A 34-foot parking problem

Our friends Kyle and Mary and Kathryn arrived on Sunday as we had expected, and I was all set.  The plan was to park their Airstream in the carport, as we’ve done many times before with other guests.  In the morning before they arrived I cleared out all the remainders of the Airstream re-flooring project, and removed a few things from the Safari that would be difficult to get out once there were two Airstreams packed in tightly side-by-side.  Mike came over with a blower and blew all the dust out, too.

And then they arrived, resplendent in 34 feet of aluminum goodness.  Kyle looked suspiciously at the space I was asking him to back into, but I assured him we’d parked a 28-foot with slide-out in there previously, so he’d fit.  He gamely took a crack at it, which I have to give him credit for, but soon a problem emerged.  Their 34-footer has a rear air conditioner (an unusual option) and it wouldn’t clear the carport roof.

Normally rooftop A/C units slide into the carport easily, but in this case the trailer was so long that the truck was still in the street when the A/C unit was entering the carport.  This meant that the trailer was nose-down, and tail-high, which would be just enough (with that long 34-foot lever) to allow the A/C to hit the ceiling.  So the Airstream ended up in the street instead.

IMG_1934Well, we’ve parked an Airstream or two (and a Bowlus) here in front before, so it’s not a big deal.  The 34-footer even fits with room for the mail carrier to slip her little truck in front of the mailbox and deliver the mail.

The camping in front is not as good as the premium space (carport).  The wifi is spotty out there, we can’t hook up a sewer line, and the electricity is only 15-amp, not 30. Fortunately, this week it’s cool enough that air conditioning isn’t necessary.  We’re getting upper 70s and low 80s here, a hint of things to come in a few weeks.

I am still working on the Safari, but much more slowly right now.  I’ve still got some caulking to do in the bathroom, and I’m noodling how to build the new cabinetry we want, using only scraps of material scavenged from the cabinetry we removed.  It’s an interesting problem, and I’ll write more about that later.

The Caravel project is completely on hold.  The plumbing will have to get completed in a few weeks, after our upcoming trip.  There’s no rush on that one anyway, as we have no plans to use the little trailer.

For the rest of this week, my major goal is to get work buttoned up enough that we can take a few days next week to be out of touch.  That’s a long shot but always worth striving for.  It looks like our route will take us from here to southern California, and then up to Las Vegas, and back—but we reserve the right to alter the plan on the fly.  That’s one of the reasons we travel by Airstream, after all.

Safari so good

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.

Steadying up for travel

Although progress has not been as fast as I would like this past week, we’ve completed much of the Safari project list.

While the dinette was out, I had good access to the kitchen plumbing, and so this was the opportunity to get in there and alter the fresh water plumbing just a tad, so that Eleanor would have easier access to her pots and pans (stored under the sink).  With all the PEX equipment and supplies on site for the Caravel project, it was a simple matter to cut out a section of the original installation and re-build it to provide  a few inches more clearance.

Mike and I also managed to finish the floor installation.  It got harder as we moved rearward in the trailer.  Each wall required a custom-fit plank, as nothing was square and very few lines were even straight.  We put in an hour or two most days until it was finally done on Wednesday.  The process was frustrating at times and we spent as much as 30 minutes on some sections, but in the end it came out well and we’re both proud of the job done.

Vince's tool

In an earlier blog I mentioned a special tool from half a century ago.  This is it.  You just press it up against a corner and it gives you a template to mark the plank for cutting.  Such a simple tool made cutting some of the complex areas much easier.  I only needed it in three spots, but for those spots it was a big time-saver.  I have nicknamed it “the Vince” in honor of Mike’s father who stored it in his tool shed all those decades.

When the floor was mostly done we switched over to a few other incidental projects in the Safari.  As you can imagine, eight years of heavy use and many thousands of miles (probably well over 100,000 at this point) do take a toll on the interior.  Screws back out, aluminum holes stretch, caulk lines will tear, rivets pop, etc.  We’ve actually been fairly lucky in this regard.  I have yet to find a single rivet needing replacement in our Safari–and we’ve never coddled it by avoiding rough roads.

I’ve already found a few screws missing in hidden spots, which have been replaced.  Sometimes the screw hole is stripped and a new one needs to be drilled; at other times it’s easier to replace with a larger screw.  This is all simple and routine stuff.

The big concern we had was the refrigerator.  It has been shifting in its position as we travel, and causing damage to the surrounding cabinetry, like scuff marks and cracks.  Mike and I disconnected the refrigerator and slid it out a foot in order to study the problem.  This required disconnecting the propane line, AC power, DC power, two bolts in the back, and four screws in the front, which only takes about 10 minutes if you know what you’re doing, or 30 minutes if you’ve never done it before (like us).  It’s slightly more complicated if you have the recall kit installed by Dometic (five more screws and some sheet metal have to be removed).

The major problem we discovered was that upon the last service, the two screws at the top front of the refrigerator hadn’t been put in.  Secondarily, the bottom screws were seriously cocked at an angle and didn’t seem to be well secured.  This allowed the refrigerator (which weighs about 120 lbs) to shift at the top, much like a person swaying on his feet.  On the road, this was a lot of force on the cabinets.  We replaced all the connections, slightly adjusted the position of the refrigerator, and re-secured the fridge with new screws in new holes.  It doesn’t move at all now.

The next project was the bathroom vanity.  It has been moving too, lately.  Over the years Eleanor has used her smaller hands to get through the maze of under-counter plumbing and tighten one of the two screws that hold the vanity to the aluminum wall to temporarily resolve the problem.  But that hole finally enlarged too much to hold the screw, and the screw has vanished.

The fix there is simple in concept.  Just drill a new hole in the L-channel that abuts the wall, and put in a new screw.  The problem here turned out to be that there was no way to get a drill in place.  We ended up removing the sink, drain line and stopper, and loosening the faucet, just to get access.  Once that was done it was easy to drill some new holes. I replaced that one screw with three.  That vanity won’t be going anywhere soon.

Of course, this meant we had to reinstall the sink, etc., and re-putty the drain seal, so the total job time was probably close to two hours.  It’s the kind of job I really don’t want to pay anyone to do, because it doesn’t take a ton of skill or special tools, just patience.  Eleanor and I did it together, and now that we’ve done it, we know it’s done right and the vanity won’t come loose again.

Today we’ve got some minor tasks to tackle, mostly cleaning up and finishing the caulk at the floor edges.  Being slightly ahead of schedule, I’m thinking about tackling one more major project: building a new multi-purpose cabinet to hold our microwave, laundry bin, and recycling.  I’ll post more about that in the next few days.

Tricky cuts

As predicted, the bug I’ve caught has really slowed down progress on the Airstream projects. Mike and I are still working every day on the Safari flooring, but only for a couple of hours each day.

It also doesn’t help that we’re now doing the really difficult part. Toward the rear of the Airstream the cuts in the vinyl planks get much more complicated. We’ve got many obstacles to work around, such as the power converter, bathroom door frame, Emma’s bed, and kitchen cabinets. We are removing what we can, in order to slip the new flooring beneath furniture as much as possible, but most of the interior elements in the rear are impractical to remove without gutting the entire trailer.

Many of these spots require long and tricky cuts. It would be much easier if the furniture all fit into the Airstream exactly square with the body, but when you are down on your hands and knees studying it with a framing square, it becomes painfully obvious that nothing goes in a true straight line. Some of the lines are more like waves on the sea than straight edges.

This means that each plank that abuts a piece of furniture has to be approximately cut to fit, then carefully trimmed here and there, freehand, with a knife. This takes several tries, with test-fitting between every new trim. Just about all of the planks we have to lay need some sort of customization like this, so in an hour of work we are lucky to get four planks laid.

On Saturday we did two hours of work, and laid only five planks, plus we re-hung the bedroom door and re-installed half the dinette. It’s not nearly as impressive looking as the progress we made last week, but this is the phase we are in. There’s no way to speed it up. We’ll just have to keep whittling away at it for the next several days.

In the meantime, the Caravels waits for its final few plumbing connections. I’d like to get out there today and finish it up (it might take only a few hours) but I know this isn’t the time for me to getting into that. The Safari is the priority because we will be leaving on a trip soon and it has to be 100% ready by then. I may even take it on a test-tow just to make sure nothing that everything we’ve re-installed is staying put.

This is psychologically a tough part of any project. The end is in sight, but now we know that rather than coasting into the finish line, it will be a long and tedious slog to finish up the last few square feet. Worse, even when the floor is done there will remain a list of other tasks that the Safari needs as a result of the new floor (I listed some of those projects yesterday). So it’s clear that we will be at this task right up the deadline for our trip.

On the other hand, I can find great motivation to keep working on the project, and that’s what keeps me going even on a day when I have a virus. There’s the joy of making the trailer look better, the opportunity to resolve a number of things that have been annoying, the pleasure of knowing you “did it yourself”, the good feeling that comes from working with your hands to make something tangible (a big change from my desk job), the knowledge that your efforts will help your Airstream investment last longer and retain value—and if you are really lucky, adulation and love from friends and family who appreciate the results. Not a bad return on investment.

Slowed down

Things were going well with the Safari flooring project, but now progress is going to slow down.  I woke up Thursday morning with a sore throat, which inevitably means a cold the next day, and if history is any guide I’ll be unable to do the long days I’ve been putting in lately.  Thursday we didn’t work on the trailer at all.  Instead I ran around town trying to get everything done that I could before the virus really hit.

One of those errands was to get a nice piece of black walnut, measuring 2″ x 2″ x 30″, at the local woodworker’s supply store.  This will be used to replace the oak entry door threshold that came with the trailer, once I’ve shaped it and coated it with polyurethane.  The original oak was looking very tired, plus it never really matched the rest of the decor, and it didn’t fit well.  The new piece will fit perfectly, because I’ll take much more time to fit it than a factory assembly line can afford to do.

Today Mike and I laid six more pieces of vinyl plank, just so that the center of the trailer could be considered done, and then we re-installed the master bed platform.  With that, the bedroom is done.  We can haul the mattress back in and make the bed.

Bed reinstalledI think for the next few days an hour or two is all I’ll be spending on this project.  I won’t work on the threshold for a while, because with a virus in my system I’m likely to cut off my own fingers on the table saw.  There are plenty of other little projects to wrap up instead, and maybe some small improvements I can fiddle with as we put the rest of the furniture back in place.

So far I’ve noticed that the thicker vinyl planks are slightly softer on the feet than the original floor covering.  The darker pattern definitely masks dirt and minor gaps (1/16″) between the planks as they shrink and expand in different temperatures.  But these are only first impressions.  It will take a real roadtrip to prove out this material.