Scout's Honor

Yesterday I did my own oil change for the first time ever!
Under the hood. (old picture, shh)

Under the hood. (old picture, shh)

The Giant Metal Baby is pretty high off the ground, so it's pretty easy to get under. I've actually spent a fair amount of time just lying under there and trying to figure out what all the bits are - I have no background with vehicle mechanics, but nevertheless can now confidently point out the engine, gas tank, exhaust, axles, and now oil filter and ... oil... pan? tank? thing. No problem! 

I want my scout badge - "first oil change!" :D I've had a LOT of firsts with this truck, and am seriously considering a badge system. Just in the past few months: 

  • First time covering my whole arm and some of my face in used oil - and I learned used engine oil is carcinogenic on skin contact.
  • First time getting tires filled at a tire shop (not a gas station) - and I learned that it's "free" but to have $$ on hand for a tip.
  • First time using a gas can - and I learned you have to press REALLY hard on the spout (or maybe that mine is kind of broken? still learning)
  • First time [EVERYTHING WIRING AND SOLAR AND ELECTRIC] - and I  learned that absolutely nothing from science class stuck in my head and I have a lot of reading to do. 
  • First time using a LOT of tools - portable bandsaw, oil filter wrench, hydraulic crimper, heat gun, belt sander... and that's just recently - and I learned that these tools even exist, who knew?
The Stereo, ugh.

The Stereo, ugh.

I could go on and on and on, but the point is that I'm butting up against entire areas of knowledge that I know NOTHING about. I'm doing my best to chip away at them, sometimes with expert guidance, sometimes with internet help, and sometimes just going in blind and ripping the stereo out because it's not working and I don't know why and I don't want to figure it out and it feels GOOD just to get it out of the way. 

Some of the hardest parts are actually talking to the experts - going into a parts store or garage, or emailing someone who offered advice, or asking for help building something - and trying to convince them (AND keep myself convinced!) that I do know at least a LITTLE BIT about what I'm asking.

I definitely bump up against a lot of bias and condescension - as a recent fun example: literally being laughed at for repeating something I've been told to ask by someone who knows their stuff, then taken seriously when I explain it's someone else's question. But mostly I'm just grappling with trying to explain a unique project involving a weird vehicle to very helpful patient people who know a lot more than I do about what I'm asking.

There's a sort of exhausting pattern to it: 

  1. encounter a problem or new task
  2. research it on my own, try to get an idea of what I want the result to be and whether what I want is reasonable.
  3. approach someone for help or advice
  4. explain the whole project (there's not a lot of effective short-hand here - it's not a tiny house, it's not a food truck, it's not a regular building, it's not a's a [insert full 5 minute description here]
  5. re-hash all of step 2 with them, usually takes longer because we have to go through some options they suggest that I already know I don't want, BUT I want to make sure I'm not dismissing something valuable that I didn't consider, AND I don't want to be rude when I'm asking for help. 
  6. learn that I need to do more research / decision-making / prep-work before they can help me effectively
  7. repeat steps 2 and 5, sometimes 6 and 7 also.
    Bonus: sometimes both of us think we have a good plan and are ready to work, and then the truck throws in a fun curveball by being just a terribly maintained old hunk of junk. return to step 1! 
  8. do some work! get a thing done! yay!


For example, changing the battery should be pretty straightforward, but it just wasn't. I won't go into it, but in this case Phillip Perrine was very generous with his time, parlaying with the parts store for me to get all the right bits, then showing me how to change it out. It took multiple trips and several days (again, not your typical battery change), but! it is done, and it is good.  

P.S. Thanks to one of my first building teachers who trusted me with his expensive equipment, to his detriment <3 Wink Nelson lead one of many teams of teenagers on the Appalachian Service Project, and taught us how to dig a french drain, re-shingle a roof, install drywall, and probably a lot of other things. He just sent me these pictures of baby Emily, doing her best: 

Girl-Gathering: initiate!

Help us gather gather gather some Girls Girls Girls to paint onto walls

In order to paint a mural of local ladies in each city we visit, we need to start gathering ladies. In addition to meeting wonderful people along the way, we want to open up a call for you to tell us about the women in your life who are powerful, sweet, interesting, active, loud, passionate, comforting, determined, inspiring, a n d  b e y o n d . . . Who around you do think should be represented larger than life, in the company of many others, as an example of woman-kind? 

  • Send us a picture of her doing her thing (ideally but not required to be a candid, full-body picture, rather than a smiling selfie) - show her in her natural habitat! 
  • Tell us a little about her (a few words will do) - Who IS she? Why is she rad as heck?

Ways to submit: 

  • comment on this blog post
  • email to
  • use #girlsgirlsgirlstour on instagram or facebook
  • tag @herrsuite on instagram or facebook

We'll be posting drawings of some of these ladies before we get to the mural-painting stage, so follow along on instagram to catch some sneak peeks! --> @herrsuite

Debutante First Friday

The Baby made it's debut last week!

After getting the desk in on Thursday, I cleaned up the construction zone inside the truck as much as possible and trundled on over to Endeavor RVA for the mobile studio's first appearance at First Fridays. Sarah and I rushed to slap some paint on the truck to explain what it was and clear up the fact that it's not a food truck (the #1 question I get asked). 

And of course, the whole reason for the rush to clear construction dust and slap new paint on the truck was to SHOUT TO THE HEAVENS that we are launching HerrSuite's FIRST TOUR!!! 

The HerrSuite Mobile Studio is preparing to embark on a GIRLS!-themed mural-painting tour up the east coast! We’ll be painting public murals of local badass self-identifying ladies to celebrate women as multi-faceted HUMAN BEINGS. 

During the month of July we’ll drive from Richmond, VA to Burlington, VT, stopping in DC, PA, NYC, and MA along the way. We'll spend about a week in each city: 

  • first - interview as many local ladies as possible bout how and why they live
  • second - paint their portraits all into a public mural
  • third - host an event presenting the mural and showcasing the women it features

Stay tuned!! This is just the gist of things, but as we pin down details we'll be updating these pages:

Girls! Girls! Girls! webpage   •    Public Facebook Event

Also if you'd like to send me your email to get updates, go ahead and fill out the form below: 

Now of course, our first step was to get stickers and shirts to hand out and sell. We immediately sold out of these tank tops (!!!!!!!!!!!) but we'll be making more as soon as possible!

Sun Juice, State Inspection, and a Desk

In the past several months, several BIG things have happened. The biggest is that the mobile studio is now POWERED BY THE SUN! The engine is still a gas engine, so motoring around town is still killing the planet, BUT all the work I do while the truck is parked (working in the truck on designs - using the computer, painting, planning OR working from the truck on a wall - mixing paint, washing brushes) will be using electricity coming from a 1000w solar system. See this post for specs. This will power all my lights, my computer, chargers for various devices, maybe even a small air conditioner and heater.

Click here for more Solar Process Pics and Info

Speaking of A/C, I've been working in the truck for several projects now even though it's got a long way to go before it's finished. I've learned a lot about how I can best use the space, and I'm really happy with what I've finished so far. One of the neatest things is that the insulation seems to be doing it's job really well. I've working in the truck all day in the middle of a sunny black asphalt parking lot in 90 degree heat, and with the front and back windows open (not even a fan!) it's entirely tolerable. This is a HUGE weight off my mind, because I've been told I could easily need TWO RV air conditioners to make my big metal box a comfortable work space. I may still invest in a small mini-split unit, but this means that can be a very low priority. 

The Baby also passed inspection, which was a huge ordeal for some very dumb reasons.

The windshield wipers were one of the very first things I took apart because of a fairly slight malfunction - one would jump the edge of the windshield on the down stroke. Not ideal, though probably passable when you get down to it. BUT I never got them put back together properly because it turns out the worn out part which needed replacing is absolutely not sold anywhere anymore, no way no how. I would procrastinate and search and get frustrated, then procrastinate some more and repeat.

All of a sudden, it was the last day for me to get my inspection completed, and I still had no wipers, AND I had totally forgotten how the whole assembly is supposed to go together in the first place (TAKE PICTURES when you take something apart. I know this now). I learned quickly that mechanics are loath to touch something that has already been dismantled, probably with good reason.  

Enter: Jeff Arritt, actual angel and Build, RVA's resident handyman. He rigged it back together, AND tweaked it so that the old part more or less did the job. I'll still need to replace the system entirely sooner or later, but now I can continue procrastinating happily for a while longer.  

Oh, also my previous mechanic (who has done ALL of the work on the truck up to this point) told me I needed thousands of dollars of work on the rear axle. When I got a second opinion, I was told that they couldn't find any evidence of the problem and they passed my inspection on the spot. I really don't know how to take this - I really thought I could trust these guys, but I guess not. I'm usually too impatient or too timid to get a second opinion, but I would definitely underscore that as one of my biggest lessons from this process - it is ALWAYS worth it to get a second opinion. 

Other mechanical problems: I finally ran out of gas on the road for the first time (broken gas gauge, probably not going to fix it). It was in a very fortunate place - a residential street with wide passing lanes. I learned that the truck starts sputtering while shifting gears when it's low on gas, and I learned how to use a gas can (the part where you have to push on the spout was news to me, and totally unintuitive).

Right after getting gas, Sarah and I also got the tires filled for the first time. My current understanding is that I pretty much have to go to a tire shop to do this, because the air pumps at gas stations don't go to 100psi. Also the tire shops don't charge for this service, but the attendants should be tipped for the time it takes them. Is any of this going to hold true the next time I need air?? No idea. 

Now, the Desk! This is the bulk of the rest of the building out - with this, the truck really becomes a functional studio - one that's still under construction, but functional nonetheless. 

I added a 4-inch drop tray behind the desk to hold jars of pencils or other miscellaneous little items that I don't want to put away before I have to drive. 

I added a 4-inch drop tray behind the desk to hold jars of pencils or other miscellaneous little items that I don't want to put away before I have to drive. 

Test-fit! The boards I bought are very coincidentally nearly the perfect length - all I had to do was shape the front edge and knock out a little bite for the lip of the paint cabinet back there. 

Test-fit! The boards I bought are very coincidentally nearly the perfect length - all I had to do was shape the front edge and knock out a little bite for the lip of the paint cabinet back there. 

I wanted to use the full depth of the board, but it really needed to slide back to the depth of the paint cabinet. Hopefully this flows well. 

I wanted to use the full depth of the board, but it really needed to slide back to the depth of the paint cabinet. Hopefully this flows well. 

Jeff-the-angel helped me cut the shape I decided on with a jigsaw, and then cleaned it up with a belt sander and palm sander. 

Jeff-the-angel helped me cut the shape I decided on with a jigsaw, and then cleaned it up with a belt sander and palm sander. 

Sunshine Magic!

The solar system is complete! Here's a rundown of the process, though this makes it look a lot faster than it was. Once again, huge thanks to Bert Green of SolarMill who did all the heavy lifting research / ordering / installation for this. 

Mounting PV Panels

I feel like the archetypal Hare working on the truck lately. So many things that I want to do RIGHT AWAY, and so much time to do them since I'm in between mural jobs! Lots of very speedy, accomplish-able tasks to do, I'll have no problem bounding forward.... But somehow days keep passing without me doing anything at all?? 

Anyway, this has been holding me up for the past, like, TWO MONTHS.

I've poked around at a bunch of blogs and solar installer sites, and it looks like I don't need to worry about protecting the panels from either highway wind or tree branch stuff, though I'm still not 100% convinced on that front. First things first though is attaching them to the roof at all.

I am generally trying to avoid drilling straight down through my roof, because I'd like to actively avoid inviting leaks as much as I can. The roof is a single white painted aluminum panel riveted all around the edge to... something underneath. I know there's four aluminum c-channel bars crossing the width underneath, and another aluminum skin under them, but the top aluminum sheet doesn't seem to be connected directly to the c-channel underneath. I'm not 100% against drilling through the roof... but man it seems better to avoid it. 

My biggest question: Once my panels are attached, how likely is it that I would ever need to look under them again? Options 1 and 2 would be pretty nnoying to get a. Option #3 would be much easie with those knobs, but also more theft-friendly. 

Option #1 is mounting a roof rack: arms attached to the side of the truck that hold bars which span the roof's width, then attaching angle iron that runs lengthwise which the panels would sit in, bolted on. This might be around $400, or it could get upward of $600 if I do three like below. 

This definitely looks the strongest. It's pretty involved. I think it would also allow me to get at the underside of the panels with some effort if necessary (easy to see under at least a little, more trouble to actually fiddle with anything - unbolting panels, or detaching bars from arms... heavy, cumbersome)   

ption #2: 

Very simple, very lowke, just use bolts to attach four little angles to the solar panel, and tape those to the roof. Now the tape sounded dumb to me too when I first read about it, but I've found a convincing number of people who are swearing up and down that they've never lost a panel, and that the tape's a great way to go, etc. (3M VHB tape)  I'd also like to get them just a little higher off the surface of the roof than this picture, like maybe up to 2.5" off, so that there can be a little airflow underneath them for a cooling effect. 

This is probably <$100

It worries me that it would be hard/impossible to get under them if necessary

Option #3: 

Same as 2, but sold as a kit with a clamp for the panel, and separate pieces with a handle so that they are easy to remove if necessary, either for maintenance or for tilting them. n this picture, the foot is taped on and then sealed with Dicor. This would be around $320.

The little clamps seem nice, not having to bolt through the panel side, but this seems like a lot of $ compared to #2's parts that I could probably get at Lowe's

bonus: chilly babyyyy


Back on the Solar Warpath

Now that I've packed everything into the truck and am using Build, RVA as my home base, I've decided to shift focus from interior building to solar. Once I have power, it will be much much easier to work on the rest of the build. To that end I am about to push 'order' on a big shopping list: 

  1. Charge Controller: 60A, between panels and batteries
  2. Inverter: 3000w pure sine wave, between batteries and outlets
  3. Breakers: one 50A for the charge controller and one 120A for the inverter
  4. Panels: four 270w to be mounted on the roof. Still trying to find a local source for these - shipping is insane because of the size. 1 panel = $225, shipping = $221
  5. Batteries: Four Trojan 6v deep-cycle FLA golf cart batteries - local pickup yay - arranged in series.

Est. Total (without shipping or wire): $2,444

I'll have a 24v system, because a 12v system ended up being so much amperage that everything got icky expensive (Things I Learned: volts * amps = watts. More amps = less volts, vice versa. Pretty sure I learned this is high school but had no reason to remember it.)

Initially I thought I'd have a 12v system, which would allow me to easily switch between charging the batteries with solar and charging the batteries with the truck's engine. I'm actually a little relieved that this is no longer the plan because the truck's engine doesn't seem... particularly reliable. Obviously this is a bigger problem than just for solar backup which I'll be dealing with soon, but designing a system to include something I know has problems was giving me some pangs. Also, now I have to return the cool charging switch I bought previously :P 

Wish me luck!! This will be the most expensive part of the project so far, second only to the initial cost of the truck itself. 

Bert Green of SolarMill is a huge electricty/electronics/solar/design nerd who was kind enough to basically walk me though this whole figuring process. He had marvelously patient explanations of what and why and how, and he'll be helping me put things together once I have all the parts. SolarMill is very close to launching a kickstarter for one of his made-from-sunshine products, so keep an eye out!


Wowza. The giant metal baby has experienced quite a growth spurt in quite a few short weeks!


It's been all go-go-go in preparation for a big move from the Create Space warehouse (work-space since January) to a new and exciting home base at Build RVA, a maker-space and project accelerator a few miles down the road. 

As part of that big move... CALLING ALL HANDS ON DECK!  In an effort to finish off an hefty supply of spray paint (that doesn’t necessarily need to move with us) and to also give the Mobile Studio a fashionable new coat, everyone (that means you!) is invited to come out and celebrate the progress by SPRAYING THAT TRUCK this Saturday, October 15th.

But back to our story: Since the last blog post, we've gotten the floor in, the backdoor latched, and whole lot of white painted on everything. This past week has been all about raising those interior walls, and building those space-efficient and super secure storage compartments that will make for a smooth and trusty ride for both artist and artist's supply. As with anything that goes mobile, the goal has been to build with stability-during-mobility in mind! The nifty shelves and the storage carts we finished off were all built to secure HEAVY paint and supplies while the mobile studio bounces from point A to point B. 


So here’s a little more on what we built: TWO floor to ceiling closeted shelves: they roll into and out of the custom built closets on casters that fit over the wheel wells. Here gallons of paint will be neatly organized and stored behind white painted doors with pull handles for quick and easy access. Basically think filing cabinet but more fun because it’s storing paint and not your legal records. 


In addition to these, a storage closet was finished off, which involves an angled interior wall that meets with the side of the rear window. Ladders will be stored here and accessed from a door on the outside, back of the van. Also in the very back inside of the van, opposite the ladder closet, floor to ceiling horizontal shelving was built - these shelves are open but will soon have 3/4” steel tubing that will perform as security bars. A bit of welding in the near future to finish this part off…  

The current-ish plan

It’s very exciting to have reached the point where the interior landscape is coming together, where Sketchup dreams come to life! 


In other news, after photographing the latest HerrSuite mural -a continuous art deco inspired elevator shaft piece at the Shugars home- neighbor John BALILES (mayoral candidate!) made a surprise guest appearance, and received a live tour of the mobile studio. We think he was kind of stoked! 



Special thanks this week goes out to ikea: for selling all those boards and carts and storage pieces with humorous names at seriously affordable prices. 


Pechakucha Night Presentation

I did a presentation about the truck! You can hear the audio here, and see the slides from my powerpoint that were playing while I talked (they're a little faster than they were in real life, so it doesn't quite match up. This is fine because I was rambling all over the place anyway.)

This was at a PechaKucha Night in Williamsburg, VA, in a beautiful backyard with about 40 people in attendance. It was dark, with stars and cicadas and kids in a treehouse basically right over my head. I was really, really nervous and uncomfortable, but now that it's over I would happily sign up for many more talks like this. 

"PechaKucha Nights are informal and fun gatherings where creative people get together and share their ideas, works, thoughts, holiday snaps -- just about anything, really -- in the PechaKucha 20x20 format. You show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images."

To view this on the PechaKucha website, along with all of the other presentations from that night, click here. You may have to create a profile to view the site, or login with facebook. 

Making a box takes forEVER

The Walls

The walls are covered! I had a huge assist from a contractor friend who very generously decided to send a couple of his guys out to just throw up the plywood over the walls and the ceiling sheathing. They saved me probably 5 hours of work!! 

These guys cut and screwed in the ceiling sheets, and cut and placed the wall plywood. I cut more wall insulation to match, spray-foamed all the weird gaps in the wall structure, and screwed it all together. So now my wall is a sandwich of aluminum // wood and foam board and spray foam // more insulation board // plywood. I didn't glue any of that - I feel secure with it all being screwed to the wooden frame, which is screwed to the aluminum.  

The plywood partly supports the edge of the ceiling - the ceiling insulation sits on top of the wooden framing, and the ceiling sheathing sits on top of the plywood. The ceiling sheathing is thin MDF-type panels (not exactly sure) (some kind of fine composite) shaped into 'boards.'  I completely forgot to put glue up in the ceiling before screwing in the sheathing, and I super regret it. I'm very much considering taking it down again and gluing it back in, because it's already sagging pretty stupidly. It would be purely aesthetic, but it looks super lame :( 

So much sagging! This is screwed in every foot on the seams, which are at either end of the 4x8 sheets, and in the center. The wires are from the old cab lights - there are switches on the dash for them. Not sure if I'll use them yet. 

Anyway, the order of operations here was important so that the wall and ceiling layers would hold each other up and pin each other in. 


The Floor

The floor has been giving me headaches for a while - not because of labor, but because I wasn't sure if my construction method was dumb or not. The truck's floor is just aluminum diamond-plate, sturdy, flat, excellent.... but not insulated. I had planned on framing the floor initially, in order to insulate it and cover with a more friendly surface. Since the aluminum is already doing all the structural work though, I learned I didn't need framing. That leaves my plan with just insulation and plywood sitting on top.  I had concerns about that, but long story short I went to a flooring superstore and got some professional advice. That was a really good day, because they basically just said 'yeah, your plan is great, go ahead, nothing special required.'

gluing the floor insulation in. 

plywood walls in, floor insulation in

So! I cut and glued insulation to cover the floor in 2.5" of foam board. I used two different kinds of glue - loctite and liquid nails - and this one (loctite?) was just terrible - very hard to get more than 4 inches out at one go. I don't have a lot of reason to fear it moving, but regardless I really hope I put enough glue in  :s

Now I'm in the process of cutting and placing a plywood panels to be glued on top. I'll caulk the cracks in between them, maybe sand the whole thing (maybe not) and then paint it all with a think layer of white paint and call it done :) As a paint studio floor, it does NOT have to be nice at all. People recommended some cool stuff like replaceable carpet tiles, kids foam flooring, etc, all with the spirit of being able to easily replace the parts I mess up..... but let's be real, it's ALL gonna get messed up for sure. 

This whole back section has also been a headache area. Latching the back door sections is still a mystery I haven't totally solved, which means that it's hard to tell what I can cover up back there. At this point though, I've sealed up the back passenger-side panel with spray foam (in the really big corner gap) and caulk (around the whole rest of the panel inside and out). Got two layers of insulation panels on there, which I had to trim around each little bracket holding that door panel on.


The backdoor is ALMOST DONE

Ruben finished constructing the awning window and then worked with the auto glass guy down the street to get the old salvaged window fit in.

More work than it looks - steel frame and steel sheet, all welded and ground down to a smooth seam on inner and outer edges. The reclaimed aluminum-framed sliding window was fit in with new gasket after a lot of re-grinding. 

The taxi service next door sold us two pressurized rods for like $10 (!!!!), so now it's all attached to the truck and lifts up on it's own! Two challenges left: it needs latches to hold it down (probably little sliding bolts into the metal posts on either side), and it needs a handle for me to pull down on. It's VERY 'heavy' - the two rods are enough to lift a minivan trunk up, so it takes a lot of force to bring it down. I might take one off, but then it would not stand allll the way up. I'm not sure what they're rated, but I may also try to find smaller ones. 

Mouth open. The ramp has a temporary plywood cover, but eventually i'll build mini stair steps onto it since the incline is STEEP. 

Mouth closed. Everything sits flush when closed, except the little scalloped fringe site over top of the lower door/ramp. 


Bonus side-quest ~adventure~

 I ran allllll around town trying to find the right kind of handle I wanted for the window (and actually a few more for other parts of the van), and ended up in some crazy truck supply places deep in Southside talking to grizzled old mechanics about parts catalogs. Nothing better than walking into this place with my bumblepack and a vague notion of what I'm talking about. 

This place was so so so big. 


Next Steps

  • measure and cut all plywood for the floor
  • glue it in, put weights on it
  • caulk the little seams
  • get the latches for the back doors figured out
  • re-install the ceiling panels???? D:
  • start building the interior walls for furniture stuff!!!

$$$, Framing, Insulation, Backdoor...

Let's eat dessert first:

The Giant Metal Baby has been awarded a grant!!! Richmond Cultureworks Grant Program is a marvelous resource for independent artists and 501(c)3 organizations that need a little boost for a special project.

I applied in March, and though some things have changed since I turned in my application essay, I'd like to share part of what I wrote. I think it's the most clear, emphatic, and enthusiastic statement I've made to date about what I'm trying to do here. You can read it by clicking the button to the left <<<

A big part of my mission outlined in the grant is to enthusiastically share this process. To that end, I'm happy to announce that I'll be presenting the Giant Metal Baby at RVA Creative Marketplace this Wednesday, July 13th! If you know of any where that you think would benefit from a show-and-tell about 1) a self-­supporting and self­-employed young woman with 2) a project­-based career who has 3) a creative approach to a unique challenge which demonstrates 4) small­-spaces possibilities in an urban location..... ~let me know~

Now, on to all the stuff I've been up to since the end of May whence I last touched this blog....

Well, it took every inch of June, but I have the beginnings of walls :) The framing is all in, with the first layer of insulation as well. The ceiling rafters are also up along with its first section of insulation. The framing is screwed onto the aluminum from the outside with a little silicone caulk in there to fight Water: The Enemy. No glue, but I feel okay about that. The rafters are there to be an attachment point for the ceiling sheathing, which in turn will hold up the insulation stuffed in between. Still don't know what I want that ceiling sheathing to be. 

Some friendly neighborhood graffiteers added just a little more paint before we started covering the walls. They also left a whole bin of spray paint?? I ain't mad. Last glimpse of the inside pre-walls:

You can see the spray paint bin in the front of the truck here...

Thom Stanton continues to be my building coach. Huge kudos to him for being very patient and instructive, where it would be much easier for him to just grab the drill and do it himself. 

We cut each piece for the framing inside the truck, assembling it loosely against the wall, then took the whole mess outside to screw it together after marking on each piece where they should be attached to each other. This worked well for the most part - the frame slipped easily through the door opening - but we missed one or two measurements around the window by a skosh. Not bad, we just had to make a skinny shim on one side and a take a chunk out of the other. 

This whole process was based roughly on my SketchUp model (see previous post), but of course with oodles of adjustments as we went. Thom had a lot of helpful changes to make in order to accommodate my future furniture and make sure it's fixed securely in place. This is one reason this project is so hard to get advice on: everything is going to move eventually. It's custom from top to bottom, so conventional building often doesn't have the right answers (16" on center? naw), and RV solutions are... well, they're for RVs made in a factory. For example, building framing after the 'walls' already exist wouldn't make sense in any other situation. 

Scheming-on-the-spot for how best to accommodate my sliding shelves. 

Once the framing was all attached to itself and resting in place, we used some of that donated spray-paint to make an outline of their placement. This gave us a path for where to drill pilot holes through the aluminum, after which it was a quick job of applying a dab of silicone caulk from the outside and shooting screws through the aluminum and into the wood. After wrestling with twisty wood and weird angles and "close-enough" measurements, the wood really didn't sit nicely against the wall by any stretch of the imagination. BUT! Once we started shooting screws in, they pulled the wood tight-tight-tight against the metal, correcting almost all of those problems. It was  SO   SO     SOOO satisfying.

I can't believe I didn't take pictures of any of that process. Sorry. 

Next, insulation. After doing a whole bunch of research on what kind of insulation to buy (polyiso!) it turns out that I have no idea where to buy the stuff. Lowe's has like four sheets of four different thicknesses and that's it. Huge letdown. Usually people don't buy just a little bit of insulation I guess - more a bulk contractor order item I suppose. I started calling some of the contractor folk I know (turns out there are several) to ask where I should shop besides Lowes.... and I hit the jackpot. Friendbro donated nearly all of the insulation that I need! I think it was all spare from another project or something? Some was certainly not new judging by smell, butttt it was intact, and quite free. Excellent. 

Once again, lots of custom measurements and cuts, but it went a lot faster than the framing. 1" thick sheets went between the 1.5" deep studs, which will leave an air gap of .5". Then I'll have sheet of .5" on top of the studs, then plywood sheathing.

We stopped before starting the .5".  I wanted to catch up recording the actual measurements of the finished framing on my SketchUp model, and I really need to get some spray foam in all the little gaps left over. Instead, we cut the ceiling joists and shoved one section's worth of insulation up there. You can see in the picture below that the paint pole is holding those sheets up because... we forgot to put glue in there. Not a huge deal, glue just would've held it up more tightly until we put sheathing on. 

You can see the black from the outlining spray paint on the wood, and the little shim around the window. I'll wrap a thin aluminum strip along the gasket of the window, resting against the wood, so that I have a leetle tiny windowsill with curved edges :3  The back section on the left is where my scaffolding closet is, so it needs space more than it needs insulation. 

Now I need to buy (beg?) more insulation to finish the ceiling, and buy sheathing for the walls. My SketchUp model helped me determine how much of each material I will need, and what cuts to make. I'm considering a diagonal floor just for coolness factor - it doesn't use any additional sheets of material, and I think it'll make space feel better. 

color-coded for driver / passenger / back / floor

purple is the floor, the rest is walls


The other big thing is that I have (most of) a back door now! Ruben of B&C Creations is fabricating most of it out of steel (a little beyond my DIY scope), and we decided to salvage part of the van's old garage-style door to make the side panels for it. 

As of now, I believe all parts of the backdoor are fabricated but not installed yet. Once it's done I'll show off the whole thing and explain it. For now, check out this video Ruben took of me working the ramp! (It's really heavy) 

Other random stuff I've done: 

  • Bondo'd the many holes in the walls left over from taking out the e-track and other junk
  • had the steering column replaced (almost $1000 - ouch)
  • taken apart the windshield wipers to make them not jump over the window gasket - now they need a $50 part >:( 
  • updated the whole sketchup model to reflect reality

Next Steps

  • buy 1" ceiling insulation, cut and install (with glue this time)
  • buy ceiling material, cut and install (glue and screw)
  • spray foam insulation into all the cracks, cut and place .5" sheets of wall insulation
  • buy wall material, cut and install with .5" insulation (glue and screw)
  • cut floor insulation (I decided against framing the floor, at least to the extent that I modeled it - no point, it seems) and place it (glue!)

How's morale?

Getting the grant is both hugely validating and a painful reality check. Reading back over my application, I sound very confident in a timeline that simply hasn't been even remotely feasible. I distinctly remember writing it, and thinking that I had spaced things out very reasonably, even adding a spare month just in case. 

Time and time again I am taught by my projects that everything takes longer than I expect, and it just doesn't stop being true. According to that application, I'm abysmally behind. BUT I know I've been working as hard as I can for the whole time, and I couldn't expect anything more of myself. I know it's a matter of lowering my unrealistic expectations, and maybe making less promises about time. I'm very happy with the state of the van as it is, and I look forward to all the next steps. Even though I feel nightmarishly behind, I don't feel particularly discouraged. No intention of giving up or cutting (big) corners has crossed my mind. So at this point, I'm just gonna keep on keepin on. 

The only real wrench that this behind-ness will cause in my life is that I don't have a studio, and I'm still in the warehouse. I had hoped that I'd be studio-less for a few months, which is no big deal, and moving into the van as soon as possible. July makes 7 months at the warehouse. I'm on the brink of a 3-week trip (Seattle, Victoria, Calgary, Banff, Jasper, Maryland, oh my!), and I need to make some real decisions about whether I will stay in the warehouse (a stressful environment, but with a lot of handy resources), move to another worksite, or pack everything into the truck somehow and work on it at my house. My lease is up just about a week after I return from the trip... 


Window means GO

I JUST GOT A NEW WINDOW (and the left windshield pane replaced) at long last!! As simple as it is I’m super excited because that felt like a big roadblock for moving forward with anything at all. I dropped the truck off with Able Glass Services just a couple blocks away, and picked it up the next day, easy peasy after a bit of a wait for the weather to be good. 

oohlala! It's the same size as one of the windshield panes. 

I’m now focusing on the framing and insulation. I am planning to insulate wall, ceiling and floor, with the bulk of the insulation on the ceiling and floor. I will go with smaller lumber on the walls to help the weight and the width of the walls (precious interior width), as well as to fit the thinner/cheaper wall insulation I’m thinking of. For the floor, I’m framing it because I assumed I wouldn’t be able to walk on insulation board alone - won’t it compress or something over time? The current floor is indeed plenty sturdy… Need to ask some insulation experts.

I'm framing with 1.125” x 1.5" (I’m not familiar with the baffling difference between standard lumber sizes and actual measurements, so I’m just going to use the actual measurements.) These are placed for two reasons: holding up sheathing, and to make studs for some of the furniture that should be attached to the wall for stability. 

I’ve made a frame around the window to make a little windowsill, but I’m unclear on whether this is necessary since I just don’t know much about the insulation: do I need the wood? can I just cut a nice hole out of the insulation and put a thin piece of wood/aluminum around the opening to cover it? 

Polyiso foam board seems to be the way to go, so I’m thinking 1” in between studs and 1/2” over top to combat thermal bridging, then some kind of sheathing (still haven’t researched what’s cheap/not hideous that doesn’t off-gas - recommendations welcome! I’d prefer something wood-ish rather than plastic, but I’m flexible)

Below: passenger wall with framing, then passenger wall with framing and basic furniture placement. The left are shelves that I already own, fit nicely over the wheel well, and need to be bracketed to the wall to make sure they're stable. They'll serve as a secondary surface for tossing a bag or things waiting to be put away, as well as some storage. My 4 big batteries will sit on top of the wheel well, under these shelves. The right object is my sink (the black part) - it's a simple rectangular basin that was under-mounted previously. I'd like to under-mount it again, but don't have a construction plan for that yet. 

Below: Driver wall with framing, then driver wall with framing and furniture placement, then another view to get a better sense of the sections on the left. I'll have a long standing desk for my workspace (keeping my imac here safely is a whole nother concern - it's my main work tool and I can't not include it). To the left of that is my main paint storage - a roll-out shelf based around an ikea shelf that I just purchased. I'll need to cut it down to fit on top of the wheel well, which is why it sticks up right now. There will be a 'wall' on either side of the shelves to enclose them while driving - these will be attached to the framing for stability. Next to the left is some more shelving in front of another 'wall'. This wall sections off a small area accessible only from the rear of the vehicle which will hold my small scaffolding, ladders, painting panels, etc.  There will also be a small set of shelves just behind the drivers seat at the end of the long desk, to hold books. That's what the close-together framing is for at that end, to secure that to the wall as well - I haven't addd it to the model yet. 

 Currently modeled with 1.5” x 2.5” framing, no specific insulation plan yet. Apparently the real question is whether I need framing at all?? I’m guessing I should talk to some people that sell insulation.  The dark gray block on the right is the pedestal for the driver's seat. The wheel wells will also be insulated. 

I got no modeled plan for the ceiling yet - kind of figured I’d get the wall and floor frames done, then make a ceiling plan before any insulation/sheathing. Currently it seems to have about an inch of insulation above a thin aluminum panel, along with two cabin lights. I assume the rivets in horizontal stripes about every 2 feet along the ceiling denote where the c-channel bracing is.

 Rather than remove all of it, I’m thinking I’ll just take the lights out and cover the whole mess - my walls only go up 90% of the way because of a little curve where the ceiling meets the wall, so I’m thinking bulk the ceiling out to there by attaching insulation and some kind of cover to where I know the c-channels must be. (pretty tin ceiling? the row houses around Richmond are covered in the stuff and I have a crush on it) 

Soon (this week? tomorrow??) I'll be talking to Thom about double checking my plans and starting construction, and B&C about building a back door....! Go Go Go! 

Much plan, many helps!

I have had an awesome week of talking to very helpful people about my designs. Bert Green of SolarMill, Thom Stanton of Timber Trails, Shaylen Broughten of SABarts and her husband Chris, and Matt Blair of B&C Creations. I'm just going to keep linking to these folks again and again because they just keep being super handy with advice and assistance <3

Right now all of this is crystallized in my brain, so before it disintegrates here's a big info dump of everything I learned and will be applying ASAP.

PS WINDOWS are my first big step, so everything I need to get them happening is bolded below. 



I can very likely power everything with a solar array, as long as I have a little backup from my vehicle engine and once in a while a little shore power! I have room for 4 batteries, totaling approx. 4000 usable watt-hours (assuming I don't drain them all the way dead, which hurts them). With a ~1000w array (probably four 240w solar panels) on the roof, I can probably get a full battery charge during one sunny summer day. This will power my computer, a/c, small chargers, lights, etc, easily! 

The batteries are probably around $500 for all 4, if I get flooded lead-acid. Look into Trojan brand - they sell golf cart batteries. 

If I can get a friend to get some from a big local solar company for me, they'll be cheapish since I won't have to pay shipping. Expect approx $1000 for 1000w. Don't buy flexible panels. 

I'll need a charge controller to go in between the panels and the batteries. Apparently this will be like $580, since they don't make enough incremental sizes of them for the small system I'm running :( 

To use the engine to charge my batteries, I can get a product by Blue Sea designed for boats: a battery switch for adding a battery to a system. This will automatically switch my engine from being started by the car battery to charging the battery bank, and then turn off that connection when they are full. With this switch, I can simultaneously charge my batteries from the engine and the solar array. AMAZING, and only like $100. There's a nicer version that will let me plug in via shore power too, but I think my inverter is going give me an easier way to use shore power....

My inverter will be the last step between the batteries and my electric and electronic devices. If I get a small/cheap one, it'll just be outfitted with regular house-style plug outlets. For now, until I get a sense of things, I'll probably just run heavy extension cords (SJOW?) and power strips around to power things off of a borrowed small/cheap inverter (1100w). This means that if I want to use shore power, I'll just unplug my power strip from the inverter and plug it into a house extension cord. A bigass inverter could be very pricey, still unsure about this. I am still not totally convinced about whether I need a pure sine wave inverter or not - more research is required. 

Budget about $200 for wire. Crimp it with a ratcheting crimper. 

totalish: $2500?

Air Conditioning

Sounds like I might be able to get a mini-split! I need to make some real cost- and energy- and effectiveness- comparisons between RV units and extra-small mini-split systems. Where does the exterior portion go, hmmm? Research mitsubishi, call Tribbles to talk to experts. Possibly build a bulkhead in the cab, mount the minisplit on the front of it. 


Save the triangle window for the door, nix it on the cutting

Place them exactly according to expected width for frame studs on all sides, metal studs, (remember rivets above, can't cut through them), optional trim on top of frame studs, gasket. Make cardboard stencil and trace into exact cutting location on inside AND outside. 

I got a quote for 3 windows (plus replacing my dumb windshield which I have already managed to crack): $650 for labor and parts (despite the fact that I'm providing the glass... oy) If I don't do the triangle window, by my math that should go down by about $150, but we'll see if I can convince the auto glass guys that I'm right... 


Gotta make decision about framing first: 2x3"? 2x2"? 1x1"? I want maximum space and minimum cost, so small framing. I want solid insulation, but the ceiling and floor are the big players there, as long as I seal up any air flow. I want to anchor several things into the wall, so know where my studs are and have a decent depth for anchoring: shelf anchor set x 4, desk, sink surface, computer mount, waterbox. I also want to screw some small things in on a whim, so have a solid surface for little things.  I can easily make good quality lumber by buying nicer cuts (2x6, 2x8, etc) and ripping them down. The bigger the original lumber, the easier to get multiple good pieces. 

I also need to be careful about my sheathing - apparently big metal walls get hot in the sun (duh) and make whatever's touching them heat up. If I use cheap plywood, it'll get really hot and off-gas formaldehyde into my workspace. OOPS. Better find a better  sheathing. 

Look up NAUF (no added urea-formaldehyde) plywood, as well as luan plywood. 


Before I can decide how deep to build my walls, I need to research what sizes of insulation I can get - is 3/4" foam board available? Do I want foam board or does it off-gas in the heat? Is foam spray cheaper, and is it worth the trimming work? Does it off-gas in the heat??


Finish modeling the front of the vehicle, at least the floor and roof if nothing else. Maybe find a seat model to thrown in. 

My floor frame was overworked, so I need to cut it down to sections a, b, c, and add section d in the front area. Construct these rectangles outside the truck and lay them in. Off-setting the braces from each other between sections will make it easy to attach them to each other. Model the plywood laying across them too - 12 ft = 3 easy 4x8 sections.  


The computer can be mounted to an arm, and there shouldn't be a problem with jolting since I have a solid-state drive. I still want to check with apple or at least albtech about this. 

I also super need to do a test of orienting my computer - can i have it be on the right side? Will I go crazy? Do I want it near the wheel-well foot-rest?

Wow, it sure does look like a pile of junk, huh?

I think I forgot to mention last time that I did a hi-tech mockup of my layout just to make sure it felt right in the space. All of my Art Foundation skills snapped back into full use: 

killin it

Now that I've got a floor plan, I've been able to finally do some stuff with/for the van. For example, ripping out even more stuff from the inside! Thought it was empty before? Nope. To date, I've removed...

some shelves:

the whole backdoor:

and the e-track on either side of the box (32 bolts on each side, ugh):

that middle grate divider/protector thing: 

...including the door tracks and big spring

Getting the door tracks out actually gave me my first injury in this project: I burned my little fingies on a bit of metal alllmost cut off that I decided to just grab and pull the rest of the way off. NOPE.

Tryna sell/get rid of all the stuff I pulled off by the way, if any of it looks appealing.  

All of the above took the help of some awesome friends: Thom and Tom and Ruben and Matt! I'm borrowing a lot of tools and advice for this so far, and I haven't even built anything yet. 

Now that everything is off, it's time to put some stuff on. I took my first trip to a junkyard to find some odds and ends, and scope out the glass situation. I found one place with one step-van; enough for me!


First haul

First haul

I ended up with mirrors, sunshades, handle, and an engine cover strap. The first trip really just got me accustomed to a junkyard, which was a totally surreal place. I can't remember anywhere I've been recently that's simultaneously so dangerous and so unregulated. 

The second trip got me some WINDOWS! I got three windows out of the one step van hiding in the way back of the lot: one windshield, one triangle, and one manual sliding window. Set me back $99, rather than at least $100 each. It was actually super easy to get them out: score the rubber gasket along the scored center on the outside, then cut across enough to grab it with some pliers, then pull pull pull until the gasket is off enough to get the glass out! This worked for the blank glass as well as the framed window below. I think now I can just order new gaskets and... well, I have a plan. 

Basically, I don't want to try and cut the very exact hole these will need into the side of the van. BUT if B&C Creations will cut that perfect hole for me out of some loose aluminum sheet, I can install the window in that, cut a "close-enough" hole in the wall of the truck, and bolt the aluminum-framed window into the wall through that hole. I'm hoping that's a reasonable idea, but I'm going to talk to an auto-glass person before I cut any holes. 

The last thing I got was new windshield wiper blades (not from the junkyard, from a store, like a normal person.) 


I realized I have yet to drive in the rain with the Metal Baby. Upon testing out the new blades, I realized I should probably keep avoiding it for the time being. One arm jumps the edge of the windshield and the other never goes quite low enough to get out of the driver's view, and only one of the two speed settings really works. 

I also spent some time just hanging out under the hood with the engine cover off, getting acquainted with things. I took off the a/c controls and found out that the a/c is a little broken (a lot broken) by some rusted-shut valves. 

just stared at it for a while, figuring out what goes where

On the bright side, a random internet person (thanks Byron!) directed me to what might be the mechanic's manual for my chassis, which would be pretty helpful. Either way, I'll be calling my mechanic again soon to ask about this stuff. 

Still on the bright side, I bought a sink!! It's big and deep and was TEN DOLLARS. All the sinks I'd been looking at were $50-$250, so I win. The stuff around the top is from where someone had it undermounted - some leftover adhesive and granite chips. I'm honestly thinking about undermounting it too, so no harm no foul. With my gravity-water plan, I don't need the faucet stuff, so just a big basin is exactly what I need. 

Okay, got some stuff off, put some stuff on, now it's back to planning. Thom Stanton came out again and rigged up a perfect model of my empty box in SketchUp, which will let me do some actual building planning (my model was really inexact and doesn't help with the nitty gritty numbers for buying and cutting material etc.)

I also got some assistance from the Richmond Street Art Festival in planning my paint design for the outside: 

Yeah, it does look like a pile of junk. But! It won't soon :)





Caught in flatland

At this point, my beautiful, loving, helpful friends and family are asking me every other day or so: "So how's the mobile studio coming?" This is both awesome that they know about it and are interested in my progress, and also Very Scary, because I really feel like it's inching along p a i n f u l l y slowly and I'm embarrassed to not have exciting leaps and bounds to share. I just want to start building! Instead, I've had to clear my plate of a few jobs and coordinate a real-work / mobile-studio-work balance, which usually ends up heavy on the real-work side. I still think it's better than trying to focus entirely on the studio though, since I think that would make me totally panic about my business being dead in the water. 

SO! Since this whole time since my last post has been planning and researching and fiddling with details, I didn't feel like I had 'blog-worthy' things to share. All that has now accumulated into something totally shareable: a floor-plan. 

(note: the sink is at the very back of the van, the skinny little shelves are right behind the drivers seat. The blue rectangle on the left wall is the pocket where the passenger door slides in.) Hopefully I took enough screenshots to make sense, just to get the idea across. This is the latest arrangement of many, and I expect this one to stick. I had hoped to chop the space in two with a wall, ideally re-orienting the inside from one length-oriented space to two width-oriented spaces. I don't want to feel like I'm working in an aisle. While a central wall just kept making less and less sense with the other features I like, I'm still maintaining two areas within the space: working/desk/design area, and washing/paint/storage area.

Just for fun, here's some shots of the first six designs or so that I toyed with endlessly before realizing a fatal flaw.... for example the first few I still like okay, but they totally ignore the giant wheel-wells that I have sticking through the middle of my floor, rendering the chair or the door or whatever totally impossible. 

The floor-plan that I've landed on is much more flexible than all the others - not necessarily once it's finished, but during the building process it will be (hopefully) easy to correct mistakes and roll with the punches. It also leaves me room to build into it once it's 'done', so that I don't have to know where every tiny shelf goes beforehand.

Thom Stanton of Timber Trails met with me this morning to look over my plan and help me with next steps. In the next few days, we're going to create a more refined Sketchup model (mine is pretty slapdash and hard to move forward with), and hopefully start scavenging some parts like windows and replacement doors!

Did I mention that the garage-style lift door on the back of the truck is semi-broken and SUPER LOUD when driving? Given, it's just an empty metal box echoing everything around right now, but I swear it sounds like gunshots and glass breaking anytime you go over 20mph on a Richmond road. I am going to replace it ASAP with some swinging doors, or maybe something more interesting...? Tune in next time...

Business Crush #2

I found a new ROLE MODEL! A family friend did me a big favor and took me out to meet Jamie, proud owner of Virginia Beach's only MOBILE SIGNAGE SHOP. Jamie provides vinyl lettering and graphics services out of his 1989 Chevy Grumman step-van, and has been doing it that way for 25 years. Very recently he acquired a new truck, and is already ahead of me in the renovations process to outfit the second work vehicle in his tiny fleet. 

Jamie gave me a tour of both vans, which gave me a great picture of both the 'during' and 'after' of his process for outfitting his space in the van. Just like how I image my future vehicle, his space is insulated, temperature controlled, equipped with computers, well-lit, and well-powered. I took a bunch of notes and pictures that I'll lay out here. 

Click for big, then rollover for notes:

More notes:

  • He has AGM batteries, SBS brand, 6V 225 AH/20 HR, with a 12 to 120V true sine wave inverter. 
  • He also has a battery charger that runs from either the generator, van motor, or outlet (shore power).
  • This is backed up for the computer by having an APC brand battery backup for computer power. Medium size is plenty, small might also be fine. 
  • His generator is ONAN (car style) brand, 4000 watts = $3000. A portable style Honda is a good alternative - use it 'in the field' if you can plug the van in at home. 
  • Wiring run under the truck is run through rubber-looking exterior-grade pipes to protect it from the road/water/etc. 
  • If the roof is fiberglass, cover it in aluminum so you can walk on it. He says he walks on the roof all the time when installing signage.
  • Get a second fire extinguisher, and make sure it's ABC style (Class A for trash, wood and paper, Class B for liquids and gases, and Class C for energized electrical sources.) One for the front, one for the back
  • Childproof magnet locks (you need a little magnet 'key') keep his cabinet doors closed
  • Get a pot lid mirror for the back of the truck, and/or a backup camera! Don't squish children. 
  • The trucks actually come with a security system, but he doesn't mess with it much. The truck comes home at night and he's inside it otherwise, so he just locks it up and leaves the security stickers on.
  • Having 1 A/C removed the humidity but didn't make it actually cool. 2 A/C may seem like overkill but it'll be frosty. 
  • He gets heat from a diesel-powered something something. Didn't ask about this. Sounded high-powered, and I'm probably going with something different. 
  • "rite-off" is a citrus-based degreaser/glue remover - great at getting vinyl off!
  • Truck paint - the aluminum is primed, possibly with zinc chromate (noxious!) and then a baked enamel top-coat. 
  • Remember to plan exterior signage with the awning in mind - still be able to see my name when it's rolled out. 

Overall, it was a huge morale booster for me to see a 1:1 example of someone who has already taken the path I'm looking down. So much else I've looked at is clooosssee.... but really not the same, and usually not nearly as well-concieved. 

I still need to ask Jamie: What does he do about internet? Does he just not need it, beyond what his phone can provide? Also, does he carry a spare tire?

"BEFORE" pics

Oh man, I realized I haven't really done a good solid 'BEFORE' post. That's largely because I only just recently took the time to sit and take pictures and really inspect all the little things about the truck in it's current state that need repairs. So, here's the official 'before' photoset:


Also, an update about the Metal Baby's visit to Mary the Marvelous Mechanic: We have a clean bill of health! Haha just kidding. We just squeaked by the inspection and things are running "good enough". Good news: It actually required less work than expected, totalling about $1000 instead of $1500 - yay! Mediocre (or bad-but-pretty-much-expected) news: The steering column will need to be replaced within a year or two, and the engine is not in awesome shape. That's a real bummer because I know very little about engines, but what everyone had told me was that a Chevy 350 v-8 would be a great, solid, dependable, strong engine, so I was really pleased to find a truck with one. Now that I know it's a little questionable, I expect I'll have to plan on some serious engine $$ sometime in the not-too-distant future.