All posts tagged woodwork

1966 Airstream Caravel Renovation; Updating an American Icon

Occasionally a project comes along that is so unlike anything you have done before that you are left to wonder if it is even something you should take on, or if you will come to regret it down the line. This is how I felt on a sunny August day when a 1966 Airstream Caravel trailer was towed into the shop. The project scope seemed quite straightforward on paper; create an interior space that could function as an office, a reading sanctuary and a guest bedroom for the clients summer home on lake Winnipisake. But as I came to learn through the course of this project — designing and building around the convoluted compound curves of the classic Airstream’s contours was anything but simple.

The first Airstreams were built in California in the late 1930’s, but soon WW II brought aluminum shortages and made travel a luxury few could afford. It wasn’t until the post war boom that increased wealth and leisure time, coupled with the recently completed interstate highway system, created the perfect nexus for road travel, and the Airstream trailer with it’s sleek lines and futuristic look was there to fill that niche. By the 1960’s, the silver trailer was so cemented in the American psyche that when NASA needed a mobile quarantine unit for astronauts returning from moon missions (presumably infected with space germs), they turned to the Airstream company, who would eventually build 4 of the specialized trailers at it’s Jackson Center Ohio plant. Given the iconic status of The Airstream, I knew that I had to get the details of this project right.

When I received the trailer it was an intimidatingly blank slate consisting only of an empty aluminum skin and a new 3/4” plywood floor. Before I could even start the construction of new cabinetry, a floor-plan had to be developed that incorporated all of the elements the clients were hoping to have in the new interior. From discussions we had, I knew that they wanted a storage closet, a banquette that would fold out into a double bed, a desk, a prep area that would include a microwave oven and a mini fridge, and sleeping accommodations for one more person. Quite a lot to squeeze elegantly into a 17’ trailer!

For this phase of the project I enlisted the help of My friend Aimee Brothers of Lavender and Lotus Interior Design. I had collaborated with her in the past and I knew that her keen design sense would be invaluable when it came to working out the details of the layout. I especially wanted her input to insure that the color schemes of the flooring, walls and fabrics worked in harmony. Together we came up with a layout that incorporated all of the elements the clients were hoping to achieve, whilst retaining a sense of openness and flow through the small space.

With the design phase mostly completed it was time to start considering how to construct the walls. Originally I had hoped that I would be able to find either an aftermarket fiberglass wall kit or work with a boat builder to fabricate new wall panels to fit the signature curved ends of the Airstream. Unfortunately both of these ideas ended up being dead ends, so I spent the time to figure out how to do it with the one medium I am most comfortable with – wood. After some experimenting, I discovered that I would be able to follow the compound curves using wedges of 1/8” bending poplar to mimic the same technique that was used for the aluminum skin on the exterior of the trailer. Instead of the 7 panels used for the metal though, I went with 11 panels.

I had my plan in place but before I could get started, I still needed to have the rough wiring done and fabricate some curved studs that the wall panels would be attached to. Wiring – easy enough (completed by Chris Ward of Ward Electric), curved studs – less so. After a lot of experimentation, I settled on a technique of building laminated studs in place, using the curves of the trailer as the mold. The hardest part of this technique was fixing the first layer of 3/8” bending ply to the underside of the aluminum skin, which I was able to do using a combination of polyurethane glue and a hot melt glue to hold the piece in place as the poly glue set. Once the first layer was secure, it was easy enough to glue and screw subsequent layers to the first, until the stud reached the required thickness.

Studs and wiring complete, and with a layer of fiberglass insulation in place, it was time to tackle the laborious process of scribing, cutting, and attaching the wall panels. There ultimately wasn’t any secret technique to this process, just lots of patience and time with a pencil and bandsaw. Once this was finished I could finally start thinking about the fun stuff – the built in cabinetry.

For the cabinetry we settled on a baltic birch plywood construction with sycamore veneer and walnut trim. The client really liked the look of the exposed laminations on the edge of the Baltic birch plywood which provided a cool retro look and made my life a lot easier too! I warmed up by first building the two relatively simple cabinets that would be the prep kitchen area and the writing desk. Other than the large scribes needed to fit the curved walls and accommodating the wheel wells, both pieces were relatively straight forward. Once they were complete, it was time to move on to bigger and better things.

One of my goals in designing the interior, was to mimic the curves of the shell as much as possible in the cabinetry. There would be curved cutouts in the partitions and rounded doors in the storage bins, but to really get the full effect there would need to be curves in the cabinetry too. I had done a fair amount of bent lamination work in the past and I was eager to put my skills to the test here. I designed the banquette and also a built in bench seat with conical curves in them. But the show piece would be the curved closet corner that would be scribed into the compound curves of the Airstream’s ceiling and walls. At seven feet tall, the single piece corner would be the largest lamination I had ever attempted, so I decided to dive right in and start there.

As I have discussed in previous articles for the Journal, all bent laminations start with a mold, and this one would require a big one. Because I needed to be able to slide the mold and the work piece in and out of the vacuum bag with relative ease, I decided to build it with less ribbing than usual to reduce the overall weight. Luckily I did I dry run with just the mold in the bag as this turned out to be a big mistake! The light weight construction of the form was no match for the forces of the vacuum system, and the whole thing imploded inside the bag. Oh well, so much for lightweight! My next iteration of the form was more rugged and held up inside the press. 

The next problem to overcome was ensuring that the pressure of the bag on the work piece was evenly distributed across the surface. This was necessary because the outer layer of my closet corner would be a piece of sycamore veneer. If the pressure was not evenly applied, I could end up with air pockets on the surface where the veneer was not sufficiently pressed into the glue layer. After some experimentation, I settled on a combination of an 1/8” piece of plywood used as a caul and a layer of 1/4” quilt batting that would act as a breather fabric between the caul and the bag and would allow air to flow over the surface as the bag was pulled tight. To ease the stress of the glue-up I opted to use Unibond 800 as the adhesive which gave me plenty of open time to work with, and I made sure there was an extra person in the shop in case things got hairy and I needed a hand.

All of the prep work, experimentation and dry runs payed off and I was able to achieve the bend on the first attempt. Further proof that woodworking is 90% preparation and 10% execution. As is true for most things in life I imagine.

The conical pieces I needed for the bench and banquette were relatively easy by comparison. Rather than a typical bent lamination which is a section of a cylinder, these pieces would be a section of a cone, so correct layout of the mold was critical. I drew out the form full-scale to determine the size and placement of the ribs in order to achieve the correct angle. The beveled ribs were cut on a band saw with the table tipped at the necessary angle. Once the mold was built, the rest of the process was the same as any other bent lamination, although I opted to give myself a few extra inches of material on either side of the angle so that I could creep up on the final size.

From here on out, most of the rest of the furnishings would need to built in place with some sections being constructed at the bench and then scribed into the curves of the Airstream and installed. The technique I developed over this part of the project consisted of using 1/4” MDF as template stock, a pair of scribes, and many trips between the band saw, spindle sander, and edge belt sander. Once I had the scribe perfect, I would transfer it to whatever piece I was working on using a trim router and a flush cut bit with the bearing riding on the template I had just created. Slowly in this manner, the interior cabinetry began to take shape. First the closet, then the banquette and day bed, and finally the small conical bench. The same scribing technique would be used to get a perfect fit on the prep cabinet counter and the desk top. 

There were some head-scratching engineering challenges along the way — how to get a bed with square corners to fold away into a space that is round for example — but eventually everything was in place and I could pay attention to the cosmetic details of doors, drawers and a small vanity mirror for the sleeping area. 

To keep the sleek, modern look of the trailer I decided on flat doors and drawers with vertical grain veneer and a small walnut bead to cover the edge of the baltic birch plywood substrate and provide a contrast to the sycamore. I also wanted to use shop made walnut pulls. I felt it was important for the pulls to be flat to reduce the chance that someone may catch themselves on one while moving around the small space. I chose to make them similar in style to a set I had developed for a recently complete jewelry cabinet. They would be inset with a cutout for your fingers. Instead of a round hole as I had done for the cabinet, I once again looked to the Airstream for inspiration and created an elliptical shape reminiscent of the elegant curves of the Airstream’s ceiling.

One of the things I have learned over the years is to recognize where my strengths and passions lie, and to subcontract out the things that I either don’t have the skills for, or the interest in doing. For this project that meant paint for the walls, finish on all of the cabinetry and furnishings, and upholstery for the banquette, the daybed, and the bench. The paint and the cabinetry finish was completed by Bob Realy, and the cushions were made and upholstered by Deborah Fisher.

The final parts to install were the window trim and the walnut ribbing that would cover up the seams in the paneled walls and ceiling. For these elements I fabricated strips of walnut 3/4” wide and 3/8” thick with an 1/8” radius on the edges. These pieces were substantial enough to hold the edges of the panels in place, but still thin enough that I could bend them around the curves in the ceiling. Once cut to length and scribed where necessary, they were held in place with decorative oval head screws. 

After many many months of planning, obsessing, experimenting, building, worrying and working, the completed Airstream was finally ready for it’s debut, and on a rainy October afternoon I watched it disappear down the road with a mixture of pride and relief. Had I known what I was getting myself into it’s possible that I would have turned the project down, but as T.S. Eliot memorably quipped: “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”, and now with some space and time between myself and the project, I am glad that I didn’t. The opportunity to collaborate with people as patient, enthusiastic and engaged as my clients were on this project is in itself a treat, but to do so on a something this unique and special was even more so. 

Exterior of 1966 Airstream Caraval

Airstream renovation custom cabinetry double bed

Double Bed

Airstream renovation custom cabinetry curved closet

Curved Closet

Airstream renovation custom cabinetry dining table

Dining Table

Airstream renovation banquette

Banquette

Airstream renovation daybed

Daybed

Airstream Renovation Prep Counter

Prep Area

Airstream renovation desk detail

Desk Detail

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Craftsmanship And Personal Development

“Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential.”

– Bruce Lee

At this point in my career, I have told the story of my journey into furniture making so many times there is a certain rote repetition to it. Framing carpenter, finish carpenter, remodeler, the first cabinets built in the unheated barn behind my rented house, winter glue-ups in the dining room with never enough clamps. The opportunity to move into a group shop where I could work along side accomplished craftsmen. The realization at the height of the recession that knowing how to build furniture meant nothing if I didn’t also know how to sell it, and the work in the last few years trying to learn how to do just that.

But what is lost in the repetitive retellings are the moments of discovery, the successes and the failures, the doubts and the decisions, the excitement of learning a new skill and the profound satisfaction that comes from pursuing the elusive mastery of a craft. I doubt that many of us who first become enamored with the tools, techniques and trappings of woodworking, had given much thought to the lifetime of self discovery ahead of us, but I have found that my decision to don the mantle of “Craftsman” has brought with it a series of experiences that have shaped my career and fostered a greater understanding of myself. I was recently afforded just such an experience as a Studio Fellow at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport Maine.

The School’s website describes the Studio Fellowship Program as providing “emerging and established furniture makers, carvers, and turners with a stimulating environment for the exploration of new work.” The program gives participants access to a beautiful 5,400 square foot workshop and, more importantly, to all of the resources, faculty and students that the Center has to offer, all in exchange for just 6 hours of work per week helping with facilities and grounds maintenance and various other tasks.

Over the past four years, I have been involved with the school as a visitor, a workshop student, a gallery exhibitor and most recently as an assistant instructor and have always  found the environment to be exceptionally creative and exciting. My time there in any capacity has always been rewarding and so I have kept the Fellowship Program in the back of my mind as something I would do someday given the chance. But as a full time furniture and cabinetmaker who is perpetually balanced on the razor thin edge of liquidity, the thought of leaving my shop and my income behind for any length of time to pursue things as intangible as “art” and “voice” always seemed impractical. But this past winter, as endless snow-days kept me out of the shop, I spent some time considering what my goals as a furniture maker are, and came to the realization that only by taking risks with my time and with my work would I ever be able to achieve them. So with a certain amount of trepidation I completed the application process and awaited the decision. To my great joy, I was accepted into the program and so I marked out the month of September on my calendar and set about to completing as much work as possible in the months leading up to my departure.

My Fellowship began on one of those gorgeous September days that are unique to Northern New England. The morning air brings with it the faintest hint of Fall that is quickly forgotten as the sun and the temperatures rise. I arrived in the afternoon and began unloading my tools and moving into my bench space. As a primarily self taught maker whose business model has necessitated developing a rather eclectic portfolio, I have always felt self-conscious around more accomplished woodworkers with a cohesive body of work that is a clear expression of themselves. As if I have somehow bluffed my way into an exclusive club and am in danger of being found out at any moment. Upon meeting the rest of the Fellows, however, I realized that my fears were unfounded as I could immediately recognize them as kindred spirits. Indeed, although I was only there for a month, I know that the people I met there will be friends for life.

Over the summer, as I was considering my goals for my month in Maine, I realized that I could go in one of two directions with my time. I could either spend the month working on a single piece that I would be unlikely to finish in such a short period, or I could use the Fellowship as an opportunity to experiment with a number of different ideas and techniques I was interested in, but had been unable to find the time for. I chose the latter approach, and so on the second day there, I began experimenting.

I will spare you the boring details of everything that I worked on, but in brief I experimented with some marquetry and inlay techniques to develop stringing that has a more organic, almost pen and ink drawing look. I took advantage of the schools equipment and knowledgable staff to begin learning how to steam-bend — a skill I have always wanted to incorporate into my arsenal. I developed a technique to create parts that are coved, steam-bent and then coopered that I hope to be able to scale up and use as furniture components. I spent some time learning how best to veneer unusually shaped parts in the vacuum bag. And I tried to take advantage of the faculty design critiques to develop some furniture designs for future spec work. Mostly I tried to live by painter Chuck Close’s observation that “inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of just show up and get to work” and keep producing, embracing my failures — of which there were many!

One of the most interesting parts of the month for me came during the opening reception for the current exhibition in the Messler Gallery where I was able to spend time talking to some of the exhibitors in a show titled “Contemporary Wood Design”.  While I have always approached design as being subservient to craft and technique, these young makers think of themselves as designers first and craftspeople second, or in some cases as designers only, outsourcing the actual construction to others. I found it fascinating to discuss their approach to furniture making and to contemplate how I could incorporate some of their ideas into my own process.

Predictably, the four weeks disappeared at a lightning pace and before I knew it, October was rearing it’s ugly head and it was time to pack up. And so, on a rainy day at the end of September, I loaded up my truck to head back to NH and to my own shop. I would have loved to have been able to stay longer and to keep developing the ideas that I started on while I was there, but I am so grateful for the limited time that I did have.

If we except the premise in the above quote from Bruce Lee, that it is our duty as humans to develop our potential. And if we believe that as artists and craftspeople that our potential is expressed both in the work we create and in the understanding of ourselves, then it is only by getting out of our comfort zones and taking the time to explore new ideas around new people that we can achieve those goals. I can confidently assert that the time I spent as a Studio Fellow at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship has helped me to develop my potential as both a human, and a furniture maker. I look forward to a career, and a life, that is filled with similar opportunities for growth.

 

 

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