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Confessions of a DIYer: The Benefits of a Frame-Off Renovation

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10 Nov Confessions of a DIYer: The Benefits of a Frame-Off Renovation

The iconic mid-Century designs of vintage trailers, such as Airstreams, are reminiscent of a time when the American dream was alive and well. Their sleek angles and gleaming aluminum shells inspire us to reimagine how we live, work, and play. The process of transforming one of these iconic American beauties from a lump of coal into a brilliant diamond takes the know-how and expertise of master craftsmen. In addition to a high level sense of design, it requires top level renovation skills and experience.

The structural and cosmetic issues that emerge with a vintage vessel, defined as 30+ years of age, can be overwhelming to a novice. Just see what our friend Andrew of Washington State has to say about his recent DIY renovation of a 31-foot 1972 Airstream Excella 500.

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Andrew is the owner of an auto detailing business in Bellevue, WA. A lifetime of experience in the construction industry has afforded him with an extensive list of qualified construction contacts. When it came time to renovate his Airstream, he counted on these connections to help him cut costs and save time.

He learned that Airstreams are like houses, and if doing the renovations that would be necessary on a house of 30+ years old is out of the question, then a DIY renovation of a vintage Airstream is going to be off the table as well.

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Andrew started with a seemingly clean trailer. The cabinets were in tact, the floor was whole, and the walls were painted. As he began to remove the cabinets and pull up the carpets, he discovered a hazardous environment unfit for living. Rats had pulled down pieces of insulation and created dens in the walls, there was rodent feces and urine all over the subfloor, and there was black mold from hidden leaks in the exterior everywhere.

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He said it best, “You’re not going to build a house on a foundation that’s infested with termites, so don’t build an Airstream on a foundation that is deteriorating!”

At Hofmann Architecture we are huge advocates of the full frame-off renovation because it tackles big problems before they can create a multitude of other problems. Take a look at this summary of our process.

Full Frame-off Process


Step 1: Foundation

airstream, vintage, renovation, modern, mobile lifestyle, construction, DIY, chassis, trailer chassis, rusted chassis, airstream restoration, Hofmann ArchitectureNo one wants a leaky roof or holes in their floor, so let’s start by addressing some of the structural issues. The most important part of any structure is its foundation. The chassis, once a well-built hunk of American steel, has probably become weakened over time and covered in rust. It’s virtually impossible, however, to determine the scope of the damage without completely removing the belly skins or the subfloor. If all portions of the chassis are severely rusted, it needs to be removed, repaired, and given a good coat of rust inhibitor, or even replaced entirely. Most DIY renovators are not sufficiently-equipped or capable of safely removing the shell from the chassis. However, it is a vital step that will save the DIYer from having to go back in the future and redo all of their precious interior work.

Step 2: Exterior Shell

The next step in a full renovation is to repair and reinforce any seams or intrusions in the exterior shell. Wall/roof panel joints, windows, and AC units are all problematic spots that can turn into major leaks from the jostling vibration of towing. The reality is that this step can not be thoroughly completed without removing the interior wall panels and insulation — but we’ll get to that shortly. Water is powerful stuff and a small leak that might not be visible on the exterior can have major implications on the interior — causing mold, rust, wood rot or structural weakening.

Step 3: Running System

This step is often overlooked by DIYers who only do partial renovations, but it can have a drastic impact on the longevity of your vintage vessel and the quality of your mobile experience. Just like in a vintage car, the suspension, wheel bearings, and axles may all need to be replaced to insure the safety of the vehicle. Old suspension loses its absorption of bumps and will result in a rough ride that can be damaging to the interior features. In addition to recommending a running system upgrade or replacement, we use high quality interior components for our running systems that are designed to withstand what amounts to a 9.0 seismic experience when rolling down the highway!

Step 4: Interior

At Hofmann Architecture, we pride ourselves in creating innovative designs that capture the best of functionality, sustainability, and beautiful aesthetics. A full renovation means removing all of the outdated factory systems, appliances, fixtures, wiring, and plumbing. We then swap them out with brand new insulation, wiring, PEX pipes, systems, appliances, subfloor, cabinets, countertops, and several fresh coats of paint. New appliances are not only safer, lighter, and more energy efficient than their vintage counterparts, they will last longer too. Items such as PEX piping that doesn’t leak and new wiring that doesn’t short out, will prevent a huge amount future repairs.

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If the goal is to turn a vintage Airstream into a house on wheels, a stationary residence, or a mobile office space, the full frame-off renovation will provide enough comfort, security, and reliability to be truly off the grid.

For more information on the differences between full and partial renovations, check out this blog post. Also, feel free to share your DIY stories in the comments!


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