The title of this blog post is The last thing you need is another project: Part 2, however in retrospect it should probably be titled What the heck was I thinking. If you missed my introduction in part 1, I’ll quickly bring you up to speed. I thought it would be fun to build a truck camper for my Ford F150. Why build one you ask? Well, stinky old pickup campers are a dime a dozen on Craigslist, but a nice one you’d actually want to use can cost north of $10k. With hundreds of things I could better spend thousands of dollars on I decided to build my own. “I like building things and surely it shouldn’t take too long to build,” I told myself. I WAS WRONG.
In late-November when I started on this project things seemed to move along quickly. The frame came together in a few nights and I thought the end was in sight. Looking back, it was a lot like building a new house, not that I’ve ever done that. The general structure comes to together quickly, however the insulation, siding, interior work and other elements pile on the time. And that doesn’t event include the custom fab work associated with building your own camper from your own design. From scratch. Without any prior experience. You live and learn, I suppose.
After placing the basic frame in the truck I confirmed my design would indeed fit and I set to completing the metalwork. Several late nights were spent in the garage cutting, aligning, welding and grinding. I rinsed and repeated the aforementioned steps over a hundred times and then, finally, the frame was complete. I test fit the entry door on the frame just to get a visualization of what the end product would look like. Then I sat inside on what would be the main couch and drank a beer marveling at my progress. Good thing it was late at night because if my wife or one of my kids would’ve come out to the garage I’m sure they would’ve wondered what I was doing.
The next step was the interior trim out. Now, there’s no doubt I have a vast selection of tools for wrenching on cars and doing associated fab work, however I’m light on woodworking tools. Cutting 4 x 8 sheets of plywood cleanly and with straight edges proved to be a precarious and stressful endeavor. My grit prevailed and I managed to get everything cut while keeping all ten fingers and toes for that matter (I may have used a foot on an occasion to keep a sheet level on my rusty but trusty table saw).
Woodworking complete, I made a trip or two (who am I kidding, it was problably four) to home depot to find the finest carpet material I could find to line the walls with. I landed on TrafficMaster indoor/outdoor carpet in Ocean Blue at a budget friendly $.86/square foot. Despite the low cost, the material is well-suited for the interior and really ties the room together, you know like a fine persian rug in your living room. Except this space rivaled that of a low rate prison cell and the rug was the finest synthetic materials that could be had for less than a buck a foot. Wall treatment complete, it was time to celebrate this milestone with a moment of reflection to marvel at my work. Beer in hand of course.
My next task was to install the siding. I opted for .032 inch aluminum sheet for it’s light weight, durability and relative ease of cutting. Like all of the other metal used for the build I sourced it from Discount Steel in NE Minneapolis. I’m pretty sure they know me by name now given all the metal pickups I’ve done there. Instead of using screws, bolts or rivets to affix the siding I opted for 3M VHB tape. The VHB stands for very high bond and believe me, this stuff is indeed sticky. If you don’t get the panel placed just right you better be comfortable with the placement because it will be stuck in place. Just ask my wife, who made the mistake of helping me affix a panel then hear me gripe when it was misaligned. That said, you know once the panel is in place correctly it’s not going anywhere and the tape helps avoid water intrusion at the seam acting like a seal. By the time all the panels were in place I became an expert in sheet metal cutting. I can also tell you which low-budget electric sheet metals shears to avoid. One tip, saving big money doesn’t save you any time. The right tool for the job makes a world of difference.
Siding more or less complete, I embarked on a subzero window picking adventure. A key goal of this build was to keep it low-ish budget. That means sourcing used windows when possible to save 75% from new retail prices. Fortunately I found someone parting out an 8-year old camper on Facebook marketplace and made a date to pick them up on the Saturday between Christmas and New Years. Looking back, I clearly underestimated the time it would take to get to the sellers home and back. The windows were in Little Falls, MN, approximately a 75 minute drive each way from my house in the western-Minneapolis suburbs, and naturally they were still installed in the camper. Just to make things extra fun it was -20 degrees below zero the day of my window adventure — cold even by Minnesota standards.
Fortunately I had more than enough layers and upon arrival I set to removing the windows from the camper. Apparently the donor camper was totalled after having significant water damage. That said, even in the arctic cold, the musty stink from inside the camper was nearly unbearable. I targeted three windows for removal. The first two came out easy. The last one not so much. I found myself having to lay on the bed in the rear cabin area to get the window out and despite the multiple layers of clothing between be and the bed, I was a bit uncomfortable knowing I was laying on someone else’s water damaged bed. As time went on my attempts to finesse the window out escalated to brute force. In the end, however, I was victorious. All told I went home with three windows for $75. If bought the same windows on eBay or Amazon, I would’ve paid over $750. The only downside? I had to endure the long ride home with the nasty water damage smell lingering in my nostrils.
Back home and Sawzall in hand I measured twelve times and then cut a hole in the side of the camper for my main window. Best part is, it actually fit. From here I got distracted with a number of different small projects. I plan to mount a small window air conditioner on the back of the camper and include a couple electrical outlets inside. To make this work I had to add an electrical plug on the outside and add a breaker box inside. I also added an external porch light while I was working on the electrical front. Since the camper is by no means huge, I added an ARB awning to the side, that should create some nice outside space. Throw in an ARB awning tent enclosure and I’ll have another whole space to use when I’m trackside camping. I think of it as my open air kitchen and family room area.
With the siding and small odd jobs more or less completed it was time to tackle the roof structure. A quick night of measuring, cutting, aligning, welding and grinding and I had the general roof frame complete. A lot more aligning later and I had it attached to the camper. Following another trip to the metal yard I attached the same aluminum sheet to the roof as I did to the sides. Then it was time for the hard part — doctoring up a lift mechanism. My original intent was to keep it simple and use some heavy duty lift struts coupled with a simple set of safety legs. For reasons I can’t remember, probably after destroying one of the cheap plastic ball socket ends, I decided to pursue a different lift mechanism. I tinkered for a few hours adapting a camper jack into a battery powered impact wrench lifting mechanism. It worked great until the 30-year old Craigslist special camper jack gearset exploded into a dozen pieces. Not ready to drop a couple hundred dollars on a trick electric powered linear actuator mechanism, I reverted to the original hydraulic strut route. Believe or not after an hour or so of tinkering I made it work. And that’s pretty much where the project sits today.
I anticipate another 15 hours or so to get the camper complete. The next step is affixing ripstop nylon to the pop-up, adding aluminum exterior corner trim, applying self-leveling ceiling sealer to the roof and yet to be installed roof vent, building a convertible bed inside the camper, landing on an interior wall cabinet option, installing a 12-volt system within it, cutting another hole in the back siding for the air-conditioner, building a support frame for it and on. And on. And on.
With any luck I’ll be done in March. I’ve made it too far to give up now. Once I’m finally done, it’s on to the next project. It never ends, does it?