Monthly Archives: January 2012

SOY-Gel Review

Soy Gel is a non-toxic soy-based stripper for paint, polyurethane, and other finishes. It’s made of 100% soybeans and works on wood, metal, stone, brick, and other surfaces.

Soy Gel

I first saw Soy Gel on Cool Tools (a really great site for gear/tools reviews, definitely read it if you don’t already). I used Soy Gel in the last camper that I restored. I used it to strip the wood that I was going to refinish with fresh polyurethane. I loved using it because it’s totally non-toxic and virtually odorless, so I didn’t have to be too careful about wearing gloves and I didn’t feel like I was going to pass out. When you’re working in a small space, such as a camper, with little ventilation, I think it’s essential to use non-toxic, odorless, and No-VOC products. The application process was easy: Soy Gel is a thick jelly that you spread onto the surface you are stripping. Let it sit for a while, just long enough to work it’s magic (I would say 2-10 hours) then use a plastic scraper to remove the Soy Gel and the finish underneath it. It’s really satisfying to peel the Soy Gel off in big chunks! It works great. The only thing is that you can’t leave it on for too long or you will have to re-apply the Soy Gel again and use it to remove the original finish AND Soy Gel application #1. I once left the Soy Gel on a surface for 24 hours, thinking it would be better to leave it on too long than not long enough. I was wrong, the Soy Gel basically became  a new layer of polyurethane and I had to start over. but if you leave it on for the right amount of time, you’ll be golden.

I would recommend Soy Gel because it is super safe and easy to use. It is especially awesome for working in tiny spaces, because it is so harmless. It’s also great for vertical surfaces because of it’s viscosity – perfect for camper walls and cabinets.

Soy Gel, $65/gallon

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Camper of the Week

1978 Van Mate, $3,250

Camper of the Week

This week’s Camper Of The Week is a “Van Mate” trailer. I would say it definitely qualifies as Camper Eye Candy as well, which is mostly why I picked it! It is all fiberglass which means it’s really light and easy to tow (fiberglass campers such as Casita, Boler, Scamp, etc. are all great choices if you have a small car that can’t tow much weight). I think it looks like the back of truck was cut off and made into a camper! I really like the pop-up top. No pictures of the interior, but the description says it has a full bathroom and everything all in that tiny little trailer. The Van Mate is located in California and the seller is asking $3250 for it. It says that it is a very rare trailer, and I’ve never seen anything like it so I would say that’s probably true! This particular trailer has a good story too: apparently it was once owned by the guy who did the voice for Yogi Bear, among other classic cartoons! Little piece-a-history.

You can see more pictures, a description, and find out how to purchase the trailer here:


I found this little camper on Tin Can Tourists, a great resource for vintage campers in all sorts of conditions ranging from projects for $500 to gorgeous fully restored silver palaces for $50,000. I get lost on that site for hours.




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Things to look forward to this week!

Here’s what’s comin’ up this week on The Comet Camper blog!

– Tiny House + vintage camper eye-candy, as usual
– Camper of the Week, of course!
– Bonded Logic UltraTouch denim insulation mini-review of the samples I got
– Soy-Gel review – it’s an eco-friendly stripper.
– Those scale drawings of The COMET and proposed modifications that I didn’t get to this past week 🙂

– A post all about On The Green Road, my sponsors and green-minded camper friends Cece and Brenda.

– Review of one of the recipe’s from either Making It or Make Your Place that I’ll be trying this week. Most likely it’ll be how to make the natural stick deodorant.

– Another book review of one of the unusual 1970’s eco-design books I have on my bookshelf. So many good pictures.


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For the love of Ordinary Things: My Top 5 Favorite Things About The COMET

When my camper buddy Hayden (who once had an indoor vintage camper collective in NYC and still has multiple Airstreams in his lot in the city – more on him later) said that he needed a place to put this camper that he had ASAP, he knew I wasn’t going to say no. He drove up to Massachusetts from NYC in the middle of the night, and dropped The Avalon (the trailer that is now The COMET) off at the house I lived in at the time. It was supposed to be a temporary situation – he just needed the space in NYC and I lived in a place I could keep a camper. I was either going to get rid of it for him or something like that. But as I said before, campers keep falling into my lap and then I fall in love with them. I was in The Avalon for about 10 minutes and then realized it was probably my soulmate. The previous owner had left tons of vintage shoes and clothes in the closet, in my size. That sort of tipped me off: This camper is awesome.

I knew that I was in the market for a camper trailer to convert into an off-grid tiny house, but I didn’t know what I would end up with. I thought it would be something bigger, something in worse condition, something else. I know I found the right one. Here are my top 5 favorite things about The COMET, part of the reason why I chose her for the project! The COMET really is one-of-a-kind. Vintage camper enthusiasts and vintage lovers in general, feast your eyes! Let’s do this like a countdown!

#5 – The light fixtures (and other weird atomic amoeba hardware)

These 1960’s light fixtures are all in beautiful condition and have the original fiberglass shades still in them. Just look at them!
#4 – The appliances.

The stove and oven, the sink and the “Swing-A-Way” can opener (attached to the wall) are all a matching pink color. Even the Hydro-Flame furnace is the same pink enamel!
#3 – The built-in picture clock.

I don’t know if this was standard in Avalon trailers of the 1960’s or any trailer of the past, but there is a built-in picture clock with an image of Acadia National Park (Maine) mounted on fancy green brocade fabric wallpaper in the cabinet in the back of the camper. I’d seen normal clocks built in to older campers, but never something like this with such a specific geography. So unique!
#2 – 1950’s Indesit refrigerator

This fridge isn’t original to the Avalon. It came out of another camper but Hayden threw it into the Avalon when he brought it to me, thinking maybe I could use it or sell it or something. It weighs a ton so I haven’t moved it yet, which is why these pictures are so silly and sideways. It’s a classic 1950’s style refrigerator – just miniaturized for a camper! It’s white on the outside, has a little crown emblem on it, sea-foam green interior, and built-in countertop attached above it (50’s linen print formica with aluminum trim!). The interior has a special egg-specific shelf with 12 little egg-shaped indents. It’s incredible.
#1 – The Flower Power finish brads

Maybe this is an unexpected favorite feature. It’s really small and not immediately noticeable, but it’s a finishing touch that I’ve never seen before and think is absolutely hilarious and distinctly 1960’s. On the ceiling, each finish brad that holds the ceiling panels up on the frame is covered by a little plastic flower cover. It’s such a unique thing to do. I guess I can’t really put into words why it’s so enchanting, but if I had to try: I just think it’s amazing that the person who designed this camper made something as simple as a flathead finish brad into an extraordinary design element with a little plastic flower. It’s the attention to detail of that era that really gets me excited.

Another thing that I love about The COMET that I didn’t include here is all the original paperwork: owner’s manuals, instructions for how to use the appliances and systems, little illustrations, and mail-in order forms from the 1960’s. It’s rare to find all that stuff in such an old camper that’s changed hands so many times. All those little pieces of history are really interesting to me. I’ll post pictures of the manuals and everything else soon, just for fun!

More practically speaking, why did I choose the Avalon as the camper to build my off-grid tiny house out of? It was inexpensive, it was in incredibly good condition for it’s age and price, it had a bathroom closet (really important!) and was just the right size for one person. I figure 16 feet is the smallest camper I would be comfortable in for full-time living. I wanted it to be the smallest possible while still being comfortable – less heating and construction costs that way.

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Thank you Stone Soup Worcester!


I wanted to say Thank You to Stone Soup Worcester, an awesome collective organization in Worcester, MA that donated lots of lumber and plywood to The COMET project. Check out the “SPONSORS” page to read more about Stone Soup. Their contribution will help me replace framing and walls within The COMET. Thanks to Gray Harrison for helping me get the stuff out of the garage!

If you or your company is interested in sponsoring The COMET by donating eco-friendly building products, materials, services, or anything else, and in return get featured on this website, on my Sponsors page, and visibility all over the country when The COMET travels to schools and institutions giving info sessions and open houses (I’ll also do an open house at your place of business, your kids’ school, or both!), please contact me!

Thank you Sponsors! You make this possible!



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Natural deodorants, ancient drinks, and home-made toothpaste!

As promised, I spent some time with a few of the new books I got in the mail the other day. Actually, I ended up pouring over them for many hours because they were both better than I had expected! I always LOVE DIY books, and how-to’s, and make-your-own, but sometimes the DIY is too time intensive or asks for ingredients I’ve never heard of, which can be a turn-off. Both Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World, and Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable Nesting Skills are straightforward and made for real people, not just DIY gurus. I was so excited too find really useful, practical recipes and DIY how-to’s in both books. Every page I read I felt like I could do the project easy, no problem, with re-used stuff I already have lying around my house. Both of these books are wonderful.

Also as promised, I picked out a few things to try out form each book. Both of these books suggest picking one project, starting small, and expanding from there. I think that’s a good idea.

Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post Consumer World, by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

From Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World, I picked out 2 recipes: one practical and one fun. The first was for home-made stick deodorant. As I mentioned in the last post, I hate store-bought deodorant (and would never use anti-perspirant) and have wanted to make my own for a while. This recipe re-uses an empty deodorant applicator, which means it’s still going to be easy to apply and use. I also picked out another recipe for an ancient vinegar-based drink – like a substitute for soda (which I don’t drink anyway). Last winter I made “Sbiten”, a hot, traditional Russian drink, and since then I’ve wanted to try making more liquid treats like that. I really like vinegar-y drinks like kombucha, so this sounds like a delicious treat. There are a few different sweet + vinegar drinks in the book: oxymel, sekanjabin, and switchel. They all incorporate things like honey, ginger, molasses, and vinegar of course. I haven’t picked which one, but I’ll probably end up trying all 3. I’ll let you know how it tastes!

Make Your Place, by Raleigh Briggs

From Make Your Place I chose a recipe for home-made toothpaste. I like the idea of home-made toothpaste, but usually recipes for home-made tooth care come in the form of a powder and I’ve tried that: it is not easy or fun to brush your teeth like that (in my opinion). This recipe is for an actual paste, and it only calls for a few ingredients. That’s the best thing about both of these books, you begin to realize that with about 5 or 6 basic ingredients (in addition to whatever flavors or scents you’d like to add) you can make basically anything for your home and body. Everything is so simple! It makes you wonder why the ingredients list on what you’re using now to clean your countertops and wash your hair is a mile long and you can’t pronounce half of it…

Anyway, those are my first projects from my new DIY homesteading books. Deodorant stick, traditional vinegar soda, and toothpaste. I’ve always been a DIY builder, maker, and doer – but these homesteading tricks are new to me! I’m really looking forward to trying them out.

Stay tuned for pictures and posts about how they turn out!

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special delivery: books

Yesterday I got those books in the mail I had posted about ordering the other day!

I received Dwelling Portably, by Bert and Holly Davis; Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World, by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen; Make Your Place: Affordable, sustainable nesting skills, by Raleigh Briggs.

I’m going to spend some time with these books today, pick out a recipe from both Making It and Make Your Place, and commit to trying them out ASAP! I’m really excited because I think there will be a recipe in one on these books for home-made natural deodorant. I’ve wanted to make my own deodorant for a while now, because I hate deodorant from the store and I think it’s poison. Anyway, that’ll probably be my first endeavor!

More in-depth reviews of the books to come!

Also, as a side note having to do with the mail: I also just received my sample of Bonded Logic’s UltraTouch Denim Insulation. It’s made from recycled blue jeans! I’ll post pictures of it and tell you about how soft and amazing it is a little bit later. Now that I’ve received the sample, I think I would like to use the insulation in The COMET.

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Ian’s Tiny House

Hey everyone, good morning!

I wanted to point out another blog that I meant to include in yesterday’s post. My friend and fellow Worcesterite Ian Anderson has been working on his timber-framed tiny house for some time now, and it’s finished and looks beautiful (I think it’s finished? I feel like our homes are always a work in progress…). Anyway, he’s done a wonderful job and I think you all will appreciate his work and craftsmanship. As far as I know, he milled all of the wood himself.

Photos from Ian’s blog:

Tiny House in Worcester

Little red stove. Little red house.

Also, a funny thing to note: Ian built most of his tiny house indoors at The Firehouse, a punk collective in an old fire station (the big engine garage is easy to fit tiny houses into!). He built his house in the same spot that one of my other campers is in right now! That space has some serious tiny house energy.

Where tiny houses are born

That spot has some Tiny House energy.

I’m going to either have Ian write a guest post for me about his tiny house and his thoughts on tiny houses, or I’ll write a more detailed post about him in the future. So keep an eye out for that. Ian and I are also supposed to make a Tiny House TV show episode for our local TV station, which I’ll post here when it’s finished, so watch out for that too! For now, I just want to point you in the direction of his blog:

More to come later on today, stay tuned!

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Tiny House people: The future belongs to us!

Tiny Houses and campers/RVs are great because they can be awesome living situations for young people with a young-person’s budget and mobile lifestyle. Today I learned about a couple of other people my age (college kids and other early-mid twenties crowd) who are building their own tiny houses. This is fantastic! When I was a kid there was no way I thought I could ever afford my own house when I was 20. This really changes the way we think about independence, autonomy, mobility and opportunity. So I wanted to point out a couple of other people who are working on and documenting their own Tiny House adventures.

I would love to create some sort of network for connecting young people that are building their own (first-time) homes on a college-kids’ budget. We can really get creative with our homes.  Salvaged materials, free-cycling, DIY! It’s very exciting to see other people my age caring about the things I care about.

Also, I’d love to connect with other young people looking to live in a camper or RV (or other converted mobile situation) for the first time. I’m sure we could all learn a ton from each other. If you are living in a camper or on the road, or in the process of becoming a full-timer, I want to hear from you! Tell me about it in the comments and leave your website if you have one!

Here’s some other people building and documenting their Tiny House progress:

Kie's tiny house


AND I’d like to point you in the direction of 16 year old Celina Dill, a young lady beginning to build her own tiny house. Her blog is still just starting up, and I think she’s at the stage of gathering salvaged materials. Definitely one to watch though. She’s a beautiful writer and really inspiring. I wish I had started my tiny house 4 years ago!! Also, she has  salvaged the same 1950’s Dixie stove one of my other camper’s has. Her frugality and re-use is really great. Check her and her little house out at:


Here’s some other sites I stumbled on today! REALLY glad I did!

Let me know in the comments if you’d like to be in my “RESOURCES” list, if you’re building a Tiny House, or if you’re converting an RV or camper into a full-time living machine!

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Part 2: Advice For Buying Your First Vintage Camper – “She has good bones!”

“She has good bones!”

That’s what I said when I bought my first vintage camper. She did have good bones, but I think if I had known the tidbits of information I’m about to divulge to you, I would have had a better idea of what I was really in for! So, let’s get to it!

This is Part 2 of a post about what to look for and what to avoid when checking out potential camper projects. See Part 1 for advice on how to find your own vintage camper project!

*Disclaimer! I am most familiar with 1950’s and 1960’s camper construction. This guide will be particularly helpful to people looking at camper trailers from that era. I’m sure these tips can be applied to most campers, but my experience is largely with 1950’s + 1960’s ones (which means you’ll see wooden frames, gas lights, and non-standard wiring…yay!)

Because I have yet to tear open (with care and love of course) The COMET, some of these pictures will be from other campers I’ve done. however, most of them will be of The COMET, because she’s a good example of what you might encounter when you go check out a potential camper. You can guess what is happening behind the scenes (seams?) by what the camper looks like on the outside. I hope these tips help to diminish the surprise of opening up a wall you thought had a little bit of water damage to find that entire half of the frame is rotted!
There are ways you can begin to tell what’s happening within the camper from the outside surface, without removing the walls.

First, let’s talk about things you should look FOR in your potential camper. I’m talking about things of value and things that can be salvaged. Even if you don’t like the look of, say for example, the original gas lamp, you can still probably sell it and use the money for lumber! I’m also talking about things that should be in good shape because they are a pain in the butt to fix, unless you have lots of time and skill.

Original gas lamp inside The COMET

*PS – Know the towing capacity of your vehicle and ask the seller what kind of hitch the vintage camper has…these weren’t all standardized back then. Make sure your car can tow the camper…if the seller doesn’t know the exact weight, that information is pretty widely available online for certain makes and models.*

Good things you might find in the camper you’re looking at to convert/fix:

Original window in good condiiton

Original windows/window hardware: Vintage camper windows can be hard to come by because most of them are no longer made and the ones that exist are few and far between. You can get replacement windows by contacting vintage trailer restoration places and asking them to remove some from their “parts” trailers that they keep around for that purpose (. However, they will likely charge you a “pulling”
fee on top of the cost of the rare window. If you’re lucky you might be able to find a local junkyard with old trailers to part out for windows. But your best bet is having all of the window frames and hardware in the camper when you find it. Broken glass is easy to replace, so don’t worry if glass is broken, just make sure the frames and bits are there.

Camper people love vintage light fixtures.

Light fixtures: From a vintage enthusiasts standpoint, original light fixtures are awesome. They look great and can usually be re-wired easily if for some reason they aren’t working. If you decide to replace them with something new, you can usually sell the originals.


stove and sink - matching pink!

Original appliances: If you’re going to do a green/off-the-grid overhaul, it isn’t necessary to have the original appliances. But if it does, it’s a plus because you can either sell them as a set (especially if they’re teal or pink!) or convert them or just use propane to use them. I have an early 1950’s camper and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stove works great! They were made to last in those days…if you end up with a newer model camper, I’m not sure how well those appliances will do on full-time use.

Things to watch out for:

Water damage, under the wood wall panels

dry rot in The COMET...a good reason to replace the wall!

Water damage: For the most part, older campers from the 1940’s-1970’s have wooden frames, with aluminum exteriors, some thin insulation, and 1/4 inch ply interiors. When you see signs of water damage on a wall, it can mean water damage, dry rot or mold in the wooden framing underneath. So most likely you will have to replace not only the wall with the visual water damage but also anything below the highest point of water damage in the frame. The most common place to find water damage is underneath a window or around the ceiling vent openings. This isn’t impossible to fix, but just know that the framing will need to be replaced if the wood under the wall panel is soft, or you’ll have nothing to nail the new wall panel into. It’s usually a process of removing anything soft or rotten, chiseling it down to solid wood, and putting in a new piece.

Tail lights in good shape

Modern towing hook-up next to the original 5-prong hook-up

Electrical: It isn’t that electrical is hard to fix, it’s just that you have to remove all of the walls to get to the wiring. Remember, these things were built from the ground up, so in order to get to the wiring, you have to take everything apart. If you’re planning on doing this anyway, it’s no big deal. But if the interior wood in your vintage camper is in good condition, you probably don’t want to remove the walls just for fun (those original wall panels will crack and break when you try to pry them off…they’re OLD!).

There are two separate electrical systems involved in the vintage camper: the tow wiring and the interior electric. The tow wiring controls the running lights, the directionals, and the break lights. It may also control your camper trailer’s brakes IF the vintage camper has electric brakes. Most likely, your modern vehicle doesn’t have the same tow hook up that your vintage camper does (the wiring was not standard back then, and the tow wiring has changed). If possible (and this is assuming you are really interested in this camper and aren’t sure whether or not the tow wiring works), I would suggest bringing a modern 7-prong female plug (or whichever plug will complement/match your male socket on your vehicle) and cutting off the original 4-prong socket in order to re-wire those towing wires into the modern female plug. This is a “best-case scenario”. It is likely that the colors of the wires on the original tow wiring kit are random – like I said, not standard colors like modern wiring kits. It might take some trial and error, but you may be able to test and see if the tow wiring works (also, this will only work if there are bulbs in the rear lights and the running lights – and that also assumes that the fixtures aren’t rusted out completely and totally trashed.) If the tow wiring DOES work, it will save you a lot of time and headache and you hopefully won’t have to remove any walls to replace the wiring. But if you DO have to replace the tow wiring kit, it isn’t the end of the world.

Took off the ceiling! (Another past camper)

The interior electricity is usually supplied by a 120V plug accessible from the exterior of the trailer. If you have access to electricity and an extension cord, plug in the camper and try plugging something (cell phone, lamp, anything) into the interior power outlets (like you have in your house). There’s a good chance these will work if the camper is in decent shape. If a light works, even better! If not, you’re going to have to test the wiring throughout the interior of the trailer, which might mean removing walls. Or if you’re planning on replacing the electrical system anyways, this won’t matter either because those walls are coming off one way or another!

uh oh!

We can fix that.

Separating aluminum siding:
This is a really common problem found in older vintage campers. Oftentimes old age and general use (weight) will mean that the aluminum sheathing in the rear two corners of the camper, towards the bumper, will have separated. The trim that covers the seam between the two aluminum sheets will most likely be pulling up and away from the corner. It is very unlikely that you will be able to get those two pieces of aluminum to line up in a nice seam again: The structure and the frame of the camper has warped and settled over time, and likely won’t get small enough for you to force those aluminum sides together without some serious frame work. Fortunately, I had yet to deal with this common issue, until now. The COMET has this problem and so I will have to experiment with the best ways to repair the corners and cover the exposed wooden framing from the elements. Most likely it will mean adding on more aluminum – patching up the gaps. I will have lots of tips on how to do this when I get to it!


Holes in the exterior sheet metal:
Hopefully the exterior metal siding of the camper won’t have gaping holes in it. Dings and dents can be filled and sanded and painted over…but large holes are a little harder to fix. Like with the separated aluminum at the corners, these will have to be patched. Depending on your skill and the hole, it will be more difficult to make this look good. The COMET has one hole on the outside where it looks like something sharp snagged on her side. Hopefully I’ll be able to rivet on a patch and smooth it out with filler. Same as above, I’ll have a tutorial for this when I do it.

This is a great cross-section of the "belly of the beast".

Undercarriage issues:
Oh, the mysterious undercarriage. You probably don’t even want to get down there and look around, but you definitely should. If the undercarriage, (which is usually laid down in this order: steel trailer, roofing tar material, wooden frame, insulation, subfloor, floor) seems to be in rough shape, it can be VERY difficult to repair. It can be a pain in the butt mainly because the campers were built from the frame up, and so going back in and retroactively trying to repair and replace something that is now under 3000 lbs.  of wood and metal is not easy. If you get under the trailer and see that the black tar paper (roofing underlayment) is sagging, that can be repaired. It isn’t fun but you can use large washers and screw into the wooden frame, pulling the sagging tar paper under the carriage back up into place. If there are holes, the roofing tar paper will need to be replaced. You don’t want more critters making nests up there or water getting into the insulation and subfloor area. Depending on where the holes, tears, or cuts are in the original tar paper under there, they can either be patched and re-sealed or just sealed up. In my first vintage camper I had to replace half of the tar paper on the undercarriage because it had sagged so much it was completely falling apart in the rear of the camper. This meant jacking up the camper just enough so that I could slide new tar paper under the frame but above the steel trailer frame/chassis. It was a b*tch to do, and a 3 person job, but nothing is impossible.

There’s a good chance, depending on where your camper was stored, that there will be some evidence of “mice activity”. If it’s not out in the open, you may find pockets of mouse nests in the insulation under the floor or in the walls. It’s not the end of the world, just be careful and make sure it all gets cleaned up. Replace any and all insulation that has mice or rat feces in it.

This list will probably become longer and more comprehensive as I encounter new problems in each camper I work on. But please feel free to contact me with questions! I really want this blog to serve as a resource for people looking to get into alternative, mobile lifestyles. I want it to be helpful! So if there’s anything you’d like to see on here, please don’t hesitate to let me know. AND DON’T LET THIS LIST DISCOURAGE YOU! Vintage campers are a pleasure to work on. We’ll be able to appreciate it more when I list my Top 5 favorite things about The COMET, tomorrow!

Stay Tuned!


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