As May rolled into June, I returned from my final 21 day hitch fired up and ready to get busy on the trailer. We had taken it to a local RV repair shop for them to assess and perhaps repair some of the issues we had identified as needing work, so when I returned home, we went to pick up Tallulah Belle.
And got a reality check.
The shop had kept the trailer for three weeks, had done basically nothing, and charged us $100 for the ‘privilege’. I had asked the owner to especially see if the plumbing system was salvageable, and his learned, ‘professional’ diagnosis was, “…it a’int hooked up.” Wow.
At this point I really ‘got’ the idea that this was to be all on us to do it and do it right, that locally there was nobody who could offer assistance or advice on the restoration. And again I was glad for the Vintage Trailer Talk forum. Soooo, I got busy.
I began by removing all the windows and doors, and storing them in a place where they would be safe. It is a REAL PAIN to try to find parts for 53 year old jalousie mechanisms or window frames, take care of them while they are in storage!
The PO (previous owner, in vintage trailer parlance) had done us a favor when he had pulled the skins by ditching all of the rusty, original clutch head screws and replacing them with stainless steel, #8 square drive screws. I highly recommend this if you are doing a restoration, as the square drive screws are quick and easy to drive and remove and have a ‘neat’, almost rivet like appearance.
Most of us do not have a clutch head driver or attachment, and these screws were used back in the day by most of the trailer manufacturers. It is just better to ditch them and go with the better, modern version. You will need a lot of them. I bought about 800 new screws in addition to the ones the PO had used. It’s worth it!
When removing the windows, you will find that the frames are stuck in place by a sticky, gummy material. This is normal. It is called Butyl Tape and is rubbery, tacky sealant that comes in rolls, is available in different widths and is available online at Vintage Trailer Supply or other vendors, and usually at a local mobile home or RV supply shop. Mineral spirits will dissolve and remove this residue from frames and trailer skin, and it needs to be done before painting anyway, so might as well do it when removing the windows.
Once the windows and doors were removed I next moved on to the skin. Since we did not have an indoor storage/work space, I was forced to do this in the yard, and at the mercy of the weather. I decided to work on one area at a time, leaving the basic structure in one piece for support. A vintage trailer is essentially and empty box and derives it’s strength from the four walls fastened together. If much of a wall is removed there is nothing to support the remainder, so I started on the rear.
The skins are screwed to wooden frame pieces and to the edge material (in this case t was dilapidated plywood strips) and the seams where the sides meet the roof are covered by aluminum edge trim. This is a strip with a rolled edge, with holes every six inches or so that is screwed down to cover the seams. First step is in removing the screws on the edge trim and gently prying loose the trim piece, which is also sealed with butyl tape. Take care to not bend the edge trim too much as it is easily bent and won’t have the same shape when bent back.
Once the edge trim was removed the pieces were stored with the windows, as all the aluminum would be polished before replacing. The rear of the trailer now was bare but for the lights and license plate holder. The PO had installed really sweet ’56 Fairlane tail lights so those were keepers but the butt-ugly license plate light would have to go. Okay, now it gets real!
Removing the screws from the skin on the rear curve was straight forward and pretty soon the sheet metal was free. This exposed the birch panel and framing. The window frame had a sort of sleeve of thin aluminum which fit between the wood and the window frame, this was removed and stored, and it was time for DEMOLITION!! YAYYYY!!!
The rear birch panel came out after the wood screws, tacks, staples and squiggly metal things (??) were all painstakingly removed by hand, with pry bay, screwdriver and colorful compound complex strings of expletives. And blazing sun. And Cambodia like humidity. Finally the entire rear panel was OUT!
Note to other trailer restorers. Be SURE to let your significant other know what you are doing during this process!! Melinda rolled up in the driveway after work and saw this, and almost melted down.. she thought the trailer was destroyed!
Now it was time to begin fabricating new panels for the rear. I kept the old panels to use as a template for the new ones, and had previously bought several sheets of 1/4 inch birch at the local Home Depot. We looked through many many sheets to find some that did not have ugly inclusions or flaws but we ended up with about six sheets of really nice wood. ($27.00/per 4×8 sheet).
I had set up a folding table under a tree for shade and deployed a circular saw, various hand saws and a jigsaw. These tools were fine for a project like this, where each piece would be hand fitted. When the new pieces were marked and trimmed to final size, I cut new framing from 1×4 lumber to frame the rear window and span the back arch. The panels were attached from the top down, and at the bottom they screw into the footer board under the flooring. Once in place, the new frame pieces were carefully aligned and screwed to the edging, and fastened from the inside with twisty nails.
OOPS, I forgot to mention twisty nails.
Sorry about that. Twisty nails were used by OEM builders because they have nominally more holding power than a straight nail, and have a domed nail head which is better looking than a screw head. These can be had at a Lowes or Home Depot or can be ordered online. They are a bugger to drive with a small hammer so I bought a small air powered hand held nail driver from Harbor Freight. This makes it much easier to drive a twist nail straight and true without denting your new wood.