Airstream Renovation: Getting There

We've had very little time to do these renovation updates, but we thought it would be good to get at least one more update in before we do our big reveal and show the old gal in all her glory.

When I last updated, we'd gotten through the holiday season and I took a freelance job that enabled us to finish the Airstream with cash and zero debt. We were still on a major budget (keeping costs low has been an all-important task for us), yet despite going over budget and needing additional funds, we've still not dipped into our credit cards - the money keeps coming to us in various ways that we don't expect. I often don't know what I believe about fate or anything like that, but it often feels like we must be exactly where we're supposed to be, with the right attitudes and peace about it - because something, call it a force, the Universe, whatever you choose - keeps ensuring that we stay on track and things continue to fall into place. The sale of our house, for example, came at the perfect time - we are going to be able to close on the house a week before we leave. Monetary gifts have arrived, or things we didn't anticipate being able to sell - sold. Repairs for our house, required by our contract with the buyers, cost exactly half of the estimates.

In the past three and a half months, our Airstream went from being a completely empty shell with a new subfloor, to a home.

It's most definitely a point of pride to look around at all that we've accomplished with our two sets of hands. We look at this Airstream as not only our new home, or one of the most amazing things we've ever done, but a testament to our relationship with one another. Every weekend has been spent working twelve to fifteen hour days, and every evening after work and a long commute, we come together and work more. In the winter, which was one of the harshest Kentucky has seen in many years, we bundled and worked in frigid temps, the coldest being negative nineteen degrees with wind chills in the negative thirties. We worked on repairs outside while kneeling in two feet of snow. We riveted in a fifteen by eight foot aluminum ceiling panel (on the curve), with only three hands holding it up - Ellen's two, my left hand holding, my right hand tossing in clecos and riveting as fast as I could. We talked through every decision, worked together to make my design come to life, and can now sit on our comfortable bed and look around in awe of all that we've done in the past year - and most specifically, these last three and a half months. The amount of work - physical and mental - could have broken a relationship, but we have only gotten closer and stronger. We work well as a team, our strengths and weaknesses working together in a generous and beautiful push and pull, give and take, ebb and flow.

In January and February, the snows gifted us time - yet another fate-like happenstance. The school system had been given ten built in snow days, and despite the crazy amounts of snow that fell this year and the many bitterly cold days, the snow days were all used, but not a day over. It was like ten days of vacation time that Ellen was able to stay home and work full-time on running all of the electrical, without detracting us from our set departure date at the end of the school year. Without those days, we couldn't have moved forward like we did. We ran both DC and AC power, setting us up for boondocking or nights spent in friends' driveways, or eventual solar power.

We moved pretty quickly after we finished the electrical. We tucked the insulation into place and as we moved through the Airstream with the insulation, we riveted the original interior skins (aluminum panels) back into place. Once these were finished, we checked for leaks (fixed one), scrubbed, scraped, and sanded the walls in preparation for primer. After a quick final rinse, we began to prime with Kilz. Normally I'm a big fan of using zero-VOC paints, but we needed the intense stuff to ensure that the primer and paint would stick to the aluminum and the bits of textured Zolatone that didn't come off in the sanding process (although most was gone). One generous coat of primer and we were already blown away by the difference it made. It took about three coats of Valspar Premium zero-VOC paint in ultra white satin to ensure total coverage of every nook and cranny. The result was a beautifully white, bright interior. The following weekend, we installed the Smartcore flooring and the result was mind-blowing:

This was when we realized how good it was going to be - we'd only imagined the outcome of paint and flooring - and finally it was happening and the result was just...damn good.

The next steps were installing outlet covers, exhaust fan cover, and light fixtures. We had several little things to accomplish - every so often we'd devote a day to the 'little things' and get as many small tasks checked off our lists as we could. Once all of the covers were on and the light fixtures in place, we tested our electrical for the very first time. It worked (insert huge relieved grin here).

Finally, finally, finally - we began our build out. We had a basic design concept in mind and used our sketches to begin our conversation. A lot of our build was planned in the moment, coming up with solutions as we needed them. The lack of right angles in the curved form of an Airstream, as well as the settling and unevenness that comes from a trailer being fifty-eight years old, was quite the challenge. We created templates for every individual curve, as they all had a slight differentiation from the next. We decided to create some curved supports that screwed into the interior skins by cutting almost all the way through these pieces of plywood.

Our first cabinet was definitely a learning experience, and is the largest piece of furniture in the space, spanning about thirteen feet in length and encompassing our kitchen, a cabinet for our converter box and stereo set up, a battery/storage cabinet, and three individual wardrobes. We had an overall mission to keep things as light weight as possible, and opted to leave the floor exposed in the cabinet framing and use lightweight wire IKEA baskets on wooden slides we crafted inside the cabinets for our clothing storage, as well as kitchen storage, as opposed to traditional wooden drawers. The sliding cabinet doors are made of 1/4" birch plywood and run along routed out channels. They stay nice and snug while driving, keeping the contents of the wire drawers safe and secure, yet they are easily opened.

From there, we began our first bed build. This design is adapted from an online source, we cannot take full credit for the design. We used the basic steps outlined, and then customized the bed to fit our needs. The bed slides out and is held up by custom tapered legs, and those legs can be stored during the day underneath the bed in the deep storage compartments. This space is large enough to store a guitar, banjo, mini guitar (our daughter's), and some backpacking gear, with room to spare.

We built our next cabinet, which is directly across from the kitchen, which is a small pantry with lipped shelving and open space for a trash can, recycling bin, dog food, and a folding broom. This also serves as a nightstand for the back bed, and additional food prep space.

We built a storage console at the very front of the Airstream, which acts as a place to set books or phones bedside, and with a quick lift of the top, there is ample storage all the way to the floor. One side will hold our yoga mats, tent, and sleeping mat for backpacking, and the other holds an extra set of sheets for each bed, two extra bath towels (two will stay in the bathroom), extra blankets, and can also store our pillows and bedding during the day when we fold up the couch.

The front sofa bed needed to be fairly low to the ground, although the back of the cushion (mattress) still comes a bit above the front window. We wanted to sit comfortably here - as this is our living space as well as our bed, we needed to be able to hang out here, play music, work, eat, and create. We kept as much floor space open as we possibly could - we wanted our kiddo and pup to have lots of space to sprawl. When the bed extends, our design was to have it reach right to the edge of the front door and no further - it's perfect. I love the idea of laying in bed and cozily reading by an open front door with a cup of hot coffee. We have room in the living space for our beloved Sam Avedon chair and a folding vintage camp chair (both bought for less than $7 total), as well as a floor plant. There's an open space on the opposite side of the front door for our eventual tiny stove.

The front sofa bed was built on four mid-century distressed metal legs that we pulled from a bench we'd built for the mudroom in our house, which made the entire space feel a little bit more airy, open, and inviting. The bed also has some shallow storage underneath, where we will store a folding table (not yet built but in the works) and some of our creative tools.

The next step was building the walls for our bathroom (which was surprisingly easy - just some aluminum U-channel that we curved into place and secured into the wall with sheet metal screws), and yet another cardboard template that we traced onto some pretty birch 1/4" plywood. We framed out these walls and then got to work on creating an unobtrusive home for our kitty litter box and our composting toilet. Ellen made the mold for our urine diverter herself and then cast it, and has been assembling the toilet. I'm a little nervous about using a composting toilet, but we have friends and fellow travelers who have assured us that it is not really a big deal.

We are still currently working on the buildout of our shower, but it should be completed by next weekend. We had to change our plan midway through  - we were going to use a grain bin tub, but when our tub arrived, it not only didn't fit (and the company wouldn't fix their error), it just didn't fit with our overall design, which seems to have struck the perfect chord of vintage modern, exactly as I'd hoped. Our new plan is a glossy black tile floor (leftover from the bathroom renovation in our house, I'm not-so-secretly thrilled with this - I love this tile), paired with epoxied cedar slats and exposed copper pipes.

We have worked like crazy...there are still many more tasks I haven't even listed here. We could break it down but to be quite honest, there are just so many things that I don't even remember. We did cut every piece of wood ourselves from large slats of plywood, we ran every electrical line, we cut into the aluminum skins for our electrical boxes, we ran the lines for our 7-pin connector and electric brakes, we spray painted all of the interior window locks and cranks white, we installed steel screens, riveted and riveted and riveted some more, installed two new fans, one ceiling, one exhaust (which involved removal of the old fans)...the list goes on.

We still have quite the to-do list, but compared to what we were looking at one year ago when we bought our Airstream, or back at the end of January when we still had an empty shell, it's practically nothing. We still need to finish the bathroom and run our plumbing (supplies arrive tomorrow), spray foam the underside of the trailer and coat it with Linex (like a truck bed, in lieu of a belly pan), and polish the trailer to a mirror shine.

We are seriously excited about everything we've done so far - the design has truly come to life exactly (maybe even better than) how we imagined it would. However, we are reaching levels of exhaustion now that are really hard to fight against - we keep getting sick, weak, and are so worn out most nights we cannot wait to get into bed, falling asleep the minute we collapse into the pillows. While we are both in excellent physical shape (constant physical labor will do that to you - I've never had muscle tone like this and I'm nearly as tiny as my high school self), our bodies are very much rebelling against the hell we've put them through - at the intensity we've pushed on with for the past three months, it's not surprising - but we only have a few more weeks of crazy to get through. We'll be taking a break from the Airstream work and resting up in a remote cabin in Canada before we hit the road as full-time Airstreamers.

We move into the Airstream on Sunday night, provided that our closing date is indeed set for next Monday, the 18th, and we still have yet to find a place to park for the next eleven days as we finish up at our jobs, but we're confident that it will all work out. We might be a bit uncomfortable at first, but that's all part of the experience, right?

We'll be back sometime soon with a full photo reveal of the Airstream - can't wait to share it all!