Archive for the 'van' Category

 

Rememberance of the Summer of Ven: Introducing Murdervan and Spoolbus

Oct 11, 2020 in murdervan, spoolbus, van

One of the hallmarks of a relationship rebound is that you try to do all the things you couldn’t do before with your new one. That’s definitely true for me, as one of the principal reasons I decided to finally get out of the Boston area was due to the near impossibility of finding van-sized workspace. I got a taste of it last summer when I had Big Chuck’s Auto Body long enough to bang off the Vantruck resto, and it was why I was hell-bent on finding a place like the Robot Trap House that let me have a combined private work and storage space.

So what am I gonna do when going from single rented parking spots to an entire fenced in, forested yard that nobody can look at? Well, if the last post was any indication, collect horrible piles of machinery. I can assure you that Crabmower was far from the only thing I fetched this summer! With that, here’s a welcome to…

The Summer of Ven

Ven is the plural of van. Fight me.

The story begins really years back with the original purchase of Vantruck, which was mostly at the behest of someone I’d say is a “diesel bro” friend. I have a handful of said friends all over the country, who operate all sorts of old diesel trucks, vans, and the like while being software engineers, VR/AR enthusiasts, and roboticists. There’s something about these old, usually all-mechanical, diesel engines attached to overbuilt but maybe not well-built coachworks, that appeals to the technocratic futurist. Maybe being on the forefront of changing and evolving technology constantly makes one seek a foil in the antiquated but static. You can always push an update over the cloud, but once the crankshaft is forged, changing any aspects of its manifestation is really hard. Maybe that’s what draws me to buy “vintage” equipment, tools, and lawn mowers too – the yearly newest and shiniest offering from Jeff Bezos’ magic book of tricks will always be there if I need it, so I’m going to have some fun first and keep something time-tested around.

What I’m saying is, everybody (and I wholly agree, by the way) has been saying that Vantruck absolutely needs an International IDI 7.3 or its successor, the Powerstroke 7.3L diesel. Something of its bulging Kazakhstani child-bearing hips presentation just screams it must rattle like a old tractor and smell like warm coals. There’s no social media peanut gallery about it without a number of people wistfully encouraging swapping out the Malaise-era 460. And again, I completely agree. Alas, work of that degree I considered out of scope for the facilities I had available – I know plenty of people have done parking lot engine swaps, but I just didn’t feel like dealing with it, and at the time didn’t have a cohort of Car People friends who wanted to speed the process along.

Well now, with a place I can stash something for an indeterminate period of time, I decided it was high time to take people up on their word and begin learning the ecosystem. My goal was to find a Ford van of Vantruck’s same generation which was built with the 6.9L and 7.3L IDI engine, implying a year range of 1984 to 1991. While I could have just as easily picked up a later 4th-generation model or an old ambulance or something, I decided to constrain the search for the time being to just those years to get as 1-to-1 of a parts correspondence as possible. Worse case, I figured ,it’ll be a vantruck surrogate.

I say “just as easily”, but the reality is the diesel vans (and F-series trucks) command a premium over the average clapped out yard ornament conversion or work van. They’re popular with the bugout and overlanding crowd because the engine and powertrain is legendary for being nearly indestructible and extremely customizable. I casually checked my usual orbiting van cruft clouds – Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace all up along the east coast BAMA corridor whose transit times and approach paths I know well – for a good three or so months, interleaving with the build of Overhaul and intenstifying as the prospect of an April BattleBots filming became bleaker.

You’d generally find them in two states. First was immaculate or intricately upgraded, commanding prices of $5000 and up. Otherwise, it was sunken into the earth and had hosted several dozen generations of small mammals and local reptiles inside. Since I wasn’t absolutely dying to adopt another project, I was looking for specifically something which was “Ran When Parked” but seemed plausible to unpark rather quickly. Kind of like another sadvan, but much heavier. Two hits I found were snatched up before I even got a response. While my guiding principle of van collecting is “Rare doesn’t mean valuable”, it seems like there are still some local maxima of value I didn’t know about.

Well one day in mid May, I finally happened upon a listing just hours after it was posted.

Murdervan

 

Richmond is a drive, but nothing I haven’t done before in a day. Having ran as recently as the last winter was a good sign also. I chatted with the seller some to get a few more details, and with consultation from my Diesel Bro Council, decided to go for it the following weekend. I made an offer of $1000 and he accepted. I decided to name this thing Murdervan because it really gave off the ol’ serial killer van vibe, and the seller reminded me a little of Charles Manson. I completely accepted the potential fate of ending up as a trophy in a basement, and just asked my friends to keep an eye out if Vantruck gets listed in an ad next.

 

And so, here we are on the morning late afternoon of May 30th. I’m ready to set sail towards Richmond. I was planning on getting out at 8 in the morning and being in the vicinity in time to grab a hotel for the evening, but you how that goes with me. Instead, I left Atlanta around 4PM and took a rest stop nap from around 2am to 8am the next day, going directly to the burbs of Richmond after.

Nestled in a quaint park-like neighborhood was the seller’s smol house and yard, with this thing squarely in the middle. Well, at least it’s van shaped and there are no visible mantraps, and the driveway slope made it a pretty reasonable gravity-assist push load onto a trailer.

Overall, Murdervan checked out as described in the ad. The interior was pretty messy and barren, and the driver’s side floor had a giant rust hole in it, but nothing insurmountable. After all, if I got it “running”, I wasn’t in it for the chassis except as a parts donor. It would crank, but not fire up. My friends said as long as it wasn’t seized, it will run. Guess I’ll find out soon how true that is??!

Whatever the case might be, it was loading time!

I had questions about whether an extended wheelbase van (138″) would even fit on a U-Haul car trailer. The Internet seemed convinced that the deck length of a U-Haul car trailer was 12 foot even – 144″. This was going to be a dice roll, since after accommodating for wheel size, it might barely not  fit at all, and would hang over the end. I made a few contingency plans for this, and picked up two sets of chains and chain binders on the way at a Harbor Freight.

I had a local friend meet me there, so we had 3 people to help load. And believe me, we needed all three. These things are almost 6,000 pounds, by far the biggest catch I’ve tried bringing home. The “gravity feed” only got the front wheels onto the trailer, and various arrangements of come-alongs and Ass Force were used to pull the front wheels against the stop.

At that point, the rear wheel centers were still a good two inches or so on the wrong side of the edge. To improve this loading scenario, we deflated the front tires and pulled the come-along further to compress them.

 

The final alignment – just barely inboard. Those two chain binders were used to smash this thing down as tightly as possible, because utter hilarity would result otherwise!

And so, there you have it, Internet: A 138″ wheelbase Econoline Super Van will, with some effort, fit on a U-Haul auto transport. Do NOT let them see it. This is a 1999 Honda Civic.

I set out from Richmond after lunchtime with everyone to celebrate this feat. This trailer and van setup pulled quite well, I must say. With the combined load being about 8,000 pounds – therefore running around 14,000 gross weight -  I could certainly entertain the thought of Murdervan and trailer being a comically large RV trailer, which vantrucks evolved to pull in their natural habitat.

There were a couple of times it tried to wiggle, more from “Top heavy and jiggly van” than weight distribution issues from my observation. Vantruck’s dually rear axle kept it so damped out that I didn’t even feel it the first time. The only sign was “Why is everyone keeping far away….”, looking in the rear view mirror , and seeing the thing sway side to side a few inches at steady state.

This was a riot pulling into rest stops and gas stations (MANY, MANY GAS STATIONS). By my estimate, I was getting high sevens for fuel economy, and this was trying to keep it under 65mph.

I overnighted outside of Greenville, SC in a hotel room since I didn’t get worthwhile sleep the night before (or really the night before that…), so I decided to force power down before something memeful happened on my behalf. I rolled back to the #RobotTrapHouse the next morning. Here began the fun of trying to stuff Murdervan into the yard.

I first tried to reverse up the gentle slope that leads from the street/driveway to the yard entrance. However, even having bypassed/locked out the surge brake that all these trailers come with (which largely prevent reversing, as the brakes will apply), Vantruck was just digging four trenches into the grass. So instead I decided to just head straight in, gathering steam on the street and driveway, and deal with whatever happened next. The whole van train just barely makes the entry turn to avoid the….

Yeah, nope – there was some Dynamic Landscaping involved to get the trailer to not catch on the chain link fence edge. Remember, I don’t own this place (…yet…), so I don’t just get to rip out trees and fences as I feel like to improve van access. The through-paved rear access road comes after the closing.

 

Unloading Murdervan was super simple. Just point the trailer vaguely where I wanted to land, release the chains and straps, and reinflate the front tires.

After the unload, we spent a good half hour trying to squeeze Vantruck and trailer out, and realized that the van train was simply too long to back out the same way. This should have theoretically worked out, but trees are largely one-way clutches when it comes to driving through them – I almost pulled one of the front fender flares off trying to position the way I came in.  And so, we decided to swap trucks – my friend’s crew cab short bed truck was only a little shorter than Vantruck, but more importantly, it had more wheel cut and was not a dually, so it was narrower. Gentle massaging and a few retries later, we had the trailer backed out of the yard.

Lesson learned – don’t do that again, not with vantruck. Only after the fact did we go “Hmm, maybe Mikuvan could have been the yard shuttle…”

And here she sits in the initial dropoff location, featuring a cameo from one of the neighborhood cats. If you put a bowl of food and water out, cat instances will spawn from the cloud. If you present a new yard ornament, cats will sleep on top of it. I call them the “Cats-as-a-service”, and there are four regulars that come around.

I put the batteries on charge and began reading up on debug and bootup procedures. Much of Murdervan’s “build reports”, so to speak, are largely going to feature diving into the IDI ecosystem, checking through things, and making repairs to improve functionality – the same steps that Vantruck went through which I called “deshittification”.

The story only really begins here.

Spoolbus

Keep in mind, just because I got one van, doesn’t mean I’m going to stop browsing. I’m continually on the hunt, as even if I don’t get something for myself, someone else might be interested and I can assist with the poor life decision (There will be posts about this, too!).  And so, not two weeks after the Murdervan mission, this absolute piece shows up in the Algorithm™:

 

 

Okay, back up a little here. This was one of the ads that I didn’t even get to hear back from before someone snatched it up, all the way back in early April.  Between then and mid-June, it made its way to south Georgia, only about 3 hours away. The second listing is long gone, and only through some serendipitous use of the Save button by someone else were we even able to find this original listing again.

So why did it show back up? Did someone give up on it because it was just too horrible? Inquiring minds, mostly mine, wanted to know. The photos showed the aftermarket Banks turbocharger system hiding right under the dashboard (seriously? that’s where they decided to put it?) and the updated listing showed some more photos of the interior (stripped out and ratty) and under the hood.

Whatever, diesel or not, this was going to be a good one to add to the collection. Single rear wheel Centurion vantrucks were extremely rare themselves, and not only that, the OEM Centurion bed appeared to be whole and intact. Even Vantruck itself came with damaged fiberglass that had to be repaired (then replaced outright when it was rear-ended). And the 80s stripes!

I had only a few words with the new seller before just offering $1K again and pickup the same weekend. That’s my usual M.O. – if I think something’s worth getting, I’d wait until the middle of the week, throw in a not-that-lowball offer, and offer almost immediate turnaround. Most people who sell such decrepit piles just want them out of the way and don’t want to deal with hagglers and noncommitment. I just offer to make it disappear.

And so on another bright moist day in the middle of June, I’m driving an hour away from I-75 in the southerly extents of Warner Robins, on little two lane state roads. This thing had made it all the way to a placed called Abbeville, Georgia, where you passed the church and gas station on the corner and that was about it.

I have to say, this was the easiest load ever. It drove onto the tow dolly under its own ignition and power thereafter! It just couldn’t stop except for the parking brake. The seller indicated it might need a new master cylinder or repaired brake lines, and indeed, the pedal just goes to the floor. He just ran out of time and energy to deal with it after wanting to make the repairs, and was in the middle of selling a portion of his fourteen other trucks. I was offered a mid 1990s F-350 dumptruck on the spot for $500.

This time I went for the tow dolly, as the extended wheelbase on these things (158″ typically) was just too long for the car trailer, even with shoving. With the rear wheel on the ground, I just had to remove the driveshaft. But it seems like swishing a 4.10:1 gearset around in heavy oil adds immense drag the same, as my fuel economy making it back home was somehow even worse than towing Murdervan.

How often do you see this vantruck on vantruck towing action? HOW OFTEN?

 

Spoolbus was a very well contained one-day trip. I set out from the Atlanta area before lunchtime and was back around 9:30 PM, taking 3 hours to get there and 4 to get back, moving slower and hitting some traffic on the return.

And it even drove itself into the back yard! I had one hand on the steering wheel and another holding the parking brake release lever open, using my left foot to modulate the parking brake to not run my own garage down.

And suddenly, there were two.

Great, what a start to the summer. At the point in time of this picture, I’d already gotten Murdervan operational, so it was an excellent reference to compare and contrast the differences between the 1991 7.3 IDI and the 1984 6.9 with aftermarket shenanigans.

Based on talking to the sellers and getting vehicle history reports, I know that Murdervan was a company shuttle in western North Carolina doing forestry work for most of its 197,000 miles (!) before being sold to a private buyer in Virginia, who I actually linked up with on Instagram and Facebook. That seller sold it eastward to Richmond, where Not Quite Charles Manson took possession for a while before I ended up with it.

Spoolbus has a murkier history, but had one owner all the way up to 2005 when the last title action was taken around Columbia, SC. Based on talking to the original ad’s lister (not the guy I picked it up from in Georgia), the previous owner to him was the original owner, and it was used to deliver RVs and boats all up and down the southeastern seacoast, mostly centered in Charleston. That explains the hefty amount of rust on the body, completely uncharacteristic of southern vehicles. Vantruck itself was a west coast surfmobile/beach van and it had plenty of cab rust the same, though in both cases, the frames are pretty immaculate.

For the next couple of weeks, you can expect lots of posts about me being a makeshift diesel mechanic! Spoolbus is going to be the “build target” for the next round of improvements and restoration, as I want to return its electric lemony goodness to its former glory and have a single-wheel Centurion example. This is likely going to be a 2021 onwards project, with the rest of 2020 being casual mechanicking to deshittify the absolutely terrific aftermarket wiring and other systems.

I call this the Three Econoline Problem.

 

Operation RESTORING BROWN Part 7: The Epilogue; or, Dragon Con 2019

Nov 25, 2019 in Dragon Con, vantruck

And here it is, the final chapter of a summer that was so full of content that it felt like an entire year; a summer that saw me dive deeper into silly van restoration than ever before, within a year that saw the company double in size, move to a new facility, and shift product lines. That’s a lot of things going on in just the past few months, and I often say that very few people can both profess to having such a life content density and tolerating it – but that’s for another Philosoraptor Charles Says post. This post will cover the continued little details from before and immediately after the Dragon Con 2019 trip, but mostly focus on the trip itself in a Vantruck-relevant way.

In the mean time, here is the full Book of Van:

  1. Episode 1 – the initial teardown of the house of horrors
  2. Episode 2 – Welding and repairing the major roof seam holes
  3. Episode 3 – Wrapping up electrical loose ends, some times literally
  4. Episode 4 – Actually painting the cab… using a Harbor Freight paint cannon
  5. Episode 5 – Putting the van and truck halves back together
  6. Episode 6 – The finishing touches on the exterior, and working on the interior

So to start, I basically skipped all of my usual robot building that goes on in the summer months. There WAS a dumpsterbot, of course. That was put together literally the week beforehand, since I did end up getting itchy robot fingers, and had a convenient gift available to perform unethical experiments on. In a way, Vantruck was to be my Dragon Con 2019 entry, along with an extended (for me!) trip away from company affairs. Of all possible vehicles you can go vacation with…

 

One of the last changes I made was getting a stock, OEM tailgate. You may remember Vantruck having a white dented tailgate, then a black airflow/5th wheel style one. My van salon determined the white dented tailgate was probably not worth trying to repair and then paint, as it was bent enough to not close properly, whereas I could score a gently used one on Craigslist for around $100. And that’s what I did! One weekend prior, I journeyed down to the Cape (yet again) and got this very nice condition tailgate. It’s actually dark green, not black, but is so dark green that it’s only visible under bright sunlight. The plan was to have the bed and tailgate repainted together once I returned; my intention is to ditch the chrome panel (more space for anime stickers) afterwards.

And so it was that I set off bright and early when i woke up, so like noon on August 26th. I took my usual “New York Avoiding” corridor and encamped in Harrisonburg, VA at my favorite Motel 6 on Highway 33 – why the entire fuck do I have a favorite Motel 6 now – and continued onwards to North Carolina thereafter.

The goal was to hit up US 129 and other idyllic mountain roads in the Smokies, then descend towards Atlanta after crossing into Tennessee.

Somewhere on I-77 in Virginia as I began the descent down the Blue Ridge…

I encamped again just west of Asheville, NC and was well-poised the next day to begin #VansOnTheDragon.

 

But first, a van friend somewhere in Asheville’s further reaches!

I continued all the way into deep western NC on U.S. 74, then NC Highway 28, switching onto NC 143 to get to the Robbinsville area. The roads got incrementally narrower with each intersection!

Vans and the Dragon sculpture?!

Some say the place is oversold and overdone, but I personally would like to see more of this kind of thing across the country. Obviously there’s very few roads that would beget being this kind of attraction, since it would need to be sparsely traversed by locals and not have intensive development.

So how did it go? I ended up doing an outbound run and then back inbound. It was an entire different world from when I took Mikuvan in 2016 and then again over this past winter, which itself is an entire world away from doing it in a real sports car. Mikuvan is at least somewhat capable of performing agility-like behavior, what with its low mid-mounted engine, rear wheel drive, rack-and-pinion steering with independent front double wishbones, and 52/48 weight distribution (Look all of this up. I have an exotic 80s sports car and none of you get to contest this). I can predictably squeal all 4 wheels on the many turns, and I never felt like I was about to sail off a cliff.

This time, I was basically driving a moving truck. Let’s face it, as tarted up as Vantruck is, it’s fundamentally still a U-Haul. It’s exactly the width of the road more or less, and there’s no steering feedback. Every move needs several turns of the wheel to accomplish, and there were a lot of god damned turns. I called this the “yeet the steering wheel” effect since I basically was standing up in the seat throwing the steering wheel around.

It also has an unfortunate positive-feedback state that occurs in turns if the outside wheel hits a bump. There’s some element of the Ford double-crossed-T-rex-arms (not actual name) suspension that interacts with the tires and possibly some very stale shock absorbers where the outside wheel will begin bouncing up and down, taking a good second or so to oscillate out. Obviously this causes traction loss and instantaneous understeer until it corrects itself. Color me enthused when I discovered several of the banked outside turns could excite this “mode”. Luckily, I have experience with this on curly highway offramps; just tapping the brakes will typically end it. But those cliffs got mighty inviting looking!

If you’re interested in seeing a very slow and soothing (from the video) drive through the Dragon, you can check out my dashcam upload of the outbound and the inbound. It’s not very exciting to experience just as a video, I can say that much.

A few local photographers are usually set up on the most scenic hairpins, and so I now have a couple of nicely done “press shots”. Of these, I tend to patronize Killboy.com the most – consistently they seem to have the best composition. A couple I bought from another vendor had visible roadside grass in the foreground, for instance, and others were under-exposed (possibly too fast of a shutter to try and minimize motion blur) or I flat out didn’t like the angle. Here’s one of the wide ones – check out the suspension travel difference between the inside and outside.

In the middle of a #YeetTheSteeringWheel operation here. Observe the angle of inclination formed by the Miku keychain plushie in the center.

And lastly, one of the other good ones – I call this “Ford stance” because every Ford vehicle lineup photo.

(I owe the whole world an explanation of what Waifuworkz is – one of many explanations of many things this year I owe in due time)

 

Well, we’ve made it to the end…

I decided to only get a small sticker, since there was no need to announce to the world that you can be qualified to drive a school bus for rural Tennessee-North Carolina school districts.

From there, I headed southwestwards on US 74  all the way towards Chattanooga, TN. US 74 is a wide state highway until it begins following the Ocoee River, upon which it becomes another 2-lane road with uncomfortably close rock faces. This part is extremely scenic, more beautiful than technical, following the whitewater river for several miles.

The nice thing about taking state roads? You get to stare at everyone’s hoarded decrepit property in their front yards, a likely prospect for me in the future from the other side. Like, look at this gorgeous mobile shed:

That’s a “The Diplomat II” Class A motorhome. It seems like it would clean up quite well, honestly. I didn’t check if they were selling, however.

I rolled into town on Wednesday evening, and proceeded to spend that and Thursday taking some random landmark photos. For instance, the “Duluth Jesus Sign”:

This sign just says JESUS on both sides. There’s not a church or pastor or other evangelist figure advertised on it. It literally just says JESUS, abutting I-85 next to a few hotels.

 

Checking out the Big Chicken in Marietta!

 

…and causing traffic problems at the AirBnB house  I got for the convention with my vanspread.

 

Whoever you are, you have an excellent taste in off-road vehicles.

Here we are at the convention! The central lot between the Marriott and Sheration actually has “RV and bus parking” for the weekend, a rare find nearby. That also includes silly van parking. Quite a lot of folks seem to take advantage of this alternative to having to get one of the expensive hotel rooms. Behind the Class A on the left were several more RVs and trailers.

Vantruck isnt’ a good option for camping an entire weekend without having friends that have other facilities such as bathrooms and kitchens. However, I can see how a truck bed camper could alleviate this if I were so inclined.

Found in the same parking lot a few rows away, though, was a van friend!

I couldn’t get in close enough for a photo since the lot was pretty full. This was a pretty cool custom “turtle top” style high roof E350 build with an observation deck up top.

It looks like this was made out of a gently modified school minibus. Overall, very tall and quite impressive. The utility bumper on it appears to be custom made, and a larger version is what I have on deck for my personal design.

For my local get-around needs without having to vanspread everywhere, I made extensive use of rent-a-scooters. I did this some last year, but the rent-a-scooter ecosystem is now fully entrenched and some argue it needs population control, deer hunting style. To be entirely fair, I do agree after seeing just how many get thrown around on the street and not arranged in any useful way. As for exactly how, well, that isn’t my business problem.

My favorite new contender? These things. Not even scooters, but silly shaped e-bikes. They had wheels (hhhue) that were big enough to actually traverse both road features and sidewalk seams/cracks, and most importantly the curb cuts between them. I’ve generally been lukewarm on the actually scooter-based transit options since I didn’t think making the handlebar higher (to prevent you from being catapulted) was better than upping the wheel size to prevent it in the first place.  They also packed more power, and with the better riding position, meant you can actually use it; there’s no point in putting 500+W into a compact scooter shape.  Trust me on this one, I’m an expert!

Sadly, they weren’t as prevalent and widespread as the flood of Bird and Lime scooters. By the middle of the weekend, I actually went to hunt these down and bring them nearby wherever I was, because I liked them immensely. On Saturday, the most crowded day, I left Vantruck at the AirBnB house instead of fighting for 2+ parking spots at the same time – and hit town with one of these things.

 

 

I have a suspicion that everyone thinks I look just like this guy when I cruise around with Vantruck.

Anyways, one final Van Friend on the way back up:

 

This guy was doing whole #vanlyfe thing and the van was kitted out with a generator and lots of, uhh, rooftop storage.

I ended up staying the rest of the week to do some more Atlanta Things, setting back north that weekend, and getting back into town Monday morning. I’m very proud to say that Vantruck did not make a peep the entire ~2700 mile trip. I suppose the “van tax” that’s normally reserved for the Autozone parking lot or a U-haul trailer was just directly subsidizing the Houston, TX economy instead: The end-to-end gas mileage for the return trip was an incredible 10.1 mpg. Hey, double digits!

(I didn’t do a calculation for the trip down since it was indirect and involved a lot of fumbling around mountain roads).

Would I do this again? Probably, but only once a year. I have better ways of lighting money on fire for fun, such as robots.

While the “couching down the highway” effect is very relaxing, I’m really too small for the driving position it was designed for and it gets unergonomic after hour #6 or so. The seat is literally too deep for me to fill up, so I either have to slouch a lot (then I don’t see over the dashboard!) or kind of sit more on the edge, which isn’t conducive to back comfort. This is on my list of issues to address, namely getting rid of the couch-like front seats and replacing them with something a bit more modern.

The last remaining kibbles

The only thing I left unfinished due to time constraints before Dragon Con and not desiring to commit the money yet was painting the bed. I had it sanded by friends the day we commenced on cab painting, but didn’t follow through, so the bed was a slightly different texture and color than the cab for the trip.  You can’t really tell in the photos though, much like the tailgate looks black enough.

After I got back, I decided to just have Maaco blast the thing. I had, at that point, talked to enough friends and people who had worked with them that my pre-conceptions about the company, springing mostly from Reddit horror stories, was more dialed back. I figured, too, the bed was a limited scope thing that (much like I did) was easy to handle independently, so I wouldn’t even be too mad if they did a me-quality paint job. Remember, I only go to mechanics and hire services when I’ve dug myself too deep. Yes, I’m one of those people – but I also like to think I know when to throw in the towel before things get horrifically tragic.

 

So I did a little of #BigChucksAutoBody and smoothed over some of the cracked areas and larger dimples that were primarily in the fiberglass fenders. No use painting over cracks and dents! Then I submitted it for consideration to a local Maaco branch.

A few days later… well, they definitely did the thing. Far better quality than I could have ever pulled off. They of course took the opportunity to let me know I can stop back any time to have them redo the cab properly!

 

The hot tub then goes back in, and the toolbox on top of that — I didn’t take a picture of it since plenty of photos exist with the toolbox.

With this, I’m declaring the end of Operation RESTORING BROWN! There’s no near-term changes I am aiming to make at this point except more anime stickers.  I’ll sum it up this way: It costs way less than robots would. As I mentioned last post, the end to end restoration cost was around $2000, and with the bed paint job and some small incidentals, we’re up to more $3000, which is still like 1/3rd of an Overhaul. Even counting the entire expenditure of Dragon Con including the far-exceeding-plane-ticket fuel bill!

But personally, I still found it not as enjoyable as robotting for a summer, at least with the fleeting facilities I have. I don’t have the capability right now of putting down infrastructure, so it’s working with what time and space I can get. It’s a lot messier and grungier, whereas at least a robot mess is usually just metal chips, not being covered in mysterious substances of varying carcinogenic rating.

The upside? It’s still a utility and a tool I can keep using, but now it’s nicer. I’d say it’s more akin to restoration work on a machine tool in that regard, such as the work I’ve done bringing Bridget and Taki-chan back up. I’m sure my assessment would be a lot different with a fixed workspace that I can embed into as hard as I’ve done with MIT/company facilities and with building robots. Vans are just simultaneously portable and very not-portable.

There are, of course, things I definitely want to do in the future. For instance, I still have the designs for the rear custom tow bumper and cow-destroying chin of power, but I’m going to shelve them and return to robotting – after all, the fall is really just preparation for #Season5. I’d like to focus on the interior next year, possible finally getting those new seats and having the floor re-upholstered in something that’s not (in the words of an auto upholsterer I visited) actually house carpeting. STAINED HOUSE CARPETING.

But in the mean time, I have plenty of market-fresh robot content to come!

Operation RESTORING BROWN Episode VI: Return of the Van Lights; the Conclusion

Sep 21, 2019 in vantruck

Yes, I avoided mucking up a Star Wars title in the way everyone wants me to. SHUT UP. Nobody asked for your opinion. Well, you probably have figured out what’s gonna be presented, so why not just read the other 5 parts first?

  1. Episode 1 – the initial teardown of the house of horrors
  2. Episode 2 – Welding and repairing the major roof seam holes
  3. Episode 3 – Wrapping up electrical loose ends, some times literally
  4. Episode 4 – Actually painting the cab… using a Harbor Freight paint cannon
  5. Episode 5 – Putting the van and truck halves back together

 

So we begin this story the week after the Regular Car Reviews show, which was an absolutely fantastic time. I only really had a few things I wanted to take care of before Dragon Con. They were, in order of importance:

  • Re-mounting the rear sofa bed/bench seat
  • Bringing back the Next Generation Sex Lights as I mentioned before, and
  • Adding lighting to the running boards

Let’s begin! Chronologically speaking, the running board lights were first and the NGSL were last (days before I left), so we’ll go in that order. To be truthful, the story of the running board lights extends all the way back into late last year when I started doing some lighting investigations for custom bumper designs.

Fun truck-related trivia: Gratuitous amber marker lights are some times called “chicken lights” in trucker-speak. The origins of this are not too clear, but I mentally file it under the same generational oral tradition that gave us things like “Pitman arm” and “Schottky diode” – because someone called it that and it got popular.

The unit lighting products I decided to use, instead of drilling and mounting one billion tiny little lights, was called an “identification bar” – named for the mandatory “I am a big-ass truck of some sort” lights that are mounted to the rooflines of commercial trucks. The center three lights are often supplied as one unit for quick installation. I was going to just use a couple of them linked together.

Par with my usual shopping technique, I cross-compared eBay, Amazon, and a bunch of independent vendors to see who was offering the same Chinesium for lowest cost-to-me. Since the products are nominally fungible (e.g. at this point in history, there’s not gonna be that much difference between two LEDs of different pirate manufactueres), this is a good tactic, and I was able to get each bar for just over $12 each, so about $150 for both sides, on Ebay.

I spaced them out to look visually correct, then back-CADded them to get a regular pattern that I can start drilling into the boards.

(Excuse the camera-screenshot – I took this literally to message someone on my phone, in the truest possible Millennial way, then decided to keep it!)

Fast forward to the #VapeShop, and I’m marking out everything and drilling the holes after “work” one day, in accordance with my drawing. Wait… what am I doing at the company shop again, when I have Big Chuck’s Auto Body?

Sadly, I lost Big Chucks’ Auto Body at the end of July, when my lease expired. The first week after I got back from the RCR show was filled with moving my stuff out, into the “Cruft corner” of the #VapeShop.

I anticipated this happening one day soon, since it was unlikely that the property company would keep renewing a lease for a rando when they have legitimate businesses they could rent to instead, so all of my goods that were heavy or unwieldy were on wheels. It took one truckload to get my shelves and toolboxes and stuff out – the workbench you see was left behind, since we got better ones! Yay!

May my mis-sprayed paint forever stain the ground!

 

The power hookup for each light was pretty simple, as they were frame-grounded, so I had to just wire all the modules together. I’m not too much a fan of frame-grounding, so I ended up making a separate “ground wire” that was really just bolted to one of the mounting holes as a ring terminal, terminating in a 2-pin connector (which naturally I scavenged from a product part bin).

And then onwards we go! An hour of surgery one night to add the corresponding 2-pin connector to the existing lines I ran downwards from the front marker lights to the area right behind the front wheelwells, and the fried chicken lights as I termed them were all set to go.

Next up was putting the rear seat back on. I had this idea in my head for a while, once again, so it was merely execution. I wanted the rear seat to potentially be modular and removable for any other attachment I had in mind in the future. The factory method was just driving some bolts through the floor and using what basically were just pipe clamps to hold the whole damn thing down. In fact, it jiggled natively.

My solution was one that I actually saw at the Van Nationals show in some camper/vanlife style builds, and only heard of in passing before: L-track. Also called “airline track”, it’s an aluminum rail profile with standardized hole patterns and anchors that you can use to attach “stuff” with. The idea is that an anchor fits into the round cavities and is locked in place by a retaining bolt, typically taking the shape of another anchor.

So I ordered some off Amazon.  In measuring out the remnants of the seat mount, a 24″ section was actually a perfect fit, and you could get it in 24″ lengths with a sack of questionable anchors! LUXURY!

To mount the L-track, I wasn’t just going to zip it into the floor, but build a frame to adapt the haphazard holes drilled by Centurion to something vaguely standard. They didn’t seem to pay much attention to WHERE the holes were drilled – some lay on the slopes of the floor stiffening stampings, others on the bottom of the valleys of the same. The front set of holes was more 41.75″ apart than 42″ (a standard width in the van world, as I found out, for seat mounts) and the offset from the rear cab wall also varied.

In other words, this rigid frame had to compensate for all of the absolute bullshitt they got up to and turn it into something vaguely square and regular. I made it with some spare 1x1x0.075 wall steel tubing at the shop, and pretty much freeballed all of the measurements after making confirmations.

The result was then MIG welded together.

Test fit of the frame to double check all of the planned offsets, shifts, and transforms lined up!

Indeed they did, so I naturally painted everything my favorite color before mounting it all up. The steel frame is bolted through the floor using a number of steel and rubber washers as spacers – steel for height offset, and rubber for conformation to the varying hole placement angles. The L-track is then screwed in from the top into the steel tubing using each rail’s five 1/4-20 countersunk clearance holes.

 

Next up was the seat mount itself. What you see are split clamp shaft collars with the bottom halves drilled radially downward, for the threaded anchors of each L-track stud. These bottom halves are permanently threadlocked together with the L-track studs. I used a 1″ diameter piece of tubing (the same diameter as the seat rails) as a template to get them to the right alignment. When these are mounted, the shaft collar clamp screws and upper halves will then be tightened in permanently with the same threadlocker. They don’t come off ever again – to remove the seat, I would then release the four hex nuts that hold the anchors to the L-track.

This is the assembly fully mounted and tightened. Again, the shaft collars are considered part of the seat now. If I wanted to shift the seat forward or backwards, I’d release the L-track hex nuts and do so; same for complete removal.

(At least until I buy the new van sofa bed with the same mounting dimensions, that is!)

Everything still folds down! A side effect of my mounting setup, though, is that the seat is now a good 2.5″ higher than it was before. Not the end of the world, I suppose.  The companies making van sofa beds still are all made-to-order outfits, so I might be able to convince them to shorten the height of any future one I get. It does get awkward to sit in if you’re short, however, since you no longer reach the ground…. like me.

Either way, I consider this far more improved than what were basically fucking P-clamps for pipes.

Now we move onto the final and most glorious step, the one which I went extra out-of-the-way weeks before to ensure can happen: the Next Generation Sex Lights.

From Episode III, the touch-me LED controller makes a return! I decided to go ahead with its installation since to do any light install in the cabin would have required basically the same amount of work.

I measured up the rectangular body of it and cut an accordingly rectangular hole into the center console.

This was when, on closer inspection, I (re?)discovered the mounting holes were exactly aligned with an edge of the rectangular body.

What in the actual fuck is your product design division doing, mysterious Chinese company who made this?? Nobody at all thought about how this would be installed, huh? First we had the teeny tiny ribbon cable connecting two snap-fit parts requiring a lot of force to actually un-snap…. and now the mounting hole which, if you cut the indicated panel size out, would actually sit right on the edge of said cutout and not off to the side.

I don’t get it. There’s NO way anybody has installed this product the way the originators wanted.

And I’m not going to either! The touch-sensitive bits, after inspecting with a strong flashlight shining through the whole assembly, are really just restrained to the touch-button area. I was afraid of bringing too much metal close to the buttons just in case.

So you know what? Forget your actually-mounting holes. I’m just going to drive four screws through the corners and move on with my life.

If you choose to do this (for some reason…if you buy one), I used the ‘triple point’ where the edge chamfers meet the main flat face.

Here’s the backside of that installation – locknuts that are gently torqued will hopefully not crush the whole thing!

The lights themselves are the RGB+W strips I bought mounted in “corner” LED housing. You can buy this extrusion by the foot/meter and it comes in several shapes to accommodate different LED strip widths. I merely cut them to length, shoved the strips in, and soldered a small length of the 5-pin RGBW cable to each end, sealing the ends in hot glue. The plastic cover is a bit tacky to snap on, but with some extra coercion it stays on fine.

And here we have it. Six mounting brackets screw into the interior walls, and the LED rails snap right in. I made a splitter that interfaced with the original cable drop to fan it out to both of the LED rails. I really like these more lower-profile light bars compared to the “behind the curtains” style that came with it. It’s a sleeker, more modern look to contrast the antiquated American luxury this thing represents. The camera exposure makes them look more obnoxious than they really are, by the way. Along with the adjustability of the LED controller, they are actually quite tame to be in a direct line of sight scenario.

Meanwhile, on a fortuitous trip to New Hampshire, I had scored this gull-wing toolbox off Facebook Marketplace. I’d been actually looking for a gull-wing box in particular, because I preferred the accessibility from the sides. They tended to be more expensive than the usual one-lid, rear access ones, so I never went to the effort of buying one. Instead, I guess it took being in the right place (Manchester, NH area) at the right time to see a relatively fresh post, and divert course while calling the seller and confirming location and price.

These toolboxes typically call for drilling the truck bed and bolting them in to the side rails via the skinny parts at the sides, but it seems like this one was set up for a “no drill” style clamp mount that latched to the underside of said bed rails.

Absent buying the matching kit, I just stopped by a Tractor Supply (my favorite chain store now after Harbor Freight) and bought these J-hook bolts.  To avoid munging up and denting the bed, I added the fine touch of a strip of heat-shrink tubing and a vacuum line plug to each one before throwing them in.

And so now, without further ado, to conclude this #VantruckSummer….

That’s all! It was a crazy adventure that I really couldn’t have hoped for going any better. Any one of many possible delays could have pushed me into having to reassemble everything as-is and call it quits, or at least forced me to delay everything beyond having the mental tolerance for.

What’s next for vantruck? From a physical appearance perspective, nothing really urgent. I’ll get the bed finish-painted soon, and beyond that, who knows!? My short list include a small amount of bringup on the interior, such as repairing/replacing the crystalline 1980s acrylic cupholder. New seating is on the docket, but it’s expensive and non-urgent (It would cost around $1900 to get two brand new captain’s chairs and a sofa bed). The near-term expenses would probably be a few hundred to get the bed finished.

In total, the restoration to this point has cost me about $1500 out of pocket not counting capital equipment and tools such as #Limewelder, the paint cannon, and some sanding tools – if you count all that it’s more $2000. Still, this is far less than what any “professional” restoration would have cost, especially one which would perform similar levels of craftsmanship for future-proofing (I do emphasize a LOT on future-proofing versus just making it look nice, to be fair!).  I’m not gonna count “labor equivalent” time at all since this is still just a personal project of mine and I can’t expect someone else to do it to the same creative mandates.  The biggest single line item was the paint – which was about 2 gallons total for about $400, and otherwise a lot of small things that add up such as hardware, new-old lighting products, wiring and connectors, and so on.

I’ll probably leave this thing alone for a while to focus on getting back into gear for BattleBots next year ….. there IS a season 5, right guys? Right!?

But the most important part is what y’all were waiting for:

Vantrucks on the Dragon.

 

Operation RESTORING BROWN 5: The Road to Reassembly

Sep 13, 2019 in vantruck

Alright, so the most labor-intensive drudgery part of this whole process is now behind me – namely, the actual painting of the thing. Everything from here on will be a breeze again, right!?

Ideally all my going above-and-beyond just removing something for reinstallation later, paired with front-loading a lot of the interior repair work (mostly trying to delay the inevitable painting!), means the whole thing will all collapse back into itself and stop taking up so much floor space.

I hope. What takes more space to park than a vantruck? A vantruck which is disassembled into two halves and a pile of itself! Well, guess I’ll find out!

But first, the travelling and growing index:

  1. Episode 1 – the initial teardown of the house of horrors
  2. Episode 2 – Welding and repairing the major roof seam holes
  3. Episode 3 – Wrapping up electrical loose ends, some times literally
  4. Episode 4 – Actually painting the cab… using a Harbor Freight paint cannon

The first item to be remounted was the visor… which was also the first painting experiment with its attendant errors and imperfections, so naturally I wanted to get it above my eye level quickly.

One of my overcompensating fixes was buying ArmorCoat screws for everything exposed to the elements – also some times called zinc-aluminum coating. We use these aplenty at the #VapeShop, and I picked up a bunch of different sizes I needed in sheet metal/threadforming style as well as regular hex cap screws.

Where I couldn’t get Armorcoat, I went for 400-series stainless steel to maximize compatibility with plain steel.  The entire rest of the thing will rust away around my new screws!

Also in the same series of tasks was re-installing the windshield trim. Just like when I had to get Mikuvan’s windshield replaced, all of the little clips that hold this trim piece on all broke away as I removed them. But there was a twist!

These weren’t plastic clips, but actually steel ones in a plastic insert. The plastic inserts themselves were almost completely turned to powder, so I obviously wasn’t gonna save them. The steel clips themselves were almost rusted through or deformed beyond repair as I pulled on them. I hunted around for a while and found what is basically just the steel insert for them, but sold as the complete part.

Geometrically it made sense, but these things took a lot of insertion force. I obviously (looking at that photo) bought these clips before painting – in fact I got them almost immediately after discovering the windshield frame rust hole – but did not open the package and actually think about it until now.

There’s probably a specialized plier that splits them open or something, but I wasn’t about to take chances with a deadblow hammer and a chisel right near the windshield. So, I actually flattened them a little in a vise to allow for gentle tapping installation.

It was finally time for the custom center stop light module to be mounted. This exercise was quick – just tighten the screws into the well nuts and stop when you feel some resistance, which is when the rubber has flared out behind the pilot hole.

This is the replacement Sparton airhorn I got on eBay. New old stock hanging out in someone’s basement for a while, so absolutely perfect for my needs.  The chrome trumpets on my existing ones are completely pitted and chipped with zinc/bronze casting rot, and the internals of the sounding unit/flappy bits had also deteriorated. In fact I thought the air line was broken all this time, but after taking the roof liner inside off, I found that it was fine.

Finding a fitting for this assembly was an adventure. It seemed to exist in a size directly between 1/8 NPT and 1/4 NPT threads. 3/16 NPT doesn’t seem to be a real size, and I measured the thread minor diameter at about 0.41 inches, which was too big to be a M10, yet too small to be a M12.

In fact, the thread pitch lined up suspiciously with a 1/4-20″ size bolt I swirled in there as a makeshift thread gauge to check if my eye-crometers were miscalibrated. They were also non-tapered, and didn’t seem to have a conical seat or anything that would indicate it’s a modern standard.

 

After asking around some, I discovered that 7/16-20 hydraulic fittings are a thing. I literally took the drawbar out of our Bridgeport mill and threaded it in there to check – perfection!

Except… what?  How about I just drill and tap this thing for 1/4″-NPT and have it exist in a future supported ecosystem with easy to find parts? That’s exactly what I did – blew these threads right off, then drilled and tapped for 1/4-NPT.

With NPT fittings installed, I had fun testing this thing (and cleaning it out) using an air compressor. Sadly, it wants about 30 PSI before it will even sound, which puts it out of the realm of most of the cheap “direct drive” air horn compressors which are small single-stage vane pumps.

At the full 120 PSI, this thing is quite a….. hoot, you might say. It’s lower in pitch than I expected after Alex Horne and I found out his were very high pitched.

As I’d have to actually rig up high pressure air, these are likely going to remain decorative for the foreseeable future.

I suppose the intention of a straight-threaded fitting is because it’s also supposed to help mount the thing. That’s how the old one came off – I unscrewed (read: sheared) the old fitting and off with it came a thin panel nut. The idea being you put this on the outside of the roof and thread the combined fitting + locknut in from the bottom, tighten the fitting, then jam the locknut against the bottom of the roof panel.

Well, you can technically do this with NPT threads too, just the taper might make for a looser fit on one end for the nut, but they do exist.

I found out after a test fit that the stock NPT nut was too tall, so lacking a lathe quickly on hand, I just reduced its height by some manual surface grinding.

The next step was to cut out a gasket. I bought a big roll of EPDM foam rubber which will continually make an appearance from here. It was easy to use a marker, knife, and scissors to make whatever sheet with a hole in it I needed.

Here’s the upper side install of the new horns!

And from the inside, after the fitting was crunk and the jam nut tightened!

This operation occurred synchronously with re-installing the “Hello I am a large truck of some sort” lights – I purchased brand new Truck-Lite Model 25 series units to replace the old faded and weathered ones.

Pictured ahead: The “portable shop” van of a friend who makes the best of having large metal object hobbies without a permanent parking spot, or a Big Chuck’s Auto Body. A shop van in my van shop, you say!

I decided to not reinstall the tacky single bulb holder in the “Courtesy i am a pimp van Lights “, but instead just bonded a segment of the “Ice Blue” LED strips to the existing baseplate. This would give a more even glow with the white plastic diffuser over it.

It does look good, but I wish it were more Miku-colored and less very high color temperature white – these Ice Blue leds are really just white LEDs with a purposefully skewed phosphor mix to make them emit like a blue star.

Maybe some time I will come back here and run more 5-wire RGBW cable so I can have varying colors!

The handles are next to be remounted, again with a custom-cut EPDM gasket on the the underside.

I’m now quickly reaching where the interior roof panels had to go back in. Here’s where I decided to divert quickly and make a more permanent mount for the roof console, one that is possibly removable or *gasp* serviceable later. I found which 4 holes were originally used to hold the shitty wood screws, and drilled them out for #8 sized tee-nuts for wood, then pounded them in from the backside. Not as secure as rivet nuts, perhaps, but it’ll do for now!

Operations moved outside the next day as the shop van friend committee was borrowing the garage for their own vehicle shenanigans. I’m definitely happy that I labeled every side and every screw that came out of these panels, because they really do fit on one-way only; all of the screws were drilled-in-place #BuildToPrint

After a few hours, we’re back inside to finish installation of the interior plastic trim and window frames. I decided spuriously one day that these should all be repainted in black bedliner. The motivation was more to have them all a uniform, deterministic color instead of shades of decaying gray and beige. I think they turned out quite well – the conversion window frames were painted first, then I decided to continue and also paint up the OEM van interior panel pieces.

There’s some lower trim pieces that I left gray simply because at the time they took more effort to remove; this is what we call “High production value”. Maybe I’ll do those later!

More post-painted trim pieces are going back in, as well as final cable pulls through the center mouse hole.

The shop van is lurking in the background – yes, we stuffed both of these damn things inside Big Chuck’s Auto Body for a while. Vantruck’s bed is behind me on stands in this photo, taking up the personnel entrance doorway. There was very little room to do stuff in this state! Luckily, they only needed the garage for a few days.

I somehow neglected to take any more photos of the center console, so here’s the only poorly-lit and exposed one I have. It now attaches using four #8-32 bolts into the tee-nuts I installed earlier. Since this photo, I’ve removed and reinstalled it a half dozen times to add or change things, so I know this worked out swell!

Alright, so this thing is still just a frame and hoses in the back. Before I put the bed back on, I still needed to do a bit of mechanical work. This included running some new fuel hoses where I thought the existing ones were rigid and beginning to dry rot, and replacing both fuel filler neck vent houses (which were DEFINITELY rigid and dry rotted).

Next, I decided to mount the new spare step bumper that I bought at a steep discount a long time ago (the vendor’s logic being who the hell else would buy it from them ever again? I can’t argue.) – the gray one that has been seen on Vantruck previously is slightly bent on one side due to jack-knifing the #VapeTrailer in the dark just a little too hard. As long as I’m going to this much effort to make it look good, why put the bent and slightly rusty one back on!?

It now gets to be the spare, and I emptied a can of black bedliner onto this one beforehand to unify the color scheme.

#OSHACrane is called to action once more to plop the bed back on the rails.

In re-mounting the running boards, I decided to address the galvanic corrosion issue by using Armor-Coat bolts in conjunction with fully isolating the aluminum from the steel mounts using some plastic strips in between. Because I am a millennial hipster, and would have had to go out and purchase something to make plastic strips from, I just spent a few minutes in CAD and then had the Markforged Army spit out a bunch overnight. What a world we live in?

While these finishing steps were happening, I was out scouting the Craigslists for two things that I’ve wanted but never went to the energy of getting, but the time is nigh after the thing is now a uniform color and pattern a.k.a the “It looks nice now, so you HAVE to” stage of affairs.

First is a bed-mounted toolbox, so I can actually carry a “crash cart” of service tools and fluids without them being a pile under the sofa bed, and second was a bed liner insert. I never quite got into the idea of spray-in bedliners. Instead, I was able to locate these big plastic kiddie-pool inserts  and went to pick one up.  The plastic bucket inserts do permit me to not do any prep work or cleanup work on the interior of the bed itself, but over time they can trap moisture and cause rust issues. Well, I’ll burn that bridge when I get there.

The story of vantruckstops here for a little while. It was the last weekend of July, and I was targeting completion by this time in order to hit up two shows: one was the Van Nationals over in western Massachusetts, because I figured if there was any place it belonged show-wise, it was there… and the other one was the Regular Car Reviews meet in Pennsylvania! Last year (which is insane that it was only last year!) we filmed the RCR episode which at this point stands at over 400,000 views, so this year I was aiming to hit both of these events as they were on the same weekend!

So here we are on July 27th at the Van Nationals event. The visuals won’t change much from here, as I only have some of the interior to complete and lights to add to the running boards. The bed isn’t painted yet – I decided to let my credit card rest a while before continuing on here. This will be something I hit either while visiting Atlanta again for Dragon Con, or afterwards in the fall.

The stainless steel caps were a hare-brained purchase following a recommendation. Short of actually getting polished aluminum wheels (e.g. Alcoas and Alco-alikes) which take work to keep looking nice, these “simulator” hubcaps improve the appearance over the regular painted gray wheels substantially… again, “It looks nice now, so you HAVE to”.

I discovered they come in varying levels of cheesiness, though, and I of course got the cheesiest grade possible to see how bad they could be. These have plastic retaining rings with a metal insert, which feels less than secure to me but probably are fine. More expensive ones are all steel construction. I can’t see pulling these off more than once without causing damage to the retaining rings, for instance. Aluminum polished wheels are an “Eventually” item.

 

I bounded south from Greenfield, MA around 6pm and encamped in Hamburg, PA that night, then rolled out to the RCR show! This event was quite a scorcher – the day was around 90 degrees and sunny. Coupled with the entire previous day of me wandering around the Van Nationals show and I was decidedly darker and sensitive to the touch when I came back from it all.

Next and last up, the final few addenda to complete the project and then we’re back to ROBOTS!

Operation RESTORING BROWN: The Paintening

Sep 04, 2019 in vantruck

And we return again! In the intervening hiatus, I (obviously) finished everything up and already went to Dragon Con with it. Yes, that Dragon Con.

The one that’s 1,100 miles away, with a vanbeast that gets 10 miles of gallon when it feels like. So, how’s the company doing lately now that you subsidized the Texas economy with the seed round?!

Links to previous tales:

  1. Episode 1 – the initial teardown of the house of horrors
  2. Episode 2 – Welding and repairing the major roof seam holes
  3. Episode 3 – Wrapping up electrical loose ends, some times literally

When we last left off, I’d basically run out of excuses to not start repainting it, short of trying to install 4WD and a turbo 7.3 diesel. But the real story is during the last week of June, I started mentally preparing by getting some samples of automotive paint systems on eBay (where else… you wanted me to actually walk into a PPG or Sherwin Williams auto paint dealer?!)… and this bullshit:

Yeah, that’s not a tool you’re supposed to paint vehicles with. But I maintain that since vantruck is the size of a shed, so shall it be painted like a shed. I actually based this decision on some friends’ and internet strangers’ anecdotal experiences about improperly painting cars. I figured it can’t be too bad, and the prospect of buying enough equipment to feed a proper HVLP pneumatic sprayer was declared out of scope.

Plus, I’m a sucker for experimentation, and if this $89 device will return even reasonable results, it could be pretty valuable for anything else I feel like repainting.

So these things if you’ve not seen them are called “airless” paint guns – they’re not truly airless, but what it means is you don’t have to use a separate compressor and HVLP regulator. Instead, they’re basically Shopvacs run backwards – the centrifugal compressor in a vacuum cleaner to generate a lot of suction pressure also shoots out pressurized air, and this (on the order of 5-10psi or so) is fed into a traditional paint gun front end.

The first cancer buckets I received were from the ebay seller “autopaintpro”. Very pro, indeed, I’m sure (So pro their actual website is almost completely broken). With a little research, it seems like they, and several other online auto paint sellers, sell a rebranded Autobahn/CPS system.

This was when I found out that auto paint is actually very runny, almost watery in consistency. A lot of these airless sprayers are advertised as being able to spray unthinned house paints and coatings. I suspected this was going to get very interesting. By the way, the actual color I’m using for white is Ford YZ “Oxford White” and UA “Ebony Black”.

My first victim will be the sun visor, which is a pretty large plastic/fiberglass piece. I went over the accumulated grunge sections with a wire wheel and gave the painted upper surface a gentle sanding (which really just made a lot of the old deteriorated paint crumble off… Great!), then cleaned it all with acetone.

 

The bottom side will get the inaugural paint gun salute, since it’s the least visible!

And then… we fire.

Okay, full throttle on this paint gun… no, this paint-cannon is completely unusable – it’s far too aggressive for the runny auto paint, and I found this out too late so just had to start waving the thing like a madman to prevent the paint from accumulating – not too successfully.

The finish is pretty horrible – the large droplets just formed blobs and very coarse orange-peel.

That’s gonna be a yikes from me, but at least nobody’s really looking at this thing, right!?

The next day, I came back to do the clearcoat, which was also as watery-thin and hard to control. I didn’t have a good feel for the trigger/valve force yet so I kept going way too hard. This caused a lot of running in the clear coat and even some entrained air bubbles.

Well, after dumping almost the entire quart of paint kit into just this visor, I decided to take a few days break to mentally size up the situation, wrap up the electricals and last bits of bodywork, and most importantly…

…it was time to split the thing in half again.  I was going to handle the bed and cab in two separate painting events. As you can see, Centurion themselves didn’t even try to do the rear of the cab at all! Y’all people paid money for this?

 

Nor did Ford bother with the front of the bed, which is left bare galvanized steel. Because who’s gonna look there besides me!? What this meant, fortunately, was two more surfaces – especially broad vertical ones – I could mess up on and practice the sprayer upon – where nobody will ever know my shame.

I bribed some friends to give an all-around sanding to the cab and bed while I continued working on electricals and removal of the side steps. To properly treat spray the bottom edges of the cab, and if I wanted to remove the front fender flares to paint them correctly, those steps had to come off.

I had to resort to Advanced Fastener Removal countermeasures for all of the bolts holding the steps on. Years of galvanic corrosion at the stainless steel carriage bolt to aluminum step interface meant the square carriage holes were completely turned to dust. I ended up cutting flat-head drive spots into all of the carriage bolts so I could hold on to them with a flathead screwdriver while impact wrenching the nuts off on the underside.

 

The van seam was also fully cleaned up/sanded, and I began priming all of the “Bondo Lawns” and other repaired areas. My plan was to paint the seam trim piece separately and ensure this whole area has paint coverage before putting the trim back on. The way they did it originally, the trim was screwed in and just blasted over, leaving bare metal underneath which caused rust to build up.

 

The cab endcap itself had a few chips and holes from what looks like attachment points for accessories which haven’t been there for years, so I also went ahead and filled those in.

The front of the truck bed will serve as my next practice piece. I sprayed a few piece of plywood in the intervening days, to make sure I got a feel for how little trigger was needed to get spray patterns I saw in Youtube videos from real car painting enthusiasts.

The answer was ridiculous, like 25% trigger or less. I almost contemplated making a spacer so I couldn’t get too trigger happy!

The second sample of paint from eBay seller “mbiauto” arrived, and I get to see if they’re even remotely the same color! This is a “premixed” i.e. pre-thinned paint, advertised as ready-to-spray. You typically have mix it yourself – that is, the paint kit comes with a gallon of base coat color and a gallon of thinner. I allowed myself to get ripped off slightly for this value-added service since I’d probably go back to them for top-offs in case I run low.

This adventure’s getting much better. I was able to make it act much more like an overpowered spraypaint can and get much more uniform deposition.

I tried all of the ‘beam angles’ to get a feel for how the thing behaves. This pass was done using the nozzle shooting a horizontal line, and moving it up and down. You can still see some discrete stripes from only making one recent pass – this effect’s called “tiger striping” as I discovered.

 

Well, I’m now confident enough in my technique to make more “production” parts. It’s helpful to have so many little attachments you can remove and work on individually! I decided to paint the front fender flares next. To do this, they first had to be removed and cleaned up.

The same Advanced Fastener Removal techniques had to be busted out here, since these things are almost directly in the path of all road spray.

The bottom sides were very thick with road grunge, necessitating busting out the wire brush and the RED brake cleaner. This is a substance even I, grabber of unnatural substances, refuse to touch without gloves. I’m in fact surprised that “Wannabe California #3″ (a.k.a. Massachusetts) hasn’t banned it outright yet. I’m literally thick-skinned and it’s the only chemical which has given me skin rashes.

Some more curious manufacturer’s marks found when all of the buildup had been scraped off!

I couldn’t really hang anything up here in Big Chuck’s Auto Body, so I decided to also paint my jackstands.

One of my mistakes with the visor was leaving it on the ground, where some of the excessive paint ended up pooling and really causing some bad ridging as it dried that I then had to go back over and sand off.

These came out a lot better. It probably helps that the fender surfaces are also slightly damaged and even a bit porous looking, helping the paint stick! Nonetheless I was able to blast both of them without dripping.

They’re supported by the inside attachment edge which (theoretically!) shouldn’t be visible once installed.

I then unloaded the last of this quart kit on the rear of the cab to practice the wide swaths that I’ll be doing soon. Now that I’m confident in the technique, I moved onto buttoning up all of the leftover bodywork kibbles and then… THE MASKENING.

Some of the door bottoms had been concerning me, and it would be pointless to paint over rust. I ground all of the surface remnants off – fortunately, discovering it is indeed all surface rust with minimal pitting. This area will probably see a lot more moisture in the future, so afterwards I applied a layer of POR-15 first before priming the area over.

All of the doors received some level of security with POR-15, as well as a few blasts of interior panel sealer up the rain drip holes. I also sanded and primed over a few more dents and spots showing some surface rust in the front sheet metal, where it doubtlessly had been collecting bugs and rocks for 30 years.

 

Also for the first time ever, I removed the front bumper, so I finally have a good look at the way it’s attached for when the “front cow destroying empennage” is designed.

 

With all of these remaining items finished, I began on the MOST. FRUSTRATING. MOST HORRIBLE. I’M NEVER DOING THIS AGAIN stage of painting: masking off areas.

This is the one step that really is going to make me never paint a car again. It was basically an entire day of work just to mask things, and manipulating drop cloths and cutting pieces to shape. By entire day, I really meant almost 3 evenings!

I went for a “partial door jamb” arrangement in the end, since there are a few areas which I primed over that should be covered, but I did not want to remove so much of the interior (even more!) to fully paint up to the door jambs. So it’s really the  extruded surface outline of the doors up to where interior trim pieces begin.

 

And then…

 

There’s NO TURNING BACK B R O W N

This is after the first pass – it’s not very white yet, and the stripes are massive and obvious.

Second pass. There’s now a much more even coat, though some spots are still a little light and the dark primer and previous color still show a little.

Final pass – really just hitting sections individually. It was hard to gauge spraying white on white in a white-walled shop with not all that good lighting, at night, so I know there’s imperfections, but hey… who am I paying to do this again? Oh, that’s right.

After a day of rest, it was MORE. MASKING TIME.  I got some help spotting the laying of the masking tape for the black window outline, since getting this off-kilter would have looked hilarious.

I ended up selecting the outline boundaries based on 3 criteria:

  • To follow existing body creases and lines, and
  • Utilize as many windowlines as possible, and
  • …..hide the rust repair job done on the windshield frame and roof rain gutters

Really the last one. So, the black outline is a lot less aggressive than one of the original concepts I posted here. This final layout uses all of the windows bottoms except the driver’s side conversion van windows (which will dip down) as guidelines, and incorporates the rain gutters entirely instead of stopping under them.

As I said before, I painted the ‘Frankenstein stitch’ van seam trim piece separately. With the black outline now about to go on, this is when I screwed it back on. I’ll just be masking around it in a contour.

The rest of the cab is now draped off with drop cloths, so it’s now time for….

when you go black, you don't go back, the followup album to no turning back b r o w n.

Yeah, so this entire other day of setup ended up just taking 15 minutes to spray. Hey, not bad looking so far!

The endcap curve was a little hard to get right, so I used some color-matching touchup spraypaint to make some little changes here.

 

The following day, I set up both fenders and the cab to hose down with clearcoat. I went completely overkill with the clear for sure, and it was very difficult to visualize when spraying. As a result, there are a couple of runs of clearcoat on the cab – but it’s very hard to see unless there is direct overhead sunlight to expose their refraction and shadow.

I made sure to stand up on my stepladder to absolutely drench the roof – I wanted this area to last a long time, and nobody will ever see the finish being rough. The roof was also where I ended up dumping the rest of the white base coat too.

Oh yeah, while I had black still hanging out in the paint cannon, I decided to actually spray the underside of the fender flares – otherwise they were an awkward raw resin color and would be very visible from the outside.

And after the great shedding of the masking tape and drop cloths… Not bad, honestly. Did I mention how I’m never doing this again!? In fact, at this point I decided that doing the bed was a canned enough exercise that I was going to tap out, and hand it off to my van salon. Imagine that, paying money to have a service done by professionals in the trade.

Up next: The great reassembly, and tales of other little kibbles that got left out of this main narrative!