Archive for September, 2019


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. What, you really wanted me to title it “Return of the Sex Light” and get blocked by even more workplace/school filtering programs? Cuz that’s what this is!

(Side note: Yes, I realize that I’m vulgar enough on the regular to actually get my site flagged as “pornography” or “violence” – this is a known bug feature. Sorry, kids!)

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.


Late Stage #PostmodernRobotics: Welcome to Your Waifu is Trash, the Robot Dumpster Fire

Sep 14, 2019 in your waifu is trash

Now that there is an #BrandNewSentence.

Ladies and gentlehams, this is a Golden Dumpster.

It’s several things. First, it’s the prize if you win the Norwalk Havoc event held roughly monthly at the 50Day Makerspace in Norwalk, CT.

Second, it’s a repainted Dumpsty desktop dumpster. No, this is not a joke; someone’s real life job in a shop and assembly room somewhere is manufacturing tiny dumpsters for consumption by edgy postmodernists everywhere.

Third, it’s about to be digitized and turned into a robot for Dragon Con.

Yes, this is truly the state of combat robotics today. This is what we’ve become, when all of the Ampflow brushes have melted away and all of the poorly-restrained Li-poly batteries have vaporized, the essential oil of the Harbor Freight drill gearbox. Welcome to #PostmodernRobotics.

So alright, what’s the actual story here? This is starting to feel a little bit like Stance Stance Revolution or Colsonbot.

In a way, it kind of is in the vein of those two. They’re all supposed to take the super cereal sport and turn some element of it upside down for entertainment. As you know, I tend to complain about how overly tryhard the sport has become especially with folks getting into the sport only building spinners (or worse…. only operating the same spinner for the better part of a decade) and focusing on win counts at rigid tournaments. Not that I have a strong moral basis to stand on here, since I obviously had my own era of “tryharding”. But regardless, in the position I am, I might as well keep at injecting whimsy wherever I can!

This dumpster is actually Jamison’s – not mine. I only took Roll Cake to one Norwalk Havoc event for kicks (where it did disturbingly well in a rumble, more than I expected by far!). It was bequeathed to me while Sawblaze was in temporary storage at Big Chuck’s Auto Body – you can kind of see it peek out in the background of a few photos.

Basically, we both wanted to see an assbot made for Dragon Con. With the time horizon for rebuilding Überclocker/30-haul vanishing, I decided to punt on the project instead of rush it (see, I’ve learned SOMETHING about project and scope management) and focus on putting on a show for the convention.

Obviously it was going to be almost completely ineffective as an entry – that was kind of the point. It’s too small to put any really worthwhile drive power in, at least not without actual engineering effort, and the dumpster itself actually weighs close to 8 pounds – it’s not a plastic shell, it’s actually stamped and welded steel sheet (speaking of engineering effort for questionable ends…).

My “goals” (???) for this build condensed as I was buttoning up Vantruck lighting. It was going to have powered flipping lids actuated by servos, and an internal vape system to emit a lot of thick smoke. I was just going to drive it around the convention as a neutral political statement – you can project any insecurity you want upon it! It doesn’t mean anything and nothing matters! True #Postmodernism!


I made it a curiosity goal to see if I could get it to “self right” with a linkage that allowed the lid to extend far enough. Granted, it can only ever self-right from one face only, so how much would it really matter? Does anything actually matter?

After a couple of iterations, I found a good enough solution where a 120 degree servo travel was enough to get about 200 degrees of output travel. The linkage consisting of the servo crank arm, the lid, and the coupler link in between basically was almost toggling at both ends (very folded one way or another), but was much more squared up when the lid was vertical, or when it would have the apply the most force to “get up”.

I was going to need a hefty servo – probably a 1/4-scale size – to do this motion anyway, so I was browsing for candidates as this process was happening. The short turnaround time before I was leaving kind of mandated a Jeff Bezos Special, and I ended up just going with one of these generic “60 kg” servos. No, they don’t weigh 60 kilograms, but allegedly put out up to 60 kgf-cm of torque. Do they actually? Who knows?!

They come in 180 and 270 degree travel varieties for different applications, with the latter being more rare, so I constrained the design to use the 180 degree type only just in case I had to find a spare. Always be prepared to quickly service your miniature flaming dumpster?

I was going to keep the drivetrain simple, using some 25mm diameter Pololu gearmotors I’ve had since forever. The “25mm diameter gearmotor with a centered shaft” seems to be a very commoditized motor form factor, and many generics exist and are popular with beetleweight (3lb) builders. Pololu sells a “HP” line which uses a hotter-wound motor that pulls more power, whereas the common ones on eBay and Amazon are very tame.

The drive layout was going to be 4 individual modules, with 4WD. Instead of just slinging a robot frame under the dumpster (sorry, I can’t take myself seriously typing that), which would pretty much guarantee it tipping over all the time, I wanted to hide the drivetrain within the bottom by making flange-mounted modules that attach to cutouts.

The drive bits itself are just four machined aluminum hex hubs for 1.625″ Banebots wheels I had on hand – dating all the way back to #CandyPaintAndGoldTeeth (which is a bot that REALLY could use a reboot!), and the motors are clamped in place with a U-shaped block.

I made sure to add an external support bearing for the wheels, since these motors do not have all that much output shaft support; one of the ways they get broken easily in battle is just by applying too much force to a directly-coupled wheel. They really should get external support, even in beetleweights (some get away with it using very soft and foamy wheels like Lite Flites), and definitely in anything heavier.

Here’s what it’ll look like from the bottom. The wheels are basically pushed out as far as they can go into the corners for …. stability. Yeah, stability!

I made the rest of the linkages based off the skeleton sketch model. By this point, I actually got the “60kg” servo in house, so I measured up its stock arm and designed a linkage to be sunken into it (for maximum torque transfer if this thing really can push 60 kgf-cm, I didn’t want to just rely on 2 or 3 screws)

And here we have the more-or-less final design, minus a few electronics detailed which were mostly freelanced as the build progressed.  Let fabrication commence!

Making the cutouts in the bottom of the …. dumpster … was actually more strenuous than I thought. This thing is straight up made of 18 gauge steel all around. Thicker than most Mikuvan body panels, as terrifying as that sounds. I used a Dremel with an abrasive wheel to make the cuts, then used a 3D printed prototype of the motor module as a drilling template.

These components are 3D printed in Markforged Onyx, a part of this balanced breakfast. The wheel outer bearings are thin-section Inch bearings I got a long time ago for Roll Cake – they’re type R1212, 1/2″ bore 3/4″ OD and 5/32″ thick. I rather like them for doing little inch-centric quick projects, such as this one!

Four of the motor modules assembled together. This is a very formidable beetleweight drivetrain, all things considered.

I went just maybe a little nuts on engineering a flaming dumpster by making the servo linkages all use ball bearing pivots. Seriously?! Yes – when you build a complex bot like Roll Cake, you end up with a million little bearings you bought but don’t end up using, and can peruse through later.

These bearings are type SMF83 – 3mm bore, 6mm OD, and flanged. They’ll ride on 3mm shoulder screws (also left over from Roll Cake iterations). Ball bearing pivots reduce the friction of linkage joints by a good order of magnitude or more, and reduce slop since they don’t need to have inherently loose fits – for a linkage as edgily-designed on the verge of toggling as the lid, I figured it would be a nice touch.

There are a couple of little 3D printing tricks that I’d like to point out. They’re not too visible in these photos, so it’s easier to show a CAD screenshot:

Basically every part on this bot is printed at an angle with the part not oriented “flat” like what’s common. I started doing this years ago, probably by accident while trying to print an awkward part, and realized it confers a lot of advantages.

First, you can distribute a load on a 3D printed parts in all 3 planes by tilting the part – at least going from one plane of loading to two.

In a part that has multiple orthoginal axes of pin joints or screw holes, instead of extremely compromising on the strength of one axis by forcing it to be loaded “between Z layers” where deposition modeling is the weakest, you effectively slice the part to include them in a skewed fashion.

That way, for example, my pin joints and bolt holes are all grabbing material on the 45 degree plane, each capturing many layers of material – clever part design with this in mind can even result in fasteners that capture the entire width and length of parts. This approach also makes 3D printing embedded trusses and other lightweighting shapes more effective for the same reason: the geometry permits material stress transfer into more planes and axes at once.

Second, by tilting some features, you can avoid support lattices in hard to reach places or which would cause poor finishes in a precision-requiring area. A lot of the parts were printed without support, only a “brim” on the lower 3-5 layers to promote adhesion.

The downside is your printer has to be in good tune to do this, since it involves printing almost exclusively in 45-ish degree overhangs and support lattices generated may be much smaller. I trust the Markforged machines to do it – a tunable RepRap-family printer might need some intensive training beforehand.

The electrical deck was freehanded from a sheet of 1/8″ Garolite, and the battery cradles and clamp designed up and thrown on print also. I designed around a set of 4S, 1.8Ah packs I already had, but made sure the cradle was big enough to support the next size up like a 2.2Ah or even 3.0Ah for longer run time. Remember, I was out to drive this thing around for the better part of a day, so it’s carrying about 4x the amount I would ever expect a beetleweight drivetrain to use in one match already.

While this was all happening, I was also waiting on paint to dry. Because of course I will make it Miku-colored!

I ran into some serious issues with painting it, though – the Golden Dumpster is in fact made from painting gold over a regular green dumpster, which is green paint over the bare steel. So I was adding shitty spraypaint on shitty spraypaint on more shitty spraypaint. Some of it started crinking up and detaching in chunks, which was unfortunate. I decided to just forget about appearances – a weathered dumpster with chipping paint and dents just sells the story!

Anyways, here’s the motor pods and electroncis deck dropped in and screwed shut.

The electrical system was actually a little bit of a conundrum. The big servo preferred 2S lithium voltages (7-9v or so), the drive motors were 12V rated so it’s best to run them at that or higher (hence the 4S battery chosen – 14.8V nominal). Most vapes run at only 1S (3.7V) or in that neighborhood. The receiver could take up to 12V in, but the Pololu R/C relay should stay around 5V for best reliability.

I ended up digging out an old adjustable BEC (R/C power supply) from the pile of robot electronics, which could be tuned to 7.2V, an old 6-cell nickel battery voltage. This would feed the vape power (and a mini air pump that is needed to actually push the vapor out with force) and the receiver. I tested the Pololu relay and inspected its diagram to see if there was anything that bad about running it on 7.2V instead of 5 – nothing ostensibly besides possibly overpowering the relay coil itself. Overall, 7.2V was a reasonable compromise for everything on board.

The BEC unit and Pololu R/C relay get globbed onto the electrical deck, next to the most overkill possible controller for this application… a spare RageBridge. Talk about being under-employed!

The smoke effects actually got super interesting. What you see here is two CosCloud units provided to me by their creator Alina. They actually figured all of this conundrum out for me (and you too! and many others!). I was otherwise going to a literal vape shop to buy literal vaping gear to make my own.

I’ll be running two of these “smoke generators” in series to line up with 7.2V pretty well, and the air pump in parallel with that group. This whole assemblage drew around 3 amps at Full Vape, which was quite tolerable with the 10A-rated BEC.

The final packaging and zip-tying now commences.

And here’s what it looks like from the outside! The final weight – 11 pounds 8.8 ounces. Hey, there’s room for a… weapon?

The dwarf dumpster fire, in its natural habitat.

And what it looks like in action at the convention. The secret is to turn on the Vape Turbopumps for a few seconds, then open the lid and watch it all waft out. This thing was an absolute riot everywhere it went, and it fulfilled the “neutral projection target” social experiment perfectly. I heard quite the range of things referred to while pointing fingers at it, from the usual remarks about Congress and the presidency, to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney, Game of Thrones, Star Wars continuations, game companies…. there are apparently many ongoing uncontained dumpster fires in society as we know it.

Some of them even move around and come to you.

You can see #YourWaifuIsTrash in action in this Dragon Con music video (skip to 8:15 if the time link doesn’t work!)

And finally, we make it to the Big Day at Robot Battles!

I’m a dope for not getting to it sooner – somebody had to point out to me that the dumpster was missing an UWU face (yes, it’s a face, not a sound…. today you learned?!), and so one was hastily appended with markers.

This thing managed to actually pull off a win. I did it by basically bull-baiting the opponent at the edge of the stage and letting nature take its course.

Of course, it couldn’t push anything, could barely get over the “arena” borders which are left beat-up on purpose, and had issues with turning in place under its own weight and the traction of the outdoor style carpet of the stage. So that was all! I also entered it in both rumbles at the end, but it got bowled over rather quickly in both rounds.  Nevertheless, I consider #YourWaifuIsTrash a win, because what is a win in #PostmodernRobotics? It’s whatever you want it to be!

This thing came back from Dragon Con working just fine, so it will live on as a stupid prop for all of eternity. I’ll probably repaint (read: just spray over it AGAIN in more shitty spraypaint!) it soon and begin adding choice tasteful decals.

Do you want your own? The CAD files in STEP, IGES, and Parasolid are available on the References page!

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…



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!