BUILDING THE VAN
So now you know how I got the van. There really was no rhyme or reason to it. I get ideas in my head and have to get them done NOW. So, much like how I bought the van, that is also how the actual build itself went. I want to warn you - this blog may get a bit lengthy, since I want to try be as detailed as possible for the people who are building a van themselves, or something similar. I remember getting frustrated spending hours online trying to find thorough explanations of how people managed to get their particular setup put together. It often felt like people would give generalized ideas of how to do things, but a lot of times wouldn't explain how they did theirs specifically, which would have been useful in having something to compare to, to try decide how to build mine.
Starting at Negative
The van I bought was an old Quest/Century Link work van. So I bought it with a bunch of metal junk in the back - metal shelving and work benches, and a commercial size generator and air compressor (heaviest things I’ve ever owned?) all of which were bolted and rusted in. I probably spent most of the conversion time hammering away at bolts with my socket set and yelling profanities. Even once I’d gotten all the metal out that I could, I still didn’t know what to do about the compressor and generator. They were both wired to the engine of my car - the compressor even had a mini radiator running to the back that started leaking coolant all over when I decided to try disconnect it. Even my favorite mechanics wouldn’t touch it, worrying that they’d disconnect something important and leave the car useless.
After a couple weeks (eternity for me) I was fed up and ready to get this project on the road (haha). I sleuthed around the van and found a sticker from the company that installed the equipment. I found them online and shot them an email, hoping they could tell me where to even start. Turned out the company was only about a 15 minute drive from where I was living, and they were willing to take a look and give me an estimate for removing it. I drove over the following day and parked my little guy amidst a parking lot full of huge work vehicles. I felt ridiculously tiny and girly, even in my "van build uniform" of overalls, converse and baseball cap. I walked into the garage, over a mechanic's legs poking out from under a car, lots of cables and wires, and over to the office. Knocking, a big burly guy waved me in. We walked out to the van and I showed him Problems 1 & 2. He said they should be able to do it easy; he'd have some of his guys work on it between projects, and quoted me around $600-1000 to get everything disconnected. I wasn't surprised, having at this point been so frustrated with it that I'd braced myself to just throw money at the problem to have it resolved - and I figured, hey, I bought the thing for ~$600 less than the asking price, so it was just the money I'd saved there being used on this instead. They had it done and ready for me by the next day, and the total came to just under $700. Happy as a clam, I drove my truck over to the scrap metal yard with all the metal in the back completely unattached. I dumped it all, including the compressor and generator (which they needed forklifts for - SO glad I didn't have to try get those out myself) and left $75 richer for everything I'd left there.
So there I was, finally, with an empty van - where most people get to start (*eyeroll/crying*). First order of business was to SCRUB that thing. I tore out the rubber flooring and went over every inch of the metal interior with a sponge and a bucket of soapy water. Once that was done I patched a big hole in the floor by bolting a rubber mat (to make it watertight) and a piece of scrap metal I had left over over the top of it. Once these things were done I was finally at ground zero, and ready to start the first project of the actual build itself; insulating.
- Kitchen Knife
- Dowel Rods (measure the distance between your walls, and the distance between floor and ceiling - trust me, you'll want these, we went crazy trying to jam poles in that didn't fit right to hold the panels up)
Let's start by saying this: I have no idea if I bought the right insulation (probably not), installed it correctly (probably not), or if it's really even effective (probably not). This is basically how I feel about this entire van build, which is why I still think it's funny anyone would want advice from me, but I get it, you gotta start somewhere.
I went to Menards and bought polystyrene insulation board with an R-value of 7.5 (the exact kind here) I bought 5 for $16.52/piece and ended up having enough to bring one back. Polystyrene is a foam board type of insulation, so on flat walls it works really well, but unfortunately my van is full of all kinds of bumps and curves and puckers on the walls and ceilings, so using this kind of insulation was a bit frustrating to cut to shape and make fit, but overall I'm glad I used it because it helped build out more of a flat surface to work on once I started putting walls up. The R-value of insulation is basically just a measurement of how heat flows through an object (wikipedia definition here if you'd like to read more). Basically the higher the rating, the better the insulation will work to keep the climate inside consistent - whether that be staying cool when it's hot outside, or warm when it's cold outside.
My sister and I measured sections of the van, drew them out on the boards and cut them out with a kitchen knife (I found that a straight blade worked better than a serrated one) but for those of you who don't want as much trouble as I had, I just did a bit of googling and it looks like heating a blade, or using a hot wire are the best cutting methods. We glued each piece up with an adhesive a Menards employee had recommended - I'm not even going to mention the type because it was impossibly hard to get out of the tube and didn't hold well at all.
By the end of installing the insulation my dad recommended we try using a siliconized caulk, which as it turns out works WAY better, and is only $2 per tube. Caulk guns are also $2, and I wouldn't bother getting anything nicer. As we finished gluing a piece up we would prop it up with a dowel rod for about 24 hours so it could finish drying and stay in place on it's own. Once all of the wall and ceiling panels were done we rolled out the reflective bubble insulation I'd bought for the floor, and cut sections out to make it fit flush, before siliconing the back side and letting it dry. Voilà! Insulation: DONE.
**Disclaimer: I know the way I just described this process made it sound easy peasy, but believe me, it was a mess, and took a lot of effort to cut through and measure and adhere, and under the walls of my now finished van, the insulation is NOT pretty, and I'm sure some of it has come un-adhered. But it's there, it's doing it's job (maybe?), and that's all you can really hope for in the end, so don't get discouraged if it doesn't go according to plan, or you run into problems, or if it takes a few days between doing your normal life things. This is going to be true for pretty much this entire build! Please keep in mind that nothing was as easy as it seems in hindsight as I'm writing this - more often than not things went wrong, and the sooner I learned to expect that, the sooner it was more exciting when things actually went RIGHT.
- 2x4 Planks (cut down and shaped for studs on walls and ceiling)
- Self-Drilling Screws
- Plywood (for door panelling)
- White Paint in Satin Finish
- Rubber Gloves & Rag
Once I had the insulation up and dried, I began looking for paneling to cover the walls of the van. My dad suggested wainscoting; it's cheap and comes in big pieces, so it would be easy to put up all in one go. I wasn't completely sold on the wainscoting, and didn't mind spending a bit more to get the look I wanted - after all, I'm the one who's going to have to stare at it all the time. I tend to have this mentality all the time; I'm cheap, but I'm also willing to go a step above cheap for something nice that may last longer, or I may like better. It's an investment! In the end I decided on a cedar planking that came in packs at Menards. (Menards?? No way, what a surprise.) The planks run around $18 per pack, and I bought around 10 packs. I saved every piece I cut, and used the scraps all the way up to the very end on cabinet doors and small spaces that needed covering.
Before we could put the panelling up we had to install wood studs between the insulation, so we would have something to screw the planks into. This part was harder than actually putting the paneling up, since we had to cut the studs to the curve of my van so that everything was even, and secure them to the wall using self-drilling screws. Once those were up we started installing the planking from the bottom up, running silicon along the back of the plank, and then used tiny wood screws to secure the plank to the studs. The planks interlock, but sometimes had flaws in the way they were cut so we had to make sure that they interlocked correctly before actually placing each one.
For the most part the corners where the planks should meet (at the floor and ceiling) didn't match up correctly and the curve of the van made it really frustrating to try solve. Luckily the bed and lower cabinets covered the lower portions of still-exposed metal van wall, but the top not so much. On the side nearest the sliding door we cut a board with angled edges and lay it so that it covered the exposed part of the van. On the other side there was much more exposed wall, since it ran the length of the van from front to back. We could have tried to run another angled board along this side as well, but the first one was hard enough, so we decided to instead create mini cabinet space up there, which turned out to be a win-win solution. You can still see the exposed bits when you open the cabinets, but I was willing to let that slide, to forgo the headache of trying to cover it up.
Other than panelling the walls, I wanted the doors to be covered as well. We did this by holding large sheets of paper to the doors, and rubbing an indentation into the paper along the edges of the door frame to get the shape of the door piece. We would then cut out the tracing and trace out the shape onto a piece of plywood, before cutting it out with a jigsaw (a handheld power saw that can be used for trickier cuts that tend to be curved). Once the plywood was cut out I used leftover pieces from the wall panelling and interlocked them together on the cutout, covering the whole thing, letting the edges of the panelling overhang by a couple inches on the edges. I used silicon to keep the panelling in place where I wanted it and let it dry overnight. The following morning I would use the jigsaw again to cut down the panelling to the size of the plywood cut-out it was glued to, before using self drilling screws to mount it on the door.
Once everything was in I painted the walls using a cheap white paint, in a satin finish (makes it easier to clean than a flat white) and stained all of the wood in Spring Oak stain, to make it a richer, warmer color. Just use rubber gloves and a piece of old rag to rub the stain all over - I found cutting the cloth into smaller pieces made it easer to spread the stain without having excess cloth getting in the way.
Floor, Bed & Cabinets
- Plywood (for floor, top and bottom of bed frame, and walls of the cabinets)
- 2x4 Planks (for frame of bed, and cabinets)
- LOTS of wood screws (length and size based on varying need)
Next came the fun part: building and installing the bed frame, cabinets, and flooring. This is the part where everything felt like it was getting real. A bed?? I'd be sleeping on that! Cabinets?? That's where I'd be keeping all my junk! It was strange to think this crazy dream was turning into a fast approaching reality. By this time my sister and I were moving out of the apartment we'd shared together and she was moving away to work at my mom's for the summer and I moved into my dad's basement to continue working on the van with him. He frames paintings for a living, so he had all the tools I needed in his garage, which was hecka lucky for me. Throughout most of the process the most integral tools I used were the table saw (used for making long straight cuts), the chop saw (used for short cuts, like cutting a board in half the short way), the jigsaw (making more free form cut-outs), and the sander (for sanding down rough edges). At this stage in the game things started moving more quickly; I had an end date in my head and was feeling motivated to hit it.
I'm not much for planning (can you tell?), so I never did a complete sketch of how things would be configured. I preferred to build things as I went; I find that when I plan too hard in advance it never accounts for the errors I'll make or hiccups I'll come across, so I end up having to change the plan anyway. I had a basic idea in my head, but let it morph as we actually built things. To begin we lay plywood across the top of the insulation, bolting it down, to make an even floor to work on. We built the bed frame first - it was actually done really quickly compared to all of the previous projects.
The bed and cabinets of the van were built using mostly 2x4's and plywood. They're basically just box shapes built from the 2x4's, using the plywood as bases (under the sliding drawers, and the top of the bed) and cabinet walls - all cut to size so they could just be screwed onto the frame. The bed has two long sliding drawers that run the length of the bed, so that they can be pulled from either the inside of the van, or out of the back doors. I knew I wanted them to be long continuous drawers so that I could pull them out of the back and use them as counter space when it's nice enough to cook outside (this way I also get to stand up!). They both have wood toppers that can just be taken off to get at the contents of the drawer. The one thing I regret is that they're very heavy and have no rolling system, so they can be a b*tch to pull in and out - which I'll probably fix later on by coating the bottoms with wax.
The cabinets in the van are in an 'L' formation, which was actually my dad's suggestion. I liked this idea because it makes the bed and the "kitchen" area feel like separate spaces, and it's really nice to have the counter near my bed to use as a sort of kitchen table/nightstand. There's a separate small cabinet near the door that finishes off the feel of the counters, which I use as a laundry hamper by putting four small hooks along the top edge, and hanging my laundry bag open inside. I decided to tile the counters with a fun, reflective tile - this was another little splurge moment. So far everything in the van was very wood or white vibes and I wanted something that was a little fun and eye catching, since it's one of the first things you see when you look in the van (or was until I threw my garden of plants in there). I didn't know the first thing about tiling when I started the project, but I went into The Tile Shop and they we're extremely helpful, and made sure I had everything I needed. Let me tell youuuuuu tiling is not cheap. I was willing to spend what I spent, but dang! When all was said and done I did that small counter space for $260... and that was even after I returned the bullnose tiling (the tile pieces you're meant to place at the end of the counter for a finished look). Bullnose is expensive - I was sent on my way with 8 pieces, which came to $80 - I'm willing to spend, but ?? Instead of using the bullnose I just pulled two rows of tile over the lip of the counter to make my own edge, and called it a day.
The flooring in the van is just a cheap laminate (exact one here) that comes in planks that lock together much like the wall panelling did. I chose this A) because it was cheap and easy to install, and B) because I wanted something that had a coating on it in case of spillage and was low maintenance. Despite the plywood we'd put down over the insulation, the floor was still a little uneven in places. Obviously I wanted to make sure the laminate went down flat, so I once again used siliconized caulk under the boards to hold them in place. I made sure once placing them to not touch them, or push them down and simply dry flat on top of the caulk for 24 hours - this allowed the caulk to dry in a way that held the flooring even, instead of to the curves of the plywood beneath it.
The last bit I put up in the van was the mirror at the foot of my bed - it gives me a place to get ready, but is also a great way to give the space more dimension and reflect the sunlight to make the van brighter. Also, being the plant lady that I am, I like that it reflects all of the hanging plants and makes it seem even more jungly than it already is. Since the van has curved walls, getting the mirror to stand upright instead of just reflecting the bed meant we had to make it sit at an angle. To solve this we cut down a board to the size of the mirror and cut a channel in it for the mirror to slide in and out of, and put it up like a shelf. We repeated the process with a much smaller piece of wood at the top to secure it. I found that when I drove around it rattled quite a bit, and I worried it would break. To solve this I slid the mirror out and ran a small line of hot glue along the back and let it dry before putting the mirror back in. This worked as a sort of cushion and made the mirror stop rattling, but still lets me pull the mirror out if I ever want to use it as more of a full length mirror.
- 8 Gauge Power Wire (red & black)
- Lugs (that fit 8 gauge wire)
- Metal Drill Bit
- Zip Ties
- Soldering Gun
- Heat Shrink & Heat Gun
Nowwwww, the final step. The electricity. I have to admit, out of everything, I put this off till the very end. It was daunting! I'd been researching it from the beginning, but it felt so confusing and unattainable, and nowhere could I find a simple explanation of exactly HOW to do it - specifically in Layman, idiot-like-me terms. So here it is. I'm going to try to spell it out; exactly the way I did it, links to everything, step by step, and if anyone has any questions, or need clarifications, tell me!! Comment the heck out of whatever is confusing you at the bottom of the page, I'm here to help as best as I can with my limited, googled, Frankenstein-ed together knowledge.
Let's start with this - there seem to be two main ways that people get power for these kinds of living situations: trickle power from your car's starter battery, or solar panels. The way the power situation is set up seems to be relatively the same for either method, it just differs what you end up connecting your battery to to charge from. I decided to start with trickle charging, since it meant one less thing I'd have to buy right at the moment (re: solar panels), and I wasn't sure how much power I'd really be using until I actually lived in the van for a while.
Basically, the trickle charge method works like this: I have a power cable running from my starter battery to a deep cycle battery that I have behind my driver's seat. (The exact deep cycle battery I have doesn't seem to be online, but the one linked is the same - just slightly bigger than the one than I have.) The deep cycle battery is then connected to an inverter, which converts the energy from DC power (the kind you get from your car's cigarette lighter) to AC power (the kind you can plug normal sockets into). This is the kind of information I found on most web pages, but also the kind of information that was either too vague, or so technically written that it drove me crazy. How do I connect the wires?? What size battery are YOU using? How important is wattage/voltage/amps? (Still figuring those out to be honest.)
My friend's dad was a HUGE help during this portion of the build (thanks Mr. Chris!). I had everything I needed besides a soldering gun and heat shrink to secure the lugs (metal connector) to the ends of the cables, which he provided.
We started by disconnecting my car's battery, so we wouldn't get any unexpected electricity flow. From there we ran a red 8 gauge power wire from the positive battery terminal, down to the underside of the car, and secured it with zip ties along any edges that were away from any moving parts, all the way to the back side of my drivers seat. Here we used a metal drill bit to make a small hole in the floor where we pulled the cable through (securing an extra piece of rubber around the portion of the wire that runs through the hole so it doesn't rub against the edge of the metal and cut through.) This cable then ran up to the smart solenoid. This device allows energy flow from your starter battery to your secondary battery, but if you drain your secondary battery it disrupts the power flow going backwards - so you don't pull any energy from your starter battery. This is essential, so you don't drain all your power and get stranded somewhere with no way to start your car.
The smart solenoid has a grounding cable attached to it, that you should be able to screw in to anything metal that is attached to your car's frame. Your car should already be entirely grounded, so anywhere you connect it should be fine, but you can buy a cheap voltage tester to double check. From the smart solenoid another red cable is attached and connects to the positive terminal on the deep cycle battery. We then ran a black 8 gauge power wire from the negative battery terminal to the metal wall of my van to ground the connection. Ta-da! If you connected your starter battery again and ran your car the secondary battery would now be charging.
Before celebrating too much, the last step we had to take before reconnecting was just hooking up the positive and negative terminals of the inverter to the deep cycle battery - remember, this is the device that converts the DC power into AC power, so that you can plug in all your pronged electronics. The first inverter I bought was only a 1000 watt inverter, which I quickly realized was too small for my needs, since everything I plugged in added up quickly, so I ended up buying a 3000 watt inverter instead. (looks like the 3000w one I bought is gone, but here's a link to the brand) (I missed the return date on the 1000 watt inverter so let me know if anyone wants to buy it off me *facepalm*).
I'm not going to lie to you, I'm still figuring out how watts, volt, and amp hours work - I feel like I'm spending a lot of time guessing and doing trial and error test runs. I would recommend doing some quick research into what each of those are, and how they affect what you'll be able to use/plug in. I'm shying away from writing any information here, just because I don't want to give any false information. I just know I've started looking at all the watt/volt information before buying anything these days, to avoid my inverter screaming at me. Guess this is my life now.
So there you have it! Again, if there's any questions or you have any information you think would be valuable to add please comment below.