At some point in life there comes the time when you say, a car is not enough. Man and woman cannot live in a car alone. There is not enough space. So we worked our behinds off for a month and went on the hunt for a Van. To quote Louisa Omielan, "Upgrade, bitches!"
This post follows our conversion process from start to, if not finish, our current, liveable state. It all took far longer than we thought it would, and was more complicated than we believed possible. Doing everything ourselves allowed us to stay on budget, as well as to identify the bits we'd pay someone else to do next time! Our ethos was to reuse/recycle everything that we could, but buy new when we needed to. For example, the idea of using recycled carpet is now laughable, however the insulation, most of the wood and various other bits and bobs were gained from various second hand sources.
Our main goals with the conversion were to have plenty of storage space, so that everything would have a place, as well as to retain some degree of spaciousness - whatever you can gain from a 8' x 5' box. In addition, we also wanted the transition from day to night to be relatively painless. After two years we were totally fed up with the colossal faff of trying to fit two people and all their stuff into a car and then move it all around between driving and sleeping.
So please read on for a couple of rookies' account of how to convert a van from scratch.
The Big Buy
After some brainstorming we decided on a short wheel base, low top van. We didn't want to upgrade too much in one go, and besides lots of car parks have barriers at 2.2m, so it was useful to sit below this height. There was a little bit of debate over the make, between a newer Trafic/Vivaro or Transit, or a much cheaper, much more awesome coloured LDV. Sam won out, the LDV will have to wait. In the end, we only went to see two vans. The process was stressful for us, between our very basic knowledge of the auto trade and our fairly specific criteria. We bought the second one we went to see, on the grounds that it wasn't too expensive, had fairly low mileage and was within budget. Hello, van.
This brought us to the next headache: our car insurance wouldn't transfer to a van. They suggested a very expensive commercial van insurance which was, well, very expensive, as well as not really covering our conversion and lifestyle. We don't really have a fixed address where the van would be kept, or a fixed workplace where it might park in the day. We don't even have a fixed country. Looking outside the box we found Hert's Insurance, who, with great customer service, found us an insurance policy with Adrian Flux that didn't require a fixed location. We were, legally, on the road.
The van was pretty much an empty shell, with some ply lining. The front was immaculate, one of the things that attracted us, but the back was, whilst not dirty, definitely used. There were no windows in the back. We began with the straightforward task of stripping out the bulkhead, which increased the light and spaciousness, and then sat down for some mega head scratching.
A roof vent was a really important aspect for us, having woken quite breathless or headachey in a car that had all the windows shut. We wanted airflow regardless of whether we had windows open. A bit of research revealed that paying a company to fit a roof vent would cost in the hundreds of pounds, outside our budget. So we took a plunge.
The Fiamma roof vent (45 x 45cm) cost us about £50 and provides permanent, non-electronic, air flow with the option to open it further if needs be. It was only when we put it in place that we realised that the roof was in no way at all flat, but was both ridged and curved. We panicked, rang friends, wracked the internet. The general consensus was to lag the hell out of it with silicone, and hope for the best. This seemed like solid advice, so we went ahead and marked out the square to remove on the top of the roof with pencil.
We drilled a hole in each corner to allow the jigsaw blade in. The first was terrifying, drilling into our new baby, but the rest were less nerve-wracking, and the jigsaw cuts were okay too, in a weird, cavalier kind of way. One of us cut, the other held it from the inside. To support the everything we used PU mastic (for it's elastic properties) to stick a wooden frame on to the inside to catch the vent, as the roof was quite flexible after we had removed a square.
The vent went into place according to the instructions, then we used white "Sikaflex" to seal it. We used tonnes, and in retrospect although we wanted to make sure it was thoroughly sealed, it ended up a bit messy and we could have used slightly less. But hey, it hasn't leaked yet. The whole endeavour took about six hours; we finished up at 11pm, and it would have been way better to do it during the day time for a less stressful venture.
Insulation and Ply-lining
Insulating is obviously very important to avoid extremes in temperature. Ply-lining tidies everything up, holds the insulation in place and provides a base for carpetting. Most of our insulation was rockwool made from recycled glass bottles, rescued from a friend's skip. The rest was made up of polystyrene, camping mat, cut up jeans and a rather jazzy old ski jacket. The insulation ratings might be variable. We found that masking tape would hold most stuff in place long enough to stick some ply over it.
The existing ply lining the sides was a bit battered, but essentially in good nick so we only needed to line the ceiling. For this we bought two full (8' x 4') sheets of 3mm ply. We went to B&Q as it was a Sunday, which was expensive but they did rough cut it for us for free. It took us a few goes to get the fine cuts right to sit it around various internal fittings, but it was definitely worth taking the extra time for the fairly neat finish. We used tiny self-tapping screws to fix it into place along the roof struts, drilling small pilot holes first. On either end of the van there were no suitable struts, so we used little brackets which look pretty inoffensive.
We didn't want to enclose the vent, in case it leaked or needed fixing, so we devised a piece of ply that would slot in above the main piece and slide out if necessary. This bit has stayed uncarpetted too, and maybe adds a little more spacieness, as it sits slightly higher and isn't dark like the rest of the van. It also makes quite the feature.
Another Hole, Another Window
Apparently we're suckers for punishment, and one traumatic hole-cutting experience just wasn't enough. The back of the van was still pretty gloomy, and besides we needed at least one window to qualify for our insurance and weren't sure whether the vent counted. Again we got quotes from local companies, and again found that they were quite out of our budget. So we ordered a privacy tinted fixed window and adhesion kit from Van Pimps for just over £100, a relatively painless endeavor.
That was the only thing about this process that was painless. We had watched a few videos to prepare ourselves, they said we might have a strut if we were unlucky that would need angle-grinding. We must have really hit the jackpot, as under the ply that was covering the window area was not one, but two fat struts. So we made a gazillion drill holes (the more the better, said our video guide) and started cutting. The whole window took about two hours to cut out, including struts, and was pretty horrible, but then we were pretty underprepared, depite our best efforts. My homemade hand protection (above left) sucked, our resolve sucked and our tools sucked - the jigsaw was a good one, and did work, but really we wanted a cutting wand thing like the professionals use to avoid both the awkwardness of corners and marking the interior. (Sam has informed me that the 'wand cutting thingy' is called a sabre saw.)
Fitting the window with the kit was easy in comparison. The instructions of the various etchers and preparers were slightly contradictory, but we resolved this by using them on both the metal and the glass in the logical order of cleaning, priming, activating, goo-ing then window-ing. Buckle and belt, as they say. And it hasn't fallen off yet, despite our initial wariness and cringing every time we went over a pot hole. It actually looks really slick, and we're really happy with it. This was another job that took about six hours - but we'd learnt by now, and put aside a full day.
This is one job that, despite being really interesting to do, we'd probably pay a professional if we were to do it again. For us, it was a lot of hassle and stress, and a guarantee on the work would be comforting. Another thing that we would change is to get an opening window. This time it proved too expensive for our budget, but it would be nice to have an opening window in case of warm, rainy nights which get a bit stuffy. A cheaper alternative would be recycling a window from a caravan, which would be really airy and water resistant when open...but potentially a security risk and might not look as good. Meh.
The carpet lining, I suppose, is there to better insulate the vehicle and tidy everything up. Oh, and to make the walls furry. We bought extra stretchy stuff in some form of dark grey (anthracite?) online along with some heat tolerant adhesive spray. We bought eight metres by two, reluctantly, but found we used nearly all of it along with five cans of adhesive.
Carpetting wasn't too bad as the stretch makes it quite forgiving and very workable. I don't think that there was a single piece that we laid in one take. We tried to be as unwasteful as possible, but found we needed to leave excess as the edges had a habit of wandering off mid-lay. We stuffed the scraps into any areas that remained to be insulated. The doors don't have any real definable edge, so we didn't carpet these, although we did carpet the ply fitted into the back doors.
It's probably a job that's easier for two people, and it made us a bit angry because someone was always pulling it the wrong way. We used Sam's Mum's oven scraper to press the edges in and an arsenal of scissors and knives that were all practically useless as the carpet is unobliging when it comes to being cut. The wheels were a bit faffy, and we ended up leaving a seam, but they looked fine and are covered up anyway. We like the colour and the almost perfect finish. This was a satisfying job that wasn't too tricky just a bit time consuming.
Are you Board yet?
The van came with a ply floor, in good nick but quite stained. We insulated over the top of it with some leftover carpet tile underlay that we scavenged from Sam's Dad, sealing the joints with Duck tape.
Our last splash out was on two full sheets of 9mm spruce ply from Penstraze Sawmill, who were very nice and didn't mind when we dallied over which was the 'prettiest sheet'. We used one of these for the 'floorboards' that we opted for over the more traditional lino. Whether they are better or not remains to be seen, but they have attracted lots of compliments...
We sliced up the sheet horizontally into 15cm width strips with a circular saw, sanded them smooth with a delta sander and used this to chamfer the edges off too. We gave them a couple of coats of oil, sanding after each coat, and that was pretty much it. We screwed them down to the ply floor ensuring that the joints were unevenly spaced. We didn't have quite enough, and rather than cutting into a new sheet we used some ply scraps to finish off a corner that would be under the bed.
Where the Magic Happens...
The main piece of furniture is an ultra-cunning design that serves as seating in the day and a bed at night, and incorporates a hefty amount of storage to boot. We adapted a design, that we found knocking about the internet, to fit our purposes. To make a double bed, half the slats slide out and sit on notches in the kitchen unit and the L-shape unit. The sliding design works well as long as you get the screws in the right places, and we chamfered the edges a bit to smooth the slide. It's gotten less stiff the more we've used it. The slats were from a double bed, and were very kindly donated by some friends, David and Hilary. The pictures illustrate the design far better than my words can.
We built the frame 'organically'. We started running into trouble as soon as we started building stuff in situ, as the van was never level, and everything in it is curved or wonky, along with all of our timber. Most of the loadbearing timber for the frame was recycled 4" x 2" from our earlier home climbing wall project, although we bought a few lengths of 2" x 1" as well. We sourced these initially from Wickes, whom we can't recommend highly enough as a source of bent wood, and afterwards from Penstraze.
The lid hinges up for access to the storage, and for this we used two really heavy duty hinges from some old doors. They might be overkill, but it's better that than too weak. The side unit is separate from the end section, and both are split up using scraps of thinnish ply from various sources. The end two boxes have lids made from more bed slats with holes drilled through to lift them by. These slot in and out, rather than hinging.
A really useful thing through this framing process were small brackets. Our carpentry is pretty basic, so rather than joining things properly we bracketed pretty much anything that looked like it might need it to anything else. The frames are bracketed to the floor, and to each other. Brackets joined the gaps in our skill set...
An L-shaped layout means that we can store plenty of clothes, a duvet, books and fresh food all in separate compartments, as well as having a decent amount of seating space. A toolbox, shoes and some other 'essentials' like a slackline and hammock fit into the open space on the right. Originally we planned a drawer for this, but had no real idea how to execute this without spending money. It works pretty well as it is, and makes for a flexible storage space.
Curtains / Know Your Limits
At some point we picked up two meters of dull black linen, with the idea of making curtains. This was hopeful, at best, as we both have a pretty loose grasp on sewing. Anyway, the idea was that the curtains would have a black exterior, to appear empty from the outside, and a lime green interior, to look awesome from the inside. Thankfully, Helen stepped in and fixed this up for us, rather wonderfully. The lime green was a bed sheet.
A note here, that Annie also very kindly offered to make us curtains, and our extreme level of disorganisation meant that we were unable to take her up on this lovely offer. So thanks, and sorry for being rubbish.
It's not really worth explaining how we made this, as it was such a backwards way to do it. Needless to say it involved hours of micro adjustments and lots of brackets and swearing. The feature ply covers up a gap that resulted from cutting the top wrong. The top is veneered ply that we used after cutting the first 'top piece' wrong (which is now a cupboard facing), and actually gives a bit of a welcome break from what could be an overdose of spruce ply. We're happy with the end result as a whole, in that it functions in most of the ways it's supposed to and looks kinda neat.
The bowl is a kitchen mixing bowl, and serves as a basic sink without drainage. Eventually we will fit a pump to the water container stored below and have running water (!) but until then it is unfortunately very convenient to put stuff in, like bread, and phones, and jewelry. We need some ongoing projects.
'The garage' holds all of our climbing gear. We put the ply sheet in place at the end of the bed to make it a bit more comfy and cosy, as well as to partition off this storage space for gear that can get pretty hanging at times. Hooks everywhere mean that most stuff has a home, and the basic box at the base holds the rope bag and spare shoes. The layout works perfectly for our kit, but could be adapted for other uses as well.
The Almost Finished Article
So here we have it, all cushtied out. The bed is an old foam mattress cut in half, in a duvet case. The van's clutch went at this stage, taking the rest of our money with it, so we were doing a lot of improvising here. We had been toying with the idea of electrics, perhaps run on solar, but that'll have to wait for now. Our lights are USB fairy lights, run off a battery pack that is solar charged with an Anker portable panel - performing admirably so far.
And with tiger... ready to roll.
A few travel snaps so far: top, the Ardeche; bottom left, lights on in the Gorges du Tarn; and bottom right, relaxing in a car park somwhere... Hopefully more to come.
So there it is, the journey so far. And yes, everything took at least double the time and was twice as complicated as we'd predicted, and was generally just so much like hard work! However, it all feels worth it when we fall asleep somewhere in the wilderness, or when we can put away shopping in the cupboard or climbing gear in the back - super goofy, but for us it's pretty exciting.
We've had some really generous friends and family who donated time, materials, advice, tools, inspiration or a place to stay and work. So here goes, a massive thank you to our families, Helen and Jason, Jonny, David and Hilary, Gill, George, Joe and everyone else who helped us to make our home possible.
If anyone has any feedback or questions, we'd love to hear it in the comments.