How having the "right" tool saved our trip

We're traveling in northern New Mexico this week and yesterday Tothie noticed something seriously wrong in the Airstream. One of the upper cabinets had begun to sag down from the ceiling, and was in danger of coming completely loose.

This is the sort of thing that rarely happens in an Airstream, but when it does it can signal the abrupt end of your trip—unless you're prepared to fix it yourself. If that cabinet had detached from the ceiling, it would have been a disaster.

The stereo and DVD player are wired up there, along with a few lights. Imagine opening up your trailer after a day of towing, to find a smashed cabinet laying on the dinette, wires ripped out, and everything that was in the cabinets spilled across the the floor.

At that point the options are not good. If you're lucky you might be able to find a mobile RV technician with experience working on Airstreams. Getting an emergency service appointment at an Airstream dealer nearby would be a miracle. For most people, the trip would be ruined.

The best option is usually to fix it yourself—and as serious as this problem sounds, the fix isn't really complicated.

Why I always travel with good tools

In my tool bag I always have a good quality rivet tool, an assortment of rivets and drill bits, a cordless drill, and a set of Philips screwdrivers. These were the only tools I needed to fix this problem myself, right in our campsite, in about 30 minutes.

Over the years these tools have saved my Airstream travels more times than I can recall. In my opinion, if you're a frequent Airstream traveler, you're crazy to take off on a long trip without these and a few other basic tools.

Invest in quality and avoid the cheap stuff

Since you're going to rely on these tools, do yourself a favor and get good quality tools. I occasionally see online comments and "advice" from people saying, "You can buy a rivet tool at Harbor Freight for $14.99". 

Yes you can. And you will regret it.

There is a good reason that people who work with tools regularly choose to pay more for quality. The el-cheapo brand of rivet tool will never compare. It will be made of flimsier metal, jam frequently, fall apart, and be difficult to use. You will eventually toss it, having learned the hard way that it pays to get a quality tool the first time. 

Marson rivet tool

One of the high-quality tools I use is the Marson SP-2 rivet tool, which has a head that can swivel 360°. That makes it easy to adjust the tool so you can grip the handles with both hands to "pop" the rivet. On the sagging cabinet job, that made all the difference. It was almost a pleasure to put in 5 new rivets to hold up the cabinet.

Now that the job is done, I can assure you that the cabinet will not come loose again. Instead of two small rivets and two Philips screws holding up that end of the cabinet, I fortified things with five huge rivets. Unlike screws, the rivets will not work their way out over time.

That's the other nice thing about fixing it yourself: You can be sure that the job is done better than most RV techs would do, because it's your Airstream and you care enough to put a little TLC into it. 

8 comments

Mark Leclere

Mark Leclere

My wife and I really enjoy you sharing your trails and victories with regard to your Airstream adventures, thank you.

Gordon Patrick

Gordon Patrick

A very simular near disaster occurance happened with us in our 2022 Globetrotter. The large heavy upper cabinet swing out door mirror in the bathroom came completely disconnected on one end. We were so fortunate it happened at the campsite and not in transit. We could only imagine the damage done in the bathroom while traveling with the mirror becoming completly disconnected. I consider the small wood screws at left and right upper hinges attached to the box inadiquite to support the weight this huge but very nice mirror. Like yourself, I improved the attaching hinge hardware by drilling through the upper box and installed longer threaded screws with wide area washers and self locking nuts. Or if you check the screws and seem to be starting to strip in the wood you could apply an epoxy mix in the treads of the wood and reinstall the screws after cure time for a temporary fix. I suggest Airstreamers with this same mirror to frequently check the security of both hinge points.

John McGowan

John McGowan

Another potential road hazard in rear twin-bed trailers is the nightstand drawer.. Any sudden stop will result in the drawer slamming forward and breaking into two or three sections, and contents scattered across the floor up to the bathroom. While the drawer can be reassembled with wood glue, real screws or nails (not the staples used by Airstream) we are trying to work out a design with a pushbutton cabinet latch to hold the drawer in place, rather than the less elegant bungee cord now used to retain the drawer when in motion. Perhaps Airgear could recommend a pushbutton latching system for drawers.

Donald Wright

Donald Wright

I regret I have never used a rivet gun. I am a nails, screws, nuts & bolts guy. So I carry a regular tool kit with sockets, pliers, wrenches and the universal hammer. Also a second box of packages of screws, nuts and bolts. Also a small prybar and a 36" crowbar.

CPT(R) Richard D VanOrsdale

CPT(R) Richard D VanOrsdale

How 100% right you are about DIY and having the right excellent quality tools!! I replaced 21 interior rivets in our first Airstream 2018 22 foot Bambi and only two in our current 2022 30 foot Flying Cloud. I use high-strength aluminum rivets to replace ones that “lose their heads” When the shoulder bolt came out of the right strut of the poorly-designed, over-engineered, complicated step assembly, Airstream sent me a replacement bolt, ten self-tapping screws and some aluminum sheet to “patch” the hole I had to cut in the substructure to get access to where the bolt screws into the strut. Of course, I also used Loc-tite thread-locker so it would not back out again. (Why Airstream doesn’t use thread-locker in applications that are next to impossible to access to repair I will never know. I also applied wicking Loc-tite Green to the left side bolt threads to ensure that it doesn’t give me a repeat of the problem.). Also, if a screw ever backs out and gets “lost” and a rivet replacement would be better, I always use a rivet. If a screw looks like it is in process of backing out, I remove it, apply thread-locker (usually Loc-tite Blue) and replace the screw. No more problems. When a cabinet hinge gets loose and refuses to tighten back up, I use the old cabinet-makers truck of backing out the screw, placing two toothpicks trimmed to length in the hole, with Gorilla glue, and replace the screw in the hole. Again, voila! No more loose hinge. Sorry to ramble on! I just get too excited and happy when I succeed at keeping “Big Curtis” in 100% top shape!!!

Rich Luhr

Rich Luhr

Donald, I would recommend you get a rivet tool and practice using it. It’s really easy. We’ve posted videos showing how it works, which you can find on the AIR GEAR YouTube channel.

You’ll probably not find much use on an Airstream for nails, hammers, prybars, crowbars, and not much for sockets and wrenches (except for hitch parts and propane fittings). Why not save all that bulk and weight by leaving it at home? Instead, make up a new toolkit specifically for the Airstream with the things that you’re likely to need on the road, and leave it in the Airstream.

We’ve written several blogs and done videos on the topic of what tools to bring with you. It’s also discussed in my book, “The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance”.

Steve Rowley

Steve Rowley

Rich, we have the same year and model AS as you, and after a bumpy day of travel across Montanna and North Dakota in June of 2021, we opened our door to the disaster you described! Your presumptions about the impact of a fallen cabinet are spot on! It was very upsetting and did indeed cause us to cut our trip short. Fortunately, Jackson Center worked with us and we re-routed there, where they got us fixed up in 2 weeks so that we could continue our summer camping plans. FWIW, the repairman indicated that “they use more and bigger rivets now”.

Rich Luhr

Rich Luhr

Steve R: Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting that you had the same experience with the same model of trailer. When I looked at how the overhead cabinet was originally attached, I was not impressed. Those cabinets can carry a fair amount of weight, so I spread out the load with extra rivets when doing the repair. I don’t think it will fail again.

I’m not going to pick on you for waiting 2 weeks for service, because service appointments do tend to be slow, and I don’t know the extent of the repairs your trailer needed. But I have to point out to readers that in many cases, having our Rivet Kit and a cordless drill on hand would make it possible to do a DIY repair of this type in about an hour.

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