Construction 101: My Journey From Clueless to Clued-In
I started this project the way I think most people do these days: I began by watching every relevant YouTube video I could find.
The biggest thing I learned is that there’s no one “right” way to construct a van build. At least not according to the numerous people living in vans who completed the build themselves. Most of the people doing this seem to have pretty standard handiness skills; they’ve fixed a few things around the house, but they don’t have any significant experience with this kind of construction. Some of them do seem to have some woodworking skills, but even then, adjusting those skills to figure out what works in a van seems pretty exprimental.
Even when I talked to friends who have worked in carpentry or construction for decades, they admitted that figuring out what would work in a van is a different kind of beast. They had some good suggestions and ideas for me, but they couldn’t settle on one way that would necessarily be safer, easier, or sturdier.
What I’ve learned by actually working on the project is that for every “right” way to build it, there are six or seven “wrong” ones. And not “wrong” for cosmetic reasons, either. You have to consider how the road vibration will effect your materials, how the design will impact the practical use of the space, and how the enclosed space will change how moisture from cooking, washing, even breathing could damage your materials.
When you drive, are there loose components that could go flying? How do you make sure they’ll stay put? How do you protect the edges of the inch of insulation beneath your top floor, since most waterproof top floor materials don’t have an edge piece that will cover the edge of the top floor, subfloor, and insulation? Will brad nails be enough to hold the walls in place, or will the vibrations eventually shake them loose?
These are some of the questions I’ve been thinking about lately. Now that the subfloor is in (and looking beautiful, if I do say so myself; I love having a real floor) and the focus has shifted to the walls, my biggest concern is keeping everything together. I want this to be my home for the next several years, and I plan to put it through the ringer, traveling as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska and as far south as Buenos Aires, Argentina. I might, after a couple of years, decide that I’ll need to build something a little different, a little lower profile, or a little sturdier before heading into Central and South America, but I might not. So I want to build something that’s going to last.
Most people who set out to build themselves a camper van, just based on my YouTube observations, have some handiness skills. They know the difference between a jigsaw and a miter saw, and know that the number of a screw indicates how thick it is. I went into this basically knowing that hammers are used to hit nails and screwdrivers are used to turn screws (and I could tell the difference between a Phillips and flathead screwdriver). I knew how to use a level and I owned a measuring tape, though I didn’t like using it because it sometimes bit me when the tape rolled back up, so I would frequently use a ruler to measure distances up to 10 feet. And I could probably recognize a 2x4 if one was placed in front of me.
That was the full extent of my skills. I don’t think I’d ever so much as touched a saw of any kind, I had no idea that 2x4 really meant 1.5 inches by 3.5 inches, the descriptions of some of these screws sounded like gibberish to me (how can a screw be both a Phillip’s and flat? Why is it a #8 but it’s 2 inches long?) and “furring” was the lining in some really expensive (and heart-wrenching, poor little fuzzies) coats.
Needless to say, I’ve learned and grown a lot in the last few months. Every step of the process teaches me something new, and the more work I do the more comfortable I feel with all these tools (I no longer cringe away from my tape measure when reeling it in, which I think is a big accomplishment). When I first started this, I went to Lowe’s in a dress, a Starbucks cup in hand, and walked up and down the aisles to get ideas, and now I’ve become the girl in Home Depot with a pencil stuck in one side of her ponytail, a Sharpie in the other, tape measure clipped to her filthy, torn-up jeans, wearing crocs with socks because they’re comfortable and squishy, which makes them ideal for using my feet to help maneuver boards that are twice my size. I’ve actually been stopped on a supply run before, and told that it was impressive to see a young girl walking around with a tape measure. I kind of still feel like a fraud: I don’t actually have the faintest idea what I’m doing even though I’m getting more comfortable doing it.
That’s the biggest source of my nerves when this project overwhelms me. I don’t really have the skills to be doing any of this. I’m shooting in the dark and studying YouTube videos in hopes of maybe not completely screwing up and having major issues down the line. Sometimes I look at the work I’m doing and it feels impossible. Sometimes I look at the work I’ve done and realize anything is possible.
The walls are starting to go up, which is immensely exciting. Even more so because I hit this break where I decided I wanted to make more progress more quickly, and started doing more on my own, without the help of SuperDad. I actually measured, drew out, cut, installed, and spackled the first wall panel entirely by myself, and it turned out beautifully. It’s a little janky in one corner where the cut kind of veers away from the corner it’s supposed to match up with, but I was planning on rounding out the corners anyway (I’m a huge klutz and don’t want to be constantly bumping into things that are more painful than they have to be) so once it’s all painted I think it won’t be noticeable.
The weather here has been rainy and cold for weeks, now, which is insane because I live in a desert. It feels more like the Pacific Northwest than Nevada, and that’s made the build a little more difficult and a little less enjoyable. I’m getting more and more anxious to hit the road, and the idea of taking a few trials runs once I have finished the walls and ceiling sounds more and more appealing.
One plus side to all the rain: we have some amazing flowers blooming. The poppies are a fan favorite. Personally, I love this purple carpet of flowers that opens up in the sunshine.
No matter how much is finished, I’ll definitely be testing it out on June 15th. My cousin is getting married out at a resort campground on the backside of Yosemite, called Mono Village, which our great grandfather got started way back when and her parents have run since before I was born. It’s one of my favorite places, absolutely gorgeous and incredibly quiet. Her wedding is going to be in a meadow just behind the campground, and with all this rain I suspect it’ll be bursting with wildflowers. It should be stunning, and my plan is to spend the night at the campground afterwards.
Of course, when I first planned that I thought I’d be done with the build be then and be ready to take off, but seeing as there’s fifteen days between now and then, I think I’ll be lucky to have the walls and ceiling finished.
I’ll probably fill up the van with camping gear and use it like a tent that night, but it will hopefully give me an idea of how well insulated it is and if I have any of the furniture built, it might give me an idea about the utility of it.
The walls are going to consist of five floor-to-ceiling plywood panels, plus plywood around both doors and the bulkhead. I’ve installed the two easiest panels, the ones in the back, but I screwed up the measurements on the second one (I did that one on my own, too, but since I messed it up I’ve got a little less pride for it) so today’s first goal is going to be to fix it. After that, I’m torn. The next two walls aren’t really ready to go up as I’m not entirely sure how everything is going to fit into them — light switches, 12 volt plugs, holes for the wires to come through to the battery and the water pump, a recessed electrical box for my solar controller and fuse box. So I could try to draw those out on the wall panel, knowing that I’ll probably need to change a lot of it later; I could clean out the van and paint the sealant onto the subfloor; or I could focus on trying to finalize specific plans for all the furniture (exactly how the framing will fit together, exactly how large each drawer and cabinet will be) so tomorrow I can make sure that the furring and studs will be enough to support everything, finalize the locations of all the electric parts, and hopefully continue getting the walls up.
Finalizing the plans is probably something that does need to get done today, but I might try to apply the sealant first, just so one more thing will be knocked off the To Do list.
Actually, funny story about that second back panel, the one I put in yesterday and messed up. Behind those panels is a ton of furring and studs that are screwed into everything we could reach — the van walls, other studs, the frames of the wall reccesses. When SuperDad was installing the stud beneath the reccess frame, the drill bit broke in half.
It was wedged through the wood up against the sloped metal, and we had to fish it out in the dark (well, Dad had to fish it out in the dark. I was too busy taking pictures).
We did get the bit out, but it was a little mini adventure, trying to get this stud installed in the dark so I would be able to put the wall up the next day and suddenly losing half the bit in the wood.
I still owe you some catch-up posts. I won’t forget them, but staying current seems more important than filling in the blanks at the moment. Most of my energy is still going into the build, so the blog is still moving a little slowly. I’m going to try to work on it first thing in the morning from now on, and then edit in the evenings, so hopefully I can get more posts out more frequently.
There are really only two catch up posts I think I need to write: building the two wall recesses around the bed area, and the complete electrical post. The former will include a few other little details, like buying the fabric for my curtains and finally settling on paint colors. The electrical post probably won’t be like my other posts, which rely mainly on my experience with the build. I’ve already written about my experience with the electrical, but I want to make a big post outlining the entire system, how it’s all going together, and why I made the decisions I did or why Dan suggested I do it that way. I think the electrical system can be the most daunting and challenging part of a build, so I want to throw my two cents out there and hopefully help somebody else out. That post is going to be much more technical, and I don’t feel a huge rush to get it out.