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Van Conversion: Walls, Roof, and Doors

Building your van for a van conversion can be intimidating at best. You will have ups and downs and things take way more time then you thought they would. Your enthusiasm may come and go with each mountain you have to climb to accomplish goals. There are two key points to accomplishing your goals in van conversion.

  1. Start
  2. Don’t give up

Van Conversion Start

I decided to build shelves in my van a little over a year ago, in 2019. It was time to get my van conversion re-started, I had put it on the backburner for too long.

By building shelves, I was going for minimalism and allowing space for cargo and boondocking travel. In other words, just throw down an air mattress for the pups and I – and depending where we went, we could include our two elderly kitties as well. Add some camping equipment, photography supplies, and a ice chest and we would be just fine. I really didn’t want to invest too much at this point because the van itself was a big expenditure, including the wrap. And…I had already wasted money on a Craigslist “con”tractor. That was my own fault. I knew better. So, a little over a year ago I started the process of Van Conversion Step 1 by turning it in a road trip to see an old friend.

The Road Trip

Itching for a road trip, I called my childhood buddy Donny. I have known him since grade school and he still lives in the same area I moved from. My blood family still owns acreage in the area and Donny lives within 5 miles of that. Donny is a handful. Silly, at times a bit too much, and definitely a strong personality – but when it comes down to it, one of the most caring people I know. Donny is also one of the best dirt bike riders I know, is smart and passionate in what he believes in, and works hard.

The trip to California would be about seven hours and so it would require me to take my kitties along with the pups. Prince Ares and Princess Athena don’t mind traveling, in fact it is obvious they like to be with our small tribe. They have their own kennel and soft sleeping place. I believe their interest in living keeps them alive at their age. They also love adventures and different scenery. The three day trip ended up being a full week long. It was hot, dusty, and one time there was a rain shower. We stayed in Donny’s toy hauler and it was comfortable. It had its own fridge, heat, cooling, and television. It was perfect and we all enjoyed it.

No Shelves For You

Donny’s wife let me borrow him for the week. The project was larger than we had planned and didn’t go like I had planned but I can say now, it was even better. We never did put in the shelves – I am going to have to do that on my own. Donny insisted that we do it right, not what will work for right now. Bless him. He was so right and that is usually how I think but gave up and was going to just settle for shelves. Before I ever put in shelves, I would have to insulate to make the van more comfortable in temperature.

Removing Electrical Wire The “con”tractor had installed wrong gauge wire into the walls in preparation for attaching my solar system I had purchased for the van conversion. I removed the wiring but Donny insisted on leaving one part as it was pretty tight in there and I gave in to leaving it as it would be concealed behind the paneling. It was such a very small section, it really didn’t matter. It makes sense to usually install the wiring for the solar BEFORE you finish the walls, but I know I can still problem solve this later.

Insulating Walls This also required a lot of research, I did not want to do the DIY spray foam. I see pictures of people using foam spray and I cringe. Spray can go crazy in expansion. My first “con”tractor used some spray foam, luckily he completed very, very little and so it was an easy fix. I chose instead foam board insulation with good R-Value. You can learn about insulation and the important R-Values here: https://www.homedepot.com/c/ab/insulation-r-values/9ba683603be9fa5395fab9091a9131f

You can also look at this foam board.

https://www.homedepot.com/p/R-Matte-Rmax-R-Matte-Plus-3-1-2-in-x-4-ft-x-8-ft-R-3-2-Polyisocyanurate-Rigid-Foam-Insulation-Board-754404/100572981

It was fairly easy to cut and attach the foam insulation to the walls. We used a simple construction retractable knife and glue. You will see a small part of the van with foam insulation and spray foam insulation. A very small strip. It wouldn’t have been worth the trouble to remove this and start again – so I trimmed this part and kept it. Some people may prefer to use the spray foam. It is expensive.

Insulating Roof A little trickier, insulating a roof in a van conversion requires bracing the insulation up until the glue can hold. It is handy to have two people for this job. We first braced the insulation with a regular 2×4 set perpendicular to the floor. Donny came up with a better idea of holding the insulation up by attaching temporary wood brace to my van’s existing metal ceiling dividers so now the brace was horizontal to the roof. It worked really well.

Covering The Insulated Walls and Roof With Paneling I selected a woodsy theme, not too expensive paneling from one of the local hardwood shops. It looks nice and will be versatile to whatever d├ęcor and further conversion I do. We also picked out some white dry erase board paneling which we used for the roof, back door, and sliding door. We added trim to create a more finished look. Donny excelled in cutting and fitting trim pieces.

Leaving The Floor Bare I had removed the plywood my former “con”tractor had put over the original flooring. It wasn’t what I wanted. Donny also preferred to lay plywood down but I insisted not to. Many people will lay the plywood down and then lay tile or other flooring over this. I prefer to keep the original mat flooring. It is firm, yet comfortable. It is so easy to mop and there are not layers where sand and dirt can hide. I would then add throw rugs which are easy to launder. When I build something I want something that makes sense to me as I have to live with it – and clean it.

Bracing the roof insulation so the glue can dry.
Installing foam board insulation and picked out the siding
Look at the top part where spray foam was used. Luckily it was just on this small part and then a part of the back door. I had to cut and trim the foam. What a waste. Shown is 1/2″ thickness R Value 3.2. Due to the slant of the van walls, this was easily doubled to add thickness where needed.
Working on the roof. Allow for enough time for glue to dry and Polyisocyanurate Rigid Foam Insulation Board to be firmly attached before installing paneling. We let it dry overnight.

If I had any advice that you can take or leave, I would stay away from spray foam – but do your own homework and use your judgement. To each their own. Also – you can’t fail at this. It helps to have a good friend with the right tools and know-how, but this is not impossible on your own. You have to be patient, struggle through – AND DON’T GIVE UP. This too shall pass and you will be on the road in no time.

Besides the van conversion, we had a good time cooking. Donny made some special venison that was yummy. I cooked my almost famous poor man’s tacos, which they all seemed to enjoy (Donny, Rachael, and her mother). It’s nice to have this good memory of connecting with old friends, especially because I don’t do Fakebook. There is something about seeing a friend in person. It makes it that much more real.

Happy Camping,

Jessica Fletcher

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