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Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.

No, when I say “wings” there aren’t any feathers involved. The wings of a truck camper form the portion of the camper that fits around the walls of the truck bed. These are the points by which the truck is lifted and lowered and the anchor points for tying down the camper. They are incredibly important for the day-to-day use of a truck camper and ours were terribly rotted out. Before we can confidently raise, lower, and move the camper again, it is time to replace the wings.

We began resorting to counting the exposed screw threads to track if there was any further damage.

Truck Camper Wing Design

As with all the wood components in the truck camper, we are replacing the plywood wings with a fiberglas-foam composite. The end result will be similar to the design of the original wings but with a new, light, rot resistant material. In preparation, I mock up the design of these wings.

Design for and Avion Wing with a 1/2" board
Design for a 1/2″ board

Building the Replacement Wings

It has been quite a while since I’ve been in a shop class, but a little time in our improvised shop jogged my memory. No, we don’t have a fancy drill press or table saw, but we have the basics and a willingness to learn. The overall build process could be broken down pretty simply into cutting, gluing, and bonding. So, that’s what I’ll do here.

Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.
The first phase of building the wings involved layering fiberglass composite boards with insulation foam in-between. As resins commonly used in binding fiberglass would eat away at foam, we used Gorilla Glue instead.

Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.
Measure twice, cut once. Tools for outlining my cuts.

Cutting

Fiberglass composite is structurally similar to plywood. As such, my circle saw and jigsaw work as well cutting through composite as it does wood. The composite even has slivers of its own. They just happen to be fiberglass rather than wood.

Fun fact: when you cut a fiberglass composite, it shoots a lot of fine fiberglass dust into the air. After several days concluding in carefully washing fiberglass dust off of my forehead and cheeks, I got a face shield in addition to the safety glasses and face mask I was already wearing.

Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.
After cutting lots of fiberglass composite, I was so tired of being covered in a fine fiberglass dust that I started wearing a full plexiglas face shield in addition to my safety goggles, mask, and bandana.
Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.
Arranging composite boards prior to glueing them in place.

Gluing

Resin tends to be the ideal bonding material for fiberglass composite. That being said, for this first phase of building, I am sandwiching insulation foam between the composite boards. Resin does not play nice with foam. So, we are using Gorilla Glue. Gorilla Glue is twice as expensive as epoxy, but the foaming action takes advantage of the porous composite board without destroying the insulation foam. In a few strength tests we run, the material itself rips before the glued bond fails. So, this is more than adequate.

The foaming action of the Gorilla Glue is ideal for bonding the composite board together, but only if the foam is penetrating deeply into the board rather than just pushing it apart. That is why it is critical to clamp together or weight the boards down so that they do not shift during the curing process.

Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.
Gorilla glue works with a foaming action. This means that the glue can expand into nooks and crannies for a stronger connection. It also means that, with out weights and clamping, it will just push the two pieces apart, leaving a rather pathetic bond.
Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.
Excess glue oozes out as clamped together composite boards cure.
Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.
Chipping away excess glue that seeped out while curing.

Beveling

A lot of truck campers I see have a sharp, 90° edge. The Avion, smooth as ever, connects to the wing with a “C” slot. To fit snuggly into this slot, the wing edge is beveled. So, it’s up to me to mirror this form in my replacement wing.

Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.
The edge of the horizontal part of the wing edge fits into a “C” shaped channel. For a firm fit, I beveled that edge.

Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.
The most challenging part of beveling the wing edge was along a curved section. I had to use the jigsaw rather than the circle saw.

Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.
The final product: a beautifully beveled edge!

Bonding

These camper wings involve many separate parts:

  • An aluminum outer shell to be bound to composite
  • Three sides of composite to be bound along the edges to other portions of the camper

As such, we will use a two-fold bonding process: resin to chemically bond composite board to composite board (or aluminum) and screws. Lots and lots of screws.

Bonding Aluminum

Bonding Aluminum is extra touchy because the it is critical to have a clean surface on the aluminum to bond against but the aluminum oxidizes quickly. We clean the aluminum with rubbing alcohol and prepare the composite board by roughing it up with a sander. I have cowboy clean the aluminum as I mix the resin so that we allow as little time as possible for the aluminum to oxidize.

I pour two layers of resin. The first layer is a thin primer resin, meant to penetrate deeply into the fiberglas-foam board for optimal bonding. For the second layer, I mix in silica powder, a thickening agent that also aids in bonding. This brings the resin to the consistency of peanut butter, which I spread along the aluminum, with an effort to cover every part of the aluminum that is meant to be bound to the fiberglass composite. With both sides now coated with resin, we bring them together and weight them down to make sure that as much of the aluminum and composite material is in contact as possible.

Measuring out two parts resin and one part hardener into a mixing cup.
Measuring out two parts resin and one part hardener into a mixing cup.

Spreading resin across work area. This is a slow hardener so I have a relatively long working time.
Pouring out entire cup of resin.
Pouring out entire cup of resin.
Mixing resin and hardener for at least two minutes to be completely mixed.
Mixing resin and hardener for at least two minutes to be completely mixed.

Screw It All

This composite material bills itself as being screwable. To be extra careful, we wanted screws with as large threads as possible. Our vendor recommended dry wall screws. A little inquiry revealed, however, that drywall screws are designed for dry environments. Otherwise, they are prone to rust. Living in a camper, leaks are a given, and we will never assume a place is dry. Instead I hunted down Type 316 marine grade stainless steal deck screws. The few, the proud, the Type 316 marine screws are designed to withstand corrosive environments. We wanted the best of the best and we got them. Now, it is time to install these wings.

Sure, we could have just screwed the wings in, but that would have left out one, ever-present concern: leakage.  That is why we not only screwed the wing to the camper channel but also used Sika, a common sealant for aluminum campers.
Sure, we could have just screwed the wings in, but that would have left out one, ever-present concern: leakage. That is why we not only screwed the wing to the camper channel but also used Sika, a common sealant for aluminum campers.

Securing the wings into the C-channel or the truck camper
Securing the wings into the C-channel or the truck camper
The two large, noticeable holes on this rotten board are where the jack point was mounted.  A little lower in the shot are two other holes in the middle of all the rotten wood...yeah, that was the tie down point.  I'm just grateful it didn't give before we had a chance to replace it.
The two large, noticeable holes on this rotten board are where the jack point was mounted. A little lower in the shot are two other holes in the middle of all the rotten wood…yeah, that was the tie down point. I’m just grateful it didn’t give before we had a chance to replace it.

Incase you had any doubts, the original wings were profoundly rotted out.
Incase you had any doubts, the original wings were profoundly rotted out.

Here is s place where I deviated slightly from the original design.  In the interest of having as much material at bonding points, I beveled this edge rather than having a 1/4 piece of plywood account for that entire overlap point.  I feel justified in my decision.
Here is s place where I deviated slightly from the original design. In the interest of having as much material at bonding points, I beveled this edge rather than having a 1/4 piece of plywood account for that entire overlap point. I feel justified in my decision.

Installing the Replacement Wings

Each step in this renovation new and nerve-wracking. But this is the first point at which we remove and replace structural portions of the camper. We only have a vague idea of how critical each portion is to the overall structural integrity of the Avion. Apparently, though, the greatest challenge in removing these wings is just taking them out. We resort to cutting the rotten wings out in chunks.

The wings are out!  Know what that means? Party!
The wings are out! Know what that means? Party!

Having the wings out of the camper is rather surreal.
Having the wings out of the camper is rather surreal.

After many adjustments to ensure fit for the new wings, we shove them in place, resorting to a mallet and crowbar for “fine tuning.” Once in place, it is time to screw the wing in from every point we can!

The wings wind up being just slightly thicker than the originals. Still, it wasn't that big of a deal to route away the remainder
The wings wind up being just slightly thicker than the originals. Still, it wasn’t that big of a deal to route away the remainder

To ensure a clean line, I clamped a 2x3 along the length of the wing as a guide for the router.  One rare lesson recalled from shop class!.
To ensure a clean line, I clamped a 2×3 along the length of the wing as a guide for the router. One rare lesson recalled from shop class!.
It's taken weeks, but the wings are ready to install!
It’s taken weeks, but the wings are ready to install!

A Note On Safety

As with any building project, I’m going to do something stupid. Today, I almost cut off the tip of my finger. So, remember kids: when working with power tools, always be aware of our surroundings and where everything is—particularly where your fingers are relative to a blade.

Wings distinguish a camper from most any other kind and when the time comes to replace them, it is a BIG DEAL.
When working with power tools, it is important the be alert. Otherwise, you almost cut off the tip of your finger. At least, I do…

Lexi lives in a truck camper down by the river.

Comments:

  • May 5, 2018
    reply...
  • Don

    January 19, 2019

    Thanks for posting such great info about your project! Can you share details of the specific Fiberglas-Foam composition board you have been using for your wing bases and floor? How does it’s cost and weight compare to marine plywood and where can you get it?

    reply...
  • Josh

    May 10, 2020

    Hi!
    I am really excited to see the improvements you have made to your Avion. I have a 1967 c-10 and am considering many of the mods that you have done, especially the extension of the cab over! Because you have had the camper stripped down, I have questions!
    When you extended the cab over, I just need to clarify that there is no welding. You riveted the structural extensions into place?
    My truck is a flatbed and I would like to get rid of the wings and just square those sides out. I do believe that I would need to weld the structural pieces in for the frame and floor. I could not get a good view of the wall connections to your camper’s wings. Do you think it would work?
    Sorry one last opinion question. I would like to reuse the woodwork, (most of it I want to change stuff!) Do you have any tips on removing it without damaging it?
    Thanks for taking the time to read this, there is so little content regarding Avions that your site is a goldmine! The use of the hard foam as both a structural component and great insulation is fabulous!
    I appreciate any advice you can give,
    Josh

    reply...
    • May 10, 2020

      Hi Josh!

      Welcome to the Avion family. You have a fun project ahead of you. We didn’t do any welding for this project. We did reinforce the interior ribs with extruded aluminum to help redistribute the weight. Along with that, we replaced the old wood bulwark with a thicker composite. I think this is a spot that a lot of people overlook. It’s one of the few vertical sections made of wood like the floor rather than aluminum.

      The rounded edge that transitions the walls to the wings is some heavy duty extruded aluminum with a C-channel that the wing slides into. If you are removing it, you’ll definitely want a strong frame to replace it. I’ve seen others convert their Avion slide-ins into flat beds but I can’t really speak to the specifics.

      As for the woodwork, I assume you are talking about the cabinetry. If you want to preserve it, I think the key just comes down to patience and an extensive set of screw heads. Having the “bowtie” attachment was a game changer when trying to remove corroded screws.

      Goodluck!

      Lexi

      reply...
  • Josh

    May 14, 2020

    Lexi,
    Hello! I will start planning and preparing. I agree that the composite is the best bet, I have an ETA of January for my departure and I would like for the weather to cooperate a little more, (I am in Ohio). I will search for other Avion flatbed conversions, glad you have seen some. I will hit you up with updates , (and more questions) as I go!
    Thanks again,
    Have a great night,
    Josh

    reply...
  • Jim

    September 20, 2021

    Hi Lexi
    I noticed none of these campers are polished on the exterior. Is there a reason. I would think a polish and good wax would be a good idea. Any thoughts?
    Thank you and. Great article!
    Jim

    reply...
    • admin

      September 20, 2021

      Hi Jim,

      The reason Avion campers are not shiny like Airstreams is that they are constructed of anodized aluminum. You may have noticed this look on a lot of Apple watches and iPhones. The anodization process makes the aluminum much more strong and scratch-resistant while imparting a satin effect to the surface. It’s a profoundly practical material to use on a camper that will inevitably have close brushes with tree limbs and other pointy objects.

      At the time these campers were designed, Avion took great pride in the high-quality materials they used in building these rigs. Anodized aluminum is more expensive than what you’ll encounter on most aluminum campers.

      To make an Avion high gloss, you would have to remove the anodization and miss out on its benefits. It’s doable but pretty much irreversible. Once the anodization is removed, you can’t just spray it back on. You would have to replace the altered aluminum with new anodized sheets. So we are happy with our durable design just the way it is.

      reply...

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