How to convert a van into a camper van

This is the story of how to convert a van into a campervan.

I decided to put in a concentrated, pretty much full time, effort into getting this camper van operational before the end of August. In undertaking this project I quickly realised that there is much to think about, and much to do. The summer is definitely the best time to do this as the weather dictates when you can work outdoors. (Unless you have the luxury of a covered workshop)

After having cleared the van of all the ply lining, I decided to leave the ply floor as it was sound and removing all the PK screws seemed such a hassle.

The first task was to measure out the location of the layout and mark out on the floor where everything was going to fit.

transit van conversion

I then set about insulatiing the roof. For this I bought 3 sheets of 30mm celotex and cut it to size and glued it with expanding PU foam and held it in place with props.

Insulating the van roof with 30mm celotex

The following day, When the PU foam was set I marked out the position of the roof lights from the inside and having made templates of these, transposed them on to the roof and cut out the apertures with an extra long metal jigsaw blade. Because it is a ribbed roof, I had to make up spacers from closed cell foam and glue these in place to end up with a flat surface to fit the roof lights too.

I then sikaflexed them into place and fitted the internal frames.

  The MPK rooflights fitted

Because of various reinforcements in the body and the chassis cross members, you cannot cut out holes anywhere you would want. so careful planning as to where certain appliances would fit had to be made.

Instaling a water heater

The Carver water heater has to have a hole made in the side of the van but as the van side is not flat I had to consider a suitable position where it would not be in the way of anything else yet to be fitted. I decided to locate it under where the oven would be.

Again with the use of a template I determined where it would be inside, drilled a hole to the outside and made the cut out from the outside.

The Carver gas water heater in place, under where the oven & hob will be.

I now had to fit the flue cover, making a foam spacer to accommodate the curve in the body work.

  Carver cascade 2 flue cover in place – note the infills for panel curve.

I now had to find a location for the Carver 1800 gas heater. This is designed to fit in the base of a wardrobe but because of the chassis members, I could only position it just behind the driver’s seat and only 300mm in from the side. this leaves a void behind the heater which I will use as a small hanging space within the wardrobe.

Fitting the heater requires quite a large hole to be cut through the floor . because the floor is ribbed, it is important to fill in the voids with foam and seal the edge  of the hole so that moisture and fumes cannot penetrate between the steel floor of the van and the plywood

  The Carver 1800 gas heater fitted through the floor.

The fire was then passed through the hole and screwed down to the new section of ply I fitted. The gas has to be fed to the underside of the van and so provision has to be made of how to do this at this stage.

Folding forward facing seats

The next major job was to locate the position of the folding forward facing seats. I had removed these seats from a VW Sharan complete with the floor mountings and the seat belts. With the seats fitted into the mountings, I scribed out the position onto 18mm plywood.

I then routered out the ply to a depth of 10mm to sink the floor mountings so that they would be flush. I then cut the ply to size and screwed it to the floor and then through bolted the seat mountings through the plywood and the steel floor, using large washers and 10mm bolts with nylocks. The seats were now secure and could be deployed or folded forwards when not in use.

The sharan seat floor mountings routered into 18mm ply and through bolted to floor.

  The folding seat in folded position.

Because I wanted the seat positioned as close to the sliding door as possible I had to extend the plywood over the step and through bolt this with support tubes to the floor of the step. Quite a tricky job.

Wardrobe framework

The next thing was to start building the frame work for the wardrobe and the housing for the heater. I did this using 32×18 battens glued and nailed.

  Framework of the wardrobe above the heater.

Kitchen unit

I now was able to locate where the kitchen unit would be and I could cut out the lower vent for the fridge I also fitted the water filler and the carver crystal filter filler from the old caravan. I was going to use this to fill the tank from an outside water container as this includes a power source for a submersible pump. I also took this opportunity to insulate the lower parts with Rockwool.

  Lower fridge vent, water filler and rockwool insulation.

While all this was going on I had designed and ordered a seat belt anchor frame from a local steel fabricator. This was made in 50mm angle iron and 10mm bar reinforcement. This, surprisingly, only cost £40. I had asked for no holes to be drilled so that I could put these in exactly.

  Steel frame fabrication to support seat belt mountings

I now securely bolted this to the floor of the van bracing across chassis members and also to the main upright pillar behind the sliding door. I ensured that I had metal to metal contact by using spacers where the ribbed floor created a void. I then fitted the seat belts salvaged from the VW Sharan.

  Folding seats , deployed with seat belts in place.

Campervan Bathroom

I now had to build the toilet enclosure around this frame so that it would not be visible. In designing the frame I had to ensure that the dimensions allowed the Thetford toilet to fit in precisely and to make allowances for the thickness of the metal and the plywood that would make up the walls. This took quite a lot of double checking but I am pleased to say that it all worked out well.

  Interior of toilet  enclosure encasing the seat belt frame

I then clad the outside of the enclosure using 9mm ply. this involved some skillful scribing and jigsaw cutting.

  Exterior of toilet enclosure with cut out for the Thetford cassette

The location of the toilet worked out well in that when the sliding door is fully open there is just enough space for the cassette to be withdrawn outside the van without having to cut any openings in the side of the van. It also worked out well because the toilet in the caravan had a left hand casette. The downside is that its a manually operated flush toilet.

I looked on Ebay for a 12V flush alternative but prices were too high and anyway  its no big deal to have to twist a knob instead of pushing one!

The next step was to clad the internal skin of the toilet. I did this with 6mm ply and as the grain was quite attractive and I made a good job of the joinery, I’ve decided to varnish the ply and leave it natural. I then fitted the toilet and the basin. I could not use the vanity unit as it was in the caravan, so I cut out the bathroom cabinet and inserted it into the inner wall of the enclosure.

van to campervan conversion

Thetford toilet , wash basin and shower tray , salvaged from the caravan.

  Toilet in place and access for the cassette.

Water tanks

I had ordered two 60 Ltr water tanks from Leisure Shop Direct but when these arrived, sadly they were the wrong size. It’s a real hassle when this kind of thing happens especially when you order over the internet.

Anyway, they were very apologetic and agreed that when the new tanks were delivered, the courier would collect the wrong ones. I have to say that, notwithstanding the delay in getting m water tanks fitted, Leisure shop was great to deal with.

Having located where the tanks were to be fitted, I had to find suitable fixing points on the chassis. I opted to use threaded rod and 18mm ply bases to support the tanks. For the fresh water tank, located behind the drivers seat I was able to pass the rods through the floor and I managed to find suitable holes in the chassis member to hook the rods into.

For the waste tank, located on the near side just behind the oil cooler, I was able to use the hooked rod for all 4 fixings. It’s a gutty job fitting tanks, crawling about on the floor and having to make numerous fitting attempts before it will work. I did a complete dummy run and then marked where the various fittings had to be. then I dismantled the whole thing so that I could cut the holes and insert the fittings and also paint the wooden support boards in weatherproof paint. I used  2 coats os Sadolin for this and a messy job it was too!

  Preparation of one of the water tanks. supplied by Leisure shop direct.

  First fix for the fresh water tank on the off side, behind driver position

My next task was to install the gas and I decided to do this in 10mm copper pipe with soldered joints to 8mm reducers and on to 8mm pipe to the isolation cocks for the appliances.

I decided to keep the 4.5Kg Calor bottles which were in the caravan as most of our touring would be in the UK and Calor is readily available and with larger bottles, you need to change them less often and they are cheaper than Camping Gaz.

I can easily change to Camping Gaz if we decide on an extended tour of the continent. I blanked off all the pipes and did a pressure test prior to paneling in all the pipes. The bottles will live in an isolated box under the rear seats with ventilation to the outside.

  Location of Calor gas bottles in vented enclosure under rear seats.

With the water tanks fitted I now concentrated in running all the plumbing through the floor and under the van to connect to the tanks, the pump, and the water heater I did this in 15mm plastic barrier pipe with john guest push fits. Expensive but easy !  I calculated that using caravan standard 12mm whale push fits would have been very expensive.

The only problem I encountered was the connection to the water heater and the whale shower mixer which had originally been connected to 1/2″ pvc pipe. I over came this by connecting flexible pvc hose to the heater and then connecting this to the barrier pipe with jubilee clips.

Window locations

The Windows finally arrived by courier from Leisure Vehicle Windows. Very good company to deal with. reasonable prices, good quality product, massive choice, and very well packed.

The job of fitting the windows took me just over a day and the first task after unwrapping the miles of bubble wrap was to produce templates for each of the different sizes of windows. The cardboard templates have to be 8mm larger than the window all round and I did this by taping 2 pencils together and scribing around each window and then carefully cutting out the templates with a Stanley knife.

Window template

I then had to locate the position of each window on the inside of the van by attaching the template and then drill four small holes in the bodywork. then transpose the template to the outside using the holes as a guide and then scribe around the template with marker pen.

This is now the cutting line and by cutting an elongated hole to accept the jigsaw blade, it was just a matter of carefully cutting along the line. I took care to cover the jigsaw foot with a few layers of gaffer tape so as not to scratch the paintwork.

After cutting out the hole, it’s important to de-burr the bare edge and paint it to prevent corrosion. I used Hammerite paint but you could use any metal primer.

When this was dry I inserted the rubber strip and cut it about 5mm too long so as to force it in position an make a good seal. Then the window glass or the slider frame is placed into the rubber groove and then you patiently prise the rubber lip over the edge of the glass. Finally, you bang it into place and apply a bead of non-setting sealant under the rubber lip and then apply the rubber locking strip with the special tool provided with the windows. Sounds easy ? well I suppose it is after you have successfully put in the first one. I had to repeat the process 8 times so, in the end, I was quite good at it. The secret is not to rush on and to double check all the measurements and the scribing before putting jigsaw blade to metal.

  Cut out for one of the top windows

  All the windows in. Now it looks like a camper!

This is the most satisfying job because it now really looks like a camper and you feel you’ve made some real progress.

Campervan kitchen

With the window fitting out of the way, I now concentrated on building the framework for the kitchen and this was done using 18mm x 32mm battens glued and screwed or nailed.ensuring that the dimensions would accurately accommodate the fridge, oven, hob and grill and the sink. I used all the appliances from the caravan except for the tap for which I splashed out of a new single lever mixer. I bought a length of 30mm gloss laminate bathroom worktop which I found at a car boot sale for £8.

So once the framework was built I was able to cut the worktop to size and cut out the holes for the hob and the sink. I did the 1st  fit for everything and coupled up to the final gas pipes. I was also able to cut the top fridge vent hole as I now knew exactly where it had to be.

  Framework for the kitchen

  First fix for the kitchen appliances.

With everything in its proper place, I was able to start running the electrical cables to various parts of the van.  I had purchased a job lot of auto electrical cable at an autojumble. there were only a few colours and cable sizes so I ran all the neutral in black or blue and all the live wires in brown or red. I first threaded a number of lengths of flexible corrugated conduit to the various destinations around the body and then using a nylon cable threader passed each cable through for each application and labelled each one.

I ran separate neutral cables for each application back to a central source close to the location of the battery rather than using the body of the vehicle as the earth. I then terminated all the live cables at the location of the12v distribution panel.

  Cables run through conduit for all the electrics. – note the labels!

I decided to have halogen downlighters for lighting and remotely switched these in one bank of switches rather than pay loads of money for independently switched light fittings.

For the charging system, I purchased a Ryder self-switching relay which feeds current from the vehicle battery to the leisure battery only when it needs it. It also supplies 12 volts to the 3 way fridge directly from the vehicle charging system only when the engine is running. It was also my intention to have a 20w solar panel on the roof to supplement battery charging when not on a mains hook up and when not driving around.

The 20w solar panel I bought direct from China on Ebay.

At this point, I also ran all the cables for the 240 v ring main and the connection to the 240v input to the van via a consumer unit with 2 circuit breakers and an RCD.. I also fitted the TV ariel and the coax cable to where the TV point would be.

The next task was to make the internal frames for the rear side windows and the top windows and then to panel in the walls and ceiling with plywood.

  One of the side window frames being fabricated

Framing the windows was not an easy job as there were many curved obstacles to contend with and not much to fix to without making holes in the side of the van. However with careful scribing and measuring anyone can do a good job.

  Window frames in place prior to plywood walls being fitted

For the top windows, I made a rectangular frame in plywood and then used 2mm polypropylene sheet cut in strips and heated with a heat gun to shape the internal reveals of the oval shape of each window.

  Radiused top window reveals made from 2mm polypropylene sheet.

The next job was to panel in the walls with plywood. To do this I cut the ply to size and cut out the apertures for the windows a few millimeters small. When everything was in place and screwed down I went around the perimeter of each hole with a laminate trimmer to get a perfectly flush edge with the window to reveal.

Plywood panelling cut around the window reveal with a laminate trimmer

I was now able to finish paneling in ant to start building the structure for the top lockers and the seat boxes. I did this in planed 32x 18 carcassing timber. Because I was using the doors from the old caravan, I was dictated by the size of the available doors, so I made the apertures to fit these.

  Framework for the overhead lockers.

When this was complete, I began to face all the furniture up with 4mm Oak faced ply which I subsquently sanded and oiled to retain that nice natural wood look. I used wood glue and brads with a pneumatic nail gun to secure all the decorative paneling.

  Framework for the rear seat/bed  boxes.
  Overhead lockers clad in 4mm oak face ply./ Worktop , sink & hob fitted.

I now began to make the ceiling panels in 4mm ply covered with a close weave ployester fabric which we chose for the walls and ceiling

  Fabric covered ceiling panels fitted

I also lined the splashback of the kitchen area with an offcut of mosaic tile effect vinyl flooring and trimmed it around the reveal of the window .

  Kitchen area finished with vinyl splashback

Now this was done I concentrated on trimming the sides with fabric and I did this by glueing it on with neat PVA glue. You kind of get one shot at applying it but its OK if you have done all the measuring and cutting right in the first place.

  Side walls trimmed with fabric
  Electrics being connected, speakers fitted. seat boxes finished.

I was now able to connect all the electrics fitting the downlighters and the 12v control panel , the switches and the radio speakers.

I was now able to fill the tanks with water, fit the battery, connect up the solar charge regulator and the Zig battery charger and fire everything up. To my great satisfaction, everything worked and , initially, no leaks in the plumbing system. Result!

  Battery location & cables prior to connection

Next on the list was to line the toilet walls. I originally had intended to  leave them in wood finish but it seemed so opressive in there that I decided to cover the walls in off white vinyl wallpaper , sealing the joins and edges with clear silicone.

  Interior of the toilet, wallpapered and finished.

I re-cut the foam from the cushions in the old caravan to fit my needs and fortunately it works out that the seat backs and the cushions just make up the distance required to make up the bed. so no need for special spacer cushions which proved to be a pain in my old camper. I had the foam covered professionally, piped and buttoned with material which we had previously found as an end of roll bargain. 10 Meters at £5.99/ meter for quality material was a good bargain. It did cost £250 to have the cushions made up.

So the cost of cushions is not to be underestimated. If we had had to buy the foam, the cushions would have been the biggest single expense. we considered a DIY job but now we’re glad we spent the money.

  Cushions and table in place
  Cushions and table in sleeping mode.

I had an extra cushion made to fit between the seat boxes so that with the back doors closed we would have a comfortable U shape seating/ lounging area.

For the table I used the 2 folding table legs which came with the caravan and made a new table top from Beech effect Contiboard which I radiused on all 4 corners with a router and edged with iron on edging tape. The table is free standing so that we can move it about to get around it and also to take outside for al fresco dining. The table, folded up then becomes the base board for the bed. The bed is 1750mm long and 1400mm wide  so by lying slightly diagonally it is about 6’4″ long. We’re only short people so this layout works for us. If you are much taller you may have to think again or have to go for the extra long wheel base vans.

The next important job was to lay the carpet. I went for carpet instead of laminate or vinyl because it’s cosier, its insulating, and it looks nice. I know it’s a pain to keep clean, especially with a dog around but I’ve bought a small yet powerful vacuum cleaner so it should be OK.

I now just had to fit all the doors, catches etc. They’re not a perfect match with the oak paneling which has come out a little darker due to the wood oil but, so far no one has made any critical remarks on that. perhaps later, I may go to the extrvagance of making some solid oak doors to match. We’ll see!

So now the job’s pretty much done. Just a few finishing touches. I finished off the steps at the side door and I’ve made a larger step over the tow hook step. We won’t be towing often and if I do, the step can be removed with a couple of bolts.

  Rear step. removable for towing.

I ‘ve  tried the flat screen TV and the freeview box and that works OK. I’ve had a shower in it and that seems OK but I don’t think we’ll be making regular use of this feature if we can find camp site facilities.  Now we are looking at  selecting some go faster stripes that would suit it. We hav’nt given it a name yet . Can’t agree on anything spontaneous that would suit.  All that remains is to go out to enjoy it now and over the coming months.

  Folding seats deployed for travelling.
  All the doors fitted
  Camper by night. Interior lighting on full blast = 80 watts

All in all I’m fairly chuffed with my efforts. It’s been quite a challenge at times but I’ve kept it pretty much in budget and I’ve managed to achieve what we set out to do in the time frame. I started last week in May and it was finished 2nd week in August. I guess it was a good 8-9 weeks of full time work.

The final job was to find some suitable graphics to put on the sides and after much hunting around and being horrified at the cost of custom decals, I finally found some on eBay which is quite subtle and effective for less than £20. Bargain!

How to convert a van into a campervan
  The finished conversion
  The finished conversion of the van to a campervan

The van cost £3350 + around £4000 in materials . if I factor in about £3500 in labour for the time it took me to convert , that means the project cost me £10850. I’m confident that It would fetch that now on the open market so all in all it’s been a successful operation and I hope that we will get many years of pleasure from it. I may of course offer it for sale and start all over again!

The Ford Transit is a great van to drive. a bit clattery at slow speeds but purrs along effortlessly at 70+ and returns about 28MPG. This one has the 125 more powerful engine and pulls up any hill like a train. Definitely recommend it as a good van for conversion.