Restoring My Vintage Spartan to Glory

...and crafting a purposeful recovery

Fireplace (cont’d)

It was a quick process to finish up the chimney install. I got an aluminum inner sleave to go between the stack and the ceiling baffle, fireproof rubber to line it with and silver, heat resistant insulating tape to further protect against a fire where it is not wanted. Also, I got two metal finishing rings to mount top and bottom, one of which I painted with flat black bbq paint to match the flue. A few screws, a little caulk and BINGO. Done.

I wrapped the ceiling wood with fireproof tape and lined the hole to further insulate it.
Note flat black finishing ring on top

I am looking forward to firing this up when we get back. At that time I will cut and mount some corrugated metal to line the walls behind it where you can see the Wonderboard.

Controlled Burn

Sparta has survived yet another horrific Northern California wildfire. This time the Glass Fire came within 300 yards of our trailer and forced our hasty evacuation at midnight. Through the smoke and mired in crawling traffic, we inched our way to safety. I could actually feel the heat of the fire through my open car window. I saw a house literally burst into flames. I feared that our home would be lost.

The approaching flames from my car window

Alas, upon our return to Sparta 6 days later we found her standing. Though heavily dusted with ash and smelling of smoke, she was fine other than needing a good cleaning. I thank God for firefighters and everyone involved with containing this year’s maelstrom. Luckily, the loss of life and property in Sonoma County was nothing compared to 3 years ago, though this year California has shattered the previous record for acreage burned – over 4 million!

It is a little hard, therefore, to focus on our imminent departure for Brazil next week. This long-delayed (due to C-19) trip to Cristina’s homeland is going forward, despite the ongoing travel risks. I am reluctant to leave while still in the middle of the fire season. But this trip is overdue, esp. for Cristina. We will be returning on December 8 to a much different situation. It will be cold and the trailer a potential icebox. So before leaving I have to get the fireplace working. That requires a chimney. You may recall the cute little Anevay stove I bought some time ago. I never got around to installing it. I haven’t a flue.

A perfect perch but with a flue to nowhere.
A round hole for starters.

With the stove in position, I dropped a plumbob to set dead center for the hole that had to be cut in the ceiling. I cut said hole with my Dremel. Then, I carved out the 2″ foam insulation with a knife, clearing a passage to the aluminum roof. I then drilled a pilot hole to establish the location for the roof cut – also with my Dremel.

Pieces of foam.
The roof cut.

Today. I am going to the hardware store to get gaskets and other materials to finish the job.

Look, listen, learn and fake it ’till you make it.

Learning is cumulative. It builds one lesson on top of another, slowly adding to one’s expertise and skills. It is incremental. Perhaps that’s why they call a college education a degree. Confidence also grows by degrees. As I mentioned many posts ago, I probably would not have had the nerve to take on the trailer restoration without first having worked on my 50+ year old Vespa. Prior to that I wasn’t very mechanical, having never so much as changed my car’s oil. Oh, my background contains some home improvement and going way back to my childhood, I stripped a lot of wire while working in sibling servitude to my older brother. But for most of my adult life I worked with my head, not my hands.

So the work on my Vespa and Spartan brought me to a place where, at 65 years old, I had enough guile and know-how to install a new HVAC system in my rental house in Pittsburg. The decision to do this myself was driven mostly by thrift. I had quotes to replace my central HVAC unit up to $11,000. I simply didn’t have that kind of cheese lying around. They say “necessity is the mother of invention”, but I will add that it is also the mother of imitation and, turning to youtube, I did a lot of that monkey see/monkey do kind of study.

No, I didn’t decide to hoist a 1,500 pound HVAC unit to the top of the roof. I went in a different direction, installing instead a mini-split system. The mini-split system is a hybrid of sorts. featuring an outdoor compressor as in conventional central HVAC systems coupled with a network of indoor air handlers. Pictures and captions will explain it best.

The Beast
The Beauty
This 12,000 btu interior air handler both cools and heats for year-round comfort.
Placing this 35 lb. unit from the top of the ladder was a bit daunting. Cables and tubes run straight out the back into the attic.
Here’s another and in this case I had to route the refrigerant lines and electical “controller” cable through the ceiling.
Holes had to be drilled through 3″ masonry walls to bring tubing and cable to the outside condenser down from the attic. I wore out a few bits.
Lines and electrical to power the condenser.
I had to splice into the old 220 line in the attic.
Ugh. What to do with this tangle?
Getting more orderly with vinyl gutter material repurposed as sheathing for wires and tubes.
Finished with a nice coat of paint.
The big grey electrical line feeds the condenser and the Romex distributes juice to the three interior atr-handlers.
Much better, but that line to the left coming from the master bedroom needs some attention. Notice the white tube. This drains condensation from each interior unit.

For those still reading, I realize the aforementioned has nothing to do with trailer renovating. However, as I mentioned at the outset, I never would have taken on this A/C project without the knowledge and moxy gained from restoring Sparta.

So, if you’re wondering, the skills and attributes are transferable. Get started!

The best part? Total out of pocket was about $4,000.

Post script: I purchased a Blueridge mini-split system from Alpine Home Products online and it has been working beautifully now for two weeks. Online and phone-based customer support has been great and I highly recommend Alpine. Also, special thanks to my bro-in-law, Jeff, who assisted me one day with some of the heavy lifting and those tasks made easier with two people.

Littles flourishes

I had a little (as in way too much) spare time and decided to paint and install a couple navigation lights. No, I’m not going anywhere and the only thing I need to navigate these days is my Netflix menu, but they look cool, no?

Also, C and I have been working on landscaping, slowly adding color and variety to our place of refuge.

Stock tanks for later when I have cattle.
These water plants seem to thrive in our kitchen effluent. So do the worms.

T.V. or not T.V.

When Sparta was built in 1957, there probably wasn’t a lot of thought given to where the T.V. should go. There are so many windows and mirrors that much of the wall space is taken. Add to that Cristina’s artwork and even a flat screen, L.E.D. unit is a challenge to situate. Furthermore, as I set about recreating this trailer, I wasn’t thinking about television and how it should fit into my romanticized, spartan (pun intended) lifestyle.

Soon after moving in the debate began. I wanted the big 40-incher (otherwise I can barely read the subtitles) and Cristina preferred the less dominant 2-footer.


There was also the issue of location. I wanted to view in the Observation Lounge and Cristina lobbied for the bedroom. But there is no freakin’ way to put a large screen in the boudoir. So what to do. That’s when I got to thinking about projection. Like everything else these days, miniturization has arrived in projectors and screens have always been collapsible. BINGO!

Cute little ASUS projector with 150 lumens and keystone correction. It plugs into my phone with an Apple “Lightening” dongle.
Portable, lightweight screen can be mounted on tripod or affixed over window. Easy to stash when not in use.

Granted, this arrangement only works well in the dark, but it’s usually late by the time we get around to watching Netflix. For TV news, the little LED is our living room compromise.

The image is really quite good and the subtitles friendly to my now-65 year old eyes.

A domestic crisis averted thanks to the wonder of technology.

Reaching our full potentiometer

You may recall that our first heat-wave in early June necessitated a quick installation of my 12v ceiling vent fan. Without taking the time to do a proper install it looked tacky.

Not up to par

Furthermore, the unit was noisy, having been designed to supplement a car’s radiator cooling where engine noise was presumed to drown out its racket. So I bought what’s called a potentiometer – a fancy word for a controller that adjusts current and therefore fan speed. I also bought a reverse polarity switch so that when needed I could change the fan’s direction, bringing air in, not pushing it out.

After several attempts, I could not get the reverse polarity switch to work. I kept blowing fuses. So I abandon that effort, settling for variable speed – a good solution for now.

I also built a crude birch wood grate to give a more decorative touch to the whole thing. Have a look:

Cut with a circular saw and glued together. Janky to the max.
Speed switch (aka potentiometer).
I glued both switches into a a/c plug cover. Alas, only one worked.
Stuck it up behind the grate.
And voila. Looks better, no?

It’s so much quieter in here.

Finishing Touches

So with my catering business back on ice, I can devote more time to improvements on Sparta. The original trailer came with a headboard – really just a birch frame with a thin piece of padded vinyl in it. We decided on an upgrade. Cristina picked out a nice fabric tying into our burnt-orange theme and I ordered some foam and assembly was easy.

Fabric laid out on frame
Cut foam to fit
Staple into place
Screw into place…easy!

Meanwhile, my daughter delivered a custom-made table top utilizing exotic woods from around the world. Beautiful! I ordered a basic pedestal from Webstaurant Store and assembly was a snap.

A table for two, sir?
Note my daughter’s imprimatur
Love it!
The little washing machine works just fine and plenty of sun to dry.

Honeymoon Hill

The above title is misleading. No, we didn’t get married. It’s my feeble attempt at irony. Our first two months on this hilltop have been no honeymoon and, please, this is no knock on Cristina. It’s about the inevitable disconnect between one’s idealized vision of a simpler life (pick one: downsizing, back to nature, reducing one’s carbon footprint, etc.) and the reality of it. Admittedly, this experiment has been undermined by Covid-19. The pandemic has eliminated so many diversions that would have made the past 60 days more agreeable. Can’t go to the gym. Can’t work. Can’t travel. Can’t go to the air-conditioned library. Can’t relax by the pool. OK, you get it. But there are many things about tiny house living that take some getting used to, pandemic or no. Let’s talk about a few for the benefit of anyone contemplating such a lifestyle change:

  • Poop/pee – This composting toilet has been great. It works as advertized. What doesn’t are those perched upon it. I am having to empty this contraption twice as frequently as promised in the literature for a typical couple. Living proof that I, at least, am full of it.
  • Waste – What!?! We should be producing less, not more refuse. Nope. Today I will be making my third dump-run since moving in. I am talking about filling up my SUV with bags of garbage, the aforementioned human effluent and cardboard (so much of the latter). It’s gotten so bad that I went to Home Depot and purchased mint-scented garbage bags (I had no idea) to make the 30 minute trip to the Petaluma dump more bearable. Now, granted, certain variables have changed – we’ve switched to compostable plates to reduce dishwashing chores, we’ve had many Amazon deliveries and the associated packing material to outfit our new home (and sheltering-in-place retail) and I thick pandemic-induced boredom has increased our food consumption. Also, it probably is due to the fact that incremental, weekly trips to the curb with one’s garbage cans pale in comparison to the monthly barge-load of trash.
  • Heat – This should come as no surprise but this fucker gets hot! Duh. A metal box with thin foam insulation, single-paned windows and a hilltop setting with no shade. Nice work, Copernicus. It’s been made worse by the fact that I gave my portable A/C unit to my tenants as their central unit broke. Another happy problem that needs my attention. But I have attempted many fixes to deal with the heat – putting reflecting foam in the windows, running my ceiling vents full blast all day (imagine jet engine sound effect) and installing a nifty twin blade three-way window fan. It works best when running one blade out and one in. Push/pull is optimal. These fixes have helped a bit but I have come to realize that tin-can living is best attempted in the spring or fall.
  • Vermin – I knew mice would be an issue. What I did not know was that Cristina carries some childhood trauma from Brazil involving rodents. I forgot she grew up in a third world country (she hates when I say that). But she is unusually frightened by the cutest little rodents – even gophers, moles and voles. Our troubles in that department have a new twist as we are being told that the rattlesnake hatch was especially prolific this spring. Mices and gophers and snakes, oh my! Never fear, the property comes with pest control.
…and tigers
“Wait, I’ve spotted something”

Our friends have been very effective as we’ve yet to discern any evidence of rodent invasion inside Sparta.

We’ve really nothing to complain about.

Life Outside

Another great thing about Spartan life is light. There is so much of it. With a total of 28 windows and 6 mirrors, everywhere you look there is something to see – the best of which is the outdoors.

Now I am here to tell you that as much as I enjoy Sparta’s ever-evolving interior, I prefer to spend my time outdoors. In fact, if not for the exterior options to relax, eat, read, sunbathe, etc., one could go quite crazy whilst living in a trailer, even one as large as mine. So making the most of the outdoor space is critical to trailer sanity, particularly if living with another sentient being.

Lots of room on our hilltop.
Shadecloth here…
…an umbrella there.
My meditation pond
The rustling of tall grass.
The feeding of feathered friends.
“That looks good”
“Lemme at it”
“Shit! Beak’s too big.”
“Wait! Check that out”
“No cutting in line, pal. And keep your distance!”
My outdoor prep kitchen
View out the window
Quiet at night.

It’s all good.


Haven’t felt much like blogging lately. My trailer musings didn’t seem noteworthy with all that’s going on in the world. But, alas, trailer life goes on in my insular sphere and it’s time to check in.

I am happy to report that last night’s strong winds inflicted no damage here. Sparta held fast, nothing important blew away and, most importantly, there are no grassfires in the vicinity. Trailers are often the first casualty of various meteorlogical and man-made catastrophes so this is good.

With the weather cooling and Cristina out of town, I’ve turned my attention to Sparta’s interior where several tasks have needed attention. I have cut and tacked lots of trim here and there too insipid to describe. Also, I finally got around to hanging all of my lights. The biggest challenge was the ceiling can lights. When I installed the can fixtures way back when (over 2 years ago), I had barely a notion about what I was doing. Their locations, depth, size of hole in the ceiling birch, etc. were all just guesstimates. In my usual fashion I just put them in thinking I’d figure it out later and that surely I could buy things to fit. Well, in the world of 12v LED lights it’s not that simple. I could find no inserts that fit my needs, were the right color or that sat flush with the ceiling. I found and bought 5 copper inserts but they were too small for the holes I’d cut.

These are close enough but kinda pricey.

So these cute little fixtures were the right color but didn’t quite cover my holes in the ceiling. Enter “goof rings”. Yep, that’s what they’re called. Not “can light collars” or “transition rings” or some title meant to assuage the wounded ego of the DIYer. These goof rings are solely designed to cover, well, my goofs. Perfect. All they required was a little matching paint, clearcoat and BINGO.

These came 5 to a pack and ready to paint
They even come with little glass discs for a nice finish
…what goof?

So, for those of you attempting this at home, just enter “goof rings” in the search field. That would have saved me a lot of time.

I finally hung this old pendant light over the bed. I braided 3 strands of clear lampcord to create a study means of support and power.


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