DIY Guide to Building your own Campervan Conversion
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This is a complete guide on how to convert a van into a campervan. It includes some DIY campervan conversion plans, a breakdown of the costs, and a breakdown on every step needed to make your campervan conversion dream come true!
DIY Guide to Building Your Own Campervan Conversion
Living in our very own campervan conversion was one of the most rewarding experiences we had in New Zealand. However, when we first had the idea to convert our own van into a livable campervan we had no idea where to start.
The entire process seemed so complicated and despite reading some of the articles and guides online, we still couldn’t work it out. But, determined to build a beautiful campervan we just went for it and gave it a go.
What we ended up with was a beautiful campervan we could call home and one we are both proud of. We learned so much along the way that we wanted to share it all with you.
In this blog, we have described everything we did with as much detail as possible to take the guesswork and stress out of a campervan conversion. We also include things we would do differently if we ever do another campervan conversion (so you don’t make the same mistakes we did!)
This is our DIY guide to building your own campervan conversion!
*It is important to read the whole post before starting as some steps are half done midway through the DIY camper conversion and finished at the end.
Step 1: Buying a Van
When it comes to buying a van to convert into a campervan there really is no wrong or right answer. However, the most important things to think about are:
This is the question of how you get in and out of your campervan conversion. Having side doors is super important. Although you can certainly get away with one side door, we found that having the extra door on the other side was really handy. Of course, make sure your van has a back door too!
Not all vans are the same size. Choosing a van that is big enough for the living space you need is really important. During my campervan conversion, I realized straight away that I couldn’t afford a high roof.
Vans with a high roof were much more expensive for the quality of the vehicle you got. For this reason, I sacrificed height but chose a van that was really long.
Our van was a long wheelbase Toyota Hiace and the van was 5m long in total. Compared to shorter vans the extra length gave us more room to have some space between the bed and kitchen.
In hindsight, I think this was not the best decision and wish I got both a long van with a high roof. Although living in a van with a low roof was fine it’s not something you can do long term.
If you plan on building a quality interior in your van then getting a van with low mileage is worth it. Although you can expect to pay more it means that the van will have plenty of life in it and last a long time. This is also really good for resale and in my opinion, will more than pay itself off.
*Helpful info: For more information check out our guide to buying a campervan in new Zealand! It includes general information (such as quick mechanical checks) you can use to buy any van anywhere in the world.
Step 2: DIY Campervan Conversion Plans
Once you have your van it’s time to design your space. This does not have to be a set-in-stone design and you can alter it slightly as you go, but, having a rough floor plan will make the process much easier and less stressful. We started by making simple sketches and looking at other designs online.
We decided to put our kitchen in the front, behind the seats and bed in the back. This design meant we could cook inside the campervan when it rained here in New Zealand (which it does a lot!). It also meant we had amazing views when you were at campsites as you could lay in your bed and look out the back of the van.
We then designed the bed with a center table that we could pop up while we weren’t sleeping and wanted to sit in the van.
This is a classic van design and does work really well.
The other design we considered was putting the table to one side with the kitchen still in the front. This design seemed to give more space in the back than a center table.
However, we decided that in this case it may be cramped both being on one side of the table as opposed to sitting opposite each other. This is a good option if you’re a solo traveler because you can sleep with the table up.
No Fold-Up Table
Not having a fold up table would not be the end of the world and in my opinion, a great option if you’re worried about building your van. In all honesty, we rarely used our fold up table and much preferred sitting outside or just sitting on the bed. Not putting in the fold up table means fewer parts and an easier build.
Does building your own campervan sound like a bit too much work? Consider hiring one instead!
Step 3: Insulate and Vapor Seal
A vapor barrier is an underlay used to stop condensation. It is like foam with silver metallic sides. Under your wooden floor, its really important and will make the floor last. We also used this on the windows we covered with insulation (lots of condensation occurs on windows) and on the surface of your roof. This put a condensation proof layer between these surfaces and our insulation.
The best way to glue the vapor barrier to the areas you need to is with a spray on glue. On the floor, it’s not that important to glue it down as the wooden floor will hold it in place.
Insulating your van isn’t a “must-do” but does make your campervan much more livable in different weather. The problem with vans is that they are cold in the winter and hot in the summer due to their thin steel skin. In my opinion, insulating your campervan conversion is a good idea.
To start, get fiberglass insulation that is soft. This type of insulation can easily be stuffed into small areas in the van. Most vans have a void in between the inside and the outside layer of the van. Use this area to stuff as much insulation as you can. Do this to all the doors and walls.
If you aren’t putting wooden walls up in your van then unscrew or pop out the covers of the void areas that come with the van and pop them back on when you’re done. If you plan on putting walls up, then just leave them off.
Move around the van doing every area you can and don’t worry about the roof as that can get done later.
*Tip: If you plan on reselling your van eventually, having insulation is a a great selling feature. Just be sure to take pictures of it being installed so the buyer knows that it was definitely done!
Step 4: Installing the Wooden Floor
Having a wooden floor installed gives you the ability to easily screw down all wooden structures. It also makes the van’s rough steel floor flat and smooth, and also acts as insulation from the cold.
Ply is the best wood to use for the floor and getting something 12mm or thicker is best. Remember, you should already have your vapor barrier down before this step.
1. Make a template of the floor
Vans are not perfectly square and usually have wheel arches in the back. In order to cut your wood to the right size making a template is a great idea. Making a template from cardboard and using tape to put it together works great. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect as much of the floor won’t be seen.
2. Cutting the ply
For this step, you are going to need a jigsaw and power saw. Start by laying out enough ply to cover the whole area of your template. Next, trace the entire template onto the pieces of ply. Then cut the ply. Check that it all fits, if it doesn’t just make small cuts until it does.
3. Screwing down the ply
Most vans have raised areas or ribs that run the length of the van. These areas are the best to screw to. Using the template you made earlier mark where the center of each raised area is and mark it on the top of your ply. That way you know where to put the screws. Once you have done that, lay your ply down and put your screws in.
Step 5: Installing the Roof
Installing a roof in your campervan conversion is optional, however, it is the best way to insulate the roof of your campervan. If you decide not to install a roof, at the very least consider gluing in hardboard insulation.
Having insulation in the roof is the most important place to have it!
Because the width of the roof of my van was 1.2m I chose to use sheets of 6mm MDF that came in that width. The reason I made my roof so thin was that it took the natural contour of the van’s roof nicely. I used MDF because it was cheaper and lighter than ply.
1. Cutt the wood to match with the braces
To install the MDF in the roof I screwed into the roof braces that come with the van. These braces are ribs that run along the width of the van. By screwing into the braces directly, I didn’t need to screw into the roof (which I do not recommend at all as that will put holes in your roof and cause a leak!)
Check the diagrams below to see how I screwed to the braces.
For this step, I needed two full sheets of 1.2m x 2.4m sheets of MDF. Both sheets were cut shorter to match up with the roof braces I screwed too.
2. Lift into place with insulation on top
Once I had my first roof piece cut to size I then lifted it into place with the insulation placed on top of the MDF and screwed it into place. I used stools to hold it in place while I screwed it in. If you don’t have these then ask some friends to help you.
Another way to make it easier is to glue the insulation in place first and just lift the wood to the roof.
After the first piece was done, I then screwed in the second half of the roof.
In this step, it’s important to use lots of screws. Not only was the MDF thin but with the bumping around caused while driving, I really wanted to roof to be secure. I recommend putting screws every 150mm along the seams. No screws were used along the sides and only the seams along the ribs of the van’s roof.
On the back edge of the van, I had trouble screwing to something (as there was no rib there.) So, I used metal brackets that were secured to the van and then to the MDF.
*Tip: NEVER put screws through the vans roof sheeting – the last thing you want is a leak!
If building a van is starting to sound too complicated, connsider renting a campervan instead. In New Zealand, there is a great company called Mad Campers! If you book with them and enter DTRAVEL5 at checkout you will get 5% off your campervan rental!
Step 6: Installing the Walls (Optional)
I always had the idea of installing walls in my van simply because I wanted to create a really homey feel in my campervan conversion. For the walls, I used 12mm ply but I think you could get away with using 7mm ply as well.
1. Plan how you will cover the walls
The first step was to work out how to cut my pieces of wood. I figured out that for the back section of the van (where there were no doors) I would need to do each side in two pieces. This was because the curve of the walls was too much to bend the ply.
I had seen in other conversions that they kept their walls straight by not following the curve of the van, however, this way you lose too much space (which is highly valuable.)
2. Begin cutting the wood and screw in place
I started by cutting my two bottom pieces so they ended below the windows. I didn’t make a template to cut around the wheel arch and instead just took measurements of them and marked them roughly on the ply.
We knew that these parts of the build would not be seen as the bed would cover them. Once cut, I screwed them into place around the perimeter of the ply.
For the section on the right side that completely covered the windows, I glued the vapor barrier (moister stopper) to the window and then glued insulation to it. I then cut my ply to rough size and slowly cut it smaller so it fitted nicely. I then screwed it to the wall around the perimeter the same as the bottom.
On the left side, I had planned to keep one window. So for this step, I couldn’t use insulation so it didn’t require a vapor barrier either. For this section, I cut my ply to shape the same way as before. But before I screwed it in, I cut out a hole where the back window was. I then screwed this piece in place.
With the small areas not covered in wood at the back, I simply cut smaller pieces and screwed them in to cover them and keep the same look throughout the van.
On the doors, I screwed a sheet of ply that covered from under the window to the floor.
3. Putty and paint
After I covered all of the van walls and roof with wood it was time to finish them off with putty and paint.
Putty any of the joins between the wood that you want. This is purely for aesthetics and it is up to you how much you putty. For me, I wanted smooth looking walls so I used putty on almost all of the joins including on the roof. This was time-consuming but looked awesome in the end!
After the putty is dry, sand it back to be smooth and flush with the wood.
Finally, paint the walls and roof with a primer and then a top coat!
Step 7: Laying the Vinyl
Using vinyl for the floor is highly recommended. I have seen people use carpet however carpet gets moldy when wet and isn’t waterproof. Vinyl is waterproof and can be cleaned really easily.
1. Prep the floor
Installing vinyl isn’t that hard, it just takes patience. Start by cleaning the floor and sweeping away any dust. Remember any lumps can show through your vinyl. For this reason, make sure all your screws are flush or below the surface and fill them with putty and sand them back smooth.
*Budget Tip: Buy vinyl secondhand. Many people have left over vinyl from home renovations up for sale for cheap on Facebook Marketplace.
2. Lay vinyl out and cut to shape
Lay your vinyl so it covers the entire floor and begin slowly cutting it back to the shape of the floor. Remember that most of the vinyl won’t be seen so just get it close. I found that just taking your time and cutting away a little bit at a time worked well.
3. Glue the vinyl down
Once your piece is cut you need to use a vinyl glue to glue it down. Because much of the vinyl will be under the kitchen and bed frame, you don’t need to completely cover the floor in glue and instead just some middle parts and the entire perimeter.
It is a good idea to put more glue in the section where you will be sitting and walking. This area is between the kitchen and bed.
Step 8: Building the Bedframe
1. Plan out the build
The first step is to know what design you are going with and how big you need it. I did this by laying on the floor to work out how long I needed the bed and what suited the size of the van. I decided, in the end, to make the frame 170cm long even though I am 180cm tall.
I decided on this length because building the bed frame the entire length of my body took up too much room and I don’t usually sleep completely straight anyway. You will need to work this out based on your height. However, also keep in mind you may want to sell the campervan one day so don’t make it too small or too big.
For the width, we just made it the width of the van and used the leftover space for a place to store our clothes. We used a standard double mattress and had about 150mm of space left over on one side.
The next step to planning is deciding the size of your table (if you’re having one.) I made mine 0.6m x 1m. This was quite large and I would recommend building yours slightly smaller.
Be sure to allow for the table to sit halfway over the timber frame on the three sides of the bed frame. This is so it can sit in without a frame meaning you will have a gap for your legs.
And finally, decide on a height. Be sure to allow enough room to be able to sit upright but high enough to maximize storage. Also, allow for the top ply and mattress. Once this is done, draw everything out on the floor exactly as you want it so you can measure and cut.
2. Build the bed frame
Building your bed frame can be done with many different sizes of timber but for mine, I used 2×2 and 3×1. I started by building a bottom frame that outlined the entire bed frame in the U shape. If you’re using a table you don’t want to build a rectangle frame as you need the cut out for where your legs will go once the table is up.
Once I built the bottom frame I started screwing in uprights and the built another frame same as the bottom on to of that. Then I put in extra supports to strengthen them up.
3. Screw down the ply top and cut your table
Your table and bed frame top need to be the same thickness so just use the same sheet of ply to make it. It’s also important to remember you may want to be able to lift some sections of the ply up to get to the storage underneath.
First, just work out how to cut up the sheet of ply to maximize usage. I managed to cover my entire bed frame with one sheet but had to use a few small offcuts and just screw them down.
Then, decide which pieces are going to be permanent. After that, cut all your pieces, screw down the ones you want and fit the others in place.
4. Finishing touches
I added in some draws, covered some of the bedframe with leftover ply and also put in a door on hinges that opened up to get to the storage areas. This is entirely up to you.
*Tip: Try to maximize storage wherever possible! When you finally move into your campervan conversion you’ll need as much as possible!
Step 9: Installing the Kitchen and Shelves
1. Plan the build
Installing the kitchen took a bit of trial and error but I found the best way was to make some markings on the floor again. I did this so I maximized bench space without making the van too cramped.
For my design, I decided to wrap the bench around the van in an L shape from the side of the front. This way, I had enough room for my sink and cooker to be on the bench and have room to prepare dinner.
2. Building the kitchen
I started by putting on a big piece of ply that was going to be my backsplash against the back of the seats. I didn’t put a back of the side of the bench where the door was. This was to allow room for my water tanks and so I could empty the tanks I installed for the sink.
After putting a few screws in using angle brackets I cut the dividers that would make the sections of the cupboard and draws. I left some only screwed in lightly so I could move them to suit the size of my fridge and water tanks.
Once I screwed enough of the dividers in I then cut my bench top. In order to make it easier to get in and out of the van, I cut the end edge at the door on a 45-degree angle. This worked really well and made the van feel a lot roomier.
Next, I made a drawer for utensils, doors for one section under the benchtop, shelves, and installed a short backing piece on the door side of the kitchen bench to stop water spilling over the edge. The last step was to cut a hole in the corner of my bench for my sink.
3. Close off the back of the van from the cab
The next step was to add extra pieces of ply to the back section to separate the cab from the back. This not only made the room more private but kept the back feeling like a room, not a van.
I did make the mistake of not deciding to do this earlier and ended up joining pieces instead of cutting one large piece. I left a gap so I could see out the back window while driving.
Step 10: Plumbing
The plumbing section of my van was done in accordance with the self-contained rules in New Zealand. These rules are in place for safety and hygiene when living in a van. You do not have to follow all the steps but it is a great idea to make sure your van doesn’t stink of grey water.
*Tip: Be sure to check if there are any rules and regulations about doing a campervan conversion in the place where you plan on travelling. For example, in New Zealand a self-contained campervan must get a certificate. To be able to get this certificate you must follow a very detailed set of rules which mostly relate to plumbing and wastewater!
1. Buy Materials
The first step was to buy two 25 liter food-safe plastic water containers, a pump tap, food grade hose with hose clamps to suit, and a sink with required fittings for its size.
2. Cut a hole in the kitchen bench and glue in the sink
The first step is to cut a hole where you want your sink and then glue your sink in places with some bathroom silicon glue. I found this stuff at a hardware store and it both glues the sink down and is used to seal the perimeter. This is done by running a bead around the outside of the sink and then smoothing it off. Wait for this to dry before going to the next step.
3. Sit tanks in place
Next, I began sitting the water containers in place to find out where they would best sit. I found that laying them down worked the best as I didn’t have enough height in the kitchen bench to stand them up. Once the tanks were in place I began running the hoses.
4. Hook up the waste tank
For the waste tank, I drilled two holes in the top of the tank. One for a vent, and a larger hole for the waste pipe. I then glued in a fitting that would fit the waste pipe into the larger hole.
After, I ran a hose from the sink to the waste tank using hose clamps to connect them. It’s also best to loop the drain down then back up again creating a trap. This stops the smell of the tank from entering the van.
As for the vent, I ran some clear hose from that vent done through a hole in the step of the van. This meant the waste tank would be able to breathe without stinking out the van.
5. Hook up fresh water
For the fresh water, I simply drilled a hole in the top of the fresh water tank and ran some hose through the hole to the bottom of the tank and the other end to the bottom of the pump sink and attached it with a hose clamp.
I made the hole in the tank tight so nothing would get into the tank. In this fresh water tank, I also used a vent so the tank could breathe when using the pump sink.
Step 11: Sealing and Priming Everything
This step is actually done both before and after the plumbing and is very important if you want the interior of your campervan conversion to last.
1. Stain everything
The first thing I did once I had my kitchen in was stain everything. I did this for aesthetic purposes but the stain also acts as a treatment to the wood that helps prolong its life. This step is not crucial but I loved the look of the stained wood. This step should be done before you silicon in the sink.
2. Seal the wood
Seal the kitchen bench with a good quality kitchen sealer. This is very important because, without it, the water from the sink will soak into the wooden bench top and rot it away over time. The best sealer to use is a two-pack sealer that needs to be mixed to activate.
This makes the wood feel smooth and stops water from soaking into the wood. In the area around the sink be sure to do two to four coats for maximum effect.
3. Prime and paint the roof and walls
Paint the roof and walls of your campervan conversion. This should be done with a primer first and finished with some sort of gloss paint afterward. The reason for this is the primer seals the wood from moister and the gloss top coat allows you to be able to clean the wood without smudging every mark into dark dirt stains.
It is easiest to do this step before installing the kitchen and bed frame, but if you are good with a paintbrush then it could be done afterward as well.
4. Silicon up joins in the kitchen
Silicon everything. Between your bench top and backsplash, you’re going to have a small gap where the wood meets. Silicon this corner up to stop water running done the back of your kitchen bench and into your cupboards.
*Tip: Preventing water is hugely important in preventing mold from developing in your van! While doing your campervan conversion, be sure to pay attention to areas water might go and silicon/seal them! A moldy van in unhealthy and won’t last long!
Step 12: Electrical
Hooking up and a second battery and an inverter was one of the best decisions we made during our camper conversion. It meant we could live off the grid with power for days at a time without even starting the van! Surprisingly, I found it actually quite easy to hook up.
Since writing this guide I have had to change my electrical setup to include two fuses. These Fuses are placed on the positive cable that connects both batteries. This is to ensure if the cables were to earth against the van the connection between them would be cut. Even though I used my kill switch to cut the connection you need the fuses to do so while the battery is charging and the switch is on.
The best way to install your van electrical set up correctly is you get an electrician to look over your work. Safety is very important and batteries, when used incorrectly, can be dangerous.
1. Things you need
- Red and black electrical cable
- 10 electrical ring terminal crimps,
- 1 switch
- 1 deep cycle battery
- power inverter.
- Two Fuses
2. Secure the second battery and hook up to the car battery
To do this you may need to build a small box like I did in order to store the battery. That being said, this is not overly important just make sure the battery isn’t going to move around. Once the battery is in place measure out enough red and black cable to join it to the car battery and cut to length with plenty of slack.
Next, you must attach electrical ring terminals to each end of both cables. Then use the screws on the batteries to attach the ring terminal clips. Be sure to connect the red cables to the positive on each battery and black to negative.
Once this is done the batteries are connected. However, as mentioned above, a switch is recommended. This is because its good to be able to disconnect the batteries when you are stationary for long periods of time or you will drain both batteries.
To put in the switch cut the red cable (positive) in a place where you will be able to install the switch. Then attach two more ring terminal crimps and screw them to the switch. This way when you turn the switch on and off you are disconnecting the batteries. Now, when you are parked for the night you can disconnect them and have no fear of draining your car battery!
2. Hook up the inverter to the second battery
Once you find a spot for your inverter you need to do exactly the same as above but to the terminals on the inverter. You don’t need a switch here. If you’re wondering what size cable to use just ask your local electrical supplier. I got lots of information and tips from mine while converting my van into a campervan.
*Note: Having a second battery makes living in your campervan conversion so much more comofrtable. But, if you don’t install it right you will end up draining your car battery, ruining your deep cyele battery, or not being able to charge certain devices.
Step 13: Mattress
The last step to getting finally finish the construction of your campervan conversion is putting in your mattress. This step will depend on your bed frame style but you can follow these steps below.
1. Choosing a mattress
The easiest style of mattress to use in a camper conversion a foam mattress. They are light and easy to cut up. If you don’t have a foldup table you could use a standard spring mattress instead.
2. Cutting and sewing the mattress up
If you have a fold up the table you are going to need to cut a section out the size of your table exactly where it sits. Once we had done this we bought a queen size duvet cover and cut that up to use as fabric to sew around the foam. Use a queen-size duvet cover instead of a double to ensure you have more than enough fabric.
*Budget Tip: Buy a duvet (doona) cover instead of fabric per meter. We found this to be the cheaper option and we didn’t have to do as much sewing!
We sewed the entire mattress up leaving one side open with buttons so we could remove the cover and wash it!
Step 14: Table Brackets
For this step, the best thing to do is buy a table bracket setup from a campervan shop. I built mine but it took a lot of time and I had access to a metal workshop. The brackets are 3 pieces and one gets screwed to the ground, one to the underside of the table and the third piece is a pole that joins the two when you want the table up.
Step 15: Decorate your Campervan
Our van had an “earth theme” so we used a jarrah stain, mattress cover with a tree theme, and painted a few shelves earth green. We then added in some smaller shelves with fake plants. Of course, the decoration is about adding your own unique touch so have fun with it and we can’t wait to see your designs!
Step 16: Buy Campervan Essentials
There are a few little extras you will need in your campervan to make life comfortable and easy: Some items you really need to get are:
- Fairy lights – They don’t use much power and give off plenty of light
- Table for outside – In the summer you will want to sit outside instead of in the van so having a small, portable table will be useful. This one, in particular, folds up very small so it is easy to store in your van!
- Chairs – For sitting outside!
- Fan – On hot days and nights a small fan is a lifesaver
- Cookware – A basic cookware set is essential
- Gas cooker – You’ll need to be able to cook in your van! A dual burner that is large enough for two big pots that folds away nicely is ideal!
- Refrigerator – If you have a second battery setup why not get a small fridge! This way you can keep meat and dairy cold (or even beers!) If you don’t get a refrigerator, consider getting a really good cooler box instead!
- Extension Cords – For plugging things in wherever you might need them!
- Portable chemical toilet – If you plan on going off the grid then having a toilet is handy (and environmentally friendly. In fact, in New Zealand having one of these toilets is a self-contained legal requirement!
Campervan Cost Breakdown (New Zealand dollars)
I picked up as much as I could second hand but all my ply, MDF, and screws were brought brand new. Here is a breakdown of what my campervan conversion cost:
Van – $5800
Screws – $100
Wood – $400
Paint – $80
Stain and sealer – $50
Insulation and vapor barrier – $30 (picked up cheap leftovers from a company that installs it)
Second Battery – $150 (scored a great deal on this second hand, be careful though as second-hand batteries often do not work that well and you should test them first!)
600watt PSW Inverter – $200 (picked it up on a half-price sale)
Cables and switch – $50
Sink – free (traded for some leftover steel I had with a friend)
Pump tap and rest of plumbing – $120
Tools – $150 (picked them all up second hand)
Handle, hinges, brackets – $50
Fridge – $150
Mattress – $50 (second-hand mattress brand new sheets)
Decorations – $80
Total cost – $7460
Campervan sold after our travels for $8200
Wow! What a project it was. Building a campervan conversion is not an easy task but in the end, it is so rewarding. It has always been a dream of mine to convert my own van into a stunning and livable campervan. In the end, both Bailey and I succeeded and despite some small bumps in the road, the job went pretty smoothly.
I hope this guide has helped inspire you on your journey to building your own campervan conversion. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below!
For more information on campervans and living in a van, check out all of our blogs about van-life!
March 8, 2020