Sunday, 26 August 2007


We did it! The new fridge is in! But before I describe the work involved, here's a update on the "medical issue":

The injured finger

The patient is slowly getting better. Dad has to go to the hospital everyday to have is bandage changed, hopefully by a smiling gorgeous nurse. The last stiches have been removed yesterday. Healing is slow due to the fact that the cutting disk not only cut the skin but ground it off , and that skin now has to grow back. To protect his finger and keep his bandage clean while working on the motorhome, Dad made himself a special leather sleeve that he wears over his finger.

Last week's work was mostly on the brake system.

Dad inspected most of the brakes lines as much as he could. In his opinion, all the brake lines will evantually have the be replaced. Some lines that seemed to be in quite good shape turned out rather fragile and easy to break. Since it is obviously a safety issue, this will have to be fixed. Dad will start with the lines that run from the dual brake boosters to the wheels, as these lines are carrying the high pressure of the braking power. The lines running from the brake pump (at the pedal) to the boosters will eventuallybe replaced as well, but since they carry a relatively lower pressure it is not a critical issue for now.

Dad wasn't comfortable with the slight rust that he had found in the rear brake cylinders. So he decided to bite the bullet and replace all four cylinders (there are two cylinders per side). His friend Gerry worked with him, and they completely overhauled the rear brakes assemblies. The brake lines leading to the cylinders did not survived the disassembly and new replacement lines were made. Everything was cleaned, sandblasted and then painted, including the backplates and automatic adjusters. Both brake assemblies were reassembled et pre-adjusted and are now ready the be installed on the coach, this will be done as soon as the weather improves, as it has been raining hard lately. All will be left to do is connecting the brakes lines and bleed the air out.

Meanwhile, after a careful inspection of the overtightened main wheel bearings, Gerry - our official specialist on such matters - recommended a replacement of the outer bearing.

Dad also replaced the busted front brake line:

The round thing that can be seen on the top of this picture is the parking brake of the Travco. It is actually a brake drum installed on the driveshaft, actuated by a cable with a hand lever.

The fridge

The new fridge has finally been installed yesterday. Getting a new fridge was an important issue, and a one of the most expensive of this restoration project (this week's brake job was almost as expensive).

As I have previoulsy explained, this motorhome was built with a 110V only fridge. The point of having a motorhome is being as autonomous as possible and not rely on shore power, so this 110V fridge had to get out. My parents shopped around for a used propane fridge, since the brand new ones were extremely expensive. Used propane fridges are pretty scarce, but they finally found a nice a clean unit for $600, wich is a fair price. It is a 3-way (12V/110V/LP) unit that is almost the exact same size as the original one, wich made the swap easier. The old 110V fridge had already been removed from the coach a few weeks ago.

Converting the motorhome from an electric-only fridge to a gas unit basically involves cutting a ventilation opening and install a grille on the side of the Travco, and run a line from the propane tank.

The first step was to remove the panel from the back wall inside the fridge cabinet. On this panel was an electrical outlet to plug the fridge. Once removed, we can see the outer wall of the Travco, wich is an approximately 3/16in thick fiberglass skin, insulated with sprayed-on urethane foam (the entire motorhome is insulated this way).

With a scraper and a utility knife, the foam insulation is removed where the vent will be installed.

After carefully marked the right position, we used the angle grinder with a thin cutting disk to cut an opening on the side of the Whale. The grinder easily cut the fiberglass skin (almost as easily as it cut Dad's skin...) and in no time we had a nice rectangular opening on the side of the motorhome.

With a few pieces of naturally weather-resistant redwood, Dad made a sturdy frame wich was installed inside the opening, screwed from the outside and sealed with a bead of caulking. Then the plastic frame of the vent was screwed on with stainless steel screws.

A similar opening was cut on the inside panel. The electrical outlet was repositioned higher on the panel.

A black ABS pipe runs vertically inside the fridge cabinet. It is the black water vent pipe, that runs from the black water tank under the floor, up to a vent on the roof. We had to slighly reposition this pipe, since the new fridge went deeper in the cabinet than the old fridge and there was not enough space because of that pipe. We added a couple 45deg elbows and a flexible rubber joint, that was enough to move the pipe a couple inches, wich was all we needed.

The top frame of the cabinet had to be shaved a few millimiters since the new unit was slighly taller that the old one. The plywood floor and the rear panel wre screwed back in place. It is a pretty nice job for a cabinet that won't even be visible!

Then we installed the propane line. We used thick 3/8in copper tubing, and double-flared fittings. There was already a T fitting near the LP tank, so all we had to do is remove a plug and connect our new line. We ran the line through holes in the frame to bring the line on the opposite side of the vehicle (the tank is on the curb side and the fridge is on the driver side). A plastic sleeve around the copper line will protect it from rubbing and abrasion damage.

Now all we had to do is slide the new fridge in place. Both fridge doors were removed to make the unit lighter and smaller, and as the door was opening the wrong way, the hinges had to be removed to reposition them to the other side anyway.

After a few moments of concern on the available cabinet space where the fridge condenser meets the curvature of the top of the motorhome wall, we tried to slide the fridge in. The top was rubbing so we had to shave the top of the cabinet frame a little more with the belt sander, then to our relief the fridge slid perfectly in position.

We wired the 12V power, plugged the 110V and connected the gas fitting. The first test was done using the 110V setting.

After about 45 minutes, even with the doors not yet installed, the freezer inside wall was clearly getting cold. As it was getting late, we decided to call it a day and switched the unit off. Tomorrow Dad will check the LP line for leaks, test the unit on the LP setting, and reinstall the doors in the correct position. Dad is satisfied with the job, wich took longer than anticipated (a full day for the two of us) but went well nevertheless. A good job well done.

Dad has a lot of work for the upcoming week. Next weekend is the first important outing for the Blue Whale. On Labor Day weekend (Sept 1st, 2nd and 3rd), we have our big annual family party. wich is held at my uncle's place in Lac St-Jean, about 300 km from Quebec City. That's a serious trip, the road to get there being pretty montaineous and remote. The first serious challenge for the Blue Whale!

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Never take anything for granted


First, Dad's injured finger is slowly healing. Some stiches have been removed. He can't bend his finger like he used to yet, but he says he hasn't tried to much either. I will spare you the picture of the cut without the bandage, it is a pretty impressive cut, you can take my word on this!

Nevertheless, Dad slowly resumed working on the Blue Whale. He went back to where he left before the injury: the rear axle inspection. Last week, Dad discovered a problem with the rear brakes, wich seemed the be binding on on side since he was unable to spin the wheel assembly by hand. The wheels would only turn under engine power.

So Dad decided to get the wheels off on that side. Since he also wanted to inspect the wheel bearings and the differential, he simply pulled the drive shaft off the axle. This rear axle is a Dana 70, with a 4.56 ratio, as found in most Travco motorhomes and some Dodge light trucks.

Once he took the shaft out, Dad loosen the big nut that retains the wheels on the spindle. But to his surprise, as soon as the nut got a bit loose, the wheels got free! Binding brakes my ... . Believe it or not, the brakes were not binding at all, this wheel assembly was almost jammed simply because someone had overthightened the bearings!

These bearings are standard cone roller bearings. Usually, when the wheels are installed on the spindle, the big nut that holds it in place is very slightly tightened, just enough to get rid of any play. Too tight will cause the bearing to overheat and eventually fail, and if not tight enough there will be some play in the bearings, wich can also cause the bearing to fail eventually. So the correct tightening of this nut is critical, you cannot tighten it right unless you know what you are doing. And obviously, the last person who worked on this didn't knew much about cone roller bearings and grossly over tightened them.

Dad looked carefully at the bearings to make sure they were not damaged. At first sight they look quite good. The motorhome has probably been driven a few miles only since the bearings were messed with. Dad himself had only driven the coach 3 times since he bought it, 3 shorts drives of much less than an hour. An overtightened bearing doesn't fail because of the mechanichal stress, but because the high pressure inside the bearing pushes the grease out, so the bearing overheats and fails because it lacks lubrication. Luckily, the bearings on this axle are not lubricated with grease, but by the differential oil. Oil is much thinner than grease and even though the bearings were too tight the oil probably lubricated them enough to spare them. Lubricated with grease, these bearings would have probably failed.

Upon inspection, it is clear that these bearings, at some point, ran quite hot. Dad will let his good friend Gerry have the final word on the bearings. Gerry is a very knowledgeable mechanic, and if he says they are still good, we'll take his word on this.

All this bearing story supports Dad's way of restoring his old Travco: since he doesn't know anything about the history of the vehicle, the knowledge of those who maintained it during the last 32 years, better not take anything for granted and check abolutely everything, always make sure things are working good and are in good working order. And if not, fix them. Everything was perfect on the front axle (brakes, bearings, suspension, sterring, etc), and it would have been easy to skip the rear end, thinking it's the same.

Brake fluid leak

Also last week, a brake line started to leak badly on the motorhome. In fact, the line for the right front wheel blew open. This line is attached to the rear transmission support brace, and that's where rust caused the line to leak. Dad used Vise-Grips to prevent fluid from leaking out slowly and air to enter the system during the time he was working on the rear wheel bearings.

Dad began to carefully inspect all brakes lines. Generally speaking, most of the lines are in pretty good shape, with very little rust. However, on certain specific spots, there is significant corrosion, especially under the metal clips that hold the lines to the frame. Some parts of the lines have been replaced already by previous owners. Inspection of these lines is not an easy task, because of the way they are installed within the frame. Dad will probably have to use sandblast where he can't reach the lines with his steel brush. Dad has already replaced many brake lines before on various vehicles, he has the right tools to cut, bend and fit these lines.

The brake shoes themselves are in good condition. Dad noticed a slight rust on the brake cylinders. This could eventually cause some problems: pistons may seize, fluid may leak, etc. He's thinking about taking everything off and fix that right away while he's there. Or he may forget this for now, and wait for the problems to appear (if they ever appear). My advise is to forget about it, if it ain't broke don't fix it, fixing this won't be more work later than it is now, and he may never have to fix it anyway. But that's just my opinion...

Because of his injury, Dad was forced to work on some 'light duty' projects:

Propane tank

Dad cleaned the propane tank and repainted it (some masking tape still showing on the photo). We have no idea if this tank is still good or if it will have to be recertified. The valve seems quite recent, but we couldn't find any date stamped anywhere. A visit to a LP gas specialist will clear that up easily in due time.

Locking handles

Dad installed new locking handles on the right front storage compartment. Same thing on the propane accces panel (wich was held in place with wood screws) and the genset compartment (wich was held close with a clever high-tech device called a "bungee cord").

Front seats

One of the minivan seats that Dad bought needed some repairs. It had a few broken springs and the inside foam was crushed on one side. Dad fixed that, and the seat is now ready to get cleaned and installed.


The engine cover (dog house) has been covered with the new carpet. That wasn't easy to do, since the thing has round edges and curves, but the result is good looking. I'll snap a few pictures once the rest of the carpet is installed, as for now the inside of the motorhome looks like a war zone.


The new fridge was bought last week, but the new vent grille was out of stock. Hopefully my next posting will be about the fridge install, sometime around next Friday. See ya!

Monday, 13 August 2007

Black Friday

On some days, everything seems to go wrong. Last friday was such a day for Dad.

Dad started his day on the Travco with a rear drivetrain inspection. He jacked the rear of the coach only to find that the brakes on the driver side were dragging badly. The wheels were almost jammed, impossible to spin by hand. They would spin under engine power, but there was significant friction. Everything was normal on the other side.

First thing Dad tried to unlock those brakes is, with the engine running, shifting forward and reverse a few times and actioning the brakes pedal. But all of a sudden, the brake pedal when down to the floor!

Dad crawled under the Whale and found a major leak in one of the brake lines.

Shortly after, Dad was trimming the edge of a stainless steel piece using his angle grinder with a cutting disk. Suddenly, the steel piece moved a bit, the grinder kicked hard and slipped from Dad's hands. Within a fraction of a second, the cutting disk, spinning at 12000 rpm, made a deep gash along Dad's left forefinger.

Back from the emergency room with 10 stitches, Dad will have only one hand to work with for the next few days. Fortunately, the X-ray showed no damage to the bones or nerves. The cut is very deep (a cutting disk cuts quite easily into metal, you can imagine how it can cut though flesh), and if the disk had hit the finger at an angle Dad would have probably lost a finger or a part of it.

Needless to say, Dad was pretty mad at himself. He ALWAYS wears his safety goggles and leather gloves when working with the grinder or dangerous power tools. This time, as he only had a little grinding to do, he ommited the gloves. He probably would have been injured with the gloves anyway, but maybe not as bad.

So the situation is now: locked brakes, busted brake line, and left hand out of service.

For the locked brakes, Dad will have to get the wheels and drum off and figure it out. He expects a seized cylinder or something like that.

The busted brake line is another story. Dad had previously inspected the brake lines, and found them in good shape, with almost no rust. The busted line leaks under a metal braket that holds the line to the frame. The bracket seems to have made the line rust (pretty common). I haven't seen it myself but I'll try to snap a picture on my next visit.

Obviously, it is better to burst a brake line while the motorhome is sitting in the driveway than while trying to stop at a red light or going down a mountain. The brake lines will have to be thoroughly inspected, some or maybe all lines will have to be replaced. This is going to take some time.

So it will be a few days before Dad can get back to work because of his left hand. Dad's is right-handed, which helps somewhat, but doing that type of work with a single hand, or with a hurting bandage on the forefinger is not easy.

What's worst for Dad and Mom is that time goes by: we're already in mid-August and there's still a lot to do on the Blue Whale before she's ready for a longer trip.

The plan for this weekend was to install a propane fridge. Used propane fridges are not easy to find. My parents finally found one and they were supposed to buy it last week, but the seller wasn't there, so the sale was postponed until this week. So, once again, if everything goes right, and if Dad's finger improves enough, the Travco should get a new fridge this week or next weekend.

Finally, all this made me think of a quote that most of you have probably heard a few times:

"Before we use any power tools, let's take a moment to talk about shop safety. Be sure to read, understand, and follow all the safety rules that come with your power tools. Knowing how to use your power tools properly will greatly reduce the risk of personal injury. And remember this: there is no more important safety rule than to wear these — safety glasses"

Make that "safety gloves" for Dad!

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Exterior work


Over the last few days, Dad has been working on the awning. After having seeing how is was attached to the coach, I wonder why it didn't fall off the motorhome during travel. It was attached with huge screws (wood screw kind) directly on the fiberglass shell, through some wood pieces, without any reinforcment in the back, sometimes with metal brackets that were simply metal strips hammered into shape. The screws were barely long enough to thread completely through the fiberglass.

Another issue was this awning is a regular RV awning with straight aluminium posts, just like on most RVs. As you know, the sides of a Travco motorhome are curved, and usually the awning posts on a Travco should have a curve in them to fit the coach body. I guess there are curved awning posts made specifically for Travcos, kind of like the Airstream trailers have. As you may see on this picture, straight posts on a curved RV don't look too good.

The vinyl canvas itself, altough not new, is in good shape.

So Dad removed to old lousy brackets, and re-attached the posts to new stainless steel brackets he made himself. Here's a picture of the old lower rear bracket, and then the new stainless steel bracket.

The following photos shows the upper brackets Dad made, still using stainless steel (caulking not yet cleaned around the rear one):

Instead of replacing the straight posts with overpriced ones made for Travcos, Dad simply bent the lower section of the his straight posts. This is enough for the posts to follow more closely the contour of the Travco's side, and it looks pretty good.

In order to bend these aluminium posts, Dad made a partial cut where he wanted the posts to bend. Once bent at the appropriate angle, Dad now had to reinforce the posts where he made the cuts. He used a combination of stainless steel plates and fiberglass compound. The rafters that slide inside the posts had to be shortened a bit, and the handles and locking mechanisms had to be repositioned along the posts. Here's how it looks:


Driver and passenger seats were in pretty bad shape. Broken armrests, worn, faded and dirty fabric, color that doesn't match anything.

At a local car junkyard (they are called 'car recyclers' nowadays) Dad found two nice seats from a scrapped minivan (a Dodge, of course!) for a good price. They will make nice and comfortable replacement seats for the Travco:

Of course they don't fit right in, so Dad had to modify the old seat brackets to make them work with the new seats. Here there are, freshly painted after some steel cutting and welding:

Range hood vent

This was another botched job done by the previous owners. Dad made another one, again using stainless steel (as you may guess, Dad loves to use stainless steel!).

Bike rack

Dad made his own bike rack, Travco style (nice, tough, and heavy). He used some chrome tubes from and old chair. Bolted on the hitch at the rear of the motorhome, his rack is actually very functional, solid and safe, and it can be locked. I guess the thing is strong enough to carry a Harley. Now that I think about it, maybe that's what he intends to do: get a Harley! (Dad owned one when he was younger, and an Indian motorcycle too). I guess I should speak to Mom about this!

Electrical repairs

The rear stoplights on this motorhome are not the originals. At some point, they have been replaced with some "universal" stoplights, and the original backup lights have been painted over when the coach was repainted (just like the rear window).

Dad scraped the paint off these, and they are actually working well. There is still some paint to clean off and it already looks better this way:

Stoplights and signals were not really bright. Dad suspected a bad ground or something like that, so he looked at the wiring. Thw wiring already had been messed with in the past, probably when they installed those new stoplights. What a lousy job they did: one wire, in a lenght of maybe 15 inches, had four joints. Wires simply twisted together with some electrical tape. One wire got burning hot when the lights were on. Dad redid the wiring correctly, and the stoplights are working normally now.

Dad also replaced all marker lights on the top of the motorhome. The old lights were corroded, broken, or were leaking water. This was a lot of work, due to rusted screws, corroded wires that had to be spliced, and new lights that had to be adjusted to the roof's curvature.

Now all lights, from headlights to markers and turn signals are in good working order.

Then Dad installed a pair of good convex mirrors, mounted above the regular mirrors (yes, the mounting brackets are stainless steel!). Dad installed additional truck marker lights/turn signal below the mirrors for added safety.

Now if everything goes according to plans, my next post should be about the new propane fridge installation. Stay tuned!