Vingate Trailer Acadamy 2013

A few weeks ago we flew from Seattle to Albuquerque for the 6th annual Vintage Trailer Academy. We arrived not really knowing what to expect — I mean, we don’t actually have a vintage trailer, but this past year we’ve thought a lot about getting one, and have jumped at the chance to check out the ones for sale in our area. Plus, we’ve lived fulltime in an Airstream for over two years, so I wouldn’t consider us newbies when it comes to navigating the hassles of our home. We looked at this event as an opportunity to really see what goes into remodeling, and even rebuilding a vintage Airstream.

Let’s start from the beginning.

We went to the event to gain an education, and we did get one — on some things. We learned it’s important to remember the instructors are really good at what they do, but they are giving all the attendees their opinions and suggestions on how things should/can be done. What works for a 1950s Airstream might not work for a 1970s model, so it’s really important not to take this info as gospel and use it as a guide for what you want to do in your own model.

We also learned that if you have the right skills, attitude, and enough time, you can restore an Airstream.  Make no mistake, restoring vintage trailers is a LOT of work and not for the faint of heart. You need better than average knowledge and skills in welding, electrical (AC and DC), woodworking, metalworking, and plumbing – or you need to hire people who can do the parts you can’t.

Vintage Trailer Academy

Where We Learned The Most: Polishing.

By far, and Deke and I both agree on this, the best information session for us was Polishing given by Levon Register. This session involved him polishing the section of a door from start to finish and giving step-by-step instructions as he went along. We’d never actually seen anyone polish, but we’ve heard nothing but grumbles about it, so it was invaluable to see the whole process. Levon made suggestions on tools and polish, and also included helpful hints from his years of experience. It was a winner by far.


A Close Second: Lew Farber.

We went to several of Lew’s (Lewster of fame) sessions because they were no-nonsense, straightforward talks about batteries, electrical systems and solar panels. While his talks tended to go technical from time to time (he’s a Master RV Technician and Electrical Engineer), he also really embraces new technology — even for vintage models. When asked which batteries to buy, he’s not shy about answering ‘Lifeline’,  and we appreciated that kind of advice, because we don’t have 20 years to do research on what battery to use. Plus, he used a microphone during all this talks. Bonus points.

The Other Stuff.

We attended at least one talk by each presenter. While most were informative, we didn’t stick around for all of them. Here are a few reasons why:

Vintage Trailer Academy

The Crowds.

There were too many people for 3 of the 4 instructional spaces. In most sessions, people ended up cramming themselves in because there weren’t enough chairs (mainly because the space was too small). This made it uncomfortable (a crowded tent in New Mexico in May is hot, and it’s difficult to write good notes while standing for 90 minutes – video taking was strictly forbidden) . More than a few times we just ended up leaving. Hopefully they’ll have larger tents next year to accommodate the larger crowds.


Scheduling and Timing.

Several of the classes extended over multiple sessions while others were the same class repeated throughout the day, but the itinerary didn’t make this very clear. For example, we missed the first session of a class titled “Cabinetry” only to learn that the second session was a continuation of the first – pointless if you missed the first one. A simple explanation in the guide book would have helped us better plan our days.

Sessions were 90 minutes in most cases, and back to back. However, there were several locations around the park to get to (each tent had a designation in the book, but none on the actual tent), and no built in buffer time to get there. So again, you either had to leave the session you were in to get a chair at the next one, or risk not getting in to an overcrowded class in an undersized classroom.

And finally, many of our classes were hijacked by questions that were hyper-specific. We know most people were there for help with their specific models, so maybe making more Open-For-Student-Requests sessions might allow people to ask about things related to their models. Or even having a sign up before the event so those with really specific questions can go and ask the instructor something at another time.

Don’t get us wrong – we’re all about asking questions for clarity if they are related to the topic at hand, but making 40+ people listen while you ask about how to get your 1957 model’s plumbing to work better because since a tree fell on it at a campsite in Idaho 4 years ago it just doesn’t seem to get enough water pressure in the shower, but the sink is ok, really isn’t fair to others. (Situation example changed to protect those involved).

The Guide to the event, and handouts.

Here’s where we’re nitpicking. The book didn’t have page numbers (I warned about the nitpicking) which meant wasting a lot of time at the beginning of a session while the instructor tried to tell you the page for his/her class was “about 3/4 of the way back” while holding up the book to give you an idea. Also, we were told in two sessions at the end of the weekend that the handouts were gone. My answer to that would be to go get more. Minor thing, we know, but hey, we took off work, flew in, paid for a hotel and the event — so yes, if there’s a specific handout for the session and you know you’re getting low, go make more.

Vintage Trailer Academy

Teaching vs Doing.

One of the things that we, and a lot of others, were really interested in seeing was the Floor Remodel session. This was an on-going rip out/rebuild of an Airstream floor that continued for the whole event. Our hope was to get a step by step understanding of how one replaces damaged floors. The reality was more of an exhibition than a learning event.

In this session, highly skilled restorers did the work in front of an audience – but they didn’t always wear microphones or any other presentation gear. One staffer tried to give updates of what was happening from time to time over a microphone (that worked only some of the time), but his interjections were intermittent, often in response questions from the audience, and in general, were really difficult to follow.

Essentially the people teaching the class went about their normal day as if they were working in their shops. The only difference was that 40+ people were staring at them, trying to understand what they were doing while fighting for a peek through the crowd. We can see how this hands-on format could work for smaller groups, but in large classes it was frustrating for those of us who were trying to figure out what was going on.


And back to the itinerary.

Why harp on the itinerary so much? Because we wanted to maximize our learning at this event by seeing as much as we could over the course of its 3 days, and having a descriptive list of classes would have been a major part of that.

We noticed after the first couple of classes that the range of attendee knowledge was enormous. From people like us, to people that have remodeled their 2nd, 3rd and even 4th Airstreams. We never really knew what we were getting into with each session. We know (because we saw it happen, and there’s almost nothing more annoying than some guy snickering and turning to stare at you when you ask a question) that some people were annoyed with the simple clarification questions being asked (like ‘What’s a Sharkbite fitting?’). Maybe a specific group of classes for beginners (and intermediate and advanced, respectively) would have been good?

The opposite is also true. We definitely tuned out when we heard “Those of you who’ve installed swimming pools before should be familiar with this.” Plus we have no idea what “gravity vector” means or how to figure it out. Obviously, the instructors have no idea the skill level of the attendees beforehand, making it almost impossible to plan a talk that relates to everyone. So why not do a track system? If you’re giving 3 talks on Plumbing anyway, why not make one for beginners, one for intermediate and one for advanced instead of trying to cram all three into one talk?

Constructive Feedback

Just like the instructors giving the talks, the following is just our opinion. There’s no doubt the event is a great resource and we appreciate all the work that goes into hosting it, but we also see it having much more potential, and sincerely hope to see it grow each year. To achieve growth and give more of an “Academy” feel, here are some of our suggestions:

  • Mic everyone, or pair experts with announcers – If someone is standing in front, they should either have a microphone explaining the whys and hows of every step, or they should have another person doing this if their hands are busy with the demonstration.
  • Divvy up classes – Just like college – 101 level can be large  and basic while master classes are for the more specialized and advanced students in smaller groups. We would even be happy with different price levels to match.
  • Place cameras and monitors – If you have big classes with many people trying to see what’s happening, maybe rig up some GoPro cameras, attach them to the presenters, and stream them to monitors.
  • Give more direction – Put signs up pointing to and labeling classrooms. Give better class explanations. Tell people what to expect.
  • Don’t entertain EVERY question – Keep the room on track. If a question is too specific, give an after class response. Give time between classes or sign ups before the event to capture specific situational questions.


  • Have an open house – We understand that it’s not a rally, but lots of people sure wanted to show off their projects to us as we walked around the park. Why not leave the last day open to walking around and seeing each others’ trailers?
  • And to the attendees — please turn off your cell phones before the class begins. Seriously. Turn them off.

We’ve spent a lot of time this week reviewing our notes and talking to others in attendance, but please remember, that this is just our take on it. We have no doubt a lot of people came away from the event with notebooks full of helpful hints to complete their vintage project, and we will move forward on our own projects having a better understanding of what’s going into it. We also shared this info with the organizers and got a great response from them on some of the items we listed, and we appreciated the time they took to give us feedback as well.