Introduction: White Van Camper Conversion
This camper conversion is a very simple one. Our plan was to buy a van, convert it and then drive around Europe over the summer on an extended holiday. We planned only on using the van to sleep in and store our stuff. We made no attempt to insulate it, provide power to it or cook in it (it was designed for a European summer, we slept with the doors open most nights, had an extension lead to charge the laptop if needed; cooking, cleaning and ablutions would be done at the camp sites we stayed at). We just wanted it to be as comfortable as possible inside.
With all the doors closed it looks like any other white van anywhere in the world, it doesn't get a second look, excellent for suburban camping and camping where people might not want you camping, e.g in city centres and car parks (if that takes your fancy). We figured the worst case scenario we might find ourselves in would be not being able to find a camp site, in which case we could just park up anywhere and get some sleep for the night, no worries!
Step 1: Buy a Van and Some Materials
Any medium sized white van will do, although do try to get one that has the interior ply lined already and a lift up rear door. We bought a 1998 Toyota Hi Ace that had 350,000 miles on the clock. A high mileage that's for sure but a calculated risk, we figured if it had made it that far already then it was probably indestructible, just like that Toyota Hi Lux on Top Gear that wouldn't die (similar engine). It had 6 months MOT and enough tax to see us through our holiday. We picked it up for £350 so it was a bargain.
Here is a basic list of stuff we used for the build and to deck out the van afterwards.
- 3 x 2 pine lengths
- 22mm MDF
- Various size screws
- Wood filler
- Wood glue
- Rubber tiles
- Metal angle trim
- Sand paper
- Fabric for cushions and curtains
- Curtain rail
- Cordless drill
- Circular saw
- Paint brushes/roller
- Sand paper
- Various scrapers and hand tools
Accessories and camping equipment:
- Camping chairs
- Portable gas cooker
- Various pots, pans and cutlery
- Esky or cooler box
- Extension lead
- Pillows and duvet
- Heaps of other stuff I can't remember... whatever you need to go on holiday and have a nice time!
Step 2: Prepare the Interior
Give the van a good clean inside and out to see what you've got on your hands. Ours had years of crud in all the nooks and crannies, the plywood in the back had seen better days, the drivers seat was ripped, it had a crap old cassette player and a few dings on the bodywork here and there. On the whole though it wasn't too bad, nothing a lick of paint and a bit of elbow grease wouldn't fix. Get your mate to whip out the old stereo and give you a nice new one...!
Step 3: Build the Internal Frame
This step will be very dependent on the type of van you have opted for. I haven't given any specific dimensions for the very good reason I don't have any... our interior was designed on the fly as we went along. I encourage you to do the same and use our photos as inspiration for your own build. We came up with a design that would give us a couple of configurations for the back of the van.
The main purpose of our van was to provide a bed and storage, most of our cooking and lounging around was going to be done outside the van. The whole floorspace of the van would be our bed, with multiple storage areas underneath accessible by lifting lids. There would also be a removable section of the bed that would enable us to sit in the back if needed.
We used 3 x 2 pine to build the frame. We bought new but you could probably use reclaimed timber or whatever you have lying around. Make the base nice and solid as it has to take the weight of you sleeping on it. When deciding the height for the boxes we both sat down and measured what felt comfortable, without me hitting my head on the roof of the van.
Step 4: Paint the Frame
It's best to paint as you build so you have access to areas that may be hard to get to later.
Step 5: Install Bed Sections / Storage Lids
Once your frame is built you will be able to take some measurements and cut the lid sections as required. We opted to have everything hinged so we could maximise the storage underneath. We used MDF for the lids, if you don't have the tools to cut the MDF then most timber merchants will do the cuts for you either for free or for a small charge if you have bought the timber from them. Decide where you want the hinges and which direction you want the lids to open. Hinges can be a pain to install, take your time to line everything up nicely to ensure the cupboards open correctly. Use a hole saw to make finger holes in the lids. Get everything filled and sanded ready for painting.
Step 6: Paint Everything White (or Whatever Colour You Want)
Step 7: Flooring and Metal Trim
For the floor we used some rubberised square floor tiles I found in my mum's cellar but you could use whatever you like, carpet, cork etc... We glued it down and then added some metal angle trim to the edge on the step into the back of the van and on to the sections that will hold the removable bed layer to protect the timber and give a nice finish.
Step 8: Bed Foam
For the bed we decided to have a number of removable sections to enable ease of access to storage boxes below. We found a local company that supplied foam cut to size. We selected a nice thick foam that has a firm base with a softer top layer sandwiched together, it turned out to be very comfortable as well as durable. The supplier was able to cut to size for no additional fee but if you cannot find this service foam cuts very easily with a hot knife or even a regular Stanley blade if you have a nice straight edge to cut along. We bought some material from the market and got our cushion sections sewn up. This is easy enough if you have a sewing machine but we were lucky enough to find an old retired seamstress who was able to knock ours up for us. We were going to have velcro sewn onto the edges to keep them together but it turned out that they wedged nicely into place. When building yours ensure the cushions fit nicely in place or consider using velcro or some form of wedge to stop the sections moving when sleeping on them.
Step 9: Accessories
We installed a curtain rail between the front seats and the rear of the van and over the rear window. It was a standard plastic curtain rail that I cut to size and screwed into the metal frame of the van with metal screws. We went to Ikea and bought a few things; a towel rail, some storage boxes, a mirror and some other colour coded tat, probably some of those tea light candles too. I also managed to find a roof rack a bloke was selling second hand so I whacked that on for our bicycles. We got some seat covers to smarten up the front of the van, all sorted and ready to go.
Step 10: Go on Holiday, Eat Cheese and Drink Wine in the Sun
Here are some photos of our adventure. You can see the van in various states of configuration, the rear upward opening door is excellent as a covered cooking area if it is raining. As I mentioned earlier this van conversion is excellent for summer months where you spend most of your time outside. We got a mosquito net hung up and slept most nights with the doors open. Our table, chairs and cooking stuff fit away in the storage areas along with clothes, books etc.. we had a cooler box for food and beer, most of the time we just bought fresh bread and food every few days and didn't really need to keep anything cool except the beer. Have fun.