Convert Your Van from a Thrift Store.

This is a friends roll-top desk that she found at a thrift store for $30. It’s perfect in her van! It looks nice, but mainly it was cheap, easy and does many jobs!

There are a few principles that I think should act like guiding lights when we become vandwellers because they so totally synonymous with what I think vandwelling should be. They are:

  1. Simple
  2. Cheap
  3. Multi-purpose
  4. Reliable
  5. Fool-proof
  6. In Harmony with Nature

I believe that nearly every decision you make as a vandweller should satisfy these six basic ideas. Because we are all so different, there is no one right way to interpret them. What’s simple for you might be much too simple for me and much too complex for someone else.  What’s important is that we each strive for these ideals in whatever way we think will make us happy. After all, being happy is the main goal of vandwelling!

The way we convert our vans is a prime example of this idea. Some people spend months on elaborate planning and building of what they think is a dream home, while another person just throws down an air mattress and a pile of his stuff and calls it done. Neither is better than the other, just different! In today’s post I want to give you some ideas of how to convert your van from a thrift store as a truly outstanding way to follow the spirit and letter of all these ideals.

That same friend has another desk she found at a thrift store. This one fits perfectly over the wheel-well of her van. She put some plastic organizers in front of the wheel-well to make better use of the space. Again, it’s perfect for her van!

Judy and I were just in Flagstaff and while we were there we stopped at a Goodwill thrift store and they had an exceptionally large amount of furniture at very low prices. Because I’ve known several people who outfitted their van almost entirely from thrift stores, I’m always on the look-out for furniture at them. They had so much that I decided to take some pictures and write this post on this topic.

I found this nice looking dresser for $30 at a thrift store and it would work great in a van!

I found this nice looking dresser for $30 at a thrift store and it would work great in a van! Use “L” brackets to immobilize it and you’re done!

Here are some kinds of furniture that work exceptionally well in a van conversion:

  • Desks (especially roll-tops or a good computer desk)
  • Dresser Drawers
  • Bunk Beds
  • Book Cases
  • File Cabinets
  • Medicine Cabinets

Think about how simple this is; you buy a desk or a dresser from a thrift store for $20, get a clerk to help you carry it out and set it in your van and then use your cordless drill to screw “L” brackets into it and into the wall and floor and you are done! Or, if you are willing to take the risk, just set them down and drive away.  You’re all done! Instant and simple organization!

Here's another dresser at the thrift store for $25.  It's missing two drawers but you could easily put plastic  boxes in it that work as well.

Here’s another dresser at the thrift store for $25. It’s missing two drawers but you could easily put plastic boxes in it that work as well.

Disadvantages to using furniture.

If you have a high-top van or a step or box van, they would work well. But for it to hold together you need to do some work.  If you put glued and screwed a piece of plywood into the back it would become very strong. You will also need to cut more shelves since most of them are missing.

If you have a high-top van or a step or box van, this unit would work well in it. But for it to hold together you need to do some work. If you glued and screwed a piece of plywood onto the back it would become very strong. You will also need to cut more shelves since most of them are missing.

1) Some times they are made so cheaply they won’t hold up to the constant movement of a moving van. Fortunately it’s generally  easy to reinforce the weak spots to make them strong enough.  The best one is a piece of plywood across the back and screwed into the walls and shelves of the furniture will dramatically solidify cheap furniture. Also, “L” brackets at the corners and shelves will greatly strengthen them against movement and weight carrying. Another  cheap and easy way to make them rock-solid is to us a ratchet strap to attach them to the wall. That greatly solidifies the structural integrity of the unit and keeps it from rocking back and forth and tearing itself apart.

To be fair, I have two friends who have been using furniture in their vans for a long time and none of it has every failed.

2) Furniture can go flying in an accident and become a deadly missile. That’s easily solved by using “L” brackets and screwing them into the  furniture and into the floor and walls of the van. That not only keeps it from going flying, it also strengthens the furniture against movement. But, what happens if you don’t attach them to the van somehow? Nothing, as long as you don’t have a head-on collision or roll the van. And lets be honest, that’s very unlikely and if it does happen you have bigger problems! I’m not saying don’t attach them, if at all possible you should! I’m just saying if you can’t don’t let it stop you.

3) It’s generally pretty heavy. There really isn’t anything you can do about the weight of furniture, but you’re going to have so little of it that it isn’t really much of an issue. Most vandwellers vans are so lightly loaded than an extra 50 pounds from some cheap furniture isn’t going to affect anything. Weight is a consideration but it’s such a minor problem I think it is more than offset by it’s tremendous convenience.

4) It’s often beat-up and ugly.  I’ve usually found it to be acceptable looking but we all have different needs for anesthetics. fortunately it’s very easy to sand and stain something and make it look great or to just a slap a coat of paint on it and make it fit perfectly in your van. The easiest solution is to cover it with some attractive fabric!

5) You can build something yourself that’s better. No doubt that’s true but it will take much more time and usually cost more than used furniture. So if time and money are tight, used furniture is often better. But an even bigger consideration is that many of us simply don’t have the skills or tools to build our own furniture, no matter how much better it is. For you, used furniture is ideal!

These matching 3-drawer filing cabinets were $5 each. They provide instant organization but you can go a step further.  You can spread them apart cut a piece of plywood to set over the top of them and it becomes desk. If you can find a used door and set it over the top of them it can become your bed.!

These matching 3-drawer filing cabinets were $5 each. They provide instant organization but you can go a step further. You can spread them apart, cut a piece of plywood to set over the top of them and it becomes desk. If you can find a used door and set it over the top of them it can become your bed!

Don’t Forget Construction Item Thrift Stores.

One last thing I want to remind you of; many towns have thrift stores in them run by Habitat for Humanity (or some other organization) that specializes in used items from remodeled house construction. Generally they are in very good condition, the only reason they are their is someone decided to remodel their bathroom and kitchen and they donated the old items to the thrift store. Here is a list of some things you might find but the sky is the limit to the treasures you may find. The main thing you need is some creativity to see new uses for it in your van!

  • Medicine Cabinets: These usually get replaced in a bathroom remodel even though they are in perfect condition. Mount one of them on the wall of your van with sheet metal screws and they take up almost no room but you get a huge amount of organization!
  • Bathroom vanities: These are great because they have a sink and plumbing built in ready to go. Set one of these in your van, put a 5 gallon jug for fresh water and a  gallon jug for gray water and then wire a hand or 12 volt pump and you have running water!
  • Kitchen cabinets and counter tops: It’s easy to find these that will fit right in your van, look great and will  give you instant organization.
  • Doors: Find two filing cabinets and set a door between them and you have a bed or a counter top! Simple and cheap!
  • Rugs: Finding attractive rugs that are in very good shape is surprisingly easy. It’ll be cheap enough that you can keep it for awhile and then replace it if you get tired of it.
  • Assorted Hardware: There is almost no limit to what you might find, just use your imagination.
  • Sinks and plumbing supplies: If you are putting in running water, chances are you can get most of what you need here.
  • Electrical supplies and fixtures: Much of the electrical in a house is not suitable for a 12 volt van but you are still likely to find a few things you can use. If nothing else you can probably find some conduit which will let you run your wire and keep it safe, organized and out of sight.
  • Garage organizers: It’s pretty common for garages to have heavy duty organizers in them and they also often end up in thrift stores.  Keep your eye out for them.

So there you have it, a simple, cheap and easy way to convert your van into a wonderful, cozy little home for almost no money! I have two stories on my site about people who have done this, you may want to check them out:

http://www.cheaprvliving.com/blog/cheris-high-top-conversion-how-to/

http://www.cheaprvliving.com/inspiring-vandweller-charlenes-story/ 

This is a friends  computer desk she has in her van. She already had it in her home so she just moved it into the van. It gives her a lot of organizationand she is very pleased with it!

This is a friends computer desk she has in her van. She already had it in her home so she just moved it into the van. It gives her a lot of organization and she is very pleased with it!

 

Bob
About

I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

16 comments on “Convert Your Van from a Thrift Store.
  1. Wayne (Wirs) says:

    If I had to do my van over again, I’d do the same thing I did this time: all dressers (I have 4 in my van). The dresser in the third image above is perfect for vans. The legs on mine are high enough to sit over the wheel well (and provide room to store my shoes underneath).

    I removed the third column of drawers and store my fresh water containers and water pump there. Then I cut out a hole above them for the sink. Really worked out well. Used furniture is the way to go.
    Wayne (Wirs) recently posted…The Recurring Tasks In My LifeMy Profile

  2. Calvin R says:

    I see many great ideas here. I favor most other thrift shops over Goodwill because of price.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Calvin, I agree, many thrift stores are way overpriced and generally Goodwill is as high or higher than anyone else.

      But this one is unique, it is disposal site for all the other Goodwills so things here are very cheap! Because of that they move lots of stuff and tend to be pretty low on stock. They must have just gotten in a shipment because it was packed with bargains the day we got there!! The week before we couldn’t find any books and this time there were tons and the paperbacks were 25 cents.

      So you gotta keep an open mind.
      Bob

  3. Canine says:

    Sometimes instead of taking the typical street or avenue, I’ll drive through the alleys looking for goodies. I seldom find anything of value, but every once in a while there will be a quality end table, a bed frame, a free topper/camper, etc. Bed frames often uses angle iron which is good for building. Buying angle iron is expensive. The old bed frames use quality steel. The new bed frames use much cheaper metal, but is still plenty good enough for many applications.

    The next part is a little off topic, but wanted to show you the value I found in using bed frame metal that I had picked up for free.

    When I was a kid I framed a 6 foot by 6 foot by 9 foot box on the back of my truck’s hydraulic flatbed dump. I used this truck to get firewood. I didn’t have a welder, so I bolted it together. Then I bolted in 1/2 inch plywood and cut the plywood so it fit tight, tight, tight. Then painted it white, the cheapest paint I could find.

    I beat the living snot out of that box and it didn’t so much as get tweaked. The back part flexed inward because the back had to be open to dump the wood out, but it never bent. I used a chain on the top back to keep it from spreading out when loaded. I always grabbed that chain to pull myself up into the back. I hung a “door” off the chain that allowed me to fill up the entire box. I drove fully loaded through creek beds and everywhere in the mountains over several years. I could put a full two cords of wood in there- as much as 6000 pounds. Amazingly strong.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Canine, thanks for reminding me! Yes, you can often find good used furniture setting out on the curb looking for a new home. I’ve also found good stuff setting out beside a dumpster. You never know where you will find some treasure!

      Good tip on the old bed frames, thanks!!
      Bob

  4. Cheri says:

    Bob, what a fun surprise to open your blog and find pictures of my van, HULK, from February, 2013. Not much has changed in the van since those pics were taken but I wanted to let you that the roll top desk that is made of pressed board is still holding up wonderfully. I remember when you attached those desks to the floor for me there were some people who told me that they would just fall apart because they weren’t really wood. They have traveled many many miles since then and they are just as solid as they were then. I am very glad we decided on the roll out solar panel because it is wonderful. I can park under a shade tree and roll it out in the sun. I have extension cords for it that will stretch about 50 feet. No holes in the top of my fiberglass roof. I am back in Arizona now but I just spent a year in the far northwest corner of Oregon. Wet, cold and nasty most of the time so I installed a wave 3 catalytic heater. Wow, what a wonderful source of warmth. Looking forward to showing it off at RTR this year because it is a rather unique way of attaching it to the wall in the van. HUGS to you and Judy and your new furbaby. Cheri and Tony

    • Bob Bob says:

      Cheri, how good to hear from you again!!! Judy and I were just saying we hoped to see you this winter!

      That’s good to know the roll-top held up well! I’m not surprised, I always thought it would, it was thick, solid stuff!

      See you soon!
      Bob

    • Silvianne says:

      Cheri, I can’t wait to see you and Toni again at the RTR in January! And to show off my van–it’s even bigger than yours :-). You were such an inspiration to me and I feel so grateful to everyone who helped me keep the faith in the three plus years it took me to finally get up and running (well, lumbering, more like) in my own vehicle-home!

  5. I commented, but it didn’t post.

  6. I’ll try again. The last photo is my desk. Since the space under my desk was wasted space, I built in shelves for food stuffs.

  7. Click on my name to see a photo of my desk with new shelves under it. There is a keyboard tray in the desk, which I use for a table… it pulls into the aisle of the van, so I don’t need to scoot under the desk, and can better use that space for food.

  8. Paisley says:

    Another couple options are Freecyle & Craigslist (with also has a free section). Both often have furniture.

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