Truck Camper Magazine visits the Northern Lite factory in Kelowna, British Columbia to attend a camper shell wedding. It’s time to raise your fiberglass and make a truck camper.
This past January, we happened upon a truck camping couple in Everglades National Park whom we had met in 2007 at the Northern Lite factory in Kelowna, British Columbia. Naturally, we were dumbfounded at the probability of seeing them three years and 3,276 miles from where we had first met. What’s more dumbfounding is that this kind of chance reunion with fellow truck campers has happened to us quite a few times during our long distance adventures. How can this be?
I believe the answer is simple. First, truck campers are easy to spot. We were able to instantly recognize our friends distinctive Northern Lite 10-2 rig in a busy campground. Second, truck campers tend to congregate in the more interesting parts of the United States and Canada. We even joke with our truck camping friends that we’ll see them again down the road. What’s amazing is how often this becomes true.
Seven months after our chance reunion in the Everglades, we were back at the Northern Lite factory having driven cross country and into western Canada by way of Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles (so much for the direct 3,276 mile route). We were excited to be back in Canada and once again marveled at the orchards, vineyards, and stunning scenery of the Okanagan Valley. Sorry Canada, the secret is out.
Walking into the Northern Lite factory, we were very happy to see almost everyone we had met three years earlier at their desks and production stations. It’s as if Northern Lite took a vote not to participate in the economic conditions of the past two years. Or maybe they hit pause on the economic reality button shortly after we left in 2007. Whatever the truth may be, Northern Lite was rocking.
When I started my first real job, I remember thinking how awful it was that I had to wear a white button down shirt and tie everyday. How lucky I was. Bruce Collins and Scott Campen have to wear respirator masks, gloves, booties, and hooded Tyvek jumpsuits before they can begin working with gel coat and fiberglass. These safety precautions are required for anyone who works with gel coat, fiberglass fibers, and resin. Fully suited, Bruce and Scott look like they’re ready for a moonwalk.
The first layer to be applied to a mold is high gloss white gel coat. The gel coat is sprayed into the molds with gel coat guns. Since the molds are a deep orange, it’s easy for Bruce and Scott to see where the white gel coat has been applied.
To allow these massive fiberglass molds to be moved and rotated by Bruce and Scott, the molds are secured to hinged mold stands. The stands also feature large caster wheels so the molds can be rolled in and out of the fiberglass booth. Clearly these hinged mold stands are a critical part of Northern Lite’s fiberglass process.
Even with the weight balanced hinges, it’s a real challenge to get one of these heavy fiberglass molds to rotate. Just to get a mold to budge, Bruce had to literally climb onto the back of a mold and use his body weight to start the mold turning. When the mold neared it’s tipping point, he lowered himself down to receive the mold and put it into the proper position for gel coat or fiberglass application.
During our cross-country adventure, I used my trusty first generation iPod touch as our alarm clock. On most tour days, the iPod was set for 6:45am so we could be in the factories and working no later than 8:00am. On this particular day, the iPod was set for 5:15am to meet Bruce and Scott when they started their day.
Although I had threatened to attend the pre-dawn appointment in my pajamas, I managed to get properly dressed for the occasion. Of course being properly dressed should have meant wearing the protective gear Bruce and Scott had on. Once again, they looked like an anthrax response team or a couple of astronauts. I looked like a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time with my blue jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers. In a few minutes, I would understand why their protective attire was necessary.
With my sneakers sticking to the glass and resin on the floor, Scott started up the chopper gun and began spraying glass fibers and resin onto the gel coated mold. As Scott evenly covered the white gel coat, Bruce ran a roller over the fiberglass. Rolling the fiberglass removes air bubbles and helps to maintain a uniform thickness to the material.
About a minute into all of this, the intense resin fumes began to hit me. I needed to take my pictures and get out of there. A minute or two later, I waved goodbye to Bruce and Scott and went outside to breathe the fresh Canadian air. The things I do to get photographs for this magazine. Seriously.
As a Canadian truck camper company, Northern Lite takes it’s insulation seriously. But how do you insulate a camper that’s built from the outside in? The answer is simple; you install the insulation before the two camper shells are assembled.
Once a set of top and bottom camper shells have been gel coated and fiberglassed, a set of insulation panels are placed and pounded into the shells. These insulation panels are built in a room next door to the fiberglass shop by Bruce Nickason. Once the panels are completed, he suits up like Bruce and Scott and sprays the panels down with adhesive. The inside of the camper shells are also sprayed with this adhesive prior to pounding in the insulation.
Once the gel coat, fiberglass, and insulation panels have cured, it’s time to separate the new fiberglass camper shell from the mold. To begin the separation process, the molds are released from their stands and attached to a ceiling mounted electric hoist system. Then compressed air is pumped into small holes in the mold literally popping the fiberglass shell away from the mold.
With the fiberglass shell now loose inside the mold, the team uses the hoist system to raise the mold revealing a brand new fiberglass top shell. When the team separates a fiberglass bottom shell, the technique is reversed with the top camper shell raised out of the mold. Either way, it’s a spectacular show and one that’s unique to fiberglass camper construction. In an instant, you can almost see half a Northern Lite camper. It may not be magic, but it’s really neat to watch.
Once the top and bottom fiberglass shells have been released from their molds, the shells are wheeled outside through a tall garage door. There the top and bottom shells are placed side by side and prepared for marriage. Naturally the rough edges are removed from each shell with a hand saw before the ceremony.
With the rough edges removed, the back door opening is cut and another hoist is attached to the top fiberglass shell with suction cups. Once the suction cups are attached, the top fiberglass shell is raised about eight feet into the air. Then the bottom fiberglass shell is wheeled under the top shell and the two shells are carefully lined up. When the shells finally see eye to eye, the top shell is lowered down onto the bottom shell.