Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Birch Interior

Finished birch interior

We wanted a lighter, warmer interior for our trailer. We also wanted to keep the vintage Airstream feel that came from the lightweight aluminum frame construction used in the early 1970s. If I had to give a name to the design style, I might call it Retro Futuristic, looking back and forward at the same time.

The work taught us about all of the interior systems in the trailer, since we ended up removing and/or replacing nearly everything on the inside. If you are facing similar work, I hope this blog gives you the information you need to help in your decisions or your work. I hope it serves to encourage. I am not a woodworker, but I have learned how to handle wood. I am not a wood finisher, but I have learned to handle finishes to a level that works for us. I find that I enjoy the engineering sorts of challenges (see the Versatile Desk post in this blog), but that wasn't strictly necessary for this interior. If I can do it, you can do it.

There are only a few essential tools. I couldn't have done it without the jigsaw, the cordless power drill, the palm sander and the pop riveting tool. Hand tools such as hammers, screwdrivers, adjustable wrenches and a rubber mallet come in handy. It helps to have an accurate table saw. I had access to one nearby and sawed things in batches. This took extra planning, but I had no other choice. My hand isn't steady enough to do the long, straight cuts with a jigsaw and I'm not strong enough to wield a circular saw with safety and accuracy. Read more for pictures and details.

Our work process was to start down one side and come back up the other, so we never had more than half the kitchen apart at a time. We don't have interior workspace at our house, so the trailer was both the workshop and the project. You'll see pictures of the crowding this sometimes caused. I'll divide the description into Kitchen, and Back Room. I go into more detail about the tall kitchen pantry in another post.

 The Kitchen

The issues we faced with the kitchen included saggy, particle board tambour under the sink, a functional but rusty original stove, kitchen counters in Harvest Gold formica, and walls of dark, wood grain plastic laminate. The whole effect was dark, worn out and weary.

The old stove needed work
The stove still worked well enough to be worth keeping. We liked the four burner style, which is no longer available. We knew that it fit the space. We removed the cover and the steel top, thoroughly cleaned and sandblasted them and powder coated them in a metallic toned powder paint designed for engine parts in order to withstand stove temperatures. After a year of use, they show no signs of discoloration. We used ordinary spray paint on the panel behind the knobs.

Powder coat on the lid and stove top, and spray paint behind the knobs

The kitchen sink cabinet needed a few improvements, all of them interconnected. We kept the original sink, but replaced the faucet. We kept the original aluminum framing, but replaced the veneer facing and the 1/4" thick side walls. We kept the original tambour mechanisms, but replaced the tambour with real birch. Any retrofit introduces constraints since the new seldom matches the old. Prepare to be flexible and open minded in seeking solutions.

The sink came out easily after the shelf under the cabinet had been removed. There are screw on the underside that loosen with a wrench and a screwdriver. It helps to be as flexible as Gumby and to have three hands, but it is possible even with human constraints. Plumbing tools may be required.

The stove came out next. Removal became a game of "hunt the fasteners" while I found screws from a variety of angles. There are a couple of tricky bits here. First, turn off the propane to the trailer. Then, as soon as you can reach it, unscrew the propane line from the stove. Next to the propane line is an essential, delicate and irreplaceable part. It is the tube that holds the thermocouple. Carefully disconnect this as well. Every fastener from each task was immediately placed in a labelled baggie. 

Vertical trim removed
The veneer turned out to be trickier to remove than I had imagined. I wanted to keep the structure of the cabinet frame intact since it was my primary workbench for varnishing veneer, tambour and plywood. The kitchen counter had to come off before I could slip the vertical trim pieces out of their channels. That vertical trim covered the rivets that held the horizontal aluminum frame pieces in place. I drilled out the rivets holding one horizontal piece in place, replaced the plastic trim (very thin laminate) with birch veneer, and re-riveted that horizontal piece back in place before going on to the next one. This insured that the cabinet remained standing while I worked. 

I was so concerned that the veneer would fall out of its channel that I cut it as tight a fit as I could. I forgot that I was working on this in January. In warm weather the veneer expands and buckles a bit. I special ordered the veneer through a local independent lumber store. The veneer comes with a paper backing and can be cut with scissors.
Horizontal veneer replaced

Vertical veneer replaced after riveting horizontal bar

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The new birch tambour came from Outwater Plastics. It is intended for vertical use, so this horizontal application meant coloring outside the lines, so to speak. It comes with a sturdy fabric backing and is slightly thicker than the original Airstream tambour. Since it needed to fit into the original tambour channels, this meant scoring the fabric on the back of the tambour and peeling off about half an inch of cloth backing from the edges that would be riding in the tracks. I also sanded these edges to remove any residue and hopefully reduce sticking.
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The tambour enters the channel at the edge where it opens. There is a bit of the inside edge of the aluminum channel that can be bent down, allowing the tambour to move out of the channel and into the cabinet under the sink. This is also how the new tambour goes back in. After the tambour is back in, the tab can be bent back up so that the tambour won't get derailed when it is pulled closed.

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I worked each plastic coil with a piece of scrap tambour to make sure that the old track was clean and clear and that the length of tambour I wanted to put in there would fit in the coil. In the "lessons I learned" department, I would spend a bit more time smoothing and thinning the part of the tambour that ran in the track. Also, in cutting the pieces to fit between the tracks, there is a sweet spot between keeping the tambour from falling out and giving it wiggle room so that it doesn't bind. My large door under the sink could use some more wiggle room. It binds and won't fully wind into it's coil. Someday, I may tweak it into perfection.

Tambour and veneer in place, cabinet side being varnished

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The kitchen counter sparked some debate. Harvest gold isn't necessarily the wrong choice. But next to the warm undertones of the birch, it took on a sickly, greenish tinge. Replacing with laminate was definitely an option. Laminate is easy to clean. It comes in a wonderful variety of colors. It is light weight, easy to cut and relatively simple to install. Butcher block, on the other hand, never melts when something hot is set on it. It ages gracefully, developing a patina rather than looking old and scarred. It can even be sanded down and re-oiled for a nearly new look. We plan to keep this trailer forever and we don't relish replacing the counter again, so longevity was the factor that tipped the scales in favor of the warm, wood tones of butcher block. Two beech Ikea counter tops were just the right size to replace the kitchen sink counter, the counter above the fridge and make a top for the desk in the back room.

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Installing it required some alterations and reinforcements, since the butcher block weighed quite a bit more than plywood with laminate. We added heavy angle aluminum (from a local metal recycler) along the back and sides This was bolted to the walls and screwed to the underside of the counter. The perpendicular cuts were made with a circular saw. The sink cutouts and curve for the fridge vent were cut, slowly and carefully, with the jig saw. We finished it with Ikea's wood oil. It needs periodic refreshing, but there is so little exposed area that this is a pleasant rather than an onerous chore.

Warm wood tones in the kitchen

The old laminate has since been replaced

The Back Room - Walls, Closets and Upper Cabinets

Renovation here can be summed up as "remove, copy and replace."

The old wall was 2" too wide
The walls, or bulkheads, to use ship terminology for walls that stick out from the sides, provide privacy and a place to attach cabinets and closets. They are not structurally necessary for the trailer itself. We had camped in our trailer for three years before undertaking this renovation, so we knew that we wanted the possible privacy that two rooms can offer.

Each bulkhead in our trailer is made from 1/4" thick material, held in place by curved aluminum channel attached to the inner wall of the trailer and by a straight piece of extruded aluminum that is screwed into the ceiling and floor. The curved edge of the bulkhead is a snug fit in the channel, but is not actually attached to the aluminum. The straight piece assures that it will not fall out of its channel. I do not know why the curved part floats. It may help the insides move a bit if the trailer flexes while under way. Or it may just be a time and cost saver, since restraining it isn't necessary.

Hmmm, the open plan looks tempting
Removal of the bulkheads begins with disconnecting the straight channel from the trailer at the top and bottom. Hunt for and remove all screws. Gentle taps on the straight channel with a rubber mallet, preferably with a board to distribute the force, will either loosen the bulkhead from the curved channel or remove the straight channel from the bulkhead. It is important to distribute taps gently and evenly to avoid bending this channel. You will need it if you plan to replace the bulkhead and they don't make them any more.

The straight channel is held to the bulkhead with a number u-shaped spring clips that fit inside the channel and have inward facing barbs to grab and hold the bulk head. They are usually spaced about a foot apart but this can vary widely, depending on how thorough the assembler was being that day, I guess. If you lose one, don't worry.  Because there is a slight lip at the inside edge of the channel, it is easier to slide the channel off lengthwise than to force it off sideways. Then the u-clips can be pried off with a screwdriver and saved for later.

The new, narrower wall in place
Once the original bulkhead came free, I used it as a pattern for the new one. Even two sided plywood has a good side and a bad side, so placement took some planning. I always adjusted my planned cutting layout after I brought my birch ply home from the lumber store so that the best side would show where I wanted it. I traced the outline and also marked holes that I knew I would use again, such as those for connecting the bulkhead to upper cabinets and closets. Predrilling these holes helps speed up reassembly. We moved our doorway to the middle room over by making one bulkhead 2" wider and the other 2" narrower. This gave us more room to get past the new dinette in the back.

Upper cabinet off and veneer in place
Closet sides are a lot like bulkheads. The front channel is connected to a closet door, but everything comes off the same way. There are also a lot of attachments to the upper cabinets. I took a lot of pictures along the way so that I could refer back to them for placement along the way. Some things need to go back exactly as they came out and others don't. It's important to be sure you know what each part contributes to the whole before taking it apart.

Pictures help with reassembly
Pictures also help with the order of disassembly, since putting the closet back together is exactly that, but in reverse. The closet doors presented a bit of difficulty since there is no wood product that can do what the laminate on the closet doors does. The door frames are a marvel of modern engineering. They are light weight and have just the right profile, holes and shape to fit the closet at hold the laminate facings in place. That facing needs to be fairly stiff and strong. Veneer can't be used; it is too fragile and floppy and is too thin to fit snugly in the channel. Plywood is too thick. I address the closet doors in another blog post here, where I show how we used a different laminate to keep our light wood look. At some point, we might decide we want a different pattern. It would be easy to change.

Upper cabinet off the wall
Upper cabinets look like this on the inside. The bottom is a single piece of plywood. When they come off the wall and are no longer supported by bulkheads or the trailer interior, they are pretty floppy. It's important to keep them supported when dismantling them. I found the easiest way to get the channel off the front edge was with a piece of scrap wood and a hammer. The wood is softer than the aluminum so it can transfer the blows and nudge the channel without marring the aluminum.  The channel clips I mentioned in the wall section can be seen in the picture to the right.

Finishing a cabinet underside
Once the cabinet is apart, replacing the veneer went quickly. I varathaned all the veneer before cutting it, so I didn't have to fiddle with painting thin strips. I was also careful to mark and drill any screw holes that would need to line up with the framing later on. The cabinetry in a vintage Airstream is only sturdy when it is fully installed. It is only as strong as it absolutely needs to be, which helps keep the vintage trailers so much lighter weight than the newer ones.

The center divider, which doesn't show, keeps a bit of the trailer's history

It's nearly exactly the same space as before, but it feels completely different. Our bed is permanently set up on the front dinette so this is the view we wake up to. Yes, it took a lot of time and scraped knuckles and a lot of chores and housework didn't get done, but we have no regrets.  It's lovely.

Here's that original picture from the top again, now that you know the story.

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