Q: What is meant by “restoring” an Airstream?
A: If you have a vehicle in perfect working order and condition, the upkeep associated with it is considered maintenance. What happens is that over time, people stop doing that maintenance, and the vehicle (trailer) falls into disrepair. At a point you come along, acquire the trailer, and then a decision gets made, do you use the trailer as is with all its faults, or do you reset the condition back to the point where you are just having to do maintenance again?
Restoration means going way beyond mere fixing or patchwork repairs, it means improving each item to an as-new or original condition. The pleasure comes from working with tools and materials, and can be considered an art or the preservation of something unique and desirable.
Q: What is the difference between a restoration and a renovation?
A: As applied to Airstreams, restoration is returning the trailer’s appearance and operation back to looking like it was when new, or could have looked for the era. Hidden systems might be updated and subtle changes made to the existing configuration. High quality, era appropriate looking materials and styling are important. restoring, yet with some degree of customization works because very few vintage or classic era Airstreams were built exactly alike when made, owing to buyer options and variability from one trailer to the next.
Renovation on the other hand, makes no pretensions about being sympathetic to originality, and reflects the current tastes or desire of the owner. Modern design or materials that would never have graced an Airstream can be used, but the end result is still necessary – it must be functional and show thought and design. Renovations are not considered a bad thing as long as they are done well. Here are some examples of renovations.
The key to both is that they get completed. – a “renovation” in progress is just a messed up trailer. There show up on eBay plenty of examples of these….
Q: Why would anyone want to restore an Airstream?
A: There is a certain satisfaction in saving something old and making it usable again. The usual attraction is the unique styling of the Airstream, nostalgia for the golden era of travel and camping, and the pride one has in not only having a beautiful trailer, but also something that is practical and useful. If you do the work yourself, it can also result is an object with high resale value, or a usable item at less than the cost of new.
Q: I don’t know much about trailers. How hard is it to fix one up? Will I be able to do it?
A: If you are not mechanically inclined, or have never rebuilt a house or car, restoring an Airstream is not for you. It’s equivalent to taking apart the toaster – anyone can do it, but very few can put it back together. This one failure to understand is the most common cause of all the stripped-out, partially finished Airstreams out there. You will lose lots of money, too. If you are unfamiliar with fixing things up, I must strongly suggest get a “ready-to-go” newer airstream, learn from it, and then after you’ve gained skills and knowledge, then get a restoration project.
Q: How much would it cost to restore or Renovate an Airstream?
A: Depending on how much work you do yourself and the initial condition of the trailer, with luck under $6,000, but usually under $10,000 to get a trailer back to something safe and more than an aluminum tent. A complete restoration or renovation can easily cost $12,000 to $18,000 in materials in addition to labor and the initial cost of the trailer. Few people have all the skills and all of the necessary equipment for everything; for example welding or spray painting. This runs up costs, but can hardly be avoided. The working hours required could run from 800 to 4,000, once again depending on condition. A renovation, with a custom interior, can run even more, depending on how much work you can do yourself and how skilled you are.
Q: I don’t have much mechanical experience and only a few tools, will I be able to restore an Airstream?
A: Well, I’m not going to lie to you and say yes and set you up for failure. If you are familiar with building and renovating houses or restoring automobiles, you should do just fine. If you have a good selection of power and hand tools, you will be able to many of the basic restoration functions. Otherwise, it is best to get an trailer in the best condition you can find, picking up tools and experience maintaining a classic Airstream. Another option is to pay someone to do the work (see below).
Q:What is the one most important consideration before beginning An Airstream Renovation or restoration?
A: That would be a place to work on the trailer. Fixing or restoring a trailer requires it to out of the elements so you can work on hot or rainy days, a clean, dry, and protected place to work and keep your tools, and a place to store the removed parts while you work on the trailer, plus a roof over your head when it comes time to polish.
Q: Are there companies or individuals that will restore or Renovate an Airstream for me?
A: Very few, about a dozen in the US, and all are very expensive for full vintage trailer restorations. Many people pay upwards of $25,000 to $80,000 to have one restored. Restoration and repair work is very labor intensive, and the end cost reflects this. Airstream restoration is still the realm of the handy-man do-it-yourself er. This is not to say you can’t hire out some specialized work, but the cost will add up in a hurry. A list of companies can be found in the Suppliers section.
Q: Where can I get directions for polishing an older Airstream?
A: The best bet is to review the many web sites of those who have done it, and learn from their mistakes and successes. Demonstrations are given at many rallies, and people that have polished their trailers are always willing to share their techniques and tips (including me). Also check the FAQ section on Polishing later on.
Q: I have an old Airstream, how should I go about restoring it? Should I polish It first, or what?
A: Many people’s first instincts when getting an older Airstream is to start polishing, paint or replace the upholstery. Just as with an old house, that won’t suffice. You must address the hidden, less glamorous aspects first. The ideal order is:
- Running Gear – axle, brakes, tires, shocks, suspension
- Trailer/Tow Lighting
- Weathertight the exterior – fix vents, A/C, windows and doors
- Floor repairs – remove cabinets and furnishings if required, replace or repair floors
- Address all frame, bumper and tongue issues
- Fix Belly pan
- Remove interior skins if required
- Replace insulation if required
- Route and install plumbing, gas and electrical provisions
- Install choice of flooring
- Interior wall finish – clean and/or paint the Zolatone
- Reinstall cabinets and furnishings, repairing as necessary
- Repair and check the appliances
- Install appliances and fixtures
- One last pass over the exterior, making sure all work is done
- Seal and Polish trailer Paint the steel parts – tongue, bumper, steps, etc.
- Replace cushions and curtains
The steps involved in your situation will depend on the condition and era of your trailer but generally follow the same guidelines.
Q: My trailer needs so much attention and work, it seems so overwhelming. Where do I start?
A: It can be very overwhelming. The key is to breakdown the over-all project into smaller chunks, and then put them together into a master plan. Establish priorities and work them, avoiding the temptation to bounce around. Use lists to track needed parts, upcoming activities and to remain focused on your plan. Become totally familiar with your trailer before wielding the crowbar, understand how it all fits together and have a definite goal in mind before you start ripping and tearing.
Q: How can I remodel or change the interior without affecting the value of my trailer, both historical and financial?
A: As long as the alterations are sympathetic to original design and materials, it is quite acceptable to adjust and repair the interiors of these older trailers without affecting the value. Well thought out improvements will actually increase their appeal – and value. No two Airstreams were really the same from the factory to begin with.
It is also quite acceptable to use modern systems, disguising or hiding them as appropriate. Examples are rewiring the electrical on a 1950’s trailer with a converter to supply 12v to all the lights instead of the old 110V, or replacing a worn-out hot water heater with a new unit, but modifying and reusing the old exterior shroud, or replacing a damaged cabinet, but using similar veneer plywood and finish and reusing the hardware. There are many new materials that would look appropriate in a vintage trailer – they are usually well made using basic materials – chrome, aluminum, wood and glass.
Q: What will I encounter in the typical restoration or renovation? Will I be able to fix up a trailer good enough o use?
A: The key is to look at an Airstream as it were a car. If you would not have second thoughts about buying a similar aged car and fixing it in your barn or garage, then you will be OK.
On a 1950’s trailer, expect to have to do a full frame-up restoration. The floor will be rotted in many places, structurally weakening the trailer to the point of being unsafe, the frame and skin will be corroded in areas, most of the mechanicals and gaskets will be worn out, and the appliances will all need to be gone through and overhauled to be usable again. The wiring insulation and splices have all deteriorated and will need to be replaced. The axle most likely will need to be replaced, as will much of the LPG system. Some of the cabinets may have water damage, and there is the inevitable 60 years of prior owner modifications that will have to be overcome. This is no different than what you find on an automobile from the 1950’s.
Moving into the later 1960’s, things may not be so drastic. The wiring is newer Romex, floor rot may not be as extensive, but you will still need to replace the axles and LPG tanks/regulators, and the appliances will need to be gone through and checked out & repaired for safety reasons. Many shops will not work on appliances this old, so you will need the skills to do so.
Just as you may still find some 1970’s cars still usable and drivable, so can you find 1970’s Airstreams that are usable with just a good going through, and parts are still around. This is the vintage of trailer that the average handyperson can acquire and get into Airstreaming.
1980’s trailers (yes they are 25+ years old now) are going to be your best bet to get up and running as soon as possible, usually with just an inspection, correction of any safety problems, and replacement of worn and tired soft goods (cushions, carpet & curtains).
As with any Airstreams, there are going to be the exceptions, there are some 1980’s trailers out there that are ready for the scrap heap, and occasionally you will find an 1960’s trailer that has been stored inside all its life. Comes back again to condition, condition, condition…
Q: What is the best thing I can do for my trailer now that it is restored?
A: Store it out of the elements.
Q: Do you have any examples of folks who have done shell-off restorations of the floor and frames?
A: Here are some sites that show how they did it:
http://sweetsovereign.blogspot.com/ (start with the 2005 archives)