Restoring My Vintage Spartan to Glory

...and crafting a purposeful recovery

Month: April 2019

Tinker Time

So to continue from my last post, I am still having fun with trim and water.

I got my occasional trailer restoring side-kick, Cristina, to stain and poly a bunch of Baltic birch pieces for placement throughout Sparta, wherever a decorative edge is called for.

Rows and rows of ripped, finished edges
This trim looks nice on my restored front mantle. The glass slider could use a little help, though.

While she was at it, I decided to build a dividing wall between the kitchen and dining area. This partial wall will also serve to screen off the stove. Also, it emulates the original wall installed in 1957 which contained an unnecessary pass-through. I chose, instead, to create a stair-step effect.

I could do a better job of pulling wood at HD. This one’s warped.

To this braced partial wall I affixed a finished sheet of 1/8″ birch and a border of 1″ X 2″ birch.

I need to buy a metre box to create better edges
I flanked the trim with finished edging. Love it!
You may have noticed my trim cuts were getting better….angled too. This is why.

Meanwhile my tendency to multitask (a nice way to describe my frequent shifts in attention) had me working on freshwater. As I lay in bed the other night it occurred to me my water plan was flawed. Originally I was going to have a single pump for drinking water and bathing purposes. This would have required a manual switch below the pump to pull water from either the drinking water vessel under the floor or the external rainwater storage tank. But in addition to requiring that process of flipping the switch between tanks (inconvenient), it also would have resulted in possible cross-contamination of my drinking water supply. So I decided to buy a second, smaller pump to create two independant systems.

Cute little 1 GPM unit. $20.

Now I have to figure out the hot water issue. I will definitely buy an on-demand system but am debating between propane and electric. Hmmmm.

Luddites’ Lament

So today is a fun day – not one to dicuss my latest screw-up or bemoan the state of American manufacturing – but one to discuss little modern day miracles – things that make this trailer project even more fun than it might otherwise be.

Let’s start with water. My 63 gallon drinking water system, long ago buttoned down under the kitchen floor, does not have a gauge. I just fill it until I think it’s full. I could’ve installed some kind of gauge back in the day but I did not.

So I bought this nifty little $10 device that meters water flow going from the garden hose and into tank #1 (you might remember I installed three 21 gallon tanks in series with 1/2 ” lines connecting them, so I have to fill them slowly as they acheive equilibrium). The meter pictured below provides a read-out of flow rate (important to not overload the system) and total volume.

Sometimes Chinese stuff can come in really handy and affordably
1.4 gallons so far
Look: 5 gallons and the water is exactly at the lip of my Homer bucket. Precise!

So, my next challenge will be to find a meter to record use at the 12v pump end so that I’ll know when my system is almost drained. Keep in mind, this is drinking water only. I will have a seperate system for shower/hand/sink washing connected to an external tank fed by a rain water collection system.

Alright, so on to the next modern-day miracle – Pex plumbing. This stuff is the best thing to happen to indoor plumbing since Thomas Crapper invented, well, the crapper (OK, he didn’t actually invent the flush toilet but he improved upon it immensely). For the uninitiated, Pex plumbing is great stuff and has quickly overtaken copper pipe as the choice for home plumbing systems. It is fairly cheap ($160 bucks for all my components including a $60 crimper tool), easy and requires no specialized knowledge or expertise. While soldered copper might still be the professional’s choice for some applications it would be overkill in mine because my water system will not be under constant pressure. Water will only flow and exert pressure when the on demand water pump (at 3.5 GPM) is activated by engaging a spigot. Once disengaged the system is inert…no risk of a rupture.

Under kitchen counter. Note incoming water line at lower left to be connected to water pump and then split up with one pipe going to OD water heater.

Pipe coming in through wall from kitchen.
Bathroom sink lines ready to plumb and then on and up to the shower. Home Depot only had one 6′ section of 1/2″ Pex in red. So I am just using it at the terminuses. Remember, this is plumbing for dummies.
I then applied window sealing foam to every passage to reduce pipe rattle and wear/tear on pipe during transit.

So the last fun tid-bit involves not a modern invention but simply a product whose acquisition has been simplified by the Internet. I love Baltic birch, a seven-ply artisan quality plywood often used for making fine cabinetry. While it was once sourced in the Baltics, it is now also made elsewhere, like Indonesia. Regardless of its country of origin it was prohibitively expensive for me to use for my cabinetry. Plus, I am reusing lots of original components not of Baltic quality. But what I most love about this 7-ply wood is its edge. It makes for a rich, textured finished. So sitting on my couch, I just ordered up a piece from a wood workers warehouse and got to work. I just ripped 1/4″ strips with my jig saw, stained and then polyed the edges.

So I ordered me a single 3/4″ x 12″ x 60″ piece.
Nice, unfinished edge
Beautiful finished edge tacked and glued to my workstation.

So I’ll just keep stripping down 1/4″ widths and stain and finish them for placement wherever I want a high-end, richer look – like around my kitchen counter. Cool, huh?

TMI

Way back when I said in my introduction that this whole blogging thing is really just journaling for show-offs. The practice has many motivations – instructional (I try to help future trailerphiles), observational (my occasional rants) and confessional (my awkward and sometimes discomforting self-disclosures). This post will fall in the latter category.

Have you ever felt stupid and kinda brilliant at the same time? I know it sounds counterintuitive but this is exactly how I viewed myself the other day while working on Sparta. After installing my bathroom heater, it occurred to me a good time to test out my 12v bathroom ceiling fan. As I got ready to plug that particular circuit into my car battery, I looked for the switch controlling said fan. It was gone. Without a trace. Although I had a vague recollection about installing a wall switch back in the wiring phase, I wasn’t exactly sure of its existence or specific location. I even checked the fan for an on/off button on the unit itself just like the light which sits adjacent. Nothing…no switch and no apparent means of operating the fan. Then, the unthinkable dawned on me. “Could I have?….No”. I kept looking. There had to be a switch somewhere. “Is it possible that I entombed the switch behind Hardi-board and laminate?”. The more I looked the more apparent the answer to that sickening question became. I had pulled the ultimate bonehead move.

Having owned up to that inescapable conclusion, I had to determine where the switch was. I wasn’t about to remove the bathroom laminate in what I thought was the approximate location. Where, where, where? This is when you realize the value of photo-documentation. In this great digital age, it is practical to take pictures of everything. As a culture we over-do it – documenting breakfasts, daily cat photos and the God-awful selfie. In demolition and remodelling, however, it is a priceless tool. I have hundreds if not thousands of pictures of Sparta in every stage of undress and rebirth, only a fraction I have shared herein.

So I had to start digging and find a photo including that fan switch. It had to be somewhere. Every square inch of Sparta has been lovingly photographed. Finally after combing through seemingly every last one, I found this photo:

It is very grainy because I had to blow up the original about 5 times, but there it was… the switch. About a foot and a half aft of the waste line vent pipe and 2/3 of the way down the wall. But for the purposes of actually finding that switch and sparing my laminate in the process, I needed more accuracy. But how? As I studied the pic I noticed the bamboo shelving unit I got from my brother to help organize things. I saw the trellis design could be used as a measuring tool and, counting down from the heater wire above it, there were 7.5 repetitions – about 17 inches to the top of switch. So I used this shelf as a de facto yard stick, marked the spot with a sharpie and took a deep breath, drill in hand.

My beautiful work about to be violated

I started with a tiny little bit and drilled a couple pilot holes, checking the bit for tell-tale evidence of a plastic switch or switch box. Or, worse, wood panelling debris as evidence of being totally off the mark. Nothing at first. I moved to a larger bit, thinking I could create viewing holes to see what was really going on. The first few were not too revealing. I felt like a surgeon going after a life-threatening tumor while avoiding necessary tissue (I have an active fantasy life). After a few off-the-mark attempts, there it was, blue plastic shavings from a long-lost switch box.

“I missed it by that much”. Painful to look at.
Once I had a bearing on it, I could sketch out the true location.
This called for my trusty little high speed drill and grinder bit. I couldn’t afford to start chipping laminate. Plus, there was no room for a bigger tool.
Emerging
If I were an assasin, I would’ve blown off his right shoulder first.

So if you are still reading this (and I wouldn’t blame you for skipping the blow-by-blow) the crisis was averted and the damage contained. The cosmetics are fixable. I share all this just to say that it is possible to commit a colossal fuckup only to pull off a decent solution if you just keep your head. Or, as my friend, Dwight, would say, “You can fall into a bucket of shit and still come out smelling like a rose”. Or, at least, not like shit.

MAGA*

Warning: this post may sound like a rant (although I prefer lament). It was brought on by something quite unexpected.

Sparta had an original wall-mounted space heater in the bathroom manufactured by Broan Mfg. Co. I pulled it during demolition three years ago and stashed it under the trailer hoping I might be able to use the shiny chrome grill in my project. The heater itself, a standard 120v coil and fan apparatus typical of that era, seemed shot – covered in grime and seemingly seized-up. With the bathroom now coming together, it was time to address the subject of heat so, on a whim, I brought the old heater home yesterday, cleaned it thoroughly, applied a squirt of WD-30 and plugged the raw wires into a GFI plug in the kitchen (don’t try that at home). To my great surprise the heater sputtered to life and ran just fine. In fact, I left it on for 30 minutes and it performed quietly and effectively, even warming up the kitchen. I put a thermometer on it and it blew a constant 200 degrees.

Call me crazy but I donned rubber gloves, rubber-soled shoes and used a GFI in case something shorted.
All steamed up…a toasty 200 degrees
Wired and tested for duty.

So what’s the problem? At the risk of sounding (yet again) like a grumpy geezer, they don’t make ’em like this anymore. In fact, they don’t make them in Hartford, WI at all. Oh yes, Broan Mfg. Co. is still around and occupies the same building it moved its 60 employees into in 1956 (about the same time my heater was made).

Brand new quarters for a $1 million revenue company in 1956

But Broan has diversified somewhat and now has operations in 7 countries – with most of its 2500 employees in China and Mexico…Shocker! Its modest revenues have grown to $700 million. There are now 800 Broan employees in Wisconsin. Growth, to be sure, but hardly commensurate with sales growth – even accounting for inflation and diversification. Just out of curiosity I checked a jobs search tool to see what my employment prospects in Hartford, WI might be. Most of the jobs at Broan were admin. and corporate positions with a few openings in “assembly”. There is that word again and in today’s parlance it has become a thinly-veiled euphemism for outsourcing. The FTC maintains that in order to be made in America, a product must undergo a “significant transformation” on American soil. Something tells me that Broan falls short of that test, esp. given the relatively small number of ee’s in the US versus China.

So, where is this all leading? Well, as I loosen my Chinese-made Trump necktie I can’t help to reflect on quality as a condition of a company’s success. Back in 1956 I think success could be measured by making a product so durable and reliable that the product itself could conceivably outlive the company. Now, it’s as if the reverse is true. The successful companies (who sell merchandise at huge margins by virtue of cost reductions enjoyed by outsourcing) almost always outlive the utility of their products. In fact, obsolescence is essential to continued revenue growth (think iPhone).

I went to the Home Depot website and searched for Broan bathroom wall heaters. Yep, they still make ’em but based upon customer reviews it is clear that they are of inconsistent quality. In fact, there were quite a few “one star” ratings including some where the unit arrived broken right out of the box or died within days of installation. You can be sure that not a single one will be operating in 62 years.

*make appliances great again

Good Genes

On this Sunday morning Sparta thought you might enjoy seeing a picture of her dad.

This handsome old bird was built in 1937 and at the time was the premiere private aircraft available in the U.S.. The Spartan Executive could carry 5 passengers at 200 MPH with a range of 1,000 miles – fiqures exceeding some private aircraft today. It was called “The Packard of the Sky”. Only 36 were built and its demise was ensured by the ending of WWII and the ensuing glut of surplus aircraft for sale.

The Spartan Aircraft Company was not done yet, however. Majority owner J. Paul Getty and his team put their considerable production capacity to work to build luxury trailers, using the same internally braced and space-saving monocoque design that distinguished their aircraft. The result was the “Cadillac of Trailers” (apparently they enjoyed using car snowclones back in the day) and over a 16 year period Spartan built about 40,000 travel coaches – all distinguished by quality construction and attention to detail.

The Spartan trailer, however, was ultimately killed by several factors – its price (at $4000 to $8,000 nearly the price of a new home), cheaper competition and the resistance of U.S. communities to trailer culture. Back then Spartan and other companies thought trailers might fill the need for housing for veterans returning from overseas. The problem was where to put them. Yes, even back then the “not in my backyard” predjudice against trailers and their owners existed.

Fast forward to 2019 and the problem facing small, higher density housing alternatives persists. Despite California being ground zero for the inspiration behind the “Tiny House” movement (a noted tiny house architect lives here in Sebastopol), this state is one of the worst with regards to accomodating and situating such housing. I recently travelled to San Diego County to check out Pinecrest Retreat, a nice option for semi-permanent trailer placement. While there, I also looked into buying land for more privacy and control over my surroundings. Not so fast, Buckwheat. San Diego, like much of the state, has been slow to embrace tiny houses and it is still illegal to live permanently in an RV (their designation) anywhere in the county (unless in an RV park). Moreover, homesites average over $100,000 there. And forget about being anywhere near water.

This difficulty is painfully illuminated by the experience of Janet Ashforth, the now beleaguered founder of Habitats Tiny Homes. Hoping to establish a housing utopia in northern San Diego County, she collected over 30 deposits from like-minded souls desiring to live affordably and conscientiously in such a community. The powers that be stymied her vision, killed the project and left her and $62,000 worth of investors with nothing. Lawsuits are pending.

Although some California jurisdictions (ironically my hometown, Fresno) are embracing the movement, those individuals hoping to retire affordably, reduce their footprint or just simplify may need to move elsewhere. Texas anyone?

Foresight

One of the advantages of maintaining a blog on a subject about which I know little is receiving unsolicited advice. No, not the kind I mentioned a few posts ago – “find married women online” – but the sort that have to do with trailering on things I might not otherwise have considered. Take my brother-in-law Jim, a fine DIYer in his own right. Months and months ago while I was installing ceiling insulation he suggested that, for some future, as yet unknown, need, I might want to install tubing along the length of Sparta to run wire. Although by then I had already run hundreds of feet of 12 and 14 gauge wire (and was a little tired of the process), he said that I might later have a need for more wiring. So I bought some flexible 3/4″ blue plastic tubing from HD and installed it from Sparta’s “nerve center” to her Observation Lounge – for sailing buffs that would be midship to bow. I then pretty much forgot about it.

That is, until I installed the mantle above Sparta’s rounded front window last week and thought, “this would be a great place for some little speakers”. Yes, I know they now have “wireless” speakers for such situations, but I don’t trust them. You can barely shove full musical fidelity through 18 gauge wire. How the hell can one expect to hear it all when transmitted through thin air? (That is the Luddite in me). Enough outta’ me. On to pictures:

The secret passage
The aforementioned mantle. No, the wires you see are for accent lighting.
I did have to remove a birch panel. No big.
Then send my little canary into the coal mine via shopvac.
Pffft. Out the other end, none-the-worse for wear. Pull the wire through with the thread. My first effort broke. Use good thread or fishing line.

Don’t you feel smarter now?

Cosmetics 2

They say that one of the emotions underlying procrastination is fear. Fear of messing up in the case of me and my laminate. I ordered 6 sheets of this Lacquered Linen, a discontinued Formica product. Of the six, one arrived via ground carrier severely cracked. So going in, I knew this stuff was brittle and required delicate handling. I was also nervous about cutting it, so I watched several youtube videos to be sure how to go about it. You have to make sure the product is taped along the cut-line to avoid chipping. And use a fine-tooth jig blade. One of my problems all along has been the lack of proper tools, equipment and manpower. I don’t have a shop and I have to handle this stuff alone, being careful of its tendency to bend and break.

This stuff is flimsy and I was very nervous about cutting it while under tension (the product, not me). See the split on the right side? That happened in transit. You’ll note my Sharpie line. This is a smaller cut.
So to relieve that tension and avoid a split, I propped the piece up with stakes, cutting around them.
Locktite PowerGrab applied and ready to go. First section in the shower.
Success