Polishing the Airstream – Part 1

It’s well known that the clear coat used on Airstream exteriors weakens and starts peeling after UV exposure. Some say it starts in five or six years, others seem to do a little better. We had a little peeling when we bought the Safari five years ago but it has gotten steadily worse. It is just cosmetic but as we consider options, I know that potential buyers won’t be too impressed. Here’s what it looked like from the front.

The clear coat and Airstream name was looking pretty ratty.
 So, about the end of June 2013, I decided to strip the clearcoat and polish the aluminum on the top front where the situation was the worst. Steve at Vintage Trailer Supply recommends an environmentally-safe stripper and I’ll use that down the road, but I had an expensive gallon of brain-frying Strypeeze so I used that. At least it was outdoors and with purple nitrile gloves, I painted it on the panel. It looked like this.

I decided to strip the clearcoat and polish the aluminum on the top front where the situation was the worst. Steve at Vintage Trailer Supply recommends an environmentally-safe stripper and I’ll use that down the road, but I had an expensive gallon of brain-frying Strypeeze so I used that. At least it was outdoors and with purple nitrile gloves, I painted it on the panel. It looked like this.

The Strypeeze wrinkled up the clearcoat, which then could be wiped off.

After several applications of stripper, I hit it with some lacquer thinner and got most of the remnants off. The peeled areas are oxidized and so the whole panel needs to be polished. That’s next week’s task once the heavy rains scheduled here soon subside.

The non-oxidized areas look pretty good giving me hope for good polishing results.

I knew that this is going to turn into a major project, but at least it doesn’t all have to be done this summer. The softer aluminum used in later Airstreams doesn’t shine up like the older ones, but it should look fine. We will see.

We are, like most of the East, in a humid spell where days finish with showers and thunderstorms — and the air is heavy and Maryland-like. It’s not great painting weather but OK for stripping clearcoat — as long as I get five or six hours between application and rain.

I am using a new safer stripper that I bought from Vintage Trailer Supply. Here’s part of what they say about it:

For many years, vintage Airstream owners have relied on RemovAll 220 peroxid-activated paint stripper to remove the plasticoat from their trailers before polishing. RemovAll is no longer available in North America. Fortunately, PPG Aerospace makes a paint stripper based on the same principles as RemovAll. It is called Eldorado PR-5044.

PR-5044 is a peroxide-activated paint and primer remover. It works well because it is designed for removal of polyurethane and epoxy paint systems in the aerospace industry. PR-5044 is environmentally preferred and worker-friendly. It does contain petroleum distillates, so it does produce fumes. You will need to read all safety information before using. However, it is not a hazardous material and is much easier to use and safer than traditional aircraft strippers.

So, it looks like vanilla pudding and paints on rather easily. Here is the first panel I tried it on:

That worked out pretty well so the next day, I applied it on the upper section.

After a thundershower rinsed it, I spent some time with water and rags removing the coating which tended to come off like Saran wrap. At times, whole sections several square feet in size just peeled off — other areas were more stubborn. Some will require more stripper.

The removed coating looks like cellophane and will be easy to clean up later on.

So, the upper right side is 95% done and after a break for the 4th, I’ll start on the lower. It’s slow going but I just realized, after talking with my brother, that the two new panels we had replaced are coating free. I figure I have about 14 hours in and another 20 to go – before beginning to polish.

The upper right side is about done – now to start on the decals and lower section.

After over 30 hours of prep (But who’s counting? I am.) I started in on the polishing. I’m started with F7 Nuvite, a rather coarse polish from Vintage Trailer Supply here in Montpelier. I’ll run a finer polish later if and when I finish this set of sessions, which will likely be 50 hours. The weather, hot and muggy, is not conducive to long periods of work. So I sit down inside with iced coffee and write about it.

Here’s how the front looked at the start – lots of oxidation from the peeled clearcoat.

Polishing involves smearing very small strips of polish on an area and using a slow-speed polisher to allow the particles in the F7 to strip off a minute layer of aluminum. You let the electric polisher do the work but it still takes a lot of energy to control it.

Building arm strength controlling polisher. It looks cooler out than it was – 80 degrees with high humidity.

It is a messy process – lots of small black bits of polish and I always wear a mask – even though it is tough in the heat. I decided to keep the initial session on the top front panel and will perhaps tackle another section this evening. If you are inclined to polish an Airstrteam or an airplane, Steve from VTS has a nice primer you can download here.

The polished area looks very bright, with swirl marks from the coarse polish. So far, so good.

Between the weather, which has continued hot and humid with afternoon showers, and the persistent flecks and patches of clearcoat (which have to be removed with dabs of Strypeeze), the polishing was quite a project. As you can see, the top areas I  completed look pretty good. They will next get a pass with a finer polish which should remove most of the swirls and cloudy areas. Of course, I realized the other day that the two replaced panels in back did not have clearcoat, and seem to be a slightly different aluminum. They will polish up but not as shiny but who really cares? (They also have a different clearcoat which is terrible to remove — only ZipStrip will touch it.

You can see the contrast between the polished and unpolished areas here on the panel just above the buffer.

Then, disaster hit when I seriously injured my knee on August 2nd.  I was able, prior to surgery, to do some polishing.  I pretty much had finished the top half of the Airstream and now could work, sitting in a chair, on the lower panels.  I would take it 45 minutes at a time and rest a lot — but it’s good to see some continued progress.I know I’ll be disabled again after next Tuesday’s arthroscopic procedure and lose a few weeks while I recover so I’ve been pecking away, keeping the weight and pressure off my bad leg.

It was still very slow going.  There was a lot of residual flecks of clearcoat that have to be removed, slowing the process a lot.  Some are really stubborn — but I’ve learned to use solvent, even fine steel wool.  What I’m finding is that the lower sections are pretty dinged up — lots of road rash — but they polish up pretty well.  I have taken off the one protective panel on the front since the other is long gone on the roads outside Houston, and replacements are very pricey.

The squiggles are reflections in the morning sun — it looks ok with just the first pass of polishing. 

I shut the project down before surgery on August 20th and will likely lose a month as I heal.  I can always head out this winter with work to do and polish the rest down south.  There are times where I question why I ever started this but all in all, it was a good move.  The injury has put a crimp in the schedule but the worst of the polishing is over.

I have started to do some preliminary planning for our trip this year — reviewing places we like and places we’ll never visit again.  Now we have to get both of us tuned up and ready to travel.  We are keeping our doctors’ cash flow flowing — they’ll likely all take great winter vacations.  Safe traveling.

2 Responses to Polishing the Airstream – Part 1

  1. Gary says:

    Very nice job and yes it looks worth it indeed
    Gary from canada

  2. jacqueline says:

    What did you use to protect your hard work on the polishing? What clearcoat did you apply?

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