Simplifying the Planning of a Van Conversion

Sometimes the most challenging step is the first one. You just have to start. This article will help you figure out the first steps in your van build. After that, you will have to make many decisions regarding the van conversion and do a lot of problem-solving throughout the build. But driving off to travel with your built camper van will be absolutely rewarding.

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Must-Haves and Wants in your Van Conversion

Before starting the actual build, you must decide what is essential, what is important and what you can live without if it comes to that. This list will be different for everyone. Your must-haves might not be the same as mine, but to help you decide what you could not live without in your van, here are some pointers. 

Of course, we all need to sleep and eat. That is a big part of the van conversion; the bed and the kitchen. After that, it will be up to each of us to decide what we can or don’t want to live without. 

For example, I wanted a toilet in my van, which was important to me, and I included it in my floor plan; I had a space for a portable toilet. It was essential for me, but many vanlifers chose not to include a toilet in their van.

Some vanlifers prefer a chest fridge, while others opt for a front-access 12V fridge. The same goes for showers, storage options, running hot water, a permanent bed or one that turns into a kitchen table or sitting area. Options are numerous. It all depends on what we don’t want to live without and what we can live without.

Choosing a Floorplan for your Van Conversion

Once you have decided what you need (or want) in your van, draw out the floor plan. Make a lot of them until you are satisfied that you have everything included where you want it to be. 

Getting this step down to the smallest detail before starting the actual build will help immensely once you begin the van build. For example, think about a space for the garbage pan, fridge, kitchen cookware, clothes (and dirty ones), where to store shoes, etc. Again, it is better to plan ahead of the build than to change plans once you start building. 

Use graph paper to draw your plan to scale. It will ensure that you have enough space for everything you decide to include in your van conversion and will help with the measurements once you start the build. 

floor plan of a van conversion

Some like to draw out the lines on the van floor to see the amount of space everything will take. That is what I did using green masking tape. The bed and the counters were all lined on the floor. I realized I wanted to trim the counters’ depth by a couple of inches. I wanted more space between the two.

It also helped me decide if I wanted to sleep sideways or lengthwise in the van, as that would make a difference in the length of my bed platform. I wanted to ensure that I still had enough countertops at the end of the bed. This makes it easier to imagine it completed than having the measurements only on paper. 

Some builders use big cardboard boxes to mimic the counters and shelves for a 3D build model to help decide if the measurements are correct. This is, I would imagine, a lot of work, but it can be beneficial.

Step-by-Step Van Build

Once your floor plan is set, you are ready to start the actual build. There are many more decisions ahead as you build the van. Remember that you will most likely need to adjust your plan and problem-solve as your van build progresses. Nothing is square or aligned or at a perfect angle in a van. You will need to be creative a lot of the time.

Insulating the Van


Options

Fibreglass insulation is readily available at any hardware store and is low in cost. Perfect if you are on a budget. It is also malleable; it can be fitted to any space, no matter the shape. 

Pros

  • low in cost
  • malleable
  • easy to install
  • also reduces noise
  • fireproof

Cons

  • can be messy
  • becomes ineffective when wet
  • can cause health issues if inhaled

Another option is insulation foam panels or polystyrene panels. They are also available at your hardware store. You can glue them to the walls or the ceiling of the van. They can easily be cut to fit any flat shape. The only downside is that they are rigid, so you can only use them on flat surfaces. 

Pros

  • easily cut into any shape
  • easy to install
  • low in cost

Cons

  • rigid; can be used on flat surfaces only
  • not environment friendly
  • breaks easily
  • flammable

Some vanlifers chose to spray foam the whole van. It looks like a lot of work if you have seen it in a video. In addition, the sprayer is dressed in overalls and goggles and gets incredibly messy by the end. For this reason, we chose a different type of insulation.

Pros

  • long-lasting
  • highly effective
  • close gaps even in awkward areas

Cons

  • installation is not as practical and is messy
  • need protection gear
  • costly
  • flammable

*Before insulating the van, you can use noise-reduction material. We have not used it in our van build, but it could be something you would like to consider. Most will use aluminum soundproof insulation on the walls, on the wheel wells and the floor, and even in the front of the van to help block out the noise of the motor. Note that the insulation also works as a sound reduction.

A good option for a sound deadener is the Kilmat sound deadener mat:

  • cost-effective
  • self-adhesive
  • provides insulation

What we chose for our van build

We used a bit of everything to insulate the van as much as possible. We do not have a heater in the van, so insulation was important. And it also keeps the heat out in the summertime to stay cool in the van.

We used polystyrene panels on the ceiling and walls where it was possible. Then we filled the cracks with spray foam and used fibreglass insulation in the doors or anywhere else we could cram it into. 

showing the insulation panels on the wall of the van and the foam and fiberglass insulation to fill in the cracks

Choosing and Installing the Floor 


Options

Carpet

A carpet is an option but not recommended as it is hard to keep clean. In addition, the hassle of needing a vacuum in a van is not practical. For this reason, I quickly rejected this option and moved on to the next ones.

Pros

  • cheap
  • easy to install

Cons

  • hard to clean

Vinyl Tiles

Self-adhesive vinyl floor coverings come in planks or tile. I liked the idea of the self-adhesive vinyl planks or tiles; it seemed easy and quick. They are cheap and come in many colours and styles. The problem with this is that with the change of temperature from hot to cold, the planks or tiles would eventually crack and come off. However, they can easily be replaced, one tile or plank at a time.

Pros

  • easy and quick to install
  • inexpensive
  • many colours and styles
  • easy to clean
  • if damaged, only the damaged tile or plank can be replaced

Cons

  • easily cracks and unsticks
  • easy to damage

Sheet Vinyl

Some will prefer a one-piece sheet of viny It is an inexpensive option. It is recommended when choosing this type of flooring as it won’t crack or come off like the tile pieces But remember, if it gets damaged, you must replace the whole floor.

A helpful way to cut out the right shape and size is first to cut the shape of your floor in cardboard and use it as a pattern to cut the vinyl. 

Pros

  • inexpensive
  • comes in many colours and designs
  • easy to clean

Cons

  • if damaged, the whole floor has to be replaced

Laminate

Laminate flooring comes in different colours and different sizes. It is easy to install as each plank clicks into the other. The laminate flooring is another inexpensive option. It is also easy to cut to size and generally laid over plywood and an underlayment. The downside to this flooring is that water or humidity will quickly cause damage to the planks.

Pros

  • inexpensive
  • easy to cut to size and install
  • durable
  • easy to clean
  • comes in different colours

Cons

  • can easily be damaged by water or humidity

What We Chose for our Van Build

We hesitated between the vinyl and the laminate options but chose laminate floors. It rapidly went in and looked great. 

There is plywood and padding under the laminate floor. We also used a rubber trim to give it a cleaner finish. It helps keep it in place as this is a floating floor.

Installing the laminate flooring to cover the van's floor
The laminate floor of the van with the trim

What do to with the Walls


Options

Wood planks are popular options for van conversion walls. Cedar is often the best option, or similar lightweight wood. It is best to stay away from heavy hardwood. The wood can be stained or painted. 

Some planks are built to overlap, commonly known as shiplap, whereas others interlock with a tongue and a groove (TNG).

Pros

  • easy to install
  • come in different finishes and styles
  • can be painted or stained

Cons

  • might squeak when on a bumpy road if the planks rub against one another

Wood panel (panelling) is another popular choice. Of course, you can paint them; some are available with patterns. 

Pros

  • inexpensive
  • easy to install
  • comes in different designs
  • can be painted any colour
  • flexible to fit the curve in the van wall

Cons

  • big pieces to work with and cut to size

A third option I’ve seen is using a kind of felt or vehicle carpet covering the walls and roof of the van. This is an inexpensive option. The felt is common in light or dark grey and black.

Pros

  • budget-friendly
  • glues to any surface
  • malleable; can fit any shape

Cons

  • it may be hard to clean

What We Chose for our Van Build

We chose white beadboard panels for our van walls. I especially liked the pattern in it. The panels come already primed, so I just needed to paint them white.

We installed straps (1×3-inch wood strips) with self-tap screws and used this strapping to screw in the panelling. The thin panels are flexible enough to hug the van wall with a curve. 

strapping the wall of the van with 1x3-inch wood straps
Installing the wood panel on the strapping
one panelling wall complete in the van build

Our van needed four 8×4 panels for the walls and the back and side doors.

Before putting your walls in, ensure you have figured out all the electrical. It is much easier to run all the wires without the walls than doing it once the walls or ceiling are up. Think of extra cables you might want in the future. You can run them now and add the appliance later. Find out about my electrical system here to help plan and put together all your electrical wiring. 

What to do with the Ceiling


Options

Wood planks are popular as they are easy to install and look great. In addition, you can choose a lightweight wood to minimize the weight of the build. Just like the planks described in the section of the wall, some are shiplap, others interlock.

Pros

  • easy to install
  • can be stained or painted

Cons

  • can be pricier than other options

Panelling or 1/8 and 1/4-inch plywood panels are also an option. Once they are cut to size, you can screw them into the strappings. Additionally, you can paint them to match the decor you choose. 

Pros

  • inexpensive
  • can be painted any colour

Cons

  • big pieces to work with and cut to size

What We Chose for our Van Build

We chose to use cedar wood planks that clicked into one another with tongues and grooves. Cedar is light (in weight and colour). We also decided to stain them in golden oak to make them stand out against our white walls. 

Each plank was screwed in the strapping, just like we did with the panels for the walls. 

the half completed ceiling of the van conversion using cedar planks

Again, if you have figured out your electrical, the wiring for the lights will be much simpler to do before covering up the van’s ceiling. In the article, DIY Simple Electrical System for your Van Build, I explain my electrical system, including the lights. It might help you with this part of the van build.

Bed Platform


Options

There are a few options here. First, you must decide which way to sleep in the van. Then choose if you want a permanent bed platform or to put the bed away and turn the space into a sitting area like a couch or a dining area like a dinette. If you choose this option, keep in mind that you will lose some storage space under the bed.

Are you ok with a double bed? Would you rather have a queen-size bed? Whichever size you choose, make sure to have space for it. Take out the measuring tape! A double mattress measures 54″ by 75″, and a queen measures 80″ by 75″.

What We Chose for our Van Build 

We chose a permanent bed as we did not need a dining area and wanted the storage area under the bed. We also decided to sleep lengthwise for a few reasons.

  1. My partner was a couple of inches too tall to fit sideways comfortably.
  2. We find it easier when neither of us has to step over the other to get in or out of bed.
  3. We had the room for it without compromising our kitchen counter length.

The platform is essentially a box made of ¾- inch plywood with two separations under the bed that act as a support and allowed us to build drawers. The planks are screwed and glued together using Gorilla wood glue to make the platform extra sturdy.

the bed platform in the van build with a drawer underneath for easy access to storage
the bed platform area in the van build

Ideally, you will need to think about airflow under the mattress to avoid mold. One option can be to drill a few holes in the platform or use a good under-mattress that allows airflow.

Storage and Shelves


Options

Options for storage are endless. You can build from scratch or buy shelves to install in your van. The overhead cabinets are popular in van conversions.

Many van builders turn to IKEA for their versatile units. It is a good option if you can find one that fits perfectly in the space you have in the van. However, be mindful of the weight of the cabinets you choose.

Building the shelves will help you use all available space without being limited to what a unit offers. You decide the dimensions to use the area better—every square inch counts when it comes to storage in a camper van.

What We Chose for our Van Build

We decided to forgo the overhead cabinets as our van does not have a high roof. Since we opted for a double-size mattress, we had the space to build a wall of shelves beside our bed. Those would be used for small kitchen appliances, food, and clothes.

We used quarter-inch plywood and 2x2s to build the shelves. They are screwed in the strappings we installed earlier. As we had our floor plan and already knew this wall would be shelved, we anticipated needing the straps for the shelves as well as for the wall panel.

Once the body was done, we used 1x3s and baseboards for a nicer finish. We painted everything white to match the walls and added baskets to keep everything on the shelves while driving.

building the shevles in the van
the completed shelves in the van conversion

Kitchen Countertop and Cabinets


Options

Depending on your floor plan, you might have one or two counters. As mentioned in the shelves section, some van builders will buy cabinets from IKEA that fit nicely in the space dedicated to the cabinets and countertop. Others will build them from scratch and use the space to its maximum capacity. 

When deciding on your countertops, keep in mind where you want the sink (you will need space for the water jug and grey tank under or very near it). Decide whether you want a permanent stovetop or a unit you can store away. Plan a space for your fridge so that accessing it will be practical.

Consider overhead cabinets if your van roof is high. This will make extra storage space for food and appliances.

What We Chose for our Van Build

As our van has a low roof, we decided to forgo the overhead cabinets. That meant we needed to be extra efficient in using our storage space. Our wall shelves are convenient, and the first row of shelves is dedicated to food and kitchen appliances. 

We also decided to build our cabinets with a countertop only on one side of the van, the driver’s side. In our plans, we had considered a small cabinet near the side door for the kitchen sink but found it too narrow between the two counters. 

We built ours with 2x2s and 1x3s and quarter-inch plywood. Under the sink, we made space for our two jugs of water and the water pump. Next to this space are three shelves for dishes and pots and pans. We use a camping stove that we store in one of the cabinets, and our fridge is in a drawer under the bed. It is easy to pull out when we need to access it.  

We bought our countertop at IKEA. They have a great selection to choose from with different price ranges. In addition, the countertop was easy to cut to size. 

We opted not to build drawers and covered the shelves with a curtain. Plain and simple but still clean and stylish.

the kitchen cabinets and countertop in the van build

Other Options to Consider when Planning your Van Conversion

  • GPS and backup camera: we installed a backup camera and a touchscreen stereo with apple car play and android auto
  • Swivel seats: both our driver and passenger seats swivel. We love this feature in our van.
  • Swivel shelf or removable table: that is what we are missing in our van. We don’t have a table to eat or work. Think about incorporating this into your plan if possible.
  • Window coverings: I used regular blackout curtains that I cut to the right size for both rear windows. I use magnets to hang the sliding-door window curtain and a curtain rod for the window on the opposite wall. The front windows (driver, passenger and windshield) have a set of coverings made from a reflective foil insulation roll. We use suction cups to stick them to the windows.
  • We installed a magnetic screen door in the side sliding door. This is very practical!
backup camera screen and radio for the van
magnetic screen doors
the two front seats swivel to face the back of the van

Here is a timelapse of our van conversion. You will see every aspect of what was mentioned above in this video. Seeing options and knowing what is possible will help with deciding what you want for your van build.

Final Thoughts on Van Conversion

This is our humble home when we are on the road. The options are limitless when it comes to planning a van build. And even after planning every minute detail of the build, we still had to make changes and problem-solve along the way. I loved the experience of converting a van and would do it again anytime!

I wish you as much fun as I had with the build. And many exciting adventures once you are on the road!

The shelves and bed
The interior of the van showing the kitchen counter, the bed and the shelves

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