Daryl May's travel writing draws from his visits to forty-five U.S. states, nine Canadian provinces, and sixty countries. Whether as a notable hiker or a lowly hitchhiker - or in cars, boats, bulldozers, planes and RVs - his stories are generally wistful and self-deprecating as he faces adversity and extricates himself without losing his sense of humor. Follow his journey as he builds his own trailer and learn the basics of how RVs are constructed.
I wanted to finish Tommy before Florida’s summer made garage tasks uncomfortable, so I worked busily until the little trailer was complete and ready for testing in March.
Hauling Tommy out of the garage, I parked it on the street to inspect and photograph — and to give my neighbors a chance to look it over. They had seen just the front of the teardrop through my open garage door, and they’d been disturbed by construction noise. I wouldn’t blame them if they were pleased that I’d finished.
Tommy parked in front of the house
Then, I rechecked Tommy’s weight and balance, an interesting exercise using a bathroom scale and some lumber for leverage. The total weight was fine but the tongue weight was a tad high. So I decided to carry the spare tires and tools at the back, beneath the trailer, instead of up front. It’s good to avoid objects on the tongue that impede access to the car trunk, and it’s even better to avoid cluttering the car’s cargo space with trailer parts. Tommy now weighs 980 lbs., and has a tongue weight that is an appropriate 13 percent of that total. The car will tow up to 1,500 lbs., and the trailer structure can support 2,000 lbs. So there’s a comfortable safety margin.
After rechecking the lights and the mechanical hook-up with the car, and making sure I had the registration papers with me, I took Tommy for a ten-mile test drive. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for one thing, I was concerned that my larger-than-original wheels could touch the fenders when I hit a bump, so I wanted to look for abraded paint on the fender interior and fasteners. But, mostly, there was the unknown. Tommy is not a mass-produced trailer with numerous predecessors to reveal design flaws. That would be an advantage to buying a production travel trailer from a dealership. Instead, Tommy is one-of-a-kind as far as detailed construction, and I hoped to see no evidence of structural failure and no quirky handling characteristics. Fortunately, neither exhibited itself in this short test-drive. Tommy glided along — and remained all in one piece.
“Let’s take Tommy for a weekend shakedown,” I said to Jennifer.
- – -
But there was one doozy of a snafu to be discovered when Tommy was back in the garage after the ten-mile test — a memorable “oops” having to do with the door locks. Because the main door handles lock only from outside using keys, I installed interior bolt-action locks so we could lock ourselves safely inside at night. Of course, these bolt-action locks must never be allowed to work themselves into a locked position while we’re outside the trailer. That was a danger I hadn’t overlooked and had designed against — but, as I just said, there was one doozy of a snafu. The problem was that I hadn’t installed the door rain seals yet. Without the seals, the doors rattled quite violently, which worked the right door’s bolt-action lock into the locked position.
“No problem,” I said to Jennifer, faking nonchalance. “That can’t possibly have happened to the left door also.”
Tommy's first outing.
But it had.
I stood outside the newly road-tested trailer, with my pride plummeting. I wondered just how I was going to get one or both locks to shuttle back to the unlocked position. I tried rattling the doors after raising the front of the trailer. I considered inserting a coat-hanger wire through this place and that. Nothing worked or was going to work.
Now, if there is one thing that can be said for building your own RV, it’s that you know it inside and out. So, with some of the door trim removed, I used a long, small-diameter drill bit to create a hole in just the right place and pushed the right-side door bolt to the side. The doors could then be opened, and the hole was easily filled. Those bolts now have a catch so they’ll never, ever slide locked again unintentionally.
“There’s no way I’m going to report this in the magazine,” I said to Jennifer.
“You should,” she replied. “That’s what the ten-mile test was for. So it doesn’t happen on top of Pikes Peak!”
“You mean with the car keys also locked inside? And we’re the last ones up there, just as the snowstorm arrives?”
“Exactly,” she agreed.
“I still won’t report it,” I insisted.
- – -
Tommy’s construction was a lengthy and bittersweet experience. Though Tommy is small and decidedly minimalist, I developed a new respect for those who build their own boats (even canoes), garden sheds and kit airplanes. Numerous challenges arose and needed surmounting, and construction time and cost were at least twice my estimates. Because I’m an engineer and not an interior designer, it was the paint and decor aspect that taxed my confidence the most. I had at least one false start in my choice of trim and paint. Outside, plain forest-green trim now separates the cream sidewall from the aluminum roof. Inside, there are mainly natural-wood walls and ceiling, a wheat carpet, red drapes (selected by Jennifer) and an array of battery-powered LED lights that, I’m told, will last for years. But I know that more experienced designers would have made Tommy look spiffier.
A rain-protected electrical receiver on an outside wall face is the entrance point for shore power, which goes to a GFCI-protected outlet inside and then to a load-protected, 15-amp power strip. The power strip feeds such things as hair dryer, coffee maker, computer, phone chargers and any entertainment system — but not all at once. As far as entertainment, savvy readers will know that you can get an endless supply of movies on your computer these days for a minimal subscription cost, as long as the RV site has Internet access.
Unlike other teardrop models, Tommy does not have a built-in kitchen at the back that can be accessed by raising a trunk lid. This is doubtless a disappointment to some. The reasons were touched on in an earlier chapter. I admire the construction finesse of these kitchens, and think they’d be perfect for tailgate parties in good weather. But I reckon I can achieve as good a kitchen by hauling components out of the car trunk, including a stove, table and chairs. Fire concerns make me hesitant to cook in the back of Tommy, and certainly not inside. If it’s raining, it’ll be cheese sandwiches inside, at which time we’ll be glad that we didn’t give up interior space to allow for an outside kitchen that the rain renders unusable.
The absence of a built-in kitchen led to our decision to sleep head-to-the-back, which is unusual with teardrop trailers. Without the rear kitchen, there’s good headroom at the back — enough to read in bed or to raise one’s head on pillows and watch a TV or computer screen on the front shelf. The portholes near the head of the bed provide a great view, too. There’s a small shelf above the bed to hold books, eyeglasses, watches and the like. With our head-to-the-back arrangement, we can readily access the storage tubs nestled under the front shelf. This storage area and shelf can be reached easily from outside as well as inside, which we quickly found to be a major convenience. There’s no need to haul anything heavier than a pillow and a good book across the mattress.
Tommy's interior storage.
The aluminum roof threw me a curve at the very end of construction. While I used an aircraft-grade aluminum alloy with good corrosion-resistance, I found some corrosion anyway. The corrosion probably started when the stack of sheets got wet before I unpacked them; engrossed in woodwork at the time, I chose to overlook the aluminum stage of construction. Finally, with the roof on and Tommy painted and looking respectable, I knew I had to deal with the corrosion. Laboriously, I sanded and waxed all 75 sq. ft. of aluminum to achieve a corrosion-resistant, rubbed but still shiny finish. This was truly a labor of love — one that was painstakingly achieved as I toiled with clenched teeth. It would never have happened in a production setting with an indoor storeroom. As I’ve remarked before, making your own RV is not for everyone, and it was certainly a learning experience for me.
- – -
For the time being, Tommy’s mattress is a queen-size airbed. It fits the width well, and is the right length, too. As shown in the pictures, I also tried to make the interior furnishings practical and welcoming. Still, when Jennifer peered into the interior, she was confronted with the same inescapable truth that I’d faced a day or two earlier.
Tommy's cozy interior
“Until you installed the mattress,” she said, “I didn’t fully realize that the entire space would be occupied by the bed!”
“That’s how they make model homes seem spacious,” I said. “Minimal furniture.”
“I know,” replied Jennifer. “But with model homes, there’s still floor space.”
- – -
We commissioned Tommy in mid-March. Jennifer readied the bedding and food, and a celebratory bottle of chardonnay. After Tampa’s rush hour abated, we made the short trip to Lazydays RV Campground in Seffner, Fla. It proved to be an uneventful, mainly highway outing that Tommy took in stride. Highway speeds, bumps and other traffic didn’t impact the trailer’s handling. I was also happy that our car’s side mirrors worked well. At Lazydays, Tommy was dwarfed by the magnitude of the Class A models and other full-size RV beauties, but allowed me to back him on to the concrete pad as if he’d been there before — and then settled down demurely like a kitten strangely at home in the middle of a tennis court.
Lazydays RV Campground is seriously luxurious and well maintained. We enjoyed a swim, a soak in the spa and chats with folks visiting from the north — among them our campground neighbors, Don and Jody from Lake George, N.Y. After dinner, it was time for bluegrass music near the fire pit, in quite perfect weather, and then the all-important question: How comfortably would we sleep? As with a tent, we discovered it’s important to decide ahead of time what should stay in the car and what to bring inside with you. It’s important to take care of the latter before you settle in for the night, so you eventually tumble into bed with everything you need (and no more) readily at hand. Doors locked and pajamas on is not the right moment to say, “My book’s in the car.”
Tommy arriving at Lazydays!
With the roof vent and door windows open, there was plenty of air flowing in through the windows and out through the vent. We have a small cooling fan for use when it’s needed (assuming a supply of electricity), but we don’t yet know whether the absence of real air conditioning will prohibit camping in hot weather.
We slept well, woke early, showered luxuriously in the communal facilities and enjoyed free breakfast in the Lazydays Café. There we tarried awhile over the newspaper.
Then we hit I-4 once more, feeling that there’s nothing quite as satisfying as heading out on the open road pulling your own little teardrop trailer.
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