DIY Van Conversion: A Beginner’s Guide

DIY Van Conversion: A Beginner’s Guide

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After a brief hiatus in Australia, we were itching to get back on the road. Our second trip would take us to Central America, specifically, Mexico. And this time we opted to attempt our own DIY Van Conversion.

We returned to Kelli’s hometown of Dublin, Georgia in the USA to carry out the build (and visit family and friends) before we headed off. We both work part-time, and were able to build in our downtime, which, with weekends was probably 35 to 40 hours a week.

Zero experience and limited time (five weeks) made this challenge both daunting and exciting.

Our last trip gave us a great idea of what we wanted and what we did not want in our new DIY van conversion. We were planning to travel more slowly through Mexico than we did through South America. Allowing us both to work 20 – 25 hours a week online and to stay longer in the places we visit. We wanted to design a van around these specific needs. Comfortable to drive, comfortable to sleep, comfortable in cities and remote destinations alike. Large enough to function as a workspace for two. Spacious enough to allow us to cook inside. And big enough to relax in too.

The DIY Van Conversion Plan

With the van purchased before we arrived and some bits and pieces necessary to begin the build ordered off Amazon, we were ready to begin our DIY van conversion as soon as we touched down.

We had 36 days before we need to leave to make our friends’ wedding, across the country in Colorado. We both work (remotely) about 25 hours a week, giving us lots of time to work on the van around job commitments.

After thirty-five hours of travel from Brisbane to the small town of Dublin, GA, two hours outside of Atlanta we were straight into the building.

As total novice builders took our cues from online blogs and youtube tutorials primarily Far Out Ride and Gnomad Home. This being said, we came up with a few novel ideas of our own along the way and some good insights for our next DIY van conversion and perhaps yours as well.

The completed DIY van conversion
Our DIY van conversion doesn’t look too shabby does it!

Everything we used for this DIY van conversion we bought through Amazon or at the local Home Depot. We have linked every product and tool we used through Amazon or Home Depot, if you find this guide helpful and do decide to use any of the products or tools we recommend and you’re purchasing through Amazon or Home Depot in the US, please support us by using these links!

Choosing the Best Van for DIY Conversion

We settled on a 1999 Chevy Express 1500. A passenger model with a raised roof and windows in the rear. We sacrificed some of the style of an older model and some of the reliability of a newer model. We won’t get the security advantages of a low-key, inconspicuous cargo van. And we will certainly sacrifice the fuel economy of a newer or vehicle or smaller motor. What we will get is a large reliable motor with moderate mileage (120k miles). A large useable space without the bulk and with more maneuverability than a full-size Sprinter. We will gain a high(er) roof than a standard cargo van, though still not quite high enough for Eddie to stand up straight. And we will avoid the costs of installing a pop-top which can cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

The vehicle we are using for our DIY van conversion

The van we found cost us $4,500 USD, and we have budgeted the DIY van conversion to come in under $5,500. This means our new mobile home should come in under $10,000.

Stripping Your DIY Van Conversion

Time: 4 days

What you’ll need

Tools:

Stripping the Van

Kelli’s family who purchased the van on our behalf were dismayed to find out we are gutting it. The previous owner had clearly looked after the van very well. Never the less, we had a vision, and this wasn’t quite it. We opted for a passenger van for the high roof and windows but all the green leather seats, faux wood paneling, DVD player, television, and green carpet have to go. Everything that comes off we put up on craigslist.

Ain’t nothing to it but to get in and start ripping things out. Bit by bit everything needs to be, unscrewed, unbolted, cut or (carefully) pulled out.

Kelli shrugging off the jet lag from a pretty brutal trans-Atlantic flight to get stuck in to our first van conversion

We started by pulling everything out of the rear of the van. First, seats, carpeting, panelling, rear interior lights, speakers, and entertainment system. A little bit intimidated by the electrics and not sure what to do with the wires being exposed, we carefully labeled them and gingerly laid them back down.

Next, we removed the remaining flooring, roof paneling, and fabric, shelving and brackets for the television and rear speakers and air-conditioning.

Removing the Seat Brackets

We hit a snag trying to remove the seat brackets. The bolt holding them in was old, a little rusted and securely fastened from underneath the vehicle. After wrestling with one bracket (of eight) for an hour we decided to take it to a tyre and auto shop to get into it with the proper tools.

Stripping  our DIY van conversion

Even with the air compressor and pneumatic tools they had to cut free some of the bolts. They had the brackets and the rear seat belt bolts out in half an hour for $50 USD. Money well spent, considering the time and difficulty this task would have taken us.

The external body kit is the next to go. Runner boards, steps, and wheel flairs from outside are removed to gain a little extra clearance. We also think it looks a little better. As soon as we put these up on craigslist they are snapped up for $75 USD.

We pulled out all the unnecessary wiring that was being used to connect rear speakers, tv, reading lights and control panels. Anything we are not sure about we label, cap with electrical tape, and stick in the back seat pocket to clear the rear.

Rust Proofing DIY Van Conversion

With the rear now stripped we set about rustproofing. The interior metal we have just exposed has a handful of spots with a small amount of rust. Anywhere rust is starting to appear we scrub off with sandpaper or a wire brush. Once all of the rust is removed we re-coat the exposed metal with a rust proofing enamel (white to match the existing paint).

Rust proofing  our DIY van conversion

The final step is plugging up any exposed holes in the floor. Silicon is applied to each hole using a caulking gun and a putty knife.

DIY Fan Installation

Time: 1 day

What You’ll Need

Materials:

Tools:

Planning a Fan

Last year, we spent almost a month in the north of Colombia in a van with no windows and no real ventilation. It was, at times, a truly miserable experience. But one that leads us to the conclusion our DIY van conversion would have both windows and an extraction fan…no matter what. The extraction fan will remove the hot air from the vehicle and promote airflow.

We settled on a MaxxFan Deluxe Manual (00-05100K) which comes highly recommended by Gnomad Home and FarOutRide. We chose the deluxe version as it has a built-in rain shield because when you’re stuck inside during a summer storm, you are really going to want the fan.

We are placing the fan toward the front of the vehicle above the area where we will work and cook (when we are not cooking outside). There is a strip down the middle of the fibreglass roof that is re-enforced with thick ply so we are setting our fan here.

Installing the Fan

First step is cutting a hole in the roof. We traced the receiving bracket onto the ceiling of the van to mark our hole. Using the drill and the spade bit we a hole large enough to fit a saw blade is drilled inside each corner of the marked area.

Next, family friend and (super) handyman Charles popped by with his reciprocating saw to help us cut the hole.

Cutting a hole in  our DIY van conversion

Next we set the receiving bracket in the new hole in the roof. Using a small drill bit we pre-drilled holes in where the screws will go. Using some thin foam we pad the gaps between the curved roof and the receiving bracket. And affix using the provided screws straight into the ply re-enforced fibre glass roof.

A hole for the van in  our DIY van conversion

Using silicone we fill the gaps between the brackets and the roof as well as the tops of the screws to make sure the roof remains water tight. Drop the fan in, secure it using the four provided fastening screws and you’re all set. Once the electrics are connected up we will need to hook the fan into power, but for the moment, we are done.

DIY Roof Rack and Solar Panel Installation

Deciding on our solar panel set up was not an easy decision. What we knew was that we needed at a minimum of 300 watts for our estimated solar consumption. The tricky part for us was deciding on rigid versus flexible solar panels. We have a high top van meaning the roof is curvy, so we thought flexible solar panels would be our best bet. Although the investment is slightly steeper, we considered that the panel curved to the van would allow us to be more incognito. Much to our dismay, the flexible solar panels were not quite flexible enough to bend around the curves of the high top. With our plans thwarted, we had to come up with a new idea.

We think this really simple, really cheap and not terribly ugly DIY roof rack is an absolute no brainer for mounting rigid solar panels to a curved fiberglass roof. The material for this roof rack is available from the hardware store for around $120. It took us half a day to install it.

We have gone into a bit more detail on the process in our article with our How-to Guide for a DIY roof rack.

Time: 2 days

What You’ll Need

Tools:

Solar Panel Materials:

Roof Rack Materials (all materials fit a 1/2 in pipe):

Find all the required galvanized pipe at Home Depot here.

  • 2x – 1/2 in x 4 ft (13mm x 1200mm) Galvanized steel pipes (length will vary based on preferences)
  • 4x – 1/2 in x 8 in (13mm X 200mm) Galvanized steel pipes (length will vary based on preferences)
  • 4x – Galvanized steel 2 in (13mm x 50mm) nipples (length will vary based on preferences)
  • 4x – Galvanized steel tee branches
  • 4x – Galvanized steel flanges
  • 4x – Galvanized steel caps
  • 16x – Bolts w/ nuts to secure the flanges
  • 12x – 3/4 in (20mm) U-bolts to secure solar panels to roof rack

How to Attach Solar Panels to a Fiberglass Roof

We already mentioned that the roof of our van is quite curvy. It curves front to back, and from side to side through the middle. Plus, there is a downward slope from the back to the front (with a curve) that we needed to contend with. We had to come up with a solution to affix the solar panels on a curved surface or place large 2-3 inch spacers to attach the panels to the roof at the front.

Without spacers, the obvious choice was a roof rack that the solar panels could rest on providing a level surface. With roof racks costing between $300 – $500, this is not an option that we can explore on our tiny budget. We have to build our own.

DIY Roof Rack for a Fiberglass Top

We spent the better part of a morning look at the roof of the van, researching youtube DIY roof racks and contemplating how we could build our own roof rack. Luckily, handyman / guru Charles showed up and within 30 minutes we are off to Home Depot to purchase the needed materials.

Once back at the van, it’s as easy as one, two, three to build and install the roof rack. See the diagram below on how to join all the galvanized steel together to create a sturdy roof rack.

Further details on the construction here

Check you’re happy with the roof rack height and placement etc. Make any changes now before you start attaching it to the car

Each flange provides a four holes for drilling straight into the fiberglass. After drilling a hole with a drill bit, each roof rack is attached with 8 bolts. Use silicon to fill the hole before you stick the bolt through to waterproof.

Installing roof racks on our DIY van conversion

Attaching the Solar Panels

Once both racks are attached, the solar panels can be attached using U-bolts. We used four U-bolts for each solar panel to ensure the panels were fasten securely to the roof rack.

After attaching the solar panels, we connect the solar panels in parallel. See the Renogy YouTube video for a helpful tutorial on how to connect solar panels in parallel and in series. Drill a hole through the fiberglass for the wire which will run towards the battery, fasten the rain guard with silicon. Sit back admire your sleek new roof rack and mounted panels

Installing solar panels on our DIY van conversion
The final product

Installing an Awning Without Roof Racks

Time: 1 Day

Overlooking our campsite in Monterrey
How good does that awning look?

This is another project we aren’t quite sure how to tackle. We haven’t designed our DIY roof rack long enough to attach an awning as well as solar panels. It’s also a bit of a headache to redesign the roof rack at this point As a result we are pretty much committed to mounting the awning directly (and permanently to the vehicle).

The second conundrum is attaching a straight awning neatly to the curve of the roof without bending anything. It’s handyman Charles that comes through with the simple suggestion that we simply use a stack of washers to hold the awning off the roof at the connecting point so it could maintain a straight line.

We installed the awning last. As we have to secure the awning directly to the fiber glass it means we’ll need to remove the ceiling and insulation where the awning is mounted. If we did this again, we would put the awning up before the insulation!

We went for an ARB 2500 awning because it appeared to be a little more durable than some of the competitors.

What You’ll Need

Tools:

Materials:

  • ARB awning
  • 2x 3’x ¼’ bolts
  • 14x 1 ¼’ x ¼’ washers
  • 2x ¼’ nuts

Attaching the Awning

This one is pretty straight forward. The awning we’ve chosen has two holes in an aluminum frame that need to be attached.

Lining the awning up with the section of roof that seems least curved (by eye) we drill through the hole at the rear of the awning into the roof. We insert our bolt loaded with nine washers.

Because we made the decision to mount an awning after putting up the ceiling we have to cut away the ceiling and insulation where the awning is attached. Thankfully the awning is long enough that the entry point is in the shelf which we lined with material instead of wood paneling.

After cutting away the material and insulation, we attach a large washer to the bolt and a nut which is tightened with our hands. The large washer will spread the load and prevent the whole bolt and nut ripping through the fiberglass top.

We eyeball again to make sure the awning is nice and level before drilling a hole through the roof in the front. Pop another bolt with washers through the hole, cut the area clear inside, attach a washer and nut and tighten.

The awning now sits a quarter inch off the vehicle even in the middle of the awning where the curve is greatest. We decide to remove three washers on each bolt to bring the awning in as close to the vehicle as possible.

Adjusting the Awning

We remove the bolts, take off three washers.

Before we replace the bolts we silicon them up to make sure we stay watertight. Pop the bolts back in. Next, go the inside washers and nuts. We tighten everything up nicely using the socket wrench.

We have a couple of inches of bolt sticking out into our ceiling. Using vice grips we give the bolts a wiggle until they snap off nice and close to our nut.

Using a bit of adhesive we patch our ceiling lining up as best we can. It doesn’t look quite as neat as it did but it is just lining a shelf so its not the end of the world.

And that’s that, awning up and secured using just a couple of bolts, nuts and a handful of washers. Easier than we thought it was going to be!

Insulation for Your DIY Van Conversion

Insulation can be one of the most important steps in your DIY van conversion. It is expensive, installing it is time-consuming, and it reduces the usable space in your car but done properly it can go will go along way to creating a comfortable camper. Consideration of the destinations you will travel to is important when deciding how much insulation you want.

Our insulation is designed to keep the car cooler in the Mexican sun.

Time: 3 days

What You’ll Need

Tools:

Materials:

We have pulled everything out of the inside of the van and we are ready to start putting stuff back in. First step the insulation.

Roof and Wall insulation

Starting with the roof and walls. The insulation installation is pretty straightforward, but working with the adhesive and spray foam is a bit unpleasant, messy and really sticky. Wear old clothes, gloves(!!!) and place a tarp or sheet on the floor of the van and in the front cab.

For the majority of the roof and walls, we are using 1 inch Polyiso foam board. However, there are a couple of spots which are thicker or jut out and where 1 inch insulation would cost us valuable space. An example is parts of the roof where thick ply has been used to reinforce the fiberglass roof, and areas of the wall that have ribbing. In these places, we are using 1/2 inch insulate. We would have used Polyiso here too but it wasn’t available in the local home depot. We went for the next best option, 1/2 inch XPS.

First, we measure and cut the insulation boards to fit the shape of the roof and walls. Spray the reflective side of the insulation with 3M adhesive and the roof or wall it is getting fixed to. Wait 60 seconds and then press the board to the roof. It should bond pretty quickly.

Once the insulation boards are covering the roof and walls shove fibre glass insulation into all the nooks and crannies.

Now the fun begins. Using “Great Stuff” foam spray, we fill in all the gaps. Aside from filling in all the cracks, this will firmly lock into place the insulation boards.

Floor insulation

To create an even surface on which to lay our floor insulation we fill the hollows in the ribbed metal with foam strips. Using some foam salvaged from the strip-out, we cut pieces to size, and set with M3 spray adhesive.

We settled on SilveRboard for our floor insulation. This will provide a moderate acoustic barrier to minimize road noise (STC19). It will also provide moderate to good thermal insulation (R5 thermal insulation value) which will be sufficient for us since we don’t plan to go anywhere very cold in this DIY van conversion.

From here its a pretty simple matter of measuring and cutting the SilveRboard and fixing the insulation panels directly to the floor using a bit of spray foam. Fill in gaps and cracks with more foam and allow to set.

Insulation for our DIY van conversion
Insulated van

Simple Shelving for a DIY Van Conversion

We made some simple shelving using pine stud and plywood to sit above the front cabin and above the bed in the rear.

Time: 1 day

What You’ll Need

Tools:

Materials:

  • M3 Adhesive spray 90
  • 10 wood screws
  • Headliner Material – enough to adhere to the insulated roof above the shelf. We salvaged the grey headliner material that was used on the original drop ceiling.
  • 1 x – 1/4″ x 4′ x 8′ (7mm x 1200mm x 2400mm) sheet of ply
  • 2 x – 2″ x 4″ x 96″ (35mm x 70mm x 2400mm) pine stud

Ceiling Liner

We decided that we didn’t need any fancy ceiling materials above our shelf. To line the newly insulated roof we are simply going to recycle the headliner that was used in the vans original drop ceiling.

We measure and cut side, back and ceiling sections from the piece of grey headliner. Next, we affix the liner directly to the roof using M3 90 adhesive spray. Simple.

Building the shelves

The next step is to cut the ply to size and shape using a circular saw and jigsaw. Our front shelf sits on the metal roof of the cab which is still intact after the factory converted the standard cargo van to a passenger vehicle. This means our shelf can sit right on the roof. We glue a little thin foam to the underside of our shelf to avoid wood rubbing on metal. Next, we cut the pine studs to the length of the new shelf. We affix pine studs to the back and front of the new shelf using screws. Now we’ll be able to store baskets or boxes above the cab with things being able to slide off.

Screw the pine into the metal wall frame at the edges of the new shelf. Reattach the cab roof and headlining to the underside of the new shelf.

Shelving for our DIY van conversion
Our new front shelf that sits above the cab

The rear shelf is made in much the same way. A piece of ply cut to size and shape (using a circular saw and jigsaw) to span the rear of the van and rest on the metal wall frame. Attach pine studs at the front and rear. Screw the new shelf into the van wall frame. Hey presto, simple shelves.

Shelving for our DIY van conversion
Rear shelf

Flooring for Your DIY Van Conversion

We ummed and ahhed for a few days over which type of vinyl flooring we would get to go over our 1/2 inch ply subfloor. In the end, we realised we could probably do away with the expense, weight and hassle of vinyl if we got a bit creative with our ply. We decided to dress our 1/2 inch plywood up to look like floorboards, stain it and protect it with a few coats of polyurethane.

Time: 4 days

What You’ll Need

Tools:

Materials:

  • 2 x – 1/2″ x 4′ x 8′ (14mm x 1200mm x 2400mm) sheet of ply
  • Wood stain
  • Polyurethane
  • 10x – 2 3/4” (70mm) flat head self-tapping metal screws

Fitting the floor

We start by laying one full piece of ply on the front passenger side of the van rear. This area, next to the side doors will be our living room and kitchen. As its the only floor that will not be covered by the bed or kitchen bench, it’s the only piece we will need to dress as floorboards.

From here we need to measure and cut ply to cover the remaining floor. Using some cardboard (salvaged from the boxes our solar panels arrived in) we cut out the exact shapes that are going to be needed to complete our floor.

Using a circular saw we cut the ply to the approximate size and use a jigsaw to cut out any odd shapes or curves.

After sanding down our bits of ply, we check everything fits together nicely and its on to step 2.

Dressing the Floor

To achieve the effect of floorboards, we use a circular saw to make regular cuts spaced 4 inches apart running the length of the ply. These cuts are 1/8th of an inch. The shallow cuts simulate floorboards.

Next, use a sharp Stanley knife to make horizontal cuts between the vertical cuts at random intervals in the ply to simulate floorboards meeting.

Painting the floor

Although we only cut the visible ply to look like floorboards we will stain and apply polyurethane to the entire floor so it looks consistent and to protect the timber.

We decide to stain with a ‘carbon grey’. If you ever decide to do the same, please try it out on an inconspicuous area first. I go a little heavy in the beginning and we end up with a section that is practically stained completely black. Wipe stain on lightly, and slowly build up to the colour you want. Wipe off excess stain with a clean dry rag as you go.

After the stain has dried for 24 hours you can coat with Polyurethane. Apply three coats, 4 hours apart (if the polyurethane dries longer than this you may need to sand the surface a little applying the next coat). Let the polyurethane dry for 24 hours and your floor is ready to be installed.

Installing the floor

Put the flooring back into the van we arrange everything so that it fits nicely. Lots of DIY van conversions we read about online suggest leaving the floor to ‘float’ ie. not affixing to the floor. Not super sure about this so we drive a few 2 1/2″ self-tapping metal screws through the floor, through the insulation and through the metal floor of the van to hold all our floor pieces firmly in place.

Next, we fill in gaps and cracks with wood filler. Sand. Stain. And coat with a Polyurethane.

That’s it. Floor installed.

Wheel Arch Covers

Now the floor is down we need some covers around the wheel arches.

Time: 1 day

What You’ll Need

Tools:

Materials:

We are making knocking up some simple boxes, lined with insulation to fit over the wheel arches.

First, we measure and cut three bits of ply to fit around each wheel arch. We join these together. Line the boxes with the insulation board and then place the boxes back over the wheel arch. Secure the boxes to the floor with a couple of screw and that’s that.

This will also provide a frame in which to mount your electrical set up if you choose to put it under the bed.

Bed Frame for a DIY Van Conversion

Like most things in the van, we don’t have any experience building a bed. We are ‘designing it’ ourselves to fit our DIY van conversion.

We are building our bed frame out of pine studs. Our bed will be a full size 54” x 75” (1350mm x 1900mm). It will run widthways along the rear of the van. We want plenty of room to sit up, but we also need to fit our battery set-up under the bed in the front and be able to store camping gear (tables and chairs etc.) under the bed in the back.

We would also like to be able to easily remove the bed platform. This will allow us to access the electronics and storage areas easily. To do this we will use removable slats as the bed platform.

Time: 3 days

What You’ll Need

Tools:

Materials:

  • 7 x – 2″ x 4″ x 96″ (38mm x 89mm x 2400mm) pine stud
  • 3 x – 2” x 2” x 96” (38m x 89mm x 2400mm) pine furring strips
  • 7 x 1” x 3” x 96” (19mm x 64mm x 2400mm) pine planks
  • 20 x – 2 1/2″ (65mm) wood screws
  • 30 x – 2″ (50mm) wood screws
  • 2 x – 2 3/4” (70mm) self-tapping metal screws
  • 50 x 2″ dowel pins
  • Gorilla wood glue

Installing a Bed Frame

We are starting by cutting one piece of 2” x 4” to fit snugly across the rear of the van at 14″ off the floor. This will form the bed’s first side rail.

Using two large self-tapping screws we secure the timber to the vans metal frame.

Next, we measure and cut two sections at 25”. We secure them perpendicular to our first side rail at either end of the bed, 10″ from the bed ends using two large wood screws on each. These sections will form ‘joists’ to strengthen the bed frame.

From the 2″x4″ pine studs, we cut 2 x 14” legs and attach them under the side rail and two outer-most joists. These legs are attached to the frame and to the floor using the smaller wood screws.

Next, we measure and cut another length of pine to act as a centre beam. This piece needs to span the width of the vehicle in the centre of the bed frame (where our joists end). We attach this centre beam to the joists using two long wood screws.

More 14″ legs are cut and positioned under the centre beam where the joists are attached. At this stage, we do not screw in the legs but just leave them to support the frame.

Two more 25″ lengths of pine are cut to create two more joists. These are attached perpendicularly to the centre beam five inches from either end of the beam.

The other side rail is cut to fit the width of the vehicle where our new joists end. This second side rail is affixed using more long wood screws.

The bed frame in our DIY van conversion
Bed in progress…

Now the bed frame is starting to take shape.

Building the Rest of the Bed

We attached one more joist between the rear side rail and centre beam and two more joists between the front side rail and centre beam.

Next we need to affix legs to the frame. Where these go shape the layout of the storage area under the bed. We set out all the stuff we plnned to store under the bed and affixed five legs based on this layout.

Next we are adding rails to support slats. To the inside of the side rails and either side of the centre beam, we attach our 2” x 2” pine, which is cut to lengths to fit between the joists. These are attached 1 inch below the top of the rails and centre beam. We attach the slat supports using gorilla wood glue and wood screws.

Adding Slats to the Bed

To make the slats we cut the 1” x 3” pine plank into 22 x 25″ pieces. Lay these out on the slat supports and space evenly.

We want the slats to be removable so we can access storage and electrics beneath the bed. Equally, we don’t want the slats sliding around. We are using dowel pins to create slats that will lock in place but can also be removed.

The finished bed platform in our DIY van conversion

With our slats in position we use a 5/8 wood drill bit to make holes through our slats and into the slat support, ideally in the middle of the slat support. We roll the top 1/4 inch of our dowel pins in the wood glue. and insert the pins (un-glued end first) into our slats, pushing them through until the pins are flush with the top of the slat.

We remove the slats to let the glue set. While we are waiting we number our rear and front slats so they don’t get mixed up. We also drill out the holes in the slat supports a little more so that the dowel pins don’t fit too snugly and can easily be removed and replaced. Once the slats are dried put them back into their correct position.

Any timber that will be exposed we paint in our colour scheme of whitewash and polyurethane over the top.

Boom, bed frame complete. Now to decide on a full size mattress to fit it. We went with the Lucid 5 inch memory foam mattress.

In Hindsight

The finished bed in our DIY van conversion
Sideways bed in our DIY Van Conversion

Having been in the van for a few weeks now we have some thoughts. The bed works great, it doesn’t move or squeak. Not knowing what we were doing we have probably over-engineered it. We might have gotten away with using fewer materials.

The Sideways bed certainly saves space in the van, but can feel a little cramped. Even thought a full size mattress just squeezes in there.

If we had our time again we would also make the bed higher off the ground to increase our storage space. Right now we think 18 inches off the ground would have been perfect.

The Ceiling

After only working on the floor for a week or so, we decided to switch directions and look upward. The next step in the van is the ceiling.

There are many different options for the ceiling, but we are going with tongue and groove paneling. A little bit fancier than simply ply and not as difficult as regular wood. Also, due to the curved roof, we have chosen a 1/4” (7mm) tongue and groove as it is a bit more flexible and will curve (we hope) with our voluptuous roof. Plus, it will be lighter and adding to the weight of the van only increases fuel costs.

Time: 4 days

What You’ll Need

Tools:

Materials:

  • Tongue and groove paneling (1/4 in thickness)
  • Stain and polyurethane
  • Furring strips cut from 1/4” ply
  • Screws
  • Lights
  • AGM wiring

Installing Ceiling Furring Strips

Before adding the paneling though we have to think of a solution to affix the paneling to the fiberglass top. Luckily for us, the fiberglass top has a large plywood strip in the middle and two smaller wooden strips on the sides. We used 1/4” ply to make furring strips to provide a surface to screw on the panels. The furring strips are screwed to the wooden strips providing a perfect arch to attach the panels eliminating any wonkiness.

Furring strips will allow us to affix the ceiling

Putting Up the Ceiling

After the furring strips, it is on to the tongue and groove. The side panels of the ceiling fit together and sit against the side ceiling wall. These are not screwed into the fiberglass but fit snuggly between the shelves and the van wall. The ceiling panels provide the final layer of support locking the panels in place. The remaining tongue and groove panels are screwed into each furring strip.

Remember, however, to put the recessed lights in as you go. Depending on where you put your lights, you will need to install these as you install the tongue and groove. After putting up the tongue and groove panel where you want the light to be, stop. Drill a hole in the panel using a hole saw the diameter of the light. Run the wiring through the hole, connect the light and then keep on keeping on until the whole ceiling is finished.

For the fan, just attach the AGW wiring included to longer wiring and ensure it runs behind the tongue and groove paneling while you are putting up the ceiling. No additional work is required to install the fan.

Finished ceiling from our DIY van conversion
Voila, now you have a ceiling albeit without electricity

The Walls (including door paneling)

The walls turned out to be one of the more challenging pieces of the entire DIY van conversion. Our curvaceous van left us pounding on the walls and breaking pieces of the cedar plank one too many times. In the end, however, we managed. But beware, this does get challenging. 

Time: 7 days

What You’ll Need

Tools:

Materials:

  • Cedar tongue and groove paneling (1/4 in thickness)
  • Furring strips cut from 1/4” ply
  • Screws
  • Stain and polyurethane

Paneling Unseen Walls

This will ultimately be the kitchen

Our first step was to cover the unseen walls with plywood. We used cardboard to make cutouts of the size before cutting the plywood to shape. After perfecting the cardboard cut out, we set off to cut the plywood to shape. We screwed the plywood into the one ribbing running horizontally in the center of the van’s walls.

This plywood would also serve as the attachment point for furring strips to be used to help attach the cedar paneled walls. We did this for the area under each of the three windows in our van. For the front window, the plywood comes up higher than the window as most of the window will be covered by the cabinet. For the portion of the plywood covering the window, we attached Reflectix insulation to combat the heat radiating from the sun. 

Paneling the Visible Walls

We used the same cedar tongue and groove paneling that we used on our ceiling for the walls. The paneling process itself is no different than putting up the ceiling, but with a few more headaches. With the ceiling, we could use long pieces that we simply needed to fit together. With the walls, we had to cut each piece to size and had to make the very stiff tongue and groove planks bend and mold to the van curves. It basically became a game of trial and error with a lot of errors. 

To fix the walls, we used furring strips which we screwed to the car’s metal frame using self-tapping metal screws. Thankfully, we managed to find enough ribbing in the van with the help of the furring strips to cover most of the metal inside. Some furring strips were simply plywood to provide a surface to screw into and some were thicker in size to adjust to the curve of the van. 

The Electrical System

Full disclosure we don’t have much of a clue when it comes to electricity. We relied heavily on Youtube tutorials and a comprehensive guide put together by Far Out Ride blog which we purchased here for $20 USD. 

While the basic principles of electricity might continue to elude us, Kelli has poured through enough blogs and video tutorials to figure out exactly what gear we need and how to put it all together. We will keep things simple (because our understanding is simplistic) and try to explain everything we do and why.

We are putting our electrics under the bed for easy access. Around the area designated for the electric system we have built a simple cupboard with plywood walls (by attaching them to the bed frame) so we can easily mount the various fuses, switches, boxes and monitors.

Time: 10 Days

Tools We Used Installing the Electrics

Installing Batteries

Using an online calculator, we calculated our expected usage to determine how much battery capacity we needed. The outcome was a battery bank of 250ah if we ran everything we had all day long. We wanted to be sure that we did not lose power on the road as we both work from the road. 

We settled on two AGM deep cycle batteries each 125ah. While not as efficient nor as long-lasting as the lithium batteries, we chose these batteries primarily based on price. The AGM deep cycle batteries are one step up from a lead-acid battery, but not as sophisticated as lithium. We figured that the AGMs would do the trick on our starter home. Plus, if you are going to ruin a set of batteries in your first electrical build you would rather burn $500 than $3,000. 

What You’ll Need

Connecting the Batteries

First step is to connect the two batteries in parallel. This increases the storage capacity. The alternative way of linking batteries is in series which increases power output rather than storage.

To connect the batteries in parallel we position both batteries side by side in the electrics cupboard. Using the red 4 AWG wire we cut a length that will reach between the positive terminals of the two batteries. Trim ½ of the rubber insulation from either end of the wire. Slide the copper battery lugs over the exposed wire and crimp the lug tightly using the wire crimper. Use this red cord to connect the positive terminal of battery one to the positive terminal of battery two. Using the black wire, we repeat the process to connect the negative terminals of each battery.

Mounting the Bus Bars

Next, we need to mount the positive and negative bus bar. Bus bars are needed as there will be numerous things that need to connect to the batteries, but not enough space on the battery terminals themselves. We mount the two bus bars directly next to the batteries.        

Installing a Terminal Fuse

The next step is to install a fuse holder and is the 250amp fuse on the positive terminal. The terminal fuse holder sits on the positive terminal of the battery which will link to the rest of the electrical system. Place the terminal rings on the holder before setting the fuse on top. 

Installing a Battery Switch

The next step is connecting an on/off switch in between our battery and the rest of the system so we can turn off the system to work on it if necessary. We position the switch at the back of the electrics cupboard and cut a length of 4AWG wire (red) to run from the closest positive battery terminal to the switch. Connecting the wire to the positive battery terminal using a battery lug, we then connect the other end to the switch as per the instructions. Another piece of 4AWG wire (red) is connected to the remaining terminal in the switch and runs to the positive bus bar.  There are no negative wires connected to the on/off switch. 

Having connected the positive terminal of the battery to the bus bar, the next piece of the puzzle (and quite an easy one) is to connect the negative terminal to the bus bar. We do this using the same 4AWG wire and run the wire from the negative terminal to the bus bar. Then we grounded the negative bus bar to the metal frame as a safety precaution. We grounded the negative bus bar with some remaining AWG wire without regard to the wiring size. Perhaps consult a specialist if you are worried about wiring size or hit up the world wide web for what will for sure be contradicting information. 

Pro-tip

Make sure to keep your wires short and tidy during the process. We failed to be strict about this and spent a good day tidying up the wires as much as we possibly could. If we could do it again, we would be more careful with this aspect of the electrical build. 

So now the batteries are hooked up. They can be isolated to work on the rest of the system. The batteries are hooked up to bus bars from which we can attach the rest of the set-up.

They have a terminal fuse for safety. It’s now time for the loads. 

Hooking Up the Loads

The first question I asked was “what exactly is a load?”. A load is anything that is connected to the battery that draws power. 

First things first, we need to determine the AWG wire size that you need for each load. You probably have already done this if you have already put up the ceiling but if not head over to BlueSea Circuit Wizard to determine the wire size based on circuit voltage, load current, and length of the conductor. The length of the conductor should be the sum of both the positive and negative wire. 

What You’ll Need

Mounting a Fuse Box

First, we need to mount the fuse box on the cupboard wall close to the bus bars. The fuse box is then connected to the positive and negative bus bar using the appropriate AGM wiring size (in our case it was 8 AGM). 

Next, we connect each of the ‘loads’ that we have installed as part of our DIY van conversion. Our loads include five 12v sockets, one MaxxAir fan, and four Acegoo LED lights. The wiring from the loads connect to the fuse box, both the positive and the negative wires. We crimp each wire, attach the appropriately sized terminal ring and then secure the ring to a terminal in the fuse box. The positive wires run to the positive fuse location and the negative wires to the negative location. The fuse is installed on the positive wire.

For the lights and the fan instead of installing directly into the fuse box, we add a light switch. The light switch has three switches, one for the front two lights, the back two lights and the fan. The wiring from the light switch then runs to the fuse box with a fuse suitable for the entire load (3 X 4 (lights) + 5 (fan) = 20 amp fuse). We later found out that the fan does not power on with the switch. We have to manually power the MaxxAir fan on but can turn it off with the power switch.

With all our loads connected to the battery bank, we are ready…except we need power!

Hooking Up the Solar

We have described how we mounted our three Renogy 100w solar panels here. Now we need to hook them into our batteries so we can recharge them.

What You’ll Need

Connecting Solar Panels

The first step is connecting the solar panels that we have mounted together. Again, we agreed upon a parallel connection. We chose to connect in parallel as setting up the solar panels in parallel increase the amperage but not the voltage. Additionally, if you wire in series and have partial shading, you significantly decrease the power in the whole array. This is not the case with parallel wiring. We need to obtain the most power from our solar panels as possible. 

Now our solar panels are hooked up we need to run them into the vehicle. We drilled a hole the size of each wire at the top of the van near where the batteries were to be located. We purchased a rain guard to protect the van from any moisture dripping into the van although with a proper silicon job the outcome would have been the same. When you drill the holes make sure the fit is snug as well to aid in sealing the van from rain. Feed the negative and positive cables through the holes, silicon the rain guard on and run the wires into the van.

Once you have run the wires into the van, a circuit breaker should be installed on the positive wire from the solar panel. The circuit breaker should be equivalent to the amperage from the solar panels. This way if there were to be a malfunction, the circuit would break prior to damaging the rest of the electrical system further. 

Installing a Charge Controller

The next step is to install the MPPT charge controller. The MPPT charge controller regulates the rate at which power is added to or drawn from the batteries. Run the wires from the solar panels into the charge controller at the connection point indicated in the instructions. Then run additional wiring from the charge controller to the positive and negative bus bars. 

Note: Make sure you calibrate your MPPT charge controller for the specific battery set up that you have. Deep cycle AGM batteries have a different discharge capacity than other batteries, so ensuring your MPPT charge controller is aware of the battery type is crucial. 

Hooking up the System for Alternative Charging

The sun is not always going to be shining, so we needed to have another way to charge our batteries. Some people include both shore power (ability to connect to mains power) and alternator power. We do not stay at facilities very often and boondock most of the time, so shore power was not important to us. We decided to skip the shore power and focus on the alternator.

What You’ll Need

Installing an Isolator

The next step in our electrical set up is the installation of a smart key isolator to enable the secondary batteries to charge off the car alternator when the car is running. Using 4 AWG wiring, we attach one end to the positive terminal of the car battery and the other end to the appropriate terminal in the isolator. We also include an inline fuse as a safety measure for the rest of the electrical system. We then run 4AWG wiring from the isolator to the positive bus bar. A negative grounding wire is included with the isolator which is run to a common ground (i.e., the van’s chassis). Now we should be able to power our batteries if no sunlight is available.

Hooking Up the Inverter

What You’ll Need

  • Inverter
  • AWG wiring (size and length dependent on location)

Our final step in the electrical set up is to install a converter. Some items such as our computers cannot be charged by DC voltage. We install an inverter connecting the positive and negative wires to the bus bar allowing us to convert DC energy into AC energy.

Kitchen Cabinets 

Time: 4 days

What You’ll Need

Tools:

Materials:

  • An old wall cabinet
  • Extra wood for countertop
  • Stain (or paint)
  • Sandpaper

Sourcing Cabinets

The trick to cabinets is to use ones that are already built. People pay good money for cabinets due to the many intricacies in building them. Therefore, we decided to save ourselves the headache and use a set of old wall cabinets that had been removed in a house renovation. With a little bit of TLC, these would become the centerpiece in our tiny home. 

The cabinets given to us were too big for our space, so we had someone with carpentry experience cut them down to size. Then we stripped the paint down to show the beautiful wood grain. 

The Counter Top

After resizing and sanding, the next step was the countertop. In our previous van, the stove slide out from the back of the van which was great for the most part. The only problem was that there was nothing stopping the stove from sliding out when we were driving and banging against the door. We knew we did not want this headache again. Also, we knew we needed more countertop space than would be available if we just set the stove on top of the countertop. 

We finally decided on creating a compartment underneath the countertop which would hold the stove when we were driving. The compartment fit the dimensions of the stove to ensure the stove did not slide around a lot during transit.

Designing the countertop to be removable gave us a place to store the stove and provided countertop space if needed. (Update: we made a pack down table using the countertop).

The other side of the countertop is used similar to a drawer to store cooking and eating utensils. We made this side swing up on a hinge but it could also be a removable top as well. The trick to the removable lid is to ensure you place a piece of wood inside the lid to keep it from sliding off the top when it is in place. 

Creating a Sink

The last step in completing the countertop is to cut out the hole for the washbasin. We opted to skip installing a basin with a hole draining into a grey water tank. Having lived in a van before, we tend to spend a lot of time outdoors. We wanted the option to be able to take our washing outdoors without having to purchase two buckets. A foot pump was also purchased to install running water for cleaning inside but never got around to installing it. We brought it on our trip though, in case we change in our minds. 

Painting the Cabinet

Getting pre-made cabinets made our DIY van conversion easier

The final step to the cabinets is painting. We stained the countertop the same color as the flooring and the cabinet itself the same color as the ceiling and walls. The result, in our opinion, is great. The white stain picks up the wood grain beautifully and does not give off a stark feeling at all. 

If we could do it again, I think we would do it the exact same way

The Inside Table

Time: 1 day.

Attempting to podcast from inside the van

Having decided to make the bed permanent, we needed to figure out a way to work inside (i.e., a table). We tossed up a lot of options, swinging table off the side door or off the cabinet, but these did not feel right for the van. After doing a bit of research online, I found a table that was similar to what I wanted. I set off to Home Depot to put my idea in motion.

What You’ll Need

Tools:

Materials:

  • Pine panel (we used a 1″ x 12″ x 48″ cut to size)
  • 4 – 3/4” flanges
  • 4 – 27” steel pipe (3/4″ diameter)
  • 16 Wood screws (to fit the flanges)
  • 4 – Caps
  • Stain and polyurethane

The table itself is simple. I cut the wood to be the desired length. The wood is then stained the same color as the floor with a coat of polyurethane for protection. Once dried, I attach a flange in each corner of the wood using screws. I make sure to not put them too close to the end or too close to the middle. I put a cap on the bottom of each steel pipe and then screw in the other side to the flange. I attach all steep pipes, flip over the table and viola. Easy peasy.

Now we have a table that we can use indoors that can be dismantled in under a minute. We can also take the table outdoors if we need extra table space or if we just want to use this one.

Phew! All done!

That’s it! Ready to Roll. Looking for more tips on van conversions, van life, or destinations? Or do you have some tips of your own you’d like to share below?

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6 thoughts on “DIY Van Conversion: A Beginner’s Guide”

  1. Hey guys,

    Did you find the 1/4 inch furring strips were thick enough for the ceiling? Did it provide enough material for the screws to bight into?

    I’m trying to maximise headspace and want to keep the furring strips as thin as possible, but it seems most people use 1 inch strips. Would love it if the 1/4 inch ply works!

    1. Hi Tristan,

      Our ceiling and walls are still there so that’s a good sign. We had the same issues wanting to conserve headspace. We were also battling a curved fiberglass roof and the thin furring strips were able to accommodate this curve. We used very thin cedar paneling on the ceiling and walls and didn’t have a problem fixing them to the thin furring strips (although the thin paneling was prone to splitting when screwing it to the furring strip so be sure to drill pilot holes and use a small screw size).

      Let me know if you have any other questions,

      Eddie

  2. Rebecca Dunkin

    My bus roof is fiberglass so did you adhere the insulation straight into the fiberglass and then the firing strips on top of the insulation ?

    1. Eddie and Kelli

      Hi Rebecca. Yes, insulation was adhered directly to the fiberglass top. Furring strips went over the top of the insulation, but, our fiberglass had sections where it had been reinforced with thick ply. We used long screws to fix the furring strip to the reinforced parts of the ceiling through the insulation. I’ll put up a photo of our ceiling with insulation and furring strips.

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