The Rolling Blunder

A couple of months ago, I sold my 1966 Land Rover safari wagon to a co-worker. He promised me he'd take care of it and I promised myself I'd do something interesting with the money. I had the idea that maybe I'd go to the truck salvage dealer down the road and see if he had a little commercial van - you know, one of those chevy utility cars with the sliding side door? - that I could turn into a wet-plate darkbox on wheels. When I got there, he had just pulled out this:

(Side View)

Well, I won't say it was love at first sight (that was my previous ex-wife, I've learned not to do that any more) but it was serious heavy breathing. I opened up the back and there was a ginormous generator inside, and spool-rolling machinery - it was a Verizon lineman's truck. The stuff in the back was pretty intimidating:

(Big-ass heavy stuff is big)

I figured he'd be asking about $6,000 for it but I sauntered over and asked anyway. "$2,500" I immediately decided I'd buy it, and must have furrowed my brow in thought as I was wondering how the hell I was going to get that generator out all by myself, because he interpreted it as uncertainty and said "I'll let you have it for $1,500 if you let me take the generator and reel gear out." We had a deal.

(You look small from up here!)

Once I got it, it took me a fair bit of work to pull all the brackets out, remove the bulkhead between the front, remove and plate over the skylights, etc, etc. I ran through 3 cans of PC-7 epoxying little metal plates over all the screw-holes in the sides and floor to make it light and water-tight. Then getting it through inspection and titling, new ball joints and tie-rod ends, more powerful alternator, insurance, etc. It's now street legal and registered at 4,000lbs instead of its previous 11,000lbs (which makes a huge difference to the insurance cost and highway taxes, since it now weighs as much as a Hummer - it's aluminum, remember - and no longer hits commercial weight restrictions). I'm currently part of the way through the interior. I put down acoustic rubber matting with vinyl flooring over it, carpeted the side walls.

(It looks like a lot of space but it fills up fast!)

I have the sink in, along with the water tank, drain, pump system, battery box (not shown) and battery switch-panel and basic electronics. There are pigtails in the ceiling for LED-red safe-lights everywhere and I eventually intend to make a snap-on head-liner that'll let me a) wash it b) unsnap it if I need to get up in the ceiling to run more wires and stuff. There are 2 15-watt solar panels and 2 deep-cycle trolling motor batteries that I'll patch into the electrical system in the back to drive the pump and filler pump. And, lastly, I've got a bunch of metal cabinets and a small 12-V refrigerator that I'll be bolting in, then I'll construct a fold-out bunk bed and I should be ready to roll. Now, here's the part that's going to make you photographers feel a bit nauseous. The rear panel door has a drop-down door for the generator's exhaust, which I am going to convert into a drop-down lensboard. I have a big old russian optic that's about f/2.8 300mm, which casts a really nice image well into the back of the van. If I arrange the interior right I'll be able to sensitize a plate, stick it on an easel, open the lens, capture a photo, and then I'll have the sink right there. Yes, I will be inside my camera, sort of a 2-ton dual-rear-wheel instamatic with a little photographer inside.

(Sink with plumbing and drain, tank)

Everything is insanely bolted down - the sink is supported on 3/8" bolts that go through the floor and have huge washers on the bottom for strain relief. I'm not thrilled with the scenario of hitting something and having a 40gal water tank fly forward and hit me, especially if it's accompanied by a tank of cyanide and a bottle of flaming collodion. You can see the water tank has 400-lb straps on it; those are hooked through stainless steel loops bolted through the frame. Storage for the 8x10 Cambo and tripod are what's bugging me right now. My current plan is to sew a padded wrap-bag for it, and make restraining straps so I can just lash it down into the sink when I'm moving. I'll never be using the sink when I have the camera put away, after all. I'm going to see if I can find storage for 3 fotdiox light panels and tripods and a 2,000 watt inverter, in case I want to break out studio lights and do some night shots. This is goofy, I know, but I want to travel across the country and do wet plates of diners and laundromats. Um. Because? I'll post more pictures as I continue. But the basics are done and I'm going to see if I can make some curtains next week ("light tight" is not normally a term associated with vans, unless you work for the CIA) and I'll start taking shakedown cruises as I work on the details.

Oh, yeah, the front of the van looked - oddly familiar. I now have a 24x48" sheet of perforated stainless steel that I've painted red and white Domo-Kun mouth on. I'll replace the stock white plastic grille with the Domo-Kun mouth; it'll protect the radiator better anyway.


Update #2:

It's been pretty hot up here in north central middle of noplace, so I've been a bit reluctant to crawl around in a parking lot under a sun-smouldering-hot van. Every operation pretty much seems to require it, unfortunately. Since all the components need to be shock-mounted and vibration-proof that means a lot of drilling holes, positioning bolts, and tightening them.

(battery box and pumps)

I finally completed the mounting for the battery box, battery, and filling pump. Inside the battery box is a 40# trolling motor deep cycle battery and a bunch of vibration-damping padding. Did you know that batteries wear out very quickly when exposed to constant vibration? Neither did I. I nestled the battery box up against the side of the wheel well, so in case of an accident it will be braced by the solid metal. The retaining strap is bolted through the undercarriage with stainless steel screws with big washers for strain-relief. You can see there are two pumps under the sink - one powers the sink and has a pressure-cutoff, and the other is to pump water up into the tank. I was thinking that when I am on the road, I'll need a way to get more water into the storage tank, so I've set it up with a hose and a couple attachments that will let me either suck water out of a pool or garden hose or 5gal jerrican.

(interior with cabinets)

If I'm going to work and camp in this thing, I'll need places to store things. I need one cabinet, at least, for my wet plate stuff - clean plates, chemicals, bottles, mixing bottles, filters, cleaning gear, assloads of paper towels, tanks, etc. At the far end of the sink there is a 30" cabinet on the floor, which I intend to turn into the primary wet plate chemistry storing area. On the wall over the sink is another cabinet that I will store - other stuff - in. And on the left side is yet another cabinet for more stuff. The left-hand cabinet will hang slightly over the bunk bed, and I intend to make a miniature flip-down deskette that I can use when I'm checking my email, scanning plates, reading, eating, etc. The deskette will also help prevent me from bashing my skull on the sharp metal corner of the cabinet.

Mounting these cabinets would have been simple if I hadn't been working alone. If I'd had a friend on the outside of the van, who could stick a bolt through the hole and spin it when I put the nut on, it would have taken a couple minutes to mount each cabinet. Working solo, I had to drill the hole, go outside and climb a ladder, stick a bolt through the hole and tape it in place (so it wouldn't fall) then go back inside, hump the cabinet up into place, hold it with one hand, and fumble the washer and nut onto it. Then, I could clamp vice-grips to the nut and run outside with a screwdriver, back up the ladder, and tighten the screw while the vice-grip kept the nut from spinning. Four times for each cabinet. For the pumps and the battery box, it was the same process except crawling on a hot asphalt parking-lot to clamp the nut from underneath. I'm going to feel it, tomorrow.

(the siege perilous and pilot's seat)

One thing that is nice about working on your own projects is that sometimes you can do things in the fun order rather than the optimal order. I figured that I'd reward myself by letting myself install the bitchin' cool seats I got. So that involved taking them out - which meant I discovered that the seat-bases are solid 1/4" steel 3" square tubing. The seats probably weigh 15-20lbs each but the mounting bases weigh 50lbs. Once I had them out, I was ready to quit! But it's dangerous to operate a motor vehicle standing up, so I had to push on. It turned out that the seat bases were not standard - one had the rails at a standard 10" spacing but the pilot's seat had them 12" apart. I had to move the rails, make some adapter plates, blah blah blah and suddenly a "quick project" had turned into a 2+ hour slug-fest. Then, of course, the bases needed to be painted and, while they dried, I mounted the seatbelts. That turned into another 2+ hour slug-fest. Seatbelts have to be mounted correctly or an impact can snap your neck, or tear the seatbelt mount free and send you out the window into traffic. So I unleashed a whole lot of whupass creating load-spreaders out of stainless steel sheet, epoxied on the other side of the aluminum panels covering the doors, etc. The result is that the seatbelts are comfortable, allow the seats to recline (the original seats didn't recline) and they will withstand an impact that won't kill everyone outright.

Next up: I need to make curtains to black out the front and back and side vents - that'll be a bit of sewing - and then I can start to think about constructing the bunk-bed. Sometime in there, I have heavy-duty switches that I intend to use to control the pumps, and I'll begin to figure out where the electrical system will route. I think that this represents approximately a halfway point, or maybe a bit more than halfway!

Bellwether Farm, Morrisdale Pennsylvania. July 18 2011