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Vanlife build: Kitchen

The van’s done! Well, ok, not completely done. I’ve still got a lengthy list of detail and finish work to accomplish. We’ll call it 95% done. After nine months of working on this thing, I’m itchy to be done and finally start using it.

What made it “done” is that the kitchen is complete. As detailed in my last post, I had to get the countertop finished in order to continue. Once that was done, I constructed a simple frame to put it at the right height. This is the semi-finished product:

A functional kitchen! Eventually there will be a curtain that hides all the tanks,
and the paper towel holder will get mounted to the ceiling. The vertical pillar will
be covered, and I’m thinking about a backsplash for the sink.
Washy

The first thing to go in was the sink. Originally I chose a bar sink that was 16×16 in size, but that proved to be too big. So I returned that and purchased this 12×15 stainless steel one. It included the strainer, and was $78 on Amazon. It included hardware for an undermount, but I wasn’t wild about having the wood countertop exposed. So I opted to top mount it, simply gluing it with a tube of Liquid Nails. The faucet is a simple one that swivels and teliscopes. It’s made by Whale, and cost $40 on Amazon.

Cooky

The stove was next. We chose this Eureka Ignite Plus camp model for it’s large size, and rave reviews about it’s ability to modulate the heat. Every other stove seemed to have two settings: Off and Inferno. We also liked how it came with mounting knobs, which allows us to attach and detach it from the counter with ease. It was $140 through REI.

Messy

Once the sink was in, it was time to get the drain installed. I used a trap kit and some other PVC joints to fabricate a drain. The grey water tank is installed slightly downhill in the step for the side doors.

Drainy
Dirty

To get water up to the faucet, I decided to go fairly simple: only cold water, with a foot pump (Whale, $108, Amazon) on the floor. I contemplated an electric pump and a water heater, but I figured we could make do with this. I used beverage tubing and hose clamps to get water out of the fresh water tank to the pump, and then up to the faucet. I initially had trouble with the tubing, as it’s very stiff and retained it’s curved shape. I couldn’t get it to reach the bottom of the water tank. So I got crafty and cut a piece of PVC that reaches the bottom. The tubing inserts into this, assuring that I’ll be able to get every drop of water out of the tank.

Flowy

The propane tank went in next. It took awhile to find all the proper hoses, fittings, and adapters to not only run the stove, but have an a second line for a small space heater.

Heaty

With all of this work done, it was time for a trial run. I decided to go snowboarding, and then stay the night in the van afterwards. I’ll start with the good stuff. Everything from the stove, fridge, sink, and fan worked flawlessly. It was a sunny day, and the solar panels kept the battery topped off. The bed was comfortable, and the table made a great workspace for food prep. I was able to work at the stove or sink in a reasonably comfortable (seated!) position from the table.

People walking by at the ski resort kept commenting on the smell of bacon in the air…

On to the bad. I will preface this by saying that winter weather really amplifies all the headaches I encountered. To start, I tried to use the leveling blocks to get the van level, but they just slid on the icy parking lot. I was wearing tons of clothes, and of course, I can’t stand upright in this thing. So that meant that both my butt and head were always swinging around and knocking things over. Like the egg carton, and at least two beers. I was dragging snow into the van, which I had to constantly sop up. And the Little Buddy heater throws off WAY too much heat to be a viable long term option. I would shut it off in the middle of the night because I was roasting, only to turn it on two hours later as the van cooled off. And there was no place to put it that it didn’t get in the way, or threaten to melt something.

Bacon, eggs, and coffee. Time to hit the slopes!

Having said all that, it was enormously satisfying to be completely self sufficient in the van. I made a menu for three meals and some snacks, plus beer and coffee. I raided our camping gear for some plates and utensils, plus some pots and pans. You can see my breakfast above, and I had salmon steaks with sauteed beans for dinner. And it was great to have a place to relax with a beer when I took a break from the slopes.

As the weather warms up, I will be getting the finishing touches done. Then it’s time for a real trial run with the bikes. The real test will be if BOTH of us can work together in this small space. I’ll keep you all posted!

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Vanlife Build: Table and counter top

It’s been a while, and a lot has been done!

As I was contemplating how to build out the kitchen, I realized I didn’t like the painted surface of the table top. I knew that it would be easy to scratch and stain. I briefly considered rebuilding it with laminate top, because that’s what I intended to build the kitchen countertop as well. As always, I cast about on other Vanlifer’s blogs for ideas. One constructive fellow used a transparent resin over the top of some reclaimed barn wood. It’s the same stuff you sometimes find on bar tops, and makes a very durable and glossy finish. I decided to try it out.

A mess waiting to happen

First, I had to build and paint the kitchen countertop. I used 1/2″ plywood as always. Once that was done, I went to Menards and picked up resin. It is a two-part epoxy, and was pretty pricy, $60 for a kit that creates a gallon.

Use bigger containers than this!

I will say up front that this is not the easiest stuff to work with. There are a lot of detailed mixing instructions, and you should really use larger containers than the coffee cups I used. It will start to warm up a bit, and that’s when you should pour it over the surface. You have to lay it on really thick, and wait for it to self level. You can use a clean putty knife to spread it around if need be. Once the surface is covered, I took my heat gun and lightly heated the surface to remove all the air bubbles. Then you let it cure for a day. I had to repeat this process a couple times, because my first coat was way too thin, and left a bunch of dimples and bare spots.

First coat, too thin

Note: Make sure you have a lot of thick drop cloths, as this stuff is messy and difficult to get off floors.

After three coats, I had a nice thick surface that was mostly flat. There are a couple of defects I wish I could have done better. But I’m really happy with the way it looks. It especially makes the sea green paint pop out, and gives the whole thing a more professional look. And, it’s much easier to clean.

We are slowly inching our way towards being done with this build. The next post will detail building out the kitchen, which is this last major piece of the pie. Enjoy!

Post script: A couple posts back, I wrote a quick bit about putting a Yakima wind deflector in front of the solar panels. It was an effort to reduce the deafening wind noise, and keep turbulence from straining the mounts. While it helped some, it didn’t have enough surface area to cover the entire bar, and push the air up and over. So I decided to cut my own.

Too small
Much better

I purchased a clear 48″x72″ plexiglass sheet at Menards for $89. Using the original Yakima as a guide for the bottom shape and attachment screws, I traced out a much bigger deflector. Using my jigsaw, I ever so slowly cut it out, and smoothed out the edges. I spray painted the back white, and attached it using the existing hardware. It was a huge improvement. The inside of the van is downright quiet going down the highway now. Plus I’ve got a nice billboard for more stickers, lol.

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Vanlife Build: Cabinets

We’re back! Getting COVID was miserable, but we survived. We wound up with two weeks off. That’s a lot of Netflix. Under normal health, two weeks would have been enough time to almost finish the van completely. But every time I thought I felt good enough to work, I couldn’t go more than two hours without needing a nap. Charisse felt the same, but she pitched in with a lot of sanding and painting.

So, cabinets! I needed to build three main pieces: 1) a pantry/fridge station, 2) garage storage and wardrobe, and 3) kitchen storage. And as always, the curvature of the van walls made this a real PITA. I wish I could say that I had some master plan for how I wanted these built, but that would be a lie. There were so many different edges, angles, and workarounds that I just started throwing pieces together until they fit. The carpenter in me is pained by the lack of straight lines and 90 degree corners in the monstrosities I built. The kitchen cabinet in particular was an extreme amount of effort for a measly amount of storage. But, in the end, we did wind up with a lot of useful storage, and that’s all I could ask for.

The pantry has been mostly done for awhile. I needed something to affix the solar charge controller to, so that was roughed out about three months ago. This is where the majority of our food and cooking appliances will go.

Next, was the garage and wardrobe. I wanted a lot of storage in the garage. This is where the propane tank is going, plus it’s going to house most of our outdoor gear. On top of that, facing the other direction, is what I’m calling the wardrobe. This is where our everyday clothing will go.

Last is the kitchen cabinet. This will mostly house small utensils, dishes, and cookware. You’ll notice that rather large cutout on the back; I had forgotten that I needed room for the bike handlebars.

Lastly, it was time to build the drawer, cut and install the cabinet doors, and install hardware.

I should point out that most of construction was out of 1/2″ plywood and 2×4’s. I used a combination of various length construction screws and my nail guns to fasten it all together. We did a lot of sanding, but there are still some rough edges here and there. Again, this is by NO means “finish carpentry”. The paint really masks a lot of mistakes. Now it’s time to see if everything can fit into it’s space.

We are finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The next post will detail building out the kitchen sink/stove area. After that is a lot of odds and ends, but we’re almost done!

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Vanlife Build: Electrical Part 2: Installation

2020 strikes again: we’ve got the ‘Rona. Yay. We’re doing fine-ish, just run down and achy. We’re in quarantine for about another week, so I figured I’d finally get around to finishing the write up for the electrical.

I’ll say up front: I am feeling lazy, lazy, lazy. This should be the most detailed post of this whole build, and I doubt I’ll muster the motivation and brain power to string together two intelligible sentences. Please feel free to ask questions.

I pulled the doghouse off to run the cable for the battery isolator.
The black box is the solar charge controller, the brain of the whole system. Also note the dimmer switch for the lights, remote for the inverter, and one 12v socket.
Installing the panels was fairly straightforward, hated punching more holes into the roof.
The guts of the system. This took several days and a lot of patience to run all this wire and cable.
Fuse box. As of this writing, I still have a couple things to add: one or two more sockets, plus the garage lights.
Tools of the trade.
Trying to keep things organized.
110v outlet and 12v socket near the dinette table
The fridge, a Dometic CRX65. Retailed for $795 directly from Dometic. Many vanlifers prefer a chest fridge, but I chose the convenience of an upright instead. Plus most quality chest refrigerators are twice as expensive.
As soon as the solar panels were installed, wind noise at highway speeds went up considerably. I sourced this Yakima 52″ wind deflector for $120 from my buddies at Cranked Bike Studio. I also picked up another set of Yakima risers on FB Marketplace for $25. Big improvement.
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Vanlife Build: Electrical, Part 1: Planning / purchasing

We’re finally at the point where it’s time to electrify this thing. This can be a daunting task, and it’s been weighing on my mind for months. Luckily, as with all vanlife problems, there’s a wealth of information out there on how to proceed. I especially want to give a shout out to Gnomadhome for their “Epic Guide to Van Build Electrical” https://gnomadhome.com/van-build-solar-electrical-wiring/ I would have been lost without it.

Initially, I wanted to take the easy way out. The brand GoalZero makes an all-in-one power station. It incorporates a battery, inverter, charging station, plus some outlets. I would have to run wire to a fusebox to run the lights, fan, fridge, etc. Once the solar panels were feeding the GoalZero, you’d be done. Even though it was pricey ($1400), I liked the fact that the GoalZero was portable, and I wouldn’t have to learn how to be an electrician.

Yeti 1000 Lithium Highlights
Goal Zero Yeti 1000. Not purchased. Thanks pandemic!

COVID strikes again. I ordered a Goal Zero 1000 from REI, and waited. And waited. Then without explanation, the order was canceled. According to customer service, they were on indefinite back order. Inquiries to other vendors revealed the same thing. Time for a new strategy: I have to learn how to be an electrician.

I started really studying other peoples systems, particularly Gnomadhome’s. The one big thing he stressed was to draw out your schematic. It really helps you wrap your mind around individual components, what they do, and how they interact with the other components. Here’s mine:

Egyptian hieroglyphics are easier to read than this.

Once, I had this, I could start researching and purchasing. The following are all of my purchases so far with a brief description of each. I’ll also try to include a link to where I bought it.

Solar panels, 100w each.
Solar charge controller

The solarkit was handled by a company named Renogy. I purchased their 200w Premium kit for $465. https://www.renogy.com/200-watt-12-volt-solar-rv-kit/

VMAX 155ah deep cycle battery $359 on Amazon
Xantrex 1000w inverter, $244 on Amazon.
This is for converting 12v to 110/120v for standard wall outlet stuff.
Blue Sea Systems 12 circuit fuse box, $42 on Amazon
Keyline Battery Isolator, $114 on Amazon. This is a device that lets the van’s alternator switch from charging the van’s battery to charging the deep cycle battery. Very handy on cloudy/shady days when the solar panels might not be getting much sun.
Switch x2, $25 each on Amazon.
LED lights and dimmer switches. Eight warm light LED’s for living area, and two each cool white for the garage and kitchen. $30 per 4-pack on Amazon. Light switches were $17 each on Amazon.
12v power sockets, $7 each on Amazon
110v outlet with USB ports, $14 each on Amazon
More or less what my schematic looks like. Now, time to stuff it all into the van.

My next post will detail hooking all of this up. Hope it goes well!

Post script: It seems that for every confidence inspiring victory I have with this project, there’s a humbling mistake that proves that I am indeed a gigantic dolt. Example: Once I had gathered everything up in the living room, I decided to see if I could make some stuff work right there. I knew the battery had at least a little charge, so why not? I took some wire and ran it from the fuse box to a light switch to four of the lights. I put in a fuse, then cabled the fuse box to the battery. It works!! For ten minutes I sat and played with the switch, dimming the lights up and down, and making sure that Charisse was there to witness how amazing I was. With this confidence, I figured I’d try out the inverter next. I un-cabled the battery, and set about getting some cable for the inverter. I got it all sorted out, then attempted to cable it to the battery. ZZZZZZZTTT!! Big sparks. Inverter no worky. I had just made the most elementary of mistakes when hooking up electricity: I mistakenly went positive to negative, negative to positive. And because I didn’t run it through a fuse, the inverter was instantly cooked. Just when I thought I could let the credit card cool off a bit…

$250 boat anchor
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Vanlife Build: Walls and ceiling (about time!)

Finally! I’m getting back around to writing up the walls and ceiling on this van, even though one wall has been installed for over three months. I needed the drivers side wall done in order to install the bunk. This, despite the fact that I didn’t have the window installed, and had no idea where I wanted to put electrical fixtures on that wall. So, I’m a big dummy. Lesson learned: DO THINGS IN ORDER!

We’ve already talked a little about the sound deadening mat that I put onto the floor and wheel wells. I used more of this for the walls, ceiling and cargo doors, probably about 20% coverage.

For insulation on the walls and ceiling, I used 3/4″ foil lined polyisio, which has an R-6 insulation rating. I needed about (5) 4×8 sheets, at about $15 a sheet at Menards. To stick it to the wall, I used the 3M spray adhesive and duct tape. This worked just ok, as I hear a lot of squeaking back there. We filled all cavities with an expanding foam called “Great Stuff”. It really is great stuff, until you get it on the floor, or in your hair, or on your hands. Then it’s the stuff of very vulgar words. Pro tip: When using Great Stuff, use gloves, and have a LOT of drop clothes and paper towels handy.

…my brains are oozing out.

On bigger cavities and all four cargo doors, we simply installed some regular batt insulation. We barely used any, and the roll was about $10.

Next, I installed the “fir strips” to the walls. These were simply 1×6 pieces of lumber (about $6 for an 8′ length at Menards). I used self tapping sheet metal screws to afix the strips to the vertical wall supports on the van.

Drivers side wall, done back in May. Notice, no window yet
passenger side

We then fastened the finished wall. We used thin flexible wall paneling that resembles wainscotting. We needed about 5 sheets total, at $20 each at Menards. To fasten, we used my finish nail gun with 1 1/2″ nails. Again, because of the curvature of the walls, we really had to work to ensure that the paneling was up against the fir strips

Painting was started, with an assist from Peter Dude.

Peter Dude, supervising and being surly. Follow his adventures on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Peter-Dude-takes-a-hike-770918919968884

The ceiling was much of the same, with sound deadening and insulation installed first. Next were the fir strips. I also needed to pre-wire and cut holes for the LED lights. (I’ll talk more about these lights when I get to the Electrical part of the build.)

Hard to tell, but there’s eight small LED lights wired in here

When it came time to install the ceiling, this proved to be a huge PITA. The flexible nature of the paneling, combined with the dinette being in the way, and having to have the nail gun handy…, it was like stapling jello to a cloud. Ugh. Eventually we got it up there.

To finish off the look, we wanted to use some 1×6 lumber to separate the walls from the ceiling, and cover up the rest of the van’s frame. Crown molding, if you will. Again, the curvature of the van proved a major obstacle to making this look nice. I would have preferred to use one long piece for each side, but I was forced to cut it into 3′ sections, with each end needing a 1-2 degree cut to mate up. Several shims were also used to make sure everything was straight. I used self tapping sheet metal screws to fasten in place.

Crown molding

After this, it was time for one final sanding, check everything over, then paint.

We’re pretty pleased with it. Charisse picked out our paint scheme, and I love it. There’s always things you wish you could do better, but we’re making the best of the obstacles we’ve had thrown at us. I do know that if I ever build out another van, it would not be one of these old school “no clue what a straight line or 90 degree angle looks like” vans. It would be one of the newer Euro-style boxes. But this will do just fine for now. Hope you like it!

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Vanlife Build: Making our own dinette cushions

Note: we had a website glitch, so you may be seeing this for the second time.

Tim: When we decided that we would be building out a dinette/bunk, we knew that we’d have to have some cushions made. Because we modeled our dinette after the one in our Volvo semi tractor, we figured we’d at least see what the Volvo dealership wanted for theirs. And that number was $300 each, for a total of $1200. Ouch. But at least we had a starting point to start getting bids from local upholsterers.

Aaaaaand, that’s where things got worse. I could write a book on the effects of COVID-19 on this build, and getting quotes for these cushions continues that theme. First, everybody was booked solid for 6 months. Apparently, I’m not the only one with enough time on their hands to contemplate all of their projects. And second, this supply and demand imbalance means that everyone wanted premium prices. The BEST quote I got was for $1500! FOR FOUR SIMPLE CUSHIONS!! I could BUY a sewing machine, and make them myself for a fraction of that!

Wait a second. Duh. Of course I could do that. Most of my time in the military was spent as a Parachute Rigger. Part of that job was working with industrial sewing machines for all sorts of projects. And I was damn good at it. From backpacks, to travel bags, to wheel covers, to simple repairs; they didn’t call me the Lead Stitch Bitch for nothing.

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My new whip. Note the PCT map in the background.

This opened up all sorts of possibilities. First, I looked up reviews for heavy duty sewing machines. After wading through all the options, I settled on the Singer 4411. (Actually, I wanted the next model up, but COVID strikes again: no availability for 6 months). I sourced it from JoAnn Fabrics for $240.

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cushions

We worked with a company called the Cushion Source. All we had to do was give them our exact dimensions (42×19.5×6), and choose the quality of cushion we wanted. We went with a mid level foam cushion with an inch of soft batting on both surfaces. These were $64 each. For comparison’s sake: plain jane cushions start at about $25 each, top-of-the-line ones with memory foam can go for $125 each.

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Next, we had to choose the style of fabric we wanted. We had a very loose interior design in mind: ocean breeze. So there would be a lot of blues, greens, aquas, grays, etc. Cushion Source had a dizzying array of choices, and we ordered some samples from them. Ultimately, we went with the stripes you see above. I needed about 6 yards of stripes, and 3 yards of the blue to cover the cushions, all in their “Sunbrella” style of indoor/outdoor fabric. This cost around $250.

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Next, we needed zippers. I wanted them to be long enough to run more than the length of the cushions, in order to make sure it was easier to remove the foam from the covers. These were 45″ long, at $7 each from JoAnn Fabrics.

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After that it was just a matter of tacking it all together. I cut the slit for the zipper, hemmed it, then sewed in the zipper. The top and bottom pieces were attached to the zipper piece. After some minor adjustments, they seem to fit fairly well. And then it was time to put them into the van:

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Not too bad.

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Post script: I noted above that I paid $240 for the sewing machine. I am NOT including this cost in the overall budget for this van build. My reasoning is that, while I bought it because of this build, I can use it for anything unrelated to the van. Conversely, I’ve applied this logic to the tools I have bought as well. I tried to borrow what I didn’t have, but ultimately, I have sunk a significant amount of money into a couple of power tools, nail guns, etc. Not that it matters, I’ve already blown by my initial budget, so what’s a couple hundred dollars among friends, right?

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Vanlife Build: Dinette/bunk

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.

frame starting to take shape

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.

first fitting, nice gap

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.

storage space underneath

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.

Whoa! Where did that window come from? Note the trim covering an uneven gap

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.

bracket halves for table
table leg

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!!

looks like a nice place for meals and cribbage

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.

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Vanlife Build: Window

If you read my last blog post about the cutting large holes in my van, you know I made a pretty major mistake in thinking that a flat RV window was going to conform to the curved sides of our Chevy Express. I was actually pretty stressed about leaving a gaping hole in the side for a couple weeks to source and ship the proper window. Turns out it wasn’t that big a deal: I just put the cut piece back in place and duct taped the hell out of it.

Epic fail

In the meantime, I was impatient, and decided to continue work. I finished one wall in the van, and built the dinette/bunk. Doing some of these steps out of order proved to be a total PITA later, as I’ll point out. I’ll be detailing all the work that went into the walls and bunk in future posts.

I decided to get a much larger window from a conversion van, instead of having two smaller windows. After some research, I settled on one from CR Laurence. I like this one because it is “all glass”, and has more of a factory look. Plus I really liked having a crank-out lower section. It retailed for $450, but I was able to find a used one from Waldoch in Minnesota for $250. Unfortunately, it showed up without the screen, so I’ll have to have that made later.

Cutting out the rest of the body metal was fairly uneventful. Again, I laid down some tape (I used duct, but I’d recommend masking) to protect the paint. Once the metal was out of the way, I found myself regretting my impatience from the previous weeks. How was I going to cut out the inner wall that I had just installed? I got out my sawzall, which seemed to work pretty well. Problem is, it’ll cut into metal just as easily as wood, and I caught myself sawing into the outer body metal a couple times. Plus, my interior paint job looked like hell after the jigsaw got a hold of it. Luckily, nothing I couldn’t cover up.

Once I had a hole all the way through, the window was fairly easy to install. There was an inner ring that sandwiched the body metal to the window, securing it with sheet metal screws.

Here is where I had to get creative with some finish carpentry work. The wall I had installed followed the contour of the van, so I had to create an inner frame that followed that contour. I used some leftover paneling that I had from the wall, and used the jigsaw to create pieces that would fit. It took a lot of trial and error, but I feel like they turned out all alright. I then used some thin trim pieces to round out the look. I will say that having a miter saw and air compressor with finish nailer helped immensely here. I can’t imagine having to nail all these by hand.

So there you have it. Probably the most heart-stopping parts of this build are in the books, but I’m sure more challenges lie ahead. Hope you enjoy!

Finally, that looks nice
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Vanlife Build: Cutting large holes in the van. Totally normal.

Ask any vanlifer what the hardest part of their build was, and they’ll tell you it was putting in the roof fan. It’s not all that complex or physically demanding, but the mental anguish that comes with CUTTING A LARGE HOLE IN A PERFECTLY GOOD VAN is palpable. But it’s a rite of passage that all of us go through. Once it’s done, you realize it’s not that big of a deal. But I was still sweating it.

Why a roof fan? They are nearly mandatory if you’re going to be spending any time sleeping inside. They make a huge difference in keeping the interior temperature comfortable, and whisk away cooking and “other” odors. Plus, just breathing as you sleep causes condensation, which will eventually lead to mold.

After doing a lot of research, we went for the top of the line Maxxfan Deluxe, sourced from Amazon for $265. This one is unique in that it can be fully open in a downpour. It has 10 speeds, blows in or out, raises electrically, and comes with a remote control. It had great reviews across the board.

So, on to the install! We decided to put it nearly in the center of the van. This kept it out in front of the roof box, while still leaving plenty of room in the front of the roof for solar panels. Plus, it will be close to where we are putting the cooking stove.

I started by measuring it out and using a carpenters square to get the precise line. Some people say to use the trim ring, but I found that I couldn’t get a Sharpie in there. I then used masking tape to give myself a good sight line.

Basic layout, and some of the tools I used

And now we’re at the point of no return. I took a deep breath, and drilled all four corners to create space to put the jigsaw blade.

Drilling the corners

Next, I simply grabbed my jig saw (ensuring that I had a sharp blade), and connected the dots. Some people prefer to use electric metal shears because it creates less metal shavings, and I would definetely recommend that if you have access to one. DO NOT use a sawzall or grinder! Pro tip: Make sure you lay down something to collect all these shavings, AND to prevent the cut piece from dropping and damaging your pretty new floor. Whoops!

I may look calm, but…

Once it was done, I sat back and thought, “In essence, I’ve just totalled my vehicle”. No matter, ONWARD!

Resale value enhancer

I hit the cut edge with some rust inhibitor and let that dry. Afterwards, I cleaned the surface and vacuumed up all the shavings.

Here’s where I cut a corner that I might have to come back and redo. Every blog I read said that the best adhesive/sealant was from this brand called Dicor. But it was Sunday during the pandemic, and the only thing open was Walmart, so I had to settle for a similar product. I layed down a bead on the roof where the fan frame was going to rest, then set it in. The kit came with some self tapping screws to really secure it to the metal. I put a bit of sealant on the head of each screw as well. The Walmart sealant wasn’t all that easy to work with, being a little too thick to make it pretty. Looks like it’ll keep out water though.

The next best thing in a pinch

Then, I simply attached the fan to the frame, ensuring that the wiring didn’t get pinched.

I came back inside, and temporarily wired it to the dome light circuit. It works perfect! The remote has a thermostat that allows you to set a temp, and the fan will do the rest. (Within reason of course, it’s not an AC unit.) I will eventually be running the wiring into the fuse box I’ll be creating for the electrical system.

And there you have it!

Post script: I felt pretty awesome about this afterward. This was a big step, and something I had never done before. It boosted my confidence enough to do something stupid, like the following…

We knew we wanted to install some windows on the drivers side to bring some light in where the dinette would be. So I ordered what I thought would be the correct RV windows. What I failed to account for was that the sides of our van have some curvature. And the windows had none:

Seems like a water entry point

So, there will be a big gaping hole in the side of the van till the correct window gets here. Because I’m a big dummy.

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Vanlife Build: Floor

And now the real fun begins! Most of the sites we’ve seen say that the floor should go in first, so that’s where we started.

First, we removed the rubber mat that came with the van. We kept it so that we could use it as a template to cut our insulation and subfloor. Once that was up we could see some of the holes that had been drilled through the floor by the previous owner. We used Rust Inhibitor and caulk to seal these up.

floor prep

Many of the blogs we’ve seen recommend using some sort of car audio soundproofing mat to reduce noise levels inside the big metal can that is our van. It’s basically a rubbery tar mat with some aluminum foil as structure. We used Stinger mat from Extreme Audio in Appleton. Opinions vary on how much coverage to apply, so we settled on doing about 40% of the floor, with nearly full coverage on the wheel wells. We’ll probably do about 25% on the walls and ceiling. That added up to about 72 square feet to do the entire van, and it cost about $170.

strips of soundproofing in the ribs of the van floor

You can cut it with a utility knife into any shape you please, and use the adhesive backing to adhere it. With a little heat and a roller, it goes on pretty easy. And this is one of the areas where you don’t have to be too perfect. We cut it into strips and layed it in the low ribs on the floor.

soundproofing the wheel wells

On to insulation. We chose extruded polystyrene (XPS) because of it’s durability and high-ish R-value (R-3 on the 1/2″ sheets) for such a thin layer. Our van is a low roof, so you really have to be mindful of headroom, and flooring thickness affects that. As you’ll see later, we wound up with a total thickness of 1 1/2″ for the floor. We needed 3 sheets of 4x8x1/2″ to do the entire floor, at a cost of about $14 each at Menards.

We used the rubber mat to rough trace the shape we needed, then cut with a sharp utility knife, trimming as needed. To secure it to the floor, we used 3M spray adhesive. On the seams, we simply used duct tape.

The plywood subfloor was next. I really wanted to use 1/4″ (again, conserving headroom), but that didn’t seem like enough to bolt the bunk and furniture too. We settled on 3/8″ underlayment quality plywood. These 4×8 sheets were bought at Menards, and cost about $15 each. We again using the leftover rubber mat to trace out our outline. Our primary tool for cutting was a jigsaw, although we did use a table saw and skil saw for some cuts.

starting the subfloor. note the tasty adult beverage

One decision I made that might come back to haunt me is using self tapping metal screws to bolt the subfloor to the van. Other vanlifers seem to simply use adhesive to glue the plywood to the insulation. I simply couldn’t see that being a good foundation for bolting furniture and shelves to. So I punched dozens of screws through the floor of the van, potentially creating a moisture and corrosion nightmare. Time will tell.

finished subfloor

On to the top layer. Charisse and I vacillated wildly on what to do here. I initially wanted a very thin layer of linoleum. Charisse wanted a classier laminate, but I knew that most panels were 1/2″ thick. Luckily, she scoured her resources till she found a very handsome board that was only a 1/4″ thick. Sourced from Home Depot, we needed 3 boxes at $60 each to complete our floor.

With the help of a laminate flooring kit, this tongue and groove style paneling was pretty easy to install. For cutting, we used the jigsaw again, but switched to a fine carpentry bit to prevent chipping the laminate. (Pro tip: spend the extra $$ for quality blades. I’m partial to Bosch). As you can see, we only used the laminate up to the back of the wheel wells. From there to the back doors is the “garage”, and we will simply be using rubber matting here.

One detail I had to reconcile was that because of the extra height of all this flooring, the side door footwell would not be at the proper height. So I basically built up the floor with 2×4’s, and secured the plastic footwell to those. Seems a little janky, but serves the purpose.

And that’s it, the floor is in! We really love the style that Charisse picked out, and this should be a great foundation for the rest of the build. Feel free to comment!

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Vanlife Build: Hey, nice rack!!

It’s time to start building this thing out! We are going to start with the roof rack, because it’s pretty much the easiest thing to get knocked out. Plus, it has the added benefit of making this look like less of a creeper van, lol.

One thing I want to get out of the way first. Followers of this blog are probably used to us posting beautiful pics of beautiful places, and saying a couple words about them. Or maybe talking a bit about our new career as truck drivers. We try to be concise and not get too wordy, for fear of losing everyone’s interest. The posts under the “Vanlife Build” umbrella are going to be a little different. As a community, vanlifers tend to be very generous with the details of their build, and we will be no exception. This blog is potentially reference material for someone else’s DIY build. That means a lot of facts, figures, costs, and decisions that might bore our casual followers to tears. Fear not, we will still be posting beautiful pics of beautiful places!

Speaking of reference material, there are literally thousands of websites and blogs that involve vanlife. We’ve poured over several. Some are good, and some are quite bad! The one we seem to go back to repeatedly is Gnomad Home. This young couple is inspiring, and have a very detailed website about their build and vanlife in general. They’ve even answered a couple of our questions. Anyone interested in should definitely check them out at https://gnomadhome.com or follow them on FB at https://www.facebook.com/gnomadhome/

Onward! When we bought the van, we knew we’d need a rack, possibly even two. We needed room for our cargo box, and our kayak cradles. We would have to mindful of the placement, because even though there’s an acre of real estate on the roof of this van, we would need to leave room for the roof vent and solar panels.

We settled on rain gutter towers from Yakima, paired with 78″ crossbars. Fair warning: Yakima does NOT give their stuff away. If you were add up every bike rack, snowboard rack, cargo box, kayak cradle, tower, and bar we’ve ever bought from Yakima, I’m sure they could have built another factory by now. On that note, these towers retail for $210. Luckily, I found them on FB Marketplace for $75. The crossbars were $100, sourced from REI. The cargo box is the Yakima Skybox 21, and was about $500 when we purchased it 15 years ago.

The kayak racks are also carryovers from our car. This is Yakima’s Sweet Roll, and they were about $200 a piece three years ago. If that seems a little pricey, it is. Until you try wrestling a 60 pound kayak into a standard J-cradle, on top of a car that’s only five feet tall. It sucks. And now we have a van where the rack is nearly eight feet off the ground. No thanks. The Sweet Roll are incredible: just pop the nose onto the back rollers, then slide it smoothly onto the front cradle. Worth every penny.


The install was pretty straight forward, with the hardest part being getting the spacing right for all the components. As you cans see, the Skybox tried to eat me! I haven’t measured, but I imagine we’ve got a 9 foot clearance, so no drive thru’s for us. But everything looks great, and is ready to haul our stuff.

One additional thing we did was replace the shocks. I noticed that the van had a lot of floatiness over bumps. The great thing about these big dumb vans is that they are fairly easy to work on, and parts are dirt cheap. We bought Gabriel units from Auto Zone for about $45 each. Despite this being a Wisconsin vehicle, there wasn’t a ton of rust. I sprayed all the bolts with PB Blaster about an hour before I started, and they all came loose with little resistance. Two hours later, the ride was much more controlled. A huge improvement for little effort.

That is all for now! Next up will likely be a post about prepping and installing the floor. The real work is about to begin…