What I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Van Conversion
I have a lot of campervan self-building heroes, so many it could fill 50 blog posts. But, to commemorate the launch of the Vansformation website, some who I particularly admire for their contributions are generously giving you the top tips they wish they knew right at the start. Thank you so much to each and every one of them for the information here, all based on a high level of practical experience. Best of luck to all our Vansformation warriors starting out on this journey themselves. -Feta B.
From Lindsay and David: Owners of Quirky Campers, hiring out handcrafted self-build campervans in the UK
David: Gas and weight. Weight is going to be an issue for everybody, much more so if you are hiring out. Find out what the maximum allowed mass is for the vehicle. (See David’s blog about this topic for more information.)
Lindsay: Any skills you want to learn you can but I think you have to have the interest there. And, anything you are going to enjoy you should do yourself and anything you are going to loathe every minute of you should delegate and pay somebody else to do.
From Jack: Owner of This Moving House custom crafted van conversions
There is a huge amount of stuff I wish I’d known before I started my van conversion. Every day I seem to find stumble across another glaringly obvious method that , had I actually thought ahead properly, would have saved me a huge amount of time, plywood and bin kicking.
Here’s 3 bits of advice that might come in useful before you start a van project:
• Learn to cut timber and sheet materials straight and square. Especially if you are limited on space ;cutting an 8×4 sheet of ply straight is not that simple. Watch youtube for videos and you’ll save yourself a load of hassle and wasted material.
• Everything is going to take longer than you think. About 3 times longer than you think. In a van nothing is square, nothing is straight and there is always something in the way. Try not to rush. It takes as long as it takes.
• Work out what are the main features going into the van and, if you can, get those major elements to hand before you start building. Planning to fit a sink later on, or find somewhere to put a gas bottle once you’ve finished something is going to trip you up and you’ll need to unpick loads of work. Having the main features to hand will make life a lot easier and saves loads of time.
My absolute top tip to stay productive is this……
If you’re converting a van between jobs you’ll find that lack of continuity is the biggest buzz killer. A day here, a couple of hours there….you spend ages dicking around trying to figure out what to tackle next and you lose days just trying to keep the momentum going. It’s a psychological problem that murders many a project, But there is a great fix for this
At the end of each day always leave a really simple, quick job all set up ready to be completed. I’m talking really simple; If there is one last screw that needs to go in, a switch needs to be tested, a fuse needs to be fitted….really simple and quick…..leave it, ready and waiting, for the next day. When you next come to work on the van again, simply finish that job and you’ll immediately have the forward momentum to tackle the next job.
You can apply that to any big task, it keeps you moving in the right direction at all times.
From Graham K: Self-Build Motor Caravanners Club (SBMCC) Club Secretary
I think the best advice I could give to anyone would be to prepare, plan and research everything as much as possible but to remain flexible as well, and be prepared to change it all at short notice when you actually start building!
Andrew Harris: Owner of RoadPro and experienced specialist in 12v systems and accessories for vans, wild-camping adventurer, former curator of the Mystique motorhome.
The most critical thing in a motorhome or campervan is the leisure battery. If you don’t have a leisure battery, you can’t have any lights on, you can’t do anything.
Do not start off with a scrapper [vehicle]. If you start of with a scrapper you are going to end up with a scrapper, and you do not want to live, spend any time at all in a scrapper. Avoid scrappers! …I would just really advise not getting an old van unless it’s some kind classic thing. If you are interested in looking after a car or looking after a van, that’s what you like doing, then hey get anything and then do it. But, if you want to spend time enjoying the motorhome, then get a decent base vehicle in the first place, or you will be sorry, trust me.
From Glenn H: Automation aficianado and campervan self-builder
Get converting – u are going to need to plan a bit but don’t get planning paralysis. There are lots of conflicting opin
ions about what is the “right way” to convert a van. Do a little research and then get started, you will learn loads along the way.
Share…But be prepared for war – I like to give back to the VanLife world by sharing the work I’ve done to inspire others. If you do the same, be ready for experts, keyboard warriors and the jealous folks of the world to object to your materials and methods. Ignore it; your van is your space, not theirs!
Keep going – During the process of converting you will get bogged down. Keep pushing through, focus on how awesome the completed van will be, and you it will be done before you know it.
Practice makes perfect – I bought a van already converted. This was the best option for me at the time but I learned quickly that someone else design wasn’t going to work for me long time. Try and go on a trip or two with a friend who has a van to work out what works for you before you start your build.
Lucy and Ben F: Sharing vanlife with others at From Rust to Roadtrip and moderators of Facebook Group ‘Self-Build Campervans and Real Life ‘
Whatever your budget is, double it. And whatever your timeframe is- double that too. The most important thing is to be realistic, and there will always be surprises along the way when you’re converting a van. You can save money by using reclaimed and secondhand items, but sometimes you’ll have to wait to grab a bargain, so it can be a balance between budget and timeframe.
Do your research before you buy a van. Check the engine over, check the service history and check the MOT history on the .GOV website. Mainly keep an eye out for advisories regarding rust around the chassis and anything underneath the van. Also check what the common problems are with the particular model you’re after- it could end up saving you a few quid down the line.
Mark: Owner of M & P Camper Conversions Ltd
It’s all been a learning curve; have adapted so many different methods to my builds and over all finishes now simple things like using a soldering iron to cut through the carpet when lining a van or around certain protruding items this solves two problems it seals the carpet edge and makes a perfect cut and saves you lots of money on Stanley blades
It’s also better to do your homework whilst sourcing various items for your conversion and don’t always think cheap is best as it does not work that way you want the job doing right the first time round.
Jo and Vanessa: Veteran campervan and house self-builders, long time leaders within SBMCC.
Keep a good quality flask ,when you boil the kettle any surplus hot water , keep in flask,by the end of the day you have enough for washing up .
Above our hob we have a hook which holds the kettle,so it’s out of the way; while it’s not needed & the hob is all free. A thermal curtain between the cab & living area keeps the heat in or the sun out. A really old idea: magnet soap holder ,neat & tidy, love it! An outside shower outlet , very useful on hot days or to hose off bikes,dogs,shoes etc.
Peter F: Mechanical and electrical whiz, converter of Mercedes 614D bus into a motorhome
- Planning is all. Draw a scale representation of your vehicle and layout, be brutally honest and accurate with sizes and allowances. Mock up articles if necessary to check clearances
- Buy carefully. Often you’ll find much better prices away from consumer outlets, look on ebay by all means but use Google as well. Buy from trade sources if you can, everything is cheaper!
- Use secondhand where it is in good condition and you know where it has come from.
- Gas powered items should be checked/serviced before use, DON’T take it on trust that they will be OK. Items such as tanks and regulators should be bought new. Plenty of suppliers such as Tinley Tech can help with technical advice as well.
- Electrics need to be planned, probably more so than any other item, sit down and work out cable runs etc. Don’t use cheap cable or small cable, work on 1sq mm as the minimum size and fuse all circuits to values that the cable will support.
- Solar is a whole new world, but planning is key. Rated outputs should be taken with a pinch of salt, reckon on 1/2 to 1/3 of published output. Use a MPPT controller, make sure it is that and not just labelled as such.
- Solar ‘packages’ are normally poor value for money, you can do much better by buying the individual parts.
- Batteries: Wet, vented lead-acid batteries are the cheapest and most robust, sealed types are the easiest damaged.
- Chargers: Switch-mode power supplies make great chargers and are much cheaper than the fancy items. If you have a multi-stage solar setup, you can use a single-stage charger.
- Fuses: Fit as many as you can, you don’t want a fire in your new pride and joy!
- AC Supplies need an incoming RCD and proper fusing. Buy a fusebox with it all built in.
From Nigel B: Serial van converter of vans for over 3 decades
Know how to siphon liquid: Chop a bit of hosepipe , hold the 2 ends together and fill with whatever liquid you want to siphon. Close one end with your finger and stick the other end in the tank, the liquid won’t come out till you take your finger off. Hold the closed end lower than the liquid level in the tank and take your finger off. That’s it.
Andy Taylor Self-build converter in the process of converting a new L3H2 Boxer into a luxury camper to tour Europe
My build started 8 months ago, and I’m being very thorough because I’ve invested a lot in the van purchase and I want the result to be good. But progress is slow. Be honest about what it’s going to cost, your abilities and the work involved in finishing the project. Undoubtedly it’s a fantastic thing to do, and (whilst it’s all absorbing) it’s also fun and very rewarding. To start with, look at as many finished vans as you can to get ideas. Shows and dealers are the easiest places to do this. Think about the base vehicle size and type you’re going to use. Then if you’re not put off, get a coffee and a tape-measure and plan out your own adventure. The plan is the key, and don’t cut any metal until you’re absolutely sure!
Tim B: Converter of an American School Bus, and expert craftsman. featured on ‘George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces’ Series 5, Episode 8
Plan, plan, plan, plan, plan – and then throw the plans away and make it up as you go along. You need to think about what you actually need, and what you don’t need.
From Simon Newbury: Builder of Finn, a beautiful handcrafted van you’ve probably seen if you love self-build campervans.
So if this is your first foray into vans, there’s a few questions that if you answer up front, you might end up nearer to something that you’ll love and does the job well. These are obvious questions but so important to give lots of thought to with no corners cut.. 1. What exactly do you want your van to do? Make a list of both essentials, and wants. 2. What do you want your van to look like when you open your eyes in the morning. Does it give you a warm swell to wake up and see what you’ve created, and how seamlessly easy is it to get coffee, some warmth, clean pants and whatever else.
Then research. Pinterest is a gift to self builders.
Don’t worry too much about what type of insulation at this point, or whether tongue and groove is too heavy because someone once said it was, or whether to go solar or not. For the most part, the answers to the detail come out of thoroughly answering question 1 and 2. Looking at the detail can stop the crucial focus of what you actually want your van to do and to feel like when you’re in it.
To keep things in perspective, don’t forget the tent thing. My first van was a Peugeot 305 van, really small. It took us to 5 countries on our first trip in what felt like abject luxury and flexibility. It took a Saturday to insulate and line out, and I had the cushions from something else, we bought a ferry ticket and off we went. It was one of the best trips I ever had. You don’t need much. Though I’ve upped my game since, budget, conversion time available and imagination are things I’d sort first. Then start with something.
Steve Healey: Self-Builder of custom Peugeot boxer long wheelbase (with flip up rear transverse bed!)
I think my top tip would be do not be frightened to have a go at doing all the work yourself it is easier than you think if you break it down to individual parts., and also if you do not know something ask some one who knows.
From Bob W: Owner and curator of the ‘Mystique’ custom self-built Motorhome, the basis of the Haynes ‘Build your own Motorcaravan’ book by John Wickersham
‘If you’re going to put money into it, start with the newest, lowest mileage vehicle you can get your hands on. But if you don’t know what you are doing, get an old banger for practice, with the proviso not to spend too much on the old banger.’
He also added ‘I have done and can do lots of my own work on vehicles and do appreciate that when professional help is enlisted it can blow any budget.’
Steph and James Plot: Admins of Facebook group Self-Build Campervans and Real Life
Go out and about a bit with just a mattress in your van to get a feel of how you want the layout before you start your build. Everyone’s needs are so different, some use campsites, some don’t, some have kids, some don’t, some like to have the side doors or back doors open all the time., some are full time live in, some just the weekends etc….all make such a difference to whether your layout works for you.
And one tip from me, Feta at Vansformation:
It’s a simple thing which will save you heartache later.
When the van is at the naked stage where all the old detritus is cleaned up, and the wall battens (if applicable) are in, take loads of photos of the inside with a tape measure in the photos. Ideally the tape measure should extend to a reference point you can see even when the lining is fully in. These will be a valuable reference later when you may want to add things over the lining.
Thanks for having a read, Vansformation warriors, you are all my heroes! Hope you can join us in a few weeks for a listen in to the Vansformation Podcast. See you then. -FB