The centerpiece of any vanlife upfit is the bed. It’s by far the biggest piece of furniture in the build, and the entire floorplan tends to revolve around it.
There are so many different designs out there, and it took awhile to figure out what we wanted. Initially, we wanted an elevated bunk so that we could get the mountain bikes underneath it. But this is a low roof van, so the height we needed would have given us barely any room between our noses and the roof of the van. I’ve spent some time on ships in the Navy, and I can attest to a bit of claustrophobia with that type of setup.
The next best thing is what many RV’s have: a bed that pops up into a dinette. This is a popular design in the vanlife world as it uses precious space for multiple uses. Plus, this design tends to leave room underneath for storage.
When it came time to draft up some plans for this thing, we looked no further than the big rig that we drive for a living. Our Volvo 860 came equipped with a dinette/bunk, and it has been our savior on the road. We prepare and eat nearly all of our meals inside the truck, and without a table, it would be nearly impossible. It does have an unusual size, 42×78, which is wider than a twin, but narrower than a full. In the truck, it is just big enough for both of us to sleep comfortably. This size also leaves enough room left over to build our kitchen and cabinets.
For the most part, I just copied the measurements for the dinette in our Volvo, with one exception: overall height. In our semi, the platform height is about 15″, which is a pretty standard height to sit at. But if I would have used that height in the van, I would have to slouch in my seat, or my head would hit the ceiling. After taking into consideration my overall height of 6’0″, my “seated height” (from bottom of my butt to top of my head), the finished drop of the ceiling, and thickness of the cushions, I came up with a platform height of 12″. It’s kind of a weird height to sit at, but it’ll work just fine.
At this juncture, I should note that I do have a small bit of construction experience. I was a Navy Seabee Builder for a couple years. Plus, I remodeled and finished the entire basement in our 100 year old house. For our readers that might be dreaming about vanlife, but don’t have construction experience, I wouldn’t be discouraged. At least half of the blogs I read are written by people that admit to absolutely no experience in building stuff, or with hand or power tools. Luckily, the internet provides endless information on how to get after it. And somewhere in your circle of friends and family is a handy guy (or girl) that would love to lend you their expertise.
And it’s not like I’m an expert. I consulted several different websites, often asking questions on how they did certain things. When I started drawing up the plans for this, I really didn’t know what size plywood to use. After asking around, I settled on 1/2″ as being strong enough to not flex too much, while keeping the weight down. The exception was on the backs, where I didn’t want any flex at all. Here I used 3/4″ plywood.
I probably could have used finish grade plywood, but it was really expensive, so I settled for a couple grades down. At my disposal for cutting were the following: a table saw with 40 and 80 tooth blades, a circular saw, a jigsaw for corners and detail work, and a miter saw. Before assembling, I gave all the pieces a good sanding with an orbital, using 60 and 120 grit sand paper. I created a very simple frame using 2×4’s, and simply attached the plywood to them. For structural pieces, I used 1 1/2″ and 2 3/4″ construction screws, while using my finish nailer on the non-structural bits.
At this point, I knew I had to finish the wall that this was going up against. So in between coats of paint on the dinette, I did just that to the drivers side. (I will outline everything I did to get this and the other wall finished in a future post). When it was dry, I installed the hinges on the storage doors, and cut a 1 1/2″ hole to lift them with.
The first fitting revealed a slight issue that I suspected when I started this project. In addition to the van’s vertical curvature that caused my window snafu, there’s also a slight horizontal curvature. That meant that the dinette wouldn’t sit flat to the wall no matter what I did. So I did what generations of carpenters have done to cover their mistakes: covered it up with trim. Problem solved.
Before I did the finish trim, I secured the dinette to the floor using angle brackets and wood screws. Next, I attached the heavier backs, also with construction screws. I was having doubts about how flexible the table might be, so I reinforced with a second sheet of 1/2″ plywood.
For the table leg and associated hardware, I again had to decide on a suitable height. Just by wild coincidence, the window sill seemed to be a great height off the floor at 27″. I installed the bracket (from Vintage Technologies, $38) directly to the sill. The leg and brackets came from RecPro, and were $65. I haven’t decided on if I want to install the floor bracket, it seems to be sturdy without it.
To test fit everything, I grabbed the cushions out of the Volvo. It was perfect. It was big enough to sleep both of us, and my head wasn’t bumping the ceiling. We will be making our own cushions once we decide on the fabric design, and I can get my hands on an industrial sewing machine.
And that’s it! It’s livable now, and we’re really excited to see it take shape. We still have plenty of space along the passenger side for the kitchen, and in the back for the “garage”. Maybe for now, we’ll pause and actually enjoy this thing a couple times this summer. Because next up will be the daunting (and very pricey) task of getting an electrical system into this thing. We have lights, outlets, a fridge, and the fan to run. And lasers: pew-pew!!
Post script: Along with all of this fun stuff, this van has gotten a bit of maintenance as well. Two problems cropped up that were fixed free of charge at the dealership we bought from. First, we had a power steering leak. They found a leaky hose that hadn’t been tightened when the transmission was replaced. Next, we realized that when we bought this thing in the spring, I failed to check the AC. The dealer found a cut line, replaced it, and recharged the system.
We were getting a little water intrusion at the back doors, and decided to replace the large door seal. This we got from GM Parts Direct for $83. I also started to notice a pulse in the steering wheel under hard braking, the telltale sign of warped front rotors. I sourced both the pads and rotors from Autozone for $150, and replaced them myself.
Lastly, we only received one key when we bought this. Unfortunately, this isn’t a simple key you can have cut at Menards. I went to Bergstrom Chevrolet of Neenah, where they cut me a new one for $45.
Other than that, it’s been a nice ride overall. It’s fairly quiet, has adequate power, and everything works. It’s been giving me about 15 mpg in mixed city and highway driving, about what I expected. Can’t complain.