Van Construction

I’ve never owned a RV. I edited in one once at Derby. A nice 30 something footer the station rented and parked in someone’s yard across the street from the Downs. Then there were the debates with my Uncle Bud about which was real camping. His travel trailer or my backpack. That is about all my RV experience.

I’ve never owned a van either. I drove one around campus a lot when I worked at University Television. It was fun, we’d drive up and down sidewalks to get to buildings when making deliveries or going out on a shoot. We called her Big Junkie, and she lived up to her name. She was in a wreck at some point and the slide door wouldn’t close real well. It would leak or snow on you if you were driving around in inclement weather.

The fleet of live trucks I now drive around for work are in much better shape, well once Unit 10 went away. Unit 10 was sweet. Imagine if Play School made a “My First Live Truck” and you’d have Unit 10. When I started in ’98 the van was already 10 or so years old. We’ll call it well seasoned, it had seen a lot of news. You could stomp on the gas when you got on the interstate in Lexington and keep it on the floor till you got to Richmond and never really break the speed limit. Once while covering a bourbon warehouse fire I had to keep jump starting it off the technical battery every time we stopped. At least it had two batteries.

So there is my RV and van experience up until now. I hope this current experiment works out a little better than some of my previous van experiences.


The Blank Canvass


Insulate…or die trying

Crisising already?

Who needs seats?


Sub Floor Installed

I always wanted a pop top.Yeah, I really wanted a pop top.

Interior Progress

Cutting more holes (fridge vents)

Rough Kitchen Layout

Almost Finished Kitchen

Power Center, holes, and propane detector.

Of course this will all change slightly due to the fact that the battery separator gets really hot. Not good in an enclosed space. NO, there have been no fires or melted wires. Just want to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Gas Plumbing

Gas into Back of fridge

Gas line to stove runs in under the sink.

More pics of some of the stuff I’ve done over the past month.

The properly mounted battery separtor.

Inside the power center.

The inverter/charger on the left.

A look at the kitchen with the counter top laid and the stove set.

The pantry.


Water tank fill and vent.

15 Gallon fresh water tank, strainer (left), pump (center), fill hose (black and blue)

Running water! 12V pump switch is in the bottom left of the frame.

The gray water tank in the cabinet bellow the sink. A 5 gallon Barker portable tank. A last minute design change that saved some time and money.

A stuffed animal net from Babies R Us makes a GREAT shoe holder.  Mesh to let shoes air/drain out right over the foot well.

Hung above the back door in our house, now hangs on the side door of our new house.

This page seems to attract a lot of attention so I thought I’d share some thoughts on the subject now that we’re on the map and I’m not sitting in driveway covered in blood, sweat and tears.
A year ago I was knee deep in van construction…ahhh who am I kidding I was in over my head. After about seven months of life on the road in a van I thought I’d run through some of the pro’s, con’s, do-overs and wouldn’t change a thing sort of stuff. OK not all seven months have been spent in our home on wheels, but enough time to figure some of this stuff out.

The Had to Fix:
-Thought I smelled propane around the fridge so I had to tighten some gas fittings in a state park in New York right outta the gate. Guess the newness of things and the road travel loosened them up.
-A frozen sink sprayer was replaced on the way to Mexico (seems it froze up and cracked sometime in WV when we weren’t van dwelling). Luckily the block of ice in the water tank never went Titanic on us, managed to melt and drain it out over Thanksgiving, should have done a better job draining down the water lines.

Did Right:
-Insulate, insulate, insulate. It sure seems to help keep the van cool in the sun. If only it would hold in more heat…guess I should have installed a furnace.
-Installing a good vent fan over the cooktop. Critical if you’re doing a lot of cooking in your rig.
-Mounting the drain tank inside. I didn’t want to do this at first, even had a tank to mount to the underside that I couldn’t (read didn’t want to take the time to) make work. This change has for the most part allowed us to avoid the dreaded RV dump stations. The tank is only gray water so I’m able to dump it about anywhere. I’ve used dump stations, pit toilets, flush toilets and fire rings. This greatly improves our ability to camp anywhere.
-3-Way fridge. Awesome. It was a lot of stress to deal with the propane and cutting holes in the side of the van, but well worth it not to be constantly having to buy ice. The thing works better than I thought too! Yeah Norcold.
-Swivel base. It took forever to get but it was worth the wait. We can spin the passenger seat around and create a sweet living room. I just wish the one for the driver’s seat would’ve worked out (too crowed, steering wheel)
-A comfortable bed. Nothing beats a good night’s sleep, and we tend to sleep a lot longer in the van than we did in our house. Can you get too much sleep?
-Storage space. We bought a big van for this very reason. At times it has felt cramped, but we have room for everything we need.
-Remote switch for inverter. Finally did this modification this month at our friends house. It was simple thanks to this message forum (How To HERE) and speeds up making coffee in the mornings. No longer do we have to open the hatch and reach under the bed to turn the inverter on.

Would Change:
-Add a solar panel. The second battery will last about 3 days if we aren’t driving. We don’t run our inverter a lot (pretty much just to make coffee) when we are parked. Between the lights, the fan (if we run it), propane monitor and brewing joe we don’t really draw that much power off the battery. A solar panel would extend our time between firing up the engine, but would have been a costly addition. I’d now like to apologize to those in Potrero who we might have woken up while brewing coffee. We really didn’t leave the van running that long!
-An external door for filling our water tank. We have to swing out the bikes, open the back doors, move some stuff around and open a hatch to get to the water tank fill. We’ve gotten it down to a dance and it doesn’t take that long, but having the fill inside a door that is accessible from the outside (like a real RV) would be a help.
-Penthouse top. On those cold mornings and nights when we’re stuck in the van it would be nice to be able to stand up. Having a penthouse top from Sportsmobile, or a pop top from GTRV Westy would be nice. The biggest con to that wish is our roof box. I don’t know if a pop top could support the weight of our box.
-4WD. Quiggley please. We thought we could get around not having 4WD, but we like to get off the beaten path, nothing extreme, just out and about. We’ve taken this van into some necky places and made it back out alive but it would have been nice knowing we had the 4WD option in case we got stuck. It has limited what we can do in some places by keeping us from getting to certain trailheads (we hate bumping down washboard with our entire house rattling along) and has caused us to keep searching down FS roads looking for a camping spot where we can get in and out if it happened to rain overnight. We knew we would like 4WD going into this adventure, the price and availability of 4WD vans affected our decision to go 2WD.

So for the most part everything has been operating smooth as silk. I guess the long hours of stress and labor in that driveway on Lindy Ln really paid off. I said throughout construction I wanted to get it right so I wouldn’t be trying to fix stuff on the road and wasting valuable rest and recreation time. So far, so good. Even for an older van everything has held up great. WIth all our weight, roof box, and bike rack we’re still getting between 14 and 15 miles per gallon. As with any project there are choices to be made that are dictated by time, money, personal preference, availability of supplies, etc. You have to figure out what is right for your needs when you approach a van conversion. There are tons of internet resources and a few good RV parts houses and/or dealerships out there to get ideas from. Go to an RV show. Crawl in, around, and under RVs. Ask to check out other people’s rides. Its not as hard as it looks (at least that is what I’m going to tell myself if I build another van someday). Feel free to e-mail us any questions.

Good Websites:
A bunch of RV nuts, I equate it to a the Red RIver Climbing of RVing
A really informative Class B forum (especially if you have RT or PW)
RVing to the extreme
This one is interesting
A how to page
The 12V side of life
More on RV batteries


March 15, 2011

Ahhh spring time is in the air. The grass is greening up, the birds are chirping and the days are getting longer. True signs of a season change. But you know how else I know its spring? We’re getting more hits on our van construction page. Laugh if you will but its the truth. Soon after we made this blog public (ie Google searchable) we noticed that most incoming traffic was going to the van construction page. Turns out a lot of people dig homebuilt camper vans. And after combing the internets for ideas and information while building ours, I can attest to the fact that there aren’t very many good homebuilt van sites on the world wide web. So as we blogged about our travels we always got a chuckle that the only real interest this site was the van construction page.

Like clockwork we noticed the spring spike in hits.  It started a few weeks ago, it seems that after a long cold winter the dirtbags are stirring. Tired of being cooped up all the rock climbers, adventurers, and those suffering from seasonal induced wanderlust start day dreaming of escape. They turn to the Google and end up on our blog. Who can blame them really? What better way to shake off the winter blues, see the sights and recreate than in your very own home built campervan.

Speaking of shaking off the winter blues, we’re dusting off our rig and getting ready to set sail once again. I’ve been tidying up a few odds and ends that have fallen by the wayside while we were in New Zealand and then rocketing across the country for the harvest last fall. The biggest change of all was recovering the headliner.  Seems the thirteen year old factory job was starting to give out. Changes in temperature and increased moisture from cooking and living aboard had worn out the glue holding the fabric to the backer board.  No worries, just pop out the factory headliner, strip off the old fabric and foam to recover with a material of your choice.


While I’m not sure about our choice in finishing, Jill loves it. Definatley different, it lightens things up from the deep dark factory navy blue that was original to the van. Our new headliner might not fly on the high fashion runways of Paris this spring, but it sure will look good out on the road.

52 thoughts on “Van Construction

  1. Eric, you probably just need to just buy an RV. I’m going to go ahead and retire from van conversion work now. Start studying up for my next ‘career’ in small cabin / yurt construction. I feel this kind of job will leave me plenty of free time to work on a minor in farming. Yeah those two careers will give me plenty of free time to log 40 mile, 20 pitch weeks, and read War and Peace.

  2. We just got back from a weekend at the national park nearby and stayed in a ‘chalet’ that was not more than 200 sq ft with a small sleeping loft for the 4 of us. We were taking notes ’cause I could probably build one of those things if we can find some cheap land near CV. Yurt would work too.

  3. check out my blog @ freethegypsy about the politically incorrect way nomads are treated in San Francisco…been on the road since 1992 never seen anything like this place…am interested if you are having same kind of problems living in your van/home as we do on the west coast…happy trails & GOOD LUCK to fellow gypsies!!!

  4. Pingback: Van Thoughts « off the grid and on the map

  5. Browsed the web and saw your construction. Way to go. As can be seen I’am from South Africa and here we dont have these big RV’s as seen on the internet. But it’s looks great.

    I will be building myself (after a long time of planning) a camping trailer, which is what we go for in the RSA. Something like your big RV’s are not affordable here and we also have rought areas that we visit (desert, see, cold, hot,etc.) but we love the outdoors and safari’s and camping is one thing all South Africans enjoy.

    Nice going,

    Kobus Booysen

  6. Pingback: Headliner « off the grid and on the map

  7. there is a company that converts honda elements to poptops, they can do other vehicles too, and they can support the weight of a car top box.

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  9. had a chevy van in my teens and I installed a small racing steering wheel and tilt wheel column from a wrecked van which allowed the driver side swivel seat to work excellent. I loved it.

  10. This design is incredible! You most certainly know how to keep a reader
    amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost.
    ..HaHa!) Excellent job. I really loved what you had to say,
    and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

  11. Hi, I think your blog might be having browser compatibility
    issues. When I look at your blog site in Firefox, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping.

    I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, terrific blog!

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  13. Howdy! This article could not be written much better!

    Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He continually kept preaching about this. I’ll send this information to him. Pretty sure he’s going to have a great read.
    Thanks for sharing!

  14. It really annoys me whenever people say that VWs are too expensive,
    yet almost everyone that has one is very happy.
    I always suggest Volkswagens will be for the automobile sector,
    just like Apple is to the computer sector…at the end its not just
    about what it costs anymore

  15. I am about to dive into my second conversion. My first van conversion was done back when I used to race motorcycles I had a vanpool van (the looong one). It was divided up into three areas. The front with the pilot/co-pilot seat. Behind that was a a bench seat that folded down into a bed. Directly behind that was a bulkhead with a sliding door that was accessible when the bench seat was folded into a bed. The rearmost section had enough room for all my equipment as well as my race bike. Along one side was a counter for a small butane stove as well as a water tank with pump, and sink. Under that counter was storage as well as a couple of isolated batteries with inverter.
    My new adventure will be a standard length full size van with diesel motor for fuel economy. I originally had intended to get a 4×4 van but could not justify the cost and the poor fuel economy of the gas motors (I could not find a diesel motor 4×4 within my $5000 budget).
    This time around it’s just going to be the basics. A couple bunks, batteries for lights and inverter, perhaps water/sink, ice box, and lots of storage. Instead of fiberglass insulation and wood paneling, I’m going to use hard foam insulation and FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) panels. They are light in color and easy to keep clean. As you probably have figured out, the lighter the interior, the less you have to light it.
    I want to applaud you on the site and for having documented all your work. This is fantastic and gives people many ideas.
    Oh.. and in closing: Sung, VW’s cost too much. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  16. I too am a traveler and most recently after my wife passed away. I on the other hand just sleep in my van but I dont live in it. Sounds contradictory doesnt it? I wont be in the back of my van until 9pm and then up at 5 am. All I have in the back is a heater, pee bottle, clothes and a bed. The first thing I do is go to Mc Donalds for coffee and use their free wifi for about 3 hrs. With the same coffee cup I get free self serve tea. Then I go to the library for 2 hrs to read, relax etc. Then to Wal-mart for some window shopping in preparation of my next retirement check. By 3pm Im at either the VFW or American Legion for a soda, pool and conversation. Lastly to the YMCA for a quick swim and shower. Next day, same thing. Winter is setting in so I’ll be leaving Indiana for Ft, Myers Fl. Im sure I’ll fit in down there too. I NEVER pay rv lot rent when I can just stay in my van at Wal-mart or where-ever. Sometimes I stay at the Hospital parking lot. You cant get much safer than that. Just so that my white van looks different all the time, I have 3 different sets of magnetic signs that have a different business names on them. Clever huh? Ive even stayed at motel parking lots before and ate their free breakfast too. I always figured that if I ever got caught eating their breakfast that I could just say that I didnt think I could check in until 11 am. In which case I wouldve just spent the $60 bucks on a well deserved room anyway. But, Ive never been caught yet. Breakfast is served from 6am to 9am in most places anyway. I do go to the same places / motels but never more than 3 times in a row because the average person doesnt get or stay in a motel 3 days in a row. I keep a log of exactly where I ate and where I stayed last. Ive got allot of tricks up my sleeve. Any questions just ask here.

    Sticking it to the MAN!

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  18. Hi, I’m reaaly new at this and could use all the help I can get. Would it be possible to get a clean full list of all materials need to put a sleeping area and small kitchenete in a cargo van from you? It would give me a place to start. I’m am getting my van here in the next few months, and would like to start immediately afterwards. Thanks.

  19. This is definitely the BEST diy site on camper van conversions. You’re very professionally inclined like a mechanical engineer! My husband and I are doing the prep work for insulation now and he will only read your site. Thank you for beautiful development of work in progress. We’ll send some progress notes as we get further along. Enjoy your camping! Best of luck! Bob &Lucia,GA

  20. How did you side the inside of your van and what materials did you use? And what tools do you need to do it? Thanks -Eric

  21. Always dreamed of buying a Sportsmobile. But like most folks, its just not practical for me to spend that kind of money on my dream RV. So I just purchased a 2013 Ford E250 cargo van, and will make the conversion myself. Thank you for your wonderful DIY website and all of the informative information.

  22. I’ve been van camping for a year now, in the western U.S., and I wrote a book about putting my little camper together. I took a “casual” approach to the interior, so it’s not so much “house-like” as it is practical and reasonably priced:

  23. I don’t drop many responses, but i did a few searching and wound
    up here Van Construction | off the grid and on the map.
    And I do have a few questions for you if you usually do not mind.

    Is it just me or does it seem like a few of these responses come across like coming from brain dead folks?
    😛 And, if you are posting at additional sites, I would like to follow everything fresh you have to post.
    Would you list of the complete urls of your community sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

  24. Hello there I luv ur blog about van construction. I’m thinking very seriously about living in my van for a while falling upon hard times and need to save money. I’m steel spoiled of certain things like having a sink with running water so #1.I would like to know how & what I need to do the task of a very small sink like u did with the warter jug in ur pictures? ? #2. The main problem I have is running my electronics… like 19″ flat screen TV, Other things like coffee maker, fan ,cell phone,table, 12v 120 cooking appliances, Not all at once just when needed. Want to use my car battery little to myself (dog) and don’t want to be stranded and van can’t start by the way I have a 2001 Astro van I would say it’s in pretty good shape a oil leek tho think it’s something like gasket. I’ll get that fixed be 4 the move in. I drove it from Saint Louis Mo. 2 CALIFORINA Bay area with no problem just had to fill oil up every so often so this mite work 4 me need help with some questions
    I’ve spoke with every one u can speak with about the power (electric) all to expensive. Tell me please if I could buy some car(2 r 3) batteries buy an attachment to hook my TV to, among other things and when that battery gets to low I can take it somewhere to get charged in the mean while use one of the other battery’s and keep that cycle going??? I will mainly be living in the city unless I take off on week ends. #3 I’m living in the bay area so it don’t get to hot r cold but it can at times. My dog will be in the van while I’m at work so if I insulated the Van the way u did in your pics, turn on my air and let it get as cold as it possible can with the windows up ( duua) and a bateried fan on, would my van be cool enough for my dog to stay in it for a cupple of hours? and me when I’m not at work?… PLEASE HELP I REALLY NEED TO MAKE A DECISION. Thanks signing out miss frustrated

  25. Nice work you’ve done, can you share how you created a dedicated power outlet/wall socket? I’m currently stuck trying to figure this part out. Thanks

  26. Hello, love your build out!

    Believe it or not, your site is the only one I could find on the entire internet that shows a propane tank mounted on a Chevy Express (that wasn’t already a Class B camper).

    Can you tell me what size you used and where you got it? I have a 2001 GMC Savana so everything should be very similar. Thanks!!

  27. I am just looking for a good heater to put in my van. I would like to keep it pretty much as is, but don’t want to freeze when I go skiing. I realize this means an installed heater, but what kind? Propane or powered by a deep cycle battery?

    • For Erin O’Brien:
      Best solution in my view is probably a Propex propane heater. Not cheap and you need a gas tank installed, but enough heat to keep you warm.
      Just google ‘propex’ and you’ll fond the info.
      A more affordable but less elegant way is a catalytic heater.

      Van Williams

  28. Steve and Jill.

    About your update:
    I fully agree with the vent over the cooktop, the swivel base and a comfortable bed. You’ve done that right. I feel as passionate about that as you.
    I would prefer a danfoss 12v fridge; doesn’t have problems if your parking is out of wack. Needs about 40A a day, so a lot of solar would be necessary. Adding a few semi flexible solar panels would do the job.
    Penthouse top: with the new European styled cargo vans you could go with one of the taller models and MB Sprinter is coming out with a 4WD.
    The one thing I’ll be putting on my list is a remote switch for the inverter. That’s one of these little things you forget and that cause so much inconvenience.

    I hope the two of you are still enjoying the wild life.

    Happy Travels.

    Van Williams

  29. I prefer an 80s vintage BlueBird WanderLodge or a Newell coach. I’ve had everything from an old step van to a WanderLodge…and there’s nothing like a WanderLodge (or a Newell).

    The only real advantage to an old Chevy van is the ability to camp in plain sight. That is not true if you are using a van for weekends or short fishing trips, but I could not imagine a 5-10 day hunting trip in a van.

  30. In cartoons, the smug character typically walks round collectively together with his chest puffed out and his ego main the way by which. Too much good fortune may make you smug and unaware,” thought Rachel Space, the kids’s author. Smug (ボク Boku, or キザ Kiza) is a new personality in Animal Crossing: New Leaf They are very well mannered, kind, and gents-like, and will simply get along with other villagers. Smug villagers can’t be an initial resident of a city, and might move in after the town has been established.

  31. Wow I have built a band and have just started helping people do custom interiors at I have never built one with all this stuff. You are great Steve

  32. Brilliant!! I have a Chevy Express too and have been wanting to convert it as well. Thanks for the tips on insulation, wood work, wiring and kitchen. 👍🏽👍🏽👍🏽👍🏽

  33. planning to buy an Econoline and convert. All cargo vans have rear wheel drive. How useful would limited slip differential be for winter conditions? What about snow tires?

  34. I am looking for instructions or diagram’s or CD’s of a van conversion using propane for refrigerator and stove.

  35. Great work! I want to convert my 2006 GMC Savana into a summertime camper for a trip down the Oregon and California coasts.
    Did you consider building a table for eating/working?
    Does your front passenger seat have motors and wires? Was this a problem when installing the swivel base?
    What bed base height did you pick and why?
    What do you do for a toilet?
    Have you ever tried any of the add-on tents, either out the back or to the side?

  36. hey,i’m not real good with this computer but i’ve been on the road most of my life .where i may help is you can buy almost all your needs at major truckstops everything is 12 volts or ran with inverters . i have a 1991 ford e-250 that i was fixing up for a fishing van. also thinking of travling to places i passed at hiway speeds it was a great life but will be better when i get to go fishing all around the gulf coast and see the other sights in slow motion and a rod and reel till then be safe !!

  37. Good write up, thanks for time an effort. Ive a Ford 1998 Econovan, engines in line with seats so swivel front seats not feasible. I put a fibberglass high roof on top, used a big tree branch and makeshift blog&takkel to lower it on. Unlike everyone else who seems to go for kitchen setup on side, Ive gone 4 bench and sink in front, which houses storage and stereo speakers left right and 12″ sub center below, as l live in van and like to have computer sitting above cab plugged in for entertainment. Gone for double bed, first went to trouble of making a single bed that folded so you could sit upright, waste of time, kept waking up with bedding sliding to the side, double no trouble, except Ive gone to air bed to keep wait down, think the next one I’ll put upside down and fill with tyre foam then fill and allow to set, hopfully will reinforce when in use. {I see you must have used pop-riverts to secure bed to wall, Im going to have sliding shelves under bed to maximise space, as I like tools and ability to do repairs. I like plywood to try and keep it light, for strength and clear varnish on ply to deter mold, plus you can select knots in timber for beauty. Ive gone RGB LED’s for lighting, and have sprayed the plastic covers {sanded first to help diffuse light} with clear coat mixed with phospher coating from old flourescent tubes – to deal with LED “blue light” as before I’ws going blind as a bat. Another idea of mine is instead of boxed shelf space up above, I decided to have bare {varnished} shelves {open – no door} and tilted up wards so stuff {cloths etc…} fall back and not out. Simpler lighter. Havent gone down the path of independent power as yet, just parked up with an extension lead but I do live off 12v system {4 -5 years}. Looking for ideas, and thanks for your comment about bed and good nights sleep, thats what I figured too then the ‘yuppie-duppy stuff.’ I just dont wnat some asshole saying when I go to sell it one day ‘oh its not standard like everyone elses – so its only worth squat.’ {as they do}. But in an age of dissasters and anything can happen, want to be prepared so as not to suffer and have the comforts of home {Homer Simpson – come on disasster}.
    Interesting yous were in New Zealand. I live in Gisborne {on a farm}. Thanks.
    David Jackson.

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