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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

And the build goes on. Without me. Kind of :(

Update: I decided it was best to hire a professional builder for this project. Fred is located in Michigan and began the build over the winter. He sends me pictures every couple of weeks to keep me updated on his progress. You can CLICK HERE to view all posts related to the build.



Recently I'd done a few posts about how I was going to build my own teardrop trailer. I took a MIG Welding Class, then I took a basic metal shop class at the San Jose TechShop location. Sadly, my plans have taken a turn. The news is both bad and good.

ETA 11/14: The day after I published this post I went back to TechShop and received the rest of the class curriculum training. It was scheduled before the publication of this post, not in response to it. My session went so well and the store manager explained to me in more detail how he and his staff will be making even more improvements to the user experience on a day by day basis so I'm happy to report my faith in TechShop is very much restored and I'm hopeful that subsequent classes and practice sessions will go much more smoothly than my first interactions.

My welding gear and a disappointing practice session.

The bad news is that as I gained clarity about what was really going on during my classes and practice session at TechShop, due to frustrations and concerns with how things are currently run at the San Jose location in particular, I've decided not to build my trailer there.

The thing is Hubby and I are friends with the company's founder so I've talked with him on numerous occasions, know his passion, and understand his vision to make it possible for everyday folks (like me) to be able to learn how, with the right equipment and training, to build the things we dream about. But there's a disconnect on a corporate, location, or at the member's level. I suspect it's a bit of all three. All I know is, through my own experiences since early October, the founder's vision is not being fulfilled.

This was the only welding we did in my MIG BSU (Basic Safety & Use) class.

And so, because I was so frustrated and disappointed by the way things were going I realized several things that made me decide to give up on building my trailer. Because the way TechShop is currently staffed and run, not only was I most likely not going to be able to finish my build on time:
  1. There wasn't enough support staff the day I went in for a practice session. This is a statement I make based on the company's commitment that there will always be at least two DC's  (Dream Consultants) available to help members. Yet the day I went there was only one. In the first 40 minutes of my 2 hour session I spent 30 of them waiting for assistance. First 10 minutes to have him check over how I set up the MIG welder, then 20 more for him to help me knock loose the scrap metal I welded to the welding table. I thought there would be someone to watch me practice my first bead but that wasn't going to be possible that day so I had a mini-disaster.  Plus the wire gun wasn't responding to the trigger properly so I gave up for the day rather than sit and wait another 20 minutes or more for additional help.
  2. Worst of all the instructor didn't teach the full class curriculum when I took my MIG BSU welding class. He left out one of the most crucial steps (learning to weld two pieces of metal together) needed for me to move on to the MIG 2 welding class. And he didn't tell us he skipped it. I suspect he didn't teach us because we ran out of time. The reason we ran out of time? Because at the start of the class neither machine was working properly. So during our class one machine was fixed and four of us had to share that one machine. I had to find out on my own weeks later that I didn't learn all that I should have.
  3. In my opinion, the likelihood of being injured during the build process is higher than it should be due to some members leaving equipment in an unsafe condition when they are done working on their projects. Because there isn't enough staff to check the equipment on a frequent enough basis to guarantee that each machine is set up properly before the next person uses it, it creates an unacceptable level of risk. On a sewing machine, ok, I can deal with that. But on the Horizontal Band Saw or a MIG welding machine I'm not willing to take that risk.
  4. It was likely I'd resent my trailer and get an ulcer (at the very least acid reflux) if I tried to work in these conditions for 6 months. 
I was so excited to build my trailer at TechShop I was even going to promote them on my rear door to help spread the word about what a great place it is. I was thinking something like this:


Because I won't be building it there anymore it makes me sad that I can't follow through with this idea.

Two weeks ago I spoke with the founder and yesterday I had a long phone conversation with the new'ish store manager of the San Jose location and am hopeful things will improve, at least to some degree. If the problems are a store management issue I trust him they will be resolved. If the problems are stemming from the corporate level, I don't think he can fix them on his own. I guess time will tell. Some issues they were already working on fixing, others he thanked me for bringing to his attention. To his credit he thanked me for putting us through a horribly negative and awkward conversation because management (anywhere) can't address a problem they're unaware of. He's invited me back to personally finish teaching me the class that was left incomplete and is trying to do what he can to restore my faith in the company.

So that's my bad news.

My good news is I've already found someone to hire to build my trailer for me! I met Fred in the Teardrops n' Tiny Travel Trailers forum I joined to ask other builders to critique my design.

Fred's welded trailer frames

I think we clicked because I wanted to weld my own chassis, insulate my trailer and build a less traditional design. He suggested as long as I was learning to weld I should weld the entire cabin frame because it would reduce my trailer's weight and I need to keep my total weight under 1000 lbs to be able to tow it safely with my Acura. Plus that's the way he builds his own trailers.

Fred's insulated, welded frame, Northern Lite Traveler trailer

Most people buy a bolt together chassis and use wood, foam board, or a combination of both to build their teardrop cabin. So when Fred noticed that I was leaning more towards his building style, he popped into the thread and began giving me advice. When I was willing to consider and implement many of his suggestions he gave me even more ideas. Several other members also gave me a lot of advice helping me to improve my overall design.

I reversed the rear to the front for better aerodynamics, moved the entry door to the rear, moved the axle forward and got rid of the dropped storage compartments.

When I realized I no longer wanted to build my trailer at TechShop, I asked Fred if I could hire him to build it for me. He already had my entire design in his head and all the know-how so I figured he was the right man for the job.

So, I'm trading in my build adventure for a road trip adventure. Once Fred is finished with my little flirty trailer I will drive to to pick it up. In MICHIGAN! That's 2355 miles or 37 hours northeast of San Jose.



I've never driven across the country before so this will be my first opportunity to really see a lot of America. The only downside is I told him I might have to wait until spring because I don't want to drive out and tow it back if there's snow on the ground. But who knows, with our crazy weather patterns it could be a dry winter.

Two of Fred's Trailers

One thing I noticed immediately about Fred's trailers after meeting him in the forum was that he obviously builds to a high level of craftsmanship.

Most trailer builders on the forum document their builds so following his build photo album became an inadvertent qualification process of sorts.

The 5'x8' Northern Lite Traveler weighs in at only 525 pounds!

This one is currently for sale. Yes, that's a Miata pulling a brand new Northern Lite Traveler trailer. It has a sleeping cabin with a mattress, a door on one side, a window on the other, interior shelving and a galley area in the rear. Read more about it HERE.

My original estimate had my trailer (built with steel and wood) weighing in at at least 850 pounds. Once Fred did his magic the dry weight came down to just under 400 lbs! That'll be a huge difference in my gas mileage and ease of towing.


Rather than having the traditional entire rear hatchback that lifts up, as most teardrops do, Fred designed the Northern Lite Traveler's hatch to drop down halfway. This is a great design particularly for tall people who often have to hunch down to fit under the upward swinging, traditional, rear hatch doors.

Birch interior, shelves, and mattress.

If any of my Bay Area friends want a teardrop trailer too I have a great idea! You should buy Fred's Northern Lite Traveler and we can caravan out to Michigan together then camp our way back with our tiny trailers! How fun would that be?

More of Fred's build details

I'll keep you posted on both the trailer build and how things are going at TechShop. I am going to take some wood shop classes because though Fred is building the trailer I'm going to build the interior cabinets on my own because now I've got the building bug and I want to give TechShop a second chance.



To follow the entire build thread from beginning to end just click on the "Trailer - Build" category on the side bar or CLICK HERE.

To view all of my trailer gear and decorating posts CLICK HERE.



Disclosure: Hubby and I are investors in the San Jose TechShop location and as such have received lifetime memberships. We do still have to pay for classes and any material fees associated with classes or projects.

I've also pulled all of my past posts promoting Techshop San Jose for now and will replace them when I feel the company is living up to its mission statement and its commitments to us, the members.

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