Guidebook: Van Build
My name is Jake, and I built this van with my friend, Tom. Tom has the carpentry know-how, and I filled in the gaps according to my vision. I am assuming that if you are reading this, you are interested in living and traveling (almost) full time in your van. For this reason, I will also assume that you would like to stand up, cook, clean, and dance in your van at any given time, so my recommendations as far as a vehicle to buy will be for a high roof van. If you're in the market for a low roof model instead, like an Econoline or something similar, then just apply the later details of this article regarding the build out and ignore the first step. This article is for the less than master carpenter and electrician and metal worker. If you are any of those things, I'd love to see your van because I'm sure you have a lot to teach me. If you have any questions (or would even like help building/designing your own van), get in touch!
Choose a Van
This cannot be rushed; if you are looking for your dream home on wheels, then you'd better do your homework. Luckily, I did mine, so I'll help lessen the hours of time you would otherwise spend reading online. The best build-out in the world will be for nothing if your van has shit for an engine. Here are three simplified options listed from higher to lower price point:
1. $35,000 - ∞
Obviously, the best bet is to buy new. The advantages are... if you buy new you have ZERO miles, your van comes with a warranty (very important), and you can choose customized options to fit your needs. And you get to pick your favorite color. Mercedes makes the Sprinter, Dodge makes the ProMaster, Ford makes the Transit. Those are really your main options.
For a high roof van (which, I can tell you right now, you want) prices start at $36.5k for a Mercedes, $32.6k for a Dodge RAM, and $37.5k for a Ford. If your budget is in this ballpark, just decide which one you like the looks of better and go for it.
Here are the pros and cons of each, to the best of my knowledge...
Pros: Mercedes has been making these vans for the longest of any manufacturer, so the trial and error factor is in their favor. These things are powerful and very fuel efficient with either V4 or V6 diesel engines.
Cons: Like almost every part in this foreign-made van, the new Mercedez BlueTEC exhaust system is expensive to fix, and things do tend to go wrong at some point (so I've heard). But, your warranty should cover that. This is why I'd ONLY recommend getting a BlueTEC Mercedes if you buy it new. Read up on BlueTEC if you're interested.
Dodge ProMaster and Ford Transit:
Pros: They are made right here in the States, so parts are easier to find and cheaper. Also, seems like a small detail (but turns out to be something you will use thousands of times per year): the sliding door handle on the ProMasters is much nicer than on the Ford or Mercedes. It's vertical and super durable.
Cons: They don't look as cool.. if you care about that. The new ones for the most part come stock with gas engines, not diesel, meaning they get significantly less miles to the gallon than their German counterparts. Depends on the size of the van and the engine, but I'm saying this generally. Probably most importantly, these vans have only been in production for a few years, meaning we don't know how well they age. As they keep producing the Transit and ProMaster models, I'm sure there will be stellar improvements. But for now, it's almost too early to tell.
2. $20,000 - $35,000
Get a new-ish van. Any of the ones listed above but not the current year. Sometimes you can score one for a good deal if you're on the lookout. Check CarGurus.com or Craiglist. You have to be on your game - it comes down to luck and persistence. Most people are looking for these vans in late spring early summer to do their very first "dirtbag summer road trip" with their boyfriend or girlfriend, so finding a van around then might be a competitive pursuit.
Find one from a dealership if you can. Why? IT WILL COME WITH AN OPTIONAL WARRANTY. I will say this again... get a van with a warranty from a dealership if you are buying it used. Especially if you're thinking of getting a Mercedes Sprinter. These vans WILL eventually need to be fixed up and maintained. Do not leave it to chance and be stuck with $4-$10k of fixing up to do. It will typically cost around $1-$3k for a bumper to bumper, 100k mile, 5-year warranty. As long as you don't lift it 6 inches and put rockets on the back bumper, you won't void your warranty.
Don't buy a van from a private seller without getting it looked at top to bottom by a mechanic. Even then, it's still risky, because not all grease monkeys are the geniuses us mechanically illiterate types chalk them up to be. If the mechanic misses something, it's no skin off their back. You're stuck with a shitty van and there's nothing you can do about it. But to be safe if you find a (seemingly) sweet deal, spend the $100-$200 for a full vehicle inspection...
3. < $20,000
I'll make this easy for you, because this was my price range and I think it is the same for most climbers/surfers/vagabonds... my advice is to stay under the $20,000 mark and to buy an older Dodge Sprinter Cargo Van (avoid the passenger van.. too many windows and seats). To simplify it further, these are my two recommendations:
1. 2008 Dodge Sprinter (The last year that Dodge made the body and Mercedes made the engine (V6 turbo diesel) - they had it dialed by this point)
2. 2006 Dodge Sprinter (The last year that Dodge and Mercedes made the inline 5 cylinder diesel engine, so it runs better than previous years due to trial and error)
Attributes of an attractive, sexy '06 or '08 Dodge Sprinter:
- Less that 100,000 miles. Not always possible to find, but try your darndest
- Detailed maintenance records (CarFax)
- From a dealer that offers a warranty - YOU WANT THIS. I have too many friends who found "amazing deals" that ended up costing anywhere from $4,000-$10,000 to fix. Warranties are a grand or two, but they are 100% worth it, even just for peace of mind
- NO RUST - get it from a desert state if you can to be sure there is no rust. East Coast winters eat vans for breakfast
- Passes smog - for us Californians. It is ILLEGAL for someone to sell you a car in CA that does not pass smog. Click here for details on smog
- Sliding door works properly - sounds obvious.. but you use this thing a lot and mine didn't work perfectly and it was a pain..
- Blank canvas on the inside - if it's already built out, either for glamping or as a worker van, ripping everything out will be a pain. You DO want to rip everything out in most cases because chances are there's crappy fiberglass insulation or mold or sketchy wiring that might kill you in your sleep. Only two of those things happened with my van...
- Have a mechanic confirm the age/wear on the following things to save yourself a headache later on: all fluids - coolant, transmission fluid, and engine oil; breaks; tires; glow plugs. Let me reiterate on the tires... make sure they're new. Tires cost a lot.. replacing them right after buying the van tacks on another $600 or so bucks.
- Back-up Cam - you'll want one...
- Cruise Control - you've never driven more than an hour without it, have you?
Don't buy a 2005 or 2007 Dodge Sprinter. You now know the reasons why you should buy a 2006 or 2008, so you know that both the '05 and '07 were the first of their engine and body types, meaning that there were still some kinks that needed to be worked out. In the '06 and '08, problems were fixed and these years tend to run better. There are always exceptions to the rule, but I'd play it safe.
Here's what I did
I bought a 2008 Dodge Sprinter van for around $19k. I bought it from a dealer in Maryland and had it shipped to California. All in, after shipping, warranty, taxes, registration, and build out, I spent $28k total, which is still almost $10k less than buying a brand new Mercedes Sprinter. Aside from the obvious monetary reasons, here's why I bought the van I did: The dealer offered a 100,000 mile 5-year warranty, which I purchased. The dealer had already inspected it and replaced things like fuel pump, glow plugs, and tires. Then I was able to build it out for about half of what it would cost to have someone else do it for me. Below are all the details about the build out process...
Laying out the Framework
First I will talk about the groundwork involved to prep the van for the build. Basically, these are just the first steps. Before addressing the interior build-out, we will cover:
What I did first was insulate the walls of the van. Here's what that looked like:
- Thin, flexible plywood (to cover the insulation) - I know that on another van build Tom used thicker plywood so that it could be used more as support for interior structures like cabinets and shelves, but thin plywood did the job for me)
- Denim Insulation (Here you go) - better than tiny little particles of fiberglass floating around your van
- Some tape - to hold up the insulation if you're doing this by yourself, like I was...
- T25 construction screws and bits - a lot of screws...
Once you've secured the insulation with tape, or in another, more creative way, pre-drill the holes for the plywood into the frame of the van using a drill bit slightly smaller than the thread of the screws. This is easier then pressing your whole body weight into each screw trying to pierce metal. I'd recommend using T25 screws and bits for EVERYTHING where wood is involved (Tom taught me that), because they don't strip like Phillips head screws:
Some people insulate the floor as well, so depending what sort of floor your van comes with, you may have to repeat a similar process on the floor as with the walls, definitely using a thicker ply that I used on the walls. My Sprinter came with the stock gray particle board kind of floor.
As much as this might terrify you, you have to do it; you will cut a big ol' hole in your roof. Most vans have a circular impression in the roof where a vent is intended to go (area under the beer can in the photo below). This is where I cut the hole on mine:
The fan and installation kit come with instructions, but here is a basic play by play:
- Frame the fan hole with two layers of putty tape
- Lay the fan into the hole so that it opens towards the back of the van. This way if you forget to close it and you drive off the lid won't blow off.
- Pre-drill the first hole into the roof and put a screw in.
- Re-align/straighten the fan, and pre-drill and screw in the second hole.
- Once you've done this for 3 screws, then you can just drill the rest at once and screw them all in.
- Make sure that you can't visibly see a gap between the fan/putty/roof.
- Lap sealant should be applied liberally in a tight zig-zag fashion, overshooting the gap by about 2 inches on both the fan side and van side
Don't cut corners on this step! Take your time and make sure there are no gaps between the fan, putty tape, and the van roof. Don't rely on the lap sealant to cover large gaps - it won't.
If you drive on the highway right away, the sealant will move and potentially uncover the gap. Wait a day or two for the sealant to dry before testing out its integrity with a thorough hose-down. Have someone stand inside and observe. Leave the area around the vent on the inside bare so that nothing gets damaged if it does leak, and any water leaking in is clearly visible:
The design of the interior will depend largely on the sort of activities you do on a daily basis. If you are a climber and/or surfer, then something similar to this design might work well for you. If you are over 6'0" , then you'll have to get creative with your sleeping situation because sleeping horizontally (width of the van) won't work for you. If you need to stash mountain bikes or longboards (surfboards), then storage requirements are a bit different. Your van will be based off your own vision, but I hope that my first rudimentary attempt will serve as a reference. For specific questions, email us. This is just a quick glimpse at what was a lengthy process of building the frame of the bed and kitchen.
Kitchen Framework - Space for batteries, electrical system, storage, and fridge. Your van will look like this for longer than you might hope... It's alright. Persevere.
Putting in the drawers under the bed - we used pre-made drawers from an old dresser. People say not to make the cabinet to fit the drawers, but to make the drawers to fit the cabinet. This way, however, you don't have to make drawers... It wasn't hard to do, but measurements have to be precise.
Written details on specific systems (fridge, stove, sink, electric, solar, etc.) to follow:
If you want more details about the building process or have any specific questions, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Building a van is a sizable undertaking. You will run into unforeseeable issues, but that's part of the process. There are sleeker vans out there than mine, built by people that have useful skills such as welding, or real experience with cabinetry. For the layperson, my first attempt turned out to be a finished product that I am proud of and was more than livable.
Below I have laid out some brief descriptions of the different systems in the van:
I hope this saves you some time!
Solar Panels and Charge Controller: Renogy 200 Watt Package - It is the easiest, cheapest, and best way to get a ton of solar to power all your lights, your fridge, and an inverter to charge laptops, etc.
Z Brackets (for mounting panels to roof)
Extension wires (charge controller to battery)
Lap Sealant (to lay over the installed brackets so the screw holes don't leak water into the van)
For installation of solar, you will either have to drill into your roof or mount the panels on a rack, which you will have to install separately.
Drilling them straight in is probably the easiest/fastest way. Just go straight in with the screws provided in the mounting set.
You then have to drill a hole for the wire to enter into the cabin of your van, making sure to place a rubber grommet in between the metal of your van and the casing of the wire so it doesn't rub raw and expose the wire.
Connecting the solar panels is very straightforward, and everything is provided in the package above.
Here we will discuss the basics of wiring a panel to the battery system safely. Above is my half-assed effort to make it look neat after everything worked perfectly. You will probably encounter this issue: once it works it takes a long time before you are able to convince yourself to make it look nice. Fuse block is behind the propane tank, Renogy Wanderer charge controller to the left, below that the inverter, and below all of it, the batteries. You see a bunch of wires behind all of this, that is because my batteries are also connected to the alternator of the van, charging the whole system whenever I drove. This is a more complicated process that I won't explain in detail here, but you can always reach out if it is something you'd like help with. You can also YouTube it.
If you get two batteries, wire them in parallel to make them one big ol' battery (essentially)
How to do that: connect + to + and - to - with some THICK (4 gauge) wire. Then connect your circuit board/fuse block to either + and - (doesn't matter; you can do it on the sam battery or on different ones).
Here are the batteries I bought: WindyNation 12V. I bought two of them and wired them in parallel (look it up; super easy) with these cables
Here is the inverter I bought: Kreiger 1500 Watt Inverter
Fuse Block - you will need to get auto/marine fuses for the block. I bought a bunch of 20 amp car fuses at O'Reilly's
All that I connected to my battery terminals were 1. The wires coming out of the solar panel charge controller inverter, 2. The inverter, and 3. The wires connected to the fuse block.
Don't connect every appliance in your van straight to the batteries; it gets messy fast. Use the + - terminals on the fuse block.
**WIRING TIPS YOU PROBABLY ALREADY KNOW **
Red to + and Black to - for every appliance.
For lighting cable (low wattage wire) the ribbed side of the wire is negative, smooth with writing is positive.
Any side with writing on it is positive.
Some appliances (often times foreign) have different colored wires than black and red that you can usually look up online.
Anything wired to the fuse block MUST BE 12V. If it is not, the batteries will not be able to power it. For something like a laptop charger or blender you will have to plug it in to the inverter every time you use it.
Happy wiring! Don't get too frustrated.
You will decide for yourself where you need your ceiling lights, and here is what you need to make your vision a reality:
12V LED Lights
50ft roll of 18 gauge (low voltage) wire to string your lighting masterpiece all together
A BUNCH of orange wire connectors
Get this dimmer to hook up at the end of your wire tree before the tree connects to your fuse block. You don't want your lights blaring at full brightness all the time. Gotta set the mood every now and then, even if you're living in there by yourself. The wiring for the dimmer is strangely unintuitive (said my electrician uncle), but simple. Just follow the diagram that comes in the package.
A hole cutter drill attachment that is compatible to the size of the lights, whichever ones you end up buying. I'd say bring the lights in to a Home Depot and buy whichever hole saw is compatible. This way you just bore a hole in the ceiling, connect the light to the hanging wire, and pop the light right in there.
What you will do is create a tree of wires with bare wire ending at each branch, where the lights will eventually be connected. You will be connecting three wires together at times, keeping positive with positive and neutral with neutral the whole way. This is simple but tedious. Lots of twisting.
Test the lights before sealing their fate into the oblivion of your ceiling. Do this by hooking up the ground wire of your lights to the fuse block and then touching the hot wire to the + side to complete the loop momentarily. You'll see the lights flash if everything is hooked up correctly.
I threw some caulking onto the rims of the lights and taped them to the ceiling with painter's tape. If you use caulking at any point in this van build, make sure it is the flexible kind that contains silicone.
Installation: Cut out the hole in the size of the stencil that comes with the sink. Plop it in after coating the rim in a solid amount of silicone caulking - wipe away the excess caulk.
Hard wiring the fridge right to the circuit panel makes the fridge much more efficient. Put the fridge where you want; I put mine under the countertop to maximise counter space when the fridge is closed.
Cut a hole and screw it in! Make sure to leave room for the propane hose which runs under the counter to the tank.
Here are some extras that I found to be valuable:
Here are photos of the finished interior: