April 16th, 2020 was the day. It was the day when Charisse and I plopped down good money on a big, white, creeper van. COVID-19 was in it’s infancy, the stock market had just crashed, the political landscape was predictably in shambles, and increased racial tensions were on the horizon; perfect time for a bug-out vehicle!
April 16th, 2021 (exactly one year later) was the day I officially declared “mission accomplished”. It’s been a long, rewarding, and sometimes painful ride. We lost an entire summer of mountain biking/kayaking/hiking/recreating while building this thing, but I think it’s been worth it. We now have a fully independent vehicle capable of housing all our outdoor gear, keeping us warm/cool/dry/safe, with the capability to cook, eat, sleep, clean, use the bathroom, and………., relax.
We had a rough budget of about $13,000 when we started (including the van itself). I started a spreadsheet to detail every dollar we spent. I was initially diligent about updating it, but then started getting lazy sometime around the holidays. Luckily, by then most of the big ticket items were already purchased. We were up to $13,500 at that point, and with the awning and several odds and ends, I estimate we probably have about $15,000 invested. That does NOT include all the tools I bought and the sewing machine. Judging by what I see similar vans selling for, I estimate the van, (wait, CAMPER!) is now worth roughly $24,000.
We want to thank all our friends and family for the enthusiasm and support we’ve received while working through this crazy dream! We really hope you’ve enjoyed the process and the finished product. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or comments.
We especially hope that any potential vanlifers found this build to be informative and helpful. We have found so much useful information from other vanlifers, and we felt compelled to add our humble abode to the mix. Also, anyone wishing to get the entire text and pics of the Vanlife Build without looking through our clunky blog, contact me, and I’ll email the entire thing in a Word doc.
And now, it’s time for adventure!
Post script: Yesterday, I was sorting through all the boxes of left over building materials, trying to decide what to keep and what to trash. I came across the initial sketch I had drawn of the layout we wanted:
Pretty close! The fridge and pantry are where the bathroom was planned, the sink is further away from the stove, and toilet wound up wedged in the back. I might have to frame this somewhere in the van.
I hadn’t planned on getting an awning for the side of the van. For some reason, I mistakenly thought they all cost around $2000. I figured we’d just get one of those pop-up canopies, and put it next to the van when we stopped. But then I got word that a coworker’s brother might be selling one, so I decided to see what price he had in mind.
I’m really glad I did! He had a nearly new ARB 2500 Touring, which retails for around $350. It’s 8′ x 8′, and comes in a soft pouch that attaches to the top of the van. Included in the sale was the matching screen house, which retails for another $220. All this for the bargain price of $300!
ARB seems to be the leading manufacturer of a variety of canopies, and this seems very well built. It has a long aluminum frame that has channels for specially designed bolts to slide into. That’s really the only hardware it comes with. ARB realizes that the configurations to mount this to your roof are nearly endless, so their website has a couple of suggestions for accessories you can get. Plus, consulting “YouTube University” is always helpful.
I knew that I had to somehow tie this in with my existing Yakima roof system. I settled on these very beefy “L” brackets from ARB. They were $22 each, and I needed two (Amazon). I also realized that I was going to need yet another crossbar, this one near the side doors. Luckily, I still had a pair of used rain gutter risers from the purchase I made for the wind deflector. I purchased a pair of 66″ Yakima crossbars from REI (normally $100, but my REI dividend covered it. Love REI).
First, I attached the L brackets to the frame, using the existing hardware. I left them loose to slide them to fit.
The next thing was to drill three holes each in the two crossbars it would be hanging from. I wasn’t a big fan of doing that, but the alternative was using something like a hose clamp.
Charisse and I took the whole assembly outside, and bolted it to the underside of the crossbars. It looked great, but…, it sure was sticking out there a lot. There was a fairly wide gap between the roof of the van and the awning frame. At first, I didn’t think there was much I could do, because the L brackets were already tight up to the risers. But the more I looked at the L brackets, I realized they were so beefy, I could get away with hacking off a good 2-3″. This would move the whole assembly closer to the van. Where’s my saw?
So, back onto the van it went. MUCH better.
Now, it was time to play around with this thing. I will say that it is a lot easier to set this up with two people, only taking about two minutes to get the awning into place. With one person, it is incredibly awkward, but still doable. The screen house uses a clever channel system to attach to the front and back, with C clips and stakes to hold the rest into place. It seems very secure once it’s all staked. And there you have it!
Post script: You may have noticed that the entire assembly is positioned to cover the side “barn doors”. This was because we had this idea that maybe, with the screen up and keeping the bugs away, we could leave the doors open at night. It turns out the screen zipper doesn’t line up at all with the door. Plus the open doors really intrude into the awning space. So I will be repositioning the entire thing aft about 3 feet.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
Once it was done, I sat back and thought, “In essence, I’ve just totalled my vehicle”. No matter, ONWARD!
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.
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:
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.