The easiest of DIY van conversions

Written by view.com.au in Buying

van conversion

After getting a taste of vanlife while abroad, Melbourne couple Jade Doonan and Luke McMurray were determined to bring this back to Australia, committing to converting a van for getaways.

There are plenty of complicated van conversion on the net, which can often put people off committing to undertaking a similar project themselves. Jade and Luke decided to keep things simple, so that they had the basics on which to build. Here is there diary of their complete conversion experience.

Van Conversion Pt.1: The Van

After our trip around Ireland in a Wicked Camper, we were hooked on the idea of having our own adventure-mobile. Once some good timing presented itself, we knew we had to take action and before we knew it, operation ‘Build an Adventure Mobile’ was a go!

We wanted the van (and it’s conversion) to be no more than a year’s worth of rent, which is about $15,000, so this helped limit our options. Luke wanted the van to be diesel (fuel economy and pulling power), manual and less than 100,000km on the clock, something that could be parked easy and something that was reliable.

Upon starting our search, we learned very quickly that for the budget we had in mind, we were not going to get everything we wanted.

We looked and looked and eventually came upon this 2001 Toyota Hiace. It is a 3L manual diesel with 300,000km on the clock (a little more than Luke had hoped for but what you gonna do?). We picked it up as a private sale and paid $4,800. Luke sold his Hyundai Tucson to pay for the purchase of the van, and now drives the van everywhere.

Straight from picking it up we had it serviced and got a roadworthy certificate. No serious problems with the van, and we had it registered a couple of days later. 

The internal dimensions of the rear measure 2,930mm long, 1,545mm wide and 1,335mm high, meaning it has enough space to fit a full double mattress and then some.

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Van Conversion Pt.2: Remove Its Guts!

The strongest structures have good foundations and that is what we needed to create for the van. The next step in our build was to remove everything from the inside: all panels, all flooring, all roofing and all the little extras the last owner had bolted into the van walls.


What we found underneath made us both realise that we had a big job ahead, but it was a good thing that we did rip everything up!

With everything out, we were able to see what work we’d need to prepare for and we organised a big cleaning and repair checklist. The last owner had (somehow) torn 3 large holes into the metal of the top of the inside panelling. Now was the time for all of the fibreglass and body filler work Luke had learned from building his Judge Dredd and Iron Man helmets to shine through!

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Van Conversion Pt.3: Rust Removal and Panel Repair

Rust is like cancer to a vehicle, it starts off small and, if you don’t treat it, over time it will grow and grow until you either have to remove large panels of the vehicle or the vehicle becomes a write-off. We wanted neither of these. Had we bought a newer vehicle, this probably would not have been a big concern but a newer vehicle would have seen the buying price jump to $10,000+.

Using a simple wire brush attachment that we got from Bunnings, we got to work removing all of the surface rust. Once we had brushed all the way back to the bare metal, we applied ‘Rust reform’ (which is supposed to stop the spread of any current rust and stop the development of more rust).


We also removed the side van window and treated all the rust and decay around the window frame and filled and used body filler to fix all the big metal holes.

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Van Conversion: Inspiration, Van Diaries and YouTube

When we started the project we bought a little blank book, our ‘Adventure Mobile Diary’. In this, we would write all our ideas for the van, all costs, maintenance, just any little thing to do with the van and it would stay in the van’s glove box.

We also started a Pinterest board, in which we could pin all things that remotely inspired us for the van. 

Coinciding with the beginning of the conversion, Jade bought me a GoPro 5 for my birthday and I recorded EVERY bit of the build. Once it’s all complete, I will compile it into a video series and upload it to Youtube. You’ll be able to see each and every little thing we did.

Here is a video of me drawing diagrams for the conversion. 

Van Conversion Pt. 4: Ventilation Fan, New Wall Panels and Why We DIDN’T Install Insulation

One way to avoid the creation of more rust is to make sure there is sufficient ventilation throughout the van which reduces the chances of condensation! We did a bunch of research on the net and opted for a motorised fan with ceiling hatch. The reason for this was the fan can draw hot air out in cold weather and bring fresh air in, creating air flow in summer. If you simply have an open hatch, there will be no creation of air flow when stationary.

Cutting a hole in the roof would normally be very scary for people but fortunately (unfortunately?) we had such a bad cluster of rust holes in the ceiling, that it was pretty obvious where we would cut. Fortunately, this was also above where our heads would be when sleeping.

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The fan has one bi-directional switch, meaning it spins at full blast left, spins at full blast right or is off. The fan is too loud to sleep through so Luke is planning on wiring a potentiometer to it (a turny knob). Hopefully, this will allow us to control the fan speed.

We chose not to insulate for a few reasons:
1. The limited space we had inside would have been made smaller by creating more walls to put insulation behind;
2. We called professional camper conversion companies around Australia and they do not install insulation and;
3. The van we used to tour Ireland didn’t have insulation and if we can survive no insulation in Ireland, we think we’ll be fine here.

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Last but not least, the old wood paneling inside the van was damaged and broken, so we bought 3mm plywood, traced them on and used a stanly knife (because the ply is so thin) to cut them out. In the picture you see Luke spray painting the wood, this doesn’t work, the ply just absorbs it. We ended up painting the wood with a roller and wall paint.

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Van Conversion Pt.5: Painting and Sound Proofing


Once all surface rust was removed, repaired and treated, we cleaned every surface with Simple Green. We then painted all the van walls with Rustoleum White and all the floor with Dy-Mark Rust Reform.

After getting some time driving around in the van, it quickly became apparent that 2001 diesel vans weren’t quiet as modern day cars…this probably should have been obvious but this baby sounded like a screaming banshee. If we were going to be road tripping, we’d need to install some soundproofing!

After a lot of research, we opted to install a layer of butyl rubber with an alloy skin (think Dynamat), this would reduce vibration throughout the vehicle so any surface that went “ting ting” when you flicked it, would now go “thud thud”. This was applied to the entire floor, wheel wells, side panels and ceiling. 

After this, the next thing we installed was a sheet of Mass Loaded Vinyl (MLV) which would cover the entire floor area/engine bay area/foot well. This is supposed to be a sound deadener. We sourced most of our materials from an Australian company (http://www.carbuilders.com.au/) and used Dynamat in the flooring area of the rear of the van.

Did all of this soundproofing have a big effect? Not really. Sigh, guess it wasn’t meant to be as quiet as a Tesla Model S.

Here is a video of Luke doing some handy painting of the wall panels.

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Van Conversion Pt.6: Flooring

There are a couple of ways to lay/attach flooring in the van and we really wanted to try and avoid drilling holes into the body of the van…this was not to happen, though. On top of the soundproofing layers, we traced, cut and lay 12mm plywood. We then used 40mm countersunk, galvanised metal screws to secure it in position. Another shoutout to Western Roadworthy & Service Centre, who advised us to beware of drilling into the fuel tank, which is located at the rear of the van, right up, under the flooring. This would have been terrible if we had drilled into the fuel tank!

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Once the plywood flooring was in, we found a vinyl that we liked, ‘Senso Rustic Mix’, and lay it down. This was pretty simple, just peel and stick.

After all the vinyl flooring was laid, we sealed all edges with a silicone sealant that was very similar in colour to the flooring and we built kick guards out of 20x20mm, right angle aluminium. In hind sight, we’d probably go 20×30+mm next time so it extends further down the edge.

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Van Conversion Pt.7: Fridge/ Freezer, leisure battery and wiring!

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Now it wouldn’t be much of a #vanlife if we couldn’t spam our social media platforms with “candid” photos of us living in and around the van so we needed to make sure we could charge all our media devices, no matter where our travels took us, even outside of reception (but then how would I be able to upload!?).

Leisure Battery

We did HEAPS of research and by the end of it, Luke could have built this on his own for cheaper (and so could anyone who has a little read, it’s pretty easy) but for peace of mind, warranty etc., we opted to buy a premade portable battery box. It’s basically a battery in a weather resistant box. The box we chose has 2x lighter ports, 1x merit port (think high powered lighter port), 2x USB ports and 2x Anderson ports (very popular with camping electronics). We also got a ‘dual battery charger kit’ which, basically connects to the car battery. When the car is on it charges the leisure battery and when the car is off it disconnects the connection between the two batteries (via a voltage sensitive relay) so the car’s main battery is always fresh and ready to start the car and the leisure battery is always full and ready to power all electronics in the van. All of this came in a kit (120AH battery, portable battery box and dual battery kit for $507 inc postage. Again, if you made it yourself, you could probably save a hundred or so dollars).

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We wired up all the internal electronics to the box e.g. internal lighting, ventilation fan and the fridge simply plugs into a lighter port.

Fridge/ Freezer

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The fridge we chose was a 50L Icemax from a local company called ‘6th Gear’. It’s the Waeco fridge, body and compressor, just with a different badge. The fridge/freezer, fridge cover and postage was $578.

Solar

Some people choose to mount their solar panels to the roof but we opted to go with portable solar panels so, if we choose to park in shade, we can simply place the panels in a position to receive optimal sun light. We bought a 200W 12v folding solar panels for $199.95 inc postage, from a local company called ‘Sunyee’. After looking at their site they also had cheaper battery boxes… oh well. The solar panel has a 5m cable with an Anderson plug, so you simply setup the panels and plug it into the battery box and BAM, charging.

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Van Conversion Pt.8: Bed Frame Design and Prep

Now the fun stuff begins!

From the very start (and one of the reasons we chose the Hiace van) we wanted to fit a double mattress in the van. We wanted our sleeps to be good quality. Knowing the size of the mattress, we then had to figure out how we could design a bed frame which gave us as much storage space as possible, wasn’t so high that we couldn’t sit up in bed and also allowed the mattress to “breathe” (something Luke spent FOREVER trying to research the legitimacy of).

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After many discussions and many many different designs, we finally came up with a design. Basically, it would have the mattress sit at wheel well height, have one massive drawer that could extend out the back (it would sit out 1m and be able to hold up to 90kg at full extension), one big drawer that would open into the van and then storage in every other little corner. A lot of the minor details were figured out along the way.

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Before we built anything, we went on a little trip to Ikea to see if we could get any inspiration or find anything good (they were having a 3 day special) and we did! We found a drawer, on wheels, made for storage under a bed, which was almost exactly to the planned measurements of the inside drawer. We also found some shoe storage containers, which we thought would make some great clothing storage, some small wooden shelves and some short railings that came with hooks and mug size containers.

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We got started on the whole building process, something neither of us had ever done but we just took it slow and it started to take shape! At first, the process was VERY slow, as we didn’t really have any proper tools but we decided it would be an investment to go and buy some power tools, such as a saw table (Bunnings had one on sale for about $200), this sped things up 5 fold.

Van Conversion Pt.9: Bed Frame Construction!


Once we had the design, the next part was pretty self-explanatory.

1. Measure and cut
2. PVA glue edges together

3. Clamp and tack with tiny little nails
4. Drill holes and then screw in BIG screws to hold it all together
5. Stain

We decided to go with using bungee cord, threaded like a basic net, across the pigeon holes. This made for easy construction and then easy access of stored goods.

We also had a little problem with the inside drawer (the one with wheels) rolling in and out while we were driving, so we remedied this issue by using a simple roller catch.

This was by far the most fun stage.

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Van Conversion Pt.10: Start Putting Everything In!

At this point, the van is about 90% complete. At the time of taking these photos, the only things that need to be finished were the bedside cabinet, the clothes drawers, and the curtains.

But those things aren’t necessities! (Well the curtains kind of are, we installed makeshift curtains for the time being). It was time to take this bad boy out for a spin!

We had some great fun camping down by the Murray River.

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