September 6, 2014

My Vintage Motorhome Project

My vintage motorhome remodel progresses very slowly. Always much slower than I would like it to.
This will become my live/work artist loft for hopefully much of the year for many years to come. While I started this posting in 2014 I am going to keep updating and adding to it rather than create numerous postings about the motorhome.

This is the photos taken when I first bought it, a little 4 cylinder truck with a tiny fiberglass motorhome shell mounted on it.This particular brand of motorhome has a very strong following and it is difficult to find a low mileage one at a fair price.

The size of the whole motorhome is only 18 feet long from front bumper to the back. It will fit into a regular parking space. Now there is a challenge for me, trying to fit what I need for living and working into a standard sized parking spot. Well at least it will be just me and maybe the cats a lot of the time and if my friend comes to where I might wander he will surely bring along his own mobile workshop.

The interior as I purchased it is
35 years old and badly needs updating.
Appliances were worn out and rusting so they have gone to the scrap metal recycler.
Electrical for the coach needs an upgrade too as well as new energy saving lighting and eventually solar power.

It was an almost bargain priced candidate ready for sweat equity. If I want to have the chance during the first decade or two of my retirement years to become  what is called a "snow bird" heading south for winter and north for summer this will be how I can best manage to make that idea a reality.  Month by month a bit of labor and some funds for materials trickle into it.

The standard configuration of these tiny motorhomes are not a match for my need to have a workbench and storage for tools and materials so customizing a vintage one is what I needed to do.

That  gold shag carpet so poplular in the 1970's was applied to areas jut below the ceiling and even some of the wall surfaces.  It had to go. Particle board framing in cabinets is broken so they got torn out too. Wood grained vinyl wall paneling. Has anyone ever actually liked the look of that fake wood grained surface? I have mostly replaced that with new plywood sheets. The original ceiling is still intact, that would be a big mistake to remove as it is what is known in the construction trade as a SIP, a structural insulated panel. It would be impossible to replicate in a remodel. But I am going to apply thin yellow cedar battens to the underside of the ceiling for that gypsy wagon, wooden sail boat feel. That is one of the last steps though as the upper cabinets have to be in place before I plank the ceiling.

A motorhome under going a remodel makes for some  unusual photos, not all of them are easy to understand unless you are there at the time. I am not in a stage on the project where there is anything very attractive about it. It looked much better when I started but that is the nature of such things. However I am at the point where I am just starting to put the new pieces back inside after doing repair work and a few needed structural changes such as better support for the upper cabinetry.

Concept layout for the interior with 6 foot workbench on one side, reclining couch to rest my back on that turns into a guest bed. No soul to this image, it does not show any realistic finishes on the surfaces.The 3D CAD model was just created for space planning purposes. I have not shown all the upper cabinets in this view because I wanted to have a better look at the lower cabinets. The large closet looking structure at the right front represents the existing tiny one piece fiberglass bathroom. The kind where the whole thing is a shower stall with a drain in the floor and the toilet in the center of it. I am not changing out the bathroom, I am only going to make a new door with frame and a new medicine cabinet for it. You can't see it from this view but there is knee space for me to pull up a swivel chair to the workbench. When using the recliner my legs can be stretched out under the workbench. Laptop/TV/blue ray DVD  sits on top of the workbench for recreational viewing time. I have a lightweight, three legged, collapsible, swivel chair that can be stored in a cabinet. It also doubles as a chair to take outside. The chair was designed for use by hunter's who need to be comfy while sitting for hours in hunting blinds. Tiny homes require creative furniture solutions.

I have a portable outdoor workbench setup too. It is a pair of lightweight folding sawhorses. When folded up the sawhorses store in the rear overhead cabinet.

A top makes them into a large workbench but mostly they will be used with custom mounting plates that hold my miniature tablesaw, router table, bandsaw and even a fixture for wood carving as seen in the photo here. 

Damage in the floor by the rear corner was from an old plumbing leak and also from water getting in through leaking tail lights and the cargo compartment door. The bad layer of wood had to be removed and new plywood patched in. Fortunately it was not a difficult job. There are almost always a few unpleasant surprises of this type when remodeling older structures.

My friend in this photo is helping me with a new layer of plywood that goes over the original floor to get rid of the saggy issue in front of the bathroom and kitchen area. Both sides of the plywood were covered in fiberglass and epoxy. Then it was coated with epoxy on the bottom side to bond it to the original floor, both were screwed together as well.  A lot of work and expensive to do but it fixed the issues. A helper is essential at times when there is a lot of epoxy to work with as it starts to cure much faster than I could have managed on my own.

Here is what it looks like with the new micro dot vinyl floor covering. This piece of flooring was a gift from my friend Don. He got it from the old Boeing surplus store that used to be south of Seattle. This is the flooring they used in the galleys of the airplanes. Super tough, but cushioned for comfort and for sound deadening too.
The original tail lights were corroded inside, the lenses were cracked and water was leaking into the inside of the motorhome. Had to purchase replacement ones from Ebay. Someday I will upgrade them to all new LED lights but not in the near future. The list of things to do is way too long to get to be able to do all upgrades at once.
 I had to shift the vent stack plumbing for the bathroom a few inches so I could build a new closet that is full of drawers for storing tools and supplies for making miniatures.

This area used to have a small closet with two tiny drawers and a useless rod for hanging clothes. There was a furnace below it and a broken refrigerator next to it. Two very large holes, a couple of feet square each were cut out in the wall for venting the old refrigerator than ran on propane. Filling in those holes with fiberglass was a big job and a nerve racking one as I don't have a lot of fiberglass experience. But at least I had a helper on that task. A new 12 volt refrigerator that needs no vent  to the outside will be installed next to the sink and stove. Changing location of the fridge was needed to fit in a good sized workbench.
These are the two panels I have just finished building, they are the sides for the new storage closet. The white pieces are the runners for the drawers. Metal drawer slides and wood drawers would be way too heavy for a 4 cylinder motorhome so for my drawers I am using Cambro translucent food pans that are made to go into salad bars. They are designed with lips on the sides that  slide into storage racks. Labor savings for me since I don't have to fabricate the drawers. 

The cabinet structures inside a motorhome are built differently than what is done for a regular house. They need to be light in weight and also somewhat flexible but strong so they don't come apart as the motorhome wiggles down the road. This type of construction is called "stress skin panel". The framing is glued onto thin sheets of plywood rather than being made as a 3/4" thick plywood structure.
Here is how the closet is now looking with the sides put in place and the bins slid into the rails. No doors for it yet but I can actually now use the drawers  for storing tools and supplies. This is such a big help in keeping things tidy while I am working.
My motorhome was created with a fiberglass shell. It was made in big molds in two halves, an upper and lower, then bonded together along a seam line. On the outside there is a metal trim band all along that seam to cover up the rough edges of the two halves. The seam does not leak but they sometimes put too long of screws into the banding and they punctured through the fiberglass. Over the years the stainless screws corroded and left a few small open holes that leaked water into the interior.  I had to remove wall panels on the inside to fix the leaks and put a layer of fiberglass on the inside of the wall along that seam line to prevent more minor leaks in the future.

In this photo  taken from the interior of the shell you can see those screws breaking on through the fiberglass. The bed in the overcab area was getting damp from it and the water coming in was also causing the particle board framing on the lower edges of the bottom cabinets in the kitchen area and elsewhere to come apart. All sealed up now but at the time I found this situation a lot of Sunrader owners were not aware that this is a fairly common problem with these motorhomes. Most of the time in the past the leaks were blamed on the windows. While of course that is sometimes the cause this issue was being overlooked.

  I added in some wood blocking while I had the wall panels removed. There is no wood or metal framing inside of the fiberglass shell.  It is a self supporting structure of relatively thin fiberglass. The thin plywood interior wall panels were only attached at the floor level but the bottom of the upper cabinets was suspended off those 1/8" thick wall paneling. As I wanted to improve that situation while I had the paneling out I used epoxy to bond some wood blocking strips to the inside of the shell where it was strongest at the upper edge, lower edge, along the seam line and also just under the window openings in the rear.

 Photo below shows the original situation of 3/4" by 5/8" inch strip of particle board on the backside of the plywood wall panels that was helping to suspend the upper cabinets.....way scary as screws do hold well in particle board, particularly in a structure that is flexing as it goes down the road. That small strip of particle board over very thin plywood and a few screws into the 3/16" plywood of the ceiling are all that was holding the upper cabinets in place. Plus remember those original upper cabinets were just 1/8" plywood framed with 5/8" x 3/4" strips of particle board.  The yellow surface at the left of the photo is what the inside of the fiberglass shell looks like. That metal square poking through it is for the exhaust port of the vent fan over the stove. I am not going to have a vent fan over the stove as I was always hitting my head on the corner of it as I came in the door. That was too painful. I will install a fan in the overhead ceiling vent instead to remove smells and moisture.

The fiberglass shell of my motorhome takes a Z shape at the top of the walls where it transitions up to form the roof. That Z shape forms a strong structural beam that runs along the length of the coach. I have epoxied solid wood boards along the side and bottom of the fiberglass Z shape on the interior. That wood will now give me something solid to screw into to help assist in the support of the upper cabinets. Plus across the upper back wall I am adding in a new upper cabinet so I have epoxied in more wood support for hanging that new cabinet.
If you look closely you can see that slight arc in the ceiling. I had to cut that support board for the new rear upper cabinet to match it. Sometimes making temporary bracing for holding in pieces such as this one while the adhesive sets requires a bit of creativity with boards, wedges and clamps. I don't put fasteners through the fiberglass shell, epoxy has to do all the supporting  the blocking. You can see that I now have some paint on finished wall panels. The ceiling is going to be planked with yellow cedar after the cabinets get installed. That will create a cozy gypsy wagon feel.

I have put in support cleats and the seat base for the rear reclining couch/bed. No face frame on the front of it, just some random boards to support the front edge for the moment. Face frame work comes later in the project after all the basic cabinet framing is done. This has now become a handy place to stack tools and supplies up off the floor. Plus the weight of them is also a test to be sure my base will be strong enough to support constant use. So far its holding the weight very nicely.  Remember that I have to build things as lightweight as I can but still have them strong and of course I am not quite sure how strong my structure really is as this is the first motorhome cabinet job for me. I have to make somewhat educated guesses about all the details of construction. There are no sets of plans for this kind of work.  The photos below are showing the lightweight aluminum bracing that goes from the front face frame to the back wall to support the seat boards. I am putting storage bins under those boards.

The cross bracing supports which hold up  the seat boards are pieces of 1" x 1/8" T-bar aluminum. I had a lot of it on hand so that is what I used. Very strong stuff for its size and weight. I had to cut notches in the ends of the T-bar and chisel the seat support cleats so the bracing is level allowing the seat boards to lay flat against the cleats on the back and side walls that support the bed. I will secure the seat boards in place with Velcro so I can lift them up to access the storage area below.
I used my Proxxon bandsaw with a bimetal blade to notch the aluminum braces, very sweet saw, it will travel with me in the motorhome for making miniatures. Of course a Dremel Motor with various accessories also gets used on this remodeling project almost everyday. It truly does have 1,000 uses.
Here is what the final sub-framing for the rear seat base looks like without the plywood top pieces on it.

This photo shows some of the aluminum sub-framing for the cabinets on the kitchen side. I still need to add in the horizontal pieces that will support the interior shelves. 
My workbench top is temporarily installed now as I needed that surface to set tools on. I also have some temporary plywood on top of the sub framing on the kitchen side. The chair I will be using at my new workbench is a small, height adjustable, folding drummer's stool with a removable back rest. It will come apart for storage inside a cabinet while I am driving. 
I got some recycled seats from a Mercedes to replace the worn out, very uncomfortable, original ones in the cab. These are much nicer with a lot more options for adjustment for better back support. Not very easy to put them in as they needed custom adapter plates so I could bolt them into place. Unfortunately they do not lean forward for easy access to the area behind them. But the price was right so I decided I could live with that issue.

While I had the old seats out I replaced the flooring in the cab with new black vinyl. I created some sound deadening, heat reducing, insulation to put under the flooring in that area, shown here during installation. It is made with a layer of special EVA auto insulating foam that I covered on both sides with aluminum foil duct tape. A very cost efficient version of the commercial sound deadening products made for cars. EVA foam and aluminum foil both have some sound deadening properties as well as heat control properties.

I have also been refreshing the other parts of the cab interior, repainting some of the pieces such as the interior door panels to be a warm grey instead of the old brown color. You can see the new color scheme in this photo. I have been replacing small items such as the window cranks and door pulls with newly made pieces that are available on Ebay from sources in Vietnam and Thailand. Those countries fortunately have now created an industry of making vintage car parts which are no longer available in the USA. Good thing they have done so at an affordable price because many items in my cab interior were badly damaged from UV exposure.

So today the list of tasks to be done on my vintage motorhome renovation still stretches far in front of me for some time to come. Even after the cabinets are done I have the upholstery work to do.  But all such projects progress one piece at a time and when the last piece is fitted it will be a lovely space to be in. I love the big windows in it and I can change my vista to interesting new scenes now and again if I choose to do so.

© Karin Corbin 2014, all reproduction right reserved
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