Building a Campervan - Part 1

2015 Chevy Express 2500 on the lot. 

In August of last year I decided to build a Campervan.  I traded my Jeep in for a full size cargo van and began the conversion process. Vans are the most practical vehicle in my opinion.  You can haul up to 8000 lbs and another 8000 behind it easily with room to spare.  When you park you utilize all the square footage of your parking space.

Perhaps a campervan would not be the best vehicle for you, but for me it was the obvious choice. Prior to looking for a van I had looked at Class A, B, and C RVs. There were several reasons why I chose a Van over an RV.
Empty cargo hold brand new. 

  • Vans are cheaper to fix mechanically. Vans are plentiful and while a Class A windshield will run you $3500 and take a professional to install, while you can get a new Van windshield for about $150. 
  • Vans are sturdier. RVs are designed to be large and light. Exteriors are made of plastic, fiberglass, or sheetmetal. A van has a steel shell to protect you from the elements.
  • Vans are easier to drive and park. Taking up only the space of a large car you don't have to worry about wide turns and low overpasses. You can also go through drive thrus in a Van while you would have to park most RVs. 
  • Reliability. RVs are not designed to be daily drivers.  They are designed to be used about 30 days a year.  
  • Horsepower. Vans are nimble enough to pass cars on two lane roads, and fly over the steepest overpasses without slowing to a crawl. 
  • Aesthetics - When your parked in an RV people assume you are living there or at the very least camping. A white cargo van is plain and discreet enough no one gives them much attention and are less likely to target you. 
  • Security. There are fewer windows to break on a cargo van, you can separate your sleeping quarters from your driving quarters, and people are less likely to break into something they can't see in. 
  • RV's have complicated pre-installed systems that are often overkill, or not powerful enough. Good luck tracing shorts in your RV tracing wires you never saw before to change out that 'lowest bidder' modified sine wave inverter that fried your new laptop and other sensitive electronic devices. 
  • Large down payment and high markup. Financiers require you place a large amount down to purchase a new RV.  Although this may be as small as 4% this is a good chuck of change on a $79k vehicle. 
  • Inability to change design.  With the plumbing, wiring, and appliances already installed it is difficult to change the layout.  It will be hard to haul cargo or passengers in an RV, while a van can be easily converted in a few minutes if built modular. 

While I enjoyed having a Jeep.  It was fun to drive and you could take the doors and roof off in the summer. However the nights I would spend camping left comfort behind in place of sexy ruggedness. The ability to carry any weight with a Jeep is unfortunately very light. A two door Jeep can only tow 1500 lbs. Crawling over axle bending rocks at slow speed miles from assistance is a different sport.  It is expensive and more mechanically challenging than my taste desire. I enjoy parking my vehicle, then hiking in to explore the wildlife and terrain.    I enjoy sleeping on a memory foam mattress with a fan blowing fresh sea air on my face while I sleep.  I also enjoy being able to take enough amenities with me to fully enjoy my stay.  This means being able to go to the bathroom, cook, and clean in or around my vehicle.

So after deciding to get a low mile cargo van I started to shop.  Vans are plentiful if you look and I found a decent one at a fair price at a local dealership. I settled on a 2015 Chevy Express Van 2500.  It was a retired rental van from Oklahoma with 32k miles on it. With a small fuel efficient 4.8 v8 it gets a consistent average of 15.8 mpg.

The cargo bay was completely stripped empty with the exception of cargo dome lights and a rubber mat on the floor which suited my creative side nicely.

A note about buying commercial vehicles.
It is important to make sure your vehicle is registered as the appropriate class you are intending to use
In California commercial vehicle license plates start with 1.
it or you may pay heavily for that.

When I purchased my Van I did not realize it was registered as a commercial cargo van until the dealership requested I pay an additional $120 for my registration.  I found out the yearly registration on a commercial cargo van includes a weight charge in California bringing my yearly registration to over $400.

I did some research by calling the DMV and dealership.  DMV instructed me to find out why they were registering it as a commercial vehicle so I then called the dealership.   Apparently since they sold it to me configured as a cargo van there was no reason not to register it as anything else.

By this time a little over a month had past and I had already started to build it out as a campervan.  I found out that in order to change a registered vehicle type I needed to have a Reg 31 form completed by a certified Highway Patrol Officer or private inspector service. I found out there was one officer in my county certified and he happened to have an appointment available within a week.

I took the vehicle to the Highway Patrol Station and the officer inspected the modifications I had made.  He reported that I had to change enough in order to determine it's primary use is no longer for cargo hauling.  Since I had installed a folding sleeper sofa, table, paneling, and carpet the officer said it now qualifies as a CamperVan.  He gave me the form which I in turn drove to the dealership and they were nice enough to file it with the registration costing me nothing and bringing my registration down $200.

My insurance did not go up when it was registered as a commercial vehicle, however in some states I hear that if you have your vehicle registered as commercial you will also need to carry commercial insurance as well which can be double or more what private insurance would be.

Starting the conversion.

 The first thing I wanted to do was the ceiling and sides. I decided on a real wood look.  At the hardware store I purchased..

  • Several 1" x 3" redwood boards for attaching to the metal frame. 
    Returning from the hardware store.
  • Several 1" x 2" redwood planks
  • Lots of 1/8" x 3" siding v-notch pine planks.
  • Two boxes of premium aromatic cedar v-notch planks for contrast and design. 
  • Titebond II or III glue.  You can remove the screws once this glue sets.  Often stronger than the wood by itself. 
  • Self taping sheet metal screws for attaching wood to metal frame of van. 
  • Small wood screws to hold wood in place along curved interior surface until the wood settles and glue holds. 
  • Clamps.  Helpful to hold together pieces not screwed in. 
The idea was to minimize modifications to the original structure of the van to maintain its strength and damages to existing structure. The interior was designed along the curvature of the van and re-enforced by planks running perpendicular to the ceiling planks.  

After tacking the wooden supports to the frame every few feet the planks were glued together at the notch and held along the curvature of the roof with wood screws to the plank.  These were removed once the glue dried to give it a cleaner appearance.

The cargo dome lights were disconnected and placed along side the frame beams and 3/4" higher than previously mounted in the wood ceiling.

It was during this time I also ran wire for my backup camera and rear speakers so that I could easily run them in the wall space behind the wood.

At the end of the van my 1" x 3" planks did not reach all the way to the back.  This required some creative cross bracing and wood to extend the ceiling to the back.

The walls were next.  I used the same strategy for mounting the planks as the ceiling.  Using 1" x 3" planks for the vertical supports, I glued and screwed the planks along the side of the van.

Extra wood was used as supports to hold the planks tightly in their notches while the glue dried.  v-notch wood is very slim and the notch breaks easily making it a bit difficult to bend along the curvature and tack at the same time.

I alternated pine and cedar planks and the van started to smell like a forest before long.

At this point I took a break from wood working to work on several other projects to personalize my new adventure vehicle.

I added switches to control various electronic devices. Blue switch controls the amplifier for my sound system so I can turn the bass down off highway. The green switch activates the backup camera.  Rather than hooking it up to the backup lights this provides me the ability to turn it on and off manually.  These first two switches are wired to ACC so they turn off with the vehicle.

The other two switches are wired to constant 12v.  The red switch controls starter battery power to the rear electronics in the event of alternate battery failure.  This provides power to close the roof vent remotely if it is open, as well as LED lights and TV.

To prevent curious eyes from peering in I tinted the rear cargo windows dark. In combination with interior blinds they appear completely blacked out.

This had to be done twice.  The first time I tried to do it myself and I was not happy with how the tint wrinkled.  I took it in to a local shop and they had them both tinted for $50.  Unless you have access to good quality tinting, or can manipulate cheap auto store tint I recommend having this done professionally.

Cost of tinting yourself is, however, twice as cheap and half as good.
  • $15.99 for enough tint for just two windows.
  • $4.99 soap solution.
  • $5 Squeegee 
  • Time and frustration (worth a lot)
Now that the wood finish and tinting is done it is time to get started installing toys.