How to Build a Camper from a Panel Van

Why Build Your Own Camper?

Thinking of building yourself a camper van on the cheap? Here, you'll find plenty of advice, photos, tips, and a record of what mistakes I have made and pitfalls to avoid. Hopefully this will help any prospective camper/motorhome builders with their own projects.

The whole reason for building your own is the fact that you can tailor it to your requirements and save a load of money, but it's also fun. It gave my wife and I a project to work on together and something to do to relieve the boredom that often sets in on a Sunday afternoon.

Camper vans and motorhomes are incredibly expensive. If you spend less than £5000 you are getting something pretty old and well used, not to mention probably not suitable or not exactly what you were looking for. Why compromise? For a fraction of that cost, you have exactly what you want.

With the current economic climate making us all watch our pennies, holidays seem to be one of the areas we cut back on. Building a camper opened up a whole new set of possibilities where we could go places for long weekends or take odd day trips without worrying about where we'll stay.

So, in a nutshell, building your own is great because...

  • you can build exactly what you want
  • it'll cost significantly less
  • it's a fun and challenging project
  • you can take more holidays and have more adventures!

It's an ugly duckling, but we got this very scruffy, dirty van for £600.
It's an ugly duckling, but we got this very scruffy, dirty van for £600.

Get a Fixer-Upper

Well here she is the day I bought her. "What on earth is that?" Exclaimed the wife when she first saw it. "Sounds like a tank."

Yes it was a bit noisy, yes it was matte khaki, yes the wheels were very rusty, yes there was some surface rust on the wheel arches, yes the interior was absolutely filthy, but I could see the potential.

The Mrs. wasn't impressed at all. Unfortunately the previous owner had used it as a motocross van, taking his bikes to events with a bit of bed system behind the cab and bike storage in the rear. This was covered in oil and mud and I'm afraid she couldn't really see past the dirt. She couldn't visualise the size of the van either with the bed system in and the rather dark and dingy rear load bay.

The original bed system.
The original bed system.

Getting Rid of Rust

Okay, the first thing to do was fix all the rusty spots. Replacing rusty panels is the only way to ensure the rust worm doesn't take over but that can be expensive and sometimes specialised. An easier way that will buy you some time is to remove as much of the rust as you can and then use filler to reshape and make good the body work.

Use a good quality filler and a couple of grades of sandpaper to blend in to the surrounding paintwork. Time spent here will pay dividends in the finished product.


Once we repaired the rust spots, we went for a nice repaint. I couldn't warrant spending £300-£500 on a respray so we decided to roller paint with a great product called Rustoleum. This paint is around £25 for 5 litres but is thinned down with white spirits. It goes for miles and we managed to do the whole van in three coats out of the one tin.

The paint has some self-leveling properties and does take a couple of days to dry but it gives a really good finish if done carefully with the little gloss sponge roller pads.

The Interior

I'm afraid we got a bit carried away but seeing as the cab area was so dirty and needed some major cleaning, we decided to completely revamp the entire cab area. I bought some faux leather from eBay (10 metres for £50) and a couple of tins of spray glue. The plan was to have a leather dash and seats to match.

I think pictures explain things better than I can. Suffice to say, if you are going to attempt this, take your time and plan what you are going to do. It's probably easier to take the dash out but I did mine with the dash in place.

Started with the door cards (easy to remove).
Started with the door cards (easy to remove).
A new gear stick surround.
A new gear stick surround.
Then the dashboard.
Then the dashboard.

Reupholstering Seats

We used the original seat upholstery as patterns for the new material, sewed them all up, and used the original fitting to pull the shape in. Quite easy once you see how they are constructed.

When I compare what it was before with what we have now, I'm very pleased with the results.


Designing the Living Space

Work could now start on the living part of the van and we took some measurements and scoured the web for layout ideas. We took ideas from a few different vans. I used Google SketchUp (a free program) to design the interior and create a guide for the build.

The Design

I ripped out all the existing woodwork, as it was covered in oil and grease from the previous owners motocross bikes. This revealed a few holes in the floor under the plywood that needed welding. I'm afraid I dragged my heels a bit with this as the weather turned wet and I didn't fancy using an electric welder in the rain.

Once I did get started, though, they were soon welded up and a new plywood floor was laid. I could sketch out the design on the wood floor with a marker pen and follow the plans.

The Cupboards

I wasn't sure what size to build all of the cupboard units so the next thing was to buy a cooker and sink unit from good old eBay. I managed to find a perfect one out of an old T4 camper that I bought for £10.50.

Measuring this gave me the sizes for all of the units in terms of width, while the height was just determined by what we felt would be a comfortable working height. I built a simple 2" x 1" timber frame to hang everything from. Once again, the pictures explain better. All this was screwed to the plywood floor to make it solid and permanent.

The Seating and/or Sleeping Area

Next up, using the same principle of what suits me, I set about building the seating area that would convert into a bed. This was simply 6' long by 4' 6" wide in an L shape, again out of 2 x 1 timber frame construction. Over the top, I covered again with plywood. The van was now looking a bit like a workshop and storage shed.

Cabinet Facing

With the basic framework in place for the units, I started to flush them out. A cheap but professional-looking solution was to use laminate flooring. A trip to my local Wickes DIY store had some flooring packs for just £9.95 and one pack was enough to do the whole vans units.

I would glue a couple of panels together then cut them to size. These were then backed with ply surround on the reverse side to give them some depth on the doors only. The unit's sides were simply pinned and glued straight to the carcass. This means the units are not only light but thin, allowing a bit more internal space.


We needed some cushions for both sleeping and seating and after having a heart attack at the prices of foam, I decided to scour the internet for some second-hand cushions. Caravan cushions are usually designed for both seating and sleeping and after a good rummage, I managed to find someone clearing out a couple of caravans and a deal was struck. I got loads of cushions plus a caravan toilet door for £10. Okay, it cost me £20 in diesel to pick them up, but they were well worth it.

Obviously, the cushions were tailor-made for a different caravan and wouldn't fit in our design but some simple cutting and sewing made it work. As luck would have it, the colour scheme was to our liking, and this saved us from having to recover them.


It was now starting to look like a camper. The next stage was a bit of a mistake. I should have done the roof first but I cracked on and built the bathroom and added a back wall to the units.

We also decided to make some small amendments to our original design as we felt having a full length wardrobe might make it feel a bit claustrophobic in the back. So we decided that a blanket box affair would be better and it could double as a table.

The Roof

So getting back on track, I addressed the roof situation. Back to the trusty laminate flooring. A quick calculation determined that I needed two packs but at £20 for 2 it wasn't a huge expense. These were partly assembled then screwed to the crossbeams in the roof. I trapped polystyrene foam between the roof and the laminate to insulate the van somewhat and try and avoid condensation from hot days and cool nights.


How to cover the walls was a big decision. I was going to use carpet, but the Mrs. really didn't want to, and as we found out later, it would have been very expensive. We decided on wallpaper. A lesson learnt here was to paste the wood thoroughly and leave to dry, then paste the paper and hang it as normal. If you don't do it this way, the paper simply falls off the walls (as we found out to our detriment).

I managed to get a couple of bargain rolls from Homebase for £2 each. Obviously you don't need that much.


I had a couple of 12v strip lights that came with the van and part of my cushion consignment included a third 12v strip light. I set about wiring these up to the battery directly: One for the main room, one under the cupboard unit at the end on the wall, and one in the bathroom.

In the meantime, the Mrs. started running up some curtains for a more homey feel.

Finishing Touches

With the main build complete, we now concentrated on adding those finishing touches that start to make things a bit more homey. With the carpets in, it really began to feel finished and everything after that was a pleasure.

Power was wired through to some standard household sockets and a 500w inverter changes the 12v secondary battery into 240v so you can use all your standard appliances. I also doubled this up with a plug in electric hookup cable so if you use a camp site, you can use their 240v supply and save your battery.

Cupboard handles were added and a TV ariel bolted to the roof rack were a couple of extras.

I was lucky enough to have a vanity sink unit donated to me so this was fitted to the bathroom. The only thing left to buy was a cassette toilet and the various water tanks, both fresh and waste. The cooker was plumbed up to a 4Kg camping Gaz bottle under the sink unit which also houses the water containers.

Carpets Fitted All Around

carpets fitted
carpets fitted

The Total Cost

Here is a breakdown of the costs so far:

Van £600

Tax £100

Paint £25

Wood £75

Cooker £10

Carpets £40

Cushions £10

Leather £50

Curtains £30

Finishing items £25

Over all cost £965, let's round it up to £1000 as I had a lot of screws, hinges, etc. in stock but by using Google's services and searching eBay, you can really keep the costs down.

To buy a similar van would cost £3000 to £4000 easily.

The best thing is that when you are done with it, you can sell it. We plan on using it for a year or so and then selling at a profit so that we can build a bigger and better one.


Having just attended the TransitMania show we achieved 2nd place in the best camper category. Read my article about Using the Camper for details and pictures.

Transitmania Show

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Comments 62 comments

Michael 2 months ago

This is best site for showing how to a build. I have been looking for some time with detailed explanation. I want to give this go and with this information it's given me a start. The only I can not find is how do hold the roof, wall and floor boards in place i.e. screws, glue or what? The answer is probably here somewhere, but with excitement I am unable to find it. To finish I would like to say how good your project was completed on such a low budget you have proven it can be done. Thank you for time helping us with your information and now experience.


Transit Camper 4 months ago Author

apologies for not updating for such a long time - some very nice comments thanks - Times have moved on and I look back on this project with fond memories but also with a critcal eye and think I could have done this so much better....however I then think ...I did all this with virtually no tools or facilities and on a budget - I now own a garage business with every tool imagineable and I should really build another...just better lol

barry8082 5 months ago

What a great site and I applaud your skill in converting your van for such a reasonable cost. I am also seriously thinking of converting a LWB high top Iveco van, and I was wondering what insulation work you did on your van.

john kiernan 6 months ago

spot on , now if you could do a upholstery how to and what you did in the cockpit that would be good!

I have a mk6 just had it DVLA certified for the v5 but I have body and COCKPIT issues fed up of spending money on stuff that don't work its good to you came out the other end really nice camper thanks enjoy it!!

paddy a 2 years ago

Wat a great journey u and Mrs are having, brilant u guys. I going do same , start in reality and go ,

thom w conroy profile image

thom w conroy 2 years ago

Amazing hub! I could never imagine in my wildest dream being able to perform this feat. What is most incredible is that the end result is not only extremely functional but as attractive as any RV that arrives ready made. Thanks, this was a lot of fun to red and the photos were great (had to laugh at your shadow scratching your head).

John P Davies profile image

John P Davies 2 years ago from Stockport

Hi, as a coach builder im quite impressed with what you've done and how you've gone about it. I come from a cabinet making background so I know how daunting it can be to look at the back of an empty van where nothing is flat. The only suggestion i would add to anyone wanting to take on a project like this is to take the advice or use an auto electrician. As for mr. thetruthhurts it would be great to see pictures of his conversion and then perhaps he could give some tips and advice on

Abby 2 years ago

Hi there,

This is a fantastic resource! Thank you so much :) where did you manage to find rustoleum in the UK?


denise mayer 2 years ago

what a fabulous job. very well thought out. i have an old mitsubishi wagon i want to use for camping. you have shown me that it is possible..thankyou.

laurieannie 2 years ago

really great job! i'm still working on my Ford E-150 and will probably never be done adding/changing things...I hope!

jayne Taylor 2 years ago

hi can i have Ur number.if ineed Ur help

spiritwood profile image

spiritwood 2 years ago from Wales, UK

wow you did a great job on this!

Transit Camper 5 years ago Author

Thanks Pete, best of luck with yours, send me some pics when its done

pete 5 years ago

just got a transit semi long wheelbase thanks to you i have some ideas on my conversion good job looks great.

MoKa 5 years ago

TC - Fab job. Would love to see pics of the leather facing all settled in. Did you keep the back door as an opening door into the WC? Fab idea for those times you need to wash up before traipsing into the nice clean van! Presumably no shower in there; just cassette toilet and sink?

Xtraimpressed - the MPG figures are Miles per UK Gallon, which is different to a US Gallon. There are 4.54 Litres in a UK Gallon and only 3.8 in a US Gallon, so our mileage always sounds better than yours because our 'gallon' is bigger. 35 MPG UK is around 29 MPG US. Having said that, we do seem to be better at fuel efficient cars than you guys, but it might just be because we build a larger number of smaller cars compared to your big 4x4s :o)

Xtraimpressed 5 years ago

35 mpg - TRULY spectacular!!! Beats the $90k model by tons, I'm sure, and even beats my subaru! I'd like to think that if US fuel would cost as much as it does elsewhere (which would be closer to the TRUE cost!) that US manufacturers would build fuel efficient vehicles. As is it, they get all excited when they come up with an econo-car that gets 35 mpg - and they are never tiny. Im tellin ya... it's a different "reality" here... :-{

Thanks very much for the response and for sharing your build - good day to you!

Transit Camper 5 years ago Author

Thanks, as for gas mileage, averaged around 35 miles to the gallon. Keeping things reasonably light keeps the mileage up but the 2500 c diesel engine is pretty good on gas regardless. Good luck with your build

Transit Camper 5 years ago Author

good stuff Pedro sounds like a great little van that suits your needs that's the beauty of building your own

Pedro Pi 5 years ago


I found great design your camper, so I copied many details but I'm going to use for short periods on weekends one or two nights. I have omitted the large kitchen and I've changed a cabinet to store all the junk from the beach. With a small stove and refrigerator typical beach I'll get along. I have not started, only I have the design and the van, an Opel Movano.

Greetings and enjoy it!

Transit Camper 5 years ago Author

good to hear daz, best of luck with it

daz 5 years ago

well done,been thinking of converting a trany for camping/fishing.the wife thinks im mad but shes changed her mind reading your blog.

dglswhite247 5 years ago

Number of drivers: More drivers of a motorhome means greater accident risk, which translates into more drivers to cover, increasing insurance premiums.

Camper Vans

Transit Camper 5 years ago Author

Thanks Mario, have a read of my separate HUB on roller painting your van, that might explain it a little easier as it goes into more detail about how to do the painting.

mario gargalo 5 years ago

Thanks for that was very good to me because just got transit camper and have few jobs to do before get on the road.

Just the paint part wasn't very understanding for me, maybe because my english is not that good hehe.


marko 5 years ago


Transit Camper 5 years ago Author

Hi Mia, very kind comments, thanks very much. To be honest, the offer of building one for someone else was a bit tongue in cheek based on the fact I don't really have the time to do it. Seriously, have a go yourself, you will be very surprised at what you can achieve even with no previous knowledge or skill.

I'm quite happy to help out from a support point of view, if you have any questions or need to know where to get something or how to tackle a problem you come across I would be more than happy to assist.

I'm currently planning my next build which will be a full blown motorhome....keep watching these pages

Momma Mia profile image

Momma Mia 5 years ago from North Carolina

Kudo's to ya!!! Your remodel of this van is spectacular! I am in the market for something like this and would love to know how much you would charge.

Oh and for the person "thetruthhurts" umm well here goes... His truth is not mine or the many others here ....the truth has many sides and he showed a very unkind and not so pretty side of himself with his comments here!

Happy Holidays to you and yours!



Transit Camper 5 years ago Author

Hi walking tree, I'm in the UK so a fair old distance. I think I would go for something like a long roof box for the tools and a separate in van storage for the drums. You could half the van interior so half is living area and half is working area, all depends on how big a van you get.

Walking Tree 5 years ago

Greetin's, I love what you did with your van. I am visioning creating a home on the road sanctuary for myself as well. Here is the thing, I am a landscaper and drumming, both sometimes happen on the same day and I am usually on the road somewhere, which means I have drums and tools with me. I am thinking of a design where I have access to lengthwise storage for digging and cutting tools (shovels, rakes, pole pruners...etc.) and then storage underneath for drums and percussion.

I am located in Sebastopol, Ca... Where are you?

Thanks so much for sharing your creativity. It is very helpful.

Afia Walking Tree

Transit Camper 6 years ago Author

Thanks pal, look forward to seeing yours on the forum

go_slow 6 years ago

Excellent job mate, came via your sig on the transit forum - that's really given me some ideas on how to revamp my camper. Thanks.

solarizzzzed 6 years ago

Hi there just want to say i think you have done a great job on the amount of money spent...I have been lucky enough to have had the use of my parents camper over the last few weekends and now hooked to the extend i need one of my own.I cant afford the 23,000 they paid for their van.My budget more around the 1500 area which i am going to use to purchase lwb transit to work on over the winter...anyway just wanted to TY for your post it has given me inspiration and a little extra confidence to try it.Cheers

ps,id love to see any updates you may have done....

Transit Camper 6 years ago Author

good luck Mark, share some pics with us and document your build you will always have something to look back on

mark 01964 6 years ago

just bought a van to do myself some good ideas cheers

Giambu Mobile 6 years ago


Very nice job! I got inspiration from your result...

Who can suggest me any hight roof specialist for mercedes vito in London?

before I start planning I need to fit windows and hight roof (even suggestions regarding windows specialist are welcome)

Thanks ;)

Transit Camper 6 years ago Author

Thanks Phil, appreciate that

2BarA 6 years ago

Nice job! It's surprising what you can do on a limited budget. You can be proud of yourself. Hope you enjoy

your camper van. Thanks for all the tips.

Transit Camper 6 years ago Author

Hi Ann, first things first, you need to get the brown felt off the walls to see what's underneath. I would suggest some of that really cheap cord carpet as its thin and easily stuck with a quality contact glue.

Alternatively, you could use some proper car interior lining the sort of stuff your average car boot is done in. Bit more expesnive but follows the contours easier and sticks a bit better to.

Ann 6 years ago

Hi i think you did afantastic job. Will you marry me? lol. Wonder if you can help me. I just bought a van a layland high top. I have got it in the garage for some welding and mot. It is a bit of a mess. It`s red and white and i want to do it up red and white but the thing is there is brown felt on the walls.Any idea what i can cover it with. Ive never done anything like this before but have lots of ideas. Hope you can help me. Thanks Ann. Well done to you.

Used Vans Ireland 6 years ago

Wow i am impressed its something i will be showing my mates and who knows might give it ago myself

Transit Camper 6 years ago Author

appreciate the honesty and yes it is average, not making any claims that it is perfect, it was built just for us and we are happy with it. Unfortunately sarcasm doesn't always read well so my offer of building one for you ending with an exclamation mark is not a serious one.

Finally, the roller paint job has proven to be highly effective as none of the rust has come through despite a really bad winter. 12 months on the paint looks as good as the day it was applied. The MOT this April only had a couple of brake parts to replace and the windscreen wipers.

This article was written to show what you can do as an unskilled DIY budget concious builder, I believe it achieved that goal.

PS, the wrinkles in the dash do not exist anymore as the fabric has streched and settled over time, consequently it is quite a nice place to sit and certainly better than the grey stained plastic it came with.

I've released your comments for everyone to see to show that I'm not biased and open to criticism. The van has had some additional changes over the last 12 months to upgrade and improve things as we have worked our way through it.

thetruthhurts 6 years ago

Man if you are going to do something do it right Hand painted bodywork and covering rust over will just come back through and your dash is all wrinkles and a mess That would be really yucky to have to sit and look at when sitting up front and the rest is pretty average for a non skilled person attempt,I take it you are not a tradesman of any sort ie joiner painter etc and are an office worker of some sort.I see you even have the cheek to offer your services on building one for someone else,wake up man your work is only average to say the least.

Transit Camper 6 years ago Author

Hi Nigbo, I know a few guys from the Transit Forum have bought ex German transit emergency vehicles and they have been in immaculate condition.

nigbo 6 years ago

hello from Germany, I`m an ex-pat living here; come from Yorkshire many moons ago. my last Tranny was a full-on pro convertion, but apart from failing the German tuv(mot) , after four years of long trips to spain,it was too full of stuff I never used..two sinks, shower-room, and pretty much all the stuff normaly in a campervan. so sold to a yuong cuoplw, to sort themselves, i got a 2.5 2001 long wheelbase, of a local guy who specialises in ex military,fire engines and ambulances. This is ex German Red cross. Kept in a heated garage with other similar vehecles, and was meant to be used in the event of a major disaster, such as thermo nuclia attack, As this never happened these Tranny where maintained and only used for occational drils. I picked it up with 14500klm on the clock, for 4200 euros. Iv removed the 4 beds as hey weighed in at a totol of 350 kilo`s! I just hadd a new timeing belt fitted(300 euros includeng labour)and will start to insulate it soon. It` a grin to drive as most people miss the fact it has no blue lights and treat it as a real ambulance. Anyhow, thanks for showing me youvan, you did well, all the best, nigbo

Transit Camper 6 years ago Author

The battery can be mounted virtually anywhere. On my van it has two battery trays under the bonnet, one each side. I just made use of one of those. If you mount it inside the van, under the seats for instance, yes it would benefit from some ventilation

Joan 6 years ago

Sorry, I'm really clueless. Where did you put the battery?

Does it need to be vented?

Transit Camper 6 years ago Author

Excellent Point Bill and something I have done with mine, you cant chance a belt snapping and they are very cheap and easy to replace

Transit Camper 6 years ago Author

I bought mine from ebay, there are quite a few suppliers on there

kastiel 6 years ago

Hey superb, i really like it, and em could you inform me where to get similar leather?

Transit Camper 6 years ago Author

Hi Funride, no problems with the engine. To be honest the Ford 2.5 Diesel is pretty bullet proof and good for 500,000 miles providing you change the oil and filters regularly. They are a simple engine with plenty of seconhand parts available.

funride profile image

funride 6 years ago from Portugal

Great work! I would love to build one myself. Did you had any problems with the engine? That´s what scares me the most about buying an used van.

Transit Camper 6 years ago Author

Thanks Curles, we have some new updates coming shortly as we are refitting the interior and modifying the roof.

Curles2000 profile image

Curles2000 6 years ago from Ilford,Essex,Uk.

Enjoyed your hub Iam looking to convert a van myself you've given me some great ideas Ill keep checking your hubs .

Transit Camper 7 years ago Author

Hi Vans, not sure if the style is available in the US. I believe that Ford may be introducing the new style Transit vans in the very near future though. However the principles of construction would apply to virtually any panel van. Thanks for looking and commenting.

Vans 7 years ago

At first glance this looked to me like a Sprinter Van. I don't believe this style of Ford Van is available in the United States.

Transit Camper 7 years ago Author

Thanks for that Mike and a top tip on the rust treatment. There are a number of POP top manufacturers in Germany I believe, unfortunately they are quite expensive. Ours is a medium roof height so you can stand up but it could do with an extra 6 inches for comfort.

MikeNV profile image

MikeNV 7 years ago from Henderson, NV

Amazing Job. I converted a full size 15 passenger chev van... tons of work. There is a great product called POR 15 for treating rust... and you can use it for undercoating as well. You paint it directly on the rust and it bonds chemically with the metal. You still have to prep the parts you want to have a smooth finish. But the rust will stop and never come back. You need to be extremely careful not to get it on anything else... including your skin. Nothing takes it off... I had traces on my arms for over a month! I wonder if there is a 3rd party making a pop top for panel vans in Europe. The extra headroom really makes a difference in how enjoyable longer trips are when camping.

Alex and Don 7 years ago

Alex has worked out an easier (and cheaper) way to preheat the used oil before adding it to the processor.

He was donated a large ally cooking pot, which he places on a couple of breeze blocks, puts water in and heats the used oil tubs over a small fire burning scraps of wood.

The oil heats up over and above the required minumum and processes really well.

Obviously keeping the methoxide mix away from the flames..

Only uses electicity for the mixing.

Give that a go if you haven't got a heater element.

Transit Camper 7 years ago Author

Hi Guys, nice to hear from you again and thanks...those cushions really helped me out keeping to budget, and the caravan door was a bonus...I fitted the mirror on the back of it.

Not had much chance to brew any bio yet as I had to get the camper finished for Transitmania and I ended up with a shed load of welding to do. I will be starting brewing next month as I only need an emersion heater as I managed to collect evrything else and source some good oil.

Alex and Don from Seamer 7 years ago

Nice to see how the van turned out...

Nice job!

Transit Camper 7 years ago Author

Thanks Ant, well worth the effort. The problem is that once you've built one you want to build another bigger and better

Ant 7 years ago

Well Done ! Thanks might try that myself!

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