Van conversion project with peeling roof paint

Painting the roof. Seemed a good idea at the time. Was not.

When converting a van to a campervan for the first time, a big question is where to start.  Like many inexperienced van builders, in the early days I lost many hours into a wormhole of internet timespace in an effort to find a answer.But, it’s not the most important question.   Not at all.What makes the difference between kicking back with a cuppa in your new cosy rolling home and hawking your 32% finished project on a Facebook group is not how you will get started, but how you will continue.

Converting a van to a campervan is a mosaic of hundreds of little projects.  Don’t underestimate what you are taking on: building even a simple van whilst learning as you go is a journey which will take determination and work every day to get there.  The weather, finances, time and maybe your health will get in the way.  But isn’t anything worth having worth fighting for? Every person who builds their own van is one of my personal heroes for doing this. With dedicated work most people ca  reach that day where they grab their surfboards and take off for the beach, pack the kids off to a weekend away or settle into a home office on wheels. (Or possibly all three at different times in the same van!)So what can help the van building project continue past the initial excitement of the start gun?  These principles made a huge difference for me:

No excuses
Sketchup of initial van layout

Nice, but still imaginary thus far.

Commit to doing the van with a warrior mindset, no matter what.  There are days you will have to take a different approach to work around obstacles, or work less, but don’t break the momentum of at least doing some work on the days you had planned to do so.   An excellent resource on this is the book The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield, who talks about ‘The Resistance’ every artist faces.  This means you.  Your van is your creation and the resistance is out there waiting.  

Goals, Goals, Goals

I’ll go into detail on the specific system which worked best for me in a forthcoming essay, but whatever system you use, do something.  You will need some way of making a list of the long-term objectives and what you plan to do about it in the immediate future.   Reading books, watching videos, finding online articles about goal setting and productivity are an excellent way to make use of the several weeks you are likely to be hunting for a base vehicle.Making a list for the next day’s tasks the night before was extremely helpful to keep me on track when things felt overwhelming (which was most of the build). There are even posh journals designed to help with planning your goals, but any paper you can find in the morning will do.  

You are going to fail.  Little failures and big failures will happen, but you are learning with each mishap.  The support of other people online and in person can be an invaluable source of inspiration, but ultimately your van will be unique in the world and therefore you will be therefore experimenting at times.The jazz icon Winton Marsalis refers to ‘discipline of practice’, a willingness to put in long, reflective hours working at something. After my 6th attempt at fully operational, yet non-leaking, plumbing without plastic, I had to have a bit of stubborn faith to face it again the next day. 

Forget perfectionism

Even now there are parts of the van I want to rip out and start over, and sometimes I have.   Embrace the quirks and a little wonkiness.  Everyone has areas of their van where the carpet didn’t quite stick or the sealant isn’t as smooth as hoped – including all of those vans you have been admiring online.  This is extra, extra true for first time builders.  Get it to a functional stage and move on.  A huge help on this was the book Mindset  by Dr. Carol Dweck, a highly readable guide to adopting a ‘growth mindset’; if you like books it’s well worth it.  Alternatively, there are several good videos about it online, like this one. It is far better enjoy a campervan with a little character and than have a perfect, imaginary one.​

Lights, fridge, oven systems are go in Campervan

Wonky, but working.

Call in the cavalry sometimes

Occasionally a job is just a little too much – it’s OK to outsource some things (remember: not being a perfectionist).  Literally everyone who has ever converted a van did not do the whole thing themselves; even the keenest builder will have used pre-made hardware and accessories throughout. For me it was having someone do the gas run – I put in all the other elements of the LPG gas system, including a hob and underslung LPG tank.  But, having the actual running of the copper piping and testing of the system by a professional saved me much more time than it took him to do it, and made us all much more confident about the gas safety.

Celebrate your accomplishments

Rewarding yourself for finishing your hard work at each stage is a must.  One of the best parts of the build was firing up the wood burning stove with a cold beer after months of work to get it in (the woodburner, that is; the beer went down fairly quickly).    Once you get to a certain stage it may even be worth taking it somewhere for an overnight trip.  It’s a huge thrill to see your designs magically come to life in your own wheeled retreat.

How have you kept moving on your project?  Always good to hear in the comments below – please keep it respectful and spam free or it will be zapped.

All the best to you Vansformation warriors, thanks so much for your hard work and for joining us here for a little while.

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Feta from Vansformation

Chief Rabble Rouser at Vansformation