Can't afford an RV? Make One Yourself! (Interior Demo & Build-Out)
For some reason I didn't think to snap a photo when it was completely gutted, so this is the closest thing. The sub floor, bed frame and insulation around the wheel wells are the only things installed at this point. All the dangling wires are from the original van conversion.
This is the fun part. Now that we have a solid platform to work in, it's time to start making the dream a reality. The first thing we designed and built was the bed frame. In the front half there are openings for two drawers, and a little compartment for a safe and a battery on the driver's side of the van that will eventually be concealed under the bed and behind the closet. The back half of the frame is all open and clear for our large gear drawer. This is where we will store our large backpacks, sleeping bags, ropes, and the bulk of our climbing gear.
In the Arizona sun it became quickly apparent that this van had too many windows. We knew if we were camped anywhere where the outside temperature wasn't room temperature, having three massive bay windows that took up all the wall space would be less than ideal. Not only that, but the window configuration also left very little usable wall space for shelves, cabinets, a head board above the bed to lean against, etc. With that in mind we decided to insulate and build a wall over the windows on the
Installing black painted foam board (black side out), then a layer of open cell foam, then Reflectix over that to make a continuous insulating envelope.
When we first saw the van, we though having all those huge windows would be cool. It wasn't until we started drawing out ideas that we wished we had gone with a windowless cargo van. Any home needs to have some wall space, for privacy and for utility. Now that our van was no longer a fishbowl, we began designing and building a closet and a counter. We went back and forth for a bit on the closet, but ultimately decided to put it between the bed and the counter so that we could have a little vanity on the closet wall for Mikhaila to take out her contacts at night while sitting in bed. Plus the 20" that the closet comes out from the wall almost makes the van feel like it has a separate bedroom and living room! Placing it in the center of our wall, full height, also helps with laying out the wood slats we were planning for the walls. Since the boards we used come in 6' lengths, we can now make them all continuous rather than needing to butt ends together and worry about staggering the joints.
The method we used for the slats on the walls is a bit different, and I was even discouraged from doing it by a few of my friends. Mikhaila and I loved the woodsy, rustic look of all the van interiors you see all over Pintrest and Instagram. Unfortunately, we found buying tongue-and-groove lumber to be far too expensive, and we didn't have access to a router to make our own. What we ended up doing was buying cedar fence boards from Home Depot for around $1.50 each. They came 5/8" thick by 3 5/8" wide by 6' long, and sopping wet fresh from the lumber mill. Usually lumber from a store is kiln dried when you buy it because wet (green) wood is not dimensionally stable, i.e. it will warp as the moisture comes out of the wood. Therefore if you were to frame out a house with undried lumber, in a month's time all the framing would be warped and twisted and your house would look like the architect was Dr. Suess. I suppose lumber stores figure nobody cares about this when they're building a simple fence, so the wood is not dried. One of the few good things about Phoenix in the summer is that the outside climate is pretty close to the conditions inside a drying kiln. We hand selected the boards that looked like they had the most consistent grain and would warp the least, stacked them on blocks and let them cook in the sun for a week. This was very effective at getting all the moisture out of the wood and the boards went from feeling like they were made out of cement plaster to feeling like balsa wood. As expected, most of them warped somewhat and we actually had to throw out one out of every five or so boards. In order to give a warped board straight sides so that it could be installed side to side with no gaps, we fastened it to a straight piece of hardwood as a guide, ran that side through the table saw, removed it from the guide board, and cut the other side straight. Rinse and repeat for each board. Now we were able to cut them to length and install them without worrying about them warping and popping out of place in the future. Sure there were a few gaps here and there, but we just passed it off as "DIY charm". Quite a lot more involved than just buying pre milled tongue-and-groove slats, and it was definitely a big reason we were stuck working into the hot months, but it saved us a butt load of money on lumber.
The front of the closet goes in, then one wall. Now we can use it as a baseline to build around. The second photo shows one slat wall finished above the bed, drawers complete under the bed in front, and a frame built for the counter with our cooler sitting in what will be its home. Obviously a lot of undocumented work happened between these two shots.
From this point we began to work on the electrical equipment. We wanted to keep this whole build very simple, since we were in a race against the incredible summer heat of Phoenix (a race we ultimately lost). The electrical system was designed simply to be able to run a few led lights, charge our cell phones, camera batteries, and occasionally our laptops. We went with a 100W solar starter kit from Renogy that came with one photovoltaic panel, a 30 amp PWM charge controller, and all the cables and brackets we needed to install them. Our battery bank consists of one 100 Ah deep cycle AGM battery from WindyNation, and we also have a 400W power inverter for things that can't be charged from a USB port or 12V cigarette lighter. That's all, no air conditioning, no heater, no refrigeration, no water pump. Super minimal. Even with such a simple setup, I was still clueless. Neither Mikhaila or I knew anything about how to be an electrician. Luckily we have two good friends who are engineers. One hails from Iceland and lives in a dark room full of glowing computer monitors which he occasionally leaves to go hang off the sides of cliffs, and the other can be found under rocks in parks and wilderness around the Phoenix area. Their names are Kári and Mike, respectively, and they both came out of the woodwork to our aid one weekend. We got most of the work done, and I had gotten a lesson in electrical engineering 101 in the meantime that allowed me to complete the rest of the work myself.
We have lights! That's 100% energy from the Sun!
By this time of year the heat was on full blast. It had reached 120 degrees and we were still working inside the van parked in the driveway. I believe the only things that kept us alive were a box fan blowing hot air around inside the van with the doors open, and gallons upon gallons of ice water. We were more than ready to get the heck outta Dodge, but the BMJ was not. We spent the next two weekends working on the van from sun rise to sunset, and then every day the week after (we had quit our jobs at that point). Everything goes slower in the heat. Our progress was slower, doing the simplest tasks became incredibly frustrating. The heat makes your mind melt out of your head, and we had more than one mental breakdown. Tools slip out of your sweaty hands, sawdust sticks to and coats your sweaty skin with every cut of wood, it was hell. Mikhaila and I both gained a new respect for people who work outside in Phoenix in the summertime.
With temps in the 100-teens we put together the last finishing touches. Paint, clear polyurethane for the wood, and trim to cover up all the gaps in our handiwork. From beginning the process of gutting the interior to packing all out gear in took just less than three months of working nonstop every single weekend. We didn't beat the heat, but finally we can escape it!
1. Our gear drawer! Notice the insides of the rear doors don't yet have paneling installed.
2. The finished interior of our DIY camper.
3. This one's got Instagram written all over it. Camped up near Kelly Canyon just south of Flagstaff, AZ