Well, it was hard work, but worth it!! Our new decking for the Airstream is now finished, giving a nice clean space to sit outside under the roof canopy. While we were at it, also took the opportunity to add 4 tonnes of gravel surround, which sets it all off rather nicely 😉
Just back from a lovely sunny trip to Coastal Valley, where we fitted-in a trip to Padstow – now we know why it’s nicknamed “Padstein”!!
Well, maybe “photoshoot” is a bit of a strong word for it, but we were delighted to be invited to Portway Classics down in Somerset a few weeks back, and the opportunity to join the local Aston Martin Owner’s Club and mingle amidst their collection of DB5s, DB6s and the like was just too much to resist!
And it was gorgeous weather(!), so just perfect for finally getting round to doing a few “finished” shots! (well, finished apart from that final polishing that’s on my To-Do list…maybe we don’t need that “mirror polish”…)
Only a very short post on the subject of the upholstery in the Safari, as apart from choosing the fabric and where the cushions needed to divide, we handed it over to someone else to do the work – and what stunning work it is too!
One of my bugbears about traditional “white” caravans has always been the patterned (often some combination of beige and brown!) upholstery material, so what a joy it was to choose the material ourselves – and in whatever colour we wanted! Having said that though, there are some merits to using a patterned material since it doesn’t show marks as easily as plain – something we’d noticed on an Airstream we’d seen for sale, where the lovely plain orange canvas-like material that probably looked gorgeous when new, had rapidly started to look worse for wear due to quite a few stains.
So, armed with about 20 pattern books, we did try out a few different either textured or patterned materials, but while some of them weren’t too bad, none of them looked “quite right”. Happily though, one of the sample books was from Sunbrella who essentially do fabrics designed for outdoors and marine use – so highly waterproof, and (in theory!), any spills will therefore wipe straight off! AND, they do just the sort of canvas look we wanted AND in a mid-grey colour that really worked!
Our “work” was therefore done, so we handed matters over to Theresa at Busy Fingers Sewing – and voila, a couple of weeks later, we had the beautiful results! THANKS THERESA!!
Well, silence here for some time, as have been busy tackling the challenge of the front and rear seating units on the Safari! As you can see from the photo above though, we’re finally there!!
A large part of the “challenge” was due to us deciding that we really wanted to have curved seating units, as lots of sharp corners just didn’t seem to sit (sic) right with the beautiful curves elsewhere on this 50s Airstream. And as we need to tow the trailer, keeping weight down was paramount, so no hope of buying some pre-formed MDF off the shelf and cutting it down to size.
We therefore got to learn quite a lot about plywood, and the fact that it’s a bit more complicated than just needing any old piece of “ply”. After a bit of Googling, it seemed as though what we needed was ‘Vohringer’ ply, as it’s about 20% lighter than standard Birch ply (and about 40% lighter than MDF). Getting hold of Vohringer in the UK though is somewhat of a challenge (that word again!), as no-one seems to stock it! Luckily though, we happened across the helpful folks at Morland who informed us that Vohringer is actually a German brand of Poplar ply, so if we could get hold of some Poplar, that would do the trick. In the end, we weren’t able to purchase it from Morland, as they were just too far away, but managed to find it at the equally helpful AvonPly down in Bristol.
A few calculations and a bit more Googling to find the right thicknesses we needed, and we were proud owners of what seemed like a vast amount of 3mm poplar ply for the curves, 9mm for the straight sections and some pine battens to form the framework. The fun was about to begin!
The approach for the curves was that we would laminate together 3 or 4 layers of the 3mm in the required curved shape, then hope it didn’t all unravel when the glue dried! To form the shape though would require a mould – or in fact 2 moulds, one for the inner surface, and one to go on top to clamp it all together while the glue could go off.
Making the moulds themselves was going to be a fairly complicated task, but luckily we came across some wonderful stuff called Curvomatic which was designed with just this in mind. It’s essentially a series of aluminium extrusions which slot together to form a flexible sort of mat which you lay on top of formers in the desired shape, lay the glued layers of ply on top of that, then another layer of Curvomatic on top, clamp it all down with the straps provided, then leave it to set.
In the end, for cost reasons, we decided to make the inner mould with flexi-MDF screwed onto the formers, with the Curvomatic just being used for the outer mould – this did probably make things a bit more difficult as it was essential to get the MDF completely square, which would have happened automatically with the Curvomatic, but a 50% cost saving seemed worth the effort!
Since it was the first time we’d ever done anything like this, we did a test piece to start with, which all went well, so our hallway became a carpenters’ workshop for a while, and we got going on those curves. While in theory it is possible to form both the ply and a laminate at the same time, we decided to do the laminate separately, just in case anything went wrong with the forming.
Happily though it didn’t, so in fairly short time, we had our 6 curved sections for both the front and the rear seating units – and after a bit of trimming of the edges with a router, we were ready to fit the jigsaw together.
The first stage was to join the separate units together to form the front face of the seating units, using a combination of Sikaflex caravan adhesive and the pine battens:-
With the front faces secured, there followed some considerable amount of work scribing and cutting the 9mm ply and 9mm ply battens for the seats themselves, but the results we think are worth it:-
Work still progressing on the Safari, but another project about to begin, with this gorgeous 1955 Airstream “Whaletail” Cruiser!
First appearing in 1949, the Cruiser model started as a 24ft trailer, growing to 25ft in 1950, then with the addition of a sloping rear end, to 26ft during the course of 1954. The fore-runner to the Overlander, the Cruiser name was retained alongside the Overlander name until 1957 when it was discontinued. It was manufactured in both the Ohio and California factories, with the Californian versions being distinguished by its “Whale Tail” rear roof panels. Only around 100 Cruisers were made in the California factory in 1955 – not sure how many are left, but safe to say it’s pretty rare!
So why did we get it? Well, first of all, we just LOVE the Whale Tail, but while that also appears on smaller Airstreams too, we fancied seeing what we could do with a bit more space inside than we have with the Safari, which is 22ft (meaning approximately 19ft internally, as stated Airstream lengths are given as the distance from the front of the tow bar to the rear).
Internally, to put it politely, the furniture was shot! A lot of the original seating and lockers had already been removed, although some cupboards did remain, but weren’t really salvageable. The one bonus was that the bank of overhead lockers was intact and in actually very good condition, so it will be possible to polish those up and re-use.
A lot of work to come, but it will no doubt be worth it!
Is it big enough?!! I guess only time will tell, but our ‘compact’ bathroom is now in place, awaiting counter top, sink and some laminate over the plywood to make it nice and pretty. Oh yes, and a heated towel rail – mustn’t forget about that.
Our biggest challenge with the bathroom (yes, I am going to call it that, it’s NOT a ‘cloakroom’) was making it large enough so that it would work (i.e. without the need to have your legs poking out of the door when sitting down – not very user-friendly), whilst at the same time allowing as much space as possible for the wardrobe alongside it. We’re yet to use the toilet “in anger”, but on the face of it, seems like we’ve got that right.
Because of the somewhat limited space though, we were very restricted in terms of choice of wash basins, as we really didn’t want to have to go for one of those silly little cloakroom basins that you can just about wash your hands in, but very little else.
We quite liked the current trend for a round “wash bowl”, as they always seem to look stylish when you see them in other Airstreams, but with only about 350mm to play with, the vast majority of those that we looked at were just too big. We have however always liked Duravit bathroom fixtures though, so rather hoped we would be able to find one of their low rectangular basins that would fit, as that would look pretty cool. Sadly though, that wasn’t to be, as even their narrowest wash basin was 50mm deeper than the top it was going to sit on, so it was beginning to look like we would need to go down the route of the small cloakroom type basin.
Until, that was, we discovered ClickBasin (heck, let’s give them a link www.clickbasin.co.uk) who had an amazing selection of basins, including 4 proper sized ones that would fit, together with about 10 cloakroom ones that I hate to admit, didn’t look all that bad!
After much agonising as to ‘with-tap-hole’ / ‘without tap hole’, we settled upon the Torre model with the integrated tap hole, as having an external tap would mean taking up valuable space on the counter top. Won’t be quite like the photo – it will sit on a charcoal Corian top, with a full size mirror behind to hopefully increase the sense of ‘space’ in what is a compact little room.
Strangely, caravan underfloor heating isn’t something that’s all that common, the preferred options generally being a blown-air system or a ‘wet’ system with radiators much akin to your central heating system at home.
Whilst blown-air systems from Propex and Whale are common in top-end caravans from the likes of Bailey, we felt that there were a number of inherent problems with them:-
- Firstly, although forcing warm air around a caravan is an easy way to warm it up quickly, the resulting warmth is a dry warmth, which we’ve experienced in many a rented ski apartment, and don’t really like!
- Secondly, while the rapid heating does mean you don’t have to leave the heating running overnight, if you don’t, it will get a bit chilly in the mornings, unless you install the system with a timer. If you do leave the system on overnight, you’ve got the constant drone of the fan, even if as in some installations, it’s installed under the floor of the caravan.
- Finally, blown air systems do include quite a lot of pipework / ducting running around the van. Obviously this will generally be situated under the floors of lockers, seating units etc, but does take up valuable storage space, which is somewhat at a premium in a relatively small caravan.
So, let’s move on to ‘wet’ central heating, with a boiler heating both radiators and warm water – the most popular of which is made by the Scandinavian company Alde, and again fitted to a number of premium caravan makes – including in fact modern Airstreams. As this produces a nice type of heat like you have at home, combines room heating with water heating, and can be left on permanently and controlled via a thermostat (just like you have at home), we initially felt this would be the ideal solution. BUT, again, we could see some downsides:-
- Firstly, the aluminium-finned radiators are pretty efficient, but you will need quite a lot of them to generate the heat you need. The view of another new Airstream owner with the Alde Compact system fitted, was that you really should have as many as you could possibly fit in, as they found that on occasions in the winter months, the standard fit system on new Airstreams did need supplementing with a fan heater or something. As we are planning to use our trailer for ski holidays, coping with fairly extreme temperatures had to be a must.
- So, we’ve got lots of radiators to fit in, which brings us to the next problem, of the space they take up. Since cold air needs to pass over them to get warmed, they need to be situated along the walls of the caravan in narrow cabinets which have vents at the top, and corresponding intake vents at floor level (again generally underneath the floors of seating lockers) where the cold air can enter. The recommended minimum depth of these radiator cabinets is 250mm, so effectively you’re losing 250mm of interior space for seating unit that has a radiator cabinet behind it.
- Another consideration is that of where the boiler itself can be installed, as since it can be run on gas, there are various rules and regulations about where it cannot be situated – for instance, not directly under or within a certain distance of a window. So as a vintage 1956 Airstream Safari has LOTS of windows, you’re a bit restricted as to where to site the boiler.
- Finally, weight. Certainly the radiators are super light in weight, but you’ve then got to add all the pipework for the system, as well as the boiler itself, so it’s easy for the weight of the trailer to mount up.
In spite of these negatives though, we would probably have gone for the Alde Compact system, as it does provide good heat and a plentiful supply of hot water. However, having taken the decision not to have a shower in the trailer, this was probably a luxury we didn’t need, and therefore not worth paying the weight (and cost) penalty. It’s also a bit “normal”, and not desperately ground-breaking, since lots of people have already done it!
Hence, underfloor heating, which is silent (so can be left on all the time), unobtrusive once installed, lightweight (although obviously there’ll be some extra weight due to needing a separate water heater), controllable via a thermostat – and produces a lovely type of cosy heat, so warm toes in the mornings! It is also a lot more EXCITING!! The only question really is whether you can fit enough of it in there to provide sufficient heat!
As we described in a previous post though, adequate insulation plays a big part in how much heating capacity you need, so with a good thick layer of Celotex closed-cell insulation underneath the floor, and both Thinsulate and Airtek bubble insulation between the internal and external skin, we’re hoping to keep heat loss to a minimum.
In order to get as much heating capacity in the trailer though, we also decided to go for underfloor heating wires rather than the more commonly-used heating pads. These are somewhat thicker than the pads, but allow greater flexibility in terms of fitting them around seating areas / cupboards etc, whereas the pads tend to be in fixed shapes and sizes. The photo below illustrates how we have used this to get the maximum length of heating wires on the floor, by fitting round obstacles such as the table leg, seating areas and the bathroom, where we have fitted some wires though, as nobody likes a cold bathroom!
With the 12V wiring and insulation in place, it’s time to fit the new internal aluminium skin to the roof and walls of the Airstream.
We’ve decided to go for an off-white powder-coated aluminium rather than trying to paint bare aluminium, which gives a better, more consistent looking surface which will be easier to keep clean and also stand the test of time better. It obviously isn’t ‘authentic’ in terms of being like the Zolatone finish originally used on vintage Airstreams, but we’re not averse to using more modern techniques where we feel they’re an improvement on the original – and frankly, we believe the smooth surface will work better with the materials and finishes used elsewhere in the trailer.
What we’re not going to tamper with though is the beautiful Olympic rivets used on vintage Airstreams, as they really are part of the whole character of the trailer. And although it is now possible to get these rivets in white, we’ve decided to stick with the original shiny aluminium, in order to create an interesting and stylish look against the off-white of the coated aluminium. You’ll see from the photo that these aren’t yet in place, as the roof sheet is being held in place with clecos while all the rivet holes are being drilled.
While the majority of the internal skin will be new aluminium, we are keeping the original 13-panel end caps, as they are one of the biggest differentiators between the early ’50s Airstreams and those from ’59 onwards and into the early ’60s.
To get them to their current polished state firstly involved stripping-off the old Zolatone paint, which was a heck of a job since it’s very thick stuff. After that, more hard graft with a rotary polisher and Nuvite polish, starting with coarser Grade F9 and then moving on to less abrasive F7. We’ve still got the final stage of polishing with the Cyclo Polisher to do, moving down to a much less abrasive final polish, although the jury is still out as to whether we’ll actually bother, as while there are imperfections visible, it’s a bit akin to the ‘patina’ you observe in old wood, so adds a bit of character we think. Oh yes, and don’t worry about the blue in the picture, that’s just the plastic coating that the aluminium comes with to protect it in transit!