How to Convert a Van for $60
In this post I want to share with you a van conversion my friends Forest and Beth put together to tow a trailer. At that time they were living in a toy-hauler and towing it with a van. Like me, they planned to leave the trailer in camp and take trips in the van. They wanted it to be reasonably comfortable but they didn’t need much. The minimum you need is a bed, storage and somewhere to cook. Forrest is such a genius when it comes to building and repairing things he was able to come up with the single cheapest and easiest van conversion I have ever seen. He built a bed and kitchen counter with a shelf for storage under it for the super-low price of $50.
It’s so simple, you can probably do it yourself even if you aren’t a master mechanic and carpenter like Forrest. Every single cut can be made by Home Depot (probably for free) and the only tool you need is a drill and the only skill required is to be able to drive screws. I know there are probably some of you who don’t have a drill and aren’t able to drive screws, but don’t despair, all you have to do is find a handyman, show him this post, and in a few hours he can easily convert your van and it shouldn’t cost much. You can save money by going to Home Depot yourself and getting all the wood cut so it is ready to go when the handyman arrives.
Here is a list of the supplies you need:
- 1- 4×8 sheet of ¾ inch plywood
- 1- 4×8 sheet of ½ inch plywood
- 1- 2x4x8 foot
- 1- 2x2x8 foot
- 20- (a handful) 2 ½ inch drywall screws
- 30- (a handful)1 ½ inch drywall screws.
- 5- 1 ¼ inch drywall screws
Step-by-Step Instructions To Build the Bed:
1) Decide where to put the bed. Unless you are really tall, it’s almost always best to run the bed across the van instead of alongside a wall. If you run it along the wall you have to leave an aisle to get down and that wastes space. If you have a regular size van you probably want to put the bed as far back as possible and still have the back doors close. But that isn’t what Forrest and Beth did. They have an extended passenger van and the plastic wall coverings take up several inches of room on each side. Since Forrest is fairly tall, he needed more room to stretch out while he slept. So he moved the bed forward so they slept between the side windows and slept above the plastic wall coverings. You can see in the pictures that being between the windows gives him an extra 4 inches of room. Because it is an extended van, that left him with about two extra feet of space at the back of the van but he will just use that as more storage–so it isn’t really wasted.
2) Decide how wide the bed should be. Because they are a couple, and to make things as simple as possible, Forrest decided to make a 4 foot wide bed which is the width of the plywood. But even if you are alone that is a good idea. If you are tall a wider bed allows you to sleep at a diagonal and stretch out, and even if you aren’t tall it gives you a lot of under-bed storage. If you ever get a dog or have a guest, you will have a place for them to sleep so you won’t regret having a wider bed.
2) Decide how tall the bed should be. Again, they needed their bed to be tall enough so that their mattress, heads and feet were out over the plastic wall covering and into the window area. But if you have a cargo van, you won’t have to do that because there isn’t a plastic wall cover to waste space. You can make the bed any height you want. So once you decide where to put it, measure from that point down to the floor and that is how tall the bed should be. Another consideration is what kind of plastic storage crate you are going to use and make the bed tall enough to have it slide easily under the bed. Most plastic storage totes like Rubbermaid and Sterilite are 16 inches tall, so you may want it at least that tall. But, you also have to think about how high the ceiling is in your van. If at all possible, you want to be able to sit on your bed upright and not hit your head!! I have a friend with a mini-van, and she built her bed too high. She hated heading her head on the rood constantly so she had to take it apart and cut her legs shorter. So decide how high to make the bed and see if it leaves you enough headroom to sit up. Don’t forget to take into account the width of the plywood (3/4 inch) and mattress and covers on it!! If they combine to be 5 inches, then include that to be sure you can sit on the bed without hitting your head.
3) Now it’s time to measure and get the plywood and legs cut. You are probably hoping I will tell you how long to cut the parts, but I can’t do that. The exact lengths and sizes with be different with each specific make, model and year of van. None of Forrest’s and Beth’s numbers will apply to anyone but them and that van. Here’s how they (and you) measure. First, they measured to the height of the window sill and used that as the height of the bed, let’s say it was 21 inches (again, their numbers don’t matter because your van will almost certainly be different). Next they measured the distance between the window sills to know how long to cut the plywood. Let’s say it was 65 inches.
4) They went to Home Depot and bought a sheet of ¾ inch plywood and had them make two, free, cross-cuts (that means it was still 48 inches wide when they were done, it was just shorter). The first cut was at 65 inches and the other at 21 inches. You will probably have a small piece of scrap left-over, you can keep it or leave it at Home Depot. Then they bought a 2x4x8. If you have a saw, you can cut it into 4 pieces, each one 21 inches long or have them do it for you. The plywood cuts look like this (the cuts are in red):
5) To build the bed, you lay the long piece of plywood across the van and put the four 2×4 legs under it at the outside four corners. If something is in the way, like the wheel well, you will have to move that leg to fit around it—no big deal, this bed is overbuilt and is very strong. The 21 inch piece of plywood is the center support. It runs across the bed. Before you screw it into place, put your plastic totes under the bed and move the center support around to find the place that makes the best possible use of space. You can see that they put it over as close as they could to the tote on the left and all the extra space went to the right side of it. In the long run, that will be a much better use of space. Then you simply screw two screws down through the plywood into each of the four legs and center support. Use two, 2 ½ inch screws for each leg and six, 1 ½ inch screws for the plywood center support. The bed should never move, but if you are concerned about it you can use “L” brackets to secure the legs to the floor or walls. And that’s it, the bed is done!!
Step-by-Step Instructions to Build the Kitchen:
1) Measure the length of the kitchen counter. To do that you need to move the driver’s seat back as far as you think you will ever want it. Once we’re done it can never go back further than that, so you have to be sure. You may want to err on the side of having it back too far. Measure from the bed to the back of the driver’s seat; that is how long the kitchen counter will be. Let’s assume it’s 58 inches. We want it have some overlap to go under the bed, so we will get it cut to 60 inches. We’ll make the counter top 24 inches wide. So go to Home Depot, buy a 4×8 sheet of ½ inch plywood. Get them to make a long rip cut, down the center of the sheet so it is then two, 2×8 foot sheets. Then have them cut one of them to 60 inches.
2) Cut the legs, The kitchen counter will screw into the bed from below so it will be 1/2 inch shorter than the legs for the bed. There will be two plywood legs so have Home Depot cut two sections of the plywood to 20 ½ inches for the legs.
3) Cut the shelf. Forrest and Beth wanted to leave part of the area under the kitchen open so they needed a shelf for only part of the length. They measured it to fit the four Rubbermaid Totes they wanted to use for storage. Let’s assume two of them are 31 inches wide. We need to get Home Depot to cut the shelf at 32 inches.
4) When assembling plywood as shelves and legs, you use something called a cleat to join the parts and support the shelves. For cleats you need to buy one, 8 foot 2×2. In this picture you can see the cleat that holds the middle leg in place.
To make a cleat you cut it to 20 inches, then screw it into the counter-top, and then place the plywood leg beside it and screw it sideways into the cleat. Do that for both the middle and end leg. For the shelf he put the cleat above the shelf instead of below it. The reason he did that is that the Totes are wider at the top than the bottom. If he had put it below the bottom Totes wouldn’t have fit in. They will put all their heavy items in the Totes on the floor, and the Totes on the shelf won’t be that heavy so having the cleats above the shelf won’t be a problem. He put a piece 2×2 in front of the totes so they can’t slide out. Then He used 1 inch screws to screw the countertop up from the bottom into the bed. Remember that we left the countertop 2 inches long so it could go under the bed. If you want the shelf to go the full length of the countertop, just cut a second shelf and leg and use a cleat to attach them in the same way after you’ve screwed the countertop to the bed.