GUTTING (And Repurposing) a Vintage Airstream Interior

GUTTING (And Repurposing) a Vintage Airstream Interior

It was a slower than anticipated start on the Airstream renovation. I’ve been inundated by work (a necessity to pay for this project), plus the weather is turning wetter and colder here in East Tennessee.

Dismantling the original interior so it’s more or less a blank slate is more time-consuming than one might think. This isn’t your quick-and-dirty, sledge hammer and crowbar, stress-relieving demolition work, since the goal is to save and reassemble as many of the original finishes as possible.

All the remaining cabinets came out first, while teaching a valuable lesson that finding and drilling out every last rivet is a tedious but necessary task. You don’t want to be left holding a heavy upper cabinet above your head for five minutes while trying to find that one hidden rivet you didn’t get on the first go-around!

Another lesson learned: use a corded drill, so you don’t run out of charged batteries mid-heavy-cabinet-removal. 😩

These little brackets held the upper cabinets in place. Getting to those rivets on the sides and drilling them out was a challenge!
A mostly empty Airstream, with just the aluminum inner skins remaining

Next up was plumbing removal. 45-year-old plumbing is surprisingly brittle when you don’t need it to be and shockingly resilient when you do! We dismantled all the copper carefully, which was at least worth a little bit of money when taken to a metal recycler – it’ll help buy the new PEX plumbing that will replace it.

Ah, adventures in built-in toilet removal. It was a loo with a view: just hope they made sure the curtains were closed before doing the deed! 🙈
Plumbing that had been repaired with duct tape over the years 😱 No wonder the bathroom floor was rotted out.
The rotted out bathroom floor under the toilet and sink
This is where the combined black and gray tank was. There was a plastic tank inside this metal box, so the wetness is just water from the plumbing leaks above. Even still, ew.
Bath tub before removal: such a cute but weird little tub! You can see a hole to the upper right, where the sink drained into it. It’s a shame we couldn’t find a new use for it, but it was cracked and not repairable.
Plumbing under the bath tub

The interior aluminum walls weren’t too bad to remove, but required several hands to hold them in place as another person drilled out the hundreds of tiny rivets. We should have purchased stock in drill bits before this undertaking!

As the walls came down, we labeled each one’s installation location with masking tape, rolled them up, and secured them with bungees to keep them small enough to get them out the trailer door. They’ll be cleaned, primed, reinstalled, and painted.

Ceiling skin removal in progress

A couple electrical-fires-waiting-to-happen were found within the insulation in the walls and floor, thanks to previous owners whose enthusiasm didn’t quite match up to their skills as electricians. There was melted insulation around connections that had been simply taped together, or some had been secured with twist-on wire nuts that vibrated loose in travel. 😱 The plan from day one was to replace all the wiring, but yikes.

The original battery monitor. We’ve come a long way.

There were also many discoveries of non-human inhabitants over the years. Wasp and bee nests/hives, mouse skeletons, spiders, termites, and many others. I shudder now to think of all the potential bunkmates we’d have had, had we not chosen to remove the walls and floor. Sealing up even the tiniest of holes with fine-grade wire mesh is very high on the priority list now!

Dead mouse found in Airstream
RIP little buddy 😢
Never again with handling any fiberglass insulation! A mask, gloves, and a protective suit were worn at all times, but I still feel itchy.
After the inner skins and insulation have been removed – it’s getting so shiny!
After the molded end caps had been removed

The subfloor was by far the most difficult part to remove. During manufacturing, large elevator bolts were dropped in from the top of the floor and run through holes in the frame of the trailer, then bent over underneath to prevent loosening from road vibration.

It’s a clever design if you never had to remove them, but the only way to remove the subfloor was to cut a square in the plywood around each bolt, lift off the floor, then come back in with a grinder to cut away the rest of the wood and lop the head off the bolt. Not a fun or easy task, and it became increasingly difficult as more and more of the surrounding subfloor was removed and you were left just with beams and floating pieces of scrap plywood to balance on!

Insulation, the trailer frame, and the aluminum belly pan seen from above, after removing a section of plywood subfloor. The small squares of plywood on the beams are where bolts had to be cut off.

The subfloor is also sandwiched between the exterior walls (or shell) of the trailer and the steel beams that support the trailer floor. In a shell-off renovation, like this Airstream’s rotted subfloor necessitated, you’re actually separating the aluminum top of the trailer from the steel bottom frame, like separating the top and bottom buns of a hamburger. Then you put new flooring in (the hamburger patty) and bolt the top and bottom (buns) back together.

As you can imagine, this is not a project for the faint of heart – or to be undertaken on a windy day. I did a lot of reading up on methods for this on various Airstream blogs and forums first. Thanks to ratchet straps, some 2×4’s for bracing, and other support mechanisms for the shell of the trailer, so far the somewhat flexible aluminum shell of the trailer has not bowed, buckled, or fallen completely off the frame. And yes, there have been cases of that happening. 😱

It’s funny how much an Airstream resembles a spaceship from the inside when gutted. After removing the floor and insulation, you’re left with just aluminum and steel. That’s how so many Airstreams have stood the test of time, and can usually be brought back to their former glory.

After power-washing the interior – SHIIIIINY!

It’s unfortunate that rust inhibitors were not used on the steel beams back in the 60’s, because we have a lot of grinding (and some welding) to do now to prepare the water-damaged frame for another 40+ years of use. Sealing it with an automotive-grade rust inhibitor paint should help to prevent any further corrosion, and the new plywood subfloor will be thoroughly sealed against moisture.

This is what a bathroom water leak does to a subfloor over time
So much rust in the steel beams around the edges where leaks occurred! 😢 The center beams are fine, thankfully, so just the outriggers need patched.

The next steps are grinding and painting the steel frame while the floor is out and the shell is detached, sealing any water leaks in the outer shell, then the terrifying but exciting prospect of starting to put her back together! I’m so looking forward to the turning point where all this hard work is not going to just be hidden away forever in the walls or floor.


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