9. Covers and finishes

We searched about the Internet for some time trying to find somewhere to get covers made up for the bed, along with matching curtains. We eventually found a small company in Ayrshire who were very reasonably priced and had some fabric we liked the look of. Unfortunately it took ages before we had everything delivered, with many phone-calls, emails made and few responses received. No issues with the quality of the work, just very slow and very poor communications. We avoided buying the cheapest foam available, but couldn’t afford to go too high-end, ending up with a firm mattress quality 4″ foam. This has turned out to be quite comfortable.  The curtains were hung on net curtain wires at the sides, and on a plastic track around the front of the van. We opted for curtains just behind the front seats and bought a set of silver blinds for the windscreen and front door windows. This allows us to use the cab as a separate single bed area with a mattress over the seats (on the Relay van the handbrake is on the drivers right, so giving a fairly flat area across the seats).

1-DSCF3864I wasn’t keen on carpeting the sides of the van, and was far from convinced I’d make a decent job of it! In the end I decided to leave most surfaces as plywood and just paint them.  I used ordinary emulsion which isn’t really hard wearing enough and will need to be redone with something better at some stage, but it does give the van a light and airy feel. Large joins were covered with timber strips which I finished with was, and the ceiling was finished in wax too (the pic shows a waxed panel and an unfinished one during the process, you can also see the painted walls). I rather like the “boat-like” feel this gives.  I did make a couple of gaffs with measuring and cutting the plywood for the ceiling so there are some larger gaps and a missing corner section!  I’m learning to live with this as I couldn’t afford to buy more plywood!!

A few bits of exposed metal were left and some square edges of ply met interestingly shaped panel edges. I bridged these gaps with pieces of foam cut from camping mats, glued in place and painted. It does a job, but doesn’t look desperately elegant.

We had problems with the window in the sliding door, as the door leaked and also had issues shutting properly. Getting the door adjusted meant I needed to rip out the panelling, though in truth water-damage pretty much dictated this anyway. I wasn’t happy with the original approach to lining the area around the window anyway, so opted for a different approach, making a smaller frame for the window and a soft panel made of foam and covered with leatherette.  This panel can be unscrewed to allow access to the door mechanism if needed again, and then refitted. It’s also more resilient against water.


8. Electrics

electric cupboardThe hub of the electrical installation is a cupboard above the offside rear wheel arch. This had the benefit of being too thin a space for serious storage, right behind the point we wanted the electric hookup and allowed for an accessible switch panel whether the van is in day or night mode.  Mains power comes from  a standard inlet into a two way fusebox with built in RCD.  This then feeds a double socket on the side of the electrics cupboard and a battery charger. The charger is a CTEK 3600 which is designed to charge the battery in stages so can be left connected for a long period safely. This model doesn’t have a particularly high rate (3.6 amps) so wont charge the battery in a hurry, but we have fairly modest electrical needs. We had the CTEK from our last van and salvaged it for the new project.  The battery sits under a panel between the sofa and travelling seats, tube vented through the floor to reduce the risk of blowing ourselves up. This puts it between the charger and the van battery so as to minimise the cable runs both ways.  It is linked with the van battery via a Victron Cyrix battery combiner. Essential a voltage sensing relay it is designed to allow the charger or alternator to charge both batteries without the electrical system discharging the van battery. In use we find it tends to switch on and off when a load is applied (like the lights are on) even without the charger connected, not quite sure what’s causing this issue but it may lead to replacement with a typical split charge relay instead.

Aside from the double socket everything else runs from 12v. A boat switch panel (again salvaged from the last van) controls the lights, water pump and three 12v sockets. A battery monitor led and gas/CO detector are permanently wired in though I take the fuse out when not using the van otherwise these slowly discharge the battery.

lightsIn the budget build spirit I made my own lights. The main lights are recessed in the ceiling and made from Ikea photo frames with the glass replaced by a piece of frosted perspex. A simple wooden frame is screwed onto the back of the ceiling panel and MR16 lampholders attached to that. I then added cheap 5050 SMD LEDs to these and wired them in. They cost a fraction of “proper” caravan lights, look good enough and provide plenty of light. I also added in a recessed light in the overhead cupboard (drilled a hole, added more perspex and stuck another lampholder and LED bulb above it.  All these are then wired to switches also recessed into the overhead cupboards then back to the master switch on the main switch panel.

bedside lightsFinally on the lighting front I bought two ex-caravan eyeball spotlights with their own switch built in and recessed these either side of the bed. These have normal halogen bulbs in while I try and source suitable LEDs. Unfortunately one got accidental switch on  during the day and burnt a hole in the curtain, so it has had its bulb removed for now to stop a repeat performance!

A 500W convector heater squeezed in nicely to provide a bit of heat on chilly days, and while fairly low output can heat the van up pretty quickly even on a really cold day.

6. Cupboards

Storage in the van comes in the form of a large under-bed store, a row of kitchen cupboards, a set of shelves over one wheel arch, a cupboard over the other wheel arch (mostly to house the electrics) and a pair of overhead lockers.  All except the overhead lockers where constructed in situ, the lockers where mostly built outside of the van.

Electrical cupboard

cupboardsThis was built principally to house the mains inlet, consumer unit, charger and switch panel.  My first attempt was a dismal failure   It was seriously wonky and left too narrow a gap between it and the kitchen cupboards (I was aiming to retain access via the rear door).  So I ripped it out and started again, this time keeping it essentially the same width as the wheel arch.  Its a basic timber frame then clad with thin ply.  The final result is straighter, but its still not 100%.  I found it very difficult working against the curvature of the van sides and with nothing to take a level from.

Kitchen cupboards

These were designed to provide a couple of cupboards and a space for water and gas bottles which would be accessed from the rear doors.  I built a frame to take the worktop then built up the cupboards around this.  This allowed for changes to be made on the fly, but I think I would have ended up with a nicer finish if I had made them up and then bolted them in.  In fact possibly just modifying some standard kitchen units might have worked better.  The doors and B&Qs cheapest kitchen cupboard doors – I used these for all of the cupboards.  Getting cupboards to stay closed in a moving van is a tricky business and this current batch don’t always manage it.  The addition of a few bungies does the trick though!  Cutting the solid timber worktop was tricky.  I needed cutouts for the cooker and sink, which went surprisingly well but I also needed to trim 10cm from the width.  Didn’t quite manage a straight cut here as the jigsaw blade tended to bend and wander.  Plans for a splashback (yet to be added) should hide this though.

Overhead locker

overheadThe high cupboards were built separately then installed as a single unit (with doors temporarily removed).  Again fitting this to the shpe of the van was a challenge, as was fixing it in place.  In the end I passed a series of bolts through the metalwork, added a nut onto them to hold them in place then hooked the cupboard onto them.  Another bolt fixed the cupboard on.  So far it all appears quite solid, which is just as well as the cupboard is fairly heavy.  Getting bolts of the right length was tricky   Too long and they wouldn’t fit between the inner and outer panel so you couldn’t push them through the hole.  Too short and they wouldn’t pass through the timber frame.  Placement of the holes was also critical in this regard.

5. Travelling Seats

seatsI spent a long time looking at rock and roll bed seats, but ultimately concluded to get the layout we wanted would require some bespoke designs that would swallow up too large a chunk of our modest budget.  Instead I started looking around for minibus seats and found a cheap pair advertised by a seller in Southampton.  They were able to hang on to them for a couple of weeks after the sale when I had to be on the mainland with the van.  The seats would enable us to carry 5 people in proper belted seats and would also provide part of our lounge/dining area.  When it came to fitting the seats we found that suitable locations were few and far between.  I had intended bolting through the floor with some substantial square steel spreader plates but struggled to find anywhere that ended up with the seat in the right place and enough space for the plates.  We thought we had found the spot, drilled holes, and discovered they weren’t quite where we expected…    After patching them up I made the decision to move the position of the seat further back and also to bolt the back set of mounts right through the chassis member.  This meant a rather large drill bit had to be acquired and holes very carefully drilled.  Spreader plates were added and the front bolts passed through the floor and even bigger plates.  Overall it looks massively over-engineered compared with most seatbelt mountings I have looked at.

The seats are cheapy LDV minibus seats, so not the finest looking or the most comfortable.  I maybe should have splashed out for some better seats, but would have had to make other compromises.  We have had covers made up to match the seats to the sofa-bed, but that’s another story which I’ll cover in a later post….

mick_measuringMick helps with measuring to position
holes correctly using a small wooden sword


4. The bed

I lost count of the number of times I designed and redesigned this van on paper.  My original plans were based on a SWB van so when we bought the slightly longer MWB it sparked a new batch of ideas.  One of our key requirements was to be able to seat 5 people in the van, both for travelling and for eating round a table.  We also needed space for 5 people’s stuff, so we could travel with the whole family (with the girls sleeping in a tent).  This meant some careful planning and some non-typical designs.  My original plan was for a large fixed bed-base with a hinged section on top folding out to form a double bed running across the full width of the van.  This had two major problems to overcome.  1. Supporting the extended section of the bed when out.  2. how to fold out a full-width section when the van narrows the higher up you go.  The answer was ultimately simple.  Stop coming up with my own ideas and steal someone else’s.

Enter Ian Lang’s Deep Red website.  Now I have to say first off that if you want to convert a van in style, show real craft and better much of what you could buy in commercially, stop reading my blog right now and go and read the Deep Red site.  I can’t even begin to compete with Ian’s obvious skill levels, but that didn’t stop me stealing some great ideas.  His design of bed with a slide out slatted section was genius.  I adapted the designs to suit a different layout and my reduced skill level, but used the basic principles; a slatted base with a second slatted section which pulls out, the slats of each overlapping and both sections hinged to allow them to be lifted together to provide access to storage underneath.  Ian’s site provides a really good guide to how the concept works and I kept returning to this when I couldn’t quite get my head around it!  I used slats from Ikea, cut down to size.  These were cheaper than buying timber of an appropriate size.  The rest of the base is a simple box construction with ply fitted over the top.  It means it doesn’t look pretty inside, but I work on an out of sight out of mind principle.

The bed was originally designed to pull out over the top of the travelling seats (from an LDV minibus) so sites quite a bit higher than those seats.  This makes setting the table level tricky, and we shall have to see how it pans out in practice.  In the end the seat position moved making the height difference unnecessary, but by that time the bed base was complete and I wasn’t keen to lose storage space so we’ll see if we can live with it and modify if necessary.  The pull out section is supported on two legs at one end and in the middle.  At the other end I have boxed in the battery and the bed rests on this box.

bed1Lots of the fabrication was done in the “workshop” (aka the kitchen) and then various sections assembled and bolted into the van. All this was carefully planned, but with several mistakes built in to force me to redesign as I went (and look more closely at Big Red to fathom what I had done wrong) but overall I am very pleased with the result.  The bed is topped with 4″ reflex foam.  One piece forms the base, the other forms the backrest.  The whole thing is a bit oversized as a sofa, but makes a good size bed (approx 6’x4’8″).  Time will tell how practical it all is!

bed2Back set in place (attempt one, it had to be re-engineered later!)

bed3Basic frame for fixed section

bed4Our friend’s son inspects progress so far.  It holds my weight – a good start!

bed5Fixed section complete and boxed in

bed6Pull out section added and extended.

I’ll post some pictures of the completed bed (complete with legs!) in a later post.

3. Insulating and Lining

Many diy van converters will do all the insulating and lining in one go, then build everything else on top of their insulated and lined van.  I took a slightly more piecemeal approach for 2 reasons.  Firstly the exact methods I used evolved partly around other fittings (such as the cupboards) some of which negated the need to line particular bits of the van.  The other, and more significant reason was boredom.  The lack of progress was taking its toll on my enthusiasm so I decided to start building some of the other bits of the van ahead of finishing the lining.  I’m not at all sure this is the most efficient or effective way of going about things but it kept me going so I’m not going to knock it! As such some of this work jumps ahead of later stages in my build diary, so if you see things magically appearing in the pictures that’s why.

Van interior before liningWhen I bought the van it was already ply lined.  Some of the ply-lining had to come off for the windows to be fitted.  I retained the removed ply and aimed to refit in the same position as far as possible.  New ply would undoubtedly have given a better finish, but this was a budget build and I smelled a saving here.  I did have some problems as everything either had to be stored inside the van or in my daughters bedroom.  In practice I had to do lots of switching about between the two.  Oh for a garage!

The walls were mostly insulated with rolls of loft insulation (the recycled plastic type rather than rockwool or similar) then a layer of foiled bubble wrap over the top.  The actual insulating properties of this stuff are fairly minimal, but I’m hoping the little bit they offer along with their contribution as a vapour barrier will make the addition worthwhile.

getting started with the cotton wool cotton wool in

The toughest part of the lining process was probably dealing with the windows.  I initially tried cutting a  piece of ply to follow the shape of the window, but that ended up looking terrible (primate with power tools syndrome again).  In the end I settled on building a square framework and then infilling the gaps in the corner with black foam sheet cut to size.  It doesn’t look stunning but is neater than the initial idea.  The photo below shows the corner of one window, pre-finishing.


flooringThe floor once again show my inherent laziness, lack of time and cheapskate nature – in which order I’m not sure.  Rather than strip the old floor off and redo the whole thing, I left the floor as it was, and added laminate underfloor and then cheap laminate.  This was one of my bargain buys, an open box from B&Q at half price, working out at about £4/sq metre.  The area under the bed and cupboards is just plain vinyl floor.  I hope to tidy those up in the spring.  I had to glue some of the flooring sections together as they were too small to hold tightly in place and gaps kept opening up.  I also installed cheap coir mats at the entrances.  These lie roughly flush with the laminate, and can be removed for cleaning.  They also helped ensure I had enough flooring without having to buy a second pack!

ceiling_panelI was keen to maintain a good standing height inside the van so decided the keep the ceiling thin.  Without much space for insulation and the difficulty of fighting against gravity, I fixed most of the insulation to the ceiling panels before fixing them in place.  I started off by covering the metal with foiled bubble-wrap type insulation, working one section at a time.  I then stuck foam camping mats to a “carefully” measured and cut 6mm ply panel and then another layer of the foil insulation.  The panels were pre-cut to accept the lights I had built and I had already run cables ready to fix in place as I installed each one.  The panels certainly didn’t look attractive, but I think the insulation properties should be passable given the limited thickness, and the ugly bits are all hidden away.  They were also cheap to produce – I started using old mats we were throwing away and then bought a cheap set on ebay – buying the actual camping mats was cheaper than buying similar sheet material.

Joints between the ceiling panels and several of the wall panels were covered by thin strips of timber.  Aside from a couple of (ahem) minor cutting glitches I am quite pleased with how the ceiling looks.  Finished photos will appear in a later section!



Work is progressing….

…but as a result there is little time for blog updates.  I will be posting pictures soon, honest!

A box of Pencils

I have decided my top piece of advice advice to anyone starting a conversion would be to buy a big box of pencils, and keep it to hand but always in the same place.  Chain it down if necessary.  This will save hours of wandering around looking for that third pencil you have put down “somewhere” and was the last one you could find in the house.  Every time you need a pencil and have lost your last one, grab a new one from the box.  If you eventually run out in the box, you don’t need to worry as there will be one to hand wherever you are in the van.

Learning from past mistakes

Well, in a break in the rain I managed to find time to fit the electric hook up.  I’ve done this before, but it still terrifies me taking a jigsaw to the side of the van.  Last time I scratched the paintwork with the base of the jigsaw (it mostly polished out) so this time I masked the area around the proposed hole.

This also made it easier to mark out the shape of the hole.  I used the gasket as a template (which didn’t occur to me last time….).  There isn’t much tolerance with these, you have to cut quite precisely.

As a belt and braces approach I also masked the jigsaw base.


I went a little awry at the top of the cut, but still within the safety margin.

Then filed the edges, removed the masking tape (which needed some meths to get the sticky unstuck in places) and drilled fixing screw holes. I then painted the edge of the hole to reduce the risk of rust and then…..  it started raining again! Quickly stuffed the hookup through the hole to stop the rain getting in and left it, hoping I would remember to fix it in before I next drove the van anywhere…..


In a later weather window I wired up the mains cable to the socket before screwing it in place. To my mind this is much easier than trying to wire it in-situ, though I did have a moment where I thought I wasn’t going to be able to fit cable and hook up through the hole together. I did though, and here is the finished thing. Not 100% straight unfortunately despite my careful measuring, but only the most pedantic of pedants is likely to notice. I hope.


Grrr… Rain

OK, all this rain is starting to annoy me now.  I really need to get the electric hook-up in so I can then insulate and panel behind where it enters the van.  Unfortunately this is not powertools-in-the-street weather.  Well, I suppose what this means is I’ll just have to do some tidying, and maybe some more standing around staring at things thoughtfully.