (also known as stile and rail) door. The one that came with the job-site table saw acquired after we got here was a K-tastrophe. So he built one that only produces 90 degree cuts, but was adequate for the job and way better than the cheapo one from DeWalt. (The table saw itself is decent for its purpose, though Ben says he’s pushing its limits.)

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Counter top extension, magic hinge

Next up, the hinge – one that will be much used, and was much labored over – Ben finished mounting a flip-up counter top extension/cutting board next to the stove top. It’s attached with an aluminum hinge he picked up from a boat salvage place. The spring loaded supports came from Rockler. He used a chisel to mortise out the hinge, attaching it both to the existing countertop and the extension. It works like a dream. DO NOT WORRY. To make full use of the napping couch, all one has to do is raise (with ease) the hinged counter top.

In ladies-land, we took on windows, and I started one of my major projects – the Airstream curtains. After considering what might go well with celery-colored bulkheads, wood, and aluminum, we chose a navy blue and white zig-zag stripe, which we are 99 percent sure was the right decision.

From lower left, counterclockwise: fabrics we considered, panel under construction, and finished panel.

From lower left, counterclockwise: fabrics we considered, panel under construction, and finished panel.

It might be a little dizzying if you are prone to vertigo (we are not, thankfully). I clicked around and settled on pleated curtains, which I’ll attach with curtain hooks. The whole shebang involved buckram, blackout lining, and lots of measuring. I have some sewing experience, enough to struggle-though-not-give-up on following written instructions. I’ve been using these tutorials for the curtains, and found this when I realized I didn’t have a blind hem foot. Ya see… Ben’s not the only one who can come up with a work around 🙂

There are six windows in the Airstream, though three of these are double windows, with a smaller second window below the larger one. I may do those smaller windows in plain ole navy blue, to give the eyes a little rest. Some of the windows ARE the same size, but each seems to have its own personality, involving a frame that juts up against a shelf, doorway, or yes, even a bulkhead. So, I re-measure a lot. I’ve only ripped out one seam so far, which I consider incredible. We’ll mount them in the next day or so. I can tell you the blackout liner really works-a must have if we plan on sleeping past sunrise ever.

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Grilled veggie pasta, practicing food photography

Let’s break the theme and have a food pic, of a grilled veggie pasta, made with every vegetable acquired at the farmers market last Sunday: beets, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, onions. Added a little pesto. It was delish. Sister Sara, Ben and I grilled and ate outside with my parents. I’ll leave you with my friend Pam’s critique of my food photo shot (so you can learn as well).

A little too much going on between the bread and fork AND pasta. Pull back the camera a hair and take out the bread. Zucchini piece on the right third, fork on left third, maybe flopped over. 

This shot shows the garage interior thru to Ben's worktable/space in the back.

This shot shows the garage interior thru to Ben’s worktable/space in the back.

We are enjoying mostly cloudy and cool days, though today the sun finally came
out. A real LA day, in Ben’s estimation. He celebrated by riding his bike to Anawalt Lumber for caulk and glue brushes (Anawalt has been a local, family-owned institution since the 1920s, and it’s also our source for redwood. It’s just up the street and though I had never been there, my mom remembers going for boy scout supplies back in the day.)

So much ahead – we picked up our shower pan today, so that sets up more plumbing and bathroom construction. Lots of head scratching about the dinette/bed area. I have 6 curtains down, 12 to go. And, Ben is thinking seriously about buying an Anawalt t-shirt, and is encouraged by the fact that IT will fit in the closet.