We’ve been giving mini-updates in our Alaskan travelogues about the progress on the bus projects going on back in Elkhart. But it’s time to catch you all up on the full story.
We had a grand plan for the summer of 2015 – we plotted to leave our bus at a shop we thought we could trust to handle the paint job and some other upgrades, and meanwhile we would get in a much needed vacation while our house was not habitable.
On the surface, this seemed like a great idea and a very smart way to accomplish these two goals simultaneously.
The reality, however…
We had our suspicions based on the slower than anticipated frequency of progress reports we were receiving, but it wasn’t until we returned to Elkhart this week that reality set in just how far behind things have fallen.
Lesson Learned: We will never ever again leave our bus behind to have work done while we are not there to directly supervise. Ever.
It’s always tough to have to report on things that aren’t going as well as hoped, and we want to be fair to Master Tech in what we share publicly. But at the end of the day, this is a job we hired out to be done with a set and agreed to timeline, and it has not been met.
We know other people have made plans to have work done at Master Tech based upon our sharing that we had selected this shop for our projects, and it is only fair to our readers to share about our disappointments as well.
We are giving Master Tech every opportunity to make it right, and to get this project back on track.
We are still hopeful that this story will end well.
But right now, this post will explain where we are at, and how we got there.
We’ve created a quick video update as well – filmed in our currently dismantled bus:
Last year we had the opportunity to have some minor work done to our bus at Master Tech RV, and we were really quite impressed with their operation.
Over the past year, we’ve met up with owner Tim Klenk and his son Austin again in many locations across the country as our paths have crossed at RV rallies and elsewhere.
A friendship had formed, and we started talking to them about bringing our bus to Elkhart to be re-painted this summer and to tackle a few other major upgrades along the way.
They were really excited to work with us.
For a full list of the projects we started off aiming to tackle:
Zephyr’s Summer 2015 Renovation Hit List
We knew this was a big undertaking. But Master Tech assured us that the 4-8 weeks estimated timeframe they had given us for our list of projects seemed reasonable – and we planned our trip so we should have been arriving back about the time things were finishing up so that we could be onsite for any final tweaks.
Originally that was scheduled to be mid July.
We of course took into account that renovation jobs are likely to take longer than anticipated, and we realistically thought we’d be hitting the road in early August.
It seemed smart to pad in a few weeks of extra buffer, just in case…
Here’s how things currently stand schedule wise:
The First Signs of Slipping Schedules
We left Elkhart in late May, after spending a week with Tim going over all of the projects – getting estimates, taking measurements, and ordering parts.
When we left, he told us he was planning to pull our bus into the shop the very next week and he would be getting started right away on the hydronic system install, which he wanted to have completed before the bus went to paint.
But when we left St. Louis on June 3rd for our slow trek to Alaska the bus still hadn’t been pulled into the garage.
By the time we boarded our cruise in Vancouver on June 10, it was still sitting out in the parking lot, never once touched.
On June 15th, towards the end of our cruise, we messaged Tim saying:
“You do realize now over one third of the time we gave you for the project has passed, and you literally have not even touched the bus yet? We are getting concerned.”
We know the bus had not been touched because we had left surveillance cameras on that notify us when there’s motion in the RV.
And wouldn’t you know it, on June 16th we get notifications that the bus is in motion, and project updates and photos suddenly start coming our way.
For a couple weeks, all seemed well – projects were finally happening at a rapid pace.
The generator was pulled, the old hot water heater came out, the PrecisionTemp TwinTemp Jr hydronic system was partially installed, and windows & accessories on the bus started coming off in preparation for painting.
The bus was taken out back and the old paint was stripped, and we got some updates about minor body work being done.
And Then… The Damage
On our cruise back from Alaska, on July 9th Tim sent us a TXT message requesting a check-in call.
He started off saying there was a problem… and he already had a solution.
He told us that the contractor he had hired to do the media blasting to strip the old paint off the bus hadn’t protected the exposed metal as well as they should have.
And because of this carelessness, there had been new damage done to every single metal panel on the bus located directly under the paint line.
Our hearts sunk.
A major point we had made before we left was how difficult fixing the metal was and how important it was to protect it – our bus came from the factory 54 years ago with a beautiful and durable anodized satin finish.
We love the satin finish.
From our project plan document shared with Tim back in May:
We absolutely love the matte satin stock anodized aluminum look that our bus originally came with. “Shine” is not a word we want to hear… We so much prefer the matte look to shiny. Everyone keeps asking us if we want to make our bus shine like a polished Airstream… The answer is an absolute giant NO! But we do love the way Zephyr currently glows in the setting sunlight. We’d rather have a few visible scars than give that up for paint.
And now our beautiful metal had been damaged.
The only way to repair damage to anodized aluminum is to either polish off the anodized surface and make it shiny (which we do NOT want), paint over it, or replace it.
To remedy the damage, Tim told us that he had successfully tracked down some of the last remaining NOS (new old stock) aluminum panels for our bus. And he told us he already had an insurance claim into the paint stripping contractor’s company to pay for replacing all the damaged panels.
On one hand, the potential of satiny new panels was pretty alluring.
And we did appreciate his time and effort into tracking down a solution before notifying us.
But we also found it frustrating that we weren’t informed right away about the damage, and consulted about potential remedies. Tim waited 10 full days before checking in with us about it.
Imposition on our vacation or not, we feel that checking in immediately would have been the right thing to do.
We had a hunch just how much work it would be to replace the damaged panels, and we were especially concerned about replicating the look of the original buck rivets. Now that the bus was converted to an RV, there’s no access to the inside of the body panels without removing the entire interior.
So instead of buck rivets, pull rivets would need to be used – which in our experience do not leave behind a finished smooth appearance. It would take a true master at riveting to make it look good and blend in with the look of the rest of the bus.
But Tim promised us he could do it – and he didn’t present us with any other alternative path forward.
He also told us that once he had the insurance go ahead to proceed, it would actually be a quick and easy process to change out the panels – and it wouldn’t impact the schedule too badly overall either.
We’ve been nervous wrecks ever since – worrying about our bus having its skin stripped off, and what it might look like after.
Would the remedy be worse than the damage done?
Would things get done on time?
Master Tech finished a bit of the remaining cosmetic body work on the top half of the bus, and proceeded to paint the roof.
But with lower body panels slated to be replaced, the rest of the painting project ground to a halt and Zephyr was moved out of the paint department and set aside to wait.
The panel situation shouldn’t have delayed the other projects – finishing a partially installed hydronics system, fabricating the awning bracket, installing the generator, or any of the needed interior woodworking.
Unfortunately, everything stalled at this point, and communication from Master Tech became frustratingly scarce.
We lashed out on August 1st in a text message to Tim:
“It has been over a month since the paint blasting (and the damage), and over three weeks since you first let us know that it would not be a problem, and that the parts were found and ready to be shipped. We’ve trusted you to handle it – but we are VERY concerned about the schedule impact, and growing increasingly so. We had planned to be moving back into the bus this week, and to be gearing up to start heading west. As you know, our bus is our home. We are now firmly done with our Alaskan adventure which was planned to overlap this project.. which means we are pretty much ‘homeless’ now. We need firm answers on where this project is so we can make appropriate plans for where we will live.”
We finally managed to get a check in call with Tim scheduled on August 4.
During the call Tim committed to moving heaven and earth towards having our bus completely done by the end of the month so we could keep our upcoming obligations.
To make the deadline, he told us he had decided to move forward with getting the replacement body panels shipped in despite the status of the insurance claim.
And he promised to resume the other stalled projects immediately too.
We made plans to come up to Elkhart in person to make sure this timeline was realistic.
And more importantly, we wanted to get more comfortable with the panel replacement plan before they starting ripping the aluminum skin off – a major point of no return.
When we arrived this past Monday morning, we were sadly disappointed to see that no work had been done the week before.
There were excuses after excuses – they were short staffed, other projects were taking longer than expected, and so on…
In person, things were in more disarray than we could have imagined.
It was hard to see how things could possibly get back on track.
But the new panels were due in Tuesday afternoon, so we decided to stick around to see them.
When the panels did arrive (Wednesday), we asked Tim to prove to us that he’d be able to replace the over 2000 rivets that would need to be removed – and have them look just like the originals.
He got out some scrap metal to show us, and we were horrified with the results.
None of them looked even remotely good to us.
It turns out that the shaving tool that rounds off the pull rivets leaves behind a scratched and shiny surface that may look fine under paint, but on bare metal it was a glaringly different look.
Heartbroken & Hopeless
We would be getting rid of the scratches on our satin aluminum body – but gaining thousands of shiny scratched up dots on that body in the process.
We had to seriously consider which would be worse looking from a distance – all of the middle rivets on the bus looking like this (and noticeably different from all the other old rivets), or just living with the new damage that was done during the paint stripping.
After all, the existing metal is 54 years old, and already has its own share of beauty marks that we long ago accepted as being part of Zephyr’s character.
We also realized from witnessing the sample riveting process just how time consuming this would be.
Tim initially estimated it would take him less than a week to do a panel replacement on the entire bus – but we were starting to realize that this seemed to be an impossible goal.
After discussing it, and holding the sample rivets up in various light, we told Tim that we were NOT accepting the proposed solution.
We did not authorize any body panels removed or replaced.
Maybe there’s a master vintage aircraft restoration riveter out there who can make things look original, but we were simply out of time.
(If you are such a riveter, and can get to Elkhart immediately… let us know!)
Our planned two day stop in Elkhart to check up on the bus was a very frustrating and emotionally deflating experience.
Our hearts were broken as to how little attention our project was getting.
But goodness did it feel GOOD to sit in our bus again.. ahhh.. there’s nothing like home!! Being in our bus reminded us how much we loved living in it.
With the current pace of projects, it seemed we’d be lucky if our bus would be out of there by the end of this year, let alone by the end of this month.
We just couldn’t leave to go back to St. Louis with things so far off track, and the future so uncertain.
So we extended at the hotel two more days, and set out to find a path forward.
A Fresh Start
It is clear that Master Tech has the skills to do an amazing job with a project like ours (we’ve seen their work), and we know that they weren’t directly responsible for the metal damage – it was demoralizing for everyone.
So we walked in Thursday morning, and told Tim we needed to sit down with all of the leads in the shop to work jointly on a plan.
It turns out that our bus had been “Tim’s special project” – and in ideal circumstances it would be great to be getting so much personal attention from the owner of the shop who is clearly a very skilled master craftsman and an artist.
As the owner of the shop, he is also completely overwhelmed with a thousand other fires to fight, and he has to keep putting them out so that other work in the shop could get handled.
Despite his best intentions – there just wasn’t enough of Tim to go around.
And because we were a special project (with the details only in Tim’s head) – there was no one else working at Master Tech who could step in to take over lead on Zephyr to make sure that progress was still getting made.
We all recognized how unfortunate the situation had gotten – but it was time for a “fresh start” with the whole Master Tech team on board, and with a project plan that everyone could see that wasn’t just trapped inside one person’s head.
We dropped a good number of projects from our list to simplify the path forward, and hopefully we have come up with a game plan that gets us painted and out the door by the end of the month.
Our fingers crossed – and we really want this story to end well.
We have a hard deadline of being on the road by September 1st, as we have over 1,500 miles (that’s 10 driving days and 20 rest/work days at our ‘fast’ pace) to travel to Albuquerque by October 2.
We especially don’t want that first trip to be rushed, as we’ll have a coach with a lot of new systems to shake-out.
Not to mention, a huge backlog of work to catch up on.
Why Albuquerque by October 2? We are co-hosts of the first ever Xscaper’s Convergence at the Balloon Fiesta.
The Xscapers are the new lifestyle group of the Escapee’s RV Club aimed at meeting the needs of the working aged RVer.
We helped launch the group with Travis & Mel Carr earlier this year – and if we’re not able to make it to the first event of a group that we help found… well, let’s just say that ain’t gonna look good for anyone.
Return to Elkhart
During our time this week, we also sought out short term lodging options in Elkhart that are pet friendly – and they are few and far between.
But we are very blessed with awesome readers – and one contacted us offering to loan us their RV to park at Master Tech so that we can be on site.
So early next week we’ll return to be there until the end.
We’ll be involved with the project leads on our bus and working daily towards keeping everything on task so we can roll by September 1.
A lot has to come together. It’s very ambitious to have so much left to do. It’s going to be an exhausting ride.
But in the end, it should be awesome and well worth the wait.
We’ll continue reporting from the field once we return next week!
The countdown is on… 14 days until deadline.
(Which wasn’t met.. we didn’t hit the road until September 16.)
Want to follow the progress?
- Bus Renovation Progress Report: A Riveting Tale of Why We’re Way Behind Schedule – Our first report onsite back in Elkhart.
- Bus Renovation Progress Report #2: Week of August 17 – Getting the project back on track.
- Bus Renovation Progress Report #3: Roller Coaster Week – August 22-27 –
- Bus Renovation Progress Report #4: The Paint Job! (August 27- Sept 2)
- Bus Renovation Progress Report #5: Con-Du-It Attitude (Sept 3-9)
- Bus Progress Report #6: The HOME Stretch! (September 10-16)
And… the final project list: Summer 2015 Bus Renovations Tour & Project List
Comment Notes: Thank you for all of the wonderful and supportive comments.. they really help us keep energized.
However, we will not approve comments that are speculations about this situation or the people & companies involved – please keep it factual, thanks.
Also, we realize folks want to help and fix this situation – it’s only natural. Unless you have experience with this era of bus or very similar situation, we do ask that you refrain from suggesting solutions. And there are reasons why some of the obvious solutions (like polishing, painting or other types of rivets) are not our desired outcome – and we just are lacking time to keep re-answering. We do appreciate your concern, we really do – but we need to focus on getting this situation completed to our satisfaction.