Van Build

I occasionally get asked about converting cargo vans to camper vans, since I’ve done work like that since the mid 1980s, both on my own rigs and those of my friends and customers. On this page, I have some photos and descriptions of my most recent project, which is the van I share with my partner.

Here’s what we started with- a 2016 Ford Transit 350 cargo van, with a 3.5 liter turbocharged gasoline engine, 6 speed automatic transmission, and heavy duty disc brakes on all 4 wheels. It’s the tallest of the 3 roof heights Ford offers, and I can stand up in it with room to spare. It has cruise control, which really helps my limbs on long drives, and 2 batteries- we’re planning to add solar panels, but so far the dual batteries have been enough.

Before I insulated I ran some new wiring for lights in the living area as well as power for the 3 way fridge and water pump for the sink. I also needed to rewire the factory dome lights so they won’t come on every time one of the doors is opened.

wirefish

After the new wiring was more or less in, it was time to start insulating. We had scheduled with a friend to install side windows a bit later so I couldn’t really get started on the outside walls, but I could work on the ceiling. I didn’t want to use construction adhesive to hold the insulation in place because the van is basically a metal box which heats up whenever the sun hits it and I wanted to avoid exposure to toxic fumes. So I used the existing holes in the sides of the cross-members to run wire which held the insulation in place until I could get the plywood ceiling panels installed.

insul1

While I didn’t want the dome lights operating from the doors, I did still want them to work- I put in a toggle switch down where it can be accessed while on the ground outside, and another switch at the passage between the kitchen and the cab.

Before I could put up the 1/4 inch plywood on the ceiling, I needed to make a crossmember where Ford didn’t put one- right at the spot where the cab headliner meets the cargo area. It was close enough that I could add some angle iron to the existing crossmember (just forward of where I wanted the new one) to get a mounting surface for the ceiling plywood. A pipe wrench and workbench vise helped me get the desired angle.

Now I could get the plywood up and cover the insulation, but my partner was in India that particular month and unavailable to help hold the plywood in place overhead while I drilled holes and put in screws… I happened to see a couple of adjustable bungee cords at my local hardware store, and they (along with some cat litter buckets for sawhorses) were just what I needed to work by myself.

The upper sides have plenty of room for insulation, and after installing that I covered those areas with the same plywood I used for the ceiling.

Once our friend had cut the sides and installed the windows I was free to start insulating and covering the walls with plywood.

Next came the floor- we wanted a flat surface which wasn’t bare metal, and 1/2 inch plywood did the trick. Once that was in I could get started on the bed frame- many van builds feature supporting legs (usually made from wood), but I didn’t want to lose the area required for those so I went with steel unistrut, bolted to angle iron right into the body of the van.

After the bed frame was built I could deck it with plywood and start working on the side counters. I also got started with the upper storage shelves, supporting them from the side walls and the roof crossmembers with steel flat stock.

Time for the kitchen to take shape, between the driver seat and the left side of the sleeping area. The area under the counter without plywood or insulation is where the back of the refrigerator would go- it runs on propane when the rig is parked and the back of the unit gets hot, so I stuck with the factory metal there.

I didn’t have a pre-made design for any of this (though after living in different vans I pretty much knew what would work in general) and I needed to put the various pieces and parts in place to see what I would have to do to make everything fit and work correctly.

At some point I’ll build a holding tank for the wastewater from the sink (mostly for bear country), but for now the sink drains to the ground under the van- making the drain hole was pretty easy with the right drill attachment. The drain pipe is plastic vacuum cleaner hose, which is nice and flexible, and our local hardware store sells by the foot.

Then it was time for the partition between the cab and the kitchen… not everyone does this, but in my opinion it’s a good idea- in the event of an emergency it’s important to keep flying objects from hitting the driver’s head while he or she is trying to maintain control of the vehicle. A right angle drill was very helpful in getting the lower part of the partition mounted to the frame members.

Once the partition was mounted to the frame, I covered it in gray carpet to better match what the factory cab area looks like, and it helps lower the noise level a bit at highway speed.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the propane fridge was going to need a vent for the combustion chamber- I used some generic dryer vent hose and a home heat vent cover from Home Depot for the outside. There’s some insulation between the upper part of the vent hose and the wood frame member for the kitchen counter.

We needed some lighting beyond what came from the factory (dome lights on the roof crossmembers), and I found some 12 volt LED strips at Home Depot for installing under cabinets- instead of using the 120 volt-to 12 volt transformer supplied with the kit, I simply wired the strips directly into the van’s 12 volt system (remember that photo from before the insulating, with the new wires?). The first evening after I got them mounted and wired I turned them on to see how much light they put out.

After the first few trips, we decided the space above the bed area was being wasted, so I added an “attic”.

We still want to add some things to the van, but decided it would be better to take it on some more trips before finishing everything, so we could figure out what we actually use instead of what we thought might be useful beforehand. The machine is awesome, and a pleasure to drive- as a mechanic I recommend the Ford Transit over the Mercedes Sprinter or the Dodge Promaster, though I’m sure either of those will bring you many fun adventures. Ours is a work in progress, but we spent a month in it (August/September 2018) and had a great trip- we’re planning the next trip, and hopefully more after that…

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