Category Archives: RETROvan

Action! Take 2

Yesterday I went to move the RETROvan, put it in gear and it wouldn’t budge. I thought maybe when Brett had done the transmission work in July he forgot to reconnect the gear shift linkage or something. So I texted him and was lucky he was nearby. He checked it out and determined it was simply low on transmission fluid. He didn’t charge me for the diagnosis because I think he enjoyed checking out the project.

I had no idea how a Fluid Coupling works. Apparently there’s a turbine on the engine side and a turbine on the transmission side. There is a chamber between them that is supposed to be full of transmission fluid. When there is, the engine turbine spins the fluid and the fluid spins the transmission turbine. But when there’s no fluid, there’s no hydraulic contact between the two, hence no movement.

Two quarts of Type F automatic transmission fluid from NAPA Auto Parts did the trick. So now I know the capacity is at least four quarts, maybe five. Teach a man to fish…

I turned the RETROvan around in the driveway so the driver’s side faces the sun, and then started applying my other clapboard branding decals. Here’s some more detail on how that works:

I first measured the corners from the passenger side and made matching reference marks. Then taped the eight-foot piece of aluminum angle in place and traced a line with grease pencil. Next I removed the straightedge and carefully applied the panels. I bit the bullet and wrapped the vinyl around the gas cap area, and it worked out great.

This piece of aluminum made me think that if I ever need to replace the vinyl, I’ll mount top and bottom aluminum rails and fill them with painted wooden segments. That would make for an even more intriguing 3D clapboard.

Here I’m working around the rivets with a special plastic tool, which I call a “spooger” for no apparent reason. This leaves a carefully crafted “blister” which I then poked with a razor and hit with my Wagner heat gun and coerced into shape. The trapped air escapes through the poked hole, while the vinyl shrinks to fit and the hot adhesive does its job.

And here’s the result; a mirror-image. I’ll try to cut my fresh water inlet at the “hinge” position, similar to the shore power inlet on the opposite side.

A couple of neighbors walked by and said, “Looks great!” Made my day. My next step is to get my “” and QR code elements over to Signs Now, after which the branding will be done for marketing and tax deduction purposes.

The Bends

Today I took my eight aluminum corner panels over to Archers Precision in Tigard. They’re backed up, but Alex and Casey liked the project and agreed to do my 90° bends for $10 each. It’ll take up to a week but that’s fine with me.

I’ve been fighting a stomach bug this week but I’m hoping to get started on insulation and lighting soon.

More delays: Gary Jackson told me the RETROpad concrete pour won’t happen today after all. The company has two trucks and one driver “down.” So hopefully tomorrow. Which means maybe next week.

And now Sundeleaf Painting reports that they had an equipment malfunction in their shop. Their booth fan flew off and set off the fire suppression system. My project wasn’t damaged, but it is delayed a week.

But some good news: My retro table and countertop moulding arrived already at HomeMasters. So I’ll go pick it up shortly. Hopefully I can get the 12-foot tube in (or on) my car!

And lastly, I’m considering turning off comments on this WordPress site due to the constant deluge of spam comments. Sorry, folks.

Fenced In

Gary stopped by today to help install the fence panels on the RETROpad. So now we’re just waiting for the slab to be poured on Thursday.

The concrete trough under the fence line had set up enough to shim the panels on 2x4s and get them as plumb as possible.

The panels were much heavier than anticipated but we got ’em hung on six stainless steel hinges with 54 #12 2-1/2″ screws per panel. “They ain’t goin’ nowhere,” as Gary would say.

Here’s a closeup of the hardware and screw patterns. Some of the hinge screws had to go in at strategic angles to miss the 6″ TimberLok screws in the inner frame. The four post caps are LED solar lights.

From the outside it all looks pretty seamless and you can’t see any hardware. The gap at the bottom is between 1-1/2″ and 2″, which is pretty standard. The concrete makes it easy to sweep or blow debris out of the RETROpad and prevents animals from burrowing under the fence.

We even found a home for some cast iron stars Olivia and I collected near the Grand Canyon a few years ago. These will look better once the concrete cures and I hit them with a wire brush.


Yesterday, between rain showers, I applied my trademark branding to the starboard side. The clapboard geometry took a total of eight rolls of vinyl wrap, measuring 12″ wide by 60″ long. So each bar is eight feet long and one foot wide. Four rolls were matte white and four were matte black. The material came from at about $10 per roll.

I used a Fiskars self-healing cutting mat, so it was just a matter of lining the rolls up against the grid and cutting the 45° diagonals with an aluminum straight edge and a razor knife made specifically for vinyl wrap.After producing 45 parallelograms and triangles and weeding out some defaced pieces, the next step was to decide how to compose the whole element on the RETROvan. I opted to use the power inlet as the clapboard’s “hinge.” From there, I taped a 96″ piece of aluminum angle to the hull with Frog Tape and then taped a couple of scrap corner pieces to help visualize the fit. After a few adjustments, I scribed the two inner angles with a black china marker, which wipes off easily. Then I started applying each piece, starting from the hinge and working aft using a special felt-covered smoothing spatula to coerce the vinyl home.

This vinyl uses a low-tack adhesive for easy repositioning. That made it fairly easy to get things aligned properly, even a few times per piece.

The biggest challenge, of course, was navigating the seams and rivets. For that, I broke out the heat gun. A quick blast caused a soft bubble to form around each rivet. Then a little jab with the razor blade allowed the air to escape while I worked the spatula around each rivet head. You can see the result in the photo above. It looks like paint, even close up!

You may remember this branding from my custom headrest cushions.

I’ll do the port side when the weather clears this week. And then the final branding elements (“”) will go on, along with a QR code like this:

Rain Delay

Today is probably the last day of 80° weather, so I spent it building the two fence panels for the RETROpad. We decided to abandon the louvered design because of concerns about privacy, strength and bowing. So I made the panels just like the gate, and the whole thing will look seamless now. This meant cutting and sealing 48 more planks of western red cedar, and that took forever. We’ll even hang the panels with the same beefy hinges, but on both sides of each panel.

Gary made some final cuts on the ragged patio edge. We’ll set a concrete trough under the fence line tomorrow morning, and hope to dodge the rain. That will require sixteen more 60-pound bags of cement mix. The trough will prevent debris from building up. I can just blow or spray leaves and dirt under the fence this way. The final pour for the RV pad slab is now scheduled for next Thursday, due to rain. That pour will be done by truck and wheelbarrow.

Diamond Fence came yesterday to install the RETROpad’s gate and a short segment of fence between our arborvitaes. But the gate was mis-measured and didn’t fit, so now they have to order a new one. You would think a fence company’s #1 task is to get the measurements right before involving a welder. But no… There was a miscommunication on their end. Three week delay.

The gates will provide some privacy and security, and make the RETROvan more insurable. Did you know that most insurers won’t cover a restoration project or a “vintage” vehicle like this? They will only consider insuring a completed show vehicle that is kept locked up and only driven once in a blue moon — like to auto shows. So the RETROpad will provide safe harbor and private access. It will get the RETROvan farther away from the street and make it less of an attractive nuisance. From gawkers, that is.

By now you probably find my posts about the fence and gates pretty boring. But they are an important part of the RETROvan project because this work will allow the rig to become an integral part of our patio and home. We also have to get this work done while the weather’s good. So the RETROvan itself is taking a back seat, while the cabinets are in the shop. And I still have plenty of rainy-day tasks to perform inside the van, the garage or in the house through the end of the tax year. Yep, I said tax year. The RETROvan will enter service as a Schedule C, Section 179 tax deduction in 2017.

The paint shop is starting on my cabinets tomorrow, once the special undercoat primer they need arrives. So those should be able to go back into the RETROvan late next week and I can start the final assembly phase in October.

I’m trying to order a couple 12-foot pieces of retro extruded aluminum tee trim from Eagle Aluminum in Minnesota. This metal band will go around my dinette table and along the front of the galley countertop. The problem is shipping. Because it’s so long, it has to be carried by freight and that can cost up to $200. But I may have to splurge because I only want one seam in the trim. The table is 24×48″ with rounded corners, which is slightly less than 12′ total. Fortunately Gary at HomeMasters agreed to take freight delivery. Otherwise they would charge even more for a residential address.

The top of the dinette table will be laminated, remember. But this trim has to be tapped (literally, with a rubber hammer) into a 1/2″ slot cut in the table’s edge, with a special slot cutter used as a router bit. So I’ll order one of those tools from the same company.

Speaking of exorbitant shipping costs, the cool picnic table I ordered still hasn’t arrived. The company ( is trying to extort additional shipping costs because UPS and FedEx refused to pick it up. It’s already painted and ready to go, but now they want almost $300 for shipping. I think that a deal’s a deal by law, and they should honor the order as-is. If they refuse and cancel it, then I’ll probably build a traditional picnic table out of cedar and fir timber to match the fence.

I can’t wait to post photos of the final cedar fence on Saturday. It will be beautiful. 🙂

Paint Shop & Dry Dock

Yesterday I got the last cabinet doors cut after disassembling and removing all the RETROvan’s woodwork. Then I labeled everything with Frog Tape and transported it to Sundeleaf Painting in Milwaukie. Amazingly, it all fit in my SUV.

Eric was eager to help with this project and I’m confident he’ll make everything pretty. It’s really nice when you find someone who just gets it. We talked through some options, with the priority being water-proofing, and came up with this scheme:

Everything will get a hard, durable piano lacquer-like finish, only more satin than glossy. Eric assures me he has something better than polyurethane, which is too soft. The bulk of the surfaces will be a charcoal color (about 75-80% black). The reason is to hide the inevitable scuff marks from people’s shoes, etc. All eight doors will be bright white. The exposed edges of the maple plywood will be finished (either charcoal or white), but they will not be filled in smooth. That is, the laminated layers will still be visible, creating some design intrigue. This is an aesthetic choice, similar to the style you see in a lot of Danish furniture.

The job should be done by early next week, so I’m pretty excited to see the result.

Meanwhile, today I rented a tractor from Home Depot and helped Gary Jackson grade and level the RETROpad between the curbs. We wanted a Bobcat but they were mysteriously “unavailable.”

The bedrock is ideal. A previous owner must have been in the rock and gravel business, because there was about a foot of crushed granite mixed into the clay soil. Gary drove the tractor back and forth to tamp everything down solid.

And here’s the result, ready for rebar and cement. The rebar is important because the RETROvan will weigh up to 10,000 pounds, concentrated at its tires. So that’s roughly 2,500 pounds per square foot in four places. The slab itself will be four inches thick, but will use a high-strength concrete mix fortified with pea gravel.

For ideal drainage, the ten feet at the back will slope one inch toward the back. The twenty feet at the front will slope three inches toward the front. That makes for a good, level tailgating space in back and insures that most of the rainwater will flow away from the house and toward the street. One of Gary’s nicknames is the King of Swale, so he’ll nail those slopes better than anyone.

At this stage, the RETROpad reminds me of a submarine dry dock, complete with a control tower. Speaking of which, Frahler Electric sent a “low voltage” specialist over today and he fixed the Ethernet jacks. One pair of wires were simply crossed. So now, I can tap into the house’s gigabit network. And that means once the RETROvan becomes fully operational, I’ll be able to video conference with any client in the world as if I were in the house.


With the dry-fitting stage complete, yesterday I started removing things so I could disassemble the cabinetry and deliver it to Sundeleaf Painting. I’m already three days late on that task.

But then I realized I had lost the keys to this U-Haul padlock on the back doors. So I wasted all morning turning the house and garage upside down. I tore through the trash and did all my laundry, looking for a key to come out of some pocket. But no, they are gone. I probably dropped them in Sunday night’s trash can when I had a handful of other stuff.

I went to Home Depot and rented a 36″ bolt cutter, but its nose was too big to get in there. I next disassembled the locking bolts from inside the RETROvan so I could at least get the back doors open. And finally I broke down and called Mark’s Locksmith to come drill the lock out at noon today. It took him all of 15 seconds to pick it clean open instead, which was ideal. He said I was lucky it was such an old lock. The newer U-Haul disc locks are virtually unpickable.

I’ll probably never use padlocks again, versus combination locks that you can set yourself. Just last month I broke a key off in a Masterlock on our front gate because the keyway was clogged with spider silk. I had to remove that latch entirely, but the bolt cutter did make quick work of getting the padlock off.  That’s a good reminder that padlocks only keep the honest people out. Any thief with $10 can rent a bolt cutter and have your padlock laying on the ground within seconds.

So hopefully I’ll get the woodwork to Sundeleaf by Thursday or Friday. I do have to recut a few doors first, and that will take all afternoon. And it doesn’t help that it’s been pouring rain this week.

I found that the RETROvan’s roof does still have leaks along the ceiling ribs during torrential rain, so my initial tests were a false positive. I’ll have to address them before final assembly. And better to do that while all the cabinetry is out. Very frustrating.

The woodwork should take about two weeks to paint and seal, during which time I also need to buy, cut and install the insulation — after wiring the dozen lights and plumbing the galley of course.


Sealed & Powered

With several days of rain looming in the forecast, on Saturday I bit the bullet to clean and scrape off some of the damaged rubber roof coating. Then I applied a fresh coat of FlexSeal liquid rubber.

This product went on much easier than I thought, using a metal paint pan and long-handled mini roller to maximize my reach. I had bought four 16-ounce cans and didn’t expect it to go very far. But it was more than enough to apply a thin first layer, going around my solar panels of course. I can make a second pass later if needed. I still have to roll it under my solar panel cables anyway. I just didn’t want to get any goop on them.

Next, I had to prep the power pedestal base by cutting off the PVC collar and conduits with my reciprocating saw, so they were flush with the top of the concrete step. Then I drilled the four bolt holes, breaking only one bit in the process. I will secure the base with 5/16″x2-1/2″ anchor sleeves.

Olivia and I glamped out and watched Sunday Night Football and part of the Emmys in the RETROvan. It did rain and it did not leak! I’ll probably have to do this as regular maintenance every year. But at least now I know it’s not the nightmare I feared it to be.

On Monday morning, Dave Walter from Frahler Electric came to run power and data from the subpanel in our basement to the power pedestal on the RETROpad. That includes a beefy 30A circuit, Ethernet and a coaxial cable for TV. Gary Jackson and I had trenched all the conduits in place under the concrete steps, so Dave’s job was that much easier. I had to help push and pull the cables though all that swoopy PVC pipe. Dave’s trick was to lubricate them with dish soap.

Unfortunately Dave is not a “low voltage” electrician, so he was unable to terminate the Ethernet cable successfully. Plus, a thunderstorm moved in, cutting our work short. So I’ll probably buy the tools to re-terminate that data line myself unless Frahler wants to send someone back for free.

But the pedestal does have power now, and it does light up nicely from dusk to dawn.

It’s like the little sentry robot we never had. Now if only it could bring us a beer!

Shaping Up

Yesterday we got the front ceiling panel (T1) cut and installed, and also trimmed its white plastic Fan-Tastic Vent garnish to the proper depth. For that we had to devise a special gig on the table saw. We couldn’t install the aft garnish because it was broken during shipping. So I’m trying to get a replacement from either Dometic or Camping World.

Here’s a nice shot of the ceiling panels this morning, over coffee. It’s really starting to shine. And yup, that’s my dad. We also got the sliding padlock bolt installed on the main entry door. So the RETROvan is lockable for the first time.

I got some cool retro dishes this week made by Camp Casual.

The dishes are made out of melamine but the coffee mugs are ceramic. And boy, does coffee taste better in them. 🙂

I also got a nice 53-piece set of Fiesta Merengue cutlery to stock the galley. I found it on sale at Macy’s for under $60. Great deal, and the colors match all the Fiesta dishes in our house.

Today was the first, and most complex cement pour on the RETROpad. The truck showed up an hour early and it was too big to get into position without damaging any forms. So Gary had to transfer the first fifteen feet of both sides by one-man bucket brigade, which was back-breaking work.

The weather was ideal but there was about 120 feet of faces to strip and finish. And that’s a lot for one man to do when racing against time. But Gary slaved non-stop for 6½ hours and got ‘er done. Unfortunately the high-strength mix set up faster than he thought, so the front faces of the steps will get a patch coat tomorrow to fill in some rough parts. That’s done with a special cement-only mix that adheres a bit like mortar, as long as you do it before everything cures.

This 2½ yards of cement cost a whopping $374, but we’ll need a second pour for the actual pad between the curbs. We should be ready for that next week, after grading. Everything is reinforced with rebar to support the weight of an RV.


My dad and son were here this weekend so we took some time to enjoy ourselves, watch the big football games (Seahawks & Cowboys) and do a few little projects using three generations of German Engineering know-how. We started calling our team “Ouzts Cubed,” or O3.

Here’s the beautiful, sag-proof gate we built for the RETROpad. The cedar planks line both sides of the frame, and all the hardware is stainless steel. The frame is made from pressure-treated 2x4s arranged in an X and fastened with 6″ TimberLock screws. The post cap lights are solar-powered LEDs, of course. This took about six hours to build, start-to-finish. And that includes Steven weather-sealing the planks before assembly. My dad treated us to milkshakes in celebration. Yum!

On Tuesday, my dad and I cut, drilled and screwed in several aluminum ceiling panels. And for the first time the RETROvan starts to feel like a finished space. The light and vent holes lined up perfectly, and the reflections from the TV on the ceiling look like the northern lights. It’s a super cool effect at night.

Gary came to build out the elaborate forms for the concrete curbs. They’ll contain the heavy cement and keep the steps straight and sharp. The cement truck is scheduled for Thursday. Once the pour starts, Gary has to work fast to remove the forms and strip and finish the cement before it sets. Gary has decades of concrete experience so we’re lucky to have him on the project.