There are, broadly, two types of camper vans: purpose-built ones, such as the iconic Volkswagen camper; and ‘self-build’ vans, which start out as regular vans and are lovingly converted by the owner. Self-build vans tend to be cheaper, and are great because you have complete control over the layout and features, but they are a lot of work if you build them from scratch.
Our van is a self-build that started life as a regular Ford Transit. It was initially converted by a very tall Aussie surfer, from whom we bought it in summer 2017. He had kitted out the van ideally for his needs, with an extremely long bed and lots of surfboard storage. He did a great job of the essentials – the walls were well-insulated and the bed was very sturdy. We used the van happily in this form for a few months, until my partner was offered a lecturing job in York for the 2018 summer term. We had an epiphany: we could live in the van for three months, touring around Yorkshire and beyond, and it would give me an excuse to finally quit my job and become self-employed. For this plan to work, however, we knew we needed something a bit more fully featured than a surf-mobile; the van would need some serious upgrades…
WHERE TO BEGIN?
The van, in the state we bought it, was not yet legally a camper van, but we realised that our insurance would be much cheaper if we were to go through the official conversion process. In the UK, a van can be reclassified as a camper when it has the following:
- A door to the living area
- A bed of minimum length 1.8 m
- A water storage tank
- A seating and dining area
- A cupboard
- A fixed cooking facility
- At least one window in the side of the living area
Using these points as a vague to-do list, we put together a plan. We decided to shorten the bed and use the extra space for a kitchen area. After agonising over the layout for a few weeks, we realised we would have to start by removing some of the insulation and wall boards, to make space for wiring and to allow for a window to be fitted.
When converting a panel van into a camper, getting the insulation right is very important. We were lucky, in that ours was already done, but by taking the walls apart and putting them back together, we learnt a lot. In our van, vertical wooden battens are screwed directly into the metal. The large gaps between the battens are filled with blocks of rigid foam insulation. There is also a layer of foil-backed bubble wrap, which acts as a moisture barrier. Finally, tongue-and-groove boards are cut to size and screwed to the wooden battens, covering the insulation.
Once we had removed some of the insulation, we took the van to a specialist garage to have a window fitted. This was the one job that we felt completely ill-equipped to handle, and I’m glad we didn’t attempt it ourselves. The process involves cutting a precise hole in the side of the van and using special glue to fix the window in place.
The next logical step, while the walls were disassembled, was to fit an electrical system. Using the vehicle’s starter battery is a bad idea for various reasons; therefore, many camper vans use an extra ‘leisure’ battery. You can charge this battery from various sources, such as solar panels or an electrical hook-up on a campsite, but we opted to power ours from the van’s alternator using a ‘split charge’ kit.
With the battery working, we started to wire everything up. When powering appliances from a battery, everything has to run on 12 V DC, which was fine for almost everything we wanted to do, and is a lot less scary than 230 V mains! We used a miniature fuse box with a fuse for each appliance, then ran cables through a protective length of garden hose inside the walls and ceiling where necessary.
The final electrical system comprised two main lights, a string of fairy lights, a water pump, two USB sockets, a voltmeter to check the battery level, two 12 V sockets (which can charge laptops), and a stereo. Early in the planning process, I had visions of a bespoke, Raspberry Pi-based touchscreen stereo system which would integrate with the main stereo in the cab, but it proved a little too ambitious – maybe next year!
COOKING WITH GAS
Perhaps the most daunting job was to fit the gas system. The ways in which a gas cooker can go wrong in a camper van are multitudinous: fires, explosions, asphyxiation, and carbon monoxide poisoning are all possible! The topic of whether it’s safe to fit a gas cooker yourself is much debated on self-build forums. In the end, I decided to do an obsessive amount of research before bravely/stupidly going it alone.
I started by drilling a hole through the floor of the van, in order to install a vent – I was somewhat terrified of drilling through something important, so I got my dad to help me. I then made a plywood box for the gas cylinders, which I varnished, sealed, and secured to the floor, with the vent inside the box. The front of the box is secured with tensioning clips, like you might find on a flight case, and a rubber seal. This arrangement means that the cylinders are stored in an airtight box, and any leaks will flow outside the van rather than into the living area.
Things were now beginning to take shape, but there was a lot of woodwork still to do, particularly for the kitchen area. I acquired a circular saw, and then spent a long time on YouTube watching safety videos before plucking up the courage to use it. We wanted to use recycled wood where possible, so we made a trip to our (excellent) local wood recycling centre and picked out a selection of used planks that would become our kitchen counter.
After much measuring, we cut the planks to size and glued/screwed them together into a big L-shaped countertop, which we sanded and oiled. It’s lucky for us that the current hipster aesthetic embraces ‘rustic’ craftsmanship, because it wasn’t exactly refined, but we were really happy with how it turned out.
Besides building the countertop, we spent quite a lot of time reconfiguring the bed. The existing bed was over 2 m long, and could be transformed into a table with bench seats, which had storage space underneath. We were impressed with the sturdiness of the bed, which was built from a screwed-together framework of studwork timber and plywood, so we used the same technique when reconstructing it. Not being giants, we decided we could cope with a 1.8 m bed, and we were able to save even more space by cutting off the foot of the bed and making it a removable section which could be stashed behind the seat cushions during the day. We also fitted a pair of sturdy removable table legs to replace the ironing board that the previous owner had used.
One of the final parts of the build was to fit the sink and cooker, which came as an integrated unit. We carefully cut the very precise hole required in our worktop and – after much swearing, filing, and gentle persuading (read: brute force) – the unit dropped into place. We connected up the gas and water, and were thrilled when everything worked.
THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
With the deadline of my partner’s new job getting ever nearer, we were almost on schedule. We added as much storage as we could, fitted a pair of flame-retardant curtains, and tried (with only modest success) to make sure everything was sturdy enough to survive being bumped around on steep country roads. My mum sewed us a set of bespoke mattress/cushion covers, which we could never have made ourselves.
With a project like this, the criteria for being ‘finished’ are frustratingly nebulous. We could have easily spent another few weeks making the van better, but at some point you just have to acknowledge that it’s good enough to live in and, besides, someone is coming to move into your house in 48 hours and you haven’t tidied it yet. We set off for our adventure with a well-stocked toolbox under the seat, knowing we could keep improving/bodging the van en route but, happily, we didn’t end up having to change much.
DO IT YOURSELF
If you’re tempted to try a project like this yourself, I would strongly recommend joining the Self Build Campervans group on Facebook – it’s worth joining just to look at the photos being posted, both of finished campers and works in progress. The group has around 200,000 members, and was a great source of inspiration and advice for me during the build process.
We’ve had a great time in our camper so far, and there’s a particular satisfaction that arises from sleeping, cooking, and hanging out in a home that you’ve built (or, in our case, rebuilt) yourself. It was a lot of work, but absolutely worth it. Including the work that the previous owner did, we reckon the whole conversion from empty van to camper cost about £1500–£2000, which is not too bad if you can find yourself a bargain van to start with.
As the winter sets in, we’re now plotting what new features we want to add for 2019 and, more importantly, which places we want to explore.