In late July 2015 I bought a secondhand panel van to convert to a campervan. I don't have any formal training in carpentry, plumbing, electrics or engineering (except that half a school year when I was 14, thanks Mr. Archer!).
On the journey to converting my van into a little castle on wheels there have been a lot of lessons. It’s not far wrong to say I’ve now built at least 3 vans: the two vans worth of practice, failures and re-dos and then the third one where everything works. My accuracy, speed and techniques improved massively as I went along - not only because of practical experience, but also because learning general ways of approaching design/build problems which could then apply to other challenges.
Over the next two blogs I’ll share the top 10 lessons learned over the course of building the campervan. These are the big themes uniting all the little moments of clarity earned on the way.
1. You DO have transferable skills.
I had expected to have to learn almost everything but was relieved to discover even an apparently unrelated life history provided useful resources for this project. The same will be true for you. Some personal examples:
2. Join an online community
This saved me too many times to count, even if it was just seeing that all this work can come to something. You are one lucky, lucky person to be doing this right now. The internet exists. There are so many places to benefit from a tribe of people with skills to help you. Join a forum so you can ask questions, benefit from the questions others ask and (surprisingly soon!) lend a hand to others. Obvious precautions around any online information apply - not all information is of the same quality or even honest. But, people who convert vans to campervans are overall a helpful bunch who generally want to see others succeed in doing the same.
In the UK the Self-Build Motor Caravan Converters group (SBMCC) is absolutely recommended - for a cheap yearly membership fee you gain access to a group of friendly, knowledgeable people who have actually converted campervans. Some of the members have been doing this for several years and the forum archives are immensely helpful.
3. Get the best base vehicle you can afford
A vehicle with the most reliability and least rust will means much more enjoyment for your hard work. Particularly for inexperienced campervan builders, the build will take much longer than you anticipate. Along with that (as I picked up from Vandog Traveller) learn the common weak points in the type of van you are looking for so you can pay particular attention to these.
I do know of a bloke who takes the opposite approach, only buys vans in about a 5 mile radius which are really cheap. This is certainly appealing when on a budget. But, he has built loads of vans and is an experienced woodworker and engineer with a fantastic workshop space. He rips things out of one van, recycles them and builds another in the time it takes me to make cupboard doors. He once put van together to ‘good enough’ level with a folding bed, storage, sink and hob -in a weekend. If he builds a van and it has a fatal mechanical problem, it’s a few days of tinkering to fix or move things on to the next one. For me, if the van completely died anytime soon there would be active soul searching to cope.
4. Manage your time like a boss
David Snell, a house (the sort without wheels) self-builder once said ‘successful building is about proper management’. The same is true of your uber-mobile tiny house. There will be setbacks in the weather, materials, finances and your physical fitness on any given day. Focused working with the time you do have will make a huge difference in absorbing these challenges. Many different methods exist to organise your goals and time for your van build. In another blog I will go through what worked best for me, but any system will do if you feel comfortable with it. A good place to start is to write down you want to accomplish during the next build day so you don’t have to re-find your place when a slot of time comes up.
5. Embrace basic techniques
Particularly for less experienced van builders, the simpler way you can do ‘X’, the better. I tend to overcomplicate everything. Before the campervan, taking hours to make supper was not unusual (although it was a blinding feast, to be fair). So this was a huge lesson for me. Try to find the most straightforward way to do something wherever possible: push-fit plumbing fittings, butt joint or pocket hole joinery, hardware with easy-fit features. The cost of more difficult techniques is in time, extra materials and morale. Once you get the key elements in you can have a go at more advanced woodworking or other techniques.
Coming in up Part II, the most important lesson the van build taught me, one that I hope will save you time and angst.
What skills do you have from other areas of work which could apply to a campervan conversion? Are there lessons you’ve learned the hard way in your build? Let us know in the comments below.
Who's writing this, anyway?
Me, Feta Brown, who dreamed of building a camper van retreat for an embarrassingly long time. In 2015 I plunged into doing just that. Now am enjoying my fully functioning camper van with solar powered array, woodburner, sofa bed, lovely kitchen and composting toilet. I want to empower you to build your own retreat on wheels by sharing my journey and top tips from experts in their fields.