Monday, September 5, 2016


I bet that I'm not the only T1N Airstream Interstate owner who has pondered this question:

We use 1 (overheads) and 2 (spotlights) all the time, but never in almost two years of ownership have we ever had occasion to use 3 (formerly fluorescent tube, since converted by us to LED).

Those formerly-fluorescents did not bother me until I spent 17 consecutive nights lying in bed staring up at them.
Based on this view, am I in a high-end Class B RV, or have I landed in the county morgue?!

May I borrow a quote from Robert Munsch and say, "Ugly, ugly, very ugly."  
They do not bear any stylistic resemblance to the rest of the Interstate build.  Furthermore, the plastic had begun to yellow with age, which made them look even cheaper than they already are.  They were a blight upon the Interstate's otherwise exquisite design, so I had to either replace them or remove them.  Given that we don't ever use them anyway, I chose removal, because I hatched another plan to maximize the utility of this valuable but wasted space.
If there's sufficient space for a clunky plastic light fixture without interfering with head room, then there is room for a sleek and sophisticated suspended shelf.  The existing fixture extended down 1.5" and has never caused spatial interference.  Here you can see I'm sitting on the couch and that's my bad hair day as a reference point.  
I'm going to walk through a series of photos here that show my thought process on developing this project.  I like to encourage people to tackle projects even if they are not mechanically-inclined - it's fun and it helps stimulate the brain and ward off gray-haired dementia.  Skilled DIYers may find this presentation a bit tedious, but my point is to show that this kind of thing can be executed if tackled methodically, even by people with limited technical and design skills.

OK, so I had an inkling that I would like to put a shelf beneath this cabinetry, to help tame the Clutter Monster that constantly impacts life in a Class B where there are few storage surfaces upon which to simply "set things down".  The shelf must reflect the same sophistication and design quality that characterizes the rest of the Interstate build.  How to begin?
Start by measuring the entire area in order to help provide a feel for what might be appropriate for the space. 
In this case, the relevant numbers worked out to be whole and half inches.  Convenient for ordering standard hardware such that individual modifications would not be necessary.

Incidentally, those tubes you see above the bottom cabinet plate are my custom clothing storage system.  
12 inches, 0.5 inches, 3 inches, and about 41 inches (under-cabinet separation between spotlights at either end of the jack-knife couch) were the numbers du jour.  
After measuring has been completed, the next step is to create a mock-up to test the design concept. In an ultra-small space, being off by as little as an inch can really impact the appearance and functionality of a modification.  Such mistakes can be minimized if the end result is visually verifiable in advance.
After various trials and experiments, I concluded that 9" x 36" felt like promising dimensions.

That cardboard you see is the same piece that I used when mocking up the computer table that I built using much the same logic, so ignore the original measurements written on it.  I re-cut it for this project. 
I can't say enough good things about the cardboard mock-up process.  It's time well-spent because it can reveal a sense of a finished product the way no other approach can.
Same bad hair day, different overhead space management idea. 
You can see from that pic above that I was honing in on two changes relative to the original light fixture and cabinet configuration:
  1. I decided it needed to be a bit deeper than the light fixture, so that I could comfortably insert my hand into it to grab items that I know would tend to slide toward the back wall (the cabinet is slightly sloped backwards).  
  2. In order to prevent a deeper shelf from interfering with the movement of people, I felt it necessary to recess it.

That's why it's only 9 inches deep on a 12-inch under-cabinet.  I thought it would remain out of the way with a set-back.  Plus I did not want the wood to be dominated by it - I wanted a light, airy feel with some visual reveal of the wood. 
For the shelf material, I chose the same perforated aluminum sheet as I had used for my computer table.  Cross-referencing (what professional designers often call "repetition") is essential if the final look is to be pleasing and cohesive.

Now, I'm going to skip a lot of detail in this next part and just cut to the chase.  Suffice it to say that I spent hours pondering many, many different approaches to hanging these shelves.  Finding what I consider to be an optimal solution was not any easy process, and I probably uttered more expletives during this project than during our solar project and hitch carrier project combined.  But in the end, here's how it went down.
As with the custom computer table, I filed down sharp edges and trimmed the perforated aluminum with belt webbing.  I bought a whole spool of it because I seem to need it a lot (it's called Dritz 100% Polyester Belting 1" Wide 15 Yards-Charcoal Gray).  I sewed on the edging using embroidery floss.

These pieces of perf'd aluminum were longer than they were wide, and they tended to bow more than the computer table piece, so I clamped them down while doing the edging.      
I then took the workpiece to Lowe's hardware store to select the hardware.  Where possible, I like real-time fitting at a brick-and-mortar rather than ordering off the internet. 
Here are the pieces of hardware upon which we settled (the bolt and tee nut being visible in the pic above).
The Tee nuts were my husband's suggestion and they were the key to this project.  
I used these to lock down the shelf on the bottom bolt heads, so that it would not bounce around while the Interstate was under way.  I also used small quarter-inch washers that were sold loose, hence no mug shot.  
At every step in this project, I measured and re-measured.  You only get one shot at making eight new holes in Airstream cabinetry.  The placement absolutely cannot get screwed up.
I even measured the size of parts that were already represented as being exact, just in case. 
Most of my expletives were uttered because of challenges presented by the "triangular" Airstream cabinetry.
Because of the extreme shaking that goes on in the rear of an Airstream Interstate, I didn't want to deviate from what I knew would be a robust hardware assembly.  But the cabinet construction prevented a simple edge-aligned bolt insertion if I wanted to use the tee nuts.  There was a structural strapping component in the way.  This is the butt end of the cabinet with the end cap removed.  I had to measure how far to inset the tee nuts such that they would land inside the interior of the cabinet (I was templating the shelf from below and drilling the holes from below). 
That rear strapping member resulted in this change to my original plan:
There's the tee nut that has to be totally within the interior cabinet space, both shaft and flange.  The aluminum skin of the Interstate is to photo right, so you can see what kind of an inset I was having to deal with.  

In being forced to inset the rear, I opted to also inset the front for symmetry.  
It wasn't that bad of a compromise.  Insetting the bolts would actually help to prevent items from sliding off the ends of the shelf during acceleration and deceleration.  
I temporarily removed my clothing organization system and permanently removed the offending light fixture.
This part was easy... four Phillips head screws held it up there. 
This was almost entirely my project but my husband helped with this part.
Disconnecting the electrical (he knows more about wiring than I do), and shrink-wrapping the wires for safety and possible future repurposing. They were triple shrink wrapped and re-inserted into the original conduit. 
This next part is key.  Again, if you do a project like this, you absolutely cannot be off on your hole spacing.
The best way to ensure accuracy is to make a paper template.  Notice I used clamps while doing the tracing and hole marking.  The workpiece absolutely cannot slide around even a little bit.  Quarter inch bolts were passing through quarter inch perforated aluminum en route to quarter inch tee nuts.  Tolerances were tight.  
This is actually the first (scrapped) paper template I made, before I moved all bolts inward to account for the rear wall.  The Sharpie ink bled through to be visible from both sides.  Note that it's also critical to differentiate between front vs. back and upper vs. lower surfaces.  
And here's what the template looked like when taped up under the cabinet.  I probably re-positioned it 8 times before I was satisfied with the placement.  Once again, you only get one shot at this. 
My calculations indicated I needed about 1.77 inches in order for the tee nuts to clear the rear strapping.  I moved it up and rounded it to 2.0 inches, adjusting again after this photo was taken. 
I made a pilot divet in each marking by hammering a small awl into the center, so the drill bit would not slip around.

I then drilled using four successively larger drill bits, so that the cabinetry veneer would be less likely to splinter.  The finishing size was 5/16-ths.

The "NO!" is because I had improperly marked a hole on the first pass.  
Once all the holes had been drilled, it was a simple matter of lifting the shelf and its bolts up and passing the bolt ends through the drilled holes.  Then popping a tee nut on each one and screwing them all to the same level (flush with the upper surface of the tee nuts).
I used the #2 wood screws to tie down the tee nuts inside the cabinets, pre-drilling for each.  Fixing these things near the rear wall was a pain because of the rear sloped wall (space was too tight for proper work) and I only added as many as I needed for stability. 
Here is what four of those tee nuts look like from above, inside the cabinetry.  They sit flush so that they won't interfere with the use of the cabinetry (i.e., won't create snags).  
And now for a couple of money shots:
This is my brand new view upward from my bed.  No more county morgue.  Instead, it looks like industrial art.  

You'll notice that, as well as insetting the bolts, I also pulled the back edge of the shelf away from the interior side wall by about an inch.  I only plan to put larger items (books, iPad, my sweater, my phone, my glasses cases, etc.) up there, so they shouldn't slide out that rear gap.  The entire cabinetry is slightly sloped toward that interior side wall, so jiggling on the road will send objects toward it.  
Before and after money shot.

Now all I have to do is repeat the same process all over again for the second shelf, which will go above my husband's side of the bed.
I think I'm pretty much there.  Even the work projects are a fun part of this life, expletives and all.