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Andy and I were in an auto parts store, hoping beyond hope that there was something — anything — to help in our battle against our 1965 Clark Cortez motorhome’s underseal and rust removal.
“We need to remove a rubbery underseal in an old RV that we are restoring,” we tell the employee.
“Gluttons for punishment then, huh?”
The man said this without smiling, which told me he at least was fully aware that we crawled out of a hell hole.
It is important you know this too because other than misery and injuries, there isn’t much more you are going to get out of this post. Therefore, if you are questioning Should I commit to reading this?, I’ll offer up a summary in the hopes of making your decision easier:
↠ UNDERSEAL SUMMARY ↞
Want to read about a specific story? Click below to drive there!
- There were serious injuries, including Andy attempting to blind himself with his angle grinder’s knotted wire wheel. (I wish I was exaggerating. Heck, he wishes, too.)
- This was the first time we genuinely questioned our Clark Cortez purchase. Again and again and …
- Our rust damage was finally visible, and with it comes corroded roof ribs that are no longer holding up our roof and a constellation of holes through our roof.
Take a moment to really decide because if you’re planning to stick around because if you are — well, I suppose that means you are just as ridiculously committed to our steel beast as we are and, if that’s true, we can set off down this road together …
Let me take you back in time — It is March 2020, and there is a terrifying and sudden global shutdown due to the highly transmittable and deadly COVID-19 virus. The world paused — for me, for Andy, for you. What I do not talk about in our Cortez posts though is my health; however, now there is reason to bring it up. I have multiple sclerosis, which is an autoimmune disease that is chronic and debilitating due to my immune system attacking the protective covering around my nerves. This then causes problems that are both unpredictable and vast based on the extent of nerve damage and the specific nerve damaged. Therefore, as COVID and the fear of the virus spread, Andy and I lived more frightened than some because there is an increased risk for those with compromised immune systems. Because of this, we were extremely careful and continued to place ourselves under quarantine even after operations slowly began again.
This, though, made us feel extremely isolated in our small apartment so I cannot word adequately how much the farm and our Cortez saved our sanity.
Tucked between Chicken Houses Three and Four, we were protected in the vastness of open acres blooming bright yellow buttercups.
The farm proved again (since I was small) to be my safe haven so that each weekend when Andy and I drove out to continue working on our antique RV, we felt the weight of global-pandemic panic lift from our shoulders and for the first time that week, we were able to smile.
Saying this, I worry you will have the wrong impression — True, we were briefly settled in a utopia, but the work we were undertaking was beyond hellish.
Listen, if Andy and I said removing of a bit of glued down cork on top of wood panels is arduous, we realize our errors. (Our Cortez likes to humble us in this way.) Our most monstrous job — and one that I cannot even wish upon my darkest of enemies — remains our underseal and rust removal.
In the beginning, Andy and I did not fully realize how tortuous this job would be. We started clean and happy — smiling even.
I mainly had reason to be excited — This was the first time I got to use a power tool so I was beyond eager. I felt fearless, dominant, and strong. Plus, Andy had purchased an angle grinder for himself and a second angle grinder for me so this was my power tool. I was going to own it, name it, and use it to stake my spot in the present for everyone to see. This was my day to shine so when I asked Andy to demonstrate how to use the power tool, I felt my eagerness visibly deflate when I saw first-hand how laborious this job would be.
And even then, I had no idea.
“That’s going to take a thousand years,” I sighed with hunched already-dejected shoulders.
Turns out, this job took 13 days (which felt like a thousand years) …
Another reason I deflated when I picked up my angle grinder was because I realized how heavy the sucker was. According to Home Depot’s website, Milwaukee’s angle grinder is three and a half pounds — and I get it, that doesn’t sound heavy but until you’ve held an angle grinder for hours above your head and in front of your body, leave a message if you want to show off your muscles to prove me wrong.
Yet, this was my tool and this was my job so I started at a rear wall on our rectangular relic and began. Here’s what I discovered:
Depending on the panel size, removing underseal from one panel takes anywhere from half an hour to an hour. The work is tough, too — As the grinding wheel heats up, the wheel melts the underseal, which makes the process harder.
Because of this, I bounced back and forth between two panels, which made the removal feel even slower.
More frustratingly, my protective outfit was not cutting it: I had on a Tyvek disposable suit that made me became all too aware of it zero breathability due to my sweat slicking back and forth under the material. Gross.
Not only this, but Andy and I were working on a Virginia April day, which means humidity and temperatures near, at, or over 100 degrees. This means I was a panting, sweating, dying mess and my suit had to come off.
Once I shed my layer, there were more problems though — I became keenly aware of the underseal flying off the wall and sprinkling in my hair, on my skin, and on my clothes.
This is when I started to itch … then break out in hives in an allergic reaction.
“I’m ready to leave,” I pouted to Andy.
Andy obliged … in his perfect, clean clothing because — please note here — he found another job to do, which involved investigating and removing one air conditioning unit (this one cools when driving and was situated above our heads). Basically he found a sneaky way to get out of the underseal and rust removal entirely for the first day. I’d find a way to remedy this though on the second day but until then, know I put on my safety glasses and focused. A bit of hard work never hurt anyone.
I woke with renewed energy and conviction: I would not be the sole strength tackling our underseal and rust.
“Misery loves company,” I explained to Andy because — hence forth — my man would be joining me. It was only right he appreciate the work involved.
We suited up together: our Buffs, hats, disposable suits, goggles, respirators, gloves. We looked like scientists or medical professionals suited up to battle a deadly virus. And our work was that serious.
While I picked up where I left off in the underseal, Andy also started at the back but he began on the ceiling, though alternated to the passenger walls when needing a break from the weight of the angle grinder held above his head.
“I can’t do this,” he exhaled. He was physically drained after merely two panels shined their beautiful silvery metal, but hey — I have never been more in agreement. “I’m not made for this sort of manual labor,” he confessed.
Because of this, he went into full brainstorm mode and were convinced different methods of attack would be more beneficial:
The first was a sandblaster, but it proved to be slower and more messy. The second was chemicals in the form of a paint and epoxy remover, but it made zero difference … even after multiple layers were applied.
We felt defeated and clueless on what to turn to so it was back to the angle grinders, which resulted in a few more panels cleared …
PS–Yes, we did look exactly like this at the end of the day when we walked into that auto parts store that I mentioned at the top of this post. Now you understand precisely why the employee knew we stepped out of a hell hole.
PPS–When we were packing up to go, I realized my fingers felt odd and that’s when I discovered another major issue:
I had dissolved my fingertips in the paint stripper.
Just so you don’t question my sanity more than I did in this moment, I had protected myself by wearing three pairs of gloves and being sure not to touch the chemicals directly even then. Yet, I still managed to dissolve my fingertips so Andy and I only learned the paint stripper works on skin and not underseal.
I’m not going to ignore the obvious here — Our misery level was 100%. Y’all, underseal removal is time-consuming and downright grueling. At this point, I was at a crossroads of Cry and Yell, and I was openly questioning not only my sanity but Andy’s as well.
“What are we doing?!” I asked him repetitively. “What. are. we. doing?! I miss hiking and camping — What are we doing in this vehicle called a Cortez taking off underseal?!”
We weren’t even one-fourth of the way done, and all I saw and felt was how much the angle grinder — and, therefore, the Cortez — was sucking my vitality away. Between the ear-shrieking yell of the grinder, I was thinking about the places I wanted to be most: in the forest, walking under trees’ leaves or in our tent tucked inside a sleeping bag, listening to the birds and bugs of the night. Each year we owned the Cortez, we were removed from our primary passion of traveling and trekking up mountains …
and what was most scary about was not the neglect of walking on trails with long-distance packs but the reality that my largest Cortez concern had come true.
This realization would snap me out of my thoughts, and I’d be propelled into what I was actually doing — removing underseal while being covered in underseal with arms that were cramping and hands that were numb from the vibrations of an angle grinder that I was holding in a metal steaming box in the middle of summer.
To say I was miserable is an understatement.
Essentially, this was the first day that I began to question Andy’s and my decision to purchase our Clark Cortez motorhome … and this speaks volumes because up until now, we had both been blindingly in love with the vehicle.
It’s no surprise the following day I was not feeling well so Andy boldly headed to the farm to work solo. Bless this man.
If there was ever a day to prove why we were putting ourselves through such torture, it was this day.
Let’s pause here because to head forward, we need to take a step back: When Andy and I first discovered water leaks in our Cortez, we wanted to get a look at the damage so out came a ceiling panel then insulation in the affected area. This is when we found our underseal had pulled away from the metal or chipped off; and in those places, significant rust took over. I mention this because as Andy used his angle grinder, he was aware that other areas would have bubbled-up or missing underseal. However, what he was not expecting was finding rust hiding under our adhered underseal.
This was not the only discovery, too. Overall, our rust damage had turned dire.
Our ceiling went from having widespread rust … to having pitted metal … to having quarter-sized holes scattered throughout the ceiling and gutters.
More damage pictures are ahead, but for now Andy’s unfortunate discoveries continued:
The base of the roof ribs had corroded about two inches so that they were no longer holding up our roof.
This shows how far the ribs fell due to rust.
This shows how far the ribs should have been lifted.
I hear Andy saying, “Brilliant” with a huff and eye roll.
Still, he made a grand effort so that at the end of this day there were more silver panels than we had done in three days worth of work.
Finally we could see progress! By now, half of the driver’s side metal panels had been cleared of underseal and rust, along with several ceiling panels.
Use the slider arrows in the middle to compare before and after underseal removal work!
Even though it was a small bit of gratification, we greedily snatched up the positives and even had time to pose for our first smiling picture.
I was once more left to battle the underseal war alone as Andy hopped onto the roof again to remove our other air conditioning unit. (The first cooled when driving; this second one, cooled when driving.) In the middle of my work, I suddenly heard pounds on the roof.
“I need your help,” he told me and here I learned he had successfully detached the unit; the trick though was getting it off our roof. “It weights more than you do,” he said.
For the record, he was not that far off-base: We weighed the AC unit and it came in at a whopping 90 pounds!
We spent far too long climbing up and down a ladder to talk about how to best get the unit down when my cousin Josh drove up.
“Are you trying to save that?” Josh asked from the ground.
“No,” Andy replied.
“Then throw it off — Don’t try to hand it off.”
“It’s too heavy!” Andy yelled back, which made Josh get out of his vehicle, climb up the ladder, grab the unit with Andy, and chuck it off the side of the Cortez. Simple as that.
“Well, you managed to get out of doing the underseal with me and then got my cousin to remove the AC unit for you.”
“He is a bionic man so it makes sense he can do it and I cannot,” Andy said back and it is true — Josh does have one leg after a vehicle crash and hospital accident caused an amputation from his knee down. “Work smart, not hard.”
As I stared at Andy in disbelief, he directed me to help him move the the unit to a concrete slab where my uncle kindly offered to recycle it for us. However, between Andy and my crab-walk straddling the monstrous and heavy machinery, I could not contain my laughter enough to be of help. Needless to say, Andy (and occasionally me) eventually rolled the unit to the slab.
With this removed though, we could continue his ceiling panels, which — massive accomplishment — he had six roof panels left (so few that we could actually count them)! Meanwhile, logically I knew I should be making a dent on my metal walls, but I could swear those suckers were reproducing …
A new day meant new angle grinder wheels for us both.
At this point, I’m not even sure how many stripping wheels I had used.
However, I can tell you in the 13 days it took to remove the underseal, I went through 32 wheels — and they were down to the blue plastic too because I’m a badass in control of my power tool.
Meanwhile, Andy used a total of four-knotted wire wheels, and he allowed those wires to get scarily short and few by the time he was done with each wheel. (To see how long the wires are supposed to be, pop back to the top of our image collage before we began work each day, and look specifically at Day Eight.)
His decision to stretch our dollars and use less wheels meant the little wires snapped more easily when they got so low.
This, in turn, meant tiny wire-needles were flung like shrapnel around our RV until they became lodged in his arms as he worked above on the ceiling and my neck as I worked below on the floor.
Andy even had numerous red stings from the little injections so you can bet this made the work more disturbing and painful, for sure. However, this also meant more reason to be glad that Day Seven was done!
The sun was slowly setting so it was getting darker inside our steel rectange, and despite how we looked at the end of our day’s toil — our faces molded into our googles and respirators and our skin painted in underseal — it was a positive day.
It was the first time I felt happy to work, able to see both Andy’s and my progress, and excited to return the next day.
With every positive comes a negative though, and our negative was that rust had eaten through our ceiling’s metal in still more places, which meant still more holes that would need addressing. The more unfortunate part though was that we had not even removed the underseal on panels we knew would have the worst rust damage so more holes were bound to be found in the days ahead …
Let’s talk about part of our underseal work that has not been addressed yet, and that is exactly how dirty we got.
At the end of each day, our clothing and uncovered skin were coated in the thick tar-like black underseal; and I realize looking at these end-of-day pictures, you may see patches of this underseal on our foreheads or under our eyes and cheeks, but what should not be missed is the amount of underseal on our seemingly unaffected portions of skin. Here’s an example of covered and uncovered epidermis:
Now image the black, gritty water that stained our tub when we showered and how hard we had to scrub to get this underseal out of our hair and off of our skin. As rough as we appeared before our showers though, we looked a different type of rough after our cleanse because our skin was puffy and redish-purple from our soapy scrubbings.
This was our routine where we covered ourselves in grim for the day then got a deep clean for one night of sleep before returning to our antique RV to start all over again ..
Okay, I have a confession: I did precisely what I criticize Andy for doing, and that is that I set forth on a new job … when we hadn’t finished our original job. See, normally I get after Andy when he wanders to a different job … such as when he began to angle grind underseal off of our most-rusted metal panel.
“I’m going on the roof to investigate!” he announced in a sentence that I imagined both ended in an exclamation point and a sentence that made me follow. It was here he decided to pull off our air conditioning unit (which cooled when driving) so that he could fully see what rust damage he was working against.
Take a look under this unit with me: First, there was an excessive amount of silicone sealer surrounding it …
This sealer was not from the factory either, which meant it was someone’s horrible job that lead to other problems.
The moment our air conditioning unit was pulled off, that unique sound of rusty metal crunching against rusty metal was heard, and the amount of corrosion left behind was unbelievable. It was our rusty nightmare.
Turns out the sealer had not actually sealed against the roof. Therefore, any moisture that found its way in could not get out. This was proven when we discovered the area was damp … even though we had not had recent rain.
When our AC unit was removed, I felt our Cortez scream in agony at the pull of its scab, opening its wound so without a moment’s hesitation, my angle grinder went on.
“But this isn’t the job we are supposed to be doing,” Andy tutted at me, mocking the way I would have shamed him.
Yet the progress! The success! The instant gratification! Not to mention the fresh air and cool breeze on my face! It was the underseal-break I needed as I ground down to the blue plastic on my angle grinder’s wheel …
True, the removal of rust and paint proved more than ever that this metal needed to be cut out, but I wanted to focus on a fit of good news: With our air conditioning units off, Andy and I could finally take my aunt up on her offer to drive our steel beast into Chicken House Four so at the end of the day, a turn of the key and roar of the engine meant our roof had a reprieve for now.
I mentioned at the top of this post that Andy almost blinded himself angle grinding, and I also mentioned that this was not a comical or over-exaggerated stunt to get you to continue to read my writings. There’s no need to wait longer — Here is what happened …
I was solo angle grinding inside because Andy was angle grinding outside after wandering off to work on who-knows-what when suddenly there were strong thuds against the Cortez.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
I paused in my work, waited — nothing — so I continued again back and forth back and forth — by now it was numbing work.
This time the pounding was more forceful and constant. I turned my grinder off and was walking out the backdoor when Andy whirled around the back bumper with blood dripping from his face.
“I was banging for you — Why didn’t you come?!” It was clear he was unhinged (which is rare) and looking at him, I was too.
To explain, I want to talk more deeply about the types of angle grinder wheels we prefer to use. I chose a rubbery stripping wheel that was a good first-time angle-grinder choice due to its slow-but-steady result and pretty harmless use. I equate my wheel to the abrasive side of a sponge — Even though it is abrasive, it is still on a sponge, except this abrasive-sponge is about two inches thick.
On the other hand, Andy was frustrated with how time consuming this underseal-job would be with my wheel so he immediately jumped to the most high-impact one, and that is a knotted wire wheel.
Listen, if Freddy Krueger and Jaws had a baby, the knotted wire wheel would be the spawn. It is one evil beast, and it is also what mercilessly attacked my husband.
Now here’s how this assault happened …
As Andy grinded a roof panel, he was half supporting himself by standing on the passenger seat and ladder and half using the pressure from the angle grinder to keep steady. Abruptly, the wheel slipped so at the same time Andy lost his balance, the grinder hit the metal roof with a wheel that kept rotating.
This means the wheel spun off the metal and came straight down on Andy, tearing into the Buff he wore on his head … before reaching his safety glasses next.
From there, the wheel dug into the top of the lens and ran diagonally over the middle of the plastic — directly over Andy’s right eye — until the wheel scratched its way off the lens … and onto Andy’s cheek.
Next, the angle grinder sliced into Andy’s thumb until he was finally able to shut it off.
Hearing his story and seeing the angle grinder’s path was scary: the shredded Buff, the scuffed safety glasses over his eye, the bloody abrasive scuff in his cheekbone, the bloody slash in his right thumb by his fingernail, and his flesh from the attack on the respirator’s elastic band.
“I could have been blinded,” Andy said, and he was terrifyingly right.
It was time to call Day Eleven quits. Needless to say, we wear safety glasses even for the smallest of incidents today.
Coated in the flecks of underseal after another day down, Andy and I finally realized how much longer we would be in our underseal hell: We had so few panels that we estimated one more day.
While this was reason to celebrate it also came with the realization that we would need an Underseal Hell Part Two due to the fact that our grinders could not reach all areas near cracks and crevices. We’d have to get creative when it comes to removing those areas, but for now that is a story for another day …
Silver gleamed all around us as our Cortez’s bare metal body shined like a trophy of sorts for our relentless labor of love.
“Look at all the metal — I didn’t think that we would actually get here to this point,” I told Andy with eyes wide when we turned off our grinders on Day Thirteen. I felt as if we had left the Shire six months ago and spent all waking energy and purpose traveling to Mount Doom together. But we made it. Maybe that’s how Sam and Frodo felt too — surprised, exhausted, finished. I’m pretty sure it was; and just to give us an even larger feeling of success, we fully cleaned a metal panel.
“Are you still happy we got it?” I asked Andy, and I could see the excitement over our purchase-decision in the past, our current work in the present, and our renovation in the future move across his eyes.
“Yeah, it’s awesome,” he said without hesitation. “It’s awesome.”
Then the question was turned on me, and strangely enough all I could see was the years stretched before us until we were traveling in our Cortez, the years of dedication and hard work in completing our massive overhaul, the years of forego other passions in the long run …
I don’t think I answered his question …
I suppose I do lose sight of the journey due to the anticipation to get to the destination and because our work is too daunting for two people.
“When we are standing here — in this very place,” I said, fanning my arms around me, “and our Cortez is clean, our rust treated, and our walls painted white — I suppose that is when I will know we’re moving forward.”
For now though, that moment seemed to sparkle in the distance. I could see it — I could — but it was so very far away, leaving me to focus on the present: We removed a hell-of-a lot of underseal but still have to tackle more. After that, we plan to take on our rusty metal, starting with cutting out our many corroded ribs (marked here with blue painter’s tape) and welding in new …
Our ceiling panels that are scattered with holes would come next, which means they too will have to be replaced with fresh metal.
“Always something to do,” Andy tutted and, sure, there is … but we wanted it this way.
We wanted these successes and these failures. We wanted these stories.
PS–Speaking of stories, read on because Andy and I had the grand plan of dueling with massive poles after covering our RV with a tarp to wrap up our work. Imagine a scene similar to Karate Kid where Andy and I are whirling our poles in true, talented martial arts fashion. I was undoubtably in the lead when it came time to finish off my enemy (er, uh husband). With a final roar, we press our poles together — warding off each other’s weapon — when mine suddenly slid, causing Andy’s pole to thudding upon my head. I fell in a crumpled heap on the ground, sobbing while — I joke not — Andy stood over me in winning style to announce, “VICTOR!”
In Andy’s mind, he was equivalent to Rocky winning an epic match while in my mind, I was pretty sure my husband just gave me a concussion by beating me with a wooden pole.
Don’t believe my story-telling? It’s all captured in our YouTube video because we stupidly wanted a last shot of our RV covered with a tarp. Also, I have this picture proof of the massive welt beside my tear-filled eye:
“I’m going to be talking about this for days,” I whimpered as I recollected myself.
“Yea,” Andy said, unphased, “but remember — I was there.” Good to know pity wasn’t lost on him.