Camper Van Conversion

Camper Van Conversion

Here is our van on the lot before we purchased it. We had just driven hours south of this location to look at an Ambulance that we were considering, but that proved unworkable. The ambulance had absolutely no leg room, and stunk of Diesel. We were kinda defeated and took the long way home when we spotted our new van.

Inside the van had wheel chair lift installed, and custom flooring to match, finished out with an extra row of seating in the far back.

By the end of the second day, I had the wheel chair lift removed. It was very heavy, but somehow I managed to use the folding nature of it to push it out without damaging it or the van. A few weeks later we sold the lift to others hoping to convert their own van. We initially felt terrible for removing a wheel chair lift capable van from the market, but once we found a buyer for the lift, I felt relieved, as it balanced out the karma of the whole conversion.

Next up was prepping and leveling the floor. Their were a lot of brackets that needed to be removed and holes to be filled. Then a layer of very thin wood was laid down and glued to the floor. This would give the following layer of laminate a level base. Remember each step takes far longer then you initially imagine, and each step is very important. I spent a lot of time looking for and filling holes to prevent rusting, and to keep the wood from getting wet and rotting.

We knew the back end of the van would have our bed, but didn’t yet know what bed we would use, so I ran the flooring back to fill the space where the old flooring was installed. We later decided to go full blast and put in an actual full size bed, which just fit!

When I disconnected the 12 Volt red wire that connected to the wheel chair lift, I left the cable in the van for later use. I left it disconnected from the battery but zip tied it up in the compartment. Later, I would re-use that same cable for the power supply in the back of the van.

Taking the back seat out was pretty easy. By then we did some measurements and decided we would try out the full size bed idea, so the next project would be removing the rails that hold down the seat. The rails were held onto the body with three bolts each, and the nuts on the underside were hidden in multiple places by heat shields that protect the underside of the van from the muffler. Not fun, but not impossible:

I reused the holes to bolt down the base of the bed, and what would become the whole back super structure. On top was the bed, below would be for storage.

I wanted to preserve as much functionality in the van as I possibly could, so I opted to keep the central storage area as open as possible, and with doors on either end. If in the off season I needed a 20 ft 2×8, it wouldn’t be a deal breaker to remove the storage and move the boards under the bed!

The bed was supported mainly by two pieces of plywood, with two vertical 2 bys added later. The plywood held just fine, but I added the verticals anyway. I then had to find a way to secure the central plywood to the outside walls of the van, so I again re-used hardware that was in place, using the old seatbelt bolt rig to attach plywood, and giving me a stable place to connect to.

While I was fleshing out the bed and storage area, I got a feel for where I might install the pull out sink I promised my wife.

The sink cabinet was coming together, but I had no idea how I would allow it to be pulled out and retracted until I was messing with a server at work on day. Servers are large often heavy computers used in the back end of computer closets. They can be mounted on rails and slide out for repairs, so I took the idea and bought a set of retractable rails. I discovered soon that I would need two rails per side to give me enough horizonal pull, I also had to modify the rails considerably to fit into the cabinet. Not fun, but again, not impossible. If your doing something similar, plan ahead and make it work with unmodified off the shelf components, as it took a good day of my build to re-engineer rails.

My dog Ringo often played the role of building inspector, and often approved the progress. Here he seemed to be suggesting that I forgot the dog ramp which would make entering easier for him.

Once I had the super-structure figured out, I measured out the area needed for the full size bed, and centered the area on top, then began building the top-side storage pockets for either side of the bed. The storage pockets wound up being about 5 inches wide, and nearly 40″ long, providing lots of storage for phones, chargers, books and snacks!

I lined the inside vertical area with anti-skid material that I got for free from the warehouse portion of my job. The base I fitted with fabric that I ripped out from the old interior, and allowed me to easily match the color of the van.

I used very thin veneer wood to cover the plywood. I had intended to keep the veneer side up, but we liked the pattern of the underside better, particularly when it was covered with polyurethane. Cutting the wood to fit the undulating and slowly curved interior took quite a bit of time, and multiple pieces.

We added a dual cup holder that we found in Ollies, and I think I used this far more during the rest of the build, then we used on our entire vacation.

With the bed area basically useable, my priority shifted to our dinning table. I really could have skipped this entirely, but I wasn’t quite sure the nature of the camping we would be doing. 99% of camping sites we have ever seen have a picnic table dedicated to the site, but just in case we really went off the beaten path, I decided to add a pull out table. I matched the legs, and general appearance of the table I built for our kitchen, hoping to remind us of home.

While the table was getting coats of poly and drying, I switched gears to the curtains. The van we got was for passengers, and so, it did not have any curtains at all. I put a lot of thought into how we could hang curtains and not make it look like a hobo camper van you would find permanently stuck in mud by a river. (More power to those folks, I’ve considered it myself!). I found some easily bendable aluminum bars at Home Depot. The aluminum seemed like a good fit because it looked nice, and was easy to work with. It also wouldn’t rust like other metals. The silver appearance matched the gray pretty close so it wouldn’t stick out.

To mount it, I drilled holes into the plastic (WATCH OUT FOR THE WINDOW GLASS, YOU CAN BREAK IT EASY!!!). I then cut 1/2 pieces of round aluminum, and used them as spacers to hold the aluminum bar. I mounted one side, hung the curtain across the bar, then screwed the other side into place. It worked GREAT! I then had to watch several you tube videos about how to use a sewing machine, and soon became something of a seamstress…

One of the biggest problems that I faced was the constant mess. I had to store all of my materials in the van, as well as my tools while I was using them. I had three different sheds I could have stored items in, but they are all at least 50 feet away, and with a significant slope.

The daily struggle for progress continued day in and out, work day or week end. We eventually found some nice bug netting and fitted it to the back doors. I used sticky Velcro to hold on the netting, and discovered the sticky Velcro is nearly impossible to sew, So I added huge staples ever 6 inches. It looked good enough for this year, but I’ll re-do it with non-stick Velcro for next year.

I added a huge Deep Cell Marine battery near the sink’s location. I lost a lot of sleep worried about water, and spills, and shorts. I really should have just rolled over and gone to sleep. The water pump I used was tiny and the water had next to zero pressure when on, never mind when the circuit was off. Any spills would just run on the floor, far away from all the wires overhead.

I’m going to devote an entire post to just the electrical as I had soo very many questions when I began, and I hope to help others figure out their builds.

We started the whole project with an idea to add Electrical options next year, but I just keep getting deeper and deeper into the sand, that I soon found my self connecting and inverter that would later power three house style plugs. I also built in three car style power ports for cell phones and fans and lots of other stuff.

Once I figured out how to use spray adhesive to hold the foam in place, and use a wood rasp to sand the foam into shape (it sounds absolutely bonkers doesn’t it?), I knew I would finish just in time for our vacation. I swear, I was stapling the final pieces of trim down the day before we had to pack!

We also added some last minute entertainment options, with a projector mounted to the ceiling, and a white sheet over the divider from front to back. Setup was a big more involved then it should have been, so for the next trip I’ll make the install more permanent, so we can pull in to our spot and fire up a movie.

More to Come!

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