If you’re going to work on an Airstream, you have to know about rivets. Here is some basic information to get you started.
You “pull” a blind rivet. You “buck” a solid rivet.
First of all, there really shouldn’t be any screws on an Airstream. Screws will back out of their holes with the constant road vibration that an Airstream experiences, so eventually a screw will no longer be holding whatever it was screwed into. Rivets are more “permanent” in that they stay put. But don’t worry, they are easy to drill out if you need to change something you’ve riveted.
There are two types of rivets on an Airstream: bucked rivets and blind rivets. Airstreams use only two sizes: 1/8″ and 5/32.” The 1/8″ rivets are generally used for trim on the exterior, and to hold the skins to the ribs on the interior. The 5/32″ rivets actually hold the Airstream together (panels and ribs).
Blind rivets get their name because you can install them in situations where you can’t see both sides of the surface being riveted (there is a blind side). So if you are fastening something to another surface without being able to see the back (like skins or trim), you would use a blind rivet.
There are two types of blind rivets, often referred to as “Olympic” and “pop” rivets.
blind rivet (pop rivet)
The pop rivet is a pin with a bulb head (the mandrel) inserted through a cylindrical shaft. The rivet is “pulled” with either a manual or pneumatic puller. The center pin pulls into the shaft which in turn expands and keeps the rivet in place. The pulling tool cuts the pin at the head once it pulls into the shaft leaving a dimple in the head where the pin has been cut off.
manual rivet puller
pneumatic rivet puller
You can get a manual rivet puller from Harbor Freight for under $10. This is pretty nice to have on the road, as you can pull rivets without needing an air compressor. The pneumatic rivet puller is a bit nicer, especially if you are doing a LOT of rivets, but obviously it requires a compressor, so it isn’t as portable for road repairs.
The Olympic rivet operates on similar principal to the pop rivet, but the containing shaft splits into three arms that hold the rivet from behind the sheet being riveted (like a drywall anchor). You can machine/shave a blind rivet to make it look like a bucked rivet with a smooth head (see photos below).
Here is a good thread on Airforums containing the photos below regarding how Olympic rivets work (the photos are from user flyfshr).
expanded Olympic rivet
rivet shaving tool
unshaved Olympic rivet
shaved/machined Olympic rivet
For the record, Olympic is actually a brand name, not a type of rivet (like Kleenex is synonymous with tissue). There are many types of rivets made under the Olympic name. Only one type is originally used on Airstreams. They’re called Olympic Bulb-Tite Shaveable Head rivets, either 1/8″ in size or 5/32″.
Bucked rivets look like tiny metal mushrooms. There are no moving parts. A bucked rivet is hammered with a pneumatic riveting gun, and the soft aluminum mushrooms out to hold the rivet in place. Buck riveting usually takes two people, because someone needs to hammer one side while someone else “backs” the rivet by holding a small anvil (the buck bar) against it.
Advice on rivet length from this thread:
Always try to use the correct length rivet. It should be long enough to penetrate the parts to be riveted and still protrude to a length approximately 1-1/2 times the rivet diameter. In other words, a 1/8″ diameter rivet should stick out about 3/16″ (certainly not less than 1/8″) before it is bucked.
buck riveting gun
The rivets on my Airstream aren’t all perfect (some are far from it, in fact). There seem to be a lot of factory rivets that were skipped or at least skimped on. Below you can see some examples of what I’m talking about.
Before (through the holes, but not really mushroomed and holding anything together):
After (mushroomed out and actually holding the two pieces of aluminum together):
I love clecos. Mostly just because they look cool. They are like clamps for riveting. Basically they are temporary rivets. You place clecos in rivet holes using a special cleco tool (cleco pliers) that makes the spring-loaded cleco grab and release by pushing on the end of it.
vista vue window clecoed in place
Rivets are removed by drilling them out.
Sometimes you will see/hear people using a number instead of a size (inches or millimeters) for a drill bit.
5/32″ is .15625 and a #21 is .159; thus the #21 drill bit gives a 5/32″ rivet a little clearance to slide into the hole.
#40 = 3/32”
#30 = 1/8” (which is the shank size of the rivets used most extensively in assembling the interior of an Airstream)
#10 = 3/16”
For removing Olympic rivets, Andy from Inland RV says:
An Olympic rivet is 5/32 which is .15625 inches
#20 is .161
#21 is .159
#22 is .157
The best drill bit size to use is a #21, since a hole will not be perfectly round, unless using a drill press.
Andy also says:
Olympic rivets for Airstream usage have always been 5/32 shank, but with the same size “brazier head” as the 1/8 buck rivets.
That is so the looks do not basically change and the strength of the shank was maximized, so as to be similair to the buck rivets shan strength.
For what it’s worth, I have just been using 1/8″ and 5/32″ drill bits to remove rivets and to install rivets. I simply use the bit to route out the head, and when that pops off (sometimes you might want to use a sharp chisel to carefully shave the head if it’s being stubborn), I make sure to be centered and drill out the old rivet body.
Other links used for this post:
Removing a solid rivet: http://wiki.matronics.com/wiki/index.php/Removing_Solid_Rivets
post #14 = pics of all the rivets