Category Archives: RETROvan

From Booth to Berth

Here’s the final design for the RETROvan’s convertible booth/berth cushions:

It’s a 12-cushion set being made by Tricia at CushionSource.com. The booth is 60 inches long and 24 inches deep with a 6-inch backrest, which means you can stretch out on it, seat four with elbow room, or seat six in a pinch.

The Americana vinyl is black, white and red with contrasting welting.

The decorative clapboard-style headrests are totally custom, for branding purposes. These will be very labor-intensive and I’m making a leap of faith here. As I mentioned before, five or six shops flat out refused to undertake this job, so I was lucky to finally find someone who doesn’t like to say “no.”

The white armrest cushions at the back end of the booths allow you to lean up against the back doors of the van while closed. But they’re loose, so they can be leaned into a chaise lounge position, used for lumbar support, or even as portable cushions for outdoor seating.

The six seat bottom cushions will be attached to my custom bases with Velcro, but they can flip over if one gets damaged. The back cushions will also affix to the walls via Velcro, but when converting the booth to a berth I’ll simply lower the table and lay the back cushions on it. That’s why they’re exactly 13-1/2 inches tall.

The filling is a premium blend of water- and mildew-resistant materials, including a layer of gel-based memory foam. So they should be very comfortable — not to mention expensive. The total cost is $2,944.73 including shipping.

When laid flat, the eight main cushions will form a queen bed: 60 inches wide and 75 inches long. And that means two people might just survive a Zombie Apocalypse (or a weekend at an Oregon beach) in relative comfort.

The Solar System

The RETROvan will be powered by a combination of solar energy, 120V shore power and a 12V deep-cycling battery bank. Note that this “house” system is completely separate from the system that starts the engine and runs the original cockpit equipment, although it’s possible to combine them in the future.

InputsLet’s start with the most interesting input. Four of these flexible WindyNation panels will be affixed to the roof with Gorilla Tape, just behind the forward vent. Each 12V panel generates up to 100W for a combined output of 400W when wired in parallel. The panels are very durable and flexible enough to hug any curves. In fact, they’re so tough you can walk on them. These should provide ample power, but here in Portland we’re above the 45th parallel and have gray skies for several months of the year. So we’ll see how it goes.They’ll be connected via a variety of standard MC4 adapters using 8 AWG cable, and then a single pair of cables will drop into a waterproof gland mounted through the roof.This is a component I initially thought I could do without, but now I know it’s vital. It’s a 40-Amp MPPT Charge Controller made by Renogy. It maxes out at 400W (they say, conservatively), so it’s a good match for my four PV (photovoltaic) panels. Each panels can generate up to 6 Amps for a total of 24 Amps, well within the controller’s limits.

The controller monitors the batteries and regulates the flow of current from the solar panels, optimizing how the batteries get charged. It also prevents the current from discharging from the batteries back into the panels, which could fry them.

This is similar to what the inverter/charger does, but the controller uses DC while the inverter uses AC. In other words, the solar panels charge the batteries from the sun via DC. The inverter charges them from AC shore power. So, the big question is, what switches safely between them when AC is available? Will I need some big master switch or knob?

Here’s the Marinco stainless steel shore power port I mounted through the side of the hull next to the entry door.With this cool little adapter, I can connect any ordinary 15 or 20-amp household extension cord. How convenient is that?

AC/DC — For Those About to Rock!

Here’s the helm console, the RETROvan’s nerve center. Scotty would be proud. It’s made for pontoon boats. It’s hollow, and just happens to be the perfect size and shape for the power it will pack.

Two 6V AGM deep cycle batteries will sit end-to-end inside the helm console, wired in series to form a single 12V battery. They’ll deliver up to 200 amp-hours of off-griddy goodness, and are much more performant than one or two 12V batteries. Not only are they a perfect fit, but at 60 pounds each they’ll hold the helm console down on the floor (with the help of some bolts, of course). A solid base is important because the helm will also act as a bulkhead for the passenger seat.Here’s the power plant, and by far the most expensive component so far. It’s a ProMariner pure sine wave inverter, charger and transfer switch — all rolled into one. AC connects to one end and DC to the other.

Here’s the basic wiring schematic for the ProMariner. But, it doesn’t describe how to connect solar panels. Hmmm…

This system can supply up to 2000W of AC power from the batteries, which is enough to run most of my 120V appliances at the same time. But for ovens and coffee makers (basically anything that generates heat), you must be careful about how much power you draw. A coffee maker, for example, can gobble up 1000W or more for a short period of time. And off-gridding a 15,000 BTU RV air conditioning unit on battery power is out of the question. It can only be run continuously while on 120V shore power. So, circuit panels and gauges are as important as being energy-conscious:

This the AC panel, mounted on the right side of the helm. Its backlit labels will read something like:

  • WARP DRIVE
  • IMPULSE POWER
  • GALLEY
  • PHASERS
  • PHOTON TORPEDOS

This is the DC panel, mounted on the left side. Its backlit labels will read something like:

  • COMMUNICATIONS
  • VENTILATION
  • LIGHTING
  • ENTERTAINMENT
  • CABIN OUTLETS

Outputs

The AC galley outlets will simply terminate in a Belkin surge suppressor.

12V lights, fans, TVs and other accessories can plug into these matching sockets.

And there’s even one for USB. These are all made by Blue Sea Systems in Bellingham, Washington where my kids go to college.

I still have to figure out all the right cable sizes, lengths, lugs, fuses and so on, and that’ll take some time to research. When connecting the main power and the batteries, for example, one wrong choice can spell disaster.

You may have noticed the helm console is sort of designed around a steering wheel. So in the case of the RETROvan, we’ll just mount an iPad instead. I did it by modifying a unique iPad stand made by AboveTEK. The result looks like something right out of Star Wars.

You may also have noticed a theme so far in my design and purchasing decisions. Virtually all of these components are black, white or gray in keeping with my branding theme. So that means if, say, a company’s product is some ghastly color combination like yellow or green, it doesn’t make the cut as long as I have other choices.

Design Elements

Okay, enough with the boring stuff. Let’s look at how the interior design is shaping up.

Seating

The captain’s chair and passenger chair have been a very difficult decision because of the plethora of options. I love the marine style but I need the RV safety and comfort. And then I found this unique seat, made by International Harvester — yep, for tractors. And tractor seats are notoriously comfortable. I couldn’t be happier with this find, especially given its styling. I’ll need to bolt on a lap belt, of course.

It will mount atop this adjustable, hydraulically-assisted Swivl-Eze pedestal. The steering wheel is inordinately tall, so it’s important for the captain’s chair to telescope up and down.

For the passenger chair, I’m leaning toward this Flexsteel model, which I’ve mocked up in Photoshop with a two-tone color scheme. Mine wouldn’t have the skirt and I’d mount it on the same type of pedestal. I haven’t ordered it yet, because it’s pretty spendy. It needs to recline and be more comfortable than the captain’s chair because I plan to work in it for hours at a time.

Cabinetry

I’ll be constructing all the bases, table and counter tops, shelves and a bulkhead out of 3/4″ maple plywood. I don’t want any wood tones to be visible in the design, so they’ll be painted. Hopefully something like a piano-grade lacquer finish.

Walls

The entire cargo area will be re-covered in 1/16″ thick aluminum panels. I count 19 panels total, and I’ll have them custom cut a local metal shop. They’ll be much easier to handle than the 12-foot sheets I had to remove.  For access to cables, plumbing and fixtures I’ll mount them with screws instead of rivets.

The wall panels might be covered in this WilsonArt laminate, called Retro Diner. The samples I got just make me smile.

I’ll cover the custom dinette/berth in a future post, but these are important design elements that will mount on the aft walls as headrest cushions. I finally found a vendor (Tricia at cushionsource.com) who is willing to make these.

They represent a movie clapboard when a director calls “Action!” And they’ve been an integral part of my company’s branding since 1986.

This is an IKEA medicine cabinet that will mount on a wall somewhere.

This one will mount on the bulkhead above the captain’s chair. It’ll be be great for Zombie Apocalypse essentials like ibuprofen, sunscreen, bandages, antiseptic, toothpaste, ammo, etc.

Ceiling

The ceiling panels might be covered in these PVC ceiling tiles. The style is art deco, like you’d find in an old theater. These come in various metallic finishes but I like the contrast of white against the walls and everything else.

Lighting

There will be two banks of these six LED lights, one forward and one aft. Each light is small enough to nestle nicely in the center of an art deco ceiling tile.

And here are the LED dimmer switches, one per bank. The lights will be on the same 12V circuit, fed from the helm console. I love how big and fat they are. They come in black but the white is easier to find in the dark.

Ventilation

Two of these Fan-Tastic automatic vents will keep the interior cool and dry, hopefully obviating the need for air conditioning and reducing the chance of condensation and mildew. We’ll see…

Here’s the remote control for each vent/fan. The forward vent will be set to blow and the aft vent will be set to suck. That should help keep any engine smell out of the sleeping area.

Flooring

These interlocking 12-inch tiles are made from the same material as flip-flop shoes. And they’re durable and cheap enough to simply replace if they get damaged over time. Best of all, they’re cushy to walk on. They also have some sound-proofing and insulation properties. They’ll rest atop a plywood subfloor and maybe a foamboard insulation layer.

GalleyThis is the galley cabinet. It’s a 46×18-inch Husky mobile workstation (tool chest). I’m removing the wheels and the butcher block top, and will replace the top with 3/4-inch maple plywood fashioned into a 6-foot countertop with sink, retro formica and diner-style metal banding. The stainless steel handle might move to the left side and serve as a towel rack.I’ve replaced the “HUSKY” emblem with a more appropriate one for the RETROvan, and it looks super geeky!

Here’s the sink. It’s 16×16 inches and 8 inches deep with a sound-proof coating underneath. This will mount above the cabinet door, surrounded by retro formica. I haven’t chosen a faucet yet but I’m considering using a wall-mounted one. That way I can route the plumbing through the 3-inch wall cavity instead of the cabinet, thereby saving space. I’ll address fresh water and gray water tanks later, but they can mount under the floor.

Here’s the WilsonArt Nostalgic Gray laminate for the countertop and table top. The boomerang pattern compliments the walls and reminds me of the Jetsons.

And here’s the retro aluminum tee banding, which I’ll install myself along the edges and rounded corners with a special slot cutter and a rubber mallet. To make the curves without deformation, the grippy tee flange must be cut out at strategic intervals.

AppliancesThe countertop will span over this cool retro refrigerator/freezer. The fridge will sit directly behind the driver’s seat, keeping precious cargo chilly for happy hour.

Two ovens will stack above the fridge in the cabinetry. The convection toaster oven handles two 12-inch pizzas. This is not the exact microwave I wanted, but a bigger model with the oval window should be back in stock soon for an exchange.

A matching coffee maker will grace the countertop, with a matching waffle maker stowed away in the cabinet. Yep, it’s an awesome product line.

Miscellanous

Here’s the fun little retro JVC “Teeny Vision” TV and the iView digital media box I mentioned before. Great for home movies. This will probably complement an iMac or other flatscreen. Maybe even a projector.

This is just a nice welcome mat that happens to fit atop my front desk and glove box safe. Mazy, our cat, also likes it. 🙂

 

The cockpit has an engine-fed heater to the left of the driver’s seat. But what RETROvan would be complete without an LED ceramic heater? This thing looks incredible and it will take the chill out of the night year-round, especially around the holidays.

And finally, this was a birthday present from my amazing wife. You can swap out the USS Enterprise schematic between Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation. And the LED lights can cycle through eight colors. This will go somewhere near the helm console, which I’ll detail in a future post.

More to come…

2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back

Everything came to a screeching halt as Brett was about to install the intake manifold last Saturday. He discovered (much too late) a large crack that had been J-B welded. This won’t do.

So after a phone call and a few photos, Ted King at PER was kind enough to step up and track down a possible replacement from a scrap yard in Troutsdale.

While cracks in intake manifolds are a rare problem, Ted’s theory is that my engine’s manifold was missing an important spring that prevents an internal damper/diverter from getting stuck. So exhaust was flowing back into the intake manifold at 1,000° F full-time, thereby stressing the metal to the point of failure.

Here’s Ted at his shop with the manifolds side-by-side:

They’re a close match, but not close enough. So Ted is looking again to see if we can source a working solution. Brett is scheduled to finish the job on Friday, so hopefully luck is on our side.

Tick… tick… tick…

Meanwhile, I spent Tuesday chasing down another dozen parts from Brett’s scavenger hunt with some help from Amazon.com and Wayne at the NAPA store in Tigard. Parts like a thermostat, oil sending unit pigtail, distributor cap and rotor, pipe plugs, spark plugs and wires, heater hose, fuel hose. And then various fluids like type F transmission fluid and full-strength coolant.

The problem with NAPA is that their stores are franchised and so, for some reason, they don’t share database information. And their online database is pretty sloppy. The Ford P-400 apparently never existed, and some of the parts that are searchable under the P-350 are misnamed. For example, the Oil Sending Unit Pigtail shows up under Cigarette Lighter Connector. So everything basically has to be matched visually.

Fun.

Progress!

The engine rebuild is “done,” in the same sense that software is done.

It took six weeks and cost almost $3,000 including replacement parts. Ron Larsen and Ted King at Portland Engine Rebuilders took care to track down the right rod bearings and then discovered a major issue:

Basically the cylinder head was cracked. This 223 had been rebuilt more than 15 years ago and the crack was welded. But the weld had failed some time ago. So PER tracked down a replacement head in pristine condition and all should be good now.

So tomorrow Brett from McFarland’s Mobile Mechanics will do the install and hopefully the RETROvan will be drivable by happy hour.

My dad and I also got a good start on the helm console, or power station. We installed both Blue Sea Systems traditional metal circuit panels, one for AC and one for DC. Each panel is overkill, but they light up and have analog gauges. And that’s important.

Next, I modified and installed a cool iPad mount on the helm where a pontoon boat steering wheel would normally go. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching old TV shows on that iPad while my mom made her world-famous coconut meringue pie in the kitchen. This helm will serve as a safety bulkhead, and will also be a super cool design element for the passenger seat while driving, working or camping.

My retro JVC “Teeny Vision” TV also arrived from a collector on eBay, circa 1971 and in mint condition. It took a ton of research but I found an iView digital converter box that also serves up modern media attached via USB and routes it over an RF antenna cable. So imagine watching your favorite old TV shows on a tiny B&W screen with all the pops and buzzes.

Shows like The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Outer Limits, Hogan’s Heroes, Gilligan’s Island, The Addams Family, Get Smart, M*A*S*H, Star Trek and so on…

Much more to say, and more photos to add. The design is really coming together in SketchUp. I have the electrical system, the galley and the diner/berth mostly figured out. The berth will form a queen bed, even.

Stay tuned…

Bring in the Reinforcements!

It’s been a while since my last update, so there’s a lot to cover. My parents were here over Memorial Day, while large parts were arriving every day.

My dad helped me reinforce the roof by cutting and installing various lengths of 1/8″ aluminum L brackets along the cross members. This took forever because every hole had to be pre-drilled, and that aluminum is tougher than my old drill driver.

Next, we had to reinforce the curved corners sitting atop eight metal studs because, as you can see, all of them were cracked and some were split all the way through. And that means the roof itself was essentially supporting the supports!

To fix this, we used 6×6″ Simpson Strong-Tie galvanized steel L straps and bent one end to 90°. (My dad’s creative idea.) That gave us three points of contact with each load-bearing structural point and added only a few pounds to the overall weight. Once I get the rest of these screwed in, I’ll be able to get up on the roof to install the vents and the solar panels. Otherwise I’m sure I might have damaged the roof, since it was designed to protect cargo—not to support heavier things like air conditioners (or me).

I made my first holes in the hull. The first was a 2-3/4″ hole for the Marinco Shore Power 30-Amp inlet port. It’s stainless steel and beautiful.

Next, I measured and cut two 14-inch square holes in the roof for the Fan-tasic Vents. This involved learning how to use my new DeWalt jigsaw upside-down. I got them cut cleanly but it took a while including sweat breaks. And my arms felt like they were vibrating the rest of the night.

The vent in the front will be set to suck and the vent in the back will be set to blow, which just might obviate the need for a power-hungry air conditioner.

These vents have remote controls, thermostats and rain sensors to open and close themselves automatically. The vents set in place nicely, but before I can get up on the roof to seal and screw them into place, I need to do some additional reinforcement.

The hull was strengthened significantly from side-to-side and at the corners, but the steel skin is still a bit saggy in between the cross-members. So, I’ll be adding two more aluminum angle brackets inside each ceiling pocket, in perpendicular fashion. This will require the use of some sturdy 2″ steel corner braces to secure a brace to each end of the bracket, and then the braces to the cross members.

There’s a strip of Dicor butyl tape between all the aluminum angles and the roof. That’s to reduce vibration. And the rule here is that “no new screw shall penetrate the roof if possible.”

That should complete the reinforcement phase to the point where I can safely start installing the roof-mounted goodies: Solar panels, vents, lights, wire conduits, insulation and ceiling panels.

Transparency is Good

Not just in politics, but in life too.

Got my custom acrylic back today from TAP Plastics in Tigard. The holes were a little off but I needed to drill them out bigger anyway to fit my #10 machine screws through both pieces. This was a delicate process but by stepping up through three bit sizes, I got there with no damage.

The result is beautiful at every angle, especially in the sunlight. This will hang either over the steering wheel or over the center of the cockpit, under the custom shelf and storage cabinets I’m building over the windshield. The position depends on whether it blocks any sight lines. And if it blocks too much, I can always flip it over and mount it lower on a dashboard mount.

All I need to do now is select, mark and drill the holes in the sides that will secure the Pioneer AppRadio 4 receiver in place. I’m using #10 thumbscrews to secure the gimbal mount to the 2-1/2 inch screws. But for final installation I might swap those out for capture bolts on 2-inch screws. All the hardware is stainless steel, of course. You wouldn’t want any chance of corrosion marring the acrylic.

Now the two most important parts of the project are pretty much done: The main audio/video receiver with Apple CarPlay, and my four custom Sony speakers in Photon Torpedo Tubes. If only I had a clean van to install them in…

The Front Desk

Well that didn’t take long. TAP Plastics took all of 20 minutes to cut six pieces and router all the edges smooth. The cost was $137. There are two extra pieces I might use as bracket spacers, not shown here:

This plastic is very easy to work with. There’s no sawdust when you drill it and it’s all the same density. I’m putting a lot of trust in 20 stainless steel machine screws but they went in tight and they’re all vertical so there are no shear forces. The 1/2 inch material isn’t really thick enough to countersink the screw heads but that choice was to keep things light and flexible. They do make 5/8″, 3/4″ and 1″ Starboard if I ever need to redo it. But I’ll probably just set a rubber mat or tray organizer on the top. Maybe a cat bed. 😉

It fits like a glove on the support brackets and it isn’t too heavy to lift. Of course it’ll all look better once the cockpit is cleaned and restored. But it’s a good start.

Fabrication Begins

Lots going on this week. First, I fabricated my first custom part, which I’m dubbing Photon Torpedo Tube #1.

The wake board “bullet can” housing is made by Rockville out of polished aluminum. The speaker is a Sony 6.5″ Marine 2-Way. The problem is, they didn’t fit. It turns out all 6.5″ speakers are not created equal. Some are considered undersized, like the stylish ones I insist on using.

So, I wound up having that red adapter ring made at TAP Plastics in Tigard. What a godsend they are. They’ll be doing more work for me. 

The ring is 1/4″ thick acrylic, with an outer diameter of 7″ and an inner cutout at a 5″ diameter. The outer edges are polished smooth.

The trick here was to carefully mark and drill two sets of four holes. The first set has to be countersunk so that the machine screw heads don’t protrude into the speaker mount. Once the ring was attached to the can, I repeated the process for the speaker using the screws that came with it.

The hardest part was working delicately with hand tools, with drill bits that tend to wander. I do have a Dremel tool but wound up just using my drill/driver because I did had to punch through the aluminum lip at just the right diameter and depth, with some force. This would have been much easier with a drill press.

The result is fantastic. I basically turned $135 worth of parts into custom piece of retro art. Now I’ll just repeat this process three more times to cover every corner of the Scenario Mobile.

The speaker cans came with fancy round bracket clamps, which I plan to secure on 2″ stainless steel rods.

Next up, I received my “glove box” today. It’s actually a gun safe with a biometric fingerprint reader, made by Verifi.

It seems to work great and after a bunch of research, it was the best fit for the space next to my engine cowl.

I’ll be returning to TAP Plastics tomorrow to cut four pieces of marine King Starboard. This is the same stuff boats and yachts are outfitted with, so you know it’s durable. You can use common woodworking tools on it, but it doesn’t warp or splinter like wood.

Here’s my design for the combination “front desk” and secure storage:

I’ll screw the enclosure together and then bolt the safe into place so it can’t be stolen. The whole assembly will be heavy, but I should be able to unsecure it and lift it off the support brackets to open the engine cowl.

Peeling the Onion

Today I started removing rivets with a sledgehammer and chisel. Hundreds of rivets… Thousands of rivets… Roughly twenty minutes per panel so far.

Some of the aluminum panels are almost twelve feet long. I’m not sure whether there’s enough scrap value to avoid going to the local recycling center. And while the wear and tear is certainly interesting, there are too many non-rivet holes so reuse them as finished cladding even if they were buffed out. But I’ll number them and keep them around for a while.

The wall cavities measure 3-1/8 inches deep, which is plenty of room for better insulation. But it also means the windows will have to be recessed because they max out at a 2-3/4 inch depth.

The main task here is to expose the frame ribs, remove the old insulation and transfer some accurate measurements into my SketchUp 3D model. From there I’ll be able to better plan out all the fixtures, including:

  • electrical system
  • window placement (and wall thickness)
  • vent placement
  • air conditioner placement
  • solar panel placement (at least the pre-wiring)
  • insulation
  • interior lighting

Starting to look like a tiny home, eh?