Replacing Rotten Truck Camper Wings
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.