My Custom Camper-Van Conversion
From The Beginning
I bought the Ford Transit second hand, equipped with 3 rows of seats and tinted windows, but otherwise no extras. The technical condition was ok.
First I took out the rear row of seats and built two multifunctional boxes/cabinets that are screwed to the brackets in the vehicle floor and to the seatbelt holders of this row of seats in the walls of the car. These cabinets serve as storage space for all the camping equipment and have a 10cm thick foam mattress as a lid. It was important to me to have access to the cabinets both from the side and from above, which is why the lids and the front of the cabinets have hinges. So you can also load and unload bulky things like the kitchen, cool boxes and loo comfortably and you still have access to things if one of the two paths is blocked.
The lids with the mattress are about 3 cm narrower than the cabinets, so that the doors or walls protrude. Between the two cabinets is a hallway that is exactly 44 cm wide. Two 50 cm wide mattress sections on framed plywood panels fit exactly between the cabinets, creating a bed that is 150 cm in total and has a length of 180 cm.
Unfortunately, the second row of seats is a continuous bench whose backrest cannot be folded down and therefore access to the rear part is correspondingly difficult. With the cabinets or bed opened up, it is even more difficult to get to the back, which is why I made this cabinet a little shorter and made the piece of mattress foldable. So if the bed is not in use, it is better to get in the back or you can get in comfortably first and then make the bed.
The kitchen is a separate, solidly built wooden box in which a small 3 kg gas bottle, pots and dishes find a home and a gas stove sits on top. So you can simply take out the entire kitchen and put it outside in a suitable place. If need be, you can also make a coffee inside the bus, even though that's not ideal for safety reasons.
A roof window is not planned for this vehicle, the roof has continuous grooves that are intended to stabilize the sheet metal. Without the professional advice and help of my friend Sotiris, I would never have managed to install the roof window. The grooves had to be cut out with the angle grinder and pieces of sheet metal inserted with TIGG welding technique so that the frame of the window has a smooth surface to sit on and can be sealed reliably with sealant. From the inside, the roof then needed a frame around the hole so that the window can be mounted at the same height as the headliner.
Then the entire roof was covered with a 2 cm thick foam insulation (black) and since the roof struts are also rounded again, I glued insulation of different thicknesses on these struts (green and black) so that I had a flat surface for the thin chipboard that will be my new headliner.
Thermal Insulation & Fabrics
In the meantime I have chosen fabrics to cover all cushions and seats with covers that can be removed and washed. Then I was left with a few ugly gray plastic panels, which I covered with matching paper napkins using the decoupage technique. During one of my walks on the beach I found a nice piece of driftwood, which I could easily imagine as a lamp. The recessed spotlights fit in exactly and so I used it as a temporary solution at the beginning. Everyone was so enthusiastic that I later permanently installed the lamp and did not install the two spotlights in the headliner as originally intended. I only fitted the remaining four into the headliner at the front and back.
For a family with two children, the bed is too small, but the bus is too low for a built-in loft bed, which is why I wanted a “lift bed”, ie a bed that hangs directly under the ceiling and can be lowered when needed. I researched for weeks, but somehow none of the solutions were really satisfactory. Either too complex (with an electric motor and cables) or it didn't go up and down far enough or required too much space, somehow none of the approaches were ideal. As it turns out in practice, the approach I decided on is not exactly ideal, but it works and we have learned to deal with its pitfalls.
Unfortunately, none of the surfaces on the car are really straight. The vehicle becomes narrower towards the rear in particular, but also reduces in height. This means a bed that takes up the entire width in the middle of the vehicle and does not even fit into the ceiling. Believe it or not, there is a difference of over 30 cm, which is why the hanging bed is not the 175 cm desired, but only 145 cm. Well, let's see if our daughter wants to go on vacation with us at all if she no longer fits in this bed. In the meantime, however, the younger daughter has grown and can take over the hanging bed.
After the bed is installed, the interior should be covered. The vehicle has strange cavities on the top of the walls that could actually be used as storage space, so I cut out two parts of the paneling and turned them into little storage boxes. Where the bed folds up, there is basically no space at all for wood paneling, which is why I used a lot of trickery to thicken the wood in these places into the cavities and then sand down everything that would be in the way. Generally speaking, this part was much more complicated and time-consuming than it looks at first glance, because there are a lot of bends and curves and indentations that made it necessary to fit each wood individually and mainly by hand. It was great to have the professional support and facilities of the Woodlab for this.
The roof rack is another project that I would not have been able to manage without the professional and friendly support of Sotiris. I did a lot of research on the Internet and in principle found exactly what I wanted, but at a utopian price of several thousand euros.
The roof rack should be light (therefore made of aluminum), it should be designed for heavy loads (water tank, so you can walk around on it, storage ...), it should be flat and offer the possibility of installing some things permanently on it such as solar panels, headlights and reversing camera, it should have a recess for the roof window and it should also look nice.
So the motto was again: do it yourself!
Since I didn't have anyone at hand who could weld aluminum, we made the legs out of iron. Pipes and sheets were cut out and welded together to create sturdy legs through which we can slide the aluminium pipes and then fix them with rivets. Then they were painted and provided with rubber sleeves so that they would not scratch the rain gutter of the vehicle.
Almost all motorhomes have the water tank under the car, which of course makes sense because you want the center of gravity of the car as low as possible. The problem is, somehow the water has to come up again. So you need a pump that then needs electricity and is usually so powerful that it empties the tank in no time. Water and electricity are the most valuable goods in mobile homes, so I didn't like the version with the pump that may also break down. What good is all the water under the car if the pump gives up and I can't get it out of the tank. On the roof, the water simply runs out of the pipe with the help of gravity at exactly the right pressure to be able to supply a mini shower. In addition, the water is warmed a little by the sun in summer. I don't want to do an ice-bucket challenge, but a luxurious vacation!
To prevent the water in the tank from sloshing back and forth violently whilst driving, partitions with small openings were built in and the bottom was slightly arched so that the water collects at the outlet.
One detail I wasn't expecting was, how difficult it could be to find a filler neck. You can find tank lids in every accessory store, but the right neck for them? I scoured a lot of shops until I found something.
Because we have already bought raw materials such as sheet metal and wood from so many dealers and had all the tools outside, I took the opportunity to cover the rest of the roof rack with wood panels and built a sump guard to protect the oil cooler behind the bumper and engine.
Even the most beautiful roof rack is of little use if you can't get up there. A ladder is needed! Of course you could just screw a ladder to the door, but you'd have to make ugly holes in the door and I would prefer if I could remove the ladder at any time without leaving any marks. On the other hand, of course, I don't want to have it stolen, so the holder should be theft-proof. Both optically and haptically, you should have the feeling that the ladder can bear heavy weights, so it should be robust and still relatively light. So I built it out of wood and then painted it black. The brackets hang in the top of the door and at the bottom the bracket consists of two parts. One part encompasses the ladder like a shoe and is screwed to it, the other hangs in the door. A screw goes from below through the hook on the door into the shoe of the ladder. The more you tighten the screw, the more the ladder contracts upon the door and cannot be moved. When the door is closed, you can't get to the screw because the bumper is underneath, so it's also protected from theft.
Having a solar system sounds promising. At first I thought: Wow, great, with a solar system I have electricity and can use all kinds of electronic devices in the car: heating, refrigerator, computer, television, music ... But after doing some research and bringing my physics knowledge up to date, I realized that I would need tons of battery capacity and panels for so much power. I don't have that much space on the roof, I don't want to transport so much weight (batteries) and I don't want to spend that much money despite all my passion for this project. Just to give you a rough idea of the dimensions: We're talking about at least 200-300 kg batteries, 3000-4000 euros and 4-6 square meters of solar panels on the roof! So I remembered the essentials, namely electricity to charge my laptop, cell phone and camera as well as lighting for the living area in- and outside. The capacity is not much more than that of a decent car battery, but the system is self-sufficient and even if the battery should go empty after a long stay, the car starts and you don't get stranded.
The installation is a bit complex. Mount the panel on the roof, make holes in the roof and make watertight cable bushings, lay thick cables through the whole car (from top front to bottom back), install the charge controller, find a place for the battery, attach an 80 amp fuse somewhere, cables to the driver's seat to attach an emergency switch there and back to the charge controller and a few more details that are quite time-consuming but also important or very helpful. For example, I built a pull-out frame that can be opened like a drawer on which the charge controller, a converter that provides up to 800 W 230V alternating current, a household socket and a 12V socket (still missing in the photos) and various smaller things like fuses are fixed. This frame stands in a small corner that exists between the vertical cupboard and the angled back seat. So you can pull out the frame if you have to, but otherwise you only see the front with the display of the charge controller and the two sockets. Simply installing it in the cabinet would have been easier, but it takes up important storage space and if you want to take out the cabinet, you have all the wiring attached to it.
Two reading lights on the left and right in the rear are also very helpful, at head height when you are in bed, each with two USB ports. Here you can wonderfully charge all your technical devices like mobile phones whilst having them in reach and they are safely stored.
I use the camper van as an office almost every day, which is why a table for a laptop, mobile phone and coffee is essential. When not in use, it would be nice if the table could disappear without being left with a frame in my hands that I need to find a place for. Sometimes the kids want to paint something while driving, or put something down for a moment or just rest their arm that tirelessly holds the cell phone on long trips. Also, the children like to enjoy their food at this table on hot days because the van is usually cooler than outside.
I love the natural touch of sanded, oiled and waxed wood, both visually and the contact with bare skin. Hence the pine branches and logs all over the car.
The black rubber floor is practical, but visually it inevitably tears up the natural concept of the car. So I put in a cheap laminate and wait and see how it behaves over time. Once I am confident that I have the right solution, I might just replace it with a better quality.
I wanted to take out the cabinets to sand and wax them, to give them their own floor to give them more stability and to give them their own attachment points in the vehicle floor so that each cabinet can be removed by loosening only 3 screws. Slowly but surely, the picture is beginning to get complete, even though there is still a lot to do.
The net on the loft bed, which we had attached to the side towards the back doors so that the child cannot fall out of the bed from this height, dissolved. Apparently the rope was made of plastic that dissolves itself after a certain time, like these compostable plastic bags. It completely crumbled into dust! Because, as already mentioned, I like the natural touch of the branches so much, a branch as a railing now replaces the net. I was looking for a branch that makes an arch just like the ceiling itself so that the railing is as high as possible, but does not hit the ceiling when the bed is up.
In the meantime, the reversing camera and the reversing light are also installed, but more on that later.
At the front I have given the roof rack two small additional headlights that are switched on via the high beam and an LED light bar for very difficult conditions. At the back, as mentioned before, I installed a reversing camera and a reversing light. On the side there is a connection for LED strips with color selection and 2 x 5 m cables so that I can put the strips where I need them. For example on the car itself or on the awning or on a tree - depending on my needs. I built the switches for all of this together with a screen for the reversing camera in a console that I attached above the rearview mirror. There was a light in the headliner before, I took it out and I use the hole in the headliner to lead the cables through. Further switches and fuses are pre-installed so that I can control other lighting units via this console in the future. And because I took out the light, of course I had to make a new one and install it in the console. For now I only made one for the driver. A spot is planned for the front passenger, which shines directly on the front passenger's lap in order not to blind the driver.
The black-tinted windows on the bus are both a blessing and a curse. You have a pretty high level of privacy in the car - even without the curtains. The car heats up very quickly from the sun, which means free and very effective heating in winter, but it is almost unbearable in summer. Now I have had covers sewn from a fabric coated with aluminum. If necessary, I can put them over the windows and thus avoid direct exposure to the sun.