Converting an Astro Mini-Van
I’m doing a series of posts on living and traveling in vans and other tiny places, and an Astro mini-van qualifies as a tiny space! As small as it is, it has a higher roof than most mini-vans which gives you a lot of potential vertical space. This is a bed and shelf-unit I built for a dear friend of mine name Katie to use that space. It turned out so well, I’m going to give you directions here on how to replicate it. This basic unit would work on nearly every van–you would simply change the lengths and heights to fit your van.
There are two parts of the unit. Directly behind the driver’s seat is a shelf unit that reaches all the way up to the ceiling. We spaced the shelves to fit the exact items she wanted to put in them. Behind the shelves is a bed that is 72 inches long and 26 inches wide. She liked everything about it, but after living with the bed for a while, she decided it needed to be wider. I personally think 30 inches is the minimum width for a bed. I built the bed the size she wanted, and then put that in the van and closed the door. When I was sure that the bed cleared all obstructions I measured the space between the bed and driver’s seat and built the shelves to fit there. If your van is longer, you will have bigger shelves. A possibility that didn’t work in the Astro, but would in a bigger van, was to build a second shelf unit at the foot of the bed and run a shelf below the roof between the two shelf units like an overhead cabinet. If you do that, you’ll want to use 3/4 inch plywood for strength.
I added plywood gussets to the legs that went against the wall. I didn’t add them to the front and back or they would have interfered with getting things in-and-out from under the bed. We measured the height of the tallest thing she wanted to put under the bed and made the legs that high, 19 inches, so she could get the maximum amount under the bed. That was a mistake because the bed was so tall she hit her head every time she sat up in it! She had to change that later by cutting the legs down.
Making the bed couldn’t be any easier. Cut two 2X4’s to 72 inches long. Then cut 6 2X4’s that are 19 inches long (adjust this for your siting height and the height of your van) for the legs. Using 3 inch screws, attach the legs to each end and in the middle. Cut and attach the gussets out of 5/8 plywood. We cut the 72 by 26 inch bed top out of 5/8 plywood. When we put the bed frame in the van we found that the wheel well wouldn’t allow the legs to go back flush against the wall, so the plywood overhangs the back legs by a few inches. Once I was sure how everything fit, I screwed down the bed top. All the plywood was attached with 1 5/8 inch screws. The bed is extremely strong, it will never fail.
The front legs are attached to the plywood shelf unit, so it is very strong. To add strength to the back legs, I cut out an upside-down U shaped gasket and screwed that into the end legs, making sure the drawers would fit under it, seen in the above picture. Notice that the bed is in the middle of the van and actually hanging out over the end of the van. Once the bed was finished, we pushed it out there and built the shelf unit right on the front end of the bed. That gave us room to work all around the shelf unit. Once it was done, we slid it into its permanent home.
The following picture shows how I had to cut the sides of the shelf unit to fit the curve of the van’s roof. I measured the height of roof in the front, middle, and back wall of the shelf unit and cut it to conform to curve of the wall. I didn’t have a jigsaw so it’s not round.
Katie didn’t want it to interfere with her ability to get into the back of the van from the front seats, so we sized it the width of the front seat. We used 5/8 plywood for the shelf unit but if I had to do it over again I would use 3/4 inch plywood. The shelves rest on strips of 5/8 plywood. Just like the legs of the bed, Katie decided what she wanted to put on the shelves and we sized them to fit. Eventually she will get rid of the bottom shelf. Above it is a slide-out shelf her butane stove sits on (see picture below). I made a mistake here and the bottom shelf support has to go all the way out to the end of the plywood to support the slide-out. Above the slide out sits Katie’s insulated water container which is tall so it is a high shelf. The shelves are 14 inches wide and 16 inches deep. Of course you will fit them to your van.
Katie wanted easy access to her butane stove, so we built this slide-out. If she had a propane stove the shelf would have needed to be taller to allow room for the arm that holds the green propane bottle. She reports she loves it and uses her stove more. In fact her whole life as a vandweller was revolutionized by the organization the unit provided because the shelves gave her a place to put things. Before she had them, she had to shuffle things around every morning and night but now she’s able to organize and put things away where they belong.
In the photo below you can see the finished unit. It gives her a huge amount of storage space and organization. After she lived with the unit for a while, she discovered a problem. The bed was too high, she hit her head every time she got in and out of bed. So she cut the legs down and used a wider piece of plywood so the bed would be both wider and lower. To keep things from sliding around on the shelves, she laid down red drawer liners on the shelves. For double security, just in case, she also placed bungie cords across the shelves to make sure that nothing will go flying. The Sterilite drawers under the bed was an especially good idea, giving her lots of organization.
This is really a very inexpensive build. We bought two sheets of 5/8 plywood, 1/2 pound of 3 inch screws, and 1/2 pound of 1 5/8 inch screws, and four 2X4s. I used my Ryobi cordless 18 volt power tools from Home Depot for this and many other projects. Very highly recommended!
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