• Janessa

Vintage Airstream: The Basics

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

We are in Stage 1 of our Airstream renovation for Nellie, our long drives (with kids) family road trip vehicle! In our last Airstream blog post we shared the basics about our rig, how much we paid for her, when we want to finish renovations, and what changes we hope to make in the remodel. Now, we are past the dreaming and scheming phase and we have moved forward with gutting the interior! Before we start sharing our renovation progress, we thought it'd be smart to get down to the basics. Before we got started (as complete novices) there were a few starting points that have helped us and we wanted to share that with you.

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Important Documents

1. Title

You know when you buy a car and the title verifies the exchange and new owner? It's the same with an Airstream. When you buy an Airstream, you'll want to make sure you make it official with a title and registration in your name.

2. Owner's Manual

Did you know you can search and find manuals on the official Airstream website? Click here and find the owner's manual for your travel trailer? You'll need to know the year and make of your Airstream. Having this resource on hand during our renovation has been crucial for truly understanding our specific 1974 tin can! When we take things apart or struggle with a specific part of the Airstream, we reference the owner's manual. There are diagrams and visual aids and lots of great information. Download it. Print it out. Read it before bed. This Airstream resource is a must-have! And, please don't let those eBay scammers get you, they print it out and charge $15 per manual (insert laughing face emoji!) It's FREE!

an inspection report and owner's manual are super helpful resources for an Airstream renovation

3. Inspection Report

I found an in-depth inspection report on the community-based Airstream resource, Airforums.com. Click here to be directed to the link for the FREE download, available as a PDF or Excel spreadsheet. I'd also suggest joining the tribe if you're an Airstream owner, ask any question, get it answered by real Airstreamers!

The inspection report helped us review things we hadn't even thought about it. For example, we bought our Airstream in really good condition but the inspection checklist directed us to check for possible problem areas such as the soft spots in the flooring under the windows. Now we know we'll have to take up the wood floors and check the status of the subfloor. Preferably, you'll do this inspection before you buy your RV but a great resource either way.


Airstream Terms

If you're new to Airstream life (like us) you may not be familiar with all the terms. The Airstream culture throws Airstream-specific terms around easily (and sometimes condescendingly). And, if you aren't in the know, it may leave you scratching your head and headed to Google. But, we're here to help! We'll be using the Airstream-specific terms in most of our blog posts and we don't want to be cliquey and exclusive. So, I've compiled a list of the popular Airstream specific terms you'll need to know for your renovation. I've also added a small definition next to them so you know what they are!

Now you can sound like the Airstream expert!

that little small hole is a rivet and rivets are what set your Airstream apart, there are thousands of rivets holding your Airstream together

1. rivet

Airstream life is all about #liferiveted . A rivet is a metal pin that is used to hold pieces of metal together. There are thousands of rivets holding the aluminum shell and the panels together in your Airstream. They will look like tiny little holes (see photo). That's the head of the rivet. What you don't see is the long "tail" which is pressed in and holds the objects in place.

here is an interior view of our Airstream, you can see the textured vinyl wallpaper covering the inner aluminum skins with the plastic endcap

2. skins

the inner and outer "walls" of your Airstream. The originial skins are aluminum. Our 1974 Airstream Land Yacht Sovereign also has two plastic end caps at the front and back of our rig. The interior skins are usually covered with a textured vinyl wallpaper. We plan to clean ours up and paint them white!

3. ribs

The ribs are the vertical structures running up the sides and top of the shell. They keep your Airstream together! If you take off the skins and rip out all the insulation, you'll break your Airstream down and see the ribs

4. shell

speaking of shell, the shell is the cylindrical skeleton & basic structure of an Airstream. Each shell sits on a frame. For those doing intense repair work (not us!) they may separate the shell from the substructure/frame.

5. panels

when Airstreamers throw around the word panels they can mean a number of things. For one, they can be using panels interchangeably to refer to the interior skins. And for another, they can be referring to the interior design panels which can include cabinetry, interior walls, and door panels.

look at all the interior panels we gutted on the Airstream: doors, cabinets, closets, overhead bins

a picture of one of our vent fans with the air conditioner in the background

7. fan

when Airstreamers refer to fans, they're not talking about the ones that blow cold air and cool you off. Each Airstream has vent fans located on the roof. We have three! You open them manually and they're used to circulate air, pushing stale indoor air outside. We always open ours whenever we're doing renovation work.

8. Tin Can

the Airstream is made of aluminum. It's what sets it apart from other RV manufacturers. It's also what makes it so expensive! The aluminum trailer goes by many nicknames: tin can and silver bullet are the most popular. Airstreamers (and most RVers) also refer to their travel trailer as a rig.

look at very own silver bullet, Nellie!


Tools Needed

So, it's great to have the layouts and the plans and all the rosy dreams in your head. It's an entirely other thing to actually do the work! When it comes to Airstream renovation, you'll need tools to get the remodel done. If you don't have a toolbox (and no, the itty bitty one from IKEA doesn't count) then now is the time to get your materials!

If you've got a handy father-in-law or a contractor friend, call them up and ask if you can rummage around their tool shed. But, if you're dreaming/planning/about to start an Airstream renovation of your own and you don't have a power tool set, now is the time to buy one! We were lucky enough to be gifted a set for our wedding (seven years ago)!

We are in the beginning stages of RV renovation and here's our list of the ten basic tools you'll absolutely need to (a) inspect your Airstream (b) remove rivets and (c) breakdown and remove original interior and panels.

you'll need basic tools including a power drill set for your Airstream renovation

1. power drill (x2)

so this is the most important tool needed, without it you won't be able to get your rivets out! And, rivets hold the entire interior in place! You'll need one power drill to remove rivets and another to remove screws. Imagine taking out each screw one by one with a regular screwdriver! My hands hurt just thinking about it! We had one power drill of our own and borrowed the second. Hubby and I were able to work on different areas of the Airstream and stay out of each other's way! PS- don't forget your charger and it might be helpful to have an extra battery. Nothing wrecks your flow like running out of power!

2. drill bits

without drill bits, your power drill is useless. They come in different sizes and you should just go ahead and buy a variety pack. They're not very expensive. The 1/8 and the 3/16 inch is what we used to remove the interior rivets. Without trying to complicate it too much, something to note: there are plastic rivets and metal rivets. For metal rivets, you will need more heavy-duty drill bits and lubrication

you'll need so many screwdrivers for your Airstream renovation

3. Phillips head screwdriver(s) different sizes

you'll need lots of screwdrivers because you'll be taking out a lot of screws! The power drill is large and bulky and sometimes the screws you need to get are in tiny dainty places! Along with the power drills, you'll want an assortment of manual screwdrivers to get in those hard to reach places. If your Airstream is old like ours just know that some screws will be rusted, possibly broken and you'll need a healthy supply of elbow grease and ingenuity!

4. flathead Screwdriver

you'll need it some time or another, trust us

5. Torx Screwdriver (star-shaped)

you may have never heard of this one but if there are star-shaped screws then this is the only screwdriver for the job! Make sure you have the Torx screwdriver!

6. hammer

You noticed I haven't mentioned the hammer yet but sometimes you're gonna need to go full caveman/cavewoman! And, start breaking things apart!

Matt used the hammer when panels or pieces of furniture were stuck on a final rivet, he used the hammer to knock them loose

7. pliers

We all wish we had Thor-like strength but sometimes you need extra grip and torque that human hands just can't give you. For example, when a screw was rusted in. Matt used a hammer to drive the screwdriver into the screw and the pliers to get extra grip on the screwdriver handle. You're gonna need to be creative and the more tools the better! You'll also need pliers for cutting electrical wires.

8. electrical tape

Hmmmmm, maybe I should write a blog post about Airstream reno safety? First things first, DO NOT have your Airstream hooked up to power during renovations! Do you want to get shocked?! I sure don't. So, once you know you've got that initial safety down, keep it up. Make sure to wrap your exposed electrical wires in electrical tape until you're ready to use them again. Also, it will be helpful to have a non-contact electric voltage tester pen on hand to test voltage in wires before you start demolition near electrical circuitry. Watch the YouTube video below to see how to use one.

9. flashlight

Even when you're working in daylight hours like us, there will undoubtedly be dark corners and crevices! Have a flashlight on hand to help find those rivets and screws in the back of the pantry, behind the refrigerator, and under the sink. And, overall illuminate hard to see places!

10. work gloves

there's no need to use work gloves the entire time (we didn't) but they're nice to have on hand. We used them for moving the refrigerator and getting extra grip/protecting our hands when pulling out large pieces of the interior.

you'll need a bowl to hold all the screws and miscellaneous small items taken out during renovation


1. trashcan

when you take the rivets out, you can have them fall to the floor and sweep them up later or just throw them in a trashcan for easy disposal. We chose the trashcan route.

2. bowl for screws

it's always a good idea to save your screws especially when you plan to build after the initial gutting phase. We're gonna use all new screws but hey if you need to save money.

3. Music

why tear things apart in silence when you can demolish with your favorite beats? We use our JBL portable speaker and play YouTube music from our phone. It sets the vibe for a good time!

4. Hydration & Sweat Rags

We are starting this Airstream renovation in the summer...in Florida (why, I'm unsure) But, it's so hot! Make sure to have waters, Gatorades, Propels, Powerades, or your quench-your-thirst drink of choice! And, plenty of towels and 80's headbands to wipe up that sweat!


my hubby is a character and a self-taught handy-man; he leads our Airstream renovation

Hubby's Perspective

Let me start by saying that I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING! An Airstream renovation is a daunting task for even the most highly skilled of "handy-men"; it is a fire-breathing dragon of chaos to us lesser mortals... Suffice it to say that I was a little overwhelmed when starting this project. What do I want to do? Where should I start? What am I even looking at?

However, there is hope. Just like any time I have to fix something at my house or on our vehicles, I consult the almighty of omnipotent intelligence: YouTube. Many great men and women of recent past have slayed the dragon of Airstream renovation and have shared the blueprint to become a fellow knight. Throughout this project, I will pour through the lengthy scrolls of YouTube and online forums in order to extract the Truth which I will wield to achieve victory! (Yes, I'm a nerd; but Janessa digs it.) And I will share what I have found with you.

So join us and let the Good Times Roll!



Are you starting (or dreaming) of an Airstream reno of your own? Comment below with the deets! Would love to know more and connect! I can't wait to meet up with people on the road soon!

Look for a few new blog posts coming up. One of our first month of renovation progress and another of the Airstreams on the road which are inspiring our reno! For now, follow my Airstream Renovation Pinterest board for dreamy drool-worthy completed projects.

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Many Blessings and Happy Demolition,

Janessa & Matt

We're the Martin family and we're in love with family road trips and family travel! We're currently renovating a 1974 Airstream Sovereign so we can continue our family road trippin' adventures across North America! We're hoping to inspire others to pack up and head out on the road! 


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