Introduction: Convert Your Van Into a Cosy Cabin for Under £400!
A campervan is something I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember but it’s always seemed like a distant dream until I realised that it will be pretty simple to build my own simple version, at least to suit the kind of adventures I want to do. I’m not planning on travelling for months on end in it, just to have a warm and cosy space to drive off whenever I fancy.
I originally had very elaborate plans for what I wanted, and being a designer I couldn’t stop sketching out various layout ideas and then trying to improve each one.
Unfortunately time and money wasn’t on my side so I had to quickly rethink what was necessary for this first adventure! I had one week between leaving my job and setting off on our first trip in it, and a budget of £500 to get it to a point we could sleep in it.
Originally the plans included a small double bed, a wardrobe, a WC enclosure, kitchenette with sink and hob, fridge and importantly some kind of folding or permanent desk to allow me to continue my work on the road as a digital nomad. I knew it wouldn’t be anywhere near this level with the budget and time constraints but each day that passed another item got removed from the above list and we ended up with a bed and small carpeted space for sitting and preparing meals etc. I will be adding more things as time goes on but so far, what we have in there has been quite sufficient.
Step 1: Pick a Van and Prepare It
I am assuming for the purpose of this instructable that you have already purchased your van or have had one for some time and finally decided to convert to campervan.
I didn't have much money to spend on the van and understood that the low price would yield some hidden surprises, which to date have been changing a suspension swing arm as it had been bodged by the seller. I also had the cambelt changed as the van had no history and wasn't worth the risk of the cambelt snapping!
I had seen various rust scabs on the outside of the van but it was the holes hiding behind plastic trims that caught me by surprise. I assume that the constant rain here in England falls down the side of the van and gathers in the seam above where the walls meet the floorpan. This step was to eat up 1 or 2 days of my 5 day time limit but needed doing before I insulated and cladded the inside of the van.
I've decided not to confuse this post with how to treat rust as I'm sure there are much more elaborate how-to's on here than mine, and my girlfriend and I taught ourselves as we went along.
Step 2: The Tools You'll Need:
- A saw for cutting cladding and timber to size. Electric is ideal but for a lot of my cuts that I did in the van parked in the street I used a hand saw with a mitre block allowing me to make accurate angled cuts and workout at the same time
- A table saw / handled circular saw / jigsaw - if you are cutting plywood to size. I avoided this as my van was already ply lined
- A good drill. I was able to borrow a Ryobi drill which performed so much better than my cheap one. I used said cheap one to drill pilot holes where necessary
- A hammer
- Clamps. I have two small ones and two big ones. They were handy for fixing bowed or warped T&G boards together
- Electric sander - Optional. I sanded any reclaimed pallet wood used for the bed
- Scissors for the tape and insulation
- A knife for cutting the rope and a lighter or small blow torch to singe the ends to prevent it fraying
- A spirit level
- A steel square
Step 3: The Materials You'll Need:
Bare in mind that amounts will vary depending on the size and shape of van you have but lets base this on my medium wheel base, high-top Vauxhall Movano (I believe this is an Opel Movano outside of England)
- 2 - 3 sheets of OSB (oriented strand board) or Plywood for the floor. I chose OSB as it was cheaper and its very strong, but ply is easier to clean and getting the polystyrene bits out of the rough OSB was tough!
- Plywood sheets for the walls to hold the insulation in and fix the cladding to. This could be cut into strips to save weight and cost but my van already had ply walls cut to the right size so I reused them and it gives another thermal layer to trap heat
- Thin strips of wood for the underside of the roof to fi your cladding to. I used pre-cut pine strips but you can rip your own from some thin flexi-ply if you have a table saw or circular saw
- Polystyrene sheets - 50mm thick for the walls and 25mm thick for the roof
- Foil bubble insulation (this may be branded Reflectix or similar). I used the cheapest stuff. It was 1m wide rolls x 7m long and I think I used 3 in the end
- Foil tape for taping seams. I used 3 rolls
- Cladding (of your choice) I had intended to use salvaged pallet wood but due to time constraints used T&G Spruce cladding. I bought 10 packs each containing 5 lengths of 3m long x 100mm high planks. The back of my van is 3m so it was perfectly suited
- Hessien rope for sealing gaps. Maybe your joinery skills are better than mine but this was great for hiding ugly gaps at ceiling/wall abutments etc
- Carpet or wooden flooring, your choice
- Lengths of structural timber for the bed frame. I used some bits from pallets I had broken up and longer lengths were CLS timber from the hardware store. It just needs to be long enough to span the bed and deep enough to support the weight
- Various angle brackets and stretcher plates for fixing the timber components of the bed. So much stronger than just relying on timber screwed to timber with skewed nails. Unless you are handy with fancy joinery and / or pocket hole jigs
- Various timber screws and nails. I bought an assorted box full of different sized screws and this proved really handy for the various elements of the build. I also bought panel pins to fix the cladding as they're really discreet
- Plasterboard screws. I bought some expensive self-tapping screws for where I had to drill through timber into the metal of the van and I didn't end up using them. These plasterboard screws work perfectly and are really cheap. They're normally black and have a sharp point on the end.
Cladding: Spruce Traditional Cladding 8mm x 94mm x 3000mm (5 in a pack) - 10 packs @ £9.25 = £92.50
OSB (oriented strand board) 11mm thick x 1220mm x 2440mm (used for the floor and the bed base - you could use ply instead) - 3 sheets @ £14.99 = £44.97
Polystyrene Insulation Sheets - 50mm thick x 2400mm x 600mm (used for the walls - this was the cheap stuff and not Kingspan / Celotex / Equivalent) - 4 @ £9.15 = £36.60
Polystyrene Insulation Sheets - 25mm thick x 2400mm x 600mm (used for the roof) - 3 @ £6.65 = £19.95
Panel Pins (for fixing the cladding as they are discreet) = £3.49
CLS Timber 38mm x 63mm x 1.8m (I think? Doesn’t say the length on the receipt) - 3 @ £2.15 = £6.45
Stretch Plate Brackets 4 Pack = £4.66
Angle Plates 4 Pack = £5.27
Pine Stripwood (used as a bendy trim to conceal a gap) = £4.19
Foil Bubble Insulation 1m wide x 7m long - 2 @ £20.00 = £40.00
Foil Tape (for sealing any gaps and seams in the insulation) 3 @ £5.99 = £17.97
Angle Brackets - 3 @ £1.99 = £5.97
Carpet Tiles (this was a temporary thing for the impending trip but I might keep them) - 9 @ £2.49 = £22.41
Adhesive Spray for Carpet Tiles = £5.12
Hessien Rope (used as a trim for panel gaps) - 8m @ £4.97 = £39.76
(this was expensive as we needed it asap, you’ll get a much better deal online than at a hardware store)
Stripwood (used as battens for the ceiling panels) 4.5mm x 46mm x 2.2m lengths - 4 @ £3.14 = £12.56
Hopefully your van wont need this but here's the cost for the rust treatment and prevention:
Fibre Glass Repair Kit = £10.00
Contour Sanding Sponge = £3.50
Hammerite Rust Treatment and Preventative Spray 400ml = £9.00
I already had various screws from previous projects but I would envisage these costing around £20
I had a few tools already, and borrowed some off whoever I felt cheeky enough to ask. I bought a Worx mini circular saw for £50 which was great for cutting everything but the thicker stuff as it only cuts upto 32mm deep, though I got around this by flipping it over. Of course if you have a nice chop / mitre saw or a good table saw you’re off to a great start.
8mm cladding splits and warps quite easily and isn’t great for fixing things onto. It was however very light and cheap. In the future I would maybe go slightly thicker, maybe 15mm - 22mm or had I had enough time I’d have used pallet wood which would look awesome.
Give yourself time to do everything and it will be so much more enjoyable! I did it in a week so that it would be ready enough to pack my belongings from my house into, move them to my parents and set off on my travels. and could not savour the experience quite so well.
It’s always going to cost way more than you expected. Things break whilst your working on it, unexpected things crop up (like all the rust spots I found behind plastic trims).
Don’t buy the small cans of expanding foam, they are such a disappointment! No power, and they have tiny coverage. If you are going to use this stuff get the proper gun or get a specialist in to do it.
Step 4: Insulation
This is an important step if you want to be able to use it all year round and if done properly it will help stop condensation and rot too.
Important: Don't insulate the walls with glass fibre insulation or Rockwool. This gets wet with condensation being trapped between the external (cold surface) and internal (potentially heated) surface. This can then rust the metal walls / ceiling of the van from the inside or cause mould build up.
I chose to use 50mm thick polystyrene insulation for the walls as that suited the depth behind the structural ribs of the van. I then used 25mm thick polystyrene in the roof, again as it suited the depth of the roof cavity.
Measure and cut the polystyrene to fit within all of the recesses. If you are relatively accurate it just stays in through friction. I didn't have to secure it anywhere on the walls. It's a bit trickier on the roof so I used spray adhesive.
Originally my next phase was to use spray foam insulation to fill any voids, including inside of the rib / beams as they are hollow but not big enough to jam polystyrene into. Turns out though that the little cans you buy are awful and don't cover much area at all. If you want to do this, buy the proper gun to do it or, pay a professional.
What I did instead was used the foil bubble insulation to cover wherever there was a metal rib or beam as well as any other exposed metal including the wheel arches. I believe this stuff gives the equivalent insulation properties as 40mm of polystyrene so it wouldn't be far behind the other insulated areas. I did this stage on one of the hottest days in England and it was very tempting to skip this part as at the time I couldn't envisage the van being cold but it will pay dividends in winter!
We also completely insulated the floor with this stuff, which meant we didn't lose any headroom as it's only about 3mm thick. It's important to lap the insulation up beyond the wall insulation by about 100mm and seal it well with the tape. Try to minimise any gaps and eliminate any uninsulated patches as it will not only be cold to the touch from the inside but you will get a cold bridge that causes condensation build up and leads to mould.
Step 5: Timber Cladding and Floor
This could be anything you fancy. Carpet, hessien, timber - totally up to you. I opted for tongue and groove softwood boards as they were cheap as chips, light and hold together fairly easily (not so much the warped ones).
Originally we wanted to use reclaimed pallets for the walls and / or the ceiling. As you'll see in the photos we sourced enough pallets to do it, I broke the boards off using a homemade pallet breaker bar, de-nailed them and we got as far as arranging them all to the size of the ceiling. Then we remembered we had 4 days to do everything and as we were in a quiet little neighbourhood we couldn't do any sanding or hammering after 7pm, so we stuck with the softwood. There's always next time...
We were lucky that there was already plywood walls inside the van so once we had removed them to put the insulation in we put them back up as a fixing for the cladding. One section didn't have any where the spare wheel was stored so I cut a strip of plywood off another area (where it had got tight due to the insulation) and I fixed this to the metal ribs of the van. This then created a strong enough fixing to catch the ends of the T&G planks.
You'll soon get the hang of it but fix one board up (not too tight at first) ensuring that it's the same distance up off the floor at either end. From here slot the next one on top using the tongue and groove system and as you get a few in you can start to nail them in properly. I had a few warped boards so I used a couple of clamps to straighten them out and then nailed them into place.
The ceiling is slightly trickier since gravity isn't on your side and I highly recommend having 2 people for this bit. You could measure it out to ensure that they will be spaced correctly across the width of the van but I just eyed it in and went for it. I then used another plank to overlap the difference as a kind of architrave.
Top tip: where you are struggling to get a plank into another one with the tongue and groove system gently snap the rear (hidden) edge of the groove off. You can't see it from the front face and it allows it to just sit over the other board. This is handy where a board is warped or if you are fixing at an angle such as in the wall and roof abutment.
Step 6: Build the Bed Frame
I decided to build the bed base around 1.1m off the floor level to allow plentiful storage space underneath. I've not actually tried yet but the idea was that one or two bikes may fit underneath when accessed from behind, and the space below accessed from the front will be a wardrobe with a hanging rail. At the time of publishing I've not yet built the dividing wall underneath or the doors at the front below the bed, but I quite enjoy that fact there's a few pleasant tasks left to do when I have some free time.
I used a beam taken from a pallet to form the front support of the bed. This was partly to save money and partly because it looked cool with it's GB stamp on though this faded a lot when I sanded it. It is very strong and spans 1.2m without bending at all when we are laid above it. The mattress is 200mm wider than this so I used noggins to extend to the walls.
The rest of the bed support was built using either leftover pallet bits where the span allowed, or CLS timber from the store. The size and layout of your bed frame will depend on your mattress size but I would say start by cutting the base of the bed to the exact size of your mattress. Half of mine was leftover OSB from the floor and the other half was plywood from the original bulkhead at the front of the van they were both 11mm thick so did the job. The standard plywood sizes available at the store suited the length but not the width of the mattress so my cheapskate method worked out okay.
From here build an outer frame to support the plywood base. 11mm thick ply / osb board is pretty stong stuff and I found that it'll span 1m without any deflection. I used three support beams roughly 60mm deep spanning from front of the bed to the back. These were supported at the front, middle and back as you'll see in the photo. I then joined them perpendicular using similar timber sections ensuring that everything was square and level.
Make sure you measure up off the floor to get the bed base level rather than using a spirit level as the van may not be parked completely level. The spirit level will be okay for getting the upright supports straight, or a good steel square tool.
One thing I found really useful for this was the use of steel angle brackets to hold every joint in place, especially the ones that fix the uprights to the floor as it's hard to get a good fixing here just using screws at an angle.
Another thing that proved pretty important was the knee braces that we put in. This stops the frame from moving and becoming a parallelogram shape! I will eventually clad around these and frame them so they look kinda like a cruck-frame barn structure!
As the bed was only marginally narrower than the width of the van we built shelves either side, using noggins attached to the bed frame and van walls (which also support the bed) and clad the top with pallet wood. The larger side that you'll see in the photos will eventually have shelving all the way up to the ceiling.
Step 7: Finishing Touches
Just a few finishing touches to get it ready for the trip. This was day 5 / 5 so it was slightly manic!
The hessien rope trim is one of the best tips I can offer. It hides any ugly gaps where boards don't quite meet. Unless you're spending a lot of time doing the carpentry then I suggest using this or a similar kind of skirting at the abutments.
The carpet was just simple tiles from B&Q. I think I paid just over £20 for 9 squares and cut them to suit. They are held down using spray adhesive and so far, they are all still stuck in place. Ensure that when you do this you use a good quality spray adhesive suited for this purpose and get really good coverage on both the floor and the underside of the carpet, especially on the edges and corners.
The last photo was actually taken whilst on the trip, it was 40 degrees celcius in Provence, France and it was so hot inside the van! I was putting a clothes hanging rail up under the bed from a bit of metal tube I salvaged.
I hope you've enjoyed my instructable and you can take some of these tips forward into your own project.
This is the first instructable I've uploaded so I've probably missed something! Any questions please don't hesitate to ask. I wish you all the best with your own van conversion project :-)