Easy DIY Updates Take a Conversion Van to Custom Cool
Van Glamping (Glamour Camping) on a DIY Budget
Last summer we bought a 1994 Ford Econoline conversion van camper. We had outgrown our charming but cramped and delicate vintage travel trailer, and we wanted to take our RV living onto the fast lane (i.e., the highway) with a conversion van that could go the distance from the Midwest to visit family in Florida... and we wanted to take our dog along for the ride, too.
Our 20-year-old Ford Econoline Coachman conversion van was chock-full of amenities. The trade-off, however, was that it had all the charm of a nursing home waiting room... circa 1981. RV redecorating sounded like a good challenge to me!
While a new conversion van (or class B motorhome) can ring in at around $40k-$50k, used ones like ours are a relative steal, so even the budget-challenged can afford a small DIY redecorating budget, which is great for those with the "glamping" bug, like me. This article will accompany me on my journey to renovate our campy van into camper cool! Let's go GlamVannin'!
DIY Glamping & Away We Go
With a flexible work life and a pre-schooler, we bought the van to renovate in order to travel the country and visit family who winter in Florida. We started working on it immediately, spending the summer completing our interior upgrade with a new professional sofa, roof and door liner upholstery, new lined curtains that block the light, and interior paint job that gives the vehicle a spa-like modern feel.
Easy to drive, easy to park; this newly refreshed motor home now had everything we needed for camping plus a spa-like style that made relaxing much easier.
After having a more traditional pull-behind camper, we really enjoyed the ease of use with this all-in-one RV. Just pull into a campground, plug in, and you're ready to play. No setup, leveling jacks, or difficult backup driving needed.
Plus, with its 2" receiver and ample towing power, you can even tow additional toys or gear like a dream (we actually towed our 19-foot travel trailer effortlessly!).
Benefits of a Conversion Van: Faster, Further, More Functional
Although conversion vans are relatively rare in the campgrounds we've visited, and they probably hadn't entered my mind much outside of a childhood love for Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine, back in the vanning heyday of the 1970s, the more research we did, the more it made sense of us to increase our options without increasing our size or budget too much.
The conversion van option offers a lot in a relatively small package:
- Highway-worthy: Designed for 65mph roadways
- Conveniences: Modern conveniences such as fridges, microwaves and air conditioning included
- Driveability: Easier to drive without the worries of trailering, hitches, tow vehicles.
- Flexibility: Available in manageable sizes allowing for use as a living space and destination vehicle
- Price: Older second-hand models are widely available in the $3,000-$10,000 range with just as many features as the newer pricier models—if you can stand the décor (or fix it yourself).
"Before" Photos of My 1994 Ford Econoline Conversion VanClick thumbnail to view full-size
After: Renovated and Ready to Rumble!Click thumbnail to view full-size
Features and Specs of This 1994 Ford Econoline Conversion Van
Low miles—ride in style!
- Ford E250, V8 gasoline engine
- 4 speed automatic with overdrive
- 69,234 original miles
- Length (overall) 19'8"
- Height 9'9" includes a/c (fits in our barn)
- Interior height 6'7"
- 35-gal fuel capacity
- Newly updated custom upholstery on sofa
- New curtains with UV block lining
- Overhead expandable loft bed
- Sofa twin bed expands into full-size bed
- Microwave oven
- LP cooktop
- Dash AC & heat
- Roof a/c with electric heat strip
- AM/FM & cassette
- LP furnace
- Tub with shower (outside shower, too)
- Marine toilet
- New electric fridge
- Lots of storage
- Swiveling captains' chairs face back
How Much do Conversion Vans Sell For?
Vintage Vans Offer Great Value!
When we first got the idea to look into a camper van, we figured that since they included the "tow vehicle" they'd be a lot more expensive that the prices we've become familiar with for vintage travel trailers. We were wrong.
Searching for van pricing information turns out to be pretty frustrating on Edmunds or Kelly Blue Book. The sites tend to value just the base van before the conversion. Your best pricing guide comes from following eBay auctions and searching the web to see what dealers are offering for used models will give you a good thermometer on camper van price ranges.
After seeing that new conversion vans are for sale in the $40,000 - $50,000 range, we were really surprised to discover that you can buy a used conversion van nicely loaded with reasonable mileage for anywhere in the $2,000 - $11,000 range. Vans seem to be largely undervalued perhaps due to their relative obscurity in camping circles.
After our research, we felt that older model vans are a good value and offer all the functionality of the new vans. Although they lack in interior glamour (as do most of the RVs available sadly), I think I can fix this myself for relatively low cost.
Where Do You Find a Conversion Van for Sale? And Where Do You Do Your RV Cost Research?
When deciding what to pay for a used camper van, you'll need to do your research and visit the various places people use to sell an RV. There are many classified RV listing sales sites you can check both locally and online. I always like to start with a quick check on eBay. You can get a sense of the conversion van models, features, and price ranges.
Then, using the "advanced search" feature with keywords like "camper van," "conversion van," and "class B" motor home, you can even check "sold" auction ending prices. Once you have a sense of what's available and what the pricing is like, you'll have a better sense of what's a good deal if you see a van for sale by owner on the side of the road, like we did! Happy searching!
Sites Where You Can Judge Van Pricing
- NADA Used RV Guides
NADA is the only site to list RV pricing. It's still frustrating though trying to figure out where the camper vans would be hidden. In the end, you'll probably just get the base vehicle's info without the conversion.
- Edmunds Review of the Ford Econoline Van
Get reviews of your van's base statistics.
Renovating a Vintage Van—Where to Start?
Inspiration Elvis: Embracing Van "Glamping" and Camping Kitsch
We've named our van for the King! We like to name our vehicles. The personality enhances the fun of our travel adventures. For this larger-than-life vintage van, crowned with an extra ducktail of a top and dressed in white and blue sueded plush, it seemed obvious to take inspiration in Elvis. And, in tribute, our first major trip will be to Graceland. It will be fun to see where we can add in some decorative nods to "the King" in our interior design... wouldn't it be great to get that belt buckle mounted over the Ford logo on the grill? Do I know any welders?
Out with the Drab, in With the Fab! Choosing a New Design Style for the Conversion Van InteriorClick thumbnail to view full-size
Decorating Elvis with Elvis
A 3-inch marble Elvis statue, which I ended up painting bright yellow to get the attention it deserves. Of course with mobile decor, it needed to be glued down. I used magnets (I doubt AAA covers injuries caused by a falling Elvis during transit).
What Do You Think of the RV Redecorating Plan? Let's Make This RV Fit for a King!
What would Elvis say about these colors & fabrics?
Most Cost-Effective Areas to Update in Your Van's Interior to Get the Look for Less
Out with the old (folks home) and in with the new! As we contemplated adding the van to our "fleet," my hubby inspected the vehicle's functionality and I spent some time mulling the design challenge. I looked around at the tired plush, the dirty fabric panels, heavy fuzzy drapes, pink-and-blue speckled vinyl wall board, fake vinyl composite wood cabinet boxes, blue shag carpet and pondered:
- Where do I spend my DIY time and budget to make the most impact on the RV's style?
- What cheap DIY RV decorating ideas could I use to keep the costs down?
I made my bucket list below and hubby gave the rig a thumbs up. We decided to welcome Elvis to our fleet and bring him back to life (or at least give him a facelift). As we complete each of the tasks below we added a module to show you our solutions.
We decided to see if all our efforts directed attention away from the rugs enough to leave them alone. As they were installed under all the cabinets, replacing them with another flooring would have been a challenge.
Our RV Van Renovation Bucket List
- Paint the RV cabinets. Paint is cheap and the right colors can make the space look bigger. Cabinets in a cramped space will be subject to high wear and tear so it was important to do this somewhat risky task right. But coming from a vintage travel trailer with real wood paneling to this poor imitation added further insult to injury... this will make a huge impact in steering the van away from its eighties slump.
- Paint the vinyl wallboard. I have to admit, this project gave me the most pause as I'd been taught that paint over vinyl is a dubious task. But there's nothing that says 80's nursing home more than this powder blue & pink speckled pattern so its gotta go.
- Make new RV curtains. These carpet-like fuzzy blue curtains are just dowdy and give my emotional age a three decade boost - in the wrong direction. This is a great place to bring in some style and character. I want something long-wearing stylistically because with eight window treatments & a divider curtain, this will be a lot of work and a major expense. Choose wisely!
- Auto re-upholstery. The one real functionality problem we found with the van is that the previous owner had replaced the fridge and didn't realize that the newer fridge had a curved front that prevented the fold-down couch from folding down fully. We'd either needed to find a new fridge that didn't have the same problem or modify the couch. Since I wanted to update the fabric anyway and was able to find an auto upholsterer who felt he could solve the design flaw, we got two wins in one. I felt the new fabric would go a long way towards playing down the light blue overload and would provide a major style boost. It will be expensive though so again I will choose something stylistically tame.
- Door and headliner panel re-upholstery. I have zero auto experience so this seemed a bit outta my league, but the dirty blue fabric on the doors was one of the first things you see upon entering the van. I think it is worth the learning curve.
- Captain's chair updates- The seats, although comfortable, had a lot of wear. I would have to figure out the options: seat covers, slipcovers or new seats? This turned out more challenging than I anticipated so I left them as is.
Blue Dice for our Van
Of course, what tribute to the fabulous 1950s would be complete without hanging dice in the windshield? And what could be better than blue ones for Elvis?
Job 1: Painting RV Interior Cabinets and Vinyl Wallpaper
Latex over primer over vinyl—roll on!
Job 2: Painting RV Interiors: Vinyl Wallboard and Cabinets
Mask, Tape, Prime, Spray, Paint & Paint!
I'll admit I was nervous about taking the plunge to paint the RV interior. Vinyl surfaces and paint are not historically good pairings. The folks at the paint store told me there are many new paint products designed especially for plastics, vinyl, and cabinets.
Key to success; clean surfaces, good prep and drying time... patience in other words. Not my strong suit.
Choosing the Paint Colors for the Van's Interior
Some think that dark colors make a space look smaller. I disagree. I feel dark colors create a depth and mood that give a sense of depth and make it hard to judge how close they really are. I've had great results with this in my home's narrow entrance hall and smallest bathroom. For that reason, and because I had to work with the fixed elements such as the medium blue rug, I chose a dark blue for the lower cabinets around the couch and the kitchen and a dark grey for the midwalls up to the bunk rail & top cabinets.
For the upper wall and cabinets I chose a natural white to tie into the off-white carpeted ceiling. With all the lower elements in a dark tone and all the upper elements in a light tone, the former visual clutter of cabinets, walls, upholstery, rug, curtains & windows is minimized to just two tonal zones. Sound strange? Stick with me and compare the before and after photos. You'll see what I mean.
Oh yeah, and for a visual punch and an element of humor, I chose a high gloss chartreuse called "Eye-catching" for the kitchen cabinets you see right when you enter the van.
Prepping the Van to Paint
Take a day (ok, a couple of hours) to remove AND LABEL all cabinet doors, knobs, outlet covers etc. that will be part of the paint job. I put screws and parts into separate baggies labeled with "Drivers Side" or "Passenger Side" and then additional description such as "kitchen cabinets" or "door panels."
I even labeled the back of cabinet doors under where the hinges would cover and put a piece of masking tape over them to indicate which side was up.This task ended up being a big help getting through the drudgery of putting everything back together in order to admire the results! Definitely worth the time. I set up all the removable elements in the garage on sawhorse tables.
Clean or Sand What You Can
Many of the "wood-like" elements in the van were not much more than particle board covered with paper stickers made to look like wood. Don't sand those! This makes for a fuzzy surface. Just clean them for the primer with a good degreasing spray. I used Greenworks by Clorox. Give it time to dry. I sanded the wood cabinet doors, wood door panel inserts, wood console & trim.
I had decided to use spray primer where possible (everywhere but the vinyl wallboard which I felt was too close to too many of the other non-paint surfaces such as the ceiling and windows. For masking tape I like the green Frog Tape. More expensive but worth it in my experience. I also used plastic and cloth drop cloths over the rug and seating and paper to cover windows and other elements. This took about another 2 hours.
Prime the RV Walls
I started with the spray primer on all the fixed interior surfaces since I knew there would be over-spray that I could correct with the traditional paint-on primer afterwards. I used a gray Rustoleum Spray Primer for the cabinets and walls which would have a dark color finish and a white spray primer for the upper cabinets which would be finished in a natural white. The spray primer leaves a really nice smooth finish. I liked it so much I almost opted to keep the grey primer as my finish coat on the vinyl wallboard.
Apply the Finish Paint
I opted for a traditional application acrylic paint in a semi-gloss finish on the walls and high-gloss on the cabinets. I chose the high-gloss against my design preference because the paint store rep promised the finish would be tougher. I tried both roller sponges and paint brushes and preferred the brush finish to the orange-peel effect of the sponge roller. Neither had as nice a finish as the spray paint. If I could have gotten my chosen color scheme for the cabinets in spray paint I would have done all the cabinets with spray paint for the final color.
I had the unlucky chance to get to this job just as the weather turned wet and chilly. This increases the drying time and makes getting a nice finish with paint brushes frustrating. The directions on the primer indicated that it would dry to the touch in an hour but requires 24 hours in good conditions for the finished paint application. The finish paint said either add a second coat within an hour or wait 24 hours (again in ideal conditions). I found that I needed at least two coats of the finish paint which I was disappointed about. Maybe it was the brand of paint (Menards) or the conditions, but the Chartreuse especially took even more coats and still isn't as solid as I'd hoped.
Finally, the finish paint suggested that the paint wouldn't be at full strength until 5-7 days (in good conditions) had passed. I got impatient and went ahead and shampooed the carpet... and scratched some of the chartreuse off. Argh. Save some paint for touch-ups!
Be patient, wait as long as you can stand, get out your Exacto knife and start removing the tape. You'll probably have some paint loss so get some tiny brushes for touch ups. Step back, admire your handiwork. Can you believe it's the same van?
Job 3: Making Curtains for Your Camper Van
Keep out the sun, bring in the style!
Where to Buy Fun Fabric for Your Van's Upholstery and Curtains
I wanted a modern fabric that will work with our white and blue exterior and bright blue rugs and have an element of fun. I also wanted a heavy enough weight for the curtains that wouldn't require adding a lining. Unfortunately I have expensive tastes. Most of my picks were retailing at about $65/yd at fabric stores and decorator shops. I did a quick search and found the same fabric available on Amazon at HALF PRICE!
Job 5: Updating Interior Door and Headliner Upholstery Panels
DIY, or hire it out to a professional? I went with a pro!
Campy Decorative Accessories for Your Camper Van: Embrace Kitsch & Camp
With its beautiful white "suit," blue suede interior, and blast from the past style, we named our van "Elvis." And what is more fun that bringing a little Graceland into our décor? I'm not sure exactly how it will all net out... but I'm going to give it a "swing."
Organize Your RV With Magnetic Accessories
In living the mobile life, you find space saver and travel-friendly ways to store and transport what you use and need most. I find that magnetic boards and accessories are a great way to keep things handy and in their spot. I always try to put a magnetic board near the kitchen in my RVs.
Magnetic RV Storage on the MoveClick thumbnail to view full-size
This provides a good size magnetic bulletin board in sleek stainless plus a lot of containers for little stuff or spices. We mounted it next to the kitchen area and added a magnetic hook for keys and a pencil cup for our most used utensils (bottle opener!).
More Ways to Save Space: Make Your Mobile Stove into More Countertop!
Check your measurements, but what a great way to add more counter space when you have none - it also works as a tray.
Moving Up From Vintage Travel Trailers to Modern Mobility
How We Discovered the Value of Vanning
I admit it—I'm in love with our little 13-ft vintage Shasta Travel Trailer. It's the warm cozy adorable playhouse I dreamed about as a little girl.
Those were the days before deadlines, full calendars and responsibilities limited my playtime; where my travel destinations ranged no further than the town pool or soft-serve stand and my fears of a cherished antique on wheels bursting apart at highway speeds unknown in its heyday were not on my mind.
Although my wanderlust has since widened my travel goals, I hadn't fully appreciated the limitations of the 40-year-old tin and birch veneer charmer. After three years of camping within a 4-hour secondary road circumference, buying glaciers-worth of cube ices for a minuscule icebox and keeping fingers crossed against salmonella, I was willing to admit that some modern amenities packaged in heavy duty highway-compatible sheet metal were well worth consideration. And with family spread across the country from Florida to Oregon, it was frustrating that my travel trailer couldn't travel far from home without taking a sabbatical.
On the hair-raising serpentine route back from our last camp-out in Hocking Hills State Park, my hubby and I arrived at a couple realizations about our vintage travel trailer:
- Limited Range. We bought a travel trailer to travel and see new places, but we were not enjoying the trials of trailering our delicate rig in its limited range at its limited speeds.
- Space and Amenities. We were cramped, and the challenge of food preservation in an icebox had lost its charm.
Therefore, if we could find an inexpensive highway-worthy RV small enough to be our destination transportation while still large enough to sleep us more comfortably, equipped with facilities, a fridge, microwave, and air conditioning, we could drive to visit them with our dog and make a grand two-week travel adventure out of it. A little online research when we got home revealed that a Conversion Van fit the bill to a "T"!
Camper Vans vs. Travel Trailers
Guzzle deeply... and let's get there!
I'm a nature lover. As proof, I've sustained injuries chasing the recycling truck down the alley on a slippery winters morning. I'm in a CSA to help support local small farmers and I buy organic milk. Vanning is where I'll have to take a raincheck on natural resource preservation. At 10-15 mpg, I'm undoing a lot of Prius owners good works... and this was a challenge to overcome.
I felt better about it after I spent some time to consider it in the following two ways;
- Drive vs Fly, or
- Van vs. Trailer.
1. Drive the Van vs Fly. Our main event will be a trip to Florida to visit the family. At 1,100 miles, we'll eat about 225 gallons round trip and spend about $850 in gas. Last year we spent $1,000 to fly there for three days (using god knows how much jet fuel in the two leg journey) plus we need to pay to board the dog. Since the van trip this year will be a long term travel adventure where we can bring the dog and check out many educational sites along the way, we can at least look at it as fuel spent for many additional benefits and over a longer period (where we'd normally be spending fuel at home doing our daily routines). Flying is faster but upon arrival we are without our own transportation. This leaves us captive to our host's schedule and interests. Or, we have to rent a car. The van is something we'll have long after the trip for local camping, sports events & any other travel adventures we come up with.
2. Van vs. Travel Trailer. Since we were already doing our camping with a 13ft pull-behind travel trailer, we were already downgrading our tow vehicle's 25 mpg to quite a bit less. We're not sure how much less exactly, but our last trip of 200 miles each way cost us two tanks of gas (26 gallons) which comes out to around 15 mpg. So trailering with a more efficient vehicle nets out to about the same mpg, but our choice of trailer kept us on the inefficient & slower secondary roads making for a much longer trip... timewise. Since we didn't feel comfortable going long distances with our vintage trailer, we certainly would never take it to Florida so distance is out of the vintage trailer question for us.
Overall: The gas equation seems to be pretty much a draw. This is what tipped us over the edge with the van and made us eager to give it a try.
Useful Links for Vintage Van Parts, Pieces, and Information
One of the challenges with a conversion van is figuring out where to look for parts and information; especially because our van's previous owner couldn't provide any owners manuals.
Our van is a Ford Econoline Coachman Conversion. This means that the body and engine are based on a Ford Econoline cargo van. So, for parts and info pertaining to the basic vehicle function we'd search through Ford.
The conversion however throws in a real wrench. There's a big Coachman sticker on the back which I thought would solve the problem. Not really. Coachman no longer does van conversions opting instead to focus on the larger end of the Class B range. They offer some old manuals on their site but nothing for the Econoline. So how to find parts for the conversion upfit elements (and which parts exactly are part of the conversion)? From my initial searches it appears that seats, door panels, carpeting, dashboard consoles, lighting and part of the upfit and therefore very hard to source. One site I found mentioned that many of the conversion companies were in Elkhart, Indiana, camper capital... As I find more leads I'll add them below.
What Is Your Favorite type of RV? How Do You Go Glamping?
What do you camp in?
Van Gifts & Gags: Underappreciated, Almost Forgotten
Aside from the iconic VW camper van bus, there is relatively little recorded about the camper or its heyday of custom airbrush designs in the 1970s. Back then, it was a must-have for freedom loving, Led-Zeppelin listening nomadic Don Juans. Shagadelic "Shaggin' Wagons" are due for a comeback... maybe we'd be more likely to call it a "Bug Out" shelter or a mini-mansion (but never a mini-van!). But whatever the name; get in early while they're still cheap!
Although I didn't start from scratch like this book shows, I certainly hit my diy wall. Paint & decor are my comfort zones, but if I was a carpenter, this would be my next project!
Van Information, Van Articles, and Van Enthusiasts Online
Vanning was BIG in the 1970s. It's due for a revival. Here are some sites to connect with other owners or enthusiasts. If you find more sites, please let me know!
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.