Useful Stuff 6: How to Renovate an Old Camper

We were about to embark on a camping holiday with our daughters and their families when Frances, my wife, noticed a musty smell in the truck slide in camper. We decided to do a renovation on the poor old thing, a 1975 vintage.

Apparently, water had gotten into the frame of the camper by way of holes under the clearance lights. The plastic bases of the lights got broken down from the UV rays from the sun. Caulking also deteriorated, exposing the holes drilled for wiring the lights. I needed to remove the old lights and replace them all, a total of 14 lights, 7 amber in the front and 7 red in the back. These lights never did work properly from the day I bought this used camper.

Old camper walls without insulation.

I replaced the lights with similar sized ones, caulking the base to the roof with a silicon based latex caulk. I chose the lights with pigtails attached rather than the quick connect version which seem to corrode quickly here on the West coast.

We had to tear out the paneling in the upper bunk area where the moisture did the most damage. Luckily, I didn't need to replace the structure, we just opened it up and dried it out. I added a couple of pieces of 1x2 to stiffen the main structural members where they were a bit punky. The main structure is only 1x2 and 2x2 without any sheeting on the outside for strength and rigidity. The paneling is glued and nailed to the inside of the frame for this purpose. That is why I didn't want to remove anymore than I needed to and covered the inside rather than removing it. The extra weight, I felt, was of no big consequence. The damage was done to this front of the cab over bunk area, as shown here. I replaced the ceiling paneling before taking this picture. The original builder, this was a home built unit, installed poly vapor barrier against the aluminum sheeting instead of on the warm side of the wall, under the paneling. This caused the water to lay there and do more damage than if there was no Poly. I ripped it out and didn't bother putting any over the insulation before I paneled it. I felt that since I don't heat the camper what's the point. I did, however replace the insulation, mainly for sound value and to keep the hot Summer temperatures outside. It worked well on our first trip to the interior where the temperatures were far hotter than we are used to on the coast. The camper remained relatively cooler than the outside temperatures with the shades drawn and windows and vents open.

Where our old camper was manufactured.

This picture shows the clearance lights that were replaced. I soldered the pigtails of the lights to the wires coming out of the roof. I then covered the wires with electrical tape. Each light is grounded to the roof aluminum with a mounting screw, the hot wires are soldered only.

As an aside, notice the black lid for the roof vent. After about 5 years or so, this lid completely deteriorated from the sun. I could scrape the plastic powder off the surface which left tiny holes exposed. We got a replacement lid to fit perfectly from our local RV parts dealer. Cost was about $20 with taxes, compared to about $56 for a new vent assembly. We bought a white lid which acted like a transparent skylight inside the camper.

My wife helping to renovate our old camper.

Here Frances is painting the new ceiling paneling which I installed since the original was water damaged along the bottom. She also painted the framing which was blackened by water damage with Zinsser BIN Shellac Sealer. It dried in about 20 minutes, but she needed to use a painters ventilator mask because of the strong fumes. She painted the ceiling with a melamine oil based paint, shown here, which gave a good hard satin finish. I removed all the gimp and aluminum window casing, replacing it with wood trim that I made from an old water bed frame that I had been saving for years. I don't throw too much away!

The following pictures show the original paneling painted. A bad plan if done incorrectly. The paint was chipping off and looked tacky, to say the least. The gimp is cut away and the trim removed to allow for the new paneling to be attached.

our old camper before renovating it.

Another view of our old camper before renovation.

Our old camper stripped to its bare framing before renovating it.

At this point the ceiling is painted and everything is ready for the installation of the paneling.

I bought 4 sheets of mahogany paneling, installed it and Frances sealed it with a clear semi-gloss Flecto Varathane Professional Finish, in a black can. The first coat is thinned with 10% paint thinner with the remaining two coats applied full strength from the can. About 2 liters of Varathane were used. The Professional Finish allows 2 or 3 coats per 24 hour day, which is nice if you are in a rush.

I removed the fridge and furnace so Frances could use bleach to remove any mold then she painted the area with the shellac based sealer.

Our old camper used for storage before we started renovating it.

Another view of our old camper before renovation.

↑ BEFORE ↑           ↓ AFTER ↓

Here are the finished photos of the camper reno:

Photo of the another angle in the kitchen area of the renovated old camper.

Photo of the kitchen area of the renovated old camper.

Notice the little ladder I made for the kids to climb up into the over the cab bunk.

Another photo of the inside of the old camper after it was renovated.

I applied the same laminate as the countertop on the door and drawer fronts.

Photo of the bedroom area of the old camper after it was renovated.

I installed a 12 volt oscillating fan for the Summer weather.

Photo of the outside of the shower and bathroom of the old camper after it was renovated.

Notice the trim: crown, inside and outside moldings.

Photo of the inside of the old camper after it was renovated.

Notice the CD/radio installed beside the furnace. I made a small box to carry the CDs in. It fits in the closet over the radio and can be lifted out easily to take into the truck when traveling.

Photo of the bedroom of the old camper after it was renovated.

The lid of the vent acts like a skylight in the upper bunk.

Photo of the ceiling of the old camper after it was renovated.

The original metal lid is still in the kitchen/dining room of the old camper.

Not too shabby for a 1975 camper, eh? Frances did the upholstery and curtains, previously. We spent about $260 for the reno including the radio (from auto wrecker at $50); paneling at $50; sealer for $40; clearance lights $60; vent lid $20; battery isolator solenoid $20, assorted wiring, fuses, connectors, etc. $20. We already had the Varathane, melamine paint, caulking, second battery, plastic laminate, contact cement, nails and screws and the wood for the trim and CD box.

All in all, it is not that difficult to reno a camper or RV. Just take one step at a time, do a little research, ask questions from Dave, of course and the rest is up to your own innovation and design ideas.


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