Lets talk about how to create custom cabinets and drawers for your van and some special considerations before you start building. Be sure to check out our van build gallery with tons of photos that show our build process.

Cabinet Construction Methods

When starting to design your cabinets there are two main methods you should consider and decide between. The more traditional ‘carcass’ style construction like you would find in a residential cabinet and a ‘framed’ style. Carcass style is when the whole cabinet assembly is created from plywood without any ‘frame’ behind it. Frame style is when you’d build a frame out of wood or structural extrusion like 80/20 aluminum and then skin on top of that to create your cabinets. Above all the main thing to keep in mind when constructing your cabinets is safety. If you were to get into an accident in your van, everything becomes a projectile and cabinets are no exception. You will want to overbuild your cabinets and make sure they are well anchored to your van.

Carcass Style

Frame Style

Joinery Methods

There are a ton of ways to join two pieces of wood together but for 99% of you the easiest and strongest method will be butt joints with pocket hole screws. Pocket holes are a ‘toe-nail’ type of joinery where a screw joins two pieces at an angle. This method of joinery does require the purchase of a jig and special screws, but believe me it’s worth the investment. You can also optionally add glue to the pocket hole joint to make it even stronger. What makes this method so great is its versatility. You can join pieces straight together such as the end grain to edge grain connection in the first photo below but you can also join end grain to face grain at a 90 degree angle. Pocket holes also allow you to join pieces of different thickness together.

Pocket Hole Cross Section
Cabinet Carcass with Pocket Holes

There are a number of pocket hole jigs on the market but the most comprehensive tool is made by a company called Kreg. The Kreg jig has become synonymous with pocket holes and their line of products are the best choice if you’re looking to invest in a tool. Make sure to use clamps to help stabilize the joint prior to screwing because pocket screws have a tendency to pull the pieces out of alignment when tightening.

Kreg Jig

Pro Tip

Make sure to keep the sides of your cabinets parallel to one another. This will make fitting drawer slides much easier.

For more specific information on building cabinets with pocket holes, check out this great post.

Scribing

Scribing is the process of transferring the contours of a surface to a template so you can match the curves and angles. There are a ton of different products and methods out there but it’s an essential skill if you’re building a van. One method is to place scrap material as close as you can to the surface you want to scribe. In the first photo below you can see I’m using foam core, scrap wood and hot glue to create a template for my cabinet. Another method is to use a tool to mark a constant offset from the irregular surface. A washer and pencil can be used to do this like in the second photo below. Simply place your stock material up against the surface you want to scribe then run a pencil on the inside of a washer along the surface.

Another method uses a compass, just make sure to hold it square. You can also purchase tools specifically for scribing such as the one below.

Material Choice

Frame Style

If you’ve chosen to build your cabinets ‘frame’ style then you will first need to chose the material for the frame itself. A very good option for this is 80/20 aluminum extrusion. Although pricey, 80/20 will probably be the strongest cabinet option available if its properly mounted to your van. Because it’s aluminum 80/20 will also not rot or rust if exposed to moisture. the If 80/20 isn’t in your budget then you will most likely be using wood for your frame and the best option in that category is poplar. Poplar is considered a hardwood but it’s just as easy to work with as pine and much easier to work with then oak or maple. It’s middle of the road in range of price and strength and is a great choice for a frame. 2″x2″ lumber is a good size choice for a frame, large enough for strength and rigidity but not too heavy.

80/20 Aluminum Extrusion
2″ x 2″ Poplar
2×2 frame joined with pocket holes and brackets
2×2 frame joined with pocket holes and brackets

Once you’ve got your frames built you’ll need to skin them. Because the frame is providing the strength, you want to opt for a thin lightweight material, doorskin plywood would be a great choice. It’s 1/8″ inch thick, 3 ply, and usually has a very nice surface finish on one side. Its commonly sold as ‘utility panel’ at major box stores. If you’ve built your frame from 80/20, doorskin will conveniently fit in the slot.

Doorskin
Carcass Method

For cabinets made using the carcass method, plywood is your only choice. Don’t be tempted to use particle board, MDF or OSB even though they are cheaper, those materials will not stand up to the abuse in a van.

Plywood comes in different types and grades and because cabinets are both a main visual element and need to be structural, don’t opt for the cheapest plywood you find. Plywood is graded A though D; A being the highest quality and D being the lowest. If the plywood is stamped with an X then it’s graded for exterior use. The two different surfaces of a single sheet of plywood can have different grades as well, for example, a A/C graded sheet could be used where one side needs a good finish but the other side wont be visible.

Then there are different types of plywood, the most common being CDX, sanded pine and Baltic birch. CDX is the lowest grade and can withstand some exposure to moisture, it’s most commonly used to sheet houses and is not what you want for your van cabinets. Sanded pine is a good choice for your cabinets. It’s not to hard to find at most big box stores, is usually A or B graded and is much stronger then CDX. Baltic birch is top shelf plywood and can be found at specialty stores. Its quite pricey and comes in 5’x5′ sheets, but is the finest grade and the strongest option.

Plywood Grades A though D
Closeup of Plys

Thickness: Plywood will be found in a nominal thickness such as 1/4″, 1/2″ or 3/4″. For carcass style cabinets I suggest 5/8″ or 3/4″ thickness for the main elements then use 1/2″ for the shelves, dividers and drawer bottoms. Note that some hinges are designed to work with 3/4″ material.

Specialty Plywood

There are a number of specialty plywood products available if you want to step it up. Hardwood veneer plywood can be found in a number a species including maple and walnut, pair it with matching edge banding and you wont be able to tell the difference between it and real hardwood. You can also find bamboo plywood which both sustainable and beautiful. If you’re looking for something different, check out colorful laminate plywood, spectra-ply, or aluminum laminated plywood. Inspiration below.

Face Frame Vs. Frame-less

Face-frame cabinetry is more traditional and is built with a wood face frame on the front side of the cabinet box. As its name inherently states, face-frame cabinetry box construction resembles a picture frame and offers more rigidity because the doors of the cabinet are attached to the face frame itself. For van applications a face frame will provide a lip that may help items from sliding out of the cabinet but it requires more material so it will cost more and weigh more.

Frameless cabinetry is more modern and offers a simple, sleek look. Frameless cabinets do not have a face frame on the front of the cabinet box. You will need to finish the edge of the plywood if going frameless (jump to edge banding below).

Source: cabinets.com

Toe Kicks

Toe kicks are the recessed area at the bottom of your cabinets that allow your toes some room while standing. If you’ve ever stood at a cabinet without a toe kick you’ve probably noticed how uncomfortable it is. If you’re van is standing height, take the time to incorporate them into your build, however if you van is a low roof, then I would opt out of building in toe kicks.

Toe Kick

Standard Dimensions

Sticking to standard construction dimensions will help your van to feel more natural when its complete and ensure you don’t end up with odd proportions.

Standing Height Vans

  • Standard base cabinets measure 3412 ” high, for a 36″-high work surface with a 112 ” countertop.
  • At 24″ deep, standard base cabinets allow you to bend over and reach in to retrieve anything at the back.
  • Make cabinets as wide as you like, but remember that the wider the doors, the greater the tendency to rack and warp. Also, the wider the door, the more clearance you’ll need in front of the cabinet.
  • Standard wall cabinets measure 12″ deep. Deeper cabinets hinder access to the countertop below.
  • Wall cabinets commonly mount 18″ above the base-cabinet countertop.

Low Roof Vans

  • Standard base cabinets measure 2212 ” high, for a 24″-high work surface with a 112 ” countertop.
  • At 20″ deep, standard base cabinets allow you to reach in to retrieve anything at the back.
  • Make cabinets as wide as you like, but remember that the wider the doors, the greater the tendency to rack and warp. Also, the wider the door, the more clearance you’ll need in front of the cabinet.
  • Standard wall cabinets measure 10″ deep.
  • Wall cabinets commonly mount 18″ above the base-cabinet countertop. Ours are 20″

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Cabinet Anchoring Methods

Anchoring your cabinets to your van is very important because they will become deadly projectiles in the event of a crash. I suggest using a combination of all the methods described below. Overkill is strongly encouraged.

Rivnuts and Plusnuts

Rivnuts or Plusnuts are threaded inserts that allow you to bolt stuff directly to the metal of you van. A great way to securely anchor cabinets, especially on the walls and ceiling.

PlusNut Installed
RivNut

Brackets

Heavy duty brackets can be bolted to the metal ribs in your van, they provide very secure attachment points for your cabinetry. Brackets can be found in a ton of configurations and don’t be afraid to use multiple types throughout your build.

Pocket Holes

If your cabinetry runs along the floor, use lots of pocket holes to attach it directly to your subfloor.


Cabinet Doors

Construction Methods

Doors can get fancy real quick but lets discuss two methods to make a door that almost anyone can do. I recommend using 3/4″ material for doors because most hinges are designed to work with that thickness.

Plywood Door

You can make doors from a simple piece of plywood that look really decent.

If you want to step it up, try adding some decorative molding or a funky edge banding.

Decorative molding on plywood
Rubberized T Molding
Shaker Style Door

If you’ve got the tools and skills a shaker style door might be for you. Use 1″ x 4″ pine or popular for the frame. Cut a groove for a thin plywood such as door skin to fit into. Use pocket holes to join.

More details here.

Inset Vs Overlay

Doors can either rest on top of the face of the cabinets (overlay) or be flush with the face of the cabinets (inset). Inset doors will use slightly less material then overlay doors but they also are less forgiving because you will see a gap around their perimeter. Overlay doors give you an opportunity to hide any less then stellar cabinet joinery. The choice is yours just be aware that it will affect your choice of hinges later.

Hinges

Choosing the correct hinge will be determined by three things (1) the type of cabinet (face frame or frame-less) (2) the type of door (overlay or inset) and (3) whether or not you want the hinge to be visible or concealed. Visible hinges are typically cheaper but they usually don’t offer any adjustability. Concealed hinges (also called cup hinges) are more expensive but you will be able to tweak the position of the door after its installed. Cup hinges also come in soft close varieties. Note you will need a forstner bit to properly install cup hinges.

Concealed Cup Hinge on a Face Frame Cabinet
Partial Wrap Hinge

Below are examples of the six different kinds of concealed cup hinges for each combination of cabinet and door type.

Because hinges can be confusing, I recommend this post for more detail.


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Drawers

Construction Methods

Drawers, like doors, can get complicated but lets keep it simple by using butt joints and pocket holes just like the carcass of your cabinets. The most important part of building drawers is getting the size correct to work with your cabinet opening. Consult the installation directions that came with your drawer slides to know how much offset you will need to accommodate your slides.

Source: Keggtool.com

As the photo above shows, the drawer is constructed with four sides, a bottom, and a drawer front. If you’re clever, you can hide all your pocket holes. The drawer front will be attached with screws from the inside of the drawer.

Drawer Slides

Drawer slides come in two flavors, wooden and mechanical. Wooden slides seem simple but can swell and expand when exposed to changing temperature and humidity. I recommend going with a mechanical slide.

Mechanical slides come in a few styles. The simplest and cheapest option is the bottom mount slide followed by the full extension slide. They come in different lengths so be sure to know how long your drawers are before ordering.

Bottom Mount
Full Extension Slides

Bottom mount will be easier to install then full extension but you’re drawer will only come out about 3/4 of the way, not a problem for most.


Hardware

Latches

A van life right of passage is to have all your stuff come flying out of your cabinets when you hit a bump or turn a corner. Designing good latches into your cabinet door and drawers is well worth the investment, because if you don’t do it now, you’ll be doing it later in a fit a rage. From personal experience there are a few types of latches I don’t trust and a few I do.

Not Trustworthy

Basically any kind of latch that relies on friction isn’t going to cut it, trust us.

Trustworthy

A good latch will always have a positive stop mechanism. The best kind will automatically release and re-latch by themselves so you never have to remember to latch them.

Knobs and Pulls

No surprises here, there are thousands of styles of hardware to adorn your new cabinets and match your vibe. Or if you want to continue in the DIY spirit, you could always fashion your own, or just drill a hole. Inspiration below.

Struts

If you’ve got upper cabinet doors that you want to stay open, you’ve got a few options. Gas struts are the most common, but they are a pain to install and you have to basically guess at the lifting force needed. There are also lid hinges which have an adjustable tension spring in them. Easier to install then gas struts but take up a bit of space inside the cabinet. Then there is my favorite option, hatch springs. Hatch springs are mainly used in sailboats, they are easy to install and have no moving parts and are lightweight.


Finishing

Veneer Edge Banding

Iron on veneer edge banding is a great way to finish the edge of plywood and is surprisingly easy. Banding will come in different widths and colors so choose the one that best matches the plywood you’re using. Make sure to get the iron on version with glue already on it. To apply the banding you just iron it on, trim the edges with a razor blade and give it a light sanding.

Different colors of edge banding
Before and after edge banding

T Molding

T molding comes in many varieties including wood, crazy colors, or rubberized. It will require a router or thin kerf table saw blade to install but provides a very professional looking finish.

Filling / Sanding

You’re likely to have some imperfections in your plywood you want to touch-up before paint. The best way to do so is with wood filler. The DAP brand is handy because it changes color to indicate its ready to be sanded.

The best tool to sand your plywood before paint is a random orbital sander. I recommend starting with 120 grit and going to 220 before paint. Be careful around your edge banding with the sander, its so thin you can sand right though it.

Corner Guards

You may want to consider putting some corner guards on areas that may get kicked a lot, especially if you used edge banding. We used 1/2″ aluminum angle, but you can also find transparent plastic ones.


Special Considerations

One thing to consider when building your van is squeaks. You can image how annoying it’d be to drive thousands of miles with a squeaky cabinet right beside your head. One thing I did to try to prevent any rubbing was to put adhesive felt on the back of my cabinets where they touch the wall, seems to work.

White Adhesive Felt

Cabinets can seem overwhelming but hopefully this article gave you the resources necessary to confidently tackle the task. Check out our van build gallery for photos of our cabinet process.

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