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Easy DIY Updates Take a Conversion Van to Custom Cool

The internet is my portal to sharing our learning from our DIY glamping upgrades. Hop aboard!

Learn how to fix (or glamp) up a van.

Learn how to fix (or glamp) up a van.

Van Glamping (Glamour Camping) on a DIY Budget

We bought a 1994 Ford Econoline conversion van camper when we outgrew our charming but cramped and delicate vintage travel trailer. First, 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 second, we wanted to do that in comfort and style.

Our decades 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. But the price was right, and I was pretty sure a little paint, fabric, and elbow grease could fix the dated interior.

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. Come along for our 3 month renovation.

Ford Conversion Van Class B can tow like a demon!

Ford Conversion Van Class B can tow like a demon!

DIY Glamping & Away We Go

With a flexible work life and a pre-schooler, we bought the van in order to travel the country and visit family who winter in Florida. We started the renovation on it immediately, spending the summer completing our interior upgrade. Our updates included new upholstery on the sofa, redone 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. Most of this we did ourselves, although we did hire a pro-for the sofa.

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.

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.

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!).

Swag stripes

Swag stripes

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 (unlike our 1950's trailer).
  • Conveniences: Modern fridge, microwave and air conditioning was included
  • Driveability: Big engine, easy backup and turnaround compared to trailering.
  • Flexibility: Available in manageable sizes allowing for use as a living space and destination vehicle
  • Price: Older second-hand models were 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).

Features and Specs of This 1994 Ford Econoline Conversion Van

Low miles—ride in style!

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Engine

  • Ford E250, V8 gasoline engine
  • 4 speed automatic with overdrive
  • 69,234 original miles

Specs

  • Length (overall) 19'8"
  • Height 9'9" includes a/c (fits in our barn)
  • Interior height 6'7"
  • 35-gal fuel capacity

Interior Amenities

  • 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
  • Sink
  • 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
  • Mirrors
  • Swiveling captains' chairs face back
1994 Ford Econoline Conversion Van

1994 Ford Econoline Conversion Van

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 (in 2014) you could buy a used conversion van nicely loaded with reasonable mileage for anywhere in the $2,000 - $11,000 range. At the time, vans were largely undervalued.

After our research, we felt that older model vans are a good value and offer all the functionality of the new vans. And I love a good cosmetic renovation; even though I'd never before done a vehicle!

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?

Camper Van inspired by Elvis

Camper Van inspired by Elvis

Inspiration Elvis: Embracing Van "Glamping" and Camping Kitsch

We like to name our vehicles - we feel the extra personality enhances the fun of our travel adventures. For this king of a renovation, crowned with an extra ducktail of a top and dressed in white "pleather" 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?

Decorating Elvis with Elvis

Our RV Van Renovation Bucket List

As I looked around at the tired plush, the dirty fabric panels, heavy fuzzy drapes, pink-and-blue speckled vinyl wall board, fake vinyl "pine-colored" composite wood cabinet boxes, blue shag carpet and wondered:

"Where do I spend my DIY time and budget to make the most impact on the RV's style?"


  • 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. And I want it to be light-blocking for good sleeping!
  • 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 and expensive than I anticipated so I left them for a future project.

Job 1: Painting RV Interior Cabinets and Vinyl Wallpaper

Latex over primer over vinyl—roll on!

DIY paint job for your camper

DIY paint job for your camper

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.

Mask away

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.

Timing

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!

Clean-Up

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

Job 5: Updating Interior Door and Headliner Upholstery Panels

DIY, or hire it out to a professional? I went with a pro!