Welcome to my vintage trailer renovation.
From trash to treasure. This baby needs a new, well everything! Previous owners have made restoration difficult so this one will be renovation instead. Follow along as I strip her down and rebuild from top to bottom! (or bottom to top!)
Disclaimer: I am NOT a professional, this is what worked (or didn’t) for me. Consult a professional if you need help. I got a lot of great advise from Mobiltec at http://www.CannedHamTrailers.com. You can also get a lot of good advise from members of Vintage Trailer Talk forum at https://vintagetrailertalk.freeforums.net/
Dec 28, 2020 Recovery Mission
Today we met Squirt. A 1968 Aristocrat Land Commander. Somehow my vehicles have a history with Disney names (which started unintentionally 4 vehicles ago with a keychain) and my Avalanche is dark blue (Dory) so this one is Squirt – named after the little turtle from Finding Nemo. We (my daughter and I) drove 600 miles from our home in Southern Az to Utah to check out this vintage trailer and see if we wanted to bring her home and renovate. And by “we” I mean me, haha. She went along for the road trip but, I doubt I can get much out of her with the work that needs to be done. I’m excited to rebuild and have a project, she’s excited to camp. Fair enough. I’ll draft my husband into it when I need help.
Going to see the trailer was a few weeks in the making. I wanted a “clean” title with current registration to make my life easier, and legal. The previous owner didn’t have it long and hadn’t put it into her name or registered so I patiently waited while she sorted the legal things out on her end. I got an insurance quote ready in case I decided to buy and had 2 copies of a bill of sale already started (one for each of us) that I made clear ahead of time I needed notarized before we left. I packed a truck full of tools, duct tape, magnetic lights, wheel chocks, attachable mirror extension for the truck and anything else I could think of to be prepared for the long drive home. I tend to be prepared for more than I need. Because I was unfamiliar with the trailer and wanted to keep an eye on it I kept our driving to daytime hours so we camped in it on the way home. We arrived in a snow storm (of course! The only snow in the forecast and it dropped 3″ that day) and after inspecting as best I could, I negotiated a price and after some paperwork it was official. I was excited to call her mine and start my journey from trash to treasure with my long drive home.
We stayed in Utah that night and waited until the next afternoon to leave after the roads were clear and the temperature was high enough to melt the ice on the roads then started our journey home.
I’m happy to report that the only eventful thing that happened on the way home was the door popping open twice. Before we left I locked it and gave it a good pull to see if it would stay shut and we still hit a couple bumps just right to jostle the door open. So I tied a rope from the door to the bumper so it wouldn’t swing far if it did open again and of course it didn’t after that.
After 2 days of driving we finally made it home! Welcome home Squirt.
My goal with this renovation is to keep it “vintage” with the original floorplan, appliances, windows and style but also update it with new framing, walls (no paint), countertops, flooring and cushions/curtains. I don’t want to do this frame-off because I’m afraid I wouldn’t get it back together again so I’m doing this piece-meal by removing part of it and replacing it before moving on. It is still proving to be tricky figuring out which step to do first because of the way it’s put together. But here we go…
Disassembly and Begin Rebuild (Jan 10)
Before the skins come off the trailer all the windows, access doors, vents, placards, J rail, brows, door and screen door all come off. Then starting by the rear bumper the skins come off starting from the bottom and wrapping over the roof and down the front (in that order). Then the sides come off starting at the bottom and working up to the top. Of course, putting it all back together is followed in reverse order. The order is critical because of how the lower skin slides up into the one above in a folded slot then gets attached to the frame at the bottom with staples. The staple removal was tedious, but with the help of my husband we got it done. I found it easiest to wedge a chisel tip under the staple then used needle nose pliers behind it to have some leverage to lift the staple out. Once the staple is out enough I could use the pliers to pull it the rest of the way. After we pulled all the screws and staples I weighed them in at over four and a half pounds!
Once we got all the skins off I removed the old insulation. I have intentions to replace it later with more adequate, thicker insulation. I used an ice pick to test the wood framing in various places to check for wood rot and mark where I needed to replace framing pieces. Discoloration doesn’t always mean rot, you have to check to see which wood needs replaced. I used some fluorescent spray paint to mark where I wanted to change the frame when I rebuild adding things like outlets, an outdoor shower and reinforcing the attachment supports for things on the inside (table hardware for example) There’s some extra paint on it now because after I sprayed it in some places I changed my mind. Most of it will be gone when I replace the inside paneling and it will all be “gone” when I put the skins back on. Out of sight, out of mind.
Next came the floor. My husband came back out with me to pull out the old “new” flooring that the previous owner installed along with the original vinyl under that. The next tedious job is scraping the underlayment that was under the vinyl. Getting it wet and then covering it with a few layers of newspaper, then getting that wet and letting it soak for a couple hours helps. I found that putting plastic over it all while it soaks is most effective (I live in a dry desert, keeping it wet was challenging) After tediously scraping for hours and deciding I do NOT want to be in the professional floor business the piece I finally decided to try plastic on came up almost in one 2’X3′ piece with little effort. Why didn’t I try that first!?
I cut a 2’X2′ hole in the back curbside corner of the floor to replace some rotten wood. In order to get to it I had to cut a good size hole in the side wall, but I will rebuild that back corner and all the paneling is getting replaced anyway. So no biggie!
I started to rebuild the framing around that back hole but I am not yet attaching it to the rear panels because they too need to get replaced due to wood rot. The rear, top and front panels are all sandwiched between the side walls so it stays loose for now.
New Keysheet and Hatch Door Rebuild (Jan 19)
I had to remove some of the upper supportive side framing to get to the keysheet (the center ceiling piece that has the fan hole in it) and also the metal framing. I removed part of the metal framing just above the door and left the cross members and the back in place sliding out the old keysheet and replacing it with a new one. I cut a new sheet of wood (1/4″ birch plywood *see notes about this below) to size, gave it 2 coats of Amber Shellac (I didn’t think about clear coats as well until after this first one was done) and after pulling out the old ceiling panel reused the framing wood on the new sheet to create a new ceiling panel. I then used my plunge router to create the fan hole following the already built framing for it. Sliding a new one in was a little challenging. I should have shaved off a bit from the side, it felt really tight. My husband helped me and after a while (and a few shellac scratches-should have used some clear coats!) we got it in. I’ll fix the scratches better when the weather improves, its now under a tarp and not very accessible. *The aluminum channels that the panels slide into are 1/4″ and I didn’t really notice until I got 3 in (the keysheet and 2 rear panels) that the old panels are really only 1/8″ which explains why they were hard to install. I will have to hunt down 1/8″ panels for the side walls or the width of the trailer will change slightly which is just enough to be critical when it comes to reinstalling the roof metal. Some of the furnishings are put together with aluminum channels as well so thickness of the birch is important. Another reason I didn’t notice that I was using a thicker wood is the 2 dinette seat panels fit perfectly into the aluminum channels with the framing and 1/4″ birch. I guess I will have to choose between the thicknesses on a case by case basis.
While I’ve been waiting for the weather to change I’ve been working on rebuilding a hatch door for the storage cupboard. I’m changing the orientation so it opens down into a little table instead of a side swinging door. The door is not square so I had to change the location of the hinge and lock to do this or the metal skin of the camper wouldn’t fit over the opening any more if I just rotated the door. I had to use my Dremel tool with a metal cutter to remove the old built-on hinge and replace it with a continuous “piano” hinge. I used an aluminum patch for the old lock hole on the inside of the aluminum and filled it in with KwikWeld epoxy on top then sanded it down smooth and flush with the aluminum skin. After some Amber Shellac and a couple coats of clear I slid in a new board and closed up the aluminum around it. I’ll get the hardware on eventually adding a catch chain to support the door when its open. I also need a way to keep the door from slamming into it when its down in a table position. Still thinking about this one.
New Flooring and Back Wall (Feb 12)
I’ve been taking the flooring underlayment out as I go while removing some of the furnishings. I don’t want to remove all of the furnishing inside at the same time because they provide structure for the walls to keep their shape. The furnishings hold the walls up, not the other way around. I started with the lower furnishings on the curbside from the door to the rear. The underlayment came up easiest using a hand pump weed sprayer with only water in it soaking it then covering it with plastic trash bags and letting it sit overnight. This loosened it enough to come right up with no effort. Too bad I didn’t start it this way. Live and learn. (Thank you for all your tips and tricks Mobiltec!) I eventually went a little further and took out the water tank and front lower cabinet to do the flooring all at once.
After sanding the floor with a belt sander I realized this would also be a good time to paint the wheel well. The flooring isn’t installed yet and the side wall was getting replaced so I didn’t have to worry about making a mess with the paint. I used some spray paint I had laying around with a scratch resistant top coat. After that came the Kilz floor sealer to protect the subfloor from any moisture/leaks/spills etc.
While I was waiting for tile orders to be delivered I started working on the back wall. This is made from 2 panels that are in aluminum channels at the floor, roof and in between the two. This was another point where my husband was helping me install the panels and we couldn’t figure out why it felt so tight (thicker wood) but we got them in! I had removed one closet wall panel to get more floor in but left the other one in place for now which, along with the bathroom wall is providing stability for the trailer. The back wall panels got screwed back into the old remaining closet wall for now to get stability back until it can be secured to the new closet wall and curbside wall.
Before I can rebuild and reinstall the side walls I have to replace the front and back along with installing the flooring so I can put the gimp along the edges. This is a rubbery edging that goes between the walls and furnishing and keeps the camper from squeaking with movement. After ordering VCT (Vinyl Composition Tiles) from Home Depot 4 times I finally have the colors I want and enough that aren’t broken or lost in the mail to actually install the flooring. I had no idea ordering tile was going to be so challenging. Once I had nice weather in the forecast I marked the center of the camper in both directions so the tiles would be centered and symmetrical then applied the VCT glue and waited for it to become tacky but no longer “wet” (about 3 hours.) I was able to install the tile everywhere I had access to which was the curbside and front. I will continue with the rest of the tile when I get to the streetside of the camper at a later date.
The side panels were reattached to the back temporarily to give stability so I could do the roof piece in the rear but I decided to leave it for now because of the complex lights and walls on the streetside (bathroom/kitchen) of the camper. It seems like it would be easier to remove and reinstall from the streetside later.
Back Roof Panel (Mar 3)
I really can’t seem to make up my mind what order to do things in. I decided since I have access to it to go ahead and take out the roof panel in the back. I removed all the nails, screws, lights, wires and everything that was keeping me from doing this sooner and pulled the panel out. It was too windy to shellac and replace it today too so maybe tomorrow (or next week haha).
Floor Cabinet and Countertop (Mar 3)
I’ve been working on the entry cabinet and countertop the past few days. I’m finished with the top and working on rebuilding the cabinet and later the doors. I tried to reuse the framing pieces but they are too well glued to the old panels and not worth the time to salvage them. So I rebuilt them instead. After piecing together the frame I attached paneling with contact cement (I hope that holds!), cut it out with a trim router then applied shellac. One piece didn’t turn out so I will try again tomorrow. The router really chipped some of the edges up so I’m going to start over with it. I still have to clean up the aluminum pieces for the base before reassembly but here is what I have so far.
Cabinet (Mar 4)
After framing, gluing and cutting came shellac, cleaning and polishing the old aluminum and assembly. I still have the doors to make and need to find some new shelf edging but it’s mostly done.
The aluminum is old and dirty. It’s quite a process to get it clean and shiny again. I have to wash it with a little brush, rinse it, use paint remover (since the previous owner spray painted things), scrub it with a brush again, rinse it again, polish it, wash it again to get the polish off, rinse it again then let it dry. It looks much better but it still has scratches. I don’t have the patience to get those out. But it IS 52 years old so it’s ok!
A Note About Cutting Plywood
You’ve probably heard it before. To get clean edges when cutting plywood with a veneer score it first with a utility knife. On a table saw make sure the veneer (or “top”) is up because you will get a blowout on the bottom from the teeth of the saw pushing through. If using a jigsaw or another type of saw orient the wood so the teeth of the saw go through the top first and out the bottom. Some saws pull up through the wood and the top should be face down in this case. I tried using the masking tape method of getting a cleaner cut and it was better than not using it but still came out a mess. Even the router chipped the veneer edges when going across the grain.
Back Ceiling Panel and Dinette Table (Mar 7)
I’ll start with my “oopsie.”
When I started working on this I was replacing the wood paneling with 1/4″ birch veneer paneling from Home Depot. I live in a small town and have limited options. It was all I could find, but I didn’t notice it was off until 2 months into this renovation. The 1/4″ panels fit nice and snug into the 1/4″ aluminum channels so it seemed like it was supposed to be that way. I happened to look a little closer at the old paneling and the new paneling before I realized I was using a different thickness. This explains why the keysheet (my first panel replacement) was challenging to get in the channels (tighter than I appreciated but they did fit!) and probably why that sheet is a little crooked and we can’t seem to straighten it. I guess looser is better?! Well I realized the camper skins won’t fit right if I use thicker wood on the sides so I decided to order some 1/8″ paneling and drive 3 hours to pick it up. After all, road trips are the whole point right? All that work on the first 3 is going to stay there (assuming I can straighten the keysheet when the front ceiling panel is off) because they are inside the channeling and won’t effect the skins. However, I noticed today when looking at my pictures that the newest ceiling panel is a slightly different color. Which is odd because its still birch veneer on plywood with the same number of coats of amber and clear shellac. Well, I am NOT starting over so its just going to have to be!
Anyway, here are the pictures of the rear ceiling panel. I removed the old one and reused the framing on new paneling. Then I flipped it and put on the shellac then drilled holes for wiring where I want lights to go and the ceiling pipe vent for the oven that routes through the bathroom.
The dinette table wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be. I really wasn’t sure how I was going to get those little twist nails out without banging up the aluminum. The first one came out easy enough at the very end by prying with a tiny flathead screwdriver so for the rest that I couldn’t reach that way I used some lock jaw pliers with just enough pressure above and below each nail with a rag folded over the aluminum channeling to minimize dents and scratches.
After that was off I removed the old formica and reused the table and hardware. I sanded down the wood, applied the new formica, cleaned up the aluminum and the hardware and put it all back together again.