Cheri's High-Top Conversion: How-To

Cheri found this nice used Ford high-top, extended cargo van on Craigslist and turned it into something very special!

Cheri found this nice used Ford high-top, extended cargo van on Craigslist and turned it into something very special!

In this post we are going to look at another very simple and cheap conversion that turned out extremely well. I’ve been inside hundreds of different home-made conversions, but this is the one I like the most. It is beautiful, functional and incredibly comfortable. So your first thought must be that Cheri is either very handy or very wealthy to have taken a simple Ford high-top cargo van and ended up with something this wonderful, but nothing could be further from the truth. Cheri is on an extremely limited budget and has very limited skills as a handyman. She made this fabulous home by shopping at thrift stores, department stores and Ikea. Anybody reading this can duplicate what she has done if you are patient. The only difficult thing was using “L” brackets to attach the furniture to the floor and I did that for her.  The one thing she added that some of us can’t is her sense of style which is what makes it so beautiful, but even a total clod when it comes to style like me has friends who would be willing to help if they are asked. So let’s look at some pictures of her van to see how she did it.

Cheri's van from the side door.

Cheri’s van from the side door.

In this picture we are looking in through the side door at the van and in it we see many great ideas:

  1. She bought the roll-top desk at a thrift store very little money. Installing it was simple and as having them carry it out into the van for her!
  2. On the left hand side of the door you see a build-it-yourself drawer unit she paid $80 for. She liked the inedible organization it gives her so much that it was worth the money to her and she has never regretted it. Assembling the furniture kits is simple enough anyone can do it.
  3. She turned her passenger seat around which makes spending casual time in her van very comfortable. The seat tilts back and it becomes a recliner!
  4. Between the roll-top desk and the drivers seat is her ice chest
  5. Under the desk is her porta-potti.
  6. She found nice accent coverings to make her home beautiful and hide some of the bare functionality of it all.
Cheri found this very nice but well-used roll-top desk at a thrift store for just a few dollars. All the furniture in the van is bolted to the floor with "L" brackets.

Cheri found this very nice but well-used roll-top desk at a thrift store for just a few dollars. All the furniture in the van is bolted to the floor with “L” brackets.

In this close-up of the roll top we see several more good ideas.

  1. Notice her butane stove on top of the desk. She replaced the drawer that would have gone under the desk with a slide-out that she uses to cook on. She places the stove on the slide out and cooks on it which leaves the entire surface of the desk as a counter-top work area. The stove pulls out and there is nothing above it or around it to get hot and be damaged by the burner.
  2. The area below the desk would have been wasted space so she stores her Porta Potti there when not in use. To use it she just slides it out and when done it goes back underneath. The throw on top of it hides it and makes the van beautiful!!
  3. She wanted to make full use of bookcase on top of the desk so she found some plastic “fences” that she screwed into the desktop to hold things in place while she drives.
The back of the van.

The back of the van.

I took this picture standing in the front looking at the back.

  1. The first thing you should notice is how very tall this van is. Only the very tallest people will have to stoop when standing inside. It’s hard to over-estimate how important that is. I find the constant stooping over in a van to be very hard on my back and for me a high-top is essential for a comfortable life in a van.
  2. Her bed is across the back which is fine for Cheri because she is fairly short. Her bed was extremely easy to make! She went to Ikea and found three end tables the perfect height and width to fit across her van. She bought and installed them and measured to see how big a piece of plywood she needed and then went to Home Depot and had them cut it to those dimensions. She took the plywood out to the van, laid it on the coffee tables, and her bed was done!! Simple and cheap!
  3. Another thing to notice is how many work surfaces she has. The top of the drawer unit and the second desk behind it give her lots of counter-top.
  4. Between the bed and the roll-top on the right side of the picture she has plastic storage totes with blankets stored on top. She never found anything to fit in that space so she just left it open and used the totes for bulk storage.
The desk she found at a thrift store that was wide enough to straddle her wheel-wells.

The desk she found at a thrift store that was wide enough to straddle her wheel-wells.

I took this picture sitting on her bed looking at the second desk she has.

  1. One problem she had was the very long wheel-wells, they made it very hard to find furniture to fit. She just happened to find this desk which had an exceptionally wide area for the office chair to go in. It was wide enough to straddle the wheel-well. She found it at a thrift store and it cost her practically nothing.
  2. She wanted to make use of the space under the desk so she found the plastic drawers units at a discount store and they fit perfectly under the desk and in front of the wheel-well.
  3. At the top of the picture you can see her solar controller. She wanted solar but didn’t want to mount it on the fiberglass roof. So she ended up with a Unisolar flexible solar panel that she carries inside with her and rolls out on the ground when camped.
Looking at the front of the van from the bed.

Looking at the front of the van from the bed.

In this picture I am sitting on her bed looking at the front of the van:

  1. Her high-top covers the whole roof, so she has quite a bit of storage above the driving area.
  2. She has a curtain that divides the front driving area and the back attached to the storage area. When not in use she ties it back to one side.
  3. You get a better idea of just how very comfortable the seat is when turned around
  4. Between the seats is her Coleman Catalytic heater which keeps her comfortably warm in even the worst cold.

KokopelliAnd there you have it, a beautiful, comfortable and very cheap and easy van conversion that rivals any home or apartment. Cheri and I hope you got some great ideas from it and are inspired to make some changes of your own!

Bob

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!

52 comments on “Cheri's High-Top Conversion: How-To
  1. Jon says:

    This is really impressive. It is homey and seems like something anyone could do. Very inspiring.
    I really enjoy the photos you post on this site. Hats off to you both.
    Best regards, Jon

  2. Calvin R says:

    Impressive, and another great example of simplicity. I noticed that the walls look smooth, and the floor is carpeted. Did the van come that way, or did Cheri do modifications there?

    • cheri says:

      Calvin, When I bought the van it had already been insulated and finished inside with some kind of pressed board covered with thin foam then gray upholstery material. The material was in pretty good shape for a cargo van but it did have a few small rips and dirt streaks. The floor was padding covered by a rubber mat that was torn in a few places. Because time was an issue my son just cut carpet pad to fit and spray glued it to the rubber mat after we washed it the best we could then spray glued indoor outdoor carpet to the pad. If I had it to do over again I would probably choose a hard surface floor because it would be easier to keep clean but this is warm and comfortable to walk on.
      Cheri

      • Calvin R says:

        Thanks for the response. Insulation and flooring are a concern for me because I don’t have much in the way of tools, know-how, or location to work with. Somehow it never occurred to me that I might be able to buy a van with some or all of that already done. Duh.

  3. rick says:

    Very nice conversion. I love it and got several great idea! thanks Bob for posting these it is very interesting.

  4. Sam says:

    There may be nicer homebuilt vans but I have yet to see one. When I think of vandwelling Cheri’s van is my “gold standard”.

    When you enter the side door you are greated to a “home” that shows both “pride and contentment”. Hey, that beautiful smile of hers shows it as well.

    • cheri says:

      Sam, Every time I sit in my “recliner” I think of you. Thank you for turning my seat around. I love it!!! Thank you for all of your kind words. We really really missed you at RTR this year. Hope to see you next year.
      HUGS Cheri and Tony

  5. Well done! We approve!
    The Good Luck Duck recently posted…Easy hiking in TucsonMy Profile

  6. McBe says:

    Exceptional! Please thank Cheri for the peek into her home on wheels. The creativity, organization, color and furniture definitely make for a nice little space. I’m curious about the colorful mural along the inside top. Also, it looks like a stovepipe coming out of the top of the drawer unit… Maybe just a big flashlight (LOL)! These commentaries are really helping to give me ideas. Thank you!

    • cheri says:

      McBe, Thank you for the kind words. I do love to show everyone the inside of my van. It is a work in progress. Seems like I am always looking for ways to make it more comfortable. The “colorful mural” is nothing more than a set of brocade curtains folded to fit and stapled to the wall. It gives me some place to pin cards from my kids and grand-kids and other memorabilia. Yes, that is just a flashlight standing on the drawer unit. I may have a place for most everything but that doesn’t mean I always put things away. LAUGHING
      HUGS Cheri

  7. Stephen says:

    Love it! Totally unique and just what Selfbuilding is all about.Nicework Cheri!
    Stephen recently posted…Jobs On Another VanMy Profile

  8. Camilla says:

    She made a girl cave! Nice job!

  9. cheri says:

    Camilla, YES! It is a girl cave. I may be houseless but this is my home.
    HUGS Cheri

  10. Fred says:

    A really well made home, functional and homey.
    I think you make a good point concerning standing room, it is really important. I have a friend who has a similar van without the high-top, he is 6’2″!! He’s on his knees a lot.
    Patience is another key factor but not always easy to come by.
    Thanks for sharing these ideas.

    • cheri says:

      Fred, Thank you. Yes I am glad I was able to find just the right high top van for me. Before I got this van I traveled for three months in a Dodge Caravan and I knew that if I was going to live this wonderful lifestyle I needed something I could stand up in and I didn’t want to worry about how to insulate it. This one is perfect for me.
      HUGS Cheri

  11. GARY GREEN says:

    hey cheri, saw your van at the rtr, to cool but you know that.give tony a hug, ishe said hi.bob, now you can do the same thing with your new van . i really like the use of house furnishings!!.the older the better on furniture!!. fellow traveler gary

    • cheri says:

      Gary, Sorry I didn’t get to spend time with you and Ishe this year at RTR but I know it was just much toooooooo cold for comfort on the desert . Sure is beautiful here now though.
      HUGS Cheri and Tony

  12. Gail says:

    Cheri, I love it! Thanks for sharing the pics. It’s so important that women know that they can still have a nice home even though it has wheels. It’s absolutely adorable!

    • cheri says:

      Gail, Thank you for the kind words. I have to tell you that some of the credit for my “adorable” home has to go to Bob and his wonderful photography. A lot of my pretty stuff is just surface pretty. The fancy pillow on the bed and the one on the ice chest are pillow shams I bought at the thrift store and the “pillows” in them are really out of season clothes and a blanket and my mosquito netting for the doors and windows. LAUGHING LAUGHING.
      HUGS Cheri

  13. Julie says:

    Bob, I cannot thank you enough for the valuable info in your blog. THIS is the blog I come to in order to learn what exactly I seek in my fulltime home on wheels.
    Cheri, I’d like to say that it is YOUR home that has most excited me about fulltiming. This is something I can do, it is not all about impossible $$ or impossible mechanical or carpentry skills. This is all about comfort and being able to accomplish what I seek! Thank you. Do you have a blog?
    Again, thank you all for the information I am gaining on this site. I hope to attend a RTR in the future – in my home on wheels.
    Jool

    • cheri says:

      Julie, You are right that it is all about comfort and living just exactly the way we want to. Everything in here is easy for me to live with because if it isn’t easy I just won’t “get around to doing it”. No, I don’t have a blog just because I never seem to find time to write on one. Lazy–GRIN Hope to see you on the road sometime, maybe at RTR next year.
      HUGS Cheri

  14. Cheri and i are very close friends and do love her decorating style and creativity… The down side is she has about the highest top i have seen and the longest van made if I am right… She got very lucky in her purchase and the results with everyone looking for one of these maybe frustrating… Most will end up if lucky with a normal size van with a high top and will loose a good 2 feet in length, just being honest… But Kudos to Cheri for showing what can be done for little money to make a house a home…

    PS still not a 4×4… LOL

    • cheri says:

      Steve, yes you are right about me being lucky when I found this van. It was already well insulated and it is huge. From the back of the drivers seat to the back door is 12 feet. It is a little over 6 feet high inside. I looked at a lot of vans before I found this one. The down side of this large space is the gas mileage. I only get 12 to 14 mpg but that is still better than rent or house payments. It just means I need to limit my traveling and when I find a beautiful place to camp I stay for a while. OK, it is not a 4X4 like yours so I can’t climb up the granite mountainside like you can but I can still find very pretty campsites. I had the granite patio this summer! LOL LOL LOL
      HUGS to you, my friend and Zeke , Cheri and Tony

  15. karen shinabery says:

    You”ve made a few changes in the van since you were in Oregon,looks nice and comfy!! Glad your doing well,miss you Karen

    • cheri says:

      Karen, I miss you too. Planning on being up there in August. Denise will be 50 in August and I am going to my 50th class reunion. See you then.
      HUGS Cheri and Tony

  16. CAE says:

    Roll top desk and coffee tables. That is just too cool.

    • Bob Bob says:

      CAE, it just goes to show that the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” is true. When you are on a tight budget and have limited carpentry skills, you figure something out. It’s just amazing how beautiful it turned out.
      Bob

  17. Cyndi says:

    Cheri, your van makes me want to trade in the Class C and become a van dweller! It’s just awesome!

    • Bob Bob says:

      Thanks for your kind words Cyndi. As you know, Cheri is in the hospital in Parker after a gall bladder attack; she is having it removed today. Everyone sending healing prayers, thought and energy her way would be much appreciated.
      Bob

  18. Kathy T. says:

    I will be moving into this life style next Jan. my self. Love all the help out there and the many ideas. I am a big fan of second hand stores. I plan on doing as much as I can my self as well. Makes me feel better to know there are many other women living the vandweller lifestyle.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Kathy, it always comes as a surprise just how many women there are out here. At one time there were more women than men in camp which is pretty unusual. For many women, as they get older, they find they have spent their whole lives serving others and decide now is the time to take care of themselves and put their needs first. It turns out many have itchy feet and vandwelling is perfect for them.

      Sounds like that might be you. Maybe we will see you out here a year from now!!
      Bob

  19. Wade aka LostinSpace says:

    Cheri, nice looking rig. You did good.

    Praying for ya on the gall bladder op. I know you will do well with everyone looking after stuff for you.

    Hope to see you at some point.

    Wade in NW Florida

  20. William Kirby says:

    Hi Cheri! Wonderful job on your van! I have a very similar van that I am in the process of converting into a home and really appreciate this post for the excellent ideas.

    Quick question, do you have a roof vent? I have what appears to be the exact same roof (actually our vans appear to be twins!) and am worried about cutting into it. Do you have a vent, or can you get by without one?

    Thanks and I’ll keep an eye out for you on the road,
    William

    • Bob Bob says:

      Hi William, Cheri has run into some health problems so I’m not sure if she will be answering. Don’t worry, it looks like everything is going to work out great. She is staying with her wonderful son Tim in the Phoenix area while she is healing.

      I do know she does not have any vents on the roof. Her strategy is just like mine and she is a snowbird, which means she moves with the seasons to avoid too much heat. She was with me last summer in the Sierras and she found a wonderful camping spot in the shade so her van never got even slightly hot. But even when she is stuck in the heat, the van has not been a problem to keep cool.

      Hope that helps!
      Bob

  21. William Kirby says:

    First off, GET WELL CHERI!!

    Secondly, thank you Bob for answering my question!

  22. BigLou says:

    Hi Cheri.

    It looks like your Ford hightop has the same top as mine. I am wanting to put solar on it, but if your is like mine, it has a peak. Which is an issue, add to that mine has a 4×4 conversion and 4 inch lift….. well drive thru fast food isnt an option.

    anyway, love what you have done with it.

    Lou

    • Bob Bob says:

      Hi BigLou, in case Cheri doesn’t see your comment I can tell you that she bought a flexible solar panel she rolls up and puts in the van and rolls out when she is camped. You were very lucky to have found one of those high-tops!
      Bob

  23. RV AJ says:

    The idea for the passenger seat into a recliner is very clever. Is that difficult to do? I assume its just a few bolts right?
    RV AJ recently posted…RV Cargo Deck Mod Idea: Custom BuiltMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      RV AJ, generally it is pretty easy to do. Van seats are in two part. There is a base that is bolted to the floor and the seat itself is bolted to the base. The base can get rusted and hard to break the bolts free, but because the bolts on the seat are never outside they usually come off pretty easily. For most people it is just taking off the 4 bolts, turn the seat around and bolt it back on. There can be complications like electric seats or armrests that get in the way, but you just have to deal with that on a case-by-case basis.

      On important thing is does the seat back block your view. If it does then you can’t do it.
      Bob

  24. Suzann says:

    It’s refreshing to see someone use furniture in a van! I once drew out a floorplan on graph paper that included all my white wicker, which I know I’d have a hard time parting with! Spent hours listing exactly what would go in each drawer or shelf and took hundreds of measurements too. No matter how many camper vans or Class B’s I look at, I return to a high top van conversion of my own creation!

  25. nora says:

    Cheri: thanks so much for sharing your van with us. I know this is an older post but wanted to tell you (like every one else had) that your home is charming. Wish I could drop by for a chat. Hope you are fully recovered from your surgery. Bob: thank you so much for sharing your life and experiences. I had never thought about living in a van or in a motor home before I stumbled upon your website. I want to be just like you and Cherie when I grow up. I would hit the road now except I still have 7 kids at home. But… you have inspired me and am beginning the declutering process. I am slowly reading sll of your old posts which is why I am responding to this so late after it was written. I’ll say one more thing. Bob: you are the most gracious blogger. Once in a while my hackles get raised from a comment someone makes but you always reply with grace and understanding.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Nora, thank you for such a gracious comment! Only problem I see with it is if you are going to be like Cheri and I when you grow up that may never happen!! We have both vowed to never grow!! In fact my goal is to get more child-like every day!

      Having spent a life-time saying stupid things I regret, I am sympathetic to those who do it here. I try to cut them some slack.

      Okay, gotta go outside and play now!
      Bob

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