Over the last year and a half we’ve spent countless hours wandering through the aisles of hardware stores or poring over technical specs of online retailers.  The following is a rough list of what actually made it into our van over the course of converting our 2005 158” wheelbase T1N Sprinter van. The van came to us as a FedEx delivery cargo van. The nice Ukrainian man whom we bought it from took out the cargo shelves and the cabin divider, the rest we did ourselves. This list doesn’t include the many things which we scrapped, didn’t use, or threw away.  Whenever we came up with an overly complicated solution, it resulted in extra purchases and wasted time and money (ask us about refrigerators if you meet us). The motto for a vanbuild should be “Keep it simple, silly!” – there are already too many things to make life difficult to get overly creative!

Empty shell, after we removed the stock plastic panels and cleaned for days

Also, a note on tools: We bought good tools after spending months struggling with inadequate tools. Eventually we borrowed and acquired second-hand tools that were key to making the buildout actually happen. This made everything else easier and faster. Get good tools and learn how to use them well!

 

Tools:

  • Makita tracksaw with track – if you’ll just be on battery power, check out the battery powered version
  • Makita drill & driver combo (2Ah batteries are sufficient; we got a reconditioned set)
  • Ryobi variable-speed Jigsaw with blades for sheet metal, detailed wood cutting, and fast hardwood cutting (or if you’re going all-Makita battery powered, check out this lithium-ion Makita version)
  • Chop saw (mostly used for cutting 2x4s, knotty pine panelling, and trim)
  • Nail gun with compressor
  • Several sets of drill bits – these get dull and break from the sheet metal- stock up!
  • Hole saws in 7/8”, 2”, and 2 ¼” sizes
  • Kreg Pocket Hole Jig (used for our bedside cabinets; if you’re going to use pocket holes for all of your cabinetry I’d recommend getting a full K4 Kreg jig kit, as aligning the holes with the mini jig is time-consuming)
  • Shop vacuum (or if you’re going all-Makita, a cordless vacuum)
  • Orbital sander (good for all-around and detail work) or belt sander (good for smoothing rough wood)

    Galina happily using the track saw. We used a scrap wooden door to cut on.

 

Insulation:

  • FatMat Rattletrap soundproofing, 80mil x 25sq ft (not a lot, just small squared on the larger sheet metal panels in the van)
  • 5 large rolls, Reflectix radiant barrier
  • 3 cans, 3M spray adhesive
  • 4 panels 1.5” 4ftx8ft foam board (large wall gaps and ceiling)
  • 3 panels 0.5” 4ftx8ft foam board (floor)
  • 12 rolls UltraTouch denim insulation batting (this stuff is awesome!)
  • 2 cans “Great Stuff” spray foam insulation
  • 2 rolls, 1.5mil polyethylene sheeting
  • Packing tape
This is after we insulated the ceiling, floor and started with the walls. Also put in the lights and ceiling panels.

 

Interior:

  • 9 sheets 1/8” MDF board (ceiling, garage walls, cabinet back walls)
  • 1 sheet, 4’x8’ 1/2” chipboard for wheel well boxes
  • 75” quarter-round oak strip for wall/ceiling corner
  • Primer and paint
  • 3 boxes, adhesive vinyl flooring tiles (put these down before cabinets)
  • Knotty pine paneling:
We tried out the interior with cheap plywood first to figure out the layout. This is after insulation was complete but before we built any of the permanent structures.
Before the over-kitchen and bedside cabinets went up. You can see the benches and the garage cabinet accessed from he living area.
Completed kitchen side of the van with the curtain closed to separate the cabin.

 

Bed platform:

  • 2 4’x8’ sheets, 0.75” plywood
  • 2 4’x8’ sheets, 0.5” plywood
  • 1” wood screws and liquid nails for fastening plywood sheets into a bed-size 1.25” thick platform
  • 2 pieces, 69” long 1.5” steel C-channel from a steel supplier
  • 2 2x4s, cut to length
  • 10 riv-nuts and appropriate size lag bolts
Bed platform is over the garage – it was just the right height for vertical bike storage underneath and for Eric to be able to sit in bed fully upright. We got a 4 inch Ikea mattress and love it.

 

Cabinets:

In the process of building the cabinets. We were super intimidated by the scribing process for the walls, but Eric was a champ and did all that in one day while Galina was sick in bed.
Eric working on the bedside cabinets
Kitchen cabinets, nearly finished

 

Plumbing:

We talked with a variety of people who had used hand-pump systems, all of whom converted to electric pumps after a season in the van. We still use a 6-gallon water jug from K-mart with a 1-gallon milk jug for graywater, but may upgrade in the future.

 

Electrical:

Our batteries are mounted underneath the driver and passenger seats (one under each seat). This created constraints on the space available, required rearranging the existing electronics, and generally made things more difficult. For Sprinter T1N owners, the alternatives are to limit yourself to <125Ah of capacity or get a custom-welded battery tray underneath the body of the sprinter. For Sprinter 2007 onward (NCV3) vans, there is a tray in the engine compartment for an auxiliary battery which can accompany two 6V 250Ah batteries in series, creating a 250Ah 12V battery bank.  We don’t have a fuse board; this would be have been very wise and helpful for connecting new appliances.  One precautionary note: the power draw of some appliances (inverter, starting current of refrigerator) can cause a significant voltage drop if you don’t use sufficiently large cables.

 

Appliances:

  • MaxxAir 00-05100K fan (rain-proof – in hindsight, we would have probably gotten two of these)
  • MaxxAir 00-04500K fan (rain-sensing; should have bought with a fan installation kit including putty for the fan borders)
  • Dometic CRX80 refrigerator (Isotherm Cruise 85, Isotherm 100, and Dometic CRX110 also were top contenders)
  • SureSine 300 inverter (in hindsight would get a higher-powered modified sine wave inverter; the SureSine is not useful for much other than charging laptops and drills)
  • Planar 2D-12 heater (2kW thermostatically controlled diesel-fueled heater, based on a design similar to Webasto/Espar, Snugger, and HappyBuy units)
Putting in the fans – first cuts we made into the sheet metal of the van – scary!
Kitchen counter with sink and refrigerator open, before the cabinet doors were put in

 

Softgoods:

  • Ripplewear blackout curtains for all windows. We tried making window coverings ourselves with reflectix, magnets, and black cloth, but it proved to be very difficult and was worth it to order them
  • Seat heaters (haven’t needed yet, as we keep the van heater running in the winter)
  • Seat covers (as we traveling with two dogs, we should have bought gray not black)
  • Cabinet Seat cushions: Foam and covering material. We Tried sewing these on the evening of our departure, but ended up using hot glue to put them together instead. They have held up so far, but will likely need to be made anew fairly soon. We still need to add some velcro on the bottoms to attach them to the cabinets securely.
  • Blackout curtains to separate cabin area from living area. Used some old curtain material we had and just sewed to fit. Attached snaps to snap them closed as well as to the sides of the van.
  • Kitchen window curtain
  • 10ft, bungee cord material and 20 bungee cord end pieces for custom-length bungees

 

Garage and gear storage:

  • Eye bolts and bungee cords
  • 8ft, 1.5” aluminum angle extrusion for restraining
  • 7 six-inch shelf brackets for ski storage
  • Bike storage mounts
Empty garage with the light strips, before the storage box accessed from the living area was built

 

Miscellaneous:

  • Windows:
  • Tires: BF Goodrich T/A K02
  • Chains– match the tires; we were recommended to avoid any rubber or cables in the chains so went with the cam-link system.
  • Swivel Seat, passenger side
  • New radio (our van did not come with a radio; simple Pioneer radio with two dash-mounted 4” speakers)
  • Backup camera (came with van)
  • Fruit hammock– ever-present on live-in vans!
  • Climbing holds backed with plywood for the back door to get to the roof
Yellow climbing holds on the back door. This was also the condition of the van during the majority of winter 2016-17, under snow.
Nearly complete! An amazing friend and artist, Talia Koval (http://www.taliakoval.com) painted a Tahoe scene for our back panel. That’s Mt. Tallac and the best thing to wake up to.
Eric and Foma hanging out in the completed van.

3 thoughts on “Recipe for a Conversion Van”

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