This all started with a phone call from my father. He asked if I had ever thought about buying a van, I replied with a kind of hesitation that anyone who knows my father would in that situation. "Yeah" Of course I've thought about purchasing a van. I mean really, who hasn't? Living in a van down by the river used to associated with failure and drug use, now it is seen as the ultimate achievement in millennial freedom, although I'm sure the drug use is still there. I had fantasied about it. I spent hours building a mobile adventure headquarters from afar by placing items in my amazon shopping cart I think would be of use in my dream van, but now with this question posed to me it seemed to me that my father was going to make this dream his own. I was unsure whether he wanted insight into my research on the subject for his own query or if he was 3 beers deep and just wanted to bullshit with me.
"I'm doing a job for this lady, and she's got this van sitting in her driveway. So I ask Joe "Hey Joe what's going on with that van?" (Joe being a friend of my fathers who knew Pam and Robert the owners of the house and van) he tells me that she's trying to get rid of it. She just wants to get rid of the damn thing" at this point I'm listening very intently. My father is notorious for splurging on hobbies in which he doesn't follow up. He continues "So I ask Pam how much she wants for it, and she says "If you get it out of here it's yours for a dollar" so I was wondering if you wanted it."
A smile worked it's way between my stuttering words that I fought to mutter into the phone. "Fuck yeah I want it!"
Fast forward 3 months of day dreams and creeping every #vanlife mention on instagram. I had moved from SLC to my home town of Carson City, NV for the summer to work for my father and of course to get started on this van dream I had. It took about a month from when I first showed up to the point of actually getting a bill of sale signed and picking up the van. With a dollar in my pocket and a blank canvas sitting in front of me on four rotting tires we drove to the owner's house to get her. The van at this point did not run, we were not sure what was wrong with it. So we loaded it up on a car trailer and hauled it to our house where I could finally start getting to work. This was a big fucking deal. Because up until then it was not concrete that this van was in fact mine. And yes, the previous owner did in fact want the dollar, as to what she did with it I will never know.
The van was full of shit. I mean full, it was everywhere. It smelled terrible, it was full of trash and rat shit. It had sat for ten years and I don't believe the previous owner being an actual hoarder helped. I filled up my shop vac at least twice with the fecal matter of long dead rats. As you can see in the pictures below, this van was a carpeted wood paneled mess. The cabinets had to go, so did the couch, so did everything. After I took these pictures I was quick to grab a 10 lb sluggo and start the destruction phase, which stood out as a highlight of the whole build process.
Getting everything out of the van was fun weird process, I could see every mistake the guys at the plant made when assembling this thing. They obviously were the type of workers who would bring a flask of Daniels to work. I saved all of the side panels and roof panels to later make templates. Most everything in these pictures ended up in the trash trailer.
One thing I wasn't prepared for was the wiring. There was, a TV, a VCR, a 6 disc CD player, 6 overhead lights, 2 24v outlets, 3 12v outlets, speakers, 4 overhead switches with no function, a drop down radar detector that dropped down between the two visors, headphone jacks in the back for the TV and radio, a CB radio, an overhead vent unit, and a partridge in a pear tree. I had no experience with wiring before so I was thrown right into it. I tried to label and keep the wiring as clean as I could during the destruction phase.
As soon as I thought all the rat shit was gone and that I no longer had to deal with that I found out that the van was originally insulated with fiberglass insulation in which the rat's had buried and nested in. I now had to clean out dead rat babies and of course more rat shit. Below are some of the pictures of the wiring.
The van still wasn't running. I have zero motor work experience other than changing my oil and getting my tires rotated, so I really had no idea where to start. With the battery on a tender I would turn the key praying for something to happen. She wanted to turn over, she wanted to run, but it sounded like it wasn't getting gas. So I went to NAPA and picked myself up a new fuel filter and 5 gallons of fresh gas. I successfully replaced the fuel filter and stepped back into the drivers seat not expecting a change. I slid the key into the ignition, with a deep breath I turned the key and pumped the gas pedal and for the first time in 10 years she started up. The 5.7L V8 purred like she was running on race gas, and my heart beat like it was running on a 50/50 intravenous shot of adrenaline and heroin. I was honestly numb. I couldn't believe that all it took was an $8 fuel filter and a battery tender. As soon as it sunk in that it was running I literally jumped out of the cab and ran to the street looking for someone to exclaim my happiness. I came back and began to celebrate by listening to the motor. The air filter sat on the seat next to me and with every push of the gas pedal I could feel the air force its way past the wiring into the cylinders. With 8 cylinders roaring 3500RPM shook the cab, it shook me in the drivers seat, it changed the way I looked at this van build. I eventually knew I had to shut it off because I had yet to change the oil among a slew of other things but this feeling was one that kept me going through the most stressful parts of the build.
There was so much carpet in this thing. Every square foot was either wood paneling, plastic or carpet. I started by taking out the seats, which in theory wasn't hard but the bolts were so rusted that I was only able to remove them by using a torque wrench and sheering them off. After the seats came out, the cabinets were next. Which is where that 10lb sluggo came in handy. The next thing to come out was the carpet which was a relief to see gone. The shell of this project looked so clean compared to as it had when I started.
Once the van was naked, It was time to re-insulate it. This time with rigid insulation. I used a 2" on the walls, 1" on the floors and for the fiberglass camper shell I decided to go with a roll of bubble insulation. I wanted to preserve every inch of standing room I could inside. I filled all the visible gaps with spray foam because why not. Installing the insulation was a great time, it was easy and made a huge difference. Make sure to horde all of the styrofoam balls to blow them at your significant other. But really, those little balls stick to everything, they littered our yard for weeks afterwards.
The end result turned out so well. I was stoked on how quickly I was able to go from shit filled walls and floors to clean and newly insulated van. The difference was day and night. As soon as the insulation was installed I was able to measure, cut and install my floor boards. This would be my foundation for everything else that I was going to build. It was crucial to make sure that it was correct and sturdy enough for me to screw and drill into. I picked a 5/8 inch piece of plywood and some 1x4 and mounted this directly to the floor of the van. Making sure I didn't hit anything important with my screws was all apart of the fun.
After the insulation was installed and the floor in place every step afterwards would get more and more difficult. It wasn't anything I had done, it was just the natural progression of the project. I was bait and switched by the installation of the insulation. One thing that I had no idea I was going to have to do was re-wire the entire thing. I realized that the wiring in the van was just well fucked. No fuse box, terrible ground locations, and wires coiled up, at this point I began to think that the employees of this van company were taking something a little harder than Daniels to work. Up until this realization I had been gingerly tracing each wire back to its source, figuring out what it powered and just trying to re-attach them later. At some point I shorted something and couldn't figure out what it went to, so I made the 4th quarter hail mary decision to just re-wire the entire thing. I had no experience with anything electrical other than flipping the fuse box in our house. As most problems that arose in this project I was thrown in head first naked screaming. Everything I had listed above, would have to be re-wired off a new fuse box with new wire and different wire paths that wouldn't generate as much heat. This was a two week ordeal, I didn't take many pictures because I was dealing with an overflow of stress and an ever weakening mental state. I eventually placed the last fuse and wire. I checked that off the list and moved onto the next.
Crafting the walls, I used a thinner plywood than I did on the floor and spent hours sanding and staining. My hand would grow numb from the disc sander then cramp from the brush strokes. I saved the original side panels so I had a hard template to go off of, this was one of the better ideas that I had. I was able to run my new wires to where I wanted them and had to enlist the help of 2 family members to help me hold them in place while I screwed them to the walls. I stained multiple times and sanded even more, I would eventually throw back around 4 gallons of stain and countless packs of varied grit sanding discs.
$329 48" drawer slides. Yup, that's how much those fuckers cost. I was taken aback when I first realized I'd have to spend that much for a 500lb rated drawer slide. Worth it? Yes. The drawer was the first thing I was actually able to build inside of the van. After the frame was done I started working on the kitchen. The kitchen was extremely hard to build because of the cabinetry involved. My original idea was to have a bed fold down from the side of the drawer onto the back of the bench but I had to trash it once I built it. The bench was easy to build and install, pretty simple.
I opted for solar panels instead of a generator. I have two Goal Zero Boulder 90's sitting on top of the van that power a Yeti 1250 with an external 175wt/hr battery to double it's life. This system powers my fridge, speakers, and anything I've plugged into the 24v outlets. I also was able to wire a switch running off of the alternator to a 12v outlet so I can charge the system while the van is running. I was between fridge or cooler for the longest time. Those YETI coolers are pretty sweet but in the end I went for a 38L Dometic electric fridge. This slides out of the kitchen and has programmable temperatures which makes it perfect for anything I'll be using it for.
Below is the beef of the build. I really don't want to go into to much detail because I could go on for a long time about every time I came across a build stopping error or life changing revelation.
Like I said, the kitchen was the hardest part carpentry wise. So many drawers, sliders, installing a sink with semi running water. But once that was done the build process difficulty was turned down a couple notches. I installed a 6 speaker surround sound system instead of keeping the radio. The speakers are powered off of the Goal Zero. I built two flip top storage systems around the ribbon of the roof for clothes and other things. I covered the gaps with a ton of different trim pieces which I stained the same color. The back of the bench flips down and using a piece of angle iron hits the top of the drawer and creates a flat surface for our bed. The bed is secured using tie down straps when not in the bed position.
WARNING, THERE WAS A SKILL SAW ACCIDENT AND THERE IS A PICTURE OF SAID ACCIDENT. YOU'VE BEEN WARNED
Only one big thing was left to do, the flooring. I found a color scheme that I liked and that I thought fit the vans interior. I had purchased it all and was ready to start installing it. I took one of only about 5 days I had off that I decided I didn't want to work on the van. That morning I went boating with a few friends of mine as an end of the summer good time. After we had our fun I got right back to work installing the flooring in the van. Skill Saw blades cut up, and unknown to me when cutting a faux wood floor with a skill saw you are supposed to place masking tape on the face so it doesn't chip. This makes a ton of sense, but I hadn't thought I should have actually read the instructions. I made my first cut with the skill saw, I immediately realized my mistake and without thinking twice I allowed the skill saw to follow my arm down towards my side. When the saw met the fabric of my pants it was ripped out of my hands and cut into my calf. I went into shock before the saw even hit the ground. All I saw was my muscle and skin hanging through the slit in my pants.
For some reason the guard hadn't gone down. 60 stitches later I was able to leave the OR.
First off, I want to say I'm sorry for the gore, but I figured I'd show you only because this is what small mistakes when using power tools can do. If I had cut 1-2CM more towards my knee I would have severed a major nerve and been left with a dead leg. The doctor was able to show me the nerve by peeling back my skin. I'm very fortunate that all I was left with was a scar and a new found respect for power tools.
I had to hop back on that horse sometime. I was only on the couch for 2 days before I started hobbling around. Within a week I was back to doing the flooring, and it wrapped up pretty beautifully. These pictures aren't the greatest, but they're all I have from the installation process.
I powered through the the trim and floor installation. There are things I've yet to complete, like sewing a shade for the windows, installing some carpet on the shelf above the seats. We're still learning the best way to go about living in the van. Its weird having to adjust simple things like brushing your teeth and going to the bathroom. And yes, we're still railing our domes on the lights and corners. We will continue to add small things to the van like a spice rack and a paper towel holder. It's hard to say if we'll ever be done changing things, but for now it's perfect. It's our home.