INDIANAPOLIS – This week’s Home Zone features newlyweds getting a great start on life together by working on a fun project as a team. They are biting off what may seem like a big challenge, but it will pay off in the end. 

Justin and Nicki Kollar are fixing up their almost 30-year-old camper. To begin, they are focusing on getting rid of everything that was laminate and replacing it with wood. This is a renovation with tips and tricks that will make it easier, faster and cheaper if you try something similar. The entire project, including two sheets of high grade plywood, inexpensive router, router bits, jigsaw, clamps, stain and sealer cost under $500.

“We have an old pop up camper. It’s a Coleman Americana Sequoia. I think it’s 1995, and we’ve been just kind of fixing it up, a little bit by a little bit. We want to make it nice,” said Nicki.

There’s no doubt about it, Nicki and Justin’s camper needed a makeover. But it has good bones and is definitely worth it. Plus, the couple loves to go camping and use it. The countertops were the focus of this project. They had a main table where they ate that needed to be replaced. There was also a long bench, a stove surround area, and sink area. All had laminate tops. There were six pieces in all, and I helped the couple to start the project.   

“The laminate is blue, and the pieces don’t really match the aesthetic we’re going for anymore, so we’re just changing it to look like all natural wood so that it just keeps it fresh and modern looking,” said Nicki.

The first tip is remove the old tops from the camper and measure the length and width of each piece. From there, go to a home store, buy nice plywood and have them rough cut it to size, but just a little bigger. That will save you time on making cuts, and the pieces will also be easier to transport in your vehicle. 

After you have all the pieces you need, lay the old laminate pieces on top of the slightly bigger new wood. Then trace out the shape from the old wood to the new wood. That way it will fit perfectly back into the camper because it’s basically a duplicate but made out of nicer material.

“His mom has shown me stuff Justin made in woodshop class in high school, and it looks pretty nice, so I think he’ll do a good job,” said Nicki.

Justin didn’t need any help to use a jigsaw, which is the tool used in the first step.

“We are going to cut off the edges of the tables because it does have a rounded shape on the corner. We’re going to jigsaw those edges off as close as we can to the line we traced, but we’re making sure we don’t cut on the line or go inside the line. It’s important to cut outside of the line,” said Justin.

After using the jigsaw to cut the piece almost to size, it’s time to use a router to make it just like the old pieces in terms of size and shape. It’s the step that gets the edges nice and flush. You can also sand off the extra, right down to the traced line, but that would take much longer and wouldn’t be as accurate. Instead, use a flush cutting router bit. 

Before you can use the router, clamp the old and new wood pieces together so they don’t move. The ball-bearing flush cutting bit then follows the edge of the old wood, while cutting the new wood to mimic the shape and size.

“Safety is of the utmost concern, and these things are no joke. They can turn your fingers into ground beef, so you have to be careful,” said Justin.

Generally with a router, you want to move around the wood counterclockwise. That’s because the bit spins clockwise, so if you go the same way it spins, it can take off. Plus, it is just so much faster to use a router than to sand. We did each corner in about 10 seconds. After cutting all the edges, the next step was to protect those edges with T-molding, just like the old tops had. To do that, you need a slot cutting bit for your router. Justin came up with this tip to make sure the slot would be cut in the exact place needed without measuring.

“We got our slot cutter bit put in the router, and rather than measure exactly where the middle is on our new wood piece for the T-molding, I’m using the old one as a model. We loosen the router collar so the bit slides up and down. Then set the router base on the old laminate piece, and lower the bit until it fits into the old slot. Then lock the router at that depth,” said Justin.

From there, put the router on the new wood, and bring the slot cutting bit to its edge. You can now slowly start cutting the new slot into the new wood, and it will be in the perfect spot, which is generally in the middle of the edge. Just like with any router bit, you don’t have to make it perfect on the first pass. Pushing the router bit deep made our bit smoke. It was a pretty blue, but it also burned the bit and made it dull. By the time we got halfway through the pieces, we needed a new bit. Lesson learned: don’t take off too much wood at once.

“We don’t have a house, we have an apartment. So our camper is kind of like when you’re a little kid and you have a tree house and you make it your own. That’s kind of what it is for us,” said Justin.

Before applying the T-molding, Nicki and Justin sanded the tops of the pieces of wood. Then Nicki brushed on a wood conditioner prior to staining. It helps the stain go on more even and prevents splotches. Now it was time to stain. It took several thin coats over the course of a day or two. Remember to follow the instructions of whatever product you choose. 

They did a great job! The final product was six perfectly cut pieces of wood, stained to their liking, with a protective T-molding trim. 

Again, this six piece project costs under $500, including buying all the supplies and tools. A contractor had their own tools and had quoted the couple $1,000 to do the main three pieces. That’s not a bad deal at all, but it just goes to show with a little patience, help and effort, you can do a great job without spending a lot of money.