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:
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!…
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.
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!
Frame sections complete
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!
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!
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”.
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.
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!
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.
Folded up to make a seat… with table!
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.
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.
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!
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:
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:
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
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.