We have walls! // Reinstalling Airstream Interior Skins

We have walls! Look!

I have to admit, I had no idea getting the interior skins back up was going to be so complicated. In order to reinstall them, I had to complete the following tasks (some of which were expected, but many of which I did not anticipate):

  1. Electrical
    • Rewiring for interior lights, plugs, etc.
    • Removal of two old vents
    • Installation of three new fans
    • Replacing exterior lights and bulbs
  2. Modifications
    • Sealing and leak testing
    • Moving the city water connection
    • Modifying the fridge ventilation
    • Cutting new holes for plugs/lights
    • Repairing the old, unused holes
  3. Insulation
    • Lizardskin
    • Roxul
  4. Interior skins
    • Repairing cracks in the front endcap
    • Scrubbing
    • Sanding
    • Priming
    • Painting
    • Purchasing the wrong rivets
    • Returning said rivets
    • Buying nearly 1000 new rivets (spread out over a million different trips to the store, of course)
    • Finding people to help hoist them into position
    • Touching up the paint and concealing the rivets

And, of course, I thought I’d knock out all these tasks in two weeks. In reality, it took about two months, but to be fair, I was on vacation one of those weeks, house-bound by my chronic illness another, and just frustrated by the project for another. So, I was only three weeks off in my estimation.

So, lets talk a bit about each of these necessary tasks.

 

Electrical

Before I started working on the electrical, it was an absolute mess. Once we removed the inner skins, the wiring slowly succumbed to gravity and made the Airstream look like a jungle filled with wild, tangled vines.

We chose to keep the original 12v and 120v wiring, unlike some other renovators. Despite Nellie’s mouse problem, the wiring was in great condition. It wasn’t chewed on or corroded, so we chose to save the expense of new wires.

I began by following each individual wire to determine its function. The wiring diagrams from the Airstream manual, photos/video I took during the demolition, and the original fixtures were all great references. For example, I had four wires I couldn’t figure out, so I investigated the original interior walls and discovered those wires were originally attached to the thermostat.

Once I determined the function of all the wires, I rearranged them according to our slightly different floor plan, occasionally splicing some wires where necessary. In particular, I needed significantly more ground wires. Luckily, there was enough extra wire in this Airstream that I did not have to purchase any new wire.  We managed to add four new 120v plugs without purchasing extra.

With the interior wiring done, we tested the exterior lights, which I was expecting to function better than they did. The majority of the old marker/clearance lights were old and rusty. The old taillight bulbs were finicky and only worked in one specific spot. So we chose to replace all the exterior lights with LEDs, which set us back for a bit while I waited for the new lights to arrive.

 

Modifictions

Before the interior skins went back in, I completed several modifications, including replacing two of the old vents with new Maxx Fans, adding a bathroom fan, cutting new holes for plugs/wiring, and repairing old holes in the interior skins. We also chose to move the city water connection and modify the fridge ventilation.

Our original city water connection was in the back bumper, which probably makes sense in a rear bath configuration. But, since we have a side bath, there was a significant amount of unnecessary pipe running from the rear of the trailer to the fresh water tank. In addition, we knew this pipe would be difficult to hide under cabinetry in our modified floor plan. We were also concerned about potential leaks, so we moved the city water connection next to the fridge hatch.

Speaking of the fridge, I made a major modification to the way the fridge vents. We chose an undercounter fridge, so the original plastic vent for an apartment fridge was too short (in addition to being old and brittle). I also disliked the way the old vent took up visual space, so, I chose to vent the fridge through the wall.

I was able to make this modification because the horizontal studs behind the fridge were not structural, i.e. the interior skins were not attached to them. So, I felt comfortable using a Dremel to remove a large portion of these horizontal studs, just enough to create the necessary 60 sq. in. outlet. I also removed the bottom half of the fridge vent collar, allowing the air to escape outside through the original vent. I then lined each side of the vent with foam insulation secured with aluminum foil tape and cut a hole in the interior skin just below counter height. Finally, I cut a square of extra aluminum and patched the original vent hole.

 

Insulation

Part of what allowed me to make the vent modification was our choice in insulation.

Previously, when considering how to insulate the Airstream, I was concerned with heat transfer. Since the exterior of the Airstream is heat conductive aluminum and the ribs are aluminum and the interior skins are aluminum, I was concerned that any insulation we chose would be undermined by heat transfer. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to add a thick layer of, for example, rubber between the ribs because it might compromise the semi-monocoque construction as well as prevent the original rivet holes from lining up.

 

Lizard Skin

Then my dad suggested Lizard Skin, which is a ceramic spray-in insulation primarily used in automobiles. It seemed like a perfect option because it requires only a thin coat and hardens nicely when dry, therefore eliminating my concerns. I would have liked to spray the entire Airstream interior, but it is more on the expensive side. So, we purchased two buckets, which was just enough to spray each side of each stud, the wheel wells, and inside the fridge vent.

I was incredibly impressed by what just a thin coat of this stuff could do. By midday in Nevada, the ceiling of the airstream was usually burning hot. It’s so hot you couldn’t leave your fingertips there for more than a few seconds. But, in areas just an inch away where I sprayed the Lizard Skin, the aluminum was a pleasant temperature–slightly warm perhaps–but a significant improvement.

My only warning about Lizard Skin is: it gets everywhere. I tried to tape off the windows before spraying, but the wind kept blowing out the paper. I tried to tape off the floor, but it was too dirty. So, I settled on having to use my fingernails and steel wool to remove unwanted specks from the window frames and exterior later on. I used a scrap piece of plywood to protect the subfloor, but overspray from working on the ceiling still spattered the plywood. Thankfully, said overspray came off easily as I moved about the trailer. Due to the overspray and difficulty taping off, I chose to not spray the c-channel or the window frames, so there will be some heat transfer occurring in these areas.

 

Roxul

Finally, let’s talk about the batt insulation we used. Initially, we considered using a foam insulation, but were concerned about the difficulty of curving it as well as how flammable it is. Roxul appealed to us for several reasons. First, it was easier to install in the curves. Second, it is fire resistant. Third, it’s inorganic and therefore won’t grow mold. Fourth, it won’t retain water. Finally, Roxul doesn’t guarantee rodent resistance because, as they say on their website, there is no definitive test for measuring an insulation’s resistance to rodents. But, Roxul also has a reputation based on word of mouth for rodent resistance. So, for us, Roxul was the best choice.

Unfortunately, obtaining Roxul for small projects can be difficult. Lowes and Home Depot didn’t stock it in store, but we could order three bags minimum at a time from Lowes. We ordered the 3 1/2″ (R-15) variety and cut it in half with an insulation knife. It took approximately four bags to insulate the Airstream interior.

We did have one difficulty installing the Roxul. It’s supposed to be friction fit between standard house studs (which the Airstream obviously doesn’t have), and so I had difficulty getting the insulation to stay up in the curves, the endcaps, and the roof. I ended up using a 3M spray glue designed for insulation and metal, which short-term worked rather well. Unfortunately, the glue couldn’t combat with the Nevada sun and so many of the pieces which I worked so hard to put up fell down the next day. We ended up having to glue up the insulation in the evening so it would stay. Then we immediately riveted the panel.

 

Interior Skins

Finally, let’s talk about the interior skins themselves. Since I hate working above my head, I did something slightly unusual. We repaired, cleaned, and painted the interior skins outside of the Airstream before reinstalling them. A bunch of lovely friends and family did shifts helping me paint, which was greatly appreciated. This made the process much quicker and kinder on my shoulders. I also chose to disassemble the front endcap cabinet. I repaired the cracks using a fiberglass repair kit and painted the cabinet.

In preparation for paint, we scrubbed each panel with Simple Green, which does a great job of removing dirt and oil while being environmentally friendly. We also sanded each panel with 220 grit sand paper. Then we used two coats Kilz Premium Primer and two coats of Behr Interior Paint in Bleached Linen. The one downside of this methodology was the inevitable scuffs to the panels while reinstalling them. So, I added one final coat to cover the rivets and scuffs. Ultimately, we used two and a half gallons of primer and three gallons of paint.

The painting process was pretty straightforward, but reinstalling them was more difficult. The first panels we put in were the door panels, which I attempted to put in on my own. Unfortunately, the door has a slight lip. I spent probably four to five hours grappling with it before giving up. Spencer fixed it while I was away on holiday as a birthday present.

Luckily, the rest of the panels were not as difficult and majority of the panels lined up nicely with their old holes, although some of the curved pieces in the endcaps ended up slightly off. Our primary struggle was timing the lifting and riveting of the upper panels during cool enough temperatures. Often we would finish with a panel after the sun went down. So, thank you, thank you, thank you to all the people who came out to paint and murder their arms with us, often at short notice.

 

And look at the difference!

We’ve got new floors, new ventilation, new walls… I could stare at these all day… but it’s time to get back to work.

 

Airstream Shell On Floor Replacement: Part Two

When we last left off, my Airstream was floorless and, admittedly, looking rather sad. So, in this post, I will show you how to complete that Airstream shell on floor replacement.

 

Step One: Repair the Frame

After removing the floor, we discovered several locations where the frame required repair. I wouldn’t say the frame was about to disintegrate before my very eyes, but it was pretty clear some sections needed to be replaced,  primarily in the front and rear of the trailer. (The same areas where the subfloor was in poor condition.)

If your frame is in simular condition, purchase some new steel, pay a welder if necessary, and bing-bang-boom new frame!

In reality, the process more complicated than that. But now our frame is in much better condition.

 

Step Two: Prevent Further Rust Development

The rest of the frame was in good condition, but we wanted to prevent further deterioration. To do this, wire brush the frame to remove loose rust then apply a coat of POR-15 or simular product.

POR-15, which we lovingly refer to as tar, is a product which chemically bonds to the rust and prevents further rust development. Fair warning, it’s strong stuff so avoid getting it on your skin (it will be there for weeks) or the lip of the paint can (you won’t get it open again).

I also recommend giving the ground a squirt or two with the hose after painting POR-15 if you live in a dry climate like me as moisture helps POR-15 cure.

Then, since any new steel (hopefully) won’t be rusted, paint that with a coat of rust-preventative paint like Rustoleum.

Ultimately, this is the very fun step when you’ll realize just how many surfaces the frame has.

 

Step Three: draw a subfloorplan

Each Airstream model and size will have a slightly different subfloor layout. To make sure you know yours, draw a plan of the pieces. To determine the correct layout, you can either reference the original floor pieces or measure the frame. Wood is generally sold in 4′ by 8′ sheets, so any frame members 4′ apart will require one sheet of plywood.

For our airstream, we bought 7 sheets of 1/2″ ACX plywood. Our layout required two 2′ wide pieces, which we chose to cut from the same sheet, and one 3′ piece. Some Airstreamers recommend marine grade plywood for the subfloor, which is superior to ACX, but it was more than double the cost. Therefore, we opted for ACX.

 

Step Four: Cut and waterproof Wood

With your plan in hand, cut the wood to size. This is a relatively simple step, with the exception of the rounded pieces. If your floor was in good enough condition, you can use the old pieces as templates. If not, you’ll have to employ some educated guessing.

Our trailer’s wood was in moderate condition. Thankfully some of the curved edge was intact and so I essentially played connect the dots and verified my educated guesses with some measurements from inside the trailer.

After cutting the wood, give it a good coat of a waterproofing solution. Don’t forget the edges!

 

Step Five: Insert Floor

Fair warning, the photo you are about to see is rather disturbing. Viewer discretion advised.

Remember how I advised you to insert shims into the c-channel to prevent it from bowing out? This is the reason I said that.

For some unknown reason, the streetside of the Airstream remained solidly on the frame, but the curbside wanted to bow out. We tried multiple times to force it back onto the frame, but eventually it would pop back out. So, we chose to use this problem to our advantage.

There are two ways to reinsert the wood. The first, which is more common, involves cutting each panel down the middle and inserting each half into the c-channel. Some force may be required to make the two panels lie flat on the frame if you make them rather tight. This is an adequate method if you don’t have any other options, but I was a little hesitant about it.

I’m not an engineer by any stretch of the imagination, but I was concerned that piecemealing the floor like that could cause problems down the road. So, we took advantage of the bowing problem. To insert the floor our way, you will have to let (or force) one side of the Airstream shell  to bow out. Then, slide one side of a full sheet of wood into the side of the c-channel which isn’t bowed out. (The last piece will likely be the hardest to insert and may require more fanangaling.) When all the floor is in, enlist a team of friends to help push the bowed c-channel back onto the frame, inserting the wood at the same time. It will be necessary to insert some of the bolts (see next step) while deadlifting the Airstream.

 

Step Six: Secure the shell to the frame

Next, secure the shell to the frame through the c-channel. Once more, there are two ways to do this.

As you might have noticed, we ultimately chose to remove the underbelly skin. Our underbelly was not in the best condition. In addition to large holes which could be patched, we noticed small pinholes. Since these would only expand over time, so we chose to remove and replace the aluminum. Without the underbelly skin, we could bolt the floor through the c-channel like the factory did. If you would like to use bolts like the factory, it is not difficult to drop just the sides of the underbelly for access. They’re held on with pop rivets.

If you removed the underbelly, purchase stainless steel bolts and lock/stop nuts. We bought a pack of 50 each and had plenty left over. We chose to drill holes up through the wood using the existing holes in the frame as a guide. Then, with a partner, insert the bolt from the bottom and screw on the nut from the top.

If you did not remove the underbelly, purchase stainless steel lag screws and use those to secure the shell to the frame through the c-channel. Because we replaced the rear frame with new, closed steel tubing, we had to use lag screws to secure the rear of the trailer.

 

Step Seven: secure the subfloor to the frame

To secure the subfloor to the frame, you will be replacing the screws you removed. I purchased 125 floor repair screws from Vintage Trailer Supply. These are self-tapping screws, which will help them stay secure as the Airstream rattles down the road. Originally, I tried to use the same holes because I didn’t want to drill more holes in the frame. But, I discovered that the old holes were slightly too big to properly secure the screw.

So, predrill new holes evenly spaced between the old ones, slightly smaller than the screw. If you have a fancy countersinking bit, use that to countersink the screws and ignore my next instructions. (Free tip: the high speed setting on the drill is best for drilling through the metal frame.)

If you don’t have a countersink bit, then use a drill bit the same size as the screw head next. This will allow the screw head to sit flush with the floor. Drilling to the right depth may take some trial and error. Although the Vintage Trailer Supply website says the screw will countersink itself, I found they needed some help.

Finally, change to a driving bit and the high torque setting, which will make it easier to tighten the self-tapping screw.

Just 124 left to go.

 

Step Eight: Walk around like a normal person again

I honestly had no idea how nice floors were until we didn’t have one. We were either balancing on the frame or clambering over it for months while doing this project.

The official Airstream inspector was also ecstatic about our progress.

 

Now, dust off your hands and take a moment to lay down on your new and improved subfloor. You deserve it.

More updates and how tos coming, so stay tuned!