The Proper Order to Build Your Van
So you’ve determined the perfect van for you and made the leap to purchase it. Now the fun begins, the build out! Starting a van build can be extremely overwhelming, it is a big task and it can be hard to know where to start. It is important to do things in the right order and not get ahead of yourself. In this post, we will outline the appropriate van build order of operations. More deep dives into each topic are linked throughout the article.
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Determine What Your End Goal is With Your Van
First things first, you want to determine what you are going to use your van for. If you plan on being a weekend warrior, you may be able to get away with less luxuries. If you plan on living in your vehicle full time however, you want to aim to make your build as comfortable as you can afford. Another important thing to consider is how long you plan to own the van. If you plan to build out your van and resell it within a couple years, you may want to keep resale value in mind. Another consideration at this stage is your budget, this will factor in largely in the components you consider for your build.
Nail Down Your Layout
This is one of the most important steps in a van build, it can also be one of the most fun and exciting steps. You want to know exactly where you want everything to be in your van. Where do you want your bed, your kitchen, your light switches, your plugs? What height do you want your countertops? Where do you want your storage and how much do you need? What will your electrical system look like? What appliances do you want? Do you want a toilet or shower in your van? What size water tank do you want? If you want to under mount your water tank and holding tank, where do you have space under your van to do that? Knowing where you can under mount your tanks will determine where you run your plumbing lines and where your kitchen will be in your build.
Hopefully all those questions didn’t overwhelm you! This is a crucial step in your van build that will determine the success of the entire project. We sketched out several iterations of our layout. Once we felt like we had it dialed, we taped it out on the floor of our van to visualize the space. We also used cardboard to mock up countertop and furniture heights. It is important to know what you want in your van and where you want it to go before you start any building.
Determine Where You Are Going to Build Your Van
You want to make sure you have a good workspace before starting your build. Can you build out your van in limited space? Sure. It will be more enjoyable, however, if you have a dedicated and large space to work. If you have a large driveway or garage that your van can fit in, this is great. If you don’t have the space yourself, see if you have a friend or family member with a large space you can borrow or rent out.
Clean Out Your Van
You most likely bought your van as a used cargo van. If it is not a new van, you will have some cleaning to do. Pull out anything you don’t want in your van build- mats, bulkheads, etc. Give your van a good vacuum and then a good wash. If there is any rust, you will want to address this now! We sanded any rust, painted it with POR 15 and spray paint. POR-15 is a great product to stop and prevent any automotive rust.
Cut Holes in Your Van
One of the scariest steps in a van build comes next: cutting into the metal of your van. If you plan to install windows or fans, you will want to do this now. We opted not to have windows in our van for many reasons, we like the privacy, it makes us slightly more stealth, and there is less chance for heat loss/gain depending on the season. You will also want to add your fans at this step. If you want to add a roof rack, make sure to plan out how your rack will fit with your fans. We recommend two fans so you can have a cross breeze, a second fan isn’t as crucial if you have windows, however. Anytime you cut a hole in your van, make sure to clean up any metal shavings and paint bare metal to prevent rust.
Install Sound Deadener
This goes a long way for a peaceful night sleep on the road. When we first got our van, it sounded like a tin can. After adding sound deadener it substantially dampened the sound in and outside of our van. When you install sound deadener, you want to make sure it is pressed down really well to get it’s full benefits, there are roller tools you can use for this but we just used a rounded edge of a 1×2.
Depending on what kind of insulation you plan on using, these steps might be flip flopped. If you want to spray foam, many people will spray foam their wiring in place. This means running your wire, knowing where your switches will live, where your battery bank will live, how much battery you want, etc. If you opt to use another form of insulation like rigid foam board or wool, you can do electrical after. You want to have your wiring installed before you add flooring, walls, and ceiling so that you can hide your wiring. This can be a really overwhelming stage so if you’re looking for more resources on van build electrical, be sure to check out our campervan electrical guide.
Foundation for Cabinetry
After you install your insulation, you will want to install the foundation for your cabinetry. We used rivnuts and bolted 2×4’s to the wall where we wanted our cabinetry to be anchored. Rivnuts are essentially an internally threaded rivet that can be anchored to one side. You are then able to bolt things to the inside of your van. This provided us with a really solid foundation. We planned to do a lot of driving on National Forest roads so we wanted the peace of mind that our cabinetry was installed solidly. This tool was really handy for installing our rivnuts.
After insulating, wiring, and installing your cabinetry anchors, you will want to finish off your floors, wall, and ceiling. For your flooring, you will want to decide if you want and insulated floor. Having a low roof van, we decided not to insulate our floors to save space on head room. If you have a high roof van, you may be able to afford to lose some head space and insulate your floors. Next you will want to install your subfloor. We were lucky that our van came with a mat that we were able to trace for a template. We used OSB and sealed it with polyurethane to avoid any moisture issues.
After installing your subfloor, you will want to install your decorative flooring. We recommend doing this before installing your cabinetry. Some people opt to install click flooring after installing cabinetry to save money on flooring, we feel it is important to install flooring in your entire van in case you want to make changes to your cabinetry later. In our van, we opted to have one decorative vinyl sheet. We cut the same profile as our sub-flooring and installed the vinyl sheet with contact adhesive. We recommend vinyl flooring over click flooring for a few reasons, it is durable, it doesn’t have cracks that dirt and grime can get stuck in, and it does not expand and contract with temperature changes.
Next you will want to install your walls. There are several options for covering your walls depending on the look you want. You can use luan, shiplap, wood planks, or melamine panels. We opted to install white melamine beadboard panels that we found at Menards. You will want to template this step very carefully so you get a nice finish in your van.
Finally you will want to install your ceiling. You should already have your wiring done by this step, so you will want to install any overhead lighting that you desire during ceiling installation. As with walls, there are many options for finishing your ceiling. You can use tongue and groove as we did, luan, hardwood, paneling, etc. We have seen some very creative ceiling materials so use your imagination! When installing our ceiling, we used self tapping screws. We highly recommend using a drill stop or installing spacers with your screws, the last thing you want is to drill too far and go straight through your roof!
Next you will want to start on cabinetry and painting. We recommend building your cabinetry in place and painting each piece before install. By installing your cabinetry in place rather than building it outside of the van and installing after, you will ensure that you get a really good fit. By painting each piece before installation, you will get a nice, clean, paint job. If you opt to stain your wood instead of painting, we also recommend staining before installation. This is also just a cleaner process so you don’t mess up your flooring in your van.
If you are planning to have an inboard water tank, you will want to install your water tank as you install your cabinetry. Your water tank should be positioned over the axle of your wheels and have something of equal weight on the opposite side of the van. Depending on where your fridge will live, you will want to install it during this step as well. Also if you plan to have a toilet and or shower in your build, you will want to install these around your cabinetry as well.
Next you will move on to the lovely task of plumbing. We will dive much deeper into this topic in a later post. For now we will just touch on the basics. If you have an inboard water tank, this should already be installed, you will want to plumb this through your filter, accumulator, water pump and to your sink. You will also want to plumb your sink to your gray tank. If you plan to have outboard water tanks, you will want to have these installed and have access points for plumbing through the floor of your van. We opted to keep our water system completely inboard so we don’t have to worry about freezing. Learn more in our comprehensive vanlife plumbing guide. To install your sink, you will have to install your countertops.
There are many options for countertops. We custom made countertops with chip board and formica. This is a super durable option that gives you a lot of flexibility in shape and size, it was also reasonably priced. There are some gorgeous builds using live edge wood, butcher block, etc. Something to keep in mind during this step is weight. Counter-tops add a lot of weight to your van, especially as you add hardwood. If you opt for a fixed cook top, you will also want to install this into the countertop. Depending on what fuel source you opt for, you will either want to create a drop out area for your propane or undermount your propane tank. If you opt for electric/induction, you will want to connect this to your wiring.
Bed, Decor, Finishing Touches, etc.
This is the fun part and what makes your van start to look and feel like a home. In this step you can assemble your bed, add any decor, purchase rugs, pillows, etc. Have fun with this step! We added a blackout curtain between our cab and our living space, rugs, throw pillows, a fruit basket, and many other hanging baskets for storage.
Enjoy Your Van
Congratulations! You’ve come to the end of your van build. This is the step where you reap the benefits of your van build. It’s time to get out and explore and show your van the world! Be sure to subscribe below so you don’t miss any future posts. Now get out there and Create Your Own Roadshow!