Sometimes when you buy an Airstream there are a few unwanted things that come with it, such as decals, warning labels, somebody else’s Big Red Numbers, and souvenir stickers. Often these are glued-on remnants of the former owner’s lifestyle, and to make the Airstream your own, you may want to get rid of them.
Even new Airstreams come with legally required liability-limited warnings on the exterior. Some of them eventually can leave permanent marks on the clear coat after many years of baking in the sun, so you might choose to get rid of them early on. For example, there’s usually a propane warning up front, a lug nut warning over the wheel wells, and a clear “THOR” decal to the right of the main entry door.
It’s up to you to decide whether leaving those decals in place is helpful or if they are part of your Airstream’s history and originality.
If you think decals are just uglifying the exterior of your Airstream, there are multiple ways to remove them. The trick is to do it without damaging the Airstream’s clear coat or scratching the aluminum.
The Golden Rule of this job is to never use anything abrasive. No sandpaper of course, but also avoid Scotchbrite pads, jeweler’s rouge, or metal polish. Even soft brushes can leave fine scratches in the clear coat that may not be visible until it is in bright sun.
Most people head straight for the chemical solutions such as Goof Off, 3M Adhesive Remover, Aircraft Stripper, and even harsh chemicals such as toluene, xylene, or Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK). Combined with heat, these methods will usually work but they tend to be slow and/or dangerous.
We don’t recommend chemical approaches. As a general rule, the more complicated the chemical name, the more likely it is to damage the clear coat. MEK in particular is a known carcinogen, contaminates the water table, and produces fumes that can kill you. Avoid it.
The environmentally friendlier options tend to work more slowly, which is why people often throw caution (and good long-term health) to the wind and just pour on the toxics. But a more effective, cleaner, and far safer option is to rub off the decal with a 3M Adhesive Eraser Wheel.
This wheel mounts to a power drill and acts like a big pencil eraser, scrubbing off the vinyl decal and the underlying adhesive without damaging the clear coat. It works quickly and cleanly, leaving only a few bits of glue that are easily cleaned up with a safe citrus-based cleaner. The 3M Adhesive Eraser Wheel costs about $33 at auto parts stores and online. See how it’s done on this video.
Once removed, most decals leave no trace. But if it has been on for a while, you may find that the glue has reacted with the clear coat or the aluminum to leave a “ghost” imprint, a fine network of white “spider web”, or a rough and lifted patch of clear coat.
Damage to modern clear coat is generally difficult to repair. Small marks might be concealable with clear nail polish. For larger damage the only solution is to completely remove the clear coat (a nasty job requiring MEK and therefore best left to professionals), then re-coat it—or replace the affected aluminum panel entirely.
Either of those solutions would be quite expensive, so you might choose to live with the “beauty marks” or, ironically, conceal them with another decal.
—By Rich Luhr