Lessons from the Caravel

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

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

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

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

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.