Carpentry and Cabinetry
With all the curves of vehicles walls and the irregular shapes of wood needed for a conversion, a jigsaw (link) will be your number one power tool. A circular saw (link) can be used to make long, straight cuts on plywood sheets. A table saw (link) can make fast, precise cuts for wood, aluminum, and even steel if you’re careful. A power drill (link) will also be essential for all the hole-drilling and screw driving that is involved with carpentry and cabinetry. A router (link) can be used to create smooth edges for cabinetry.
Hand tools that will be useful for carpentry and cabinetry include: a screwdriver with different bits (link); a handsaw (link); a file/rasp set (link); a hammer (link); an adjustable wrench (link); and a set of clamps (link).
2. Van Carpentry Basics
A level won’t work for carpentry in a van or bus unless it is on perfectly flat ground. To install a vertical stud without using a level, you can use string to draw center lines. Using the center lines and measuring tape (link), mark a point on both the floor and ceiling, tape the string vertically, and align it with a 2×4 to install a vertical stud. A carpenter square (link) or combination square (link) can be used to check your angles.
To connect the stud to the ceiling, you may need to first connect 1x4s in between the ceiling ribs along the ceiling using a pocket jig or screw a 2×2 to the underside of the ceiling ribs.
You’ll need a subfloor for a flat, stable ground to stand on and for any furniture and structures to be screwed into. The subfloor should be ½” or ¾” plywood. You can screw the subfloor into the van floor through the insulation with self-tapping screws.
Any kind of flooring that’s used in a home can be used in a van. Carpets can keep stains and smells, and are harder to clean, so I’d recommend a hard floor and a rug or two. Typical wood flooring can be thick and difficult to install, but vinyl planking (link) is a breeze to put in and is only around ¼” thick. It looks like real wood and is easy to clean. Sheet vinyl is cheaper, although slightly harder to install, and doesn’t look like real wood the way vinyl planking does. Stair edging (link) can be installed at the doors to cover the subfloor and insulation edge.
4. Wall and Ceiling Surfacing
Furring strips will be needed on the walls and ceiling before placing any surfacing. Furring strips are 1×3 or 1×4 pieces of lumber that are malleable enough to conform to curved walls before being screwed into the vehicle itself. The final wall and ceiling surfacing is attached to the furring strips, rather than the vehicle, for an even, flat finish.
You can use plywood underlayment and then paint or stain it, although the seams will be visible unless you fill it with putty, plaster, or filler. Wood planks are a common finish; I used thin cedar planks (link). They’re cheap, look great, and easy to install with tiny nails.
5. Bed Construction
The bed is generally the biggest part of a build and may dictate how the construction and framework of the rest of your living space will be done. A bed, or any furniture that will require structural stability, should be framed with 2x4s. Any moving parts with hinges that require structural stability should use multiple door hinges or a large piano hinge (link).
There are many bed configurations that can work in a van; you can even design a completely original setup. I wasn’t happy with the options that I’d seen, so I figured out a way to make a bed that can fold away into a couch with storage underneath and maximize the open living space. It allows my kitchenette to have a significant amount of counter space, and there’s enough floor area to do yoga or for a person to comfortably sleep on a sleeping pad.
Details for how I made my folding bed can be found in my ebook. I made the couch structure with 2x4s and 2x3s; the bed platform is made of separate pieces of ¾” birch plywood, connected by piano hinges, which rests on my kitchen counter, an Ikea adjustable bedframe support (link), and a folding shelf bracket (link).
One of the parts of the bed platform can also be used as a hammock desk. Even if you don’t plan to have a hammock desk, it is still nice to be able to set up a camping hammock (link) inside or outside.
Another benefit of this bed setup is that front facing seats for additional passengers is safer than side facing seats. Seat belts can even be made for additional safety.
Custom cabinetry can make use of all available space more efficiently than premade cabinets and can be more consistent with the appearance of the rest of the build. Standard cabinetry typically requires thin hardwood lumber and thick plywood with a surface layer of veneer. Since these can add up to be heavy and expensive, you can use pine 2x4s, 2x3s, and 2x2s, with plywood underlayment (about 3/16” thick) to cover flat areas.
1x2s and plywood underlayment can be used for cabinet door frames and drawer faces. A router can be used along the edges to give these a finished look. You can even use a router to create a handle in the door/drawer so that you don’t need any knobs, latches, or pulls.
For overhead cabinets where cabinet doors fold up, pneumatic cabinet supports (link) can be used to keep the doors open.
7. Making Drawers
Drawers are a great way to maximize space usage. You can even install them with hinged lids to use them as a desk or table.
Drawer slides (link) make installation simple and allow the drawers to move easily.
Drawers can be made from ½” plywood for the sides and hardboard for the bottom, set in a groove within the sides. Details for how I made mine can be found in my ebook.
With enough weight in a drawer, momentum from even a small turn while driving can cause a drawer to open, causing things to fly out. You can use child safety locks (link), push catches (link), button catches (link), or make your own drawer stops to make sure they only open when intended.
8. Shower Closet Construction
A premade shower pan and walls can be installed in a van or bus, but they can be expensive and only fit specific dimensions. Alternatively, you can make a shower closet using lumber and plywood underlayment for the walls, covered with waterproof, white plastic panels (link) glued on top, with the edges caulked. A shower pan can be made with a square shower drain (link) and two pieces of ¾” plywood sloped to it. A piece of plywood should be used along the floor in front of the shower closet to keep water from spilling out and for the shower curtain to rest in.
A swinging shower rod can increase shower space without taking up additional space within your van. I used copper pipe for the shower rod, with a magnetic ring (link) and magnetic plates (link) to keep the shower rod up.
9. Ottoman Construction
An ottoman can be used as an additional seat, as a step if your bed is elevated, and to hide garbage/recycling inside. This can be made with 2x3s for the corners with a notch removed using a table saw, connected with 2x2s along the top and bottom, and plywood underlayment on the inside. The top can be underlayment connected by small hinges, and a foam square upholstered to it using a staple gun.