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"It's Not Going to be Perfect." A DIY Campervan Conversion Story - Part Two

Updated: Jun 30, 2019


Jack the New Zealand Campervan

If you’ve been following along with my journey and you’ve read Part One of my campervan conversion story, you now know that Uschi and I did not kill each other in the process of converting our van (although we did come very close on more than one occasion).


Toasting our campervan success with beers at New Brighton Beach

For those who have just joined, the quick version of the story is that I am currently working and travelling my way around New Zealand with my beautiful Belgian girlfriend Uschi. We live in our 1998 Toyota Hiace called Jack, who we recently decided to give a little DIY TLC. We have spent the past two weeks slaving away, and we have yet to finish everything we want to. Uschi has loved the process, while I have had to physically stop myself from laying down in front of the van on more than one occasion.


DIY Experts!

Now that you are all caught up and know that Uschi and I are both alive and well (ish... there are definite psychological scars from this experience), I’m sure you’re probably wondering (I flatter myself), what exactly we did to our van. I’ve been going on and on and I have yet to show you anything even remotely exciting.


“What the heck Sarah, get to the damn point. Show us something beautiful, miraculous, and exciting!”


Don’t lie, that’s obviously what you’re thinking.


Okay, well I should probably warn you, a campervan conversion is not that exciting. Or glamorous. There are no beautiful photos of us lolling about on beaches (yes that’s what we do on beaches, we loll), no scenic photos of New Zealand’s rolling hills with miles and miles of fluffy white sheep. Mostly there are photos of me with unwashed hair looking grungy and fed up, and Uschi using power tools with laundry hanging on the line in the background.


See?

Am I selling you yet?


Good.


Well alright, you asked for it. Here is a short (ish) (ha ha) summary of the additions (I hesitate to use the word improvements as I don’t want to hurt Jack’s feelings) we made to Jack during the fifteen day period I like to call TWO WEEKS IN HELL.


1.) Preparation


How Jack looked when we first bought him

Oh no no no, you didn’t think I was going to start with something exciting did you? Something like drilling holes in the roof of the van, or installing a gorgeous wood ceiling? Spoiler alert, we did neither of those things (although we were very close to the former). Can’t say I didn’t warn you.


As any good DIY’er (is that a thing?) knows, it is absolutely paramount to do research and preparation before beginning a project, especially a project of this magnitude.


However, as anyone who knows Uschi knows, research and preparation are two words that are not in her vocabulary. (But to be fair she does speak three languages so let’s give her a break shall we?)


Beginning the conversion process by emptying Jack

The fighting began before a single hammer was lifted, before a single screw was screwed, before… well you get the picture (yay drama, the stuff all good stories are made of). Let’s just say, we were fighting before we had even begun.


I, the anal retentive control freak (take me or leeeeaaaave meeee), insisted that we do heaps of research and build multiple charts in various word documents before we even set foot in a store.


Uschi insisted that we dive right in and (gasp) figure things out as we go along.


I told her she’s crazy, she told me I’m annoying, blah blah blah. After a minor argument we met in the middle. She let me do my research and pretended to care, while I left her to her own devices and tried not to have an anxiety attack every time I thought of some new problem that might arise.


Miss No Preparation at her finest

To begin with, we completely emptied Jack, although I personally prefer the term gutted...


We took everything out – benches, walls, ceiling covering etc… – and gave him a bit of a clean. Then after we (I) had done as much research as possible, we moved on to phase two.


2.) Insulation


Hey Uschi! Get back to work!

Because we are planning to live in the van for a full year, we decided to insulate so that the van keeps cool in the summer, and traps heat in the winter.


Although I had read many blogs on DIY campervan insulation I was ultimately still at a loss when it came time to execute. There are so many options, which one should we choose?!


Preparing the foam boards for installation

Ultimately we chose to insulate with a type of foam board insulation called Extruded Polystyrene (XPS) (don’t worry, I can’t pronounce it either), although it wasn’t our top choice. Our top choice was another type of foam board insulation that is substantially more environmentally friendly, but is unfortunately much more difficult to find.


XPS is suitable for the climate we will be living in, fits in our budget, and is well suited for vans because it is bendable enough to fit slightly curved surfaces such as our ceiling.


Cutting the foam boards into pieces for the ceiling

We cut the insulation to fit into the cavities in our walls and into five large pieces for our roof and back door.


According to my research (excuse me while I push my nonexistent glasses up the bridge of nose), the roof is the most important part of the van to insulate because (duh) heat rises and consequently the roof is where most of the heat is lost.


We decided not to insulate the floor, as it is not highly necessary, and we planned to install flooring anyways which would give us a little bit of cushioning in that area.


Leaving our mark on Jack

Fitting the foam boards into the wall cavities - they are way deeper than they look!

Now comes the fun part: the application!


We secured the foam board cut outs into place with expanding spray foam, which is super fun to use (albeit a little scary), and adds extra insulation by filling in all of the gaps and cracks.


I was in charge of this part, and I may have gone a bit overboard (I was drunk with power okay?), and accidentally glued our sliding door shut…


Filling in all the gaps and cracks!

Luckily, once the spray foam cures, it is easy to cut, and after a very brief period of time in which I prayed that Uschi wouldn't leave me, and in which lots and lots of yelling occurred, we were able to cut the spray foam out of the door cavities and free the sliding door (yay).


And now we wait...

The ceiling and back door were a bit more difficult and required us to use wooden poles to hold the foam boards in place while the spray foam cured. Consequently, we had to do this step bit by bit, and although it took some time, it was quite ultimately quite easy.


The finished product, an insulated van!

3.) Painting


Finally, something fun!


Jack was covered in chips and rust

When we bought Jack, the interior of the van was covered in paint chips and rust making the van look dreary and old. Jack certainly didn't feel very homey. To combat this, we decided to give him a fresh coat of white paint.


Jack definitely needed a new coat of paint

I was in charge of the painting, and truth be told it was one of my favourite parts of the process. Finally, something I was actually good at!


We prepped the van by taping all the windows and doors. I then sanded the walls, showing a little extra love to the rusted parts. Following that I applied primer to the rust to ensure the paint would cover it well.


Here's that grungy, unwashed hair I was talking about...

With all the prep out of the way, I spent a lovely afternoon inhaling paint fumes and singing along to the In the Heights soundtrack as I applied two coats of paint to Jack’s interior.


Ta Da! Rust be gone!

We were SO happy with the result. The paint brightened Jack up and made him look young again. He was finally starting to feel more like a home, and most importantly I did something right for once!


Before...

After!

4.) Flooring


For our flooring we chose to use laminate. During my research, I had seen it used frequently based on how nice it looked, how easy the application process is, and how reasonable the cost is.


Beige carpet is definitely not the most ideal flooring for a campervan

When we bought the van, the floor was a piece of beige carpet. It didn’t look thaaat bad; however, carpet for long term van living? Not exactly ideal. Living in a van can get quite dirty, especially when we are constantly tracking in dirt and sand. We don’t exactly have a vacuum cleaner lying around...


Laying our floating laminate floor

We vacuumed the carpet and left it in place to use as our subfloor. Then, after watching a few instructional videos, we began the process of laying the laminate into place and fitting the boards together.


Lunch break!

This was relatively easy, in fact it might have been the easiest part of the entire conversion, with the only challenging parts being cutting the boards to fit in the corners and around the wheel wells.


The van is finally starting to come together!

We were extremely happy with the results, and it is definitely one of our favourite features of the van.


5.) Walls


We decided not to install floor to ceiling walls because it would cost too much and take too much time. We also didn't want to cover any of our windows so that we are able to keep what natural light we have. That left us with the task of finding something to cover the wall cavities.


Back to Bunnings... Again...

Luckily, on our 2198th trip to Bunnings we stumbled across thin wooden boards that would fit over the cavities and make the walls look a little nicer, and for a reasonable cost (for once!) might I add. Uschi cut them to fit and we spent part of an afternoon drilling them in.


Although I do think they look good (especially beside the fantastic paint job, I'm just saying…), they probably wouldn't have been our first choice had we had a little more time and funds. But because their main purpose is to cover the insulation and wall cavities, and because they will be mostly covered by the benches, I think we made a pretty solid choice.


I admit, I don't have any great photos of the walls... Ooops!

In addition to covering the side walls of the van, we wanted to build a large wall to separate the driving area of the van from the living area.


This involved another trip to Bunnings to purchase a giant piece of plywood.


Once we had said plywood, we measured out the size and shape we wanted and cut it with our trusty jigsaw.


Our second home

I sanded down the board while Uschi ran back to Bunnings because we didn’t have the right type of screws (if I had a nickel for every time we had to run back to Bunnings for screws...), and once she returned we installed it.


A day or two later we voiced our mutual concerns to each other that we had cut the board just a tiiiiny bit too short, and because of that, it wasn’t really serving the purpose we wanted.


So, you guessed it, BACK TO BUNNINGS.


We bought a brand new sheet of plywood (ugh), and repeated the entire process.


Luckily the process went a lot quicker the second time because we knew exactly what to do.


We could have kept the first wall, but because Jack is our home for the next year, we wanted to do things right. To us, it was worth the time, frustration, and (unfortunately) the extra $40.


6.) Electricity


Okay I fully admit that this part of the process I had pretty much nothing to do with.


We now have a fully functioning, solar powered van!

When we first began this project we spent the first couple of days running from store to store talking to everyone we could about voltage and batteries and solar panels and blah blah blah...


My head spun so much, that by the time we were finished I thought I was back in Canada. Just kidding. I'm bad at jokes. Okay moving on.


I even had a minor meltdown in Super Cheap Auto (another store where the employees would come to know and loathe us), after an employee had just finished explaining to us again something or other about the electrical system that we had yet to build.


Uschi asked me a question and I honestly just couldn't speak. My head was spinning, it was so overwhelming, I wanted desperately to understand, but it was just too much. This was before we had even begun any part of the conversion process. We had bits of information scribbled here and there on random scraps of paper, my head was swimming with information, and my OCD and anxiety were going crazy. I began to tear up. Right in the middle of the store. Uschi gave me a little hug, told me not to worry (good advice which of course I couldn't listen to), and that everything would work out alright, which of course it did.


The deep cycle battery that powers everything in our van

And the lovely battery box that Uschi built

Basically what we (she) did, is bought a second battery - a deep cycle battery - to power everything in our van - lights, water pump, chargers for our electronics, fridge etc...


Then we bought everything we needed to connect the system - terminal block, wires, fuse box, fuses etc...


The solar panel regulator, fusebox, and terminal block

We then had to figure out approximately how much electrical consumption we would use daily, and purchase our solar panel based off that calculation.


Handy for those cloudy days!

Since we only bought one deep cycle battery, and many van dwellers have two (or more?), we also bought a charging kit that allows us to charge our second battery with our car battery when the van is running. That way, if we encounter a lot of cloudy weather and we need power, all we need to do is connect the two batteries and go for a little drive.


But because our daily output isn't very high we think we should be fine, and so far we have been. Thankfully New Zealand is sunny! (at least in the summer)


Even our fairy lights are solar powered!

Providing us with lovely, twinkly lights at night!

Uschi also installed three LED lights, one large one in the centre of the van, and two reading lights in the back by our heads where we sleep. These lights have been very useful in the evenings, in addition to our solar powered fairy lights.


Enjoying a cozy evening in our new home

7.) Ceiling


Now that we had completed almost everything, we were feeling pretty confident. So we hopped in our van without a plan and headed to, you guessed it, Bunnings!


Are you sick of that name yet? Good. Me too. I still can't enter the store without wanting to vomit.


We didn't have much of an idea of what we wanted to use. Many people choose to install beautiful wood ceilings which look amazing, but similar to our walls, we simply didn't have the time or resources, and by this part of the process we were growing tired and just wanted to be finished.


Some people use carpet, and some people simply keep the van's roof the way it is, but because we chose to insulate, we needed to find something to cover the ugly foam boards.


As we wandered through Bunnings we came across some Vinyl flooring which looked quite nice. It had the appearance of an oak floor which would look great with our laminate flooring, and we thought that maybe we would be able to cut it and glue it in place.


So excited, so hopeful, so naive

We inquired with one of the staff members and he assured us that it should work, handing us a spray adhesive that we thought would do the job.


I'll save us both some time here and tell you that it didn't work. After multiple attempts at applying the roof it soon became apparent that it wasn't going to happen.


On our first attempt we cut the vinyl to fit the length and width of the van and attempted to apply it in one large strip.


Didn't work.


We opened the van the next morning to find that it had completely fallen down.


Wouldn't the vinyl have looked so beautiful?!

We returned to Bunnings only to discover that the adhesive the employee recommended us wasn't right for the job, but luckily another customer who has experience working with XPS insulation overheard us and pointed out another adhesive that would do the job.


We then cut the vinyl into four sections, the same size as the XPS foam boards and applied the sections one at a time. The new adhesive instructed to apply it to both surfaces, and then wait 30 minutes for it to get tacky. Unfortunately, once the vinyl is stuck to the XPS, the adhesive would bond instantly, so there would be no time to reposition.


This seemed to work at first, until over the next few days one by one the pieces began to bubble and peel off.


Ultimately we think the vinyl was just too heavy, and although it looked good, it wasn't in the cards for it to be our ceiling.


Much better! Bringing a little life to our home!

More recently, while we were in a second hand shop in Kaikoura, we found a beautiful sheet that we thought would look amazing on our roof. We bought some pins from the dollar store and pinned the sheets to the foam boards. It is everything I ever imagined, is closer to what we initially wanted for our roof (COLOUR!), and gives so much more life to the van than the vinyl did.


It's really true, all's well that end's well.


8.) All the Extra!


Now that all of the main boxes had been checked off - insulation, floor, walls, ceiling - we could move on to re-installing the benches, and making a few new additions of our own!


We wanted to build an extra bench in the back that would connect the two side benches to form a nice U shape. This would function as extra storage and seating.


Our new bench

We want to install a detachable table in the middle of the benches that will function as a table during the day, and part of our bed during the night; however, we weren't able to find what we wanted in any stores for cheap, so we had to order the parts. Unfortunately we will have to wait until February for this addition.


We built a few shelves for extra storage.



And added a tall shelf to hold all of our dry food and everyday toiletries.


Convenient for food storage

We put the water tanks back in and added a large mat to (hopefully) ensure less water spillage on our laminate floor (Uschi I'm looking at you here...).


Starting to get a bit more organized

We bought a large bin to store kitchen gear, and hung a few hooks for cleaning supplies.


Isn't the duvet cover beautiful!?

In the second hand shop in Kaikoura where we found our forever ceiling, we also found a beautiful duvet cover, and some other sheets that we are planning to sew onto our mattresses to get rid of the boring grey colour.


So excited about the PLANTS

We purchased some plants!


This was probably the part of the process that made Uschi the most excited. She can't wait until she can have her own garden and grow her own vegetables. So this is a little taste for her (pardon the pun).


Say hello to Bazileke the basil plant, Jeffke the chive plant, and Tieke the thyme plant.


Couldn't be happier!

The herbs have already brought so much joy into our lives (and our stomachs)!


Our first meal with our fresh herbs!

Uschi also insisted we buy a kayak, and after a bit of persuasion on her part I really came around to the idea. We plan to do a multi-day kayak camping trip on the North Island in a couple months. Wish us luck!


Our new baby!

We still have so many little things that we want to do to bring life to the van, and to add homey, decorative touches.


We plan to hang a curtain in front of the water tanks to cover them and the storage underneath our kitchen bench.


Our dividing wall will (hopefully) soon be filled with decorations

Uschi plans to make a mirror by cutting pieces of wood in the shape of a turtle to hang on our big wall.

We also plan to add more hooks and decorative pieces to the wall, in addition to building a shelf to hold the plants.


We are in the process of finding a couple more sheets and sewing them to fit our mattresses. And hopefully some day down the road we can find and hang curtains that have a bit more colour than the ones we have.


Enjoying our new home!

Enjoying our new home!

Jack is a work in progress, but he has made leaps and bounds from when we first got him.


Before...

After! (ish)

He was definitely worth the blood, sweat, and tears (and oh there were so many tears), and despite how many times we turned to each other and said "It's not going to be perfect," we couldn't be happier with our cozy little home!












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©2017 by Sarah Griffith.