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Old 08-08-2009, 06:29 PM   #1
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Stealth Camper Build Thread

A stealth camper is a mobile home that can go pretty much anywhere and live in relative comfort, more or less indefinitely, without shore power, sewage, or running water. It’s dry camping or stealth parking, in locations that range from a Walmart parking lot, BLM land, National Forests, or a friends driveway. It is very commonly done by even conventional RV folk, but usually only for a night or two.

I imagine it conjures up images of crazy unwashed smelly drunks dumping their garbage in the street in front of your house and then driving off to desecrate someone else’s neighborhood. I’m sure there are people like that in the world, but I’m not one of them, and my home won’t be an eyesore. It’s a box van, plain and simple, clean, and in good working condition. It will be there and gone before you even notice it. The point is not to bother anyone, and not be bothered by anyone. That implies not breaking any laws.

The point of this thread is to share the experience of designing and building a stealth camper. I assume very few readers would want to make their own stealth camper, but there are many similarities to more conventional RV’s and there are many handy people out there who would consider building or modifying a camper for their own needs. I intend to dig deep into at least one possible example of how things are built and why they are built that way. If you like to get technical about tools, techniques, materials, and design philosophy, then read on.

In many ways I am a newbie to this RV thing, let alone building a stealth camper and living in it. If you are a newbie of one sort or another then that might be to your advantage, because I will ask some of the same obvious questions that you would have asked, and make some of the mistakes that you would have made. If anyone out there catches me in error, please correct me. I would rather be corrected than misinform. Likewise if you just have a different point of view, jump right in.

This forum tends to lean towards the very high end class 8 truck conversions. There is relatively little about medium duty trucks. I will buck that trend, not because I want to, but because I have little choice. I am not as broke as you might assume, but I am CHEAP, so if you can’t afford a top of the line class 8 conversion, I might have some options for you. I will admit, however, that if you just want a conventional RV, then you could probably buy a used one cheaper, and you could probably resell it for more. Building your own makes no sense unless you really want something unique, or you really enjoy building things.

I am working a full time job, and then some. I also have friends and family obligations, and I have a stealth camper to build. Forgive me if I can’t always respond right away.

Lets begin…

I have already purchased my truck, a 2002 Mitusubishi Fuso FE-SP COE (Cab Over Engine) with a 4.9 liter direct injection turbo intercooled 4 cyl diesel rated at 175 HP. It has a 4 speed automatic transmission with an overdrive button on the shift lever, but even in overdrive it would probably top out at 3000 RPM at about 78 MPH, so I won’t be racing Geofkaye at 100 MPH on the interstate. It has an unladen weight of 5,240 and max GVWR of 14,500. The 14 foot long box was built by Supreme Corp. and is made of FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plywood). The total vehicle length is about 20 feet with a wheel base of about 11 feet, so it turns as sharply as I would ever need it to. It has 4 wheel disk brakes with ABS (Antilock Braking System) which is better than any car I have ever owned.

I am no truck driver, but it seems to me to be plenty powerful, at least when empty. I would have preferred a manual transmission for better fuel economy, but I may grow to appreciate the simplicity of driving an automatic with a fluid filled torque converter, like a car.

It has barn doors in the back, and two very large top hinged doors on the right hand side that basically allow access to the entire right side of the box. It also has underbed boxes all around except for the forward left side of the underbed which is mostly filled with the 33 gal. diesel fuel tank. It also has a built in gas tank for the generator bay which is currently empty.

My truck is a COE (Cab Over Engine) because it needs to be short enough to fit in my present driveway while I build it into my future home. Where I live, it is illegal to park such a truck on the street but it is not illegal to park an RV on private property. It is arguably not an RV yet, but it will be. As soon as it is, I will try to re-register it as such, which may prove to be difficult or impossible here in the United Socialist Republic of Mexifornia, (CA) but I need to try because the registration and insurance for even a medium duty commercial truck are way too expensive.

I would have preferred a more conventional cab, and a larger box, and possibly a pass through from the cab to the living quarters, but these things weren’t options. I realize that a COE is going ride rough, especially as lightly loaded as it will ultimately be, but that’s just how it has to be. I’ve driven it a bit completely empty and it doesn’t seem too bad. Sure, a really big bump will bounce me off the headliner, but most of the time it seems the Mitsubishi engineers did a good job of making the springs progressive. As I load up the back I expect it will only get better. I may also want to look into letting some air out of the tires. I generally like running them hard for optimum fuel economy but beyond a certain point for a given load it probably doesn’t buy me much except to make the ride more harsh. I may even want to consider running only the outside duel in the back. I will have to get it all finished and weight it first though.

The truck doesn’t have an air ride seat, but it does seem generally comfortable enough. One problem is the generally upright seating position. I like to recline the seat back a bit but it is already up against the back wall of the cab. I found a simple and cheap solution that I really like though. My local electronics store (of all places) has these mesh lower back supports. They have a wire hoop that gets contorted onto a potato chip shape by the tension of the fabric. It fits nicely on the seat, provides great lower back support, increases the recline angle just enough, and as an added bonus provides for some air circulation back there, which is great for those 105 degree days in the central valley.

The rest of the cab is fairly car like. It’s not luxurious or anything but I think most people would find it perfectly comfortable. It has a good strong AC unit and all the normal amenities. It has a broad bench seat for the passenger, and a central seat back that folds down to reveal a map holder, clip board, cubby for logs, etc. You could probably sleep on that bench seat in a pinch, but that shouldn’t be necessary.

Naturally the cab lifts up and forward to reveal the engine, so you need to give some thought to what might shift around inside the cab before you lift it, but it only goes up about 45 degrees, so things don’t shift that much.

I paid $14K and it has less than 27K miles, so it’s almost new. I think it had probably been neglected a bit, not driven much, less than perfect maintenance, etc. My mechanic went through it from top to bottom and it is in good shape and now up to date. I replaced the fuel line from the diesel tank, which was leaking. I think the folks who put the box on moved the fuel tank, and they either didn’t use the correct type of fuel line, or they didn’t support it adequately.

The U bolts that held the box on were loose (check those bolts). The front tires were (are) heavily worn on the outside edge. We checked the toe in and found it normal, so I am thinking that the people who were driving it were just gunning it around corners and wearing out the tires. It is powerful enough and maneuverable enough to forget that it’s a truck and push it harder than is necessary. (Not that I ever would ;-)

To be continued…
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Old 08-08-2009, 09:30 PM   #2
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.....should you need to go to panic mode you can call the office at 888-513-5293 during the afternoon and the girlz will find me and I should return your call asap if you have any questions....unless all hello has broken loose and I have to clean up someones mess......[which happens at least 2 times a day]..... Next: do not remove the dual wheels as you will be loosing the rear lateral traction that keeps you sorta in your lane when the wind comes from a different direction.... [somewhat unexpectedly]-which you will get used to now and then. I in No Way want to have you miss that experience with a Fuzie on the X-way...one of the true thrills my business partner had on the way to Colorado a few years ago in a Budget Rental-he is now a believer in a HDT-[though a slow learner]-someone from above convinced him.....The box acts like a big sail and lane changes are the norm in cross winds-interestingly enough my business partner didn't change lanes as he was on a bridge....removing the paint from the wheels and some damage to the drivers side of the truck....but having him look down at a river or something while rubbing the truck on the guard rail and concrete barrier wall was enough to convince him it was time to step up to a road tractor instead of a city truck.......you are in for a great adventure building/driving a personal RV...remember to BOLT everything down or use e-track/belts to secure it to the wall anything less will cause moving furniture and appliances because of the spring ride-usually forward and backward movement but occasional side to side in turns...and you will not know about it till you enter the box because of no pass through....exciting! Just something to look forward to without air ride......I'd suggest finding some carpet foam and making pads about 2 inches thick to mount the appliances to to keep the road shocks to a minimum-and don't tell the supplier it is for a RV as it will void any warranty......use SO chord for all wiring or use plastic conduit and make a small clamp to hold the plug into the reciptical or maybe twist lock plugs on all connections as the vibration will unplug all your electrical stuff in the first block.....I have been there and have done the above....best of luck on this project and keep us all informed.....geofkaye
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Old 08-09-2009, 10:29 AM   #3
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Geofkaye, (my hero)

Thanks for the offer of help and advice. I plan to use plastic conduit in the walls and ceiling, but what is SO chord? Is it just stranded wire or what?

Thanks,

R.D.
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Old 08-09-2009, 10:35 AM   #4
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Driving a truck…

The driving experience is fairly car like. You sit up high, and very much in front of course. I pull it up to within inches of my garage door and I could reach out and touch the door if the windshield wasn’t in the way. Yes I know, that will put me first at the scene of the accident. The huge side view mirrors are both nice and necessary since a central rear view mirror would be useless. I did learn right away that the box sticks out way past the side of the cab and it is very easy to hit something with the front corner of the box. There are round dome mirrors below the side mirrors but it is still difficult to see the sides that far forward.

The instrument cluster is very car like with just a few exceptions. It has an oil check switch and light that you can use even before starting the engine. Green is good, red is bad, just what you would expect. Don’t bother checking right after you shut it down though. It will show red until the oil drains down from the engine top end. It has an exhaust brake, which I gather is an exhaust restrictor, not a jake brake. It only comes into play if you take your foot completely off the gas. The braking effect is modest and only at higher RPM’s. It takes a tiny bit of getting used to the idea that you need to keep your foot slightly on the gas if you want to just coast.

It has a warm up switch which apparently activates the exhaust restrictor and warms the engine a bit faster. It also has an idle up button/knob that allows you to increase the idle speed by pushing the button/knob and then turning it to the right. I gather it is for warming up the engine faster, but I could see where it also might be useful for running the alternator at higher RPM to faster charge the batteries. I haven’t seen any use for either of these features, but it doesn’t get that cold here. It has a 3 prong plug and cord going to an oil heater tied up in the engine compartment. I don’t think it has ever been used.

The headlights come on when you start the engine and the shift lever is not in neutral, whether you have them turned on or not. It’s a bit weird, but I gather it’s a safety thing and normal for trucks. I know all this must be blah blah blah for you experienced trucker types, but some newbes might read this as well.

The automatic shift lever is a standard straight line on the floor. It has a little button on the side for overdrive but as a practical matter I can’t see that I would ever use it. The button will stay pushed in (overdrive on) all the time. I suppose I might turn it off for a descent in the mountains but I don’t know about that yet. I do know that if you try to turn it off above a certain speed it just ignores you in order to prevent over revving the engine.

The foot position on the gas pedal seems a little awkward to me. In a car you sit well back behind the pedals and push them mostly forward. You can rest your heel on the floor and push the gas with the ball of your foot. If you bounce up and down it doesn’t affect the pedals much because they go mostly forward and aft, and your foot is supported by the floor. In this truck your foot comes down more on top of the gas pedal. As you bounce up and down (which you tend to do because it’s a COE (Cab Over Engine) without air ride), you tend to bounce up and down on the gas as well. It may be a matter of technique, and I am already getting used to it, but I can imagine that on bumpy roads it could begin to impact your ability to control the truck.

On the whole, I would say that a wife or friend could drive this truck without batting an eye. It’s just a big car.

I will say that if you read the Mitsubishi Owners Manual it is ridiculously conservative. For example, they talk about breaking in new tires only on the front where the load is smaller, and then driving 125 miles at 37 MPH or less. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Unfortunately, it makes it difficult to know what issues are a serious concern and what is just CYA nonsense.

When I started looking for a truck I really intended to get a manual transmission. When I found this truck it had everything I wanted except for the automatic, so I decided to compromise. I may regret it in terms of gas mileage or I may not. I will have no need to get anywhere in a hurry, so I can just slow down and save fuel that way. That and I really don’t need to be traveling long distances all the time. Mostly I will just move around a bit to visit friends, and keep from annoying anyone in particular. I don’t actually know what kind of mileage I am getting. I haven’t managed to burn a tank of gas yet going back and forth to the building supply store and the RV shop.

To be continued…
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Old 08-09-2009, 08:19 PM   #5
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...."SO CHORD" IS A BLACK RUBBER COVERED electric wire that is used for HD extension chords and is very pliable and won't hook on sharp stuff in the walls etc....A fellow in Mid-Ohio built a MH for himself and he used blue covered wire for the 120vt side....the blue stuff is arctic covered wire and will not get stiff to about 20 below or something like that...I haven't seen the stuff since Alaska in the early 70's in MH for the pipeline guys....it was a M-35A2 with a camper shell in the bed insulated with 3inches of foam and all electric heat/ac and every possible electric appliance known to man at the time....The guys in Mid-Ohio were selling their MH here on this forum site-Amanda and I went to see it and it was one of the best over built unites in North America-"Military type of Construction" and never a short cut...back with more soon.....geofkaye
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Old 08-11-2009, 06:38 PM   #6
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Buying and insuring the truck…

I found the truck through Craig’s list. I really like the fact that Craig’s list is easy to use and free. I don’t like that it is full of scam artists and resellers. I consider buying a used vehicle a dangerous thing to do regardless of who you buy them from. Dealers are professional con artists, and private individuals are, well you never know. In this case it was a private individual business owner whose business was hurting due to the current recession. I probably made the deal too quickly and without pressing him hard enough on the price. I’ve come to accept that negotiating is not one of my strengths.

One major snag is that he didn’t have clear title. The bank was in physical possession of the piece of paper, though oddly enough they had never registered as such with the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). I wrote him a check and took possession of the vehicle. He filled out the release of liability on line (I helped him do it) and sent it in. What followed was a long uncomfortable wait for the title. I couldn’t quite figure the sellers angle for ripping me off, since I had the truck and he had also released his liability with the DMV. I also couldn’t get the truck insured without the title and didn’t feel comfortable starting to work on it.

The previous owner had let the registration lapse so he was accumulating penalties, which were now my problem. I did go to the DMV and at least start the registration process and pay the fees and the penalties, $1600 plus another $500 plus when the registration came due a few months later. That is how I discovered that the previous owners bank had no legal claim on the vehicle. Now I had a temporary registration but no insurance.

Meanwhile a month goes by and I still didn’t have the title. At this point I am telling the previous owner that we need to fill out the forms, and get them notarized, to get a replacement title. I figure, to heck with the bank, they have no legal claim on the vehicle (according to the DMV) anyway. So the previous owner calls the bank one last time and finds the whole thing is being held up because his check to them is literally 2 cents short. He gives them the 2 cents and I get my title 2 days later. Or at least that’s the official story. Could it be the previous owner didn’t actually pay off the loan until I got in his face? I will never know, but the truck and title are now all mine.

I started the process of getting insurance but that turned into a hassle as well. My insurance agent seemed to have no idea how to handle a commercial vehicle that was owned by a private individual. It seems most insurance companies didn’t want to touch it and those that did insisted that I at least pretend to be a business. Mind you, at this point I was just insuring a truck, not an RV.

I eventually did get $1,200 worth of insurance through Commerce West, a company that I had never heard of. The forms say I am an individual using the truck for computer consulting as a service technician. That last part is nonsense but they won’t accept the truth. My agent insists that it’s fine, but I worry that they will use this “lie” to deny any claim I might need to make. For the moment I can live with the situation, since I almost never drive the truck while I am converting it. Eventually I have got to find a better, and hopefully cheaper solution. By then, the truck will be undeniably an RV, though that only promises to complicate the situation.

To be continued…
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Old 08-11-2009, 06:52 PM   #7
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DeconsTRUCKshon

So now I can finally start working on the actual truck. Step one is to clean off the glue goop from the vinyl graphics. Acetone and Paper towels folded into 2” squares and then unfolded and refolded to expose new clean surfaces got the job done fairly easily on the truck body. I was concerned about the Acetone attacking the paint, but it didn’t touch it, though I was careful not to leave it on too long or scrub too hard.

The box in the back was another matter. There were large areas of thick gloppy glue that just wanted to smear around and not come off. Fortunately nothing seems to touch the FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plywood) so I was able to use different solvents, including Lacquer Thinner and Spray on Goof Off which contains Xylene, Ethylbenzene, Butyl Carbitol, Toluene, and other nasty stuff. All of these worked to some degree, but the Goof Off also contains a light oil which seems to help prevent the more volatile solvents from evaporating before they can do their job. I could then use a spatula to gently scrape up the glop and sling it into a garbage can. With the bulk of the glue removed it was back to scrubbing with paper towels to get it really clean. It might not sound so bad, but it took a couple of long days to get it done. After that was a good overall wash and wax by conventional means. Even that took most of a day.

The next step was the deconstruction of the inside of the box. The whole box was originally wired for both AC and DC. Nothing fancy, just armored cable, a circuit breaker box, and lots of cable clamps screwed into the walls. It also had some very industrial 12V lighting with wiring back to a switch in the cab. All that had to go, but not get thrown out, because it might come in handy later.

As I bought it, the truck had multiple heavy duty shelves along the entire length on the left side. They were made with angle iron and FRP inset with caulking all around. There was also a super heavy duty stainless steel work surface in the front of the truck, and a large display box along the entire right side of the truck. The display box was also made of FRP with heavy duty aluminum L and U channel. It was originally accessible from the two full length side doors. It was lined with peg board, and I assume the original idea was for some kind of an industrial display case or store front. The previous owner had wanted more access so he chopped out the front half of the display box which meant the front side door gave full access to the box interior.

The whole thing was held together with various forms of big heavy duty rivets, some of these coming through the FRP on the box outer walls to secure things on the inside. I say “rivets” but they are actually a special kind of two piece fastener that is pressed together. I gather one piece comes with a sacrificial screw stud attached. A special tool (I assume) uses that screw stud to pull the two press fit pieces together and when the force becomes too great it snaps off. It makes for a very strong fastener that is never intended to be removed, and I had to remove lots of them…

At first I tried my angle grinder with a cut off wheel. That worked but was slow, and left me with a face full of sparks and hot metal. It also tended to damage whatever the rivet went through. Never the less, for many of the rivets it was the only option. Once I got some out I was able to figure out how they were made. I figured I could pound them apart with a modified ¼” drift punch and a hammer, which I did, but it took several good solid blows on a solid surface that didn’t just flex and absorb the energy. Many rivets were in places where I couldn’t get a proper swing, or where I couldn’t support them from behind. Even for those I could wale on, I soon found that my ability to hit a target with a hammer had somewhat deteriorated over the years. Fortunately that got better with practice over the next few days, but I still wasn’t going to risk my hand holding that drift punch, so I ended up making a side handle from a piece of heavy dowel rod and some duct tape.

Beyond the rivets there was caulk, lots and lots of caulk. Whatever it was they used on the inside of that box, it was good stuff. It grabbed and held, and didn’t let go until something broke. Eventually I found I could work under it with a wood chisel and then pry it up. Once I got a loose spot I could peel it back and out of a corner with lots of force and stretching. One inch of caulk in a corner would become 4 to 6 inches long as it peeled out, ripping my hands raw and then sticking to everything it touched. Eventually I started wrapping it into a ball and by the time I was done I had a couple of 6” caulk balls. (Te-he, I said caulk balls.)

All of this took a couple of weeks of evenings and week ends with lots of loud crashing sounds, usually followed by swearing. Ultimately it all came out, and was taken apart, and stored for reuse, because I am cheap. I only dropped that stainless steel work surface on my foot once, and all the other scrapes and bruises eventually healed.

To be continued….
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Old 08-12-2009, 08:03 AM   #8
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Rod, good luck with your project, I'll be following as you go. This forum has a good deal of traffic, but not a lot of folks that post. So I thought I'd stop in a cheer you on. And to pass on a shameless plug for my leftover parts.

I have a stash of leftover parts from my project, (lots of stuff that didn't fit in to a re-design or just change of direction. If you could use any of it, I'd sell it at a loss, most of it was purchased in Elkhart at RV surplus stores. Maybe over the weekend I'l lay it all out on the floor so I take pictures.

some of the hightlights,

2 new matching gray/black tanks agout 20-30 gallons each

a fantastic fan

a box of 110V RV style electrical outlets

a fold out handle to attach to the outside for stepping up into the door

a funky flat panel tv mount

theres more just things off the top of my head.

Any way if you could use any of it great, if not thats ok too.

again good luck with you project, I hope it goes better than mine has.
-blizz
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Old 08-12-2009, 02:00 PM   #9
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I second Blizz's encouragement to carry on and tell us the story. It's a great read so far.

Rad
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Old 08-12-2009, 07:09 PM   #10
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blizzardND and Radman,

Thanks for the encouragement. So bliz, what's an RV style electrical outlet? Are they some sort of a twist lock like a NEMA plug, or do they have something to keep them from falling out with vibration or what? I told you I was an RV newbie, or is that nube?

And since you asked for more... Here it comes...
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Old 08-12-2009, 07:12 PM   #11
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Side doors or awnings, you decide…

The next big project was to get the side doors working. There are two of them, hinged at the top, and together they run the entire length of the box on the right side Either one of them probably weighs 150 pounds. They had both seen some abuse of one sort or another. Some previous owner had given up on the rear one and caulked it shut. It was probably a good choice since the large industrial pop rivets that held the hinges on were pulled directly into the FRP, where they split and splintered the wood.

Someone had gotten a little smarter about the front door where the rivets used 1/8” thick aluminum backer plates. The front door however had other problems. Various people had made half baked attempts at door latches, and at some point the door popped open and was dragged across something, probably the side of a building. As a result the door was slightly tweaked, but mostly the heavy duty aluminum outer frame was bent. All of this was minor enough that I didn’t really notice it (much) when I bought the truck, but now it was mine and had to be fixed.

I didn’t even really want side doors. They just came with the truck. The previous owner had suggested that I could turn them into awnings, kind of like industrial strength slides. I was intrigued enough with the idea that it didn’t kill the deal. I was also thinking that I might want to put windows in behind them so I could see out when the awnings were open, but still have a naked box truck when they were closed. I later decided that wasn’t worth the effort, though I could still change my mind. I had to do something with them though, either caulk them shut or turn them into awnings. I started to make awnings, and once I get going I tend to find a way, even long after the whole idea stops making sense, so I made awnings.

The front door had two very powerful gas struts that would open it past 90 degrees. It was great for access, but put a ton of stress on the hinges, and besides, I wanted awnings that sloped out and down, not up. As I reworked the geometry I found that even one gas strut was enough to open the door as far as I needed it to open, which was handy since I had two doors and two struts. Of course that meant the door was supported on only one side, so I made a telescoping prop for the other side from two sizes of EMT (steel electrical conduit tubing). I made a steel spring pin out of piano wire to “catch” the EMT at full extension. The door/awning now opens/closes easily with just one hand.

The front door had a big hole in it from the previous latch handle. Fortunately it turns out you can patch FRP. I routed out the opening to a smooth sort of rounded corner box, and then laid a piece of scrap FRP in behind where I could trace out the opening. I cut it to shape, and then sanded the edges until it was a tight fit all around. I glued it in with CA Cyanoacrylate glue (AKA super glue) but not the cheap department store stuff. I used the good stuff from my local hobby shop. Time will tell whether it seals the edges and protects the FRP from delaminating due to moisture. I used the CA because I knew it would wick into the joint and further into the pores of the plywood on both sides. It’s not invisible or anything but it’s way better than that raggedy hole that was there before.

The frame on the front door was repaired with steel and aluminum brackets and lots of 1/8” stainless steel pop rivets. I also used some epoxy putty to fill in some of the cosmetic divots. I’ve never done any real auto body work but I imagine it is similar. A little white rattle can paint was good enough for this project.

I cut through the caulking that held the back side door and eventually got it open. That led to repairs to the hinges which amounted to carriage bolts and large fender washers replacing the rivets. The door frame hadn’t been damaged so I didn’t need to reinforce it as much, but I did install the gas strut and the telescoping support on the other side.

To be continued…
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Old 08-12-2009, 07:17 PM   #12
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Itching to cut FRP…

Now I had two nice awning doors that would open and close, but no latch to hold them closed. I considered various sorts of drawer locks and latches, but eventually hit upon something both stronger and simpler. I didn’t really want to lock the doors shut because I figured that would only encourage some idiot with a pry bar to try and break the lock. Besides, I was going to close up the walls behind those doors so once they damaged the doors getting them open they still wouldn’t be able to get into the box. I ended up using captured ¼-20 Stainless steel bolts through the aluminum frame of the door and into heavy duty nuts that are welded to brackets and bolted into the frame opening. These latching bolts have large black plastic triangular hand holds (or knobs) that you can use to screw them in or out without tools. You just close the doors and screw them in about 6 turns to clamp the door shut nice and tight. Any thief can unscrew them and open my awnings, but that’s it.

The next step was to close the walls behind the awning doors. All the FRP that came out of the shelves and interior display box now started going back into the truck. I had to cut away all the edges with the rivet holes and square everything up nice and neat. I didn’t have pieces big enough to do it all in one piece, or two pieces for the two doors, so I had to piece it all together with but joints and lap joint backers. That amounted to lots of cutting FRP with a skill saw and some with the table saw.

That’s when I discovered that cutting FRP is nasty work. Not only do you have the normal piles of sawdust but lots of little tiny glass fibers sticking to every sweaty body part and burrowing their way in. It’s itchy, and messy, and probably not good for your lungs. I assume the folks who do this for a living have better protective clothing and tools with high volume dust collectors, etc. All I have is the determination to get stuff done, and that worked, right up to the point where the neighbors started complaining.

That led to apologies and promises not to cut any more on my driveway. Fortunately I don’t have much if any more FRP to cut, but now I have to be extra careful with even regular wood lest I incur their wrath. The table saw now stays inside the garage, where it doesn’t really fit, or I have to drag it all the way over to the side yard as far from the neighbors as possible. Oh well, I guess I will have to go buy some car wash gift certificates and keep apologizing. At least they haven’t tried to shut me down altogether.

These inner wall pieces bolted mostly to steel flanges that were already part of the truck. I got lucky on that one. I was able to drill and tap the flanges and then mount the panels with machine screws. I needed to make small pockets for the gas struts and telescoping props as well. Once the structure was completed, it was ready for caulking. I love caulking (not).

All the individual FRP panels were lightly beveled with an auto body disk sander. That way when they butted together there was a small triangular groove at the joint. There were also a few holes in the recycled FRP that I couldn’t cut around, and a few deeply set countersunk screw heads as part of the mounting. I used GE Max 5000 Siliconized Acrylic Caulk for windows and doors. The caulk was forced into the joints between FRP panels and then forced in further and scraped flat with a plastic squeegee. This left the caulk smooth and flush with the FRP surface, but of course it shrank as it dried, leaving a bit of a channel, similar to grout between tiles. Corners, edges, and nooks and crannies were all caulked as well. In many places I couldn’t get the caulking gun in directly so I was left to putting it on my finger and pressing it into place.

The net effect was not visually unpleasant. The white caulk and white FRP matched fairly well. The recycled FRP from the shelves had survived many miles with dirty greasy stuff grinding into it as the truck bounced along, so no amount of cleaning was going to get it perfectly white, but FRP is pretty tough stuff, and it doesn’t look too bad. Mind you, this is all on an exterior wall that is only visible when the awning doors are open.

Ultimately those awning doors probably cost me 2” to 3” of interior space though some of that will be used for extra insulation. It remains to be seen whether I will use or appreciate them. I would not have bothered with them if they weren’t already there.

All of this was a month and a half of evenings and weekends. It’s a good thing I am on a 2 ½ year schedule or I would never make it at this rate.

To be continued…
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Old 08-12-2009, 07:17 PM   #13
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I'll post a picture tomorrow, they are basically a 2 piece plastic electrical outlet it does not need a box and the face plates are a bit different too, I think they snap together rather than a screw in the center like a standard outlet in your house.

I bought a whole bag of the outlets and switches and we changed to use metal boxes welded to my 2 x 2 tubing then regular outlets and faceplates.

ask away, this site needs the traffic and others are following along too!

-blizz
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Old 08-13-2009, 07:55 PM   #14
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A door in a door…

Keeping with the pattern of working from the outside in, the next step was the rear door. The truck came with two good size barn doors (55” wide x 70 ¾” tall), but they can only be closed and locked from the outside. The latching system uses the typical vertical torsion bar with cams top middle and bottom. It’s all very strong and secure but useless for locking yourself inside, and worse yet, very easy for someone to lock you in.

I hit upon the idea of putting a door in one of the doors, specifically the left side barn door. The first problem was that the big strap type hinges extended well into the door interior leaving not enough room for a decent size door. I didn’t want to compromise their strength, so I removed the hinges, cut off their tails, welded them back on with a 90 degree bend, and then remounted the door. It all sounds rather easy, but that’s a week end right there.

Now the door I just put back up, which weighs about 80 pounds, could come down so I could cut the door in the door. The inner panel is FRP with some fiberboard filler and an aluminum inner skin. Fortunately the carbide tipped blade on my skill saw can cut aluminum. I don’t like doing it, but it can be done. If you haven’t caught on yet, the pattern here is that I set myself some task, do it stupidly with the wrong tools because that is all I have, and then hope to heal up later. The job got done, and with gloves and what not, it only hurt a little bit. Actually it wasn’t that bad, but those sharp little aluminum chips come flying out of there with some sting on them. Once the door opening was cut, the inner piece that came out had to be trimmed to size. No pain, no gain.

The door, which is now a frame had to be framed out on the inside with heavy duty 1 ½” aluminum U channel. That was reinforced on the corners with steel corner brackets and more stainless steel pop rivets to try and make up for the strength that was lost when the center section was removed. The aluminum U channel was all recycled from the original box interior. Since there weren’t enough pieces that were long enough. It had to be pieced together a bit. That meant more joints to be carefully cut with a hack saw and then filed to a perfect (OK fairly decent) fit. It’s all held together with stainless steel flat head self tapping screws which means everything has to be pre-drilled and countersunk.

The new inner door was framed out with 1 ½” aluminum channel, just like the door/frame, but with the channel on the outside. The outer flange was made from 2” by 1/8” flat aluminum stock. The idea was that this aluminum flange would use a compression type rubber weather strip and hopefully seal to the frame/door. The clearance from the door to the frame was 1/8” all around, and the clearance from the front flange to the front face of the door/frame was also 1/8” for the fully compressed weather strip.

The hinges are 3 each heavy duty stainless steel door hinges. They are usually folded back on themselves and are trapped between the door and the frame, but in this case they are mounted flat on the front of the door. That implies that the bolts or screws that hold them on are readily accessible, which means a thief could just unbolt the door and walk right in. Even if the aforementioned thief has the right wrenches, I used a little bit of locktite and set it up so the nuts on the inside would just spin, so it won’t do him any good.

I used a standard lockset, meaning stainless steel locking door knob and dead bolt available at any hardware store. From the outside the door sits very high up off the ground, so the lockset needs to be set low in the door. From the inside that puts the lockset very low down, so it’s a compromise. I set the deadbolt below the door knob so I wouldn’t have to reach up and over the door knob to insert the key from the outside.

The door was built out in thickness to 1 ½” in the area of the lockset, and armored both sides with 1/8” thick aluminum, just in the area of the lockset. That meant that I needed to buy good quality bi-metal hole saws to drill the holes for the lockset. The cheap hole saws that they sometimes sell for do it yourselfers to use once on a wooden door and then throw away probably wouldn’t work on aluminum. Normally the latches would be inset on a wooden door and the steel striker plate would be inset in a wooden door jam, but milling out the aluminum would have been more difficult, and unnecessary. The aluminum frame is strong enough to need no additional striker plate, and the latch face plates can stand slightly proud of the door surface because there is 1/8” clearance between the door and the frame.

Once the lockset was installed, I could see exactly where the holes needed to be made in the door jam (striker plate) and that was just a matter of drilling, grinding, filing, worrying, and swearing until they were hogged out to the right size and location. That’s actually a bit touchy because the exact location of the hole for the door latch (not the deadbolt) sets the compression depth for the weather strip. Too tight and the door won’t close. Too loose and the weather strip won’t seal properly.

When it was all done and fitted perfectly, I took it all apart and caulked the heck out of everything, including every exposed FRP edge and screw hole, and then put it all back together. My 80 pound door was now about 100 pounds of door in a door and was a female dog to lift back up and mount to the back of the truck. I ended up using a car jack (scissor type) to hold it in place while I got the outer hinge bolts in. Working by myself is not always the smartest or easiest way to get things done.

To be continued…
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Old 08-13-2009, 07:59 PM   #15
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Gaps are bad…

Once the door was mounted, I could see that I had a problem. From the inside of the truck I could see light coming in around the edge of the inner door near the top on the side opposite the hinges. The distributed pressure of the weather strip was flexing the stiff heavy door away from the frame and in places the weather strip wasn’t even touching.

After some thought I pulled the inner door down again, wedged it under the front bumper of my car, put some wooden blocks under it, and started jumping up and down on it. Yes, the neighbors think I am crazy. The idea was to slightly bend the door, to pre-load it against the pressure of the weather strip. I had to remove and remount the door 2 more times, but I finally got the bend just right. The weather strip was fairly evenly compressed all around. At that point I decided that the rubber weather strip alone wasn’t going to be enough.

I went to the hardware store and got some polypropylene weather strip, the type that has sticky tape on one side and folds back on itself to make a sharp V. That was easily installed between the door and the jam and didn’t significantly resist the closing of the door. I mounted it to the door, not the jam as you usually would. I figured it was less likely to get damaged that way. It is just to reduce air infiltration but is not intended to keep water out. I also added a drip rail above my new door in a door, and above the original 2 barn doors. These were made from 1 1/12 aluminum L channel, 1/16” thick. The idea is to make a tiny awning that sheds water away from the top of the doors so it won’t ever get a chance to try and make its way past the rubber weather strip.

All of this completed the rear door, at least from the outside. There is still some work to be done to make it look nicer on the inside, and to better insulate it, but at least it’s weather tight and secure. From the outside it still looks like an industrial truck door, at least at first glance. Anyone who looks twice will notice the door knob and the extra heavy framing on the left side, but mostly it’s very forgettable, which is what I want. Building and installing the door up was another month or so. Nothing happens quickly when you have a more than full time job and other obligations.

The finished inner door opening is 65 ½” x 20 ¾” with a 2 ½” stepover to the inside of the truck. That will be reduced to about 1 ½” once the inner floor and insulation are installed. If I walk up to the door opening standing tall I can just about brush the top of my head on the underside of the jam. As a practical matter I have gone in and out of that door hundreds of times now and never bumped my head, but I am only about 5’8”. If you are taller than me, you will need a truck with a taller box so you can install taller doors.

When you walk up to the door from the outside it is way up there. It’s about 23” to the step bumper and another 23” to the bottom of the door opening. Surprisingly, I find it is not difficult to get up there as long as I have at least one hand free. I just grab the door jam, preferably with both hands on either side, and pull myself up and through in one quick motion. Coming out is not really difficult either. Just step out until both feet are on the step bumper, and then step down to the ground. I imagine that a rain or ice slicked step bumper would make this all quite dangerous, so I will have to look into some fold out steps eventually, but for now its not a problem.
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Old 08-13-2009, 09:09 PM   #16
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.....I'D QUIT USING THAT HARDWARE STORE CAULK....ain't going to stay caulked very long with the vibration and flexing....try to get some Manus-Bond...self leveling caulk product # 76-AM call the factory at 1-952-442-3323 and get a supplier near you -retails about $8.50 a tube-....silycone monkey snot will not stick to aluminum very long and will start to roll up/shrink as it dries out. MANUS-BOND WON'T---NOT EVEN ON ALUMINUM ROOF'S ...IF YOU NEED TO REPLACE ANY FOR WHATEVER REASON ONE CAN GRIND IT OFF WITH A WIRE CUP BRUSH ON A 7-9" ANGLE GRINDER LIKE THE WELDERS USE TO CLEAN OFF THE STEEL BEFORE WELDING....-i USE IT ON ALL ALUMINUM ROOFS WHERE THE ROOF MEETS THE ANGLE IRON SHAPED EDGE BEFORE AND AFTER INSTALLATION OF THE angle to close up the roof at the sides.....anywhere aluminum meets any other material I give it a seat of Manus-Bond to make it watertight forever.....geofkaye
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Old 08-13-2009, 09:12 PM   #17
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...another thing...since there is a good possibility of delamination on the FRP ...coat all 4 cut edges with the MANUS-BOND before reassembly and maybe-just maybe, you will avoid delamination forever and ever....I hope that is the case for your sake and all the work you are doing to your conversion....geofkaye
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Old 08-14-2009, 01:04 PM   #18
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Geofkaye,

Thanks for the tip on the Manus-Bond 76-AM. For the benefit of others, don't make the same mistake I did and look up the 76AMC, that is something entirely different. Also, for the benefit of others, here is what the web site says:

Manus-Bond 76AM exhibits excellent adhesion to many substrates including aluminum, brass, steel, glass, mortar, granite, marble, wood and many plastics. Cures fast, even at low temperatures. 76AM is highly weather resistant and can be painted with most paints. Contains no solvents or isocyanates and is non-yellowing. Authorized by the USDA.

here are some links:

http://www.manus.net/products.asp?prodId=14
http://www.manus.net/pdf/td/76-AMtech.pdf

It looks like Manus makes a lot of good stuff that we could use.

A separate issue is the wire cup brush. I assume the wires are steel and I was warned to keep steel away from aluminum. Specifically I was warned to never use steel wool to clean aluminum. This sounds like it would cause a similar corrosion problem.
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Old 08-14-2009, 07:14 PM   #19
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Roof Rafters…

The next step was to figure out the roof and ceiling. The truck came with a single piece aluminum roof and two crank up roof vents with cheesy little 12V fans. The roof supports are steel top hat rails on 24” centers. I climbed up there and it was clear that it was never designed to take the weight of my fat carcass. It was flexing underneath me and if I had been anything but ginger about it I am sure I would have permanently flattened the steel supports. As a matter of fact, I suspect that they were already somewhat flattened by people walking up there when they installed the factory original roof vents.

The clearance from the floor to the underside of the aluminum roof is about 6’7” in the center, minus the top hat rails and the ¾” of arch that reduces the clearance near the sides. I am only about 5’8”, so that’s 11” of clearance, but I plan to add about 7 ½” of insulation and structure between the floor and the ceiling, so that brings me to just 3 ½” of clearance, not counting fixtures or anything that might hang down. I know from personal experience that anything over my head that doesn’t actually hit me doesn’t bother me a whit. Clearly, others who are taller, or tend to feel a bit claustrophobic would need to start with a truck that has a taller box. Fortunately I have only one person to satisfy and I could care less about resale value, so I can do whatever I want.

I decided the easiest way to make roof rafters was to carve them out of 2x6’s (actually 1.5”x5.5”). I used the table saw to cut the ¾” crown in the top edge and the circular saw to do a lot of creative notching and carving on both ends. The idea was to fit into the aluminum extrusions that join the FRP side walls to the aluminum roof. They fit in between the side rails on a diagonal and then straighten out for a tight fit. They also have notches for 2x4’s (actually 1.5”x3.5”) that run the length of the box, flat side down. Together with 2x2’s (actually 1.5”x1.5”) they form the inside corner that will support the plywood inner walls and ceiling.

In general, my plan was to put the rafters on 24” centers alternating with the steel top hat supports, but in places I needed extra strength. I plan to put a roof top air conditioner over the 14.5” square opening that was originally the rear crank up roof vent. Those things weigh about 100 pounds so it needed to be well supported. I put 2 each of the wooden rafters, side by side, on each side of the 14.5” opening. Fortunately the original roof vent was placed between the existing metal top hat roof supports so I didn’t have to cut or move them.

The ceiling vent for the air conditioner stands proud of the ceiling surface by about 3” so I couldn’t just mount it on the ceiling as is most commonly done. I would be banging my head into it. I could have just made the rafters thinner, like out of 2x4’s, but that would have cost me a lot of valuable insulation. Instead I notched the rafters up 2” to make room for the ceiling vent. This inset box, as it would eventually appear, had to be quite a bit larger than the ceiling vent to allow for room for air to come out the sides and follow along the ceiling surface before dropping down. I ended up padding out the opening with 2 more 2x4’s on both sides making the inset box 23.5” by 23.5” by about 2.5” deep after the ceiling plywood panel is installed.

The forward vent was boxed out in a similar manner, but with only one wood rafter on either side of the 14.5” opening. My problem here was that the original location of the forward vent would have put it about half way into the top bunk sleeping area. Since the forward vent would serve to some degree as a skylight, and also as a fan powered air vent, I didn’t want the unwanted light or fan noise in the sleeping quarters. I did, however want both in the living quarters, so I needed to move the vent back 1 bay, or 24”.

The technique is simple enough. Unscrew the vents (both of them), pry them up off the roof and then clean off the remaining caulking. One of the vents was then cleaned and straightened in preparation for putting it back on in the new forward location. I could have bought a new one I suppose, but why spend money on what you already have.

To be continued…
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Old 08-14-2009, 07:17 PM   #20
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I just wanted to vent…

The original forward roof vent was patched with a piece of aluminum that fit over the hole with a good overlap. I drilled it to fit the screw holes that were already in the roof, and screwed it down with some #8 stainless steel self tapping screws. The lap was sealed with a generous bead of Dicor Self Leveling lap sealant. The stuff appears to be oil based, not water based. It remains flexible forever, or so they claim. I don’t know if it is the best for this application, but this is exactly what it is made for. I also put a fair amount of it on top of the roof, over the tops of all the screw heads and around the edges of the patch. One problem I see is that there is now a small area to trap water right on top of the patch. Another concern is that the aluminum plate I used to make the patch was not treated in any particular way, like anodize or alodyne. I also don’t know if the original roof had any such treatment. I also don’t know the exact alloy of the roof patch, only that it was recycled from an inside panel on one of the original side doors. It is a bit thicker than the original roof material, and if it holds up 10 years or so it probably won’t matter.

I did use a paint stripper wheel and a power drill to clean the roof in the area of the patch really well. It remains to be seen if that was a good idea or not. I may have cleaned through a protective coating and done some harm. What I do know is that you should never use a wire brush or steel wool to clean aluminum. The microscopic bits of iron that are left in the aluminum will catalyze a corrosive reaction and eat the aluminum up.

The lap sealant completely filled the lap joint (which is good) and some of it squished out where it dripped into the truck. It’s very messy and not easy to clean up. A little forethought and some newspaper would probably have been a good idea.

The process for putting the vent back down in the new location was very much the same as for putting on the patch. I just had to cut out the opening and drill the pilot holes for the screws. While I did reuse the crank up vent, I did not reuse the cheesy 12V fan. I installed a Maxair TurboMax which has an external plastic hood that goes over the existing crank up vent. It includes a high efficiency 12V fan which is shielded by the external hood so you can operate it even when it is raining. The plastic hood is translucent white so some sunlight will come in through both the external hood and the original crank up vent lid. The resulting skylight is not entirely sufficient, but the light is free and can be augmented by high efficiency florescent or LED lighting.

The wires for the TurboMax were routed per the instructions, but the control panel was a slight problem. Like the AC (Air Conditioner) vent, it is designed to hang down below the ceiling surface which would have caused more head bumping, so I had to recess it. Since I hadn’t planned quite far enough ahead I was forced to rout out a pocket for it in the 2x6’s upside down overhead, which meant sawdust in eyes, hare, teeth, etc. Basically I took a bath in the stuff and ate a bunch of it as well, yum!

The hole for the AC in the rear was a slightly different issue. I just needed a flat top opening, which was already there, but it had screw holes for the original vent all around. I countersunk these holes, which were now supported beneath by the 2x6’s, in preparation to install #6 stainless steel flat head self tapping screws. I then pushed a bunch of the Dicor Self Leveling lap sealant in between the aluminum roof and the underlying wood rafters until it was squishing up through the screw holes. When I drove in the screws it made a mess and squished out everywhere, but that was the plan. A thin layer of the lap sealant over the tops of the screw heads was then applied to make sure water never comes in around the AC unit.

Those screw holes may well be inside of the rubber seal on the base of the AC unit, and so they may never see rainwater but there is still the possibility of condensation. I don’t ever want to see dry rot around my AC vent. I also painted the inside of the 14.5”x14.5” opening for both the AC unit and the front air vent. The AC opening will never be seen as it will be covered by the AC outlet grill, but at least it has some protection from moisture. The front air vent will be seen, at least parts of it, so painting it now was just to avoid having to take the bug screens and everything else apart to paint it later.

All of this was another month of work. Now all I have to do is spend about $700 on a new Coleman Polar Cub 9200 BTU air conditioning unit and then pay the nice men to drop it on top of my truck. I am in no rush to spend money though. There is plenty more for me to do.

To be continued…
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