Buying and Restoring a Vintage Travel Trailer
I've spent the last five years obsessing over finding, buying, updating, decorating, and enjoying my "fleet" of vintage travel trailers: a 1963 Shasta Compact, a 1958 Shasta 16-foot travel trailer, and a 1994 Ford Econoline van. In this article, I will share my tips and tricks on how to restore a trailer of your own.
As a regular camper research expert, I figure the best thing to do with all the great RV resources and advice I have received is to share it for future fanatics to reference. Of course, I also like to record my experience for my own benefit when I start all over again with my next larger model (see below)! Yes, it's an addiction . . . and a fun one. Hop aboard for the "road less traveled."
Did I say that renovating vintage campers can become an obsession? Not only did I say it, I've lived it. Above is one of three vintage campers in my fleet. This 1959 Shasta Airflyte was renovated by some dear friends of ours and pulled home by our "vintage" 1992 Econoline Conversion van, "Elvis." Can't wait to start decorating! This one will be "south of the border boho."
Step 1: Finding and Purchasing Your Vintage Camper
When it comes to vehicles that need fixing, RV and trailer shops may be helpful for repairing systems, but don't expect them to have an appreciation for vintage restoration. The hourly rates at these shops are high, and they only stock modern parts. If you want to keep things retro, find a retro shop or an artisan who appreciates the historical integrity of your camper. Unless you have the skills and materials yourself, it's best to buy from a vintage fan who has spent hours on vintage restoration as a labor of love.
Below are some questions to ask before purchasing your camper:
- Water Damage: Water damage is a vintage camper's worst enemy. Water may normally enter around vents and windows. It can seep through the camper's 1.5" framing and create structural damage that may not be apparent without removing the camper's skin. Obviously, the less damage, the better. Ask what can be done to fix it. Ask if there are soft spots on the floor (these are harder to adjust as they require removal of built-in seating or cabinets).
- Camper Tires: It is a good idea to inquire about how old and weathered the tires are on your camper. Depending on the condition, it may be best to get new tires as well as clean and repack the tire bearings.
- RV Titles: Is there a clear title, or will it be a bill of sale only? Each state's DMV has different rules, so make sure to check yours. If you don't take care of this ahead of time, you might waste a camping season getting a license plate.
- Camper Towing and Hitch Weights: Can your vehicle pull your RV, or is it necessary to buy a new tow vehicle? Better check your manual first! SUVs can pull many of the smaller vintage campers with a towing package and a V6 . . . but better safe than sorry.
- Musty Smells: This includes cigarette smoke, pet odors, mold, mildew, etc. Ask first.
- RV Systems: What systems does your camper include and do they work? Were they tested? Are they original?
- Camper Undercarriage: There is a lot to learn from the pavement view. Getting under the camper will let you see the condition of the frame, the rust, the axles, brake systems, and flooring issues. Ask for photos if you can't get under yourself. If the camper was stored in a mud puddle beside the shed, it's likely to have had an effect.
Vintage Shasta Photos to Swoon OverClick thumbnail to view full-size
Step 2: Painting Your Vintage Camper
Professional or DIY Paint Job? I figured a $2,000 paint job was not in my budget (nor my camper's future) after scouring around for professional estimates at body shops like Maaco, from a carpenter with a spray shop, and mining input from vintage camper groups on Yahoo. This project called for a DIY job. Luckily, my barn allowed me more room to work and helped me feel a little less nervous about wind, weather, and blowing debris. The barn also provided a place to leave my camper (with its light holes exposed, there was some worry about rain).
For inspiration, I came across many links to DIY paint jobs both on car and camper sites. I was nervous. Our camper was pretty dowdy with chalky-white paint and many spots where the bare metal was showing. I wasn't sure if I was up for the job. To help me commit, I went out and got my supplies.
1. Choosing the Paint
The first thing I realized is that oil-based paint is pretty hard to find in Ohio and Indiana now that they've banned it in home stores. My only option was to use tractor enamel, however, this limited my artist's palette to a range of colors intended for tractors, and they were BRIGHT! Using tractor enamel would test my art training to arrive at a livable color. The final goal was a two-tone white and light yellow finish with the metal "Z-stripe" down the middle. I went for bright white gloss and John Deere yellow. The John Deere yellow was blinding, so I decided to tone it down by mixing it 50:50 with the white, and it worked. Phew!
The second thing I learned is that a $50 paint job is no longer $50. But when restoring a camper, it's all about having the right tools. Yes, I know—the reason I'm doing the paint job myself is because I'm cheap. That said, there are a few things I do think are worth spending the extra bucks for, which is why my "$50 paint job" cost closer to $100. Still, the outcome looks professional without paying the professional price tag. Here are the supplies I needed to repaint my camper. The last two items, in particular, are ones you shouldn't skimp on.
- Two gallons of white tractor paint ($20/gallon)
- One quart of yellow tractor paint (or whatever accent color you choose)
- Four cans of spray primer (which only came in grey)
- "Weenie" sponge roller brushes
- Paint buckets, rollers, and trays
- A roll of for masking out the "Z-stripe." (It's worth spending more for the green frog tape.) FrogTape
- for your aluminum wings, drip rails, and "Z-stripe." (Tip: Polish before your paint because it's messy—the streaks of grey tarnish may drip down as you work.) Mag and Aluminum Polish
3. The Prep Work
A critical part in painting your trailer is the prep work . . . and it is also the most time-consuming. The prep work took me about two days of 4-hour stints. I started by removing all the badges, lights, and wings (do this before painting if you plan on taking out and recaulking windows).
- Polish: I polished the silver "Z-stripe" and window/door trims with Mothers Polish to get all the oxidation off (definitely do this before as the oxidation can stain the paint).
- Replace Screws: I replaced all the rusty exterior screws that I could with stainless screws of a slightly larger width.
- Caulk: My husband caulked everything with clear paintable silicone.
- Sand: I sanded the exterior with fine grit and a hand sander. Afterward, I gave the camper a good cleaning.
- Mask the Metal: Finally, I was ready to tape off the "Z-stripe" and metal trim.
- Prime: I sprayed a light coat of the spray primer over the edges of the "Z-stripe" tape to seal them off. Then I sprayed over all the areas of exposed metal—most of which were on the roof and the front of the camper above the window. The exposed metal looked awful—like a grey and white leopard print. I was afraid it would show through. Luckily it didn't.
4. Painting the Camper
We started painting white on the roof of the camper with the largest of the sponge rollers (9") and used a small sponge brush for painting along the trim edging and nail holes. We worked slowly down towards the "Z-stripe," making sure to check for drips. The bubbles worked themselves out nicely and the paint went on well—just over the edge of the white "Z-stripe." Once we were done with the top section, we started on the lower section with the yellow paint. Both colors required two coats; one coat per day for two days. It took an additional day to get all the pieces and parts back onto the camper.
It took a total of five, 4-6 hours days to complete this paint job. It was a lot of work, but we are thrilled with the results and would do it again.
DIY Trailer Paint Job Photos: Before and AfterClick thumbnail to view full-size
Spray Paint Job With Rustoleum Rattle Cans
Step 3: Decorating Your Vintage Camper
Finally, after all the sweat, labor, cleaning, stripping, painting, and polishing comes decorating—the fun part! There's no end to the fun retro resources out there—in fact, it can be overwhelming. It may help to choose a theme based on the name of your camper (yes, we name them!) or the period of your camper, or perhaps a favorite era or style (think Western, tiki, Adirondack). There is plenty of room to set the stage for a stylish camping adventure.
For our "Holiday Hideaway," I wanted a color palette that would work with the warm, honey-toned wood paneling and the original yellow Formica; something that was light yet warm with a sense of humor. The vintage sign I based most of my decorating around was a 1940s-1950s-style advertisement for a dance hall in red and black.
The biggest struggle was the cushion fabric. I wanted something with a vintage look. Because of the small space, there was room for some texture but not too much print. I ended up with some lovely green fabric, white piping, and a tweedy texture. I paired these style selections with some black, retro, wishbone fabric for the curtains that emphasized green, yellow, and red colors. Additionally, I added in some throw pillows in red leopard and yellow zebra prints. The result was light and fun.
I love a good project, and decorating a vintage camper certainly fits that bill. My affinity for design may play a large part in my obsession with campers, to begin with. It is always dangerous when a designer has too much free time! If you're not as keen as I am on scouring the web for retro fabric and other vintage camping resources, the list of links below will get you up and decorating in no time!
Step 4: Show off Your Pride With Some Glam
Wings—you either love them or hate them. Though if you hate wings, you probably don't own a Shasta (unless you're one of those fine fellows who understand how much your fellow camper mate loves them . . . bless you all!). One of the best parts about vintage camper restoration is that after getting down and dirty, you'll get to glam it up. All that work will be worth it when you finally get to brighten up the road with your newly "glamped" out camper.
Excellent Web Resources for Vintage Travel Trailer Inspiration
Ebay is not the only place to look, of course. We found our vintage trailer on TinCanTourists.com in their "Tin Can Classifieds" section. We appreciated the lower-pressure option of classifieds versus auction because it keeps the competitive spirit in check! Happy searching!
Allows you to search Craigslist by area code or distance from your zip code so you don't have to go through each city near you separately.
Retro Parts: Vintage Trailer Supply
The place to get vintage style light fixtures, glass globes, license holders, moon hubcaps, metal polish, etc.
Flooring: Marmoleum the new Linoleum
All sorts of great colors in sheet and tile format. Glue it or stick it down.
Red Dirt Shasta Blog
Red Dirt's Blog is a great resource for Shasta renovations. He has great photos, and great step-by-step advice. Really informative!
To Sum It Up: Video of a Complete Shasta Camper Restoration
Familiarization with your camper is essential. Getting an idea of what's inside the walls, how to attach the windows, how to build the frame, what's under the seats, etc. is the best way to understand which projects you'll need help with and what you can handle on your own. I like the video below because the author includes a slideshow of photos from his restoration. I'm not that handy, so I paid more for a camper with mainly cosmetic needs—"know thyself," as they say. My camper has been a good starting point and has provided me with some confidence to tackle a little more on the next one. This is just a start. You can find great blogs and videos on many specific vintage trailer projects for every different kind of camper with a quick search. Good luck.
Who Will Do Your Renovations?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
I am repairing water damage in my RV here and there and everywhere in my 73 model FAN camper. I'm trying to do it without pulling off the skin so I'm removing rotten wood framing and left some screws protruding out. I feel lost now though, how do I proceed? I can't find a how-to for this one anywhere.
I am not a DIY whiz by any means and know my limitations; I can tell you are already way past my carpentry abilities. We have hired a variety of experts in updating our campers, and when we do, we try to find craftspeople with an appreciation for these old charmers; you can't just take them to any RV store and expect that they'll work to find a historically compatible solution. You also have to advise carpenters that RV carpentry has to have an understanding of aerodynamics and weight - you can't just use 2x4s. From my research, most major renovations of the interior wood require removal of the skin. It really depends on how much wood you're taking off. I'd suggest researching some more online or finding a vintage camper restoration company. There are several out here in the Midwest.Helpful 12
How can you protect against hail damage while restoring a vintage travel trailer?
We are fortunate that my Dad has a barn for us to keep our Shasta in during the offseason.Helpful 5
I was looking for a company I could purchase a restored/converted vintage camper into a mobile bar for my business. Do you have any resources or anyone you could recommend?
I like to check into Tincantourists.com. They have a classifieds section. I know several people who have had luck with Craigslist too, but watch out for scammers!Helpful 4