When converting a van to a campervan for the first time, a big question is where to start. Like many inexperienced van builders, in the early days I lost many hours into a wormhole of internet timespace in an effort to find a answer.
But, it’s not the most important question. Not at all.
What makes the difference between kicking back with a cuppa in your new cosy rolling home and hawking your 32% finished project on a Facebook group is not how you will get started, but how you will continue.
Converting a van to a campervan is a mosaic of hundreds of little projects. Don’t underestimate what you are taking on: building even a simple van whilst learning as you go is a journey which will take determination and work every day to get there. The weather, finances, time and maybe your health will get in the way. But isn’t anything worth having worth fighting for?
Every person who builds their own van is one of my personal heros for doing this. I want nothing more than for you to reach that day where you grab your surfboard and take off for the beach, pack the kids off to a weekend away or settle into your home office on wheels.
So what can help the van building project continue past the initial excitement of the start gun? These are the heavy bits of machinery which made a huge difference for me:
Commit to doing the van with a warrior mindset, no matter what. There are days you will have to take a different approach to work around obstacles, or work less, but don’t break the momentum of at least doing some work on the days you had planned to do so.
An excellent resource on this is the book The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield, who talks about ‘The Resistance’ every artist faces. This means you. Your van is your creation and the resistance is out there waiting.
Goals, Goals, Goals
I’ll go into detail on the specific system which worked best for me in a forthcoming article, but whatever system you use, do something. You will need some way of making a list of the long-term objectives and what you plan to do about it in the immediate future. Reading books, watching videos, finding online articles about goal setting and productivity are an excellent way to make use of the several weeks you are likely to be hunting for a base vehicle.
Making a list for the next day’s tasks the night before was extremely helpful to keep me on track when things felt overwhelming (which was most of the build). There are even posh journals designed to help with planning your goals, but any paper you can find in the morning will do.
You are going to fail. Little failures and big failures will happen, but you are learning with each mishap. The support of other people online and in person can be an invaluable source of inspiration, but ultimately your van will be unique in the world and therefore you will be therefore experimenting at times.
The jazz icon Winton Marsalis refers to ‘discipline of practice’, a willingness to put in long, reflective hours working at something. After my 6th attempt at fully operational, yet non-leaking, plumbing, I had to have a bit of stubborn faith to face it again the next day.
Even now there are parts of the van I want to rip out and start over, and sometimes I have. Embrace the quirks and a little wonkiness. Everyone has areas of their van where the carpet didn’t quite stick or the sealant isn’t as smooth as hoped - including all of those vans you have been admiring online. This is extra, extra true for first time builders. Get it to a functional stage and move on.
A huge help on this was the book Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck, a highly readable guide to adopting a ‘growth mindset’; if you like books it’s well worth it. Alternatively, there are several good videos about it online, like this one. It is far better enjoy a campervan with a little character and than have a perfect, imaginary one.
Call in the cavalry sometimes
Occasionally a job is just a little too much - it’s OK to outsource some things (remember: not being a perfectionist). For me it was having someone do the gas run - I put all the other elements of the LPG gas system, including a hob and underslung LPG tank, but having the actual running of the copper piping and testing of the system by a professional saved me much more time than it took him to do it, and made us all much more confident when using it.
Have a bit of fun
Rewarding yourself for finishing your hard work at each stage is a must. One of the best parts of the build was firing up the wood burning stove with a cold beer after, months of work to get it in (the woodburner; the beer went down fairly quickly). Once you get to a certain stage it may even be worth taking it somewhere for an overnight trip. It’s a huge thrill to see your designs magically come to life in your own wheeled retreat.
Thank you so much to everyone reading this article, the very first on Big Ideas, Tiny Spaces. We are just starting up in August 2017 with the mission of empowering and supporting people converting vans to camper vans, with content from the lessons we’ve learned and guest experts.
How have you kept moving on your project? What content would you like BITS to do next? Please comment below and we will do what we can to bring it to you in future!
All the best,
Who's writing this, anyway?
Me, F Brown, who dreamed of building a camper van retreat for an embarrassingly long time. In 2015 I plunged into doing just that despite being (by nearly all explicit measures) fairly incompetent for the job.