DIY Van High Top

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About: Semi-retired, like to fish, ride Mountain and Road bicycles, make stuff, hike, and hang out with the family... 3 kids and 5 grandkids

The Idea was to find a low-mileage large van and make it into a standing-height, high-ceiling a work vehicle. I couldn't see parting with 40-50K for a sprinter van, or similar. This could also work for a camper.

The van top that the local company sells is either too high or too low, and relatively heavy and $2500+. Combine that with it's 60 miles away, so I decided to make my own.

The idea was to make a frame, cover it with .22 plywood, anchor it the van with screws, fill the voids (rear corners) with spray foam, (red cans that cost about $3 at a hardware or building supply store,) coat this with laminating resin, fiberglass over the corners and edges of this structure first with 1-1/2oz fiberglass mat, then over the entire structure with 10 oz. fiberglass cloth. Once fiberglassed, a filler was made with laminating resin, mixed with a thickening powder, called Q-Cell, to make a filler and a surfacing agent, to allow it to sand easier. The top was then insulated with 1-1/2 foam sheets, which is sold at building supply stores in 4x8 sheets, then paneled on the inside.

Step 1: Step 1 Cut the Top - Start the Frame - Panel

The video shows the cutout and frame from the inside. It's worth a look.

The top is cut behind the 1st brace and about 4" above the gutter, per instructions received from the van top vendor. The seats are in front of the first brace, so you can't really stand up there anyway. This gives support and protection to the driver and passenger. I cut it using a combination of electric sheet metal shears and a cut-off wheel. (HF 68199 and 68523)

The metal removed from the top weighed a bunch! Probably around 100 lbs.

After looking around my garage and knowing what I could do, I decided to either make a frame out of 1/4-1/8" plywood strips 1-1/2" wide glued together so I could make bends, or use some 1'1/2" .06 wall 6061-T6 aluminum tubing. The tubing was used. Bent with a tubing bender and 1-1/2" dies (JMR Sportsman or JD Squared model JD 3)


Wherever the tubing was bent, it was annealed with a propane torch, to burn off the heat treating markings and slowly bent in a hydraulic tubing bender with 1-1/2" dies. Plywood bent and glued would work just as well, as also would wooden (clear (without knots) is best) 2x2's with plywood gussets for the corners.

It just so happens that closet pole, 1-3/ 8 fits nicely inside the 1-1/2 .06 wall tubing Anywhere a piece need help (short or boo boo), I used the pole to help. An 1-1/2" hole saw, in a drill press allowed cutting the tubing to fit each other. Where the tubing met the body, the closet pole was fit to the body, then inserted into the tubing, and a sheet metal screw or two were used to lock it in.

I made the first side, then the second side, to match. I was a little off (1") and if you look close you can see it.

To hold the two sides, I made a 12" piece of panelling, cut to approx. what I wanted and screwed it in the rear, one side at a time, on this you could use a helper. After a couple of adjustments, the front and side panels were attached.

It's a good idea to step back and look at things every so often and fix weird stuff (sagging, crooked) before it gets harder to fix. Braces 2 feet on center give you good nailing spaced when you go to panel the inside.

For the roof, I bent braces to be more aerodynamic and to allow for a higher ceiling and put a place to install a roof vent or A/C.

The round corners posed an issue, but I either cut kerfs in the panelling or used spray foam to provide a rounded surface for finishing. (Fiberglass needs a 3/8 or greater radius or it bubbles.)

Step 2: Fiberglass and Insulation

Fiberglass provides strength and waterproofing. The laminating resin makes it so you don't have to sand between coats, if it doesn't set several days, and makes it waterproof. The 1-1/2oz matt and 10oz cloth give it strength. You can buy matt and cloth sewn together, which would have probably been a better choice. It's stronger and only slightly heavier. There is an internet vender that has darn good prices, the local vendor was a twice as much.

I coated the top with laminating resin to seal and to provide a good base for the matt and cloth.

After reinforcing the edges and joints, I sanded the rough spots and installed the cloth. (eye and lung protection)

Sand the rough edges and cover in sections maybe 2x4 feet with a filler made from q-cell and laminating resin with surfacing agent and sand before it gets super hard......15-45 minutes later......with 36 grit attached to a 12-16" x 2-1/2" sanding board. (HF 91773 air powered and/or 1727) so its flat or transitioning smoothly.

LOTS of sanding. If you put white pigment in the mix before adding the q-cell thickener, you may save a little on gelcoat. Any electrical (12v and/or 120v) should be installed before the insulation. Insulation can be installed when you get tired of sanding and the inside can be paneled.

Step 3: Gel Coat and Panel

If you use a low nap 6" roller, you can roll on the gelcoat and it worked out ok. This is way easier than spraying and the masking-off needed.

After rolling on the gel coat, let it set up (20-45 minutes) and roller over it with mold release. The mold release makes the gelcoat finish shinier and washes off....I left it on a few hours, as I was instructed. over night probably would have been fine.

I then paneled the inside with .22 paneling and built some benches and shelves.

The top weighs about what the top removed weighs. It has 8 sheets of .22 paneling, very light insulation, 4 or 5 20' sections of 1-1/2 .06 aluminum tubing, 5 -8' 2x2's and various fasteners. The weight of the fiberglass and resin could be 20 lbs....so with the interior is probably weights 120 lbs. The rest of the interior weighs more, maybe double.

The van gets 15 mpg + on the freeway, 12mpg around town....It's a 1996 Dodge Maxivan with a 5.2L engine.

This actually was a pleasant surprise.

It would be really excellent to make the doors taller too, but I want to use this more and work out any kinks.

This van is a 1996 Dodge Maxivan with 85,000 from the original owner and tons of maintenance paperwork, and it had a leaky, rusty roof. As a slightly wacko Idea, I would really like to make the top a removable boat, but that's another project, another day. I'm happy with this project and have decided to do a "Sprinter" type van but need to sell this first. 11/14/18 the van is for sale, Sold 11/30/18 to an adventurer who has been all over the world, and just cam back from Africa, I hope Amanda enjoys it, as it was a fun project.

Step 4:

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    41 Discussions

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    johnowhiteSeanL157

    Reply 3 months ago

    Sean, It was sold and left yesterday. Hopefully I'll do a Sprinter or similar van soon....it will be similarly outfitted. I'll probably get a high top version, but won't be ruling out another top build...especially if I can figure out how to make the top a light and strong removable top/boat. It's a design issue because light and strong aren't very compatible....It cetainly won't be inexpensive. I just can't figure out how to get the top/boat on and off reasonably easy....Then there's the security and water (rain) issues, once you remove the top/boat to go play in the water.

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    SeanL157johnowhite

    Reply 3 months ago

    Ah okay thanks for letting me know. I just bought a van and would like to do something similar! Is there anything you would do differently with this based on your experience with this?

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    johnowhiteSeanL157

    Reply 3 months ago

    The van is just a canvas for you to paint your picture. What you wish to construct really depends on your purpose.
    For my purposes, it was fine. It started out to be a construction office, crash pad. Then I went for a stealth camper/toy hauler. Surf the internet and look at some pictures, visit an RV sale lot/show, maybe draw to scale your floor plan and item locations. Walk through your van virtually, go see other vans/RV's. Develop a budget and see what you can do for the price. Beds can fold, or be stored out of the way so you can habitate. An enclosed shower/toilet would be nice. I sdon't think you need a sink in the toilet if you have one in the kitchen, a step or two away. High roofs are good, bending over to get around is not. Just do it. If you don't like it, change it until you do. Be patient with yourself and those helping you. You WILL make some mistakes, maybe some expensive ones.

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    willi56

    Question 7 months ago on Introduction

    Hello, I was wondering what you did for insurance with your van. Does modifying a van like you did make it difficult to insure? I'm considering modifying a van in a similar fashion to use as a camper van, but would want to settle the insurance question before starting. Thanks for posting your project. Will

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    johnowhitewilli56

    Answer 7 months ago

    You are wise in asking that question. I'd suggest asking an agent or underwriter. I'm not a property/casualty agent, nor an insurance underwriter....I'd guess that the more your wish to insure, the more it would cost. The replacement cost is probably greater than full coverage would allow. Liability is usually the greatest exposure. I had no problem obtaining liability insurance, which is the only required insurance in California.

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    JenCar06

    Question 1 year ago on Step 4

    Hello, if you don’t mind sharing , I’d like to ask how much this cost. How long did it take? I would like an extended roof but I’m not down with the current prices. =/

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    ScottJ8

    1 year ago

    Looks good, I hope you don't mind but I save this page for offline reading just encase it is ever moved or deleted. www.crvl.com has many build blogs with missing photos so I play it save when I see a great idea.

    Thanks.

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    JoshG155

    1 year ago

    Thanks for all the detail! I'm curious how you attached the aluminum cross members to each other and how you attached the initial frame members to the van? Some of the hardware looks similar to scaffolding hardware but I was a little unclear on whether the closet rod (1 3/8) was attached to the van roof or if the larger diameter rod (1 1/2) was attached? Did you need to weld any of this? I was considering attempting this same project and thought square tubing might be easier to attach the plywood to. How did you attach the plywood to the circular tubes?

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    johnowhiteJoshG155

    Reply 1 year ago

    Josh, good question! The tubing is "sculpted" and fit using a 36" belt sander and 36 grit sandpaper, then drilled and screwed. The 1-3/8 closet rod fits nicely inside the tubing (then screwed) and was easier to match and drill/scew to the body/roof.

    Where needed, you can temporarily screw a scrap piece to hold the frame(s) in place. (If your working on the outside, maybe use the scrap piece on the inside so it's not in your way.)

    The real strength comes from attaching the plywood panelling to the framework and the roof with screws. It's REALLY important to allow the panels to overlap onto the roof and screw to the roof.(or the 4" remaining of the roof)....This holds the whole top on, along with fiberglassing. The top is also held on the inside by screwing the panelling to the top frame and the van inside.

    I used aluminum tubing, rather than square steel tubing to get round corners for fiberglassing and aero, the tubing was in the garage, and the wooden closet pole fit. Square steel tubing could certainly be used.....I've seen some motorhomes out of it. It can also be bent and welded. It might be a little heavier.

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    Cambenora

    1 year ago

    Cool project. Kudos.

    I've found that expanding foam isn't that easy to work with. It's very sticky, expands into places where you don't want it to go, or doesn't expand when you want it to, and is extremely flammable.

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    johnowhiteCambenora

    Reply 1 year ago

    I hear you on the sticky. So, I spray it on and don't touch it for an hour or so. I clean out the bottle and the nozzle system

    If it's soft, it still needs to cure. Once cured hard, I cut it with a hack-saw blade. If it didn't go where you wanted put more in and repeat

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    Finally, a van where I could have a decent amount of head room. If I ever buy another van, I am definitely going to do this.

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    If you could figure out a good way to make the doors taller, you'll

    save on ice bills....for your bumped head.

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    mattyfu

    1 year ago

    Just want to say thanks for posting this instructable, I've been looking at various DIY van topper options and this was the clearest description I was able to find thus far!

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    johnowhitemattyfu

    Reply 1 year ago

    Thank you for the kind words....It's always a struggle to get too wordy or too brief.

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    johnowhiteAaron Darcy

    Reply 1 year ago

    Thank you for the compliment. It's been a while, and I really like the outcome.

    I built this to provide a space while constructing a home for our daughter's family.

    Now that it's done, I think I'll make it a camper. The rear springs are a little tired, and the tires are passenger tires. There's plenty of room for solar panels on the top and sides, hmmm....look for results in June, '17...."DIY High Top Van Camper" Thank you for your interest. (unless my wife makes me sell it....she's always right..."Yes dear" 39 yrs and happy)