Dixie the Fiat Ducato turned 22 in October. We have owned her only 2 years and she has taken us over 40,000 miles, from Dublin to Dundee, Cork to York, from Buttevant to the Butt of Lewis and from Ramsgate right back to our own new front gate in County Mayo, Ireland. We have woken in 330+ new places and opened our sliding door to a silent sunrise on the still sea, to mild and misty mountaintop mornings and to impossibly silver strands that seem to stretch on forever, every single stop off on our map becomes a most memorable one. Now that we have a place to call home, Dixie is parked up more on the driveway, facing the big blue sea. Sitting idle in salty air is not great for an old van but you know whats worse?
Dixie is roadworthy and she has the certificates to prove it. There is nothing detrimental going on, nothing structural, no see-through sheets of cobweb lace curtain corrosion but we all know how the dreaded rust works, it creeps up stealthy and seeps in at the seams, rising like a red rash and slowly smothering the structure underneath. There are lots of products available to help prevent the spread of rust and treat the worst parts and this is inevitable in an older van mostly parked by the sea. But rust will return and, especially noticeable on a big white panel van, it made sense to treat the problem as best we could and then paint her. Black.
I turned 40 in September this year. Not yet vintage and not ‘corroded’ either, no visible rust per say but I have begun to display the telltale signs of ageing too, little laughlines collapse into deep permanent wrinkles lining the flanks of my face, joining the imprints of once faint crows feet now deep prints around my eyes. My hair is changing too, thick grey wires sprout randomly from the mess of browns light and dark, sometimes crowding in cloudy clusters and sometimes swinging solo but always appearing overnight. I dyed my hair black for the last time in May 2017, after around 20 years of shading and bleaching, and two years later I can actually see what colour it was all along. Grey!
In the interests of full disclosure, William turned 49 this year but he already wears his new salt-and-pepper (and ginger) mane and beard combo naturally, nonchalantly, as if he were born that way. He hasn’t had a haircut since May 2017 either and has no intentions of getting one anytime soon, his locks are now thick, beyond shoulder length and curly. Very curly. Think viking curly.
So, to paint the van, first we must make room for the van.
What a great big shed we have, full of someone elses useless junk (and some treasures untold) but I don’t believe that cement floor has felt the spikey sweep of a hard bristled brush in all its existence. A clear slice of workbench helps with a job like this too.
With room to park and a surface to work from we were all ready to go. Prepping the van for treatment is a rather tedious job but also a chance to examine the body work closely and note the problematic areas. Dixie enjoyed a long luxurious handwash with warm soapy water and a good scrub where most needed.
Those worst parts? This rectangle by the door was previously patched up pre-test and is now starting to flake away again. Not a good look. William pretreated this and other offending spots with Hammerite Rust Remover Gel, a thick smelly slime that sat on top and congealed. Surface rust flakes away under this goo, but we are not here to plug any paticular brand or product, we did what we usually do: we researched a little, read a few blogs and had a chat about materials in our local farm shop. As neither of us have ever painted a vehicle before it was a steep learning curve, our advice if you intend on attempting something similiar is to read, watch videos, read and read some more!
In she goes. The joys of having a large shed for this kind of job cannot be overstated.
First, pretreating with the aforementioned green slime. Beware the extremely chemically fumes off this and all the other products we used, this procedure is an absolute assault to your olfactory glands and if you tend towards so-called perfume headaches or cranial-crippling migraine, consider leaving now. I do, I did and I had to. Luckily William doesn’t but he did wear a facemask at various times during the procedure. Make sure your shed no matter how big and lovely has adequate ventilation for such a smelly job!
Dixies face was spotted red with rust, now spotted green. Like a stinky sort of acne treatment. My monthly migraines almost disappeared when I replaced the office environment with the van, gone were the obnoxious, overbright meeting rooms, the constant flickering hum of overhead bulbs and two blazing monitors beaming, overloading my senses daily. No more wearing sunglasses indoors and taking pre-emptive medication, no more huge screens but one little phone and just like that, no more migraines. Magic!
The driver doorstep. A prime candidate for more rust, probably the most stepped on place in the whole van. The bodywork of this old van is not bad over all but some places are beginning to show their age. We can’t just drive around letting this get any worse.
Pretreating the roof took a little longer than expected due to years of dirt, debris and general roadslime stuck up there. If you attempt this, try to have a good set of steps and another human nearby to pass you your tools and to get nervous on your behalf! Funnily enough, after all of our travels, Dixie was grey on top too. We are all going grey together.
After a good sanding down (including some extra hard work removing the shadow of the vans previous logo “Dixies Engineering”) it was time for her first coat of thick black paint. Again, we used a Hammerite brand for vehicles. The dust at this sanding stage was hanging thick in the air so be prepared for that, there is a lot more dust coming.
We used hand rollers, long and short, and had the first coat on in no time. So shiny!
The first layer had 24 hours to dry, but as often happens in Ireland, the wonderful weather took a sharp turn for the worse and the wild whipping wind and driving rain made it impossible to work with the shed door open. We were reminded that everything takes longer than planned and shed or not we are always at the mercy of the weather!
Nowadays, I’m reluctant to use bleach to clean the house nevermind put it on my head. No stain or mess is bad enough to warrant it. Going grey is kind of cool once you get used to it, I’m lucky enough to have lived long enough really and each new silver thread is another day I get to enjoy. Hair doesn’t really do very much and it isn’t very practical and I usually don’t put much thought into it, except to push it out of my eyes. Is going grey a kind of privilege?
Back in the shed when the weather allowed, we set about the first round of sanding between coats. Again, some areas required more elbow grease than others and it was a hard job, many muscles were strained. The van looked great matte black but this was just the beginning.
Painting the van darker could have another advantage, it might keep us warmer in there. We don’t want to be too warm either, but this is Ireland afterall and that seems unlikely!
After sanding, William washed her down and started again on the second coat of paint, which went on much easier with a little bit of grip. Another 24 hour wait to dry, then another full body massage with the scratchy sandpaper.
Things got awfully shiny between coats and we decided matte definitely looks better, stealthier. More suitable as neither of us really is the shiny kind.
Coats four and five went on smooth:
At this point I lost track of the layers. 7? 8?
I hope you didn’t come here expecting sensible advice about hand painting a van because even though we thought we planned it well, we still managed to run out of the one thing we needed most, the paint. Thus, a half-painted Dixie took to the streets of Belmullet to restock on thick black goo. We don’t recommend a 40km roundtrip between coats of paint. Especially when the journey takes you through sand dunes, for very obvious reasons. In the carpark of the hardware shop, a stranger in a much older, much rustier and much whiter van stopped us and laughed out loud at the paintjob. How rude! When we tried to defend ourselves he just laughed even harder and then tried to sell us a generator before driving his Transit off into the distance. I firmly believe he was jealous of our bespoke zebra print. Bad news then befell inside the shop as we had already purchased all the black van paint in town and had to settle instead for a different kind, one designed for agricultural buildings and farm machinery. We really could have planned this better.
Well, the swings and roundabouts of the painting process aside, just look at the finish we got on this old van, not a spot of rust. Who is laughing now Mr Transit?!
Of course, our prop little Dixie needed a colour change too. Easier than the lifesized version, I doodled it black with a sharpie while thinking about hair. Williams hair grew up and out in a crazy curly fro before it finally settled down in long ringlets right down his back. Mine has been shaved and shorn and still the very act of campervanning causes a constant combproof frizz. What does hair do exactly, other than keep your head warm? I have a hat for that. A few in fact.
Dixie the Backwards Van looks great. Black was a perfect choice (we discussed all the colours, the conversation lasted about a month) and certainly stealths us up, both of us have mistaken the van for a dark shadow when coming back to it at night and I have found it next to impossible to get a good photograph unless parked against the bluest of skies.
Painting Dixie made sense for all kinds of reasons and we’re glad we did. We have been away for a couple of trips since and can attest to the slight increase in temperature inside, not a drop of condensation, even on a very cold morning. If you’re considering a similiar job, get better advice than ours obviously and whatever you do, don’t run out of paint between coats.
Since the paint job, we may end up with less impactful photographs, as my cameraphone struggles to focus on the black box hidden under the trees, and I have already walked right past her towards a whiter, more familiar van more than once but what have appearances really got to do with it when its the same van inside? Same with the changes brought along with ageing. The people I meet now don’t know I wasn’t always grey, and those that do know should celebrate my silver streaks and strands and slivers with me. Hair isn’t really important, I’ll let whatever happens happen naturally. And if I ever change my mind I’m sure Hammerite have a product just for me 😉
P.S. I remembered a story which holds relevance just before I hit “publish”. Out in the wilds of Wicklow woods one summers day, we were being followed by those curious clouds of tiny flies that like to congregate around your neck and face and make their way inside your nose. I had tied my hair up high on my head that morning as usual in a thick plait. With a quick swish and flick of my pony tail, I kept the flies away from my head and face all day, and off I hiked merrily into the sunset. Hair IS useful after all, horses get it!