If there was ever a time to wear a mask, it's when cleaning up and repairing a rusty old metal Airstream frame.
Now that I've had some time to inspect the frame with the subfloor removed (and I removed the belly pan and tanks as well), I know to what extent I'll have to repair the frame. It's actually still in really good shape even though it looks bad on the outside. It's covered in rust and it's pitted from (probably) years of water damage, it's still solid and its structural integrity is intact. This makes me SUPER HAPPY. There are several outriggers, 11 in all, that will need to be replaced but honestly, even though I was hoping for no replacements, it's to be expected.
So, the first thing I need to do to restore this Airstream's frame to like new status is to clean off all that surface rust. To accomplish this job I will employ the use of a simple angle grinder from DeWalt that Lacie's dad let us borrow and a knotted brush. This will be my go to tool for 90% of this project. For the hard to reach nooks and crannies I will use these:
- Milwaukee M18 Brushless Drill
- Wire wheel brushes for drill attachment
- Big wire brushes
- Small wire brushes
And of course, make sure to have the appropriate personal protection gear, mask, goggles, and ear muffs. Those grinders are loud, especially inside a tin can!
Grinding all that rust off took me several days. It was A LOT of hard, dirty work. Hours were spent bent over the frame, lying on the ground under the frame, sitting on the frame... my arms were dead and my hands were numb from the constant vibration of the grinder.
In the process of cleaning up the frame, I also found several bolts and screws from the subfloor and tank pans, and even some rivets from the belly pan, that were still stuck in the frame. I made sure to grind all these down flush to the frame so we didn't have any protrusions in the frame. Very important to get a flush and level subfloor. The last thing I want is to find out I need to grind on my beautifully painted frame because I missed some screws!
All jacked up.
Because this is an Airstream, everything is very tightly packed. In order to thoroughly clean the rust off of everywhere on the frame, I'll need to remove the wheels and axels. At this point, I have decided that I need to replace the axels anyway as the current ones are definitely worn out and I want to make sure we have great suspension so our home isn't violently shaken apart by the road.
Removing the wheels means I needed to have something else for the airstream to sit on, so I placed four jack stands under the frame. Now things are starting to get scary.
To remove the axels, I got Lacie's dad to help since he is a mechanic and also those axels are freakin heavy so there was no way I could do it by myself. You can watch more of the process in the video below.
Once I got all the surface rust off, some of it was bare metal and some of it was the original black paint in areas where it was still holding strong, it was ready for it's first coat of paint! This was an exciting moment for us because this new paint was the first thing going back ON to Serenity. Up until this point everything we did was removing old stuff and now it was time to put on NEW STUFF! HELLS YEAH!
A fresh coat of paint
A couple of people told me to use POR15 for the frame, and I have seen a lot of other Airstream renovators use it as well. I decided to go with Eastwood Co's Rust Encapsulator platinum. It was higher rated than the POR15 and Eastwood also had a lot of other great products that I got as well. You can apply the Rust encapsulator platinum right over bare metal and rust (as long as you remove all the surface rust, the loose flaky stuff) which means I didn't have to grind or sand the rust off completely, a HUGE time saver. It's rated for up to 1500 hours of salt water testing so I knew this stuff would last another 30+ years keeping our frame safe and protected from further rusting.
Before you start applying the paint, you need to rid the frame of all dust and oils and to do this I used Eastwood's Pre-painting Prep. Just spray and wipe.
After that, the frame is ready for paint, grab the Rust Encapsulator Platinum and a paint brush and started painting! I didn't have to apply too thick of a coat but I made sure it got a good coverage. It only requires one coat but you can do two if you like. Be aware, you need to put the second coat or a top coat (if you want a different color) on within 48 hours to get a good bond.
For the inside of the tubular beams, which on my frame run front to back the entire length of the frame, I wasn't able to clean the rust out. But Eastwood has an Internal Frame Coating that I used to spray some of the inside of the frame. Though I realized I didn't have much access to this as there are only openings on the ends. But I sprayed each end and it may or may not help. Who knows, but I did end up clearing out a hornet's nest in the process. That part came as quite the surprise.
For all the exposed sections of the frame, I am adding a top coat of black paint. No I am not going to leave it that silver color. The color scheme we are going with on the outside of the Airstream is the polished aluminum with matte black accents. So naturally the frame is going to be matte black. or at least satin. For this I am using the Extreme Chassis Black
A thing of beauty
I don't know about you but those before and afters sure are satisfying. All that hard, back-breaking work has paid off and I can rest easy knowing that this frame will last a long time and the Parker and Emery will be able to inherit the Airstream when the time comes or that we can sell her to another family that will get years of adventures with her.
Now, you may be wondering, "But Ben, you aren't even finished! There are still repairs to do!" That is correct. But before I am able to do the repairs needed (replace the outriggers and paint them) I need to lift the shell off of the frame to get it out of the way.
So, in the next post, we'll do just that.