Build Your Own Camper Van - Tips And Ideas

If you wish to build your own camper van, you'll need some basic DIY knowledge, tools, lots  of patience and even more spare time. And of course, a good, solid base vehicle for your camper van conversion.

I'll show you some images of my Volkswagen camper, but some of the basics are very general and can be used to build your own van of any kind. There are many other ways and materials to consider when converting your van, so check around to get some ideas.

But before you start with anything, it's very essential  that you read the paragraph below! So here we go...

IMPORTANT! Before you start to build your own camper van conversion, contact your legal authorities to check out what can you do and/or have to do in order to keep your conversion legal and safe! Government regulations are different around the world, so there is no possible way, I could give you any hints about it!


The First Steps

You can build your own camper van following a few basic steps:

  • Exterior work

  • Interior work

  • Water works
  • Gas & electricity

  • Furniture

  • Miscellaneous

If only two people will be using the van you'll have more then enough room to play with. If three or more souls are going to travel on board, the first thing to consider is having enough seats for everyone. Remember that seats have to be certified and equipped with legal safety- belts.

How many beds will you need? You can consider a double bunk bed for the kids or if you have a high-top roof, a drop down bed on the roof level can be a neat solution.

At this stage you should have a blueprint of your basic layout, because it's important to know what goes where when you build your own camper. You will improvise later on of course, but it's a lot easier if you have everything in on paper right now.

Exterior Work

The first thing to do when preparing the base vehicle, is to thoroughly clean out the inside of the van, unless you have a brand new toy to play with.

Another point to consider at this stage is the overall shape of the bodywork. Rust, dents any kind of paint and body damage or a full respray, now is the time to deal with it.

Do you want to install windows, a pop-top or high-top roof? Again, this is the time to do it.

Panel vans usually have no windows, so you might consider installing some camper windows. You'll need them for light and fresh air to come inside the camper van. As they come in many shapes and sizes and are a bit tricky to install, so here is a separate page covering just camper windows.

There are also a number of holes, that need to be cut or drilled in the body when you build your own camper van. Vents, propane gas exhaust (leaking gas), heater exhaust, water filler caps and so on. Some of them can be done later on, but it's a lot easier now if you know exactly where they'll be.

And remember, a coat of primer goes on everything you cut and grind exposing the bare metal, to prevent rusting.

Build your own camper van properly!

"Please click on any image to open up the larger image gallery!"

Interior Work

A delivery van will probably have a bulkhead behind the front row of seats. Some bulkheads are fastened with screws, others are welded on the body of the van. In this case you'll need an angle grinder or an air chisel to remove it.

When using an angle grinder, do protect everything in sight. Sparks flying out, can burn anything and leave nasty non removable stains on windows.

Now the fun part begins. Insulation is very important as it keeps your camping van protected from the outside noise and temperature. There are many kind of materials you can use, such as armaflex (the padding you use when chilling out on a beach), rock wool, natural sheep wool and so on.

I used the flexible armaflex, which is very practical to use. Cut it to appropriate pieces, use some glue on the roof and sidewalls and it will go anywhere you want. The key thing in a van camper is humidity. You don't want insulation that can't deal with this.

When I was searching the web for useful information on camper van conversions, I often had a large headache due to the overwhelming mix of information. So I payed a visit to a friend of mine, which converts quality camper vans for a living and asked him a couple of questions about how to build your own camper van.

He explained it the easy way around ...

Armaflex for insulation (natural sheep wool got my attention though), light, waterproof plywood (against humidity and all kinds of liquid spills) for covers and flexible, soft carpeting to cover it all.

And don't forget the screws, steel goes to steel, brass goes to brass (or wood) and aluminum goes to aluminum. Different types of metals usually don't mix and will eventually rust or brake apart.

For the side plywood covers use slightly thicker panels and wooden battens in order to install furniture on them.

Use a glue or sealant with a large temperature span, for the insulation, carpeting the sidewalls, lining and any kind or the upholstery. Why? Because your camper van conversion will be exposed to everything from sub-zero temperatures to the hot summer sun, heating the body of your van. Use low quality glue and you'll have your work peeling off in no time.

Where to start? Build your own camper van from the top down to the bottom. Insulation and lining of the ceiling, then do the sidewalls and at last the floor, as you can hide any scrap carpeting from the sides under the floor. Again, this is just my way of doing it.

Use wooden battens on the floor in order to get some space for the insulation. Use a adhesive/sealant such as Sikaflex, to fix the battens to the floor. Put the insulation in place and cover with a plywood floor. You can fix it in place by screwing it to the battens or using an adhesive sealant.

And just keep in mind the propane gas, water and electricity when you build your own camper van. You can run the hoses and wires through the insulation or under the plywood covers if you know where certain appliances will be placed in advance.

The Water Works

A camper van conversion can have a simple cold running water system with a couple of water canisters stored under the sink, and a submersible water pump in them to pull the water up to the tap when switched on.

If you need heated water, more then one sink and a shower, the system will be more complex. Larger water tanks are available in all shapes and sizes and you can fit them either under the van or somewhere inside. A lot of flexible hosing will be needed to connect everything together.

When you build your own camper van, only your imagination is the limit...

And don't forget about waste water. You can install a gray water tank under the van or simply run a hose through the vans floor, and drain the water in a portable tank or just a bucket.

Remember that gray deposit water smells awful in the summer and freezes in the winter. So in any case, you want to get rid of it as soon as possible, and a bucket is a great solution.

How about the toilet? You can install anything from handy and portable camping toilets like Porta Potti to electric  build in flush toilets.

Gas & Electricity

IMPORTANT! Propane hosing and electricity should be installed by fully qualified persons only. They can both present a potential hazard when not properly installed. Build your own camper van, but don't put other people at risk.

Propane gas in a camper van can be used for cooking, heating and running the three way fridge (works on 110/220V, 12V and propane). You can do without it though, using a portable stove running on alcohol spirit, a 12V compressor fridge and diesel heating such as Webasto and Eberspacher.

Propane gas bottles need to be stored in a separate, well sealed storage with a gas went on the bottom in case of any gas leaks. Why the vent on the bottom? Because propane gas is heavier then air and it will always go down.

I even routed an outside propane extension for the gas cooker or grill, so I  can enjoy cooking or grilling outside of my van.

Again, build your own camper van properly for your own safety!

Electricity is needed to run all the appliances in the camping van with 12V power. The system needs a secondary battery, a battery charger/converter unit, a battery separator preventing any drain from the start battery, a control panel and lots of cables.

Don't forget the external hookup (110V or 220V) to charge your battery in campsites and other places where hookup is available. And you can also use it at home, charging the batteries during winter storage for example.

The batteries in your camping van can be charged in different ways with the battery charger/converter unit.

To find out the ideal capacity of the auxiliary battery for you needs, you'll have to use some simple math. Let's say you'll be using the following...

  • Halogen lights 2x20W 2h/per day/ = 80Wh

  • Compressor cooler 45W 12h/per day/ = 540Wh

The total power consumption is 620Wh per day. Now divide 620Wh by 12V and you'll get 52Ah. This is your daily power consumption, and a commonly used battery with 100Ah will last for a couple of days without charging, just in case you want to go wild camping.

So add up all the Watt/hours (Wh) needed for all the appliances you'll be using for one day and divide the number with the voltage number of the circuit, in this case 12 Volts, to get the average daily power consumption numbers.

This is just a general guideline, as numbers change depending on the outside temperature. Batteries have lower performance in very hot or cold weather camping.

Consider using deep-cycle batteries, they cost a fortune but last more "full to drain" cycles. In simple words, you can drain them flat more often than regular batteries.

Diesel heaters and compressor coolers both perform superbly and don't need gas (propane) to work, but are among the largest power consumers, meaning you'll need a large auxiliary battery when not on hookup.

On the other hand, two large household propane gas bottles will last about a week in the winter time and a lot more in the summer. But the problem is refiling the bottles, as you will not find gas companies around every corner. And if you travel a lot around Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, the attachments are different in almost every country for some reason, giving you additional headaches when you run out of propane.

So think carefully before choosing the heating options for your van!

This, and the lack of space for large gas bottles in my VW camper van convinced me to use a small 5kg propane bottle for cooking only (a couple of months worth of cooking actually...), an Eberspacher diesel heater and a 12v/220 Waeco cooler.

The gas and electricity issues are very important factors to consider when you build your own camper van. Because if you're looking at some wild camping action, you'll need to be self sustained for longer periods of time. So take your time, do the math and figure out what's best for you!


Furniture

If you build your own camper van, resource and creative are the words of the day. That way you can get and design the furniture in many ways.

Check out old campers or camping trailers for any usable pieces of furniture. Check eBay, you can find complete furniture for VW camper vans and many others for a fair price.

Or design your own like I did. I had the benefit of using my friends workshop and the tools I needed. The circular saw was a must. And he gave my some ideas as well. But I did most of the work myself.

Some conversion companies sell prefabricated parts covered with veneer or raw plywood that you can varnish and install by yourself. Or you can have the furniture made by a pro and just the way you like it.

You can check out the finished project at the van campers page, where I kindly invite you to share your camper vans as well.


A Never Finished Build Your Own Camper Project?

When you build your own camper van, the fun part is, that the whole thing is a never finished project. Along the way you can always add something new, repaint the furniture, get the seats recovered and play around as much as you want. Because after all, this is a big boy's toy, right?

Have You Build Your Own Camper Van?

When you consider building your own camper van, there are many of obstacles to overcome. And the so needy information is a little scarce on the net. So if you have any further experience, please feel free to share your tips and ideas with the rest of the world. You will make life a lot easier to many folks around...

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