Van Build #3: Do's & Don'ts & Tips
Updated: Feb 14
More tips and tricks for your van conversion!
Tip #1: Propane in a van - Originally, I had planned for a sealed and vented propane tank in the back of the van to power my two burner stove. However, I ended up returning the propane stove. Alternatively, I bought an induction cooktop which I love. It can be used when I'm plugged into shore power. I also bought a Jet Boil HalfGen Camping Cooking System that uses small propane canisters! My reasoning: I have read that a propane tank can explode if left in a hot car, especially with the sun beating down on the car. After asking many in the van life world, I have seen some people advice against an indoor propane tank while others say it's just fine. However, not one of them spoke about the climate in which the van will be kept. That's a very important detail. Keep that in mind while you are seeking advice and researching... it's all in the details. Here's a great article about propane safety: https://www.reifflawfirm.com/understanding-the-dangers-posed-by-barbeque-grill-propane-tanks/ By the way, I love my decisions! I also have a smaller Jet Boil Flash cooking system that I use to instantly heat a cup of water for tea or coffee. By the way, I also love this GSI Stainless Cookset I bought on Amazon, shown below.
Tip #2: Allow for flexibility - Most likely, you will need to change your van conversion plan a lot throughout the build. In my case, the bed construction, cooking option, cabinet dimensions and more have already changed. It's seems to be common among other builders as there are just so many parts and one change here can affect something over there.
Tip #3: Installing AMA windows - I purchased my bunk windows for my van through Van Windows Direct, a great company with wonderful customer service. I'm super happy with my windows, however there were things that I wish I had known before they were installed. As it turns out, the passenger window leaks!
In case you didn't know, urethane is hard, especially in cold weather! On the directions listed on the Van Windows Direct website, it doesn't mention that you need a powered caulking gun. A regular caulking gun is just too difficult even for a strong person, and the end result is an uneven application. Also, if you read the directions on the urethane product itself, the optimal climate and product temperature is between 59 - 77°F. I have heard of others who have installed these windows in the PNW during the dead of winter, so it seems the climate temperature isn't as important as the product temperature. For the second window installation, the urethane bottle was kept in front of a heat vent for at least 20 minutes so it performed better on the 2nd window. However, the first window will need to be removed and reinstalled. (Edit: I lucked out and found an auto window and glass shop that agreed to remove and reinstall both bunk windows for a great price!)
Final advice: Read product labels even if you think it's an easy process. Take time to methodically set up your working area before you begin, including taping off/protecting the van from spillage and/or metal shavings around the work area and having towels on hand in case of spills. Go through the steps mentally before beginning and don't be afraid to stop the job if things aren't going smoothly. It's always better to waste a bit of product and have the inconvenience of rescheduling, then to make a mistake that's difficult to fix.
Tip #4: Installing Marmoleum flooring in a van - Installing van flooring should have been a fairly easy process but it wasn't. In retrospect, I should have made the template using the subfloor before it was installed! However, I didn't, so, first I created a huge template of the van floor using paper. The biggest issue with installing flooring in a van is that there is not much room for error because of the contours of the van. When you trace the template onto the Marmoleum, the only places where you can add a bit extra in case of error is in the back and along the slider window. Otherwise, if you add extra, you won't be able to set the Marmoleum down into the van during the installation process. Also, it's not that easy to cut, so you won't be able to easily trim once it's inside the van and the curves and cut outs in the middle means it needs to be exact. Do make sure you have a very sharp blade and have extra blades handy in case you need them. I'm really loving my Marmoleum, but there is a small flaw at the front of the van where it was cut a bit short that will need to be repaired or covered with trim. I'm loving the Marmoleum and would definitely recommend it. I mix a bit of Farbo Marmoluem floor cleaner into a small squirt bottle for an easy clean up with a paper towel.
Tip #5: Furring strips and fitting your wood over cross nuts - Cross nuts are fairly easy to install but it gets tricky when you have to make holes in the wood in the exact location of the cross nuts. I have used cardboard templates, wax paper templates, play dough, rulers and more. After all said and done, I realized I didn't need furring everywhere. In some cases it just wastes wood and time. Luckily, when I got to my main kitchen cabinet, I came to this realization. I used angle brackets, lots of them, over the cross nuts (without furring) and.bolted them directly to the wood of the cabinet. This saved so much time. Also, attaching the cabinet directly to the metal with cross nuts, angle brackets and shims, as needed, is much stronger than screwing into a 3/4" piece of wood that is cross nutt-ed into the metal. In the picture shown above, you'll see how the bracket was attached. Of course, I then screwed the other side of the bracket into the cabinet itself. I went a step further and used wing nuts on the other side to make sure my screws hold as they can wiggle loose with the vibrations of driving. On that note, I also put my pocket screws on front surfaces under my cabinets so that I can keep an eye on them and tighten if needed without removing the cabinet. Of course, you don't want to do this on the front facades where they can be seen.
Tip #6: Drilling into the van wall! Most van builders do everything possible to avoid drilling holes into their vans as the metal shavings, impossible to completely clean up, can start to rust when in contact with moisture. Hence, we use cross nuts. However, sometimes you just have to screw into the metal itself. When you do, catch all those metal shavings using blue tape! When I could, I created pockets of blue tape around the areas where I'd be drilling with the sticky side facing the area where the drill would come through on both sides of the wall. After drilling, I simply removed the blue tape and most of the shavings with it. Then, I used a magnetic pick up tool to tap around and pick up any leftover shavings.
Tip #7: Skip the Upper Cabinet Doors! - I made a cabinet door for one of my upper cabinets, but never ended up using it. It just added weight, took time, and wasted wood. I love my open cabinets with baskets. The baskets stay in place with the small cabinet lip at the bottom and bungee cord. I have yet to have anything slip or fall.
Tip #8: Make your own window covers! It's easy to do with Reflectix reflective insulation. I covered one side with black fabric but you don't have to. (If you send me a message, I'll create a pattern for the back windows, side windows or front windshield from my 2020 Pro Master factory windows. At $20 each, you'll save a ton of time.)
Tip #9: Record the location of all fasteners & cross nuts. Use a ruler and take pictures of all your cross nut attachments before you cover with walls and furniture. That way if you ever need to drill into the wood, you won't hit a cross nut. If you don't know already, cross nuts are fairly sensitive. The last thing you want to do is strip one. It also helps for add ons and repairs down the road.
Tip #10: Get creative! If there's a problem, a non-standard solution can usually be created. For example, when you need an extra set of hands, use what you have. I used tubs to hold up the ceiling while I worked.