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 £5,000, 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 camper van 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!
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.
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 bodywork.
Use a good quality filler and a couple of grades of sandpaper to blend into 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.
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.
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. 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.
I ripped out all the existing woodwork, as it was covered in oil and grease from the previous owner's 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.
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.
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 van's 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.
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.
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 campsite, 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
The Total Cost
Here is a breakdown of the costs so far:
Finishing items £25
Overall cost £965, but 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.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
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