Operation RESTORING BROWN Part III: An Electric Interlude

Jul 26, 2019 by the chuxxor in vantruck

Its time for another installment of “Charles’s Moving Bondo-Castle”!

You might think the worst of it was performing the roof rail welding, but really this thing is far far from the “Point of Maximum Entropy” where your project is the most taken-apart and hopelessly scrambled possible. It would be a waste to just spraybomb over the welds and shove it all back together now, so with most of the exterior Bondo Castle building wrapping up, and with the interior taken apart, I needed to dive even deeper into the loosely-bound fiberglass chasm to remedy the demons that haunt Vantruck called “Aftermarket RV company wiring”.

There are few horrors on this beautiful Earth which approach the level of cocaine-addled depravity that is a 1980s RV builder trying to put lights together.

Past episodes index so far:

  1. Episode 1 – the initial teardown of the house of horrors
  2. Episode 2 – Welding and repairing the major roof seam holes

Let’s begin! Before anything else, there was more discovery to be done with the wiring.

Full disclaimer: A lot of these photos are put together as a narrative. Often times, while doing bodywork, I’m waiting for something to dry or cure before I can move on, and in that hold-state, I work on something else. In reality,  you see, these electronics operations were interleaved with sanding something or primering over something. I decided it was more clear to keep them separate events – as if I did a whole day only grinding old paint, then another whole day or so only doing wiring.  If you’re detail oriented, you might notice some things which are slightly out of order in the background!

 

I’ve never trusted the side handles on this thing enough to actually want to hang onto them for anything. That’s because I figured it was, like everything else, just put together with two #8 self-drilling sheet metal screws. But to prepare the cab for painting, they had to finally come off anyway.

The funny thing is, I’ve actually been here before. I previously used a small right-angle screwdriver-bit ratchet to get at the “Courtesy Lights” (as I now know what they’re called…. remember, they’re labeled “Hi I am a Van” Lights in my book) behind the handles.

Well now that I unsnap the decorative trim, I can see that they went to the effort of putting a rivet nut into the sheet metal. Wow, such high production value. It’s still thin body shell steel, but at least it’s a fully threaded 1/4-20 bolt!

My pleasant surprise was short-lived as I then discovered the Van Lights were “installed-in-place” . They ran the damn wire through a hole in the body and then added the light. It means I’d have to cut this off and start over later. Sigh, my disappointment curve takes another downward inflection.

The backing plate for the light was a chromed over piece of steel, but both were substantially rusted. I may just do the same treatment here as I did to the body steel, since it’s not like they do much useful reflecting – just rust conversion treatment, then primer, then maybe whatever Silver Metallic spraypaint is on the shelf.

 

Next up, I moved onto chopping off the “I am a over-80-inch-wide truck” DOT cab marker lights. I knew these held substantial rust underneath, and I ordered replacements since the lenses were all crazed and cloudy anyway.

With no interest in keeping these in good shape, I literally sliced through everything with the big 3D printer bed-scraping Instant Amputator 9000. I love these things, and own several – they do everything in my shop domain from opening packages to whizzing off stickers from surfaces to occasionally dividing up pizzas.

Yikes. I went through at some point last year and treated these areas, so they hadn’t grown much worse, but I definitely had to do something here.  Maybe a Most Correct Possible restoration will still cut out and replace this area, but I was just going to once again clean it up and Bondo Castle over it.

 

Wherever there was bubbled paint, I mass-erased it with a coarse flappy wheel, then “primed” the surface with a small amount of painted-on fiberglass resin, then laid out a layer of hairy Bondo.

I suppose it’s more of a Bondo Lawn. For durability, I purposefully left it a millimeter or so higher than the surrounding landscape post-sanding.

Same operation on the back. There used to be roof rails here at some point, beginning behind the visor and ending at the “endcap”, but they were removed many moons prior to me. I’d plugged the four holes with various forms of rubber stoppers, and I’ll do that again once things are cleaned up.

This is what the totality of the operation looks like, more or less. I was in the middle of addressing the airhorn fitting here. As the sections are cleaned up, I blast some primer over them.

Centurion’s MO with attaching anything was just fill the whole thing up with silicone  sealant and call it good. This probably works fine right up until the sealant dries up and cracks with age!

The airhorn is a Sparton branded one which seems to have some kind of standard fitting for that era – a single bolt front mount, and a combined rear air fitting plus mounting stud that I of course broke off the moment I tried to remove it. I ended up locating several similar ones on eBay, and ended up buying an identical-looking model.

For now, it’ll just get cleaned up and primered over like all of the other holes in the roof.

Moving on with fitting disassembly, this is the combined CB/FM antenna it came with. The CB part appears to be broken somewhere, and the FM part has never really worked. When I tried to unwind the nut, of course the whole thing just exploded on me. I had no particular desire to save this part, so ended up using a lot more force and just cranking the thing apart.

Of course, I dunno if the antenna wire was already broken/damaged or if I just blew it up completely. No matter, since I’m just going to plug this hole first and foremost.

There is a CB radio splitter device hidden under the dashboard which this cable runs to, via a wire grommet under the passenger side dashboard (it exits screen right and turns under). From there, it fans out to the head unit area as a standard FM antenna fitting, and the other branch was actually pulled up the A-pillar and ran to the console CB radio. There’s no reason for me to suspect that the latter two cables are bad, so I will be leaving them in place. In the undefined future, I’ll probably return to this and replace it with a modern NMO mounted antenna.

 

Having now traced all the wires I care to, I began the task of poking things with a multimeter and seeing what wires were hot or cold in what key positions, and back-tracing the remnants of the interior lighting wires and labelling them. My goal was to combine the original mess into two connectors – one inbound, providing vehicle power and dashboard buttons, and one outbound that sent this power to the lights and other hungry implements.

The overhead console got the complementary treatment. It was relatively easy to see what led where, so I focused more on integrating better wiring practices and replacing cheesy wiring jobs.

I had one rule going into this electrical refit:

NO. FUCKING. VAMPIRE CLIPS.

NONE.

NEVER.

 

I hate those things. Also called “quick splices” or similar, they just loosen up and corrode over time, and look like shit. They practically encourage shitty wiring practice, and one power line I yanked out had no less than four leeching off it.

A short evening of work and here it is.  It’s not well constrained, but just organized.

I also decided while doing this that the CB radio microphone will be hung on the console itself. Centurion made the questionable (hah) decision of routing a DIN microphone extension cable from the console, across the roof, down the A-pillar, then up under the dashboard to the meet the microphone which already has a 3 foot long springy-cord and whose mounting points I can’t even find any more.

Much of my time spent driving this thing is in fact trying to keep the microphone from being tangled in the steering wheel. So I was going to strip all of that out and just have the short cord dangle on a “button” style mic hanger.

As I had zero intention of actually hooking up the antenna now, the CB radio will, remain a visual fixture to complete the 80s-retromod aesthetic.

After doing both ends with the highest-value connectors this thing will ever experience (MetriPack-150 series connectors used in all of my megawatt-scale vaping rigs at the company!), I clicked everything together to make sure everything still worked and I didn’t, in fact, wire the starter to one of these.

Next up was a tuck and clean on the harness itself.

At this point, I was beginning to get lighting products in the mail. First up are the Truck-Lite model 25 “I am a giant-ass truck” lights. I ordered five, of course, not realizing each order was for two. So now I have enough for Mikuvan also! Say, is it illegal to wear “I am a giant-ass truck” lights if you are not one?!

However, far more interesting in terms of lighting was the…

Miku Blue and Miku Magenta LED strips I found on eBay. Short of RGB mixing, the color I substitute for Miku Blue is generally marketed as “Ice Blue” which appears physically to be white LEDs with phosphors that really skew their color temperature towards blue. Like taking a cool-white LED and making it even cooler (or, I suppose, “hotter” from a physics perspective).

I had no agenda for these reels, actually. They were found in my quest for other forms of LED lighting. I bought enough to make full-length underglows on the side steps (of course), but they are not weatherproof so I’d need to enclose them in a LED strip channel extrusion first or something.

Whatever. Something even MORE cool came in the mail too!

This is another happy accident while I was investigating RGBW 5-pin LED strips. It’s a Chinesium ‘touchscreen’ controller, by which they mean ‘touch sensitive colorful pictures’. The reason I found this was because I was specifically looking for NOT wireless/IR remote types, instead focusing on wired controllers.  The IR kind is by far the most commoditized, but I didn’t like the idea of a remote hanging around inside since that’s what’s in there now, and I always drop it.

Let’s take a quick look inside!

There must have been some kind of miscommunication or severe competency shortage in the design department, because it’s got no mounting features anywhere on the backside . Instead, you have to carefully pry it open being mindful of the tiny ribbon cable that connects the touch buttons to the main body. It’s literally in the instructions to use a tiny screwdriver to push the ribbon cable latches out before separating the halves.

If you don’t read that far in the manual, or you apply just too much force, you’ll rip the ribbon cable or connector right off. I do wonder how many of these have actually been installed by real people in something.

Oh, it gets even better. After you install it using the hidden mounting holes, then you get to somehow maneuver the tiny ribbon cable back into the connector and use a tiny poker tool to re-seat the latch. This is all officially sanctioned in the instructions. I managed to execute it with my surface mount device handling tweezers. Both of them. At once.

Yeah, no. It’s getting a piece of Dual-Lock gender-neutral justice Velcro slammed right on the housing. No elegance from me whenever I actually decide to implement it!

The gear inside is otherwise a generic 4-channel RGB+W controller. Common anode, four pull-me-down low-side FETs.

It definitely Doesn’t Not Work, so if you can stand the absolutely nonsensical mounting needs, I do recommend playing with one. The color wheel really only has 16 or so positions, not that your LED strips have enough current-to-color mapping calibration precision to duplicate it.

I only have one complaint here for the physical UI, which is it’s too easy to fat-finger a color as you turn it on and off, so it often wakes up in the Brown position. I didn’t even know LEDs could emit brown light, but here we are in 2019.

Alright! Back to work. I created a secondary harness specifically for the roof cabin lights and five cab lights. These were all previously ad-hoc wired with vampire clips. I separated them into their own bus with only one connection to the feeder wire coming out of the roof harness.

I also went ahead and routed a length of 5-pin RGBW LED strip cable the full length of the cab to the former exit spot of the Sex Lights. So not only do I have an on/off supply-level connection for the not-yet-designed (but which will be GLORIOUS) Next Generation Sex Lights™, but the option of using this RGBW controller up front if needed.

It’s fished through the same wiring run as the other interior roof lights – see the displaced fiberglass batting to the right. That gets re-secured over the wiring run once I decide I’m satisfied.

Oh, yeah – all of the lights that are going back in received “real” connectors that I can in theory reconnect and disconnect – if I do come back in here, it’ll be possible without wanting to level entire cities as retribution.

 

And the front roof wiring is finished – the (not yet replaced/cut off) “van lights”, cab light connections, and interior roof lamps all work. At this point, I’ve basically done everything I care to in terms of wiring rehabilitation and could have put the interior panels back together. I decided to leave that exercise until after the painting process just in case I thought of some other intelligent modification or change I wanted to make.

 

Third Brake Light & Bed Light Mod

 

Speaking of which! Here’s another quick diversion from the main project besides laying the foundation to add tasteless LED strips to everything. So one of my long time low-level peeves has been the “Leave this light on to accidentally drain your battery” light, also known as a bed light or cargo light.

There’s just so much of everything  on Vantruck, so much bulk and space-occupying visual styling, so much dual-wheel enabled highway manspreading. Then you get to the back of the cab and there’s this teeny little bed light.

It’s like those Greco-Roman styled Renaissance statues of extremely chiseled men with microscopic penises.  Not only was this thing extremely puny and dim, having only a type 194 socket bulb inside, but the attachment was just two drywall-esque construction screws into the ~3mm thick fiberglass van endcap. Meaning? It’s always been stripped. Every screw I try to use in here strips. I drilled the holes out a long time ago for the next size of drywall-esque screw that’s larger, and that held on for a while before that also just stripped out.

It’s really only been hanging on by the grace of Robot Jesus.

As one of the last things I can do before I’m just flat out of excuses for painting, I decided to do some customization here. In keeping with the general “hello for i am giant truck abomination” aesthetic, I’ve been buying samples of various semi truck and commercial truck lighting products off the likes of Iowa80, Raneys, and random eBay and Amazon searches for the same. My goal with this add-on was to make this assembly huge and obtrusive like the entire vantruck – I wasn’t about to buy some puny plastic Jeff Bezos Special here. I used custom semi truck taillight housings and trailer light bars as a mental guide.

An additional desire of mine was the ability to add a center brake light. I’m not a fan of the North American-specific combined turn signal and brake lights, especially prevalent on trucks here, since it can often be ambiguous if you’re turning or stopping or both.  Light trucks weren’t required to have center brake lights until 1994 in the US, so this would be a wire I’d have to run from the brake lighting circuit.

 

The foundation of the new bed light will be these triple trailer light brackets which accept a 6″ oval light that’s a standard size in the industry. You can get them either in old school incandescent or obnoxiously get-off-my-lawn bright LED! Guess which one I sprung for. Let’s say “bigger than in the picture” was my thought after getting these in and unboxed, despite the dimensions being clearly written in the item description.

Robots are always bigger in real life than in CAD, and to my chagrin and future degenerative eye disorders, circuit boards are always SMALLER.

Why did I get two? Well, they’re tail lights for your trailer, so they come in pairs, duh. This just means I can either have a backup or give one to Mikuvan too.

Quick in-place mockup to make sure it will definitely fit  and looks the way I think it will.  “Looks bigger in real life than in the product photo” often just leads to “Looks reasonably sized if not a bit smaller than expected” once the reference coordinate system changes, namely once placed next to Vantruck.

Hmm. Maybe I should have sprung for the 4″ round housing brackets.

TECHNOLOGY SPREAD TIME! I designed this 27″ wide spacer body in Autodesk Inventor to the profile of the stainless steel bracket, added mounting hole locations, and then split it into three dovetailed parts. They were knocked out on my Markfrog gallery and then epoxied together.

I decided to make this spacer instead of cutting a long slot into the van endcap to install the lights flush-style. It’s in my interest to modify and cut up the van endcap as little as I have to, I decided, since that’s not a part I can really replace. If I make any changes in the future, I’d have to patch over a 2 foot wide slot, the cutting of which would also introduce other unknown/don’t-wanna-known structural issues to that area.

Installing this setup with the spacer body would only necessitate drilling a few small holes. It might look just a little weirder than what I consider to be a smooth flush mounted setup.

 

The attachment method I decided to use here is known as a “well nut”, a rubber rivet nut, or as I’ll probably call it from now on, a wubbie-nut. They work like real rivet nuts, except you just tighten the fastening screw and the molded insert nut squishes out the rubber behind the panel being fastened. It’s a compliant, sealing, electrically insulating, and reversible method of attaching relatively light stuff to sheet metal. Since the fiberglass van cap is really only like 2.5 to 3mm thick, it won’t hold a thread at all, nor did I want to use any permanently installed rivet nuts or inserts.

This is what the assembly will look like. I actually don’t think it looks as off as I was anticipating.

The spacer body also allows all the wiring and connections to be done outside the endcap, so I only have to find space for three wires to exit the endcap at the location of the original bed light.

To make the brake light do what I want it to do, I had to tap the circuit upstream of where the brake light switch (which feeds power to the circuit when the pedal is depressed slightly) is connected to the turn signal interrupter (the blinky thing) since that’s where it splits up to the left and right sides. It turns out this wire was already tapped for the trailer brake controller, and I just had to do a bit of digging to locate the UGH, ANOTHER VAMPIRE CLIP they used to link up to said trailer brake controller.

I got peeved at the vampire clip, so I then spent an hour rewiring this area. My bonus brake light circuit got a proper twist and solder splice to this circuit, and I got rid of some more redundant wire, then wrapped the whole thing and constrained it. This photo is pretty much looking directly upwards from the driver floor.

So now we arrive at the week of July 4th, and I’ve exhausted almost everything I can do that’s not beginning to paint the damn thing. I’d seen this moment coming, and pregamed order a few samples of automotive paint systems and watching some videos on how to do it.

As usual, I’m about to try it in a way that is utterly moronic and advised against by pretty much everyone with actual knowledge of the subject matter, but since it’s just me fucking around in public and writing about it, the entertainment value takes precedence.

Welcome to the paintening.