Our epilogue on Airstream Renovations
Or I tried something new!!
Last fall, I received a request to renovate n Airstream to a chemical free status and having never worked on an Airstream, I expressed my doubts, and also saw some positive points to consider.
- We know about building chemical free tiny houses
- Jim has 50 years of building experience
- The crew has 75 years of experience in construction
- We do build tiny houses
- We could learn if Airstream renovation had potential as a new business opportunity
- We would learn about space management from a RV perspective
Things that we learned from renovating an Airstream
- The aluminum frame and skin flex ALOT!
- Windows and doors are rounded because the shells flex
- They all leak
- Belly pans are an ugly nasty stinky place
- Our skill set and knowledge base of Airstream units is limited
- They are extremely light weight
- Trailer Frames can rust out badly and compromise its integrity
- Very little aftermarket products
- Parts are expensive and ordering is confusing
- A shell off is time consuming and expensive
- Appliances MUST be sized correctly
- How to do copper end caps
I am not going to spend a lot of time on the reasons for considering, but more so on what I learned.
1. The aluminum frame and skin flex ALOT!
The shell of the airstream is built with light weight aluminum sheets and ribs. These are flexible and move as stresses exert pressure on the shell.
2. Windows and doors are rounded because the shells flex
Since the shells and frame flex quite a bit while moving, walls are curved with the hooped ribs as well as curving around from side to front and rear The windows are then also curved to avoid any sharp corners so that the aluminum does not tear from metal fatigue.
3. They all leak
There are approximately 5000 rivets in an Airstream and some will loosen up from movement. The rivets are “buck”/ “solid” rivets and “pop” or “blind” rivets, and each one is used differently. Buck rivets are used to attach the exterior aluminum skin to the ribs of the trailer. They are also used to fasten windows and parts to the exterior of the trailer. Pop rivets are used in the interior to attach the inner skin and other parts to the interior side of the ribs. For added protection against leaks, they smear caulk on all the seams and rivets that penetrate the exterior skin. Over time, some of these buck rivets leak and the shell allows water to enter. Most of the water runs down the inner skin and collects at the bottom and trailer frame.
A side note on the buck rivets, they are all installed by trained workforce that spend countless hours learning the skill. They even hold contests between the pros and DIY visitors at the Ohio plant.
To do this requires a team of two people working together like dance partners.
How to buck a rivet—The outside installer holds an air-powered rivet tool, which is sort of a miniature jackhammer that pounds on the mushroom head of the rivet.
The inside installer holds a shaped metal tool called a “bucking bar” that is pressed against the tail (or stem) of the rivet. The rivet gun very quickly hammers the rivet, pushing it inward and squashing the tail against the bucking bar, which causes the tail to get shorter and wider. This fills the hole and locks the two pieces of aluminum together very strongly. Under normal circumstances, this rivet is in place forever, and it seals so tightly to the body panel that sealant is not needed for the rivet to be waterproof.
Timing is critical. Stopping too early means the rivet won’t fully deform and thus it won’t fill the hole for maximum holding power. Hammering too long will flatten the rivet too much, which also lowers its strength and can look cosmetically awful on the exterior.
The difference between “too short” and “too long” is less than a second, so the riveters rely on their experience and the tone of the hammering to know exactly when to stop. Then, as a pair, they move to the next rivet without delay. Good teams can put in a perfect rivet every three or four seconds.
4. Belly Pans are a nasty ugly stinky place
There is no way to say this, you will find rusted parts, mouse droppings, mouse nests, mouse carcasses, and insulation that is moldy and stinks. The underbelly often has small holes from wires entering and mice find these entry points by following drafts from heat escaping. All a mouse needs is a hole the size of your small finger, and in it goes. The underbelly skin is thin, so a mouse can also chew his way in by enlarging an existing small hole. Over time, the inside of the trailer frame of the Airstream starts stinking badly and reeks of mold. If you are mold sensitive, the floor has to come out along with the fiberglass insulation.
5. Our skill set and knowledge base of Airstream units is limited
When we said ‘yes’ to renovating out 1st Airstream, we knew nothing about all the parts, wiring, plumbing, curving walls, and how it all worked. Since everything flexes it becomes difficult to build custom cabinets, partitions and placement of all the parts. let alone changing the layout and moving windows and door opening. Windows had to be ordered and in one case, we had to create a custom operating window for a bath. Since windows were moved, it meant cutting out skins and replacing with new skins, so it did not look like a patch hack-job.
6. They are extremely light weight
A typical shell weighs in around 2lb per sqft. and that may amount to 600lbs for the skins. However, the trailer frame is steel and that would weigh in around 2-3000 lbs. The Air Force and Nasa loved the Airstream trailers because of their weight and size. It was easy to fly state of the art centers and living quarters around the world in their cargo jets.
7. Trailer Frames can rust out badly and compromise its integrity
As a result of leaks – the frames often start rusting and outriggers welds start breaking. They also may have what is called as separation, which is when the tail of the Airstream trailer breaks away from the frame in the area of the axles. At times, the trailer is compromised and must be repaired or replaced and this will require lots of work or a shell off. If it requires a shell off, the process adds significant costs to a renovation.
Unlike the rest of the Airstream that is all aluminum, the frame is steel, so we found issues where aluminum met the trailer frame. We found rivets that corroded from the steel aluminum reaction of metals, so keeping mice out becomes a challenge.
8. Very little aftermarket products
Sometimes, the only way one can find parts is to find them in another badly compromised trailer. Airstream does not keep a stock of parts of past years, even though they seldom change the designs. The curve of walls has been a constant as well as windows parts and curves.
9. Parts are expensive and ordering is confusing
I am used to ordering a window for a tiny house that includes all the parts. Not so, for an Airstream. If you can find a used window, it usually just includes the glass and aluminum sash around the glass. It does not include the frame, the turn buckle locks, arms, gaskets, and related parts for attaching the arms to. You can find glass and parts online from Vintage Trailer Parts, out-of-doors mart, and air stream supply.
10. Appliances MUST be sized correctly
The standard door opening of an Airstream is only 26″ wide with the door removed. Unless you frame and fabricate a larger curved door, or add framing a conventional opening such as a 32″ door and frame, one is limited to only using an appliance that is 24″ in width or smaller.
Dead End streets and cul-de-sac’s
In business, one learns about avoiding dead end streets and cul’de’sacs – which are one of the same. They take ones focus off of the core business model while one focuses on something new. We had no idea, that the Airstream we took on that was to be a 3-4 month project would require 4 months to get thru the fabricator and into our shop where it would take another 5 months to out the door. As a result, it severely affected our tiny house production as we did not have enough staff to do both. The project grew from a 75k project to a 200k project which meant a lot of changes and more time to invest. The people we did hire, decided they did not like working with metal, aluminum, curved walls and all the other things involved in an Airstream.
In summary, Jim has decided that while he learned a lot about Airstreams, his knowledge base and skill set is lacking and we are choosing to re-focus on tiny houses and smaller crafty projects.
Anyone want to buy some birch mason jar lights?
Below is a collage of the project