How I Repaired, Remodeled, and Restored an Old RV Camper
Older RVs: Classics and Bargains
Many of us cannot afford those fancy motorhomes and luxurious travel trailers even though we do love to visit America’s great state and national parks. Fortunately for us DIY types, there are many used or classic travel trailers and other types of campers for sale that merely need a little fixing up and modernizing to make them comfortable and safe for our families to enjoy.
This article describes the renovation of an 86 Nissan Nicky mounted camper body that had only been used for a couple of camping trips. The engine and interior of the truck itself were in great shape, with only 38,000 miles on the odometer.
The camper body itself, however, was in very bad condition due to a roof leak which caused much deterioration to the interior. Damage from leaks is a very common problem in old RVs. As you can see by the photos, the ceiling and walls, as well as the sink and stove area, were all badly damaged. The structural integrity of the camper walls and ceiling were at risk also, as the wood used for support was badly rotted and would have to be replaced to restore stability to the RV itself.
But since the RV cost only $400, I considered it well worth repairing.
Getting a Materials List Together
We started off by giving the little unit a thorough examination in order to make our materials list.
The secret to doing a quick and reliable repair job on any travel trailer or motorhome is to plan ahead and save trips to the hardware store. At least when you remodel a motorhome instead of a house, you can buy your materials in smaller quantities: wood paneling, screws, nails, glue.
Upgrades Worth Considering When You Remodel an Old RV
Plumbing: Many older RVs may be updated by using the newer flexble tubing plumbing to replace old copper or PVC water lines. One advantage of flexible pipes is that they stand up to the vibration of a moving vehicle. As a rule, an old toilet is easier to replace than to fix.
Electrical system: A new breaker box (with more breakers) is also suggested for very old travel trailers, because microwave ovens and other new appliances may require more amps than the old breaker panels were designed for.
Adding extra 110-volt receptacles in the kitchen area is a good idea; it's better than having to run extension cords across the limited floor space in most RVs.
An old three-way evaporation refrigerator can be replaced by a new efficient 110-volt model (as described in this article on RV repair) for great savings.
Assessing Interior Water Damage in This Nissan Nicky Camper
Roof and Ceiling Damage
We began at the top, to see where the water that had caused so much trouble was coming from. We removed the ceiling assembly and hold-down bracket from the Coleman rooftop AC unit so we could better access the roof and ceiling damage. One of the bolts securing the rooftop AC to the hold-down bracket was loose and this may have been the cause of the leaking roof.
But the damage was so bad it was difficult to determine exactly where the leak originated on the roof. We did determine that the roof seams were bad as well, and that before we began other repairs we should reseal and coat the roof to prevent even further interior damage.
This camping unit, like many made today, relied on Styrofoam panels for much of the roof and walls, with this particular model using wood panels glued to the Styrofoam to give structural support. The old roof was made of 4x¾' Styrofoam sheets with 2x2" wood rafters.
As we describe below, we used luan as a replacement. We decided that when we replaced the ceiling we would add four pieces of angle iron as rafters to add strength to the 4x¾” ceiling boards we replaced. This added support would keep the AC unit from bouncing and reopening the roof leaks.
Damage to Kitchen, Walls, and Counter Tops
The water damaged the counters and other parts of the kitchen. What's more important, it damaged the wood corner supports, which were behind the kitchen cabinet and in the bathroom near the stove.
We needed to access and replace these rotten corner wood supports. Furthermore, we wanted to replace the floor with new plywood. So we removed the stove and sink from the cabinet, as well as the cabinet itself.
All wiring over the stove was detached until after the job was completed. This is recommended for all electrical wiring you may encounter during the repair process.
Damaged Wooden Corner Supports
Water damaged the supports at the corner of the RV. After we removed the AC and stove/sink cabinet, we replaced the wooden corner braces.
Before: Getting Ready to Install the New Ceiling
After we removed the AC unit, we inserted the four pieces of angled steel into the ceiling, attached them to the replacement ¾ x 4” ceiling joists, and covered them with new luan paneling.
After: The New Ceiling
Finishing the Roof
After the ceiling was repaired, the roof seams were covered by a strip of roof repair aluminum backed with a very sticky adhesive. It is sold as “Peel N’ Seal” in Lowes or Home Depot. This is a wonderful permanent or emergency repair roofing product which pays to have along on any camping trip.
We then coated the roof with a rubber-based roof sealant ("Kool Seal") to ensure against any possible new leaks.
Removing and Replacing Damaged Walls
We removed and discarded the original panels attached to the corner supports--thin styrofoam and luan—and replaced them with new 1/4" luan. Luan is a soft plywood made out of tropical deciduous trees. It can be stained or painted. Since it's thin it is great for bending into the curved shapes many RVs use for the interior ceilings and walls. It paints or stains great too.
You can use Liquid Nail or a similar adhesive liberally to connect luan to wood, and for other repairs on RVs and travel trailers.
As an alternative to luan, you can use thin sheets of paneling turned inside-out to display the wood-grain side. These sheets are occasionally offered at clearance prices at Home Depot or Lowe's building supply stores.
As you can tell from photos below, the new paneling did wonders for the badly damaged interior of the RV. We used 1” or 1 ¼” drywall screws to attach most of the paneling and hid the screws with molding strips.
In more visible places, we relied on finish nails and more Liquid Nail to ensure a tight, long-lasting seal between the luan and the wood supports.
Rebuilding the Bath and Kitchen
We checked the plumbing and electrical system in the sink/stove cabinet area and added a new 110-volt receptacle to replace the rusted unsafe outlet beneath the overhead cabinets.
We cleaned up the stove, sanded it, and painted it with high-temperature paint to resist the heat from the gas burners on the stove. We reattached the gas lines and sealed them properly during the reassembly.
The small bathroom shower unit was fine, but we replaced the paneling above the surround with luan paneling, along with the ceiling and walls.
The paneling above the surround will be painted with a water-resistant paint, which should do fine for the occasional weekend trips planned for the small camping unit.
Reinforcing the Floor
We decided to add an extra 3/8” layer of plywood to the floor area for added strength, even though the floor was still in usable condition.
Often, a water-damaged floor will continue to deteriorate from foot traffic and will eventually give problems if not recovered or reinforced properly. If you have had serious water damage, you can completely replace the RV floor.
The Finished Product: A Little Beauty of an RV
Through With This Guy! Road Ready at Last!
There’s nothing as satisfactory to a DIY guy than seeing the results of his own work. The roof and walls, along with the ceiling and bath repair, turned out great and should last for many years to come.
There are other small areas which need a little spit and polish, but this little camper is now ready for the road.
The owner decided to paint the interior himself and save a little more money, which was fine by us. He still came out smelling like a rose though he hired us to do the work for him. Besides, we hate to paint anyway.
The owner now has about $1400 in this neat little rig and could sell it for much more than he invested if he so chooses to do so.
Don't Be Afraid to Try It Yourself
The repair methods used in this article may be modified according to your own taste in design or the depth of your wallet. We chose the most economical materials while maintaining durability and safety as much as possible.
Don’t be afraid to take on one of these projects, as the labor is not too time-consuming nor the materials too expensive. Almost anything you do wrong can be repaired with no problems.
Good luck with your own project and thanks for reading my articles on RV repair.