How to Convert a Van for $60
It’s so simple, you can probably do it yourself even if you aren’t a master mechanic and carpenter like Forrest. Every single cut can be made by Home Depot (probably for free) and the only tool you need is a drill and the only skill required is to be able to drive screws. I know there are probably some of you who don’t have a drill and aren’t able to drive screws, but don’t despair, all you have to do is find a handyman, show him this post, and in a few hours he can easily convert your van and it shouldn’t cost much. You can save money by going to Home Depot yourself and getting all the wood cut so it is ready to go when the handyman arrives.
Here is a list of the supplies you need:
- 1- 4×8 sheet of ¾ inch plywood
- 1- 4×8 sheet of ½ inch plywood
- 1- 2x4x8 foot
- 1- 2x2x8 foot
- 20- (a handful) 2 ½ inch drywall screws
- 30- (a handful)1 ½ inch drywall screws.
- 5- 1 ¼ inch drywall screws
Step-by-Step Instructions To Build the Bed:
1) Decide where to put the bed. Unless you are really tall, it’s almost always best to run the bed across the van instead of alongside a wall. If you run it along the wall you have to leave an aisle to get down and that wastes space. If you have a regular size van you probably want to put the bed as far back as possible and still have the back doors close. But that isn’t what Forrest and Beth did. They have an extended passenger van and the plastic wall coverings take up several inches of room on each side. Since Forrest is fairly tall, he needed more room to stretch out while he slept. So he moved the bed forward so they slept between the side windows and slept above the plastic wall coverings. You can see in the pictures that being between the windows gives him an extra 4 inches of room. Because it is an extended van, that left him with about two extra feet of space at the back of the van but he will just use that as more storage–so it isn’t really wasted.
2) Decide how tall the bed should be. Again, they needed their bed to be tall enough so that their mattress, heads and feet were out over the plastic wall covering and into the window area. But if you have a cargo van, you won’t have to do that because there isn’t a plastic wall cover to waste space. You can make the bed any height you want. So once you decide where to put it, measure from that point down to the floor and that is how tall the bed should be. Another consideration is what kind of plastic storage crate you are going to use and make the bed tall enough to have it slide easily under the bed. Most plastic storage totes like Rubbermaid and Sterilite are 16 inches tall, so you may want it at least that tall. But, you also have to think about how high the ceiling is in your van. If at all possible, you want to be able to sit on your bed upright and not hit your head!! I have a friend with a mini-van, and she built her bed too high. She hated heading her head on the rood constantly so she had to take it apart and cut her legs shorter. So decide how high to make the bed and see if it leaves you enough headroom to sit up. Don’t forget to take into account the width of the plywood (3/4 inch) and mattress and covers on it!! If they combine to be 5 inches, then include that to be sure you can sit on the bed without hitting your head.
3) Now it’s time to measure and get the plywood and legs cut. You are probably hoping I will tell you how long to cut the parts, but I can’t do that. The exact lengths and sizes with be different with each specific make, model and year of van. None of Forrest’s and Beth’s numbers will apply to anyone but them and that van. Here’s how they (and you) measure. First, they measured to the height of the window sill and used that as the height of the bed, let’s say it was 21 inches (again, their numbers don’t matter because your van will almost certainly be different). Next they measured the distance between the window sills to know how long to cut the plywood. Let’s say it was 65 inches.
4) They went to Home Depot and bought a sheet of ¾ inch plywood and had them make two, free, cross-cuts (that means it was still 48 inches wide when they were done, it was just shorter). The first cut was at 65 inches and the other at 21 inches. You will probably have a small piece of scrap left-over, you can keep it or leave it at Home Depot. Then they bought a 2x4x8. If you have a saw, you can cut it into 4 pieces, each one 21 inches long or have them do it for you. The plywood cuts look like this (the cuts are in red):
5) To build the bed, you lay the long piece of plywood across the van and put the four 2×4 legs under it at the outside four corners. If something is in the way, like the wheel well, you will have to move that leg to fit around it—no big deal, this bed is overbuilt and is very strong. The 21 inch piece of plywood is the center support. It runs across the bed. Before you screw it into place, put your plastic totes under the bed and move the center support around to find the place that makes the best possible use of space. You can see that they put it over as close as they could to the tote on the left and all the extra space went to the right side of it. In the long run, that will be a much better use of space. Then you simply screw two screws down through the plywood into each of the four legs and center support. Use two, 2 ½ inch screws for each leg and six, 1 ½ inch screws for the plywood center support. The bed should never move, but if you are concerned about it you can use “L” brackets to secure the legs to the floor or walls. And that’s it, the bed is done!!
Step-by-Step Instructions to Build the Kitchen:
1) Measure the length of the kitchen counter. To do that you need to move the driver’s seat back as far as you think you will ever want it. Once we’re done it can never go back further than that, so you have to be sure. You may want to err on the side of having it back too far. Measure from the bed to the back of the driver’s seat; that is how long the kitchen counter will be. Let’s assume it’s 58 inches. We want it have some overlap to go under the bed, so we will get it cut to 60 inches. We’ll make the counter top 24 inches wide. So go to Home Depot, buy a 4×8 sheet of ½ inch plywood. Get them to make a long rip cut, down the center of the sheet so it is then two, 2×8 foot sheets. Then have them cut one of them to 60 inches.
2) Cut the legs, The kitchen counter will screw into the bed from below so it will be 1/2 inch shorter than the legs for the bed. There will be two plywood legs so have Home Depot cut two sections of the plywood to 20 ½ inches for the legs.
3) Cut the shelf. Forrest and Beth wanted to leave part of the area under the kitchen open so they needed a shelf for only part of the length. They measured it to fit the four Rubbermaid Totes they wanted to use for storage. Let’s assume two of them are 31 inches wide. We need to get Home Depot to cut the shelf at 32 inches.
4) When assembling plywood as shelves and legs, you use something called a cleat to join the parts and support the shelves. For cleats you need to buy one, 8 foot 2×2. In this picture you can see the cleat that holds the middle leg in place.
To make a cleat you cut it to 20 inches, then screw it into the counter-top, and then place the plywood leg beside it and screw it sideways into the cleat. Do that for both the middle and end leg. For the shelf he put the cleat above the shelf instead of below it. The reason he did that is that the Totes are wider at the top than the bottom. If he had put it below the bottom Totes wouldn’t have fit in. They will put all their heavy items in the Totes on the floor, and the Totes on the shelf won’t be that heavy so having the cleats above the shelf won’t be a problem. He put a piece 2×2 in front of the totes so they can’t slide out. Then He used 1 inch screws to screw the countertop up from the bottom into the bed. Remember that we left the countertop 2 inches long so it could go under the bed. If you want the shelf to go the full length of the countertop, just cut a second shelf and leg and use a cleat to attach them in the same way after you’ve screwed the countertop to the bed.
Such fine work, and then they sold it. 😉
That’s true Al!! Hopefully they will find just what they are looking for!
Bob, you have awoken something within me. I got really excited reading your post on converting ones van. I have been wanting to convert my van for quite some time, but felt daunted by the task. Reading your post has helped me to see that it is possible and that you can do it on a good budget. If you ever create an video tutorials I would be happy to purchase them as you have an uncanny ability to explain things clearly enough for people like me who sometimes struggle to follow instructions.
Sol, thank you for your kind words! Like you, I am intimidated by complex projects so I try to find simple ones as well as hard ones. This one is about as simple as it gets for a plywood conversion.
To be honest I’m intimidated by videos so I haven’t been able to bring myself to work with them. I keep telling myself to buck it up and learn how. but I just haven’t been able to do it yet.
I never leave scrap at any hardware store, soon as I do, I need it for something! And always check the scrap pile, sometimes a piece of ply wood will show up, or a small piece you could have used for cleats.
Can’t wait to see the conversion on their next van!!
I have had 2 vans I converted in my younger days, a short wheel base ford and a long wb chevy. Both were very comfortable and although I did not live in them full time, I easily could have!
Thank you Bob, for all the great posts and ideas!
Donna in (snowy) WV
Donna, I agree, I rarely leave scrap either. But that attitude gets me in trouble because I’ve saved so many nuts, bolts, screws, wires and scraps of wood that they were taking over my life and the van and trailer were full!! So I’ve really backed off and carry very little now.
Like everything in life, it’s a matter of finding a balance!
Ah nice easy to understand conversion! Just what I like, simple, cheap and a blind squirrel could do it.:P
Or even a guy who is all thumbs like me!!
Thank you for posting this, Bob. A lot of these conversions are way beyond my abilities but this one actually looks like something that I could do 🙂
I had a van like this (extended passenger) and the idea of raising the bed a bit would have definitely helped; I ended up with a side arrangement, and you’re right, it wasn’t a good way to use space. I’m wondering, though – was this setup meant just for warm weather camping? With the bed at that height they would have been sleeping right next to the windows, which could get really cold. Also, the pictures don’t show any floor coverings; I’m thinking they would have covered the floor before building the bed & kitchen platforms because the height would have been different, yes?
This isn’t really related to what Forrest and Beth did, but I’m also wondering about insulating one of these vans. I bought mine because I thought that, as a passenger van, it would already have adequate insulation. I was sadly mistaken 🙁 . That plus all that glass – I liked how bright the van was during the day but at night – brrrr! At some point could you possibly talk about that? I’ve seen a fair amount written about insulating cargo vans but not these, and I wonder if it might be harder because of the plastic panels.
Meg, they didn’t do anything with the floor, they just left it as it came from them. Remember that they were towing a trailer so they would only take trips in it, not live in it. So they weren’t very worried about the insulation.
I personally think the floor is unimportant. In all the rigs I’ve lived in I left it alone or maybe put down a carpet. You CAN NOT keep the floor warm so I think insulating it is a waste. The only reason I would do anything is if the carpet is so old it smells or is causing you problems.
You are so right, insulating a passenger van is much more difficult than a cargo van. For the windows in the winter your best bet is 1/2 inch sheets of styrofoam (I recommend Polyiso) cut to fit inside the window frame. That’s very warm and only costs you an inch of space. In summer use Reflectix cut to fit the windows. You can drop the headliner and put in either Reflectix or if there is room 1/2 inch of styrofoam and then put the headliner back up. I don’t know what people do with the plastic walls. I think most people just do nothing.
I was going to suggest cutting reflectex to fit the windows, then pull them out and paint the outside with black plastic paint, that way it’s not noticed from the outside of the van when in place. After they dry put them back in. Now cut the 1/2″ styrofoam to go over the reflectex. I used the blue foam. I did this in 2 of my windows and it made a big difference. I made curtains out of polarfleese so I could open them to look out and it works well too. I just use a windshield cover up front whem parked
Guy, I’ve known several people who did it that way and they are satisfied with the results. The big thing is that in the summer you need the shiny side toward the window or it won’t reflect the heat, it will absorb it. That’s great in the winter, but is bad in the summer.
Nice. I bet after doin’ this a few times you could complete this in an afternoon. Another $300 for a Big Buddy heater, single propane stove, 2 sleeping bags and a pad…n I’m good to go. My van’s a cargo…so a little easier to keep warm in winter but the passenger van w/windows is better for summer/spring evening breezes. So I guess it depends on where you plan on being and how much stealth you want.
*You could probably sell a prefab kit one for a Chevy Express and one for a Ford E series van and have a nice little business.
**Great post to show people who are a little overwhelmed by having to DIY…that it’s doable.
The consensus around here in the balmy Southwest is that a Big Buddy is overkill in a van. The single-burner Portable Buddy takes up less space, uses less fuel and heats a van quickly. Now, you folks who need to spend winters in cold places might need the Big Buddy.
Al_ I’m sure their aren’t too many people crazy enough to be spending the winter in a van in Wisconsin…last few days around 11° but thanks to my Big Buddy heater I sleep like a baby. Put it on for 20 mins. @ nite with the roof vent cracked and in the AM before I hit the health club and I use 2 cans a week for $4.50 total. Wouldn’t be possible without the heater.
Hey Bob_ I’m embracing the uncomfortableness and I am in complete agreement with you on your last post. I feel very intune with everything lately.
*Can’t wait to spend next winter in the southwest.
openspaceman, I lived in a box van in Anchorage, AK for 8 years, so I know a little about it too! Do you have the Big Buddy (9,000-18,000 btu) or middle one (4,000-9,000). I think the Big one is too big for a van. Do you use it at 18,000 or 9,000 setting? My little one bakes the van at 4,000 btus so I can’t image using the 18,000 setting.
I know how silly it is to say embrace being uncomfortable, but it really is part of living life to its fullest.
Bob_ I have the Big Buddy…if I leave it on low it doesn’t quite do it, so I put it on high for a few minutes get the the temp. to around 70 and it loses a couple degrees an hr while I’m sleeping so in the AM I fire it back up…I have an extended van and the heater is about 8 feet from my face under the forward ceiling vent…on the floor which is rubber in that spot. Of course it’s been pretty cold…when it’s a regular Midwest winter day, maybe 30 @ nite / upper 40’s during the day…I just use the low setting.
*Alaska I know is a whole different deal in the winter and I don’t think that I want to experience that…but you were conditioned in your youth hang in’ out with the Eskimos and learning there secrets.
Wow, I’m very surprised, My Buddy at 9,000 btu overwhelms my trailer. I can’t leave it on for more than 15-30 minutes because it gets up to 100 degrees in there. But, it is very well insulated so maybe that makes the difference.
Bob_ Keep in mind I leave the roof vent open while I’m running the heater and it’s 10° out at night…I turn it on for 15-20 mins. and it maintains a comfortable temp. all night until morning almost. I’ll have to check …it says Big Buddy on it but I never looked at the btu’s. Even with all the insulation i have two roof vents and a wooden bulkhead to the front seats and that’s where I lose a little of the heat. But I’m super happy only having to turn it on for a few mins. before bed.
Al, you are right. Even the middle Buddy (4000-9000 btu) is a little too warm for the tiny size of a van. I have a friend with a 35 foot 5th wheel and he warms it with a Big Buddy and is very happy with it.
Thanks openspaceman, that was exactly my goal to take some of the mystery out of van conversions and show how easy it can be.
Hello Bob & Friends,
Happy Thanksgiving to all.
Thanks Omar! We had a great Thanksgiving! May you have a great one too!
Great post Bob! I will be starting my bed and kitchen cabinet this weekend. I want to keep it simple and this was incredibly helpful. Happy Thanksgiving!
I love hearing things like that Brian!! I should put this in the post, but an addition I might make is make the legs on the kitchen taller and run a shelf between them at the top. I’d make the shelf at the top about 12 inches deep instead of 24.
I like the simplicity yet functionality of this design.
Linda, your right, its very simple and yet it gets the job done.
It was great to see you again!
That’s a cheap easy way to convert a van. I like it! Mine’s a mess since I had to leave my usual camp out spot.
Myddy, it is that!
Genius! We’ve been wanting to make some changes to our bed, and I think we’re going to go with this idea. Thanks, Bob!
Great stuff!. Thanks.
I’m using my civic right now with pretty good results and fantastic mileage. Stealthy as well. But I’ve noticed that some mini vans are looking pretty good…like the Previa and Sedona. Good gas mileage and somewhat stealthy. Fairly cheap on the market as well. Perhaps you could get us a tour of someone who’s done a conversion on one of there?
CAE, that’s a good idea, I’ll try to do that.
Thank you for posting. Great to read. Best luck from a van trooper from Denmark (Europe)
Happy New Year!
I’ve been a member for some years now, and am encouraged to see you posting “How To” ideas again. I always enjoyed being able to freely and repeatedly access all the helpful “cheaprvliving.com and cheapgreenrvliving.com articles you previously shared with us. I have a request in for members to be able to access them on the new forum site.
Katie has shared with me some of the problems getting old content brought forward, and I am trying to patiently wait. Any that you can link to in your blog would be appreciated.
Thanks for all you, Katie, and others have done to modernize the forum … It’s really Great!
Thanks Bob. At this point all the old pages are inaccessible. I know this isn’t much help, but I’m hoping it gets fixed soon.
What a great site I am thinking of giving up this government apt. I have my worries tho as I am am 61yo and live on disability with a small VA Pension,plus I have to check-in with the VA Doctors every 3 months for tests and with all that checking in I must do it has stopped me from jumping in on the band wagon. I love being free and am a loner of sort but miss the out of doors since I have been trapped here for the last 10 years. Very unhappy and need sound advice as to hoe to cut the strings binding me forever and for the better.
sorry about the hoe should read HOW (my bad) Ha ha!
Robert, if I were you, I would move into a van, unless your disability prevents that. When I moved into a van in Anchorage, AK everything about my life improved! A van will let you get out of that place and be FREE!!! Plus, it will let you take short trips to nearby places and ENJOY your life, not endure it.
However, be aware that cold and heat an be pretty unpleasant in a van if you can’t move with the weather.
One problem you may have is the VA considers living in a van to be “homeless” and they are trying to get all homeless vets into a home. They could fight you on it.
It is good to hear as where there is knowledge there is hope, any Vets out there who are living the Van Life please feel free to reply and Bob, you may forward any news to me or any other means you feel safe. I may show up some day to sit a spell and enjoy a cup or too. May the Road rise up to greet you and may the wind always beat your back. Blessings to you and all the RTR family.
I’m looking forward to it Robert!
I simply loved reading this blog post!
So simple and to-the-point without mega monies needed and without master craftsman level skills needed.
It always would pain me to read about the people who wanted to van camp but had to spend months or years to finish their high-level conversions. This post is their quick and easy answer to not having to do all that! Much less to break over time too! I would think that the younger folks would really like this set-up. So many are strapped with student loans and other debts making life not so fun for them. This would put some of the fun back into their lives while they are saving to reduce their debt loads…win! win!
Me, I have a Chevy Limited SE Conversion Van by Explorer Company, not many were ever made, it’s like the Express Conversion Vans by Explorer Company. I keep it simple too. Removing seats when needed depending on the extra to toys I want to take with me. I have a YETI Cooler that is a workhorse in hot weather and stock both no-cook and freeze-dried meals for the Coleman Stove or Trangia Stormcooker Cook Set. An RV Patio Mat is a great addition for outside the van, rain goes thru it and no mud build-up. Clothes, shoes, camera and a comfy camp chair and I’m pretty much set! My rule: Take what you would take if you were flying and had to pay extra for added baggage 🙂 That thinking will help you cut down on the many extras most of us take but never use! Stealth and backroads camping can be done in a Conversion Van, ya just have to put a little more thought into where and when to camp 🙂 I almost never go to private campgrounds or for-fee campgrounds. Why do it, there’s too many other nice places to sleep, cook and camp for the night! I do have an 1800 watt free-standing power source for movies, computer/internet and the smart phone but they are not used that often and a Thetford porta-potty, love having that when it is in the middle of the night!!!
I keep cooking lite. That Mini-Mo by JetBoil is really nice, looking at one of those for rain-days. Happy/Safe Camps to everyone 🙂
Pamela, it sounds like you’ve really got vandwelling figured out!! Thanks for all those great ideas, sounds like a great life!