In late July 2015 I bought a secondhand panel van to convert to a campervan.   At that point I had minimal carpentry, plumbing, electrics or engineering (mostly from that half a school year when I was 14 years old:  Thanks, Mr. Archer!).  

On the journey to converting my van into a little castle on wheels there have been a lot of lessons.   It’s not far wrong to say I’ve now built at least 3 vans: the two vans worth of practice, failures and re-dos and then the third one where everything works.  My accuracy, speed and techniques improved massively as I went along – not only because of practical experience, but also because learning general ways of approaching design/build problems which could then apply to other challenges.
Over the next two blogs I’ll share the top 10 lessons learned over the course of building the campervan.  These are the big themes uniting all the little moments of clarity earned on the way.  ​If you are looking for part II, that’s here.

Cute cate design illustration self build van conversion campervan

Everyone’s a design critic

1.  You DO have transferable skills

I had expected to have to learn almost everything but was relieved to discover even an apparently unrelated life history provided useful resources for this project.  The same will be true for you. Some personal examples:

  • Information still rattling around from the secondary school class 20 years ago: proper use of a tape measure properly (really!), basic draughting concepts and safe use of power tools.    
  • Volunteer charity work: use of a vice to hold things, use of an allen wrench
  • Skills from my day job in the NHS: analysis of a task and breaking it into component parts, the chance to observe engineers and technicians on the same site for a few top tips (some of whom kindly mentored me on skills like using insert nuts and cutting with a hacksaw), understanding of ergonomics which informed  several aspects of van design.
  • Skills from working with a not for profit sports organisation: practical time and project management, problem solving well out of my comfort zone, some minimal experience with computer vector-based design software
2. Join an online community

Get into a forum or Facebook group so you can ask questions, benefit from the questions others ask and (surprisingly soon!) lend a hand to others.  The Self-Build Motor Caravan Converters group (SBMCC) forum was a huge help for me – for a cheap yearly membership fee it gave me access to forum archives and a group of  knowledgeable people who are generally friendly and open to helping others along.

Obvious precautions around any online spaces apply – not all information is of the same quality or even  honest.  People who self-build campervans are overall a helpful bunch who generally want to see others succeed in doing the same if you can dodge the 0.5% of the population from troll-land.

3. Get the best base vehicle you can afford

A vehicle with the most reliability and least rust will means much more enjoyment for your hard work.  Particularly for inexperienced campervan builders, the build will take much longer than you anticipate.  Along with that (as I picked up from  Vandog Traveller initially) learn the common weak points in the type of van you are looking for so you can pay particular attention to these.

I do know of a bloke who takes the opposite approach, only buys vans in about a 5 mile radius which are really cheap.  This is certainly appealing when on a budget.  But, he has built loads of vans and is an experienced woodworker and engineer with a fantastic workshop space.  He rips things out of one van, recycles them and builds another in the time it takes me to make cupboard doors.  He once put van together to ‘good enough’ level with a folding bed, storage, sink and hob in a weekend.  If he builds a van and it has a fatal mechanical problem, it’s a few days of tinkering to fix or move things on to the next one.

If you would need active soul searching to cope with a serious mechanical failure, a reliable base vehicle is the way to go.

4. Manage your time like a boss

David Snell, a house (the sort without wheels) self-builder once said ‘successful building is about proper management’.  The same is true of your uber-mobile tiny house.  There will be setbacks in the weather, materials, finances and your physical fitness on any given day.  Focused working with the time you do have makes a huge difference in absorbing these challenges. Many different methods exist to organise your goals and time for your van build.  In another blog I will go through what worked best for me, but any system will do if you feel comfortable with it.  A good place to start is to write down you want to accomplish during  the next build day so you don’t have to re-find your place when a slot of time comes up.

5. Embrace basic techniques 

Particularly for less experienced van builders, the simpler way you can do ‘X’, the better.  I tend to overcomplicate everything.  Before the campervan, taking hours to make supper was not unusual (although it was a blinding feast, to be fair).  So this was a huge lesson for me. Try to find the most straightforward way to do something wherever possible: push-fit plumbing fittings, butt joint or pocket hole joinery, hardware with easy-fit features.  The cost of more difficult techniques is in time, extra materials and morale.   Once you get the key elements in you can have a go at more advanced woodworking or other techniques for the finishing touches – and future vans!

Coming up in Part II, the most important lesson the van build taught me, one that I hope will save you time and angst.

What skills do you have from other areas of work which apply to a campervan conversion?  Always like a bit of banter in the comments below and best of luck to you Vansformation warriors.

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Feta from Vansformation

Chief Rabble Rouser at Vansformation