Now that the Chinook was home safe, the coming winter provided a window to prepare her for trips after retirement in a couple of months. We bought the RV at a very good price, but that’s because she was something of a “fixer-upper”. Time to fix-up.
At this time, I still wasn’t sure how committed we would be to the RV lifestyle, so I was concentrating on cost for the needed improvements. Sweat-equity was cheap, so I did everything myself, and did some bargain-hunting for solutions. I wasn’t concerned with restoring the Chinook to a brand-new state. Rather, I wanted to repair the obvious flaws and make her presentable.
The interior woodwork was in obvious need of refinishing, especially the wine cabinet/dining room table. The top surface and cork coasters were weather-worn, and the varnish was peeling. Fortunately peeling varnish is easy to strip, so I was able to restore the table by stripping, sanding, staining and varnishing, back to its original luster. I found some new cork circles on Etsy to replace the nearly disintegrated originals. I attached the new coasters to the refinished cabinet using rubber cement. The remaining woodwork did not need to be stripped, all they needed was some new coats of varnish.
For some reason, one of the original spice rack shelves was removed by a previous owner.
From pictures on the Internet and finish marks in the remaining shelf, I was able to determine the size and shape of the missing shelf and I was able to build a replacement, using a red oak project board from the hardware store, and some oak trim left over from a previous shelf project. I purchased some pre-made wood spindles on-line for the rail mounting.
The rest of the woodwork was pretty straightforward. I removed the closet door, and most of the lower cabinet doors and stripped the varnish, sanded if needed, and re-stained and re-varnished.
The upper cabinet doors, and trim were still in pretty good shape, so I added a coat of varnish where it was needed.
The original Mr. Coffee under-counter coffee maker was missing, but the previous owners left a similar Black and Decker unit in the cabinets. It turns out to be quite difficult to find similar new units or parts, so I searched far and wide for the mounting brackets for the Black and Decker coffee maker. I eventually located them in an appliance part warehouse online and mounted the coffee maker in place of the original. Coffee is an important part of my retirement life and our camping trips, so this particular feature was important. After we “ejected” the glass coffee pot from the coffee maker during some hard braking, I installed a safety rope for the decanter. I screwed in two small cup hooks on either side of the coffee maker and cut a small piece of 1/8″ nylon rope with loops on each end. The rope goes around the coffee maker and through the handle while driving and the loops connect to the hooks on the sides, holding the pot in place. Since the coffee maker requires 120V power (shore power or generator), we purchased a glass stove top tea kettle and a French press for making coffee when 120V power is not available.
TV and Sound System Upgrades
The original Chinook TVs (13″ CRTs) may have been a luxury feature in their time, but are hopelessly outdated today.
Flat screen 12v TVs combine high-definition quality with low power consumption, which is ideal for an RV application. Still operating on a budget, I chose a 15″ Axess HDTV with a built-in DVD player. The 15 inch screen was almost equivalent to the original 13″ CRT. In hindsight, I would probably have gone a size or two higher, but the small size makes the TV very light weight and does not need any extra securing during driving. This TV also has a narrow viewing angle, so we have to tilt it down a lot when we watch from the sofa bed at night.
In order to mount the TV, I built an oak-finish panel from an old cabinet board and filled in the opening, and covered the border with the original frame, so it maintains the built-in look. I bought a small folding TV wall bracket and mounted it to the back board, which allows the TV to be tilted and swiveled depending on where we are watching from (sofa, or club chairs).
A major drawback of the original TV was that it did not have a stereo sound output, so the TV did not use the very nice built-in speakers in the coach. I did a fair amount of research into various options for getting the TV on the speaker system, and found a JVC car stereo which had auxiliary microphone inputs on both the front and rear of the unit. This gave me a way to hook the TV into the rear of the stereo without exposing the cables. By running a headphone cable from the TV to the rear of the new stereo, the TV and DVD player were now hooked into the coach sound system, using all four speakers! What an improvement. The old Kenwood stereo had a broken display so you could not read the front panel. The new JVC unit took care of that problem as well.
Ironically, the mono TV actually came with an enhanced sound controller of its own, which featured a wall mounted “equalizer” and an amplifier behind the VHS player. I removed the “enhanced sound system” from the original TV and ran new stereo cables from the VHS to the rear of the TV, so we now have four-speaker stereo for all the audio/video components: TV, DVD, VHS, and Radio.
I found a “refurbished” deal for the JVC radio on Amazon for less than $50.
(Refurbished-like-new items at Amazon are usually open box new items, so you can save quite a bit and still get a new item.) The TV was about $130 and the mounting bracket was about $15, so the whole upgrade only cost about $200. As a bonus, a lot of space was freed up in the upper cabinet when the original TV and amplifier were removed, so there is a lot of extra storage we use for pillows, towels and other bulky light items.
Since the new TV came with a built-in DVD player, I decided to leave the original VHS player in place. Amazingly, the player still works pretty well, and the VHS picture on the HD TV is much enhanced over the old low resolution TV picture. We have maintained a tradition on our camping trips of watching a movie almost every night, and we have an unlimited supply of VHS tapes available at the thrift stores for about 25 cents each. Many of these shows become “one and done” and find their way to the trash after viewing, but it’s cheap entertainment. We also watch some movies on DVD and occasionally “binge-watch” a TV series on DVD as well.
New Monitor Panel (Clock, Indoor/Outdoor Thermometers and Battery Voltage
I removed the old now useless audio control panel in the wall, and used the hole to mount a new monitoring device.
The monitor includes a digital clock, indoor and outdoor thermometers and a battery voltage readout for monitoring battery charge. This unit was a near-perfect size for the opening and has a selectable backlight in blue or orange (or off if you put the switch between.) The outdoor thermometer has a probe, which I mounted in the outside shower compartment. I spliced the battery monitor 12V (previously a cigarette lighter-type power cable) into the 12V feed used by the TV.
I cut the external thermometer wire which was too short and difficult to route outside, and spiced the cut ends to a small section of phone cord with modular connectors. This allowed me to use the original Chinook telephone jacks in the outside shower compartment and inside the overhead compartment to connect the outside thermometer sensor to the wall mounted unit without running a new wire.
Front Cab Electronics Upgrade (new all-in-one head unit)
Our initial driving experiences illuminated a desperate need for a backup camera and display. Blind spots on the sides are one thing, but the backing up view is non-existent below the rear door window. I also wanted a reliable GPS navigation system which also had a display requirement. After a lot of thought and research, I decided that an “all-in-one” head unit could provide a common display unit for all of our needs, as well as provide a radio, CD and DVD player, and future needs as well (Bluetooth, XM radio, etc.). Heading back to Amazon, I found a few choices, but settled for a Pyle PLDNV78I head unit for under $200. This head unit has inputs for a backup camera, and auxiliary audio/video, and incorporates AM/FM/CD, GPS navigation, and MP3/USB/IPhone and other features. There are many similar units available today and I probably would have gone with a better unit, but it actually does everything I wanted for a great price. The built-in GPS uses a probably pirated copy of the IGo Prime navigation software, but they worked out a deal, so you can get updates from Pyle, but not from IGo. This is a little annoying but not a big deal. The navigation software is actually quite powerful, but like any GPS system, it may lead you astray if you are not vigilant.
I coupled the head unit with a $20 Pyle backup camera which I mounted underneath the rear step. I tapped into the backup signal from the left rear taillight in the cabinet behind the rear tire. I drilled a small hole through the carpet in the cabinet to run a signal wire from the backup light wire to the new camera. I ran a CAT-5 (4 twisted-pair Ethernet cable) from the transmission hump to the rear bumper, along with a single wire for power and a video extension cable for the backup camera. The video cable was too small for its length and there was not enough signal for the camera display, so I abandoned the cable. Instead I was able to splice into some wires the CAT-5, which carried the video with plenty of signal.
I drilled a hole in the cab floor where the rubber gasket of the engine cover sits, for the wires to come into the cab. The I ran them behind the driver dash into the radio cavity for hooking into the new head unit. I used a video splitter cable for the rear view camera video, and connected one signal to the rear view input of the head unit, and I connected the second feed to the Aux Video input of the head unit. This allows the rear view camera to come on automatically when the transmission is in reverse, and also allows me to select the rear view display at any time using the touch screen to select the aux video for display. Wiring the backup camera was definitely the hardest part of this do-it-yourself installation, but it is working.
The Ford E350 from that era has a radio that is close to, but not exactly a double-DIN form factor. I found a you-tube video of a double-din installation in a Ford truck, and it is actually not too difficult. The Ford opening is a little wider, and not quite tall enough. A Metra 95-5817 Double DIN Installation Dash Kit provides an attractive frame, and some dremel trimming of the bottom plastic surface inside the opening makes for a “factory-installed” appearance of the new double-DIN head unit.
Once installed, the new display suffered from a lot of glare interference. This is mainly due to the angle of the dash and any display is likely to have the same problem. I found a “glare-stomper” sun shade on Amazon for about $20 which provides shade for the display, and the problem was solved. The glare shield attaches to the dash with some high-bond tape, and is adjustable with Velcro straps. The readable display obtained is well worth the cost and inconvenience.
Off-the-shelf bathroom improvements
I continued searching for ideas on the Internet and found a couple of bathroom ideas. World Market sells a bamboo bath mat that is the exact size of the shower floor.
The mat makes a more attractive and comfortable surface, and allows dust and dirt to wash down the drain below without sticking to your feet in the shower. The original plastic shower curtain was also replaced with a simple cloth one, mainly to eliminate the “clammy” feeling of the plastic in the confined shower space. The cloth absorbs the moisture rather than repel it, but we wring it out and it dries fairly quickly in the RV environment.
A second simple upgrade was an Oxygenics BodySpa” shower head, designed to create additional pressure from air flow. This shower head provides better performance when using the relatively low pressure RV water pump.
The new shower head was also much more attractive than the original yellowed shower head. I was concerned at first that the RV shower heads do not shut off the water flow completely when the flow at the shower head, but I found out this is a “feature” not a bug, so that the water maintains the desired hot and cold mixture while you are soaping up between rinses. The original shower head worked the same in this regard.