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Building a van for beginners: Your helpful starter guide! 

a photo of my campervan build! Looking at building a van but have absolutely no idea where to start? You have come to the right place! Before my DIY campervan build I had absolutely no idea what I wanted or what the process even looked like! Could I even do it? I’m not a handyman! But somehow I managed. And I am here to help you not just manage but succeed with your DIY campervan conversion! 

Whatever stage you are at building a van of your dreams this article will help clarify the entire van build process and help you decide on a plan of action to go from an empty van to a tiny mobile home! 

This article is an ultimate campervan conversion guide or road map walking you through the process of converting a van into a home when you have no idea what you are doing or have no idea where to start. By the end of this article, you should understand what is needed in building a van and have some ideas flowing! 

How to make a campervan: Step 1! 

Look at the type of van you want (if you already have this sorted skip this step).  

You can’t make your own camper without a van! It is really important to think about the type of van you want and not just for look’s sake. Think about how many people are going to be sleeping in the van. If it is just one you can get away with a small van. If there are two of you you might want to get a little extra room, although you don’t have to. I have seen many couples travelling around in Honda Odysseys! 

This step is really here to get you thinking about the space you intend to create. Can you do what you want with this van? Will it fit what you need? Do you have to remove the seats? Is this something you want to bother with or buy a van that is completely empty? 

In my opinion, it is a lot easier to get a van that is empty unless you can be bothered with the hassle. 

Tip: Campervan guide New Zealand: If you are in New Zealand then I recommend looking at the following vans for 1-2 people. Mazda Bongo, Nissan Vanette (my van), Mitsubishi Delica, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Hiace (my next pick) or even a Toyota Estima. They all make amazing campervans and at a reasonable price! 

There are lots of campervan buying guides out there, I recommend just thinking about the space you need and how many people you are travelling with oh, and your budget! 

a photo of me building a van with a nissan vanette

Nissan Vanette

Step 2: Important questions to answer when thinking of building a van! 

What the hell are you going to do with the van? 

When you get the van that is obviously when the excitement starts but its a good idea to think about what you are going to do with the space and how you are going to do the actual van build. 

Outlined below is your van conversion guide and questions to consider asking yourself before you start ANYTHING. 

Where do you want the van kitchen? 

When building a van you will likely want a kitchen. Asking yourself where you would like it is a pretty important question! This will determine the layout of your van. 

Do you want your kitchen in the front of the van, at the back as a pull-out design or fixed? If you have absolutely no idea what kind of kitchen you want that’s okay. Have a look on Pinterest for the different van kitchen ideas and I am sure something will spark your interest! Or for some inspiration take a look at my brother’s van and my van kitchen below! 

Also, think about the space you have. A lot of time van kitchens you see on Pinterest are for big vans that are popular in the USA. If you have one that’s great but they are super expensive so if, like me, you are doing a pretty cheap van build just bare this in mind. 

Pro tip: If I had to pick a van kitchen for my next build I would do a pull out kitchen because it saves a lot of space and I like the idea of cooking outside. Check out more photos below of my brothers pull out van kitchen in a Mitsubishi Delica. 

building a van like my brother with a slide out kitchen

Mitsubishi Delica campervan guide

Have you decided on what kitchen you want? Now the hard task is learning how to build it! Here are some fantastic video resources to check out. 

Slide-out kitchen by Crafted Workshop.

Inside Kitchen by Fit Organic Living. 

For a kitchen in the back of the van take a look at what we did below. You could do any design you want but we went for a tiered system. Just think about what you want to do with the space. It might be easier to just do one bench and have plastic draws underneath. You will need some framing and then add planks of wood for bench space. 

building a van kitchen photo inspiration

Simple van conversion

Here is an epic campervan packing list of everything you need to include in your van kitchen and the entire van! 

Do you want a sink? 

I highly recommend having a sink in your van even if you are not self-contained. It is awesome for washing your face and brushing your teeth and getting rid of waste once you are finished cooking. 

Having a campervan sink is really easy to set up and there are lots of options to choose from. You can go as expensive or bundy as you like. My setup was with 2 tanks, tubing and a hand pump and a cheap bowl. Check out my article on 3 easy van sink ideas for beginners to learn more! 

Do you want insulation in your van? 

A pretty important question to ask yourself when building a van. Do you want to travel all year round or is your van just for summer? Insulation is not a huge task and I highly recommend thinking about it. 

There are a few different ways you can insulate your van such as:

  • Using reflectix or another radiant barrier- It looks like a window sun sheld and is a really popular option for a van build. Take a look at this video from Dual Ex talking you through the process. 
  • Spray Foam – Is quite an expensive option but great for filling up holes in your van! 
  • Fiberglass Batts- The stuff that houses are commonly lined with! Cheap but toxic. It needs to be very well-sealed so you don’t breathe any of the toxins in. 
  • Sheep wool insulation such as batts or sheets- The best campervan insulation! This is what I would use if I was to insulate my van because it’s non-toxic, not too expensive and does the job well! 

Do you want van curtains? 

I highly recommend having some for privacy and for warmth! 

If like me you can’t be bothered with insulating your van I suggest insulating your curtains. It’s easier and does pretty much the same job. To insulate your curtains just use reflectix or something similar. To do van curtains simply buy curtain cord and the little clips to go with the cord and drill some screws into your roof like my photo below. 

building a van its important to think about curtains here is a photo of my curtain rail

If you don’t want to insulate your curtains no worries! Just make some curtains that are blackout using thick black or dark material. 

Check out this helpful article by Two Wandering Soles on how to make curtains for your van here. 

What kind of bed do you want? 

There are lots of awesome campervan bed design options to choose from. Just think about what you want to do with the space in your van. Do you want a bed that always stays a bed or would you like it to turn into a couch? I highly recommend trying a couch/bed option as it maximises space in a small van. If you have a big van then this isn’t so much of a problem. 

A few different common bed options are outlined below and links to where you can find out how to build them! 

when building a van its important to think about the bed this is a photo of my rock and roll bed

Convertible beds such as a Rock and Roll bed- Follow these handy instructions from Instructables to make one!  

Slider/ Couch bed- Check out this super helpful video from DIY Eli to make a couch bed! 

Fixed bed- A really easy option if you have the space. Check out this video from Exploring Alternatives for instructions and inspiration on how to make your own! 

Think about the mattress for your bed 

With a bed, you will also want to think about a mattress right? The information above is for deciding on the type of bed you want and from there you need to think about what type of mattress suits your bed. Honestly, unless you are having a fixed bed where you can have a normal bed mattress it is likely you will need to get a mattress fitted. 

To do this you will want to get foam cut to fit your requirements. If you are in NZ you can do this at Para Rubber. Just think about the type of density you want. We got medium density foam with a memory foam roll out topper. Memory foam is amazing! 

If you are overseas, have a think about where you could get some foam cut, I am sure there are similar shops. 

Then you will want to make covers for your cushions. 

when building a van it is important to think about cushions here you see my van cushions

You can get someone to do this for you but I think you can do it! You can hand sew these things! Grab some cheap material and make sure to measure the cushions so you have enough material. You can go as basic as you like. I made mine like an envelope. I had a sewing machine but you can hand sew! 

This is a helpful article from Instructables teaching you how to sew van cushions with zips. 

Do you want a bathroom? 

When building a van it is important to think about this step. If you do want one then you will need to make room for it! With most small vans it is possible to do a toilet inside and a shower outside. 

Check out a video here from Dynamo Ultima to see an EASY outside shower in action! (Skip to 2 minutes 50). 

Check out a really basic toilet option in a small space in Doggy U’s van here! I recommend a toilet like this from Burnsco for a less messy option and more of a normal toilet feel. 

In NZ? With a self contained vehicle, you have the freedom of camping in a lot more places around New Zealand and at a cheaper price. But there are strict requirements and things you have to do for your van to pass. I have written a comprehensive article about this called How to get a self contained van sticker in NZ. I highly suggest giving it a read if it is something you think you might like to do. 

Pro tip: I did not get my van self contained because I built the van before understanding the requirements and did not want to re-do the build. I got around NZ for 3 months just fine not being self contained and now I probably wouldn’t even bother with it if I had the chance because I quite like going to the toilet, not in my van! 

Where is your storage going to be? 

Any good van has a lot of storage. It is important to think about this when you are doing your build. Will you make cupboards? They don’t have to have doors. You could just use a bungee cord like we did here. 

My budget bungee cord and nicknack cupboard above.

But we did make a cupboard for little nick-nacks which is really helpful. 

Making cupboards in your van is pretty straightforward. Check out this video here from Vanessa and Adam on how to make cupboards. 

Also, think about the storage opportunities under your bed. It is an awesome place for sneaky space! Once you are finished building a van you might also find extra space down the sides and in weird spots. For example, we have space under our benches for plates and next to the bed for our extension cord and things like that! 

What kind of power do you want? 

I highly recommend thinking about a power option when building a van. For example, you could fit a solar panel to your roof, get a second battery, or an inverter. 

If you are living in your van full time you may want to consider a consistent and reliable power option. I recommend a solar panel on your roof. However, if like me you are a weekend warrior or not living in your van full time then you can probably get away with an extension cord that you plug in at camping grounds and a cheap solar panel and a cheap battery pack. 

This does the job and we also charged our phones on the smoke thingy while you drive so our phones hardly ever went flat. It really depends on what you are charging. 

You can buy solar packs from places like Super Cheap Auto and most RV stores just be careful with the type of solar panel you buy as some of them are really average and don’t work. We got one from Adventure Kings and it didn’t work. 

You can get battery packs from most electronic stores and campervan extension cords from places like Mitre10 and Super Cheap Auto in NZ. If you are overseas then think about where you might find this stuff at any hardware type store. 

Below are further links to check out with helpful guides on kitting your van out with the relevant power options. 

SOLAR- Check out this video from Exploring Alternatives for a solar system on the roof of their camper. 

BATTERY- Check out this video from Hughtube to learn about a battery system for your camper. 

INVERTER- Check out this video from Practical Motorhome talking you through the process of an inverter for your camper. 

Do you want a fridge? 

If you want a good fridge you need a good power source and make space for it in your kitchen! However, I suggest just getting a really sturdy icebox. We got a Dometic box from Trade Tested that lasts around 5 days without having to get more ice which is awesome even if you are living in it full time. We ate vegetarian and when we wanted meat we would cook it straight away. 

An ice box

What are you going to do on rainy days? 

Do you want to be able to hang out in the van? If so you might want to think about the couch/bed option and make a table so you can hang out inside. It can be really simple. We inserted a slide-out table underneath our inside bench and our rock and roll bed acts as a couch! 

I also suggest thinking about getting an awning because you can sit outside underneath it. They don’t have to be expensive either and just clip onto your roof rack. I suggest one from Adventure Kings if you are in NZ or AUS and it is super easy to set up. 

Think about what you will do inside the van. You probably want a bench where you can put a cup of tea or some snacks right? A little bench is a good idea. It can slide out or stay fixed. 

I highly recommend an awning.

What are you going to do for lighting?

I suggest getting a torch and some battery or solar lights for inside the van at night. We used battery LED lights to light up the van and head torches to read. I stapled the lights to the roof but you can install them properly! Check out an awesome lighting option for your van here from Vanessa and Adam on youtube! 

LED lanterns are also an awesome option! 

How hard is it to convert a van to a camper? 

Not hard if you have the right mindset, watch lots of youtube videos and read lots of camper conversion guides like this one! You will need time and patience. It took me 3 months to convert my van and I didn’t work on it everyday and I am a complete beginner. My brother did his conversion in 2 weeks! 

How to build a campervan 

Outlined below is the process for a van build. Your step by step stages to get that van of your dreams!  

  • Buy the van
  • Insulate (Skip if not doing this)
  • Level out the floor (usually with wood)
  • Frame the van with panels (usually with wood)
  • Build the framing for everything, kitchen, bed, cupboards, benches etc. Make sure you know how much space everything is going to take up. E.g how big are your water tanks, fridge and things like that.
  • Insert electrical system and lighting (skip if not doing this)
  • Make your sink and fit the kitchen together
  • Build onto the framing- Your benches and shelves, bed base, cupboard doors, slide out benches etc.
  • All the finishing touches! Paint, cushions, extra nick nack holders and whatever it is you want!
  • All done, now kit it out with all of your gear!

What tools do I need? 

If you are pretty basic like me and building a van seems completely scary that’s okay! Some of the tools to build your own campervan listed below I had never used before. But you work it out! Hopefully, some of the links I have mentioned above give you the necessary information on the tools you need but as a general rule of thumb, the following equipment is absolutely necessary to complete the van build. 

me building a van bench

I had no idea what I was doing! My brother in the back was the handyman!

  • Drill 
  • Nails
  • Screws
  • Plywood or the wood you intend to build with 
  • Jigsaw 
  • Tool kit with all the bits and bobs 
  • Sander
  • Caulk gun 
  • Hammer 
  • Clamps
  • Ruler
  • Square
  • Tape Measure 
  • Level
  • Safety mask 

What equipment do I need in the van? 

Of course, this article is about the building blocks and foundation for your van conversion DIY project! Next, you will also need to think about all of the necessary equipment you want in it! I have created an awesome blog article with everything you need to think about packing in your van! Check it out here and also be sure to download my packing list below so you have everything covered!!

Loved this post on building a van for beginners? You might also like: 

How to find cheap campervan rentals in NZ

The best places to visit New Zealand in a campervan

11 things you need to know about vanlife living 

Be sure to pin the images below for later! 

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