A quick look into how we turned a 2003 Ford Econoline into our perfect travel van!
We bought a 2003 Ford Econoline to turn into our dream camper! This was what the van looked like when we first bought it. Not bad, pretty functional, but after spending a few nights with it we realized that it didn't fit our needs. The previous owner we bought it from traveled around for months across the US with this setup, but since we were planning on bringing a dog and a lot of camera equipment, it didn't have the storage we were hoping for. So, after much deliberation, we finally started tearing everything out.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, however you look at it, we found a few issues we needed to address before building anything new. A few mice had made a home in some of the wall insulation and we found a few spots of rust we needed to take care of. Our initial plan was to leave the pre-existing flooring, but once we starting looking around we made the decision to take that out as well.
Side note, shout-out to my dad for helping us throughout this entire process. He is in most of the photos and videos because while I was sitting on my phone documenting the entire process, he was the one actually building the van.
Once we fixed those issues, we began rebuilding. Starting with re-insulating the entire van and fixing a few soft spots on the floor. Our plan was to insulate it as best as possible so when we were in the desert or out skiing, the van wouldn't be so uncomfortably hot or cold.
At this point, we ran wires throughout the van so we could hook up our solar and have outlets in different areas.
Once insulation was complete, we started on putting up the walls. We went with cedar planks that we painted white, so that they would bend to the walls and were lightweight. (In hindsight we could have skipped this step because it ended up being completely covered.)
This step took way longer than we thought it would. I think one of the main takeaways from this build is that you should always triple the amount of time you think it will take you to do something. This is especially true for a van build where everything you do is extremely new.
Once we finally finished with insulation and walls, we moved on to the floor. The old floor was a vinyl sheet held down by nails. This is a great option because it's lightweight and easy to clean, but I didn't like how it looked. I seem to always make things ten times harder for myself and everyone helping me, so I decided to go with planks. They're not as lightweight as the vinyl, but I personally think they look just a little bit nicer. And, in the end, it ended up being cheaper (which is always a win)!
The hard part with this flooring is that you just stick it down. That doesn't sound like an issue until you think about the fact you're putting it in a moving vehicle that's not perfectly flat. I'm not sure how it ended up working as well as it did, but after putting weights on it and letting it sit for about a week the floors turned out perfect!
We decided to add some trim pieces on the step and back doors to give it a more finished look and to prevent lifting.
Most of the progress we had made up until this point was pretty invisible. So I was feeling pretty excited to actually see some progress on the van. This was about a month and a half into the van conversion (only working on it on the weekends since we're in school and my dad works full time), so it was nice to actually see some results.
I set pretty ambitious goals for this build considering I had never worked with a power tool. And when designing it I made every aspect to be entirely custom made. Starting with the bed, my goal was to have a fixed bed with two drawers underneath, to hold clothing and a toilet. I also needed to have an open side to hold skis and a small compartment for camera gear. Also, I decided to include small storage inside the bed itself for dog things, extra layers, and emergency equipment. Needless to say, I needed some help making this all work.
These were my original plans for the build. We made so many changes in the end, but this gives you an idea of what my dad was forced to try to help me make.
After making some adjustments to the floor plan and a few hours on youtube, we got started on the bed frame. I'm sure there are easier ways to go about building this, but it works and doesn't look bad at all.
As a little disclaimer, my father has no woodworking experience aside from around-the-house projects. We spent many hours on youtube learning how to do basic carpentry, in order to build the rest of the bed and kitchen. Once the bed frame was done, we moved on to working on the drawer face and building the actual drawers themselves. This seems relatively easy, but the main issue was figuring out how to even add drawers to the van. We ended up deciding to build a box and then adding drawers inside of that box, so there were walls for the drawers to connect to (I did not explain that very well but pictures help).
Once we had the box done, we started on the drawers.
I don't want to give anyone the false impression that we had any idea what we were doing. So, this is a video of us fixing our mistakes trying to make a drawer fit so we didn't have to redo everything.
Once the drawers were done we installed everything into the van.
Or tried to anyway.
After a few more mistakes and some trial and error, we finally got the drawers to fit. After we put the drawer faces and handles on, we put the finishing touches on the bed. We added bottoms to the bed and put a top on them to create storage space in the bed.
Next, we built a small side table so two people could eat comfortably while sitting on the bed. And to act as storage for skis. This was the perfect way to add length to the under-bed storage. It also acts as dirty laundry and shoe storage when skis are not there. Lastly, we added an outlet to the side for easy charging.
Next, we started on the kitchen. After building the under-bed drawers and realizing how difficult we had made that for ourselves, we decided to take a different approach to the kitchen. Our plan was to build everything in the van first, to make sure it fits perfectly, and then take it out to paint and install the drawers. Then re-install it into the van.
First, we built the front face of the cabinets to get an idea of where everything needed to go and where we needed to put supports. Then we installed it into the van to make sure everything would hold properly and not fail on us. After putting the front face of the cabinet into the van, we built a frame around it. This was to make sure everything would perfectly fit to the van.
We then took the entire frame out of the van and moved it inside so we could paint it. We put Bondo in the seams to make them less noticeable and then sanded and painted over it.
Next, we built all the drawers, installed them, and moved the entire frame back into the van.
I then made the faces for all of the drawers. The first time did this my measurements were completely off and I had to completely redo them.
We then switched to cutting the countertop. This was probably the most stressful part of the build so far. We had been avoiding it for weeks, terrified we were going to have to buy a new one. Surprisingly it went great, unlike a lot of our other projects! We were able to cut the hole for the sink and install it fairly quickly.
At this point, I was freaking out because everything was coming together! I could finally see what it was going to look when it was done!
The next thing we did was install the mattress. The process was super simple. We placed it in the van, made small lines where we needed to cut, then used a knife to cut through all the foam. After we cut it we put it back into the van and it fit perfectly!
Next, we installed the sink and faucet on the countertop.
Then got started on the electrical. This was super overwhelming and scary. If we got it wrong we could easily start a fire, ruin the solar, and destroy all of our progress. After many hours of researching, watching youtube, and figuring out a plan, we installed everything and it worked!! We went with two lead-acid batteries for our power with two 100 watt solar panels. Ideally, I would have gone with lithium-ion batteries and a bit more solar, but when we bought the van it came with the panels and one of the batteries so we decided to use those and save money.
Our next project was building above the windows to cover the insulation and metal. We also wanted to add a space where we could easily hang pictures and other decorations. This was pretty hard to install since none of the lines in the van are straight. We had to trace the curves of the van onto the wood and then cut it using a jigsaw. In order to attach it to the walls, we had to put wedges between the wood and metal to screw into. Coming up with the plan and executing the first few pieces were a bit confusing but after that, it was pretty simple. Once they were installed we painted it white to look a little more cohesive with the rest of the van.
We started working on the back walls, painting cedar planks and then installing them using brad nails and glue. This was a pretty simple process that cleaned up the space nicely. Next, we added a battery monitor to the back wall to check solar easily.
Then we did the finishing touches! We installed curtain rods, repainted the step into the van, added window frames, a ladder, fixed a few leaks, and a few other minor details
it was done!!!!!!
I still can't believe it turned out as amazing as it did!
Our first trip is 37 days long where we will be visiting South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado! I can't wait!
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