Wondering if you should buy a truck camper framed with wood rather than aluminum? In this interview, Rory Willett, the owner of BundutecUSA, provides his thoughts on wood in general and makes a compelling case on why framing a camper out of wood is better that framing one out of aluminum.
Thanks, Rory, for taking the time to talk about this important topic. Most truck camper manufacturers have switched to aluminum. Aside from your company, BundutecUSA, I think there are only four other companies—Northstar, Alaskan, Hallmark, and Adventurer—that still frame their campers out of wood. Why are you such a strong proponent of wood?
Rory Willett: There are a few more smaller camper manufacturers still using all wood, but in the major brand names you are correct. While I’m not against the fully foam laminated sidewall or welded aluminum framing in truck campers, I’ll continue to use wood. Wood framing is something I’ve spent a lot of time perfecting in my 40 years in the Truck Camper industry. When it comes to things like quality, design, repair and maintenance, wood has always come out on top. Believe me, there is a science to building a wood framed truck camper that holds up for years of fun camping. My schooling over the years from Hard Knocks have taught me what works and what doesn’t. Not all my ideas worked out the way they were intended!! You learn from mistakes, hold on to the “tried n proven” and listen to advice from others. This has added up for a really well-built method.
In your experience, how well does wood hold up in extreme climates and rough terrain?
Rory Willett: We work with many customers who are looking for the complete off-grid experience and even send our units to remote places such as Australia. When it comes to meeting the needs of a country whose best roads are equal to our worst, there is no question that we needed to design and produce a unit that will withstand these elements. What better material to build a truck camper with than to build it using the same materials that our everyday homes are built from?
What kind of wood do you use in the construction of your campers?
Rory Willett: We use only the highest quality kiln dried Lodge Pole Pine 1 x 4 inch boards from the forest of the Northwest Rockies and the lighter weight multi-ply marine grade plywood we can get. We pay close attention to all the wooden materials we receive to make sure they’re free of imperfections which could cause issues down the road. The 1 x 4 inch boards are ripped down to 1.5 x 1 inch wide to save on weight while providing adequate backing for the installation of cabinets, doors, windows and appliances.
During my tour of the BundutecUSA factory, I noticed that you didn’t have a CNC machine. Why is that?
Rory Willett: At the volume of campers that I build, it doesn’t allow for an expensive CNC machine that run high production parts and cost a million dollars like the big manufactures have.
Have you tried working with any composite woods or other building materials?
Rory Willett: Over the years, I’ve looked into the composite woods and synthetic materials like fiber-reinforced urethane plywood. Some did not hold screws well, plus they can add weight and expense to building a camper.
It’s said that wood is easier to repair than aluminum. Is that true?
Rory Willett: Compared to a laminated sidewall or an aluminum framed camper, we’ve found that wood construction is much easier to fix should any issues arise. The number one culprit with all wood framed campers is the neglected leak. Wood can get wet, dry out, and be as strong as before. Allowing a leak to continue without attention is a death sentence. That is why it is so important to do inspections regularly. If a unit is subject to a neglected leak resulting in water damage or even a break due to an accident, we can easily remove the exterior aluminum moldings and skin, remove the damaged section, splice in brand new framing making the unit good as new!
Are there any other benefits relating to wood?
Rory Willett: A big reason why we prefer wood is to help with the insulation properties of the unit. Wood is a porous and a fibrous structural tissue. When it is processed into framing, it keeps the same porous nature. This porous structure doesn’t allow the material to condensate as much like you see on aluminum frames. It also reduces the expansion and contraction in the change of temperature from hot to cold. The heat of welded aluminum joints can cause the joint to become brittle and crack in the vibrations of traveling. With wood construction, you don’t have to worry about breaking welds or cracked joints where it is held together.
What measures do you take to waterproof the foundation and the slide-in portion of your campers?
Rory Willett: We use a rubberized undercoating to seal the exposed portion of the under floor of each camper so that it will not absorb any moisture it may come in contact with. We continue this undercoating through the “ups” and “outs” or the slide-in portion of the truck camper.
What’s your secret to building a durable frame that doesn’t flex too much when traveling off-road?
Rory Willett: The wood structure will flex a little in extreme conditions, but this is a good thing. We build by the mantra of glue, staple, and screw. This means that all wood framing, floors and ceiling included, are always stapled together, the interior wall paneling is glued and stapled to the framing to strengthen the framing even more. Then to assemble the camper, the paneled wall components are glued and stapled in place before they are screwed together in the final framing assembly. Our custom crafted, free standing interior cabinets are built using the same method. This process gives our units an even better bond of support and structural integrity, a little like a roll cage, insuring they will hold up better under all conditions.
My understanding is that wood is heavier than aluminum. Isn’t that a significant negative for a truck camper when every pound matters?
Rory Willett: Yes, usually wood framing is heavier, but we are firm in the belief that the structural benefits make up for the weight that you would “save” when using aluminum. We take extreme care when designing all our units to use only the framing that is necessary to provide a rugged structure, while keeping the unit as light as possible.
Do you have any final thoughts on the virtues of wood?
Rory Willett: Being weight conscience is very important to every truck camper owner. You need to be aware of what you are hauling, where the center of gravity is, and how to load the gear once you’re ready to go. At BundutecUSA, we take extra care in every unit we produce because we are designing and producing something that we love. We build each camper as if it was going to be our own. Plus, there is just something about the smell of wood being ran through a saw that makes the construction process even more enjoyable.
Does anyone know what kind of stapler he is using?
I would ask Rory. Give him a call.
Your article expresses very well why I will stay with a wood frame camper as long as I can.
Thanks for the informative piece about wood v. aluminum construction. I am still in awe of how my 1998 Lance 165-s has taken off-road abuse. Yes, water intrusion is the enemy. I have had some repair work done from water intrusion on the wood frame and luckily it was a relatively easy fix by a very qualified RV repair man. He used exactly the same big glueless staple gun, and fastener technique that Lance used at the factory. The caveat here is that I’ve learned how not to pull my camper apart when the truck frame starts to twist. I also store the Lance in a RV shed just for the camper heading off further water woes.
Is there any interest in the RV industry in treating wood with CPES (clear penetrating epoxy sealer) while assembling the frame of a wood camper? Can CPES be requested by special order from a purchaser? The boat restoration industry uses it to strengthen and seal older wood, and new construction often uses it to seal against water damage in the future. Many of the rot issues of campers would be at least postponed, since the CPES would seal not only the outside, but soak into the wood.
The problem with sealing wood is that glue, the primary bond for all plywood and panel attachments and so the integrity of the camper, would not penetrate the surface and fail. Staples hold paneling until the glue dries. Staples alone would eventually work themselves out.