Updated January 28, 2017!
Vintage Airstreams can have soggy and/or soft spots in the subflooring. Sometimes these areas are rotted right through, perhaps hidden by the top layer of flooring. This can be quite a shock to the owner once discovered. These spots are often found:
- Near the door
- In the bathroom, especially under the tub
- Around wheel wells
- Around the bumper
- Under leaking windows
Our Airstream Argosy’s bathroom subfloor was incredibly rotten (especially under the tub), and the floor next to the door had already been replaced once. There were gaping holes in places where we could see the belly pan from above.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where the water was coming from – it was coming from everywhere. The windows were not taken care of (therefore leaking), holes were drilled (yes, drilled) through the ceiling and never covered, and the bathtub had clearly been a leaker for quite some time. A very large vent was not being used and the 4-inch hole was acting as an open-air skylight, which made for a lovely door for the mice but was a terrible burden to the floor.
The purchase price of our Airstream was a great deal, so we didn’t bother inspecting the floor to any great extent. We knew if we didn’t act fast, someone else would be right behind us to buy it. The floor was covered in thin, ugly fake brick vinyl that was peeling up. At worst, we thought, we’d have to replace a few sections of subflooring and recover the whole thing with something more aesthetically pleasing.
But then we got it home and started peeling up the vinyl. Holes emerged. Multiple holes. Huge holes. Discussions ensued.
We had no choice. The subfloor had to go. That was not in the plans (but to be honest, I wasn’t surprised because I knew this was a common problem.)
Airstreams are built a little like a sandwich. The shell sits on top of the subfloor, and the subfloor sits on top of the frame. Bolts hold this all together, and the belly pan is attached to the bottom of the frame and wraps around to the outer edges of the frame to attach to the shell. Fun fact: this type of design is called monocoque construction, and is also used in building aircraft.
There were two options that we could see:
- Keep the shell on
- Take the shell off
If we took the shell off, we had to consider:
- How to get it off
- Where to keep the shell
And if we kept it on, we had to figure out:
- How to get the subfloor out
- How to prop up the shell to keep the C channel intact
- How on earth to get the floor back into the C channel
What’s sometimes the most difficult part of replacing the subfloor is bolt access. Some people choose to take the shell off for easier access to these bolts. Some like keeping the shell on because of work area constraints.
It was a difficult decision, but in the end, we decided to keep the shell on. We didn’t have a great place to keep the body while working on the frame and didn’t know when we’d get to put a new floor in. We didn’t want the Airstream dismantled for a series of months, and I read multiple accounts of people stalling out on the renovation process once the shell was off.
The decision was made. If you’re starting from the beginning (and discovered floor rot before digging into any other projects), there are a lot of steps to get where you need to be to remove the subfloor on-frame. Starting from the beginning:
Acquire Airstream With Rotted Subfloor
Sweet success! You found an Airstream with rot. Congrats.
Clean The Damn Thing
Maybe I was overly crazy about this step, but I’ve been cleaning our Airstream every step of the way. Even still, some of these photos show grime that I’m quite embarrassed about. Dealing with someone else’s dirt while you’re trying to make your trailer shiny and fresh and renewed is something better left for the beginning, not the end.
One of our treasures:
Dismantle The Furniture
Now’s the time to decide if you’re ever going to reuse what you’re taking out. Are you renovating or restoring? We went with the 50/50 approach, partially because someone had already wrecked and/or disposed of a lot of our interior. Before you toss anything in the dumpster, see if you can sell what you’ve got. You might be able to turn a serious buck.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, now’s the time to learn about rivet removal.
Since we’re “boat people,” ripping out a bulkhead seemed like a terrible idea. In boats, bulkheads are structural – you can’t just go knocking them out, especially all of them. But apparently, in Airstreams, it’s no big deal. I still cringed and took cover every time we took another one out. You’ll be dealing with more rivets here.
Time To Do Some Skinning
You guessed it. More rivet removal. You’re going to have to remove the wall skins that run along the bottom of the Airstream to reveal the floor.
Remove Top Layer Of The Floor
If you haven’t done so already, now’s the time to remove the carpet, linoleum, vinyl, wood planking, etc. This is where I had fun with a crowbar.
Get Rid Of Those Field Head/Carriage Bolts
This was the first really hard part. Some folks said that their Airstream’s field head bolts (the bolts that are in the C-channel, holding the sandwich together) were so rusted through that they could just grab onto them with some pliers and break them off. A few of ours were that easy, but for the most part, Justin cut them off with a cut saw blade on a Dremel tool.
Cut The Subfloor And Prop Up The C-channel
Once you get those pesky bolts out you can finally start cutting out the floor, piece by piece. Here’s Justin ripping some of the panels out. We basically used any tools that worked – I even see that he had a hatchet here for some reason…
(As you can see from the photo, we were ripping out parts of the floor before doing the other steps. This was more or less an experimental stage. Once we figured out what we were doing, we followed our own steps.)
Don’t forget to put blocks (the same thickness as the floor) in the C-channel as you go – you don’t want that gap to disappear on you, and it will if you’re not blocking it up!
The dirt in this picture grosses me out. Sorry.
It was a long and arduous process.
We cut the floor out in small pieces, putting blocks in the C-channel to keep the shell propped up off of the trailer. Many people choose to keep the floor panels to use as a template for the new, but we just wanted to get rid of the gross panels since we knew we wouldn’t be putting the new floor down immediately. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to bite us in the butt for tossing them, but I don’t think we’ll have any major issues. We’ve renovated plenty of boats and houses and I think we’ll be able to handle it.
Here’s the stage we’re at now!
The next step is sanding down the rust spots on the trailer and using a rust preventive paint before we can buy some plywood and reinstall the floor. We were planning to use marine grade plywood but have recently heard this may not be the best idea, so we’re in the beginning stages of researching this! If anyone has any tips, please let us know!
I’m so excited that we’re almost at the point of being able to put our Airstream back together instead of taking it apart.
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