*This article was published on Dwell.com to see more photos click HERE. All photos by Anna Jacobs.
Immediately after buying a vintage Airstream that they planned to renovate, Anna Jacobs and Damian Schmitt feared they bit off way more than they could chew.
Nothing about owning the 1966 Overlander would be easy—starting with moving it to Schmitt's home in Bend, Oregon, after buying it on the Oregon Coast. The couple had their newly acquired vintage trailer towed 200 miles by a semi-truck. The Airstream hadn’t been towed, or even moved, in around eight years. To combat the cost of towing, the couple got creative and used their "free 200-mile tow" through their AAA membership. That worked great, but only got the trailer to Sisters, Oregon, where they picked it up and towed it the last 30 miles to Bend. "We had to borrow a truck since we didn’t even own a vehicle that could tow a trailer," Jacobs says.
Watch this video to get a behind-the-scenes look at the couple's DIY project. Video by Mackenzie Wilson
They affectionately named the trailer "Gilda" and began an expensive relationship that many Airstream enthusiasts know all too well. Jacobs and Schmitt initially thought they made out like bandits since they paid just $1,000 for the trailer. In the end, it cost them $35,000 to renovate. At least they think it did—after hitting the $30,000 mark near the end, they stopped counting.
Jacobs is up-front about how they began the renovation process blindly. "Our experience was none," Jacobs says in a matter of fact tone. "We took it knowing that it was going to be a learning experience," she says. A smile wiped away the serious expression on her face. It was as if she was recalling something wild she did as a teenager—a smile that said: "Yeah, it was crazy and stupid, but it was fun and I’d do it all over again if I had the chance."
The unlikely renovation duo was looking for a project to do together that would challenge them both. Jacobs (27) owns Union Culture, a web design and social media management company, while Schmitt (39) is a bike mechanic. Gilda would put Jacobs’ eye for design, Schmitt’s handiness, and their relationship to the test. The morning after they got the trailer home to Bend, it snowed eight inches.
Their plan was to renovate Gilda in a side yard at Schmitt’s house. What about a backup plan? There wasn’t one. "It felt daunting at that point," Schmitt says. "Reality set in when I was inside the trailer in my ski pants, puffy coat, and gloves cutting out what little wiring was still in there. I could see my breath. I definitely questioned whether it was the right idea," he reminisces. The gravity of what they got themselves into stared at them every time they walked out of Schmitt’s home. It’s hard to ignore a 26-foot trailer begging to be renovated, but they knew quitting was not an option.
Schmitt remembers telling his friends about his ambitions at Thanksgiving, right before they bought the trailer. "Nobody thought the project was going to get finished," Schmitt says. They found out later that his buddies had a bet going about when he and Jacobs would get the trailer renovated—if it would happen at all. They succeeded in taking Gilda from ravaged to renovated, but the process took longer than expected—a lot longer. "We thought it would take around eight months to renovate, but it ended up being closer to 15 months," Jacobs says.
The couple persisted and now believes their inexperience led to the best possible outcome. "When we put the design together, neither of us had ever been in an Airstream, we had no idea about what people usually do," Jacobs says. A friend suggested they treat the layout like a studio apartment, and that’s what they ran with. Jacobs wanted an oversized bathroom and a bedroom space that would be separate from the dinette area that telescopes down into a sleeping area, which can fit at least a full-sized bed.
"We tried not to compromise the essential things," Jacobs says. A trip abroad confirmed that they’d be compromising on more than they wanted. During the renovation, the couple went to Morocco where Jacobs was inspired to use mosaic tiles for the Airstream’s bathroom. "Mosaic tiles are typically cement. Obviously that wasn’t going to happen, because when you do take the trailer on the road, things shift. So, we had to use tiles that are an inch, or smaller," She says. They used pebble tile in the bathroom, hexagon tile in the kitchen, and square glass tiles in the shower. They relied on flexible grout to help with any sort of movement that could affect the tile.
As they discovered with the tile, weight is non-negotiable for most renovation decisions when it comes to a space on wheels. Jacobs and Schmitt used 3/4 ACX plywood for the subfloor and Brazilian Koa, engineered hardwood throughout the living space to give the appearance of hardwood without the weight.
Because they think a lot of "made for RV items" look outdated, the majority of fixtures they chose for Gilda were designed for standard homes, including the kitchen and bathroom sinks, faucets, decorative handles, kitchen accessories, and light fixtures. "We ordered most all of our light fixtures from Etsy. So, being custom made, we were easily able to modify them to 12V. That way, they can run off batteries when plugged in and pull less power," Jacobs says.
Throughout the trailer, there’s little luxuries like a three-burner stove, a rainfall-style shower head, and thoughtfully designed hidden storage. "When you walk into new Airstreams, all the storage space and build-outs can sometimes be visually overbearing, making the trailer feel smaller inside," Jacobs says. "We were very mindful of how and where we created additional storage."
Although they didn’t love the idea of having a composting toilet, they went with the eco-friendly option so that they wouldn't have to deal with emptying a black tank or rely on being hooked-up and plugged-in at all times. They don’t have any plans to live in the trailer, but Schmitt still wanted it to feel like you could. Schmitt says, "There’s a younger generation discovering Airstreams and realizing what they represented historically, but they’re also bringing a newer idea to it. We wanted it to feel like a home, not just a weekend getaway. Plus, we can work from here on our computers," he says. The first time they took Gilda on the road, she turned heads. "We were the only Airstream in the campground and we felt awesome. Some people didn't even know what an Airstream was, which I thought was hysterical," Jacobs says.
Deciding it would be a waste of everything they learned during the renovation process, as well as their physical resources, the couple bought their second Airstream in March 2017. They named the 1978 Sovereign "Mollie" and plan to renovate and sell it. They bought Mollie for $4,500 from a couple in Seattle who realized, soon after gutting it, just how big of a project it was going to be to renovate the trailer and decided to put it up for sale.
Schmitt and Jacobs towed the trailer from Seattle to Bend by themselves, but not without incident. "As we plugged in the old trailer, wiring it fried the truck battery within just a few miles of being on the road," Jacobs says. They mis-diagnosed their problem as an alternator failure, swapped out their alternator in an auto parts store parking lot, and spent the night in a hotel. The next day, they figured out the battery was the problem, got a new battery, and towed Mollie home with temporary tow lights. "To us, it seemed like a right of passage for buying vintage Airstreams. You never know what to expect—it’s always an adventure," Jacobs says. This time around, they’re renting an indoor space in a shop to do the renovations.
Ultimately, they feel more prepared to take on the second trailer because of their painful, but empowering, 15 months of hands-on learning with Gilda. "Nothing really went the way we planned. It took longer and cost more money than we thought it would—but in the end, it was also way more rewarding than I ever thought it would be," Schmitt says.