Minivan Camper Conversion – Stage One Complete!

Minivan Camper Conversion – Stage One Complete!

This last week I have been housesitting for Richard’s parents in Victoria and have used the time (and access to tools) to work on the first stage of my van conversion for my road trip. As soon as I bought the van it was clear to me that the seats had to go to make room for a bed. But what kind of bed? With plenty of room I decided to aim for a bed large for one and big enough to accommodate two people. After getting some inspiration from this page I went and sat in the back of the van and tried to visualise a design… and stayed there until I had. This is the concept I came up with:

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van-bed-idea-2

Getting the idea drawn on paper helped me get things clear in my head and was enjoyable too. It made me remember how I used to enjoy doing these kinds of drawings when I was younger. The idea is to have a large bed constructed of two wooden frames – one smaller than the other with a plywood top, which is made up of four smaller sections and reinforced with slats. The plywood sections are not fixed to the larger of the two frames but rather sit on a rail inside the frame and are joined together using hinges. These hinges then allow the plywood to be folded up into seat, with the smaller frame making a handy table.

From speaking to people who have experience in van conversions I knew it was important to have somewhere to sit in comfort inside the van and also be able to reach into the back storage from inside (and not having to get out of the van). Another design consideration was that I needed to have enough room for all of my gear and my bike Stealthy. I hoped that my concept ticked all of these boxes.

Well that was the idea anyway! I haven’t done any wood work for about ten years and there were parts of the design which I knew I would need to work out as I went along! I couldn’t wait to get started 🙂

Get ready for a lot of pictures!…

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Working out how high to make the platform

The first hurdle was working out how high to make the frames. I needed to ensure that I could sit up straight in the seat while getting enough storage space underneath. I was surprised at how much room I needed in order to sit up and after alot of head scratching and experimenting with putting a chair in the van I settled for a frame height of 10.5″ – allowing me to sit up and have practical storage below. To begin with I was a little concerned that this was seriously eating into my storage space but I don’t actually have that much gear for such a big van and not being bent in the van was more important.

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Drive through lumber yards!

I decided to do the construction in stages and not buy all of the materials at once incase something didn’t work out and I had to go back to the drawing board. During the first trip to Rona I discovered a wondrous thing – drive through lumber yards! So I drove in and parked up, did my shopping and threw the wood I needed in the back. I have done some earlier research so I knew roughly what I needed. On the first trip I bought some screws, bolts and a lot of 2×3!

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Frame sections complete

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Keeping it nice and simple

Constructing the frames went smoothly. I decided to use bolts to secure the main horizontal supports for extra strength. One thing I had to get my head around was working in feet and inches, and how things are sold. Not being much of a builder type this was all new to me but good fun and the people who assisted me in the shops had clearly seen idiots like me before!

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Cutting the slats to size, resting on rail

My next trip to Rona was to buy the slats (2×1) and plywood. Having the van was great because I could get the 8 foot wood pieces into the van but the 4×8 foot plywood board wasn’t going to go. Luckily they have an in store “cutting shop” and they cut the ply to the size I required – not only allowing me to get it in the back of the van but saving me a job!

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Table section with ply attatched, other ply boards getting assembled

The above photo shows the “lip” sticking out on the right hand side of the table frame which supports the ply from the other section when in “bed mode”. The is needed because I added a gap between the two frames in order to give myself some extra leg room between the seat and the table when in “seat mode”.

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Hinges attached and cord (in horrible yellow) to make folding easier

I glued the slats to the bottom of the ply before screwing them together, then attached the hinges using bolts – as the ply was too thing to screw into and fixing additional wood to screw into would interfere with the seat folding. After a bit of measuring and going to another store to buy the exact bolts I wanted this actually worked really well.

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Still nothing too fancy

I hadn’t originally intended to have a support running down the middle. While this wasn’t strictly needed for strength there was some flex in the ply. I had the extra wood left over and adding this made the bed and seat both as solid as a rock. Space was limited so the chisel came out for this one!

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Rear access from boot when ply is folded forward

With the ply folded forward almost all of the storage section is revealed from the back. In this photo you can see the slats fixed to the back of the ply and the rail that they go into on the frame below. You can also see a small peice of ply attached under the frame – this is a little addition I made towards the end and acts as a partially hidden shelf which is difficult to see in both bed mode and seat mode. I wanted a space to store my laptop and a few important documents while I was out for the day and unable to take them with me and while nowhere near “secure” it might be missed by an opportunist quickly breaking a window and grabbing what they can.

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Folded up to make a seat… with table!

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Front access when the seat base is lifted

In seat mode it is possible to lean over the back of the seat and have good access to the back. The base of the seat can also be lifted for further access below.

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Side view of bed

A nice big bed! I am hoping that 3 inches of foam will stop the hinges and bolts from being felt when sleeping. If this doesn’t not work I may have to have a rethink.

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Simple chuck for keeping the seat in place, the cord is so the chucks don’t get lost when not in use

A bit of experimentation gave me the angle the seat back needed to be. I wasn’t sure how I was going to fix the back in place but I happened to have a piece of leftover 2×2 that was the perfect size to act as a chuck. I cut another and they work perfectly once popped into place.

So there you have it. I am really pleased with how it has turned out so far and with the exception of a few holes drilled in the wrong place everything went very smoothly. Oh, ad Stealthy fints just fine! Kind of impressed with myself really! The only thing I haven’t done yet was the extendable legs on the table – I am not decided about this one yet and may not bother. Next I need to sort out the foam (which I have already scoped out) and sort some kind of curtains or blind. Then I will really be ready for some road trip adventures 🙂

As a side note…

I had actually forgotten how much I enjoyed working with wood, something I really got a kick out of when I was younger. It was also a nice change to making websites – something which you can never hold in your hand. I constantly reminded me of the joy I got from helping Dad around the house, where he favours making things out of wood and I owe most of what I know to him. It also reminded me alot of my old design technology teacher in school who was such a horrible little man that he actually ruined my enjoyment of making things, and put me off taking the subject any further (if you have been to my parents house I have probably shown you the rabbit hutch I made for GCSE, which Mum refers to as the “millennium hutch” and still goes strong 11 years later!) I think I was a little surprised that a teacher, who’s job it is to teach and inspire a subject could actually put someone off it, even though they already enjoyed it. It’s funny that this has only occurred to me all these years later.

Note to self – design and make more things from wood!

Update

It’s two years on and this post gets a fair few views for people looking for information and inspiration about converting vans into campers, so I thought I would write a little update on my experiences with the van. I also have some more posts from back then about further work/tweaks on the van which you can see here:

http://www.morehawes.co.uk/travelling/canada/van-progressing-nicely
http://www.morehawes.co.uk/travelling/canada/first-trip-in-the-van

The van (who was later named Albert) served me proudly and got me all the way across Canada from Comox on Vancouver Island, BC to Halifax, Nova Scotia. You can read more about my 5 month trip here).

The bed design worked out really well, much better than I could have hoped for. It was extremely comfortable, and was big for one person but could accommodate two (more storage would be needed for long trips though). The only change, which as luck would have it worked out really well, was to have the kitchen located at the back of the van (instead of on the ‘table’ inside) like this:

Cooking off the back of the van

This had the following benefits:

  • Standing at the kitchen gave lots of room and a work surface at a good height
  • The trunk/boot acted as a rain shelter when open
  • The hinges in the bed meant that I could easily lift the work surface to access the storage under the bed

Thanks to JR of Off Track Travel for suggesting this. I highly recommend their blog and they also have lots of information on van conversions.

Unfortunately the van started to show engine problems two days before arriving in Halifax, where I hoped to sell it. With a flight already booked I ended up selling it for scrap for $160 (including the bed, which cost around $300 in materials!) It was a bit of a shame and I would have liked to have done better for him. I came away with lots of great memories of living in the van, and a strong desire to do a similar project. My next project will be converting a GMC Safari into a camper, which I plan on living in this summer as I explore the Yukon and Alaska. I will of course be writing about the conversion on this site.

Thanks to everyone for your interest and comments, I will try my best to answer any more you may have.

25 Comments

Philip Gauntlett

about 2 years ago

I would like to thankyou for sharing this on the internet with others, I have been looking to do this for a long time but did not know how to approach it, you have obviously put a lot of thought into it and have basically done the design for me, this will now be my winter job.

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Joe

about 2 years ago

You're welcome Philip! Be sure to also check out my second conversion here, which has a slightly different design. Good luck with your project and be sure to come back and share some photos.

Joe

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TERRY GESS

about 1 year ago

Hey great info on setting up a bed/ seat in vehicle. Just wondering how much yo used the seat vs the bed? Seems as if the bed would be more useful then the seat … your experience?

Thanks!

Joe

about 1 year ago

I actually got rid of both rear rows of seats when I converted the van into a camper, as I had nowhere to store them at the time. Occasionally it was annoying that we could only transport two people in the van. I recently bought a rear row from a junk yard so we now have the option to carry more people.

Joe

Terry Gess

about 1 year ago

Hey Joe-
Think you misunderstood my question: I know that you pulled the rears seats out to make the bed, and I see the the bed you made folds up into a seat. Just wondering how useful that bed/seat conversion was -- do you end up using both the bed and the seat ?

Joe

about 1 year ago

Ah I see. Actually yes, I did use the seat quite a bit.

Ashley Coulthard

about 3 years ago

I almost forgot, how about the table foam.

When in bed mode, obviously the table has a foam section on it. But what about when you sit on the bench and want to use the table, where are you storing the foam, and would you have any suggestions for painting the table for general use, such as eating dinner, playing cards, etc..

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Ashley Coulthard

about 3 years ago

Hi Joe,

I love your design and the fact that you included so many pictures and details about your build. I am building a bed/bench for my astro van and this is the design i'm going with. I will have additional storage racks at the rear and drivers side of the van also, as I've taken out all the plastic trim. I have a few questions, feel free to email responses to me if you'd like.

What did you end up doing with the table legs, to make the table taller when in "bench" mode?

Also, what foam thickness and what supplier did you get it from?

Thanks, Ashley

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Joe

about 3 years ago

Hi Ashley,

Thanks for your questions and your kind words, you inspired me to write a little update about the van.

Additional storage sounds like a very good idea. I just about had enough for one person. Actually the extendable legs for the table was something I never added, which did mean the table was a little low. I ended up putting my feet up on it and using it as a foot rest a fair bit. The foam was held on with velcro (see other posts linked above) which made it easy to remove the foam to reveal a solid surface. This could be painted or covered in plastic to make it wipe-clean, something I am considering for my next project.

Once the foam was removed I put it behind the back of the bench when in 'seat mode' (between the rear window and the seat). I also stored the window blinds in the same place which was a good way to make use of this 'dead' space;

The foam was 3 inch high density which I bought from Eldorado in Courtenay, BC and cost around $160. I highly recommend the foam (it was the most comfortable bed I have ever owned) and Eldorado as a company.

I too will be working on an Astro/Safari conversion soon! Below shows a rough sketch of my current idea, which is quite different from my previous design, but borrows from some ideas:

Astro Van / GMC Safari camper conversion idea

I would love to hear more about your conversion! Please do come back and update me.

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Bob

about 3 years ago

Thanks for showing us your work Joe. How is the rest of the project coming? Is stage II complete and do you have any more photos you could post?

Thanks again, I can't wait to get started on my conversion!

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Joe

about 3 years ago

Hi Bob, the van turned out nicely and got me all of the way from Vancouver Island to Halifax. You can see some more details of how the project progressed here:

http://www.morehawes.co.uk/travelling/canada/van-progressing-nicely

http://www.morehawes.co.uk/travelling/canada/first-trip-in-the-van

I have recently bought my second van, a GMC Safari which I will be converting soon.

Thanks for your interest.

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Staci

about 4 years ago

Thank you. I actually sat in the back of my minivan and came up with a very similar idea. I hope you don't mind if I use your ideas to tweek mine just a bit. :-)

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Christian

about 4 years ago

Fantastic stuff Joe. I'm about to begin converting my Vauxhall Vivaro and what you've done here looks easy and effective. I've been struggling with how to even attempt to build a bed but this has given me a clearer idea now of what I can do. Spot on :-)

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Dave Price

about 5 years ago

Joe! I take my hat off to you! That is some impressive workmanship! A well thought out design from start to finish. Kudos to you!

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Joe

about 5 years ago

Thanks! I hope it is well thought out, kind of hard to think of all of those little things that will make a big difference when I am actually living in it... but i'm sure I will learn some lessons for next time :)

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Jessica A. Hawes

about 5 years ago

Well done Joe. I bet Dad will be impressed. love, Grandma'

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Joe

about 5 years ago

Thanks for the comments all, yes I am definitely going for firm foam Dad/Gemma - if they company are OK with it I am thinking I will put a piece in the back and lie on it before ordering just to be sure. I will see how the chucks work out Si and perhaps go for something like that if needed.

Yes he was a really poor teacher sis, such a shame. It's funny just from the comments received how different people's experiences have been. I'm glad your teacher wasn't the same Dad, as it meant I got some of the skills passed down! And of course, I had to use the steel bolt. No other way :)

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tom

about 2 years ago

Joe, great site, is there something about steel vs. other types of bolts that is an important consideration? Thanks, Tom

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Joe

about 2 years ago

Hi Tom, good question! I'm really not sure. To be honest I don't think it makes a lot of difference. As moisture isn't really a problem, I think as long as it's strong enough then it should do. I hope that helps.

Joe

MOG

about 5 years ago

It's looking good - nice to see the Hawes patent steel bolt joinery in use again! ;-)
Looking forward to seeing it all in there.
- I agree with Gemma - go for firm foam.

Luckily, my experience with my woodwork teacher was quite the reverse.
Just shows how much good or harm a teacher can do.

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Ruth

about 5 years ago

Amazing Joe - making me very jealous! I know Simon's got many ideas about van conversions so he's going to love seeing your progress.
I had the same horrible little man for woodwork (remember the 'bird table'!!) and it makes me so cross that he affected your enjoyment but it looks like you've recaptured the joy!! Love you xx

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Simon Pritchard

about 5 years ago

Wow!

New calling when you're back then?

Just a thought on securing the back - how about a springed bolt? No chance of losing them! Have seen a few use something similar!

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Gemma

about 5 years ago

That looks so good Joe!! Looking forward to seeing it in person sometime. I think 3" foam will be fine - although 3 inches doesn't sound like a lot, when it's in, you'll probably be surprised. For reference, we bought the 'extra firm' kind, and that works really well.
Funny, I had a similar experience with my design tech teacher!
- Gemma

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