Choosing the perfect van to convert
Before I began any of this, I knew that I wanted an older van. Mainly because of the character you get with an older van, but you can’t beat the availability of parts and how easy they are to work on. Plus, I dare you to find a cooler van than mine. I dare you.
I found my 1973 Ford E-100 Clubwagon with only 104,000 miles on it on craigslist for $4,200. With minimal rust and body damage, I knew this bitchin’ yellow van was exactly what I was looking for. Plenty of windows to cut down on creepiness, but with the added luxury of spying on people from the comfort of my own bed. The 8-Track stereo worked. And the 302 V-8 and a C4 transmission ran great.
Lessons learned building out the van
I learned a lot throughout the experience of this build, it being my first real construction project. The biggest lesson was that there are a million ways to turn a van into a home, so it’s important to spend the time and figure out exactly what you want in your van. Just because you have money to spend doesn’t mean that you are getting the best. Do the research and ask questions. Even when you think you have the answer, ask anyway. The advice you’ll get from someone who has done his before is better than anything you’ll come up with on your own, trust me. There is always a better way of doing things.
Customizing the van’s interior
The overall usable interior space is 111 x 71.5 x 54, or about 250 cubic feet. I tested about 10 different flooring plans over the span of a month before coming up with the one that I used.
- Food Storage
- Fridge Area
- Under Bed Storage
- Electrical System
- Water Storage
- Storage For Larger Things
- Emergency Toilet
- Cooking, work space
My best advice
If I have any sage advice for someone to starting their own build it would be to insulate more than you think you need. Once you have the floor in, that’s it. If you build a poorly insulated van, you will always have a poorly insulated van. Luckily for me, I’m smart and used exterior insulation for industrial buildings, plus I coated and sealed the floor with truck bed liner and a layer of Great Stuff. All the windows are great for letting in the natural light, but they’re not so great at keeping me warm. This extra step was absolutely worth the work.
It took a month to add to come up with a plan and add the flooring and insulation. And then a weekend to frame everything in. Since it’s an older vehicle, the handling on it isn’t the best and I had to keep the center of gravity as possible. I used the height at the bottom of the windows as a reference point and made sure to keep everything under that (18 inches). Adding all of those 2×3’s attached about 400lbs of weight, but didn’t affect the handling other than making it heavy. Boom.
I planned everything to give me the most storage possible, allow for a full-sized bed, and create plenty of workable counter space. I also built a slide-out utility drawer that doubles as an outdoor workspace.
Next was to design my electrical system. To figure out what kind of system you need to all dependent on your own energy usage.
Customizing the van’s electrical system
Figuring out what kind of system you need is all dependent on your own energy usage. I would absolutely recommend adding in all of the wiring before building anything permanent. You cannot unring that bell without a lot of work and backtracking.
For me, I only need enough Ah to run a fridge, lights, fan, and charge electronics. I bought 3-100W Renogy solar panels with a charge controller, 1500W Pure-Sine inverter, 2- 12V 100Ah AGM batteries wired in parallel. Add in a fuse panel, bus bar, a few fuses and switches, battery isolator relay, and it’s basically done.
Creating the van’s plumbing system
After the electrical system was installed, I started on the water system. Luckily for me, I have a ton of room under the floor to store my water tanks. I found 7-gallon water storage tanks online and mounted them up to the underside of the floor. Then I added in all the plumbing to a 35psi on-demand water pump. I’m using one for clean water and one for grey water. I added fill and dump fittings to both tanks for easy use and they work exactly as designed. A friend gave me a bar sink that I cut to fit and paired with a faucet I made from brass fittings and valves. The tanks cost about $25 each and the pump was $75.
Making the van feel like home
I scored a big piece of walnut countertop and cut it to size for the counters in the van. This was easily one of the best additions I could have made. Having the feel of real wood everywhere in there makes it extremely comfortable. I custom made all of the cabinet doors and added the cedar paneling for an extra handcrafted feel.
There are a million different options for lighting. I went with 12VDC wireless color changing LED ribbon lights that are controlled by app. I like being able to dim or change the color from my pocket, but for a little more money you could get legit 5V dimmables to make it more finished looking, this is just my preference. The curtains were sewn by my best friend and business partner, Casey. We used about 8 yards of nice fabric and she whipped them up. I was living in her driveway while building this van, so I’m not sure if the curtains were for me as much as for herself. I used stainless steel line fittings and crimps to make the curtain lines. Then I added a line tensioner on each and anchored them to the walls with self-tapping screws.
I didn’t have many options for the ceiling because of all of the windows, so cedar paneling from Home Depot was my best prospect. It’s lightweight, smells good, a great moisture controller, acts as an insulator, not prone to rotting, and is cheap. It was a pain in the ass to figure out how to get it in there right but once I did, it only took me two days to finish. I used countersunk black self-tapping screws. I highly recommend using cedar and only spent about $100 on the ceiling–including all of my mess-ups.
Total cost to customize the van
All said and done, this was a time commitment more than a financial one. The entire project took 4-5 months of daily work and cost just over $7,000 (including the price of the van itself). Here’s the breakdown of costs to convert and customize the van:
- Insulation: $70
- Fan $200
- Truck bed liner: $75
- Lumber: $400
- Cedar paneling: $100
- Batteries: $400
- Electrical system: $1,000
- Paint: $40
- Water System: $150
- Flooring: $120
- Counter: $200
- Curtains: $180
- Van: $4,200