Buildin’ Wilda

Sooo it’s been a while. Sorry about that. We’ve been at Emily’s parents just outside of Binghamton, NY for the past several weeks spending as much time as possible converting our cargo van into a camper van. As of this post it will have been three weeks and we’ve made some great progress thus far.

After deciding to buy a van, and finding our van in New Mexico, we immediately began thinking about and designing the interior. We had discussed potentially converting a van in the past but had never really formally made plans about what our van might look like on the inside, so that was the first step.

Based on our research (looking at other vans on Instagram) we came up with our list of “must have” design elements; solar to re-charge our house batteries, two roof-mounted fans for circulation, a fixed bed (that does not need to be ‘converted’ each night), a second bed, a sink with a spray nozzle that is accessible from the outside if needed, and the list goes on. We mapped everything else out using a simple 3D modeling software (SketchUp) so we could see how it all worked together within our van’s shell.

Our primary design for WildaHa

Having sorted our our design intent, and also having committed to purchase the van, we jumped right into sourcing some of the long-lead time materials for our build, namely major electrical and plumbing components (roof mounted fans, solar array and charger, battery-to-battery charger, house batteries, water tanks, etc.). By the time we arrived in Binghamton, the front foyer looked like a department store with all of the boxes. We took that first weekend to relax a bit, but jumped right into the build that Monday.

Our first task was to install wood furring/strapping on the interior of the van which would serve at the skeleton for our build. Our van was a true cargo van, raw exposed metal and no interior wall construction, so there was little to no demo needed (save the removal of some plastic caps/covers).

Pictured: my nephew, Orion, seeing for himself how comfy the RAV bed really was.

For the wood furring we elected to use 1/2″ plywood cut down into 2-1/2″ strips. This furring was mounted directly to the metal “ribs” on the van walls and ceiling, and would serve as the structure to which our wall/ceiling finishes would be mounted. Cutting plywood into thin strips also allowed for some flexibility, which helped the furring roll with the various contours of the van. We learned early on (as forewarned in much of our preliminary research) that nothing is straight or square in the van.

Once the furring was complete we added some sound deadening sheets on the raw metal walls of the van to cut down on noise. The van was not terribly loud, even when completely empty, but the sound deadening sheets certainly reduced any noise or rattle that we noticed while driving. Next we continued with framing and installed our bed frame. Based on the Ram ProMaster cargo body dimensions you can actually fit a full bed side-to-side, which saves a ton of space (as opposed to having to orient your bed front-to-back). As I am just under 6 foot (as is Emily), we elected to go with the sideways bed and save the space.

We mentioned above the must-have element of a guest bed (will also be a full bed; more about that later) which dictated how much space we needed to leave beneath our bed frame. After working that out, we mounted a 2×6 ledger to each side wall using an awesome little bit of hardware called a riv-nut. In short: you can insert a threaded nut into a metal wall assembly without even needing access to the back of the nut. This allows you to add connection points that do not occur naturally in the van. The process is simple (provided you purchase the special riv-nut tool); drill the correct diameter hole, insert the riv-nut, use the tool to compress the riv-nut (which clamps around the metal through which you previously drilled the hole), and voila, you have your connection point.

With the bed ledger installed, we completed the bed frame which is entirely suspended from each side of the van. The bed frame will also house our slide out table, which will hang from the two deeper mid-span supports of the bed. The last bit of the bed frame is some bed slats, which will span the entire width of the van and be one of our last installations (to keep as must space open to work as possible).

Bed frame installed (bolts on the far ledge are installed into riv-nuts) and sound deadening (silver) sheets.

After completing the bed frame we jumped into the least fun part of the conversion yet: insulation. We elected to use mineral wool insulation for the walls (to be covered with a thin foil-faced insulation to encapsulate it) and thinsulate insulation in the ceiling. Our goal was to fill as much of the van wall cavities with insulation, including within the “ribs” and all other pockets that we could reach. Our biggest areas of concern were the wheel wells (bare metal exposed from beneath) and thin paneling at the walls and doors, so we made sure to cover them as much as possible. Although tedious, messy, itchy, and boring, the insulation process was extremely important and should go a long way in keeping the van temperature where we want it (as we will likely be without a heater, at least to start).

With insulation complete, our first major “finish” installation began; flooring. We are using some wood-look vinyl plank flooring, installed using adhesive directly on the sub floor of our van (which was installed in the van when we bought it). The first flooring piece was aligned directly with the exposed edge of the van floor adjacent to the sliding door. This piece would be completely visible, and the size of the van would leave the (1) less than full piece against the back wall, which would be completely covered by our bench and \ base cabinets. The installation took a while, as we installed the adhesive in sub 50 degree weather, which required around 18 hours of dry time. After impatiently waiting overnight, the adhesive gained full tackiness, and we laid the flooring down.

Flooring installation.

Following the flooring installation, the next step was to install our benches. Our benches will sit right in front of the bed frame on either side of the van. They are separated enough to allow the slide out table to fit between them (reference 3D model photo above) and, more importantly, act as part of the bed frame for our second bed. The second bed will also be a full bed, but oriented front-to-back in the van, half of it supported by the benches and half of it on a bed frame hidden beneath our own bed. We wanted to have a legitimate, full second bed so we could host guests on trips in the future, and did not want to subject them to sleeping on the floor between the cabinets as we had seen in so many other van conversions.

Next up: adding fans and solar panels to our roof, wiring for our electrical components, and finishing the walls and ceiling.

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