Something useful and beautiful

I’ve always had mixed feelings about our 2005 Airstream’s awning.  The awning is a unique feature for travel trailers. If you don’t have one, you might not understand how its value goes far beyond providing shade. I know when we got our first Airstream (which didn’t have an awning) I didn’t really see the value in them.

Then we got this 2005 Airstream Safari bunkhouse, and it came with a massive (21 foot long) Zip-Dee awning.  I unrolled it for the first time and was struck by the impact of it: instantly creating a welcoming space outside the trailer where before there was nothing. Suddenly I wanted to get a few chairs and table, perhaps a cooler of icy drinks, and sit out there all day watching the sun set.  Then, like a lot of Airstreamers do, turn on a decorative lamp for the evening and have dinner with some friends.

All that inspiration from a big piece of fabric overhead.  Who’d have thought it would transform a patch of gravel into an outdoor living room?

A-B Airstream morningThe only problem with this inviting tableau was the color of the awning.  Airstream was installing a dark gray awning on most Safaris at that time, which I didn’t like at all.  To me, an awning should be colorful and a little festive. The gray was monochromatic and tended to get hot in the sun, generating a layer of warm air underneath that inevitably got sucked into the trailer through the entry door screen.

But awning fabric is expensive, so I ignored the dullness of the fabric for a decade, although I winced inwardly a little every time I had to deploy it.

About five years ago when carpenter ants nested in the awning and chewed a few holes in it, I considered replacing the fabric. But that Sunbrella fabric is tough stuff and the rest of the awning was fine, so instead I called Zip-Dee and they sent me a swatch of replacement fabric to match patches. Eleanor and I cut it into squares with some pinking shears and attached the patches with fabric glue.  (Zip-Dee recommends clear silicone caulk, which works well too.)

Those patches were holding up well right up to the day we replaced the fabric. We didn’t need to replace it even after 11 years of use; I just got sick of gray. We also had installed a used window awning that came with fabric that didn’t match, which gave us the final push to change both sides of fabric to something we’d really like. Eleanor and I spent some time going over the Sunbrella swatch books at Alumaflamingo in Florida last February, and settled on “Coastal Spa” #4851-0000.

Airstream new Zip-Dee awning-2

It might seem strange, but one of the reasons I was willing to go to the expense of swapping out perfectly usable fabric on both sides of the Airstream was because I trust Zip-Dee. Jim Webb, who is the president, has come to Alumapalooza every year to do demonstrations and help customers. He personally installed our window awning last year—in the dark!—and if that isn’t proof that he’s a nice guy, I can also mention that he has supported Airstream Life magazine for many years with Zip-Dee ads.

Plus, Zip-Dee just makes an excellent product. Their awnings have been synonymous with Airstream trailers for over forty years. They last forever, they are easily repairable, and the company’s customer support is superb. Plus, they are one of those rare products that are still made in America (just like Airstreams) and world class. So I felt pretty strongly that not only would Zip-Dee treat me well, but that I’d be very happy with the upgrade.

Airstream new Zip-Dee awning-1No surprise then that Jim drove from Chicago with his son Alex to personally demonstrate to an interested crowd exactly how to replace the fabric on a Zip-Dee awning, using our Airstream. In the photo you can see the old gray fabric on the ground, as Alex and Jim prepare the new fabric to slide into the awning tube. They had the job done in about 45 minutes.

I love the way the new awning reflects on the Airstream, and the patterns of light it creates below. It simultaneously feels festive, relaxing, and (to me, at least) evocative of green subtropical waters by the beach.

There are lots of upgrades you can make to your Airstream, and we’ve done most of them big ones. But I have to say, for some reason this little change is one of the most pleasing. Now I look forward to sunny days so that I can put out the awning.

At least for us, our Airstream is our second home. Periodically spending some money to make it as nice as it can be seems frivolous, until you think about why you have it in the first place. An Airstream isn’t just a convenient way to travel; it’s also a place to relax, change perspective, and simplify. Why wouldn’t we make it as enjoyable as possible?

Airstream new Zip-Dee awning-3

I subscribe to William Morris’ famous advice: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” In this case, the Zip-Dee awning is both at once, and that’s a big win in my book.

How to keep your Airstream traveling forever

It’s hard to convey how happy I am to tell you this:  My long-awaited Airstream maintenance book is finally coming out!

I’ve been working on it for years. It covers everything you need to know to keep your Airstream travel trailer in great running condition for decades, by yourself, with simple tools and no prior experience.

Maintenance of your Airstream is not nearly as difficult as most people think, and with just a few basic tools and this guide, I think you’ll find you can do almost every routine task yourself. No more trips to the service center for every little thing.  No more feeling like you are at the mercy of the mechanic because he recommended changing the air in your tires and replacing the blinker fluid.  You might even find that this book saves one of your vacations, if something goes wrong on the road!

Let me tell you, writing this book was therapy for me. When I started Airstreaming in 2003, I knew nothing. I didn’t know how to fix anything, or even where to look to find the cause of a problem. I got a little better by 2005, when we went out on the road full-time. The next three years were trial-by-fire, because all kinds of things started to happen to the Airstream, and inevitably they’d happen when we were 200 miles away from the nearest assistance, so I had to call my friends and have them tell me what to do.

That’s the hard way to learn. So I wrote this book, with help from those same friends & Airstream Life contributors, to collect all the knowledge into a single volume.

I thought I had learned a lot about Airstreams after seven years of intense travel and lots of on-the-road repairs, but during the next four years (while I was writing this book) my eyes really got opened. I had long talks with Airstream personnel.  I read every guide I could find from every major supplier to Airstream, including Dexter, Alcoa, Atwood, Wineguard, Parallax, Hehr, Dometic, Marshall, Cavagna, Fantastic Vent, Zip-Dee, Corian, Forbo, and many others.

I collected articles from decades of “Schu’s News” and read several other “white box” maintenance guides cover-to-cover.  I talked to dealers, polishers, repair shops, and restorers.

And when I finally had a draft written, I put every word through intense review by experienced Airstream mechanics, retired factory staff, and knowledgeable Airstream owners. At the end, I realized I had often been confused, deluded, or just plain mis-informed by half of the junk I’d read online from self-appointed “experts”.  (They make things so much more complicated than they need to be!)

I think you and every other Airstreamer can benefit from the last four years I’ve spent working on this project.  I wrote the book specifically to suit every level of mechanical ability, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t even own a screwdriver. There are many things you can do to keep your Airstream going strong, and fix problems when they occur. Right now Brad Cornelius is working on the illustrations, 40 or so of them.  When he’s done, I think the book will run about 200+ pages, spiral bound.  That’s a lot of material, because it covers all these topics:

  • How To Inspect (to find problems before they occur)
  • Your Traveling Toolkit
  • Interior Cleaning and Appearance
  • Exterior Cleaning and Appearance
  • Aluminum Body Repair
  • Leak Prevention, Detection, and Repair
  • Windows, Doors, Locks, and Vents
  • Plumbing
  • Running Gear & A-Frame (including wheels, tires, brakes, and bearings)
  • Loading
  • Storage and Seasonal
  • Electrical
  • Propane System
  • Climate Control
  • Gas Appliances
  • Resources

Bottom line: this book is unique. No other book available contains so much Airstream-specific maintenance advice.

You can buy a copy from the Airstream Life Store right now.

I hope you love it. If you liked “The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming,” (my other book), I know you will.

If you’re wondering why it’s called “(Nearly) Complete”, it’s because no guide is ever really done.  Things keep evolving and new ideas pop up, and so my plan is to keep updating and expanding the book over the years. I want to thank the people who have helped me with the first edition, and thank you in advance for any tips or additions you add as you use it.

Summer 2015, Airstream style

It’s that time of year.  While most of the country is celebrating the appearance of spring, it’s already getting kind of “warm” here in Tucson (meaning we had our first 90 degree day already) and we’ve working on our annual trip north to Alumapalooza. By mid-May, when Tucson tends to hit 100 for the first time, we’ve got to be on the road with our Airstream.

I look forward to that day with a combination of apprehension and excitement. It’s nice to get back out in the Airstream, but the prep is incredible. Every house project, Airstream project, and work project needs to be settled (if not finished), and that’s a ton of work. I always advocate to people that they try not to go out on their adventure of a lifetime with a pile of unfinished business, personal issues, or money problems—because those things tend to drag you back to home sooner than you’d like—and I try to take my own advice.

It’s not always possible, of course, to put a “hard stop” on everything in life, so the other side of it is to try to find ways to continue the necessities of life even as you roll down the road. I could write a book about that … and maybe someday I will.

The Airstream has been getting its seasonal maintenance.  Being a lady of a certain age and having many miles behind her, I do have to try to get ahead of problems before we head out. So far this spring I have:

  • replaced the failed refrigerator cooling unit (and the replacement has been running continuously for a month with no problems)
  • replaced the converter/charger with a Xantrex TrueCharge 2
  • replaced the dump valves
  • stripped off the rest of the old “Tour of America” decals
  • added some aluminum sheet to the belly pan to replace corroded metal (galvanic corrosion is slowly eating the pan, as it unavoidably will wherever steel meets aluminum, and I expect that some large sections will need replacement in a few years)
  • removed, wire brushed, and repainted the spare tire carrier. I scuffed it pretty badly coming out of a parking lot back in January.
  • touched up paint on the Hensley hitch (but it needs a total strip & powder coat)
  • disassembled the center Fantastic Vent, cleaned thoroughly, and re-assembled
  • flushed the hot water tank & replaced the drain plug
  • replaced the Pressure/Temperature valve on the water heater
  • upgraded the propane tanks to aluminum Worthingtons
  • installed new LED lights in the refrigerator and range vent

And on the tow vehicle, a bunch more stuff including the new dash cam, GPS, tires, rear shocks, front air struts … I think I’d rather not list the rest of it right now. The memory is a bit painful.

If you wonder why I go through all this trouble when I could just buy plane tickets and hotel rooms, well, you aren’t an Airstreamer. Yes, it’s a lot of stuff, but when I compare it to the life we’ve had, the things we’ve seen, and the people we’ve met, a few repairs and maintenance seem like a very small price to pay.

There’s more to do on the Airstream but it just won’t all get done before we go, so I’ll bring a few tools and parts along and give Super Terry something to do when I see him at Alumapalooza. For Super Terry’s benefit, that list includes:

  • installing a replacement entry door lock, because the one we have has jammed a few times
  • sealing a small leak somewhere near the front vent fan
  • lubricating the seals on the vent fans
  • updating the Parbond sealant around a few spots on the exterior

The big project I had planned, to add a fancy water filtration system, is just going to have to wait until fall, I’m afraid.  All the parts are here but the time to do it has gone.

Now it’s time to clean out whatever is left from last year that we no longer need, and stock the Airstream with the ingredients for fun for Summer 2015. Both Eleanor and I have been at it for a while and we’ll be finishing the job over the next two weeks.

So here’s the trip plan for the first half of the summer:

late May: Arizona to Ohio, and then Alumapalooza!

June: tow east to Vermont for a few weeks, and another week-long BMW motorcycle adventure (destination TBD)

late June: I’ll fly back west while the rest of the family remain in the northeast.  Brett & I will hike in Navajo National Monument, and then drop in on the WBCCI International Rally in Farmington NM for a couple of days.

July: Temporary Bachelor Man returns!

There’s much more planned through October but my head would explode if I laid it all out right now. I figure we’ll cover about 8,000 miles of Airstream travel and at least 12 states, depending on how we head back. I want to do some exploring in parts of Arkansas and Missouri, especially around the Ozarks, where we’ve never been before.

Yes, it looks like another great summer coming up, Airstream-style.

Scrap metal

I got an email from a friend today who was asking on behalf of her friend about a vintage Airstream she wanted to purchase. The 1960s trailer was listed for $4,500.  The prospective buyer knows nothing about Airstreams except that they’re cool. That has become the number one qualification of vintage owners lately. I don’t like saying it, but that’s a problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I bought my first 1960s Airstream because it was cool too. But I took a lot of time to learn about them, and shop as carefully as I could, and eventually I scored a usable model that became my learning platform. We still have it; it’s the 1968 Airstream Caravel that we no longer use but lavish attention on nonetheless.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a money pit, the Caravel certainly hasn’t been an awesome investment.  Even with my attempt to learn as much as possible before buying, I still had a lot of painful lessons ahead, and they cost me plenty. As I mentioned in my prior blog, vintage trailer owners tend to sink more money into their trailers than they are ultimately worth on the open market.

The person who wanted to buy the Airstream had dreams of turning it into a rental unit, using it herself occasionally, and decorating the interior herself. That’s all good, but if you don’t have a broad set of skills, lots of time, and a well-equipped workshop, the road from a “basket case” trailer to glamping heaven is paved with glue and cactus spines.  This buyer didn’t have any of the right qualifications.

So even before I looked at the trailer in question, I could say with confidence that a vintage project probably wasn’t right for her. But to be fair, I took a look at the online photos of the trailer too.

Colin Hyde in Airstream
Colin Hyde demonstrates a slight problem with this Airstream. This one was actually restorable, although at considerable expense.

Define “disaster”: an Airstream shell that has no interior, no windows, body damage, and a rotten wood floor. That’s what most people call scrap metal. There’s hardly any value in that, even if it is a very old Airstream (and 1960s-era is not considered very old in the Airstream world).

To get started on a project like this you would first need to find a way to transport it, since with no interior and a structurally deficient floor it would be unsafe to tow.  Then you’d need a good work space for two or three years, plus a long list of skills—or a really fat wallet to pay someone else to do all the dirty work.  $50,000-100,000 could disappear easily.

And yet, this buyer was ready to plunk down 45 hundred simoleons to acquire this decaying shell of an Airstream.  That’s the power of desire, triumphing over good sense.

Airstreams are enticing, no question. So I am writing this blog to warn those who don’t know what they are getting into. If you want to get into a project, fine, but don’t buy scrap metal. When you see an Airstream with no windows or with missing roof vents, it means it has been suffering water damage for years, not to mention the ravages of rodents and insects.

Junk AirstreamThe floor will be rotten.  The frame will probably be rusted. The insulation will be compacted and riddled with rodent trails. In short, the trailer is garbage. Junk. Restorable only at a ridiculous cost.

If you want a project, buy something that is at least intact, meaning with no major body damage, still sealed against the elements, and complete with all the doors and windows. If you don’t care about the interior because you’re going to strip it out and replace it anyway, at least make sure the structure underneath is still viable.  Don’t trust the seller on this—check it out yourself or find someone to check it out for you.

If you want to go camping in the next year, or you have a tighter budget, or you are utterly clueless about anything mechanical—buy a nice used Airstream that someone has recently camped in. There are plenty of good ones on the market.  They really aren’t rare, and Airstream keeps making more of them.  Most people will be happier without the horrible learning curve of buying a junker.

To those who make a sideline business out of selling scrap Airstreams to clueless buyers for outrageous prices: you should be ashamed of yourselves. Yes, if they are willing to pay and you don’t hide anything, it’s ultimately the buyer’s responsibility. But really, do you sleep well at night? Do something positive and help people by selling worthwhile trailers. Take the junk where it belongs: the recycling center.

Are you ready for a vintage project?

I got a call today from a good friend who is considering whether to plunge into an Airstream project. He’s got an older Airstream Classic 310 motorhome, which is one of the early models with an aluminum body. Those old Classics are basically an Airstream trailers mounted on a bread truck chassis, and the only major difference is the length.

Last night I met another friend at a doughnut shop to talk about a possible 1965 Airstream Safari project. Very different from the motorhome, but the basic issues were the same. Both of my friends wanted to get my opinion on the projects, and some insight as to whether the Airstreams were worth the effort.

After these conversations I began to think about all the times I’ve been asked by people about their vintage projects. Since starting the magazine in 2004, and working on a couple of my own vintage projects, I’ve probably seen several hundred vintage trailer restorations, refurbishments, and customizations. I have no idea how many we’ve published in Airstream Life but certainly dozens.

Vintage Airstream projects are always happening. Some never stop, and many never are finished. There’s always someone who wants to decide whether it makes sense to tackle a project, and I guess that’s why it’s common that I get asked about it regularly.

Vintage Airstream
Vintage Airstream at Region 1 WBCCI rally, Connecticut

I’ve come to realize that it’s not the trailer or motorhome you start with that really matters. Certainly you can make your life a lot easier if you start with something that’s not a total wreck, but the real determinant of a successful restoration is the person who takes on the challenge.

Not only do you need to have (or acquire) some skills and knowledge, but you also need to have a commitment to the project. A full restoration takes a lot of time. Sure, you can do a shabby job in 100 hours, but I’m not talking about those sorts of “eBay restorations” where someone makes over a vintage trailer cosmetically for quick re-sale (hint: look for a quickie polish job that looks swirly in bright sun, black-and-white checked floor, and Coca-Cola memorabilia) or ignores serious structural problems, or dumps a bunch of household cabinetry and appliances into it (thus turning a lightweight travel trailer into an unbalanced and crippled condo on wheels).

A more sensitive and attentive vintage restoration or customization (the difference being whether you try to match the original intent or modernize it) will go deep into the Airstream and take hundreds of hours, at least. How deep?  As deep as it takes. Typically this means gutting the interior (saving re-usable interior appliances and woodwork), dealing with frame rust and floor rot, and replacing lots of parts that won’t be noticed by the average person but which really matter.

I’m talking about parts like under-floor insulation, wiring, and plumbing. You work on these things because you don’t plan to flip the end product for a quick buck. You work on these things because you want to end up with something that respects the intent of the original Airstream: light weight, structurally strong, travel-worthy on any road and in all weather, and efficient with resources (water, propane, electricity). That’s how the Airstreams were designed, and it pains me to see vintage “restorations” which eviscerate that intent.

Caravel aluminum replacement

Of course, there’s no law that says you have to keep an Airstream true to its original design. Many cool and creative new uses have been found for old Airstreams, and I respect that because it’s a great example of adaptive re-use. Unlike just about every “white box” travel trailer or motorhome made in the last sixty years, Airstreams have an amazing capacity to be re-used as pop-up stores, promotional trailers, coffee shops and cafés, toy haulers, meeting rooms, and art. Make an Airstream into anything you want, but if you are going to make it back into a travel trailer, at least be sure it’s a good one.

Sometimes people go a little crazy on their restorations. I have seen friends lavish so much attention on every detail that they’ve spent 2,000 hours or more, working night after night in their garage to produce a museum-perfect restoration. Others I know have spent well over $200,000 on a personalized vintage Airstream.  I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. Like concours-quality automotive restorations, those Airstreams are inspirational. Here’s to the crazy ones; we need them to show us the ultimate standard, even if we aren’t going to achieve that level ourselves.

Gail Buck vintage Airstream
Gail Buck and her vintage Airstream

To the friends I spoke with this week, I gave the same basic advice: don’t look so much at the trailer you’re starting with. Look at yourself. Guaranteed: the project will take more money and more time than you expected, and you will definitely “invest” more money than the outcome is worth on the open market. Those things don’t matter.

Vintage Airstream at VTJ 08What really matters is whether a vintage restoration is how you want to spend your time and money. If you just want a trailer to go camping, there are easier and quicker routes. A full-blown vintage restoration is not a practical thing, it’s a commitment to the point almost of being a lifestyle. If you sell the project after you’ve started, you will lose money. Do it not because it makes any sense, but rather because you really want to do it.

And, I should mention, because you really want to be seen in it.  Let’s face it, a big part of the reward for spending countless nights and weekends painstakingly re-building and installing parts is the praise and admiration the vintage rig  generates once it is on the road.  People love to see cool vintage trailers and motorhomes. You’ll get invited to be in vintage shows, and random people in campgrounds and parking lots will ask for tours. A really good restoration makes you a celebrity—or to be entirely accurate, it makes you the manager for a celebrity.

Likewise, if you really need the finished product because your life-long dream is to operate a mobile coffee shop or kettle corn popper or pop-up store, you might have good motivation to do a good job and actually finish it.

But don’t look solely to the reward. You have to enjoy the process. If you see the project as a chance to learn new skills, demonstrate your chops as a woodworker/ plumber/ electrician/ interior designer/ upholsterer/ polisher/ metalworker (and all those skills do usually come in to play at some point), or just have an excuse to buy lots of new tools and set up a cool workshop, you’ve probably got a good motivation to tackle and finish a vintage Airstream project.

Having done a couple of projects, I feel I’ve learned a lot that I could apply to another vintage trailer. The third one, I’m certain, would be much easier. Once in a while the temptation arises, but I’ve been able to quash it on the grounds that I don’t have the working space or the time to devote. (The fact that I have absolutely no need for a third Airstream in my life hardly enters into it. As I said, you do these things for no practical reason.) Someday perhaps I will have that free time and working space, and then I’ll have to fight hard against the Siren call of aluminum.

In the meantime, I wish my friends well as they consider their projects. If they take the plunge, I hope they commit to the fullest because that’s how they’ll get the best result. And I’ll be happy to pitch in when I can or provide long-distance advice. If you can’t do a project yourself, it’s almost as gratifying to see someone else do a good job on one.  We’ll have more projects in future issues of Airstream Life magazine, too.