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DIY #1 — Zolatone… Remove it or paint over it?

Matthew’s Answer:  That “stuff” is called Zolatone and it’s manufactured in Eagan, Minnesota.  It’s the stuff that coated the inside of older cars trunks in the ’50s and early ’60s.  Today, it’s the black, rubbery coating sprayed inside of truck beds.  In the photo (above) of this 1959, it’s a flecked, slightly textured product that often gets mistaken for vinyl, which it technically is not.  Later, Airstream did switch to a vinyl coating for their interior walls, but for many years they used Zolatone because it’s an extremely durable product.

Originally, at the Airstream factory, Zolatone was spray-applied as a seamless, waterbase, interior wall finish that combined visual complexity with architectural lustre.  It is cleanable, repairable, minimizes maintenance costs and because it’s textured, covers a multitude of manufacturing “sins.”

It’s also safe to work with, because it’s an environmentally-safe finish and LEED compliant.  For us LEED-geeks who care, it exceeds the Green Seal GS-11 and complies with California’s stringent health safety laws.

Remove it or paint over it?

If you wipe your bare hand over the surface of any Airstream that’s older than 20 years you’ll immediately notice two things:

  1. Zolatone has a bumpy textured surface, and
  2. The surface is sticky (yuck!)

The bumps are what we mean by “architectural” – it’s 3-dimensional, as opposed to a flat finish. It’s also extremely durable, and thick so it hides imperfections on the surface.  It’s also impossible to remove!

Let’s tackle the second, stickier issue, first.  That sticky residue is the same stuff that coats the inside of your stove cooktop vent – old grease (major yuck!)  Simply put, the grease has to go.

You can spend a lot of money and time with a steam cleaner, as they do at the local diner, or you can try something much simpler.  Get yourself some household de-greaser, such as Simple Green or TSP, and rinse the walls several times with a brush and rags so no stickiness remains.

Be safety smart

Whenever working with solvents and cleaners, be safety-smart and open up all the windows, vents and front door because this is going to be a stinky, messy job.  You may even want to use an exhaust fan placed to pull the inside air out of the unit.

Now, I’m not endorsing this next method, but I know a guy who used a heavy-duty degreaser from Costco, called OilEater.  This product is intended for removing oil spots from driveways and cleaning car parts.  If you use it, just be sure to wear gloves, because it will degrease your skin, too.

If your grease is stubborn, another option is to wipe down the walls with a good Zero-VOC solvent.  Check with your local paint professional, and be sure to use the protective gear specified on the label, such as gloves, goggles, and a respirator with the proper filter. By the way, dust masks do NOT protect against solvent vapors or crystalline silica.

Let the walls dry for a day, then prime and paint.  If it was already painted, then your new paint will only be as good as the first paint job.  If it wasn’t done right, your new paint could flake or peel off with the old paint.

Lightly sand the Zolatone

After cleaning the surface we sand it, first.  You don’t need to take it down to the aluminum – just a light top sanding to rough up the surface so the base coat bonds well.  Use a variable rotary sander with dust bag, and a bunch of GOOD quality 120 grit discs to lightly sand the surface. I know people who have sanded off all of the Volatone, but that’s only if you want a shiny aluminum interior like the exterior – which is not a look that appeals to my senses – you make the call.

Base primer coat

There are special primers meant for vinyl wall covering.  Check with a paint store near you, such as Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore, or Frazee (my choice).  But don’t skip this step – a quality primer is the key to a successful paint job.

Top coat paint

For painting, we like Frazee EnviroKote, which is a line of interior Zero-VOC paints.  They carry a good color selection of primer, semi-gloss and flat paints.

I have used Kilz Premium, and that will work, as well. When I checked with the paint department at Home Depot, she suggested Glidden Gripper Primer and Behr Topcoat.

Whatever you do, don’t use old paint!  There are much better paint products these days.  And remember two health-wise and common sense tips:

  1. Take frequent fresh air breaks, and
  2. Keep pregnant women and young children away from any freshly painted room.

One last word about mildew

If your Airstream has been stored in a humid region and closed up for several years it could have mildew.  Before you do anything realize this… MILDEW IS A SIGNIFICANT HEALTH HAZARD, so take proper precautions.

Painting over the mildew may hide the ugly black fungus temporarily, but it will quickly reappear. The trick to getting rid of mildew permanently is to kill the mold first, then prep and paint carefully to keep it from returning. Here’s how:

  • Never paint over existing mildew. Scrub it off with a mixture of one part bleach and three parts water.
  • Always prime.
  • Avoid painting when it’s breezy. Airborne mildew spores can get into the fresh paint. And, because brush marks can trap nutrients that mildew feeds on, smooth paint out.
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