Congratulations! You bought a big empty cargo van- now where do you start?  You’ve already checked out all the vanlife options, and know what you’ll need to buy for the conversion– but staring at the empty shell, where do you start? When chatting with other vanlifers, we get a lot of questions about how to get started- this post outlines our process.

Great resources we relied on (I’m sure many more have emerged since we started working on this in Fall 2015!):

The following outlines our process and the rough sequence which we followed, or would recommend that others follow.

0. If you bought a used van….

Clean it out, remove rust, and remove interior fixtures. If you have a new van, ignore this. If you bought a junker, this could take weeks. It took us 5-7 work days, and was exhausting- so much work, only to make it feel less usable!

Stripped to the bare metal

1. Decide on rough layout

A few key decisions will shape the way your space is organized and how you approach the rest of the build.

  1. What windows do you want?
  2. Which seats (if any) will swivel?
  3. Is the bed fixed or collapsible? Oriented cross-wise or length-wise?
  4. Where will cabinets and storage go?
  5. Where will house battery(ies) go?

Research blogs, check out Pinterest and Instagram (#vanlife, #homeiswhereyouparkit #vanbuild), and visit as many other vans as you can.  Van meetups (Sprinterfest, regional vanlife festivals) can be extremely helpful for this.

We made a paper floorplan, and cut out shapes for things we needed (bed, skis, bikes, sink) and tried out different arrangements. If you’re building the van with a partner, this will tak a lot of negotiation, spread over many dinners and evenings!

2. Install solar, vents, roof accessories, ladder

Figure out where your solar, fan/vent/AC is going, and what other ceiling accessories you might want (rack platform, cell phone signal booster antenna, ski box).

Then start drilling! Drilling and sawing into your new van is scary, but it will turn out okay– your roof vents have at least a 1/2″ tolerance, and everyone makes little mistakes.  A sharp drill bit, fresh jigsaw blade, and lots of patience will make this easy.

To create a ladder up to our roof, we bolted climbing holds through our back door and into plywood- a cheap solution that let us get lots of practice drilling and cutting into our van, but very time consuming to build. A ladder is less stealthy but a lot faster to install- just two bolt holes!

Solar panels are designed to be glued down to your roof, but you’ll need to route the cables inside and along the interior- which is why you want to do this before insulating.

In total, this took us 3-4 days.

Getting used to drilling into the van!

2. Order (and install) windows

After deciding on your floor plan, order the windows. You’ll need- and do this early, as they may have a significant lead time.

Installing windows yourself is scary, but incredibly empowering. In just a few hours, you’ll transform your van from a utility vehicle to a living space, and in the process you’ll get over the intimidation of cutting into the van.  We found the windows to be a quick and easy step, and wish we’d done this earlier. It definitely requires two people to do this given the size/weight of the windows.

Installing our two windows was fast- only took about an afternoon!

Cutting a big hole in your van: scarier than you’d like, easier than you’d expect!

4. Insulate the floor (2 days)

Our van came with a factory plywood floor, and in the course of cleaning it we drilled and hammered out the rivets holding the floor in place, pried up the floor, and cleaned underneath. We then covered the corrugation gaps in the floor with reflectix, laid down a half-inch of foam board insualation, and riveted the floor back in place. Depending on how thorough you are with filling gaps with insulation, this will take 1-2 days.

5. Soundproof and Insulate walls and ceiling

Applying rattletrap or similar soundproofing material will help quiet your van, and is a quick process- even faster if you’re able to do this in warm weather.

Insulation though is the psychological crux of the build-out: exhaustingly detail-oriented work that is enormously time-consuming without getting you closer to the appearance you’ve been dreaming of.

Insulating the headliner (above the cabin) is particularly tricky, as it requires removing some of the cabin trim, and the headliner may not have been designed to be easily removable.

Most build-outs have three insulation components: a radiant barrier, insulation, and a condensation barrier. We used Reflectix, foam board or denim batting, and polyethylene sheeting for these three parts.

Other popular choices are fiberglass (cheap, quick, easy, but health concerns), wool (more expensive, but nicer than denim), and spray foam (applied by a professional contractor- probably worth the money!).

Expect this to take 5-6 days for most build-outs.

Using Denim and Foam board for difficult-to-insulate spots
Insulating the headliner after removing it from the cabin

6. Run wiring and switches

With insulation in place, you can run wiring and figure out where switches and outlets will go, before you hide wires behind walls. At this stage you can temporarily wire this to your 12V cigarette adapter to be able to test things and make it work.

It’s easy to waste time here- instead, remember KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid). We spent 3-4 days getting all the wiring ready, partly because of time wasted over-designing the system.

Detail of wiring, insulation, and oak stripping for eventual pine mounting

7. Install ceiling and lights (2-3 days)

Time to celebrate- time to hide that insulation and start making your van look like a home!

We cut our ceiling panels to size, installed the lights in the panels and did wiring, and then screwed the assemblies into the ceiling beams, lights and all. Getting everything to line up just right took a few mistakes, and in total this took 2-3 days.

Taking a break and imagining the completed van after installing the ceiling

8. Install wall panels in low-visibility areas

We installed fiberboard behind our cabinets and in the walls of our garage- the hidden spaces. Cutting, painting, and installing this is quick work, and took just 1-2 days to cover up a lot of our walls.

8. Insulate wheel wells

The rear wheel wells create weird bubble shapes in your cargo space- most people build a box around these and stuff it with loose insulation material. This doesn’t require a lot of precision and can be done quickly (in about a day), and would be a good chance to practice using a nail gun.

9. Make and install bed platform

If you have a stationary bed (like ours), installing this will suddenly change your space from a walk-through cargo van to a space where you can imagine living.

It’s easy to over-engineer the bed platform, and after much trial-and-error we found a simple, slim design that’s worked great and has held 8 friends happily: a stack of 3/4″ and 1/2″ plywood, capped at the front and rear with 1 1/2″ x 1/8″ steel C-channel. The C-channel can be purchased and cut to length at a structural steel vendor.

Cross-section of bed platform, viewed from the side: a plywood sandwich is capped by steel C-Channel, preventing flexing under stress.

This platform rests on two 2×4 beams which are attached to the steel frame of the van lag bolts each running into riv-nuts.

View of bed platform from the rear, showing how it is attached to the steel members of the van.

Altogether, this took 2-3 days (after much trial and error), much of it in installing the riv-nuts and 2x4s.

10. Install visible walls (3-4 days)

Celebrate- this will be the fastest transformation in your van’s appearance! We used knotty pine tongue-and-groove paneling, painted with polyurethane coating.

We mounted 3/8″ oak stripping to the steel beams of the van, then used 5/8″ brass finishing screws with finishing washers to mount our tongue-and-groove paneling to this.  In total, this took us about 3-4 days of work.

11. Add curtains and window blinds

Curtains make it a home- and window blinds add privacy and darkness for sleeping. We bought professionally made blinds, and made curtains from scraps.

12. Mock up cabinets, take on a test drive!

Congratulations- you’ve come a long way! It’s almost time to build your cabinets, and this is a good chance to make sure that your design will feel usable. We used cheap plywood to create hasty mock-ups of our counters and benches, to make sure that the sizes and arrangement we were thinking of would actually work.

This should be quick work (1-2 days), and is a great milestone- take your van out for weekend trips, get used to living in it, and figure out exactly how you want to finish it.

Mocked-up countertop in place during our first weekend trip in the van!

13. The electric guts: Batteries, inverter, charge controller, alternator interconnect

Back into the weeds: it’s time to connect your dangling electrical cables to a house battery, and have a way to charge that battery. This is technically demanding work that takes patience and attention to detail- and creativity getting all the cables into the right spots.  Expect this to take 3-4 days… though ours took much longer with a variety of mistakes and an overly complicated approach.

View of the passenger seat box from above, with charge controller, inverter, battery, and junctions

13a. Install Heater

If you’re going to be using your van in the winter, you’ll likely want a heater (propane or diesel). This is a good time to install it, as the high temperatures of the heater may affect your floor tiles.  We used a diesel heater, and needed to drop our fuel tank to install the fuel line- this added a day of work to the process. Without this, installing the heater would take 1-2 days.

14. Install finish flooring

We would recommend installing flooring before building cabinets, to simplify the task of cutting the floor to fit the space. We used vinyl stick-on flooring tiles, and getting everything to line up perfectly takes patience- budget two days if you have to cut your tiles to fit curves and corners.

15. Build in countertops/cabinets

There are two general approaches: Build custom cabinets, or get pre-built cabinets from Ikea and Home Depot and then cut the backs to fit your (curved) van walls.  Custom cabinets are incredibly time-consuming (5-15+ days of work) and rewarding. Pre-made cabinets are simple and beautiful (2-3 days to install), but come in limited options.

This video demonstrates how to scribe your cabinets to fit the curve of your van walls. This is time-consuming but we followed the exact process and it worked remarkably well.

16. Finish garage and gear storage

Almost done! If you built a bed platform like described above, you’ll have a lot of empty space in your garage- now it’s time to mount bike racks, ski racks, and storage containers. This probably will take 2-3 days.

Lights and bikes in the garage!

17. Install appliances

Time to upgrade from camping to living with plumbing and refrigeration. We didn’t worry about a high-capacity water tank (we use a simple 6-gallon jug) or propane plumbing, so this took 2-3 days. If you have a large fixed water tank or propane system, expect that this will take more time.

Refrigerator and plumbing in place!

18. Pillows and furnishings

Time for finishing touches- pillows, seatcushions, storage containers, and the fruit hammock! A few days to put finishing touches on it, and hit the road!

Total time: 45-65 days of work for the two of us, including lots of mistakes. It’s important to make the van your own, to ‘build your own van’, it’s an incredible learning experience and a fun project!

The finished result, on the road- worth it!

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