Phase 7.1: Building the Kitchen Cabinets

We are just going to refer to the passenger side of our van cabinets as the kitchen, since the majority of kitchen type items live in these cabinets.

After knocking out the cabinets on the driver side of the van, we knew a little bit more about cabinetry and framing.  So, the kitchen seemed to be an easier task.  The first order of business was to design and build out a frame that would house our water where we it would be accessible.  We used 2x3’s for the framing and attached the base to the van with some heavy duty L Brackets.  After we framed the countertop out, we started framing out individual doors and drawers.  Once we framed a majority of it out, we learned from prior jobs that it’s easiest to paint in this stage.  So, we painted the frame white with a few coats. We used thinner cabinet grade wood for framing out the doors and drawers.  We were able to use scrap wood from our walls to line the sides and bottoms of the doors and drawers. 

One of the more difficult parts of this build was finding a countertop that we both enjoyed and was small enough to fit in the van.  We found that all the Home Depot and Lowe’s pick and pull countertops were ugly and way too deep.  We even thought about a natural live wood slab but after looking at the specialty wood retailers in our area, we decided that they were too heavy and too expensive.  We finally found what we needed at IKEA.  It took nearly a decade to ship, but once it arrived it was the perfect style and fit for the van.  The countertop that we ended up going with, is the IKEA Ekbacken concrete effect and it was cheap, at only $100 to do the entire van. Plus, it fit our look and style more than the ugly pick and pull choices, so it was the best option for us.  Also since this countertop is made for a kitchen island, it’s a bit slimmer and has finishing on all sides, which was nice because we had to flip it around for countertop on the driver side.  

Once we finally got the countertop, the job really went by quick. We actually needed it, physically, to measure correctly making sure the bed functioned and slid out on top of it, as it would rest on it. Once we had it all measured out and the sink where we think we wanted it, we used the stencil provided with our Dawn sink to cut out the sink basin with a jig saw.  We used a hole saw to cut out our faucet hole.  Installing the sink, faucet, and plumbing was much easier than anticipated.  I think once you get in a flow in the van build and knock out a few tasks that you never thought you were capable of, everything else seems so much easier or less intimidating.  We attached the countertop on with liquid nail and some long wood screws that we countersunk from the bottom.  We caulked around the edges where the countertop met the wall. 

Next step was hooking up the plumbing.  We went with a Shurflo Pump with the Silencer Kit, as well as, a Shurflo Accumulator and a Shurflo water strainer.  I had read and seen videos on YouTube of other van lifers complaining about how loud their pumps were.  I watched one video where someone had just used wire to attach the pump to the wood because they claimed the metal screws cause it to vibrate more that it should.  So, I decided to go with this tactic, because why try something that has proven to be loud, why not try an alternative. If it didn’t work, I could still revert to the screw method. I used some of my old 14 gauge electrical from my electrical install and used it to almost suspend the pump off a stud in the sink frame.  The video below will give you a better visual idea at how I did this.  I’m not sure if it’s the wire tie up, the Shurflo Accumulator, or the Silencer Kit, but the sink pump isn’t very loud, at least not enough for me to complain to the internet about it.  

For freshwater and grey water tanks, I just went with the industry standard Reliance six Gallon Jug.  I have three for these for fresh water so 18 Gallons of Fresh and 6 gallons for grey water.  This is a very easy and cost effective system.  I highly recommend installing the quick release to the grey water drain. That way you can release it easier when dumping it.  We used 1.25 inch tubing for the grey water drain and 0.5 inch tubing for the water intake.  

With the easy parts out of the way, it was time for the tedious work of building out the cabinets.  We went with two large doors to access, refill, and dump the water tanks easily.  We have a small drawer to the right of the sink that sits in front of the pump mounted in the back. To the right of that drawer, we have a large three tiered food storage drawer on 18 inch fully extending drawers rails in the middle.  To the right of that, we left two cubbies open, one for our propane tank and one for a catch all, so far anyways.  We also added a small fully extending 18” drawer, above the cubbies, for all our charging accessories.  Above all that is one of the most functional parts of the kitchen counter is the 24” pull out butcher block that acts as extra counter space, while cooking, and as a table for the couch.  Dani painted a nice simple wood stain on the pull out table with a variety of stains and it really turned out nice.  

Other than countertops, one of the other tough choices was what on earth do we use for door fronts?  Well lucky for us we got heaps of scrap wood from Lowe’s.  I know we’ve mentioned this before, but every time we go to Lowe’s, the first thing we do is inquire about the scrap wood and the “damaged” wood to see what we can work with before we make a purchase. One day, we were able to have basically a 4x8 sheet of plywood that was barely damaged for free.  At the time, we didn’t need it, but we took it home.  After it sat in the garage, we figured to hell with buying other wood and spending more money just to make door fronts.  I figured we could just sand it down really nice and finish it with a nice polyurethane and stain.  We went with the Honey Pine and it really looks amazing.  It’s surprising how many people ask us what our doors are and I tell them it was scrap plywood that we finished and they are usually amazed.  I know construction plywood isn’t usually used in finishing furniture but we really liked the outcome and it goes nicely with our look.  Check out how we finished the wood for the door and drawer fronts below.  

Once the doors are installed, the most annoying part of this whole process begins. Installing those pesky little push button latches to keep everything closed…I don’t know why, but it took me quite a bit of time to do this process.  I broke down a basic way to do it below.  

After everything was framed up, door and drawer fronts were added, and the buttons were installed, we used beaded white board to cover up the guts of the plumbing area.  Dani added a nice little book shelf on the edge of the kitchen counter, as well for extra storage. So, no space is left unused.  

We are pretty impressed with out outcome. 

Phase 6.3: DIY Building and Installing Custom Cabinets and Drawers

Where do we even start with building cabinets…  

We honestly had no idea what we we're doing here so we just did the best we could and we are pretty stoked with the outcome. And we realized it is like every other task in the van, so intimidating at first, but once you see your finished product   One of the most difficult parts of the cabinets was getting the cabinets to sit along the curvature of the van walls.  We started on the tallest cabinet first we made a stencil out of cardboard and then traced and cut the plywood.  The cut wasn't right the first time so it took lots of sanding before the fit was perfect. 

From here, we then decided how big we wanted everything and framed it out with cabinet specific framing wood.  Another difficult decision was how and where all the doors drawers and open cabinets would be located. 

Here, we also had to start thinking about everything that would be in the van.  All in all, the cabinets need to be planned specific to your needs and what you are planning on lugging around for the adventure.  We wanted one tall cabinet that could hold a majority of our things and wall cabinets for clothes and some food storage as well.  

We also had to build around our pull out, Nature’s Head composting toilet, and our Truck Fridge that would sit under the counter. 

We framed the top cabinets according to out structural ribs under the walls, we framed them out originally, to attach and hold cabinets.  So basically, whatever the distance is between each rib, that would be the size of each of our cabinets.  Since we are using the ribs to anchor everything, we just made it easy on ourselves and figured we would measure the doors and cut our own, instead of purchasing some pre-fab door fronts, like we planned. Each wall cabinet is a different size, but you can’t really notice, as it goes well with our all over the place style.  

We prefabricated each of the cabinet dividers first and then attached them one at a time cutting the attaching, supporting slats as we went.  Here, I would highly recommend adding l brackets to anchor everything to the van and fasten everything together, as well as pocket drilling all support slats.

I added a thin sheet of plywood to the bottom of the cabinets and cut holes in them first few for our under cabinet lighting.  We also added left over floor in all the cabinets for liners.  I really want to stress here to make sure you liquid nail and l bracket anything you think maybe suspect. It will save you some time after some bumpy dirt roads that like to wiggle screws out and shift things out of place. Ours shifted a bit to where it wasn’t noticeable. It was actually took a second to pinpoint what was going on…Our push button latches weren’t catching on the installed catches anymore because of small amounts of shifting from all the dirt roads we’ve been sending it down. Luckily, I’m equipped with tools. So, I fixed it on the road.  Also, always keep a few extra L-brackets, of all sizes, on board incase you do hit a rude bump in the road.  They can really save the day. 

For the tall cabinet above the toilet, we wanted to be able to still put the driver seat back and also have an area for hanging jackets.  So we notched the cabinet out a bit, to give the coat rack and seat room.  One flaw with our door is on the top of the tall cabinet, we didn't take into account how we would attach the door.  So, at the moment, it’s a kind of annoying swing-up door, until we figure something out.  Above the toilet, we installed a large drawer for all our cooking, cutlery and other food related utensils.  We used a 24 inch fully extending drawer slider here.  It’s the same one we used for the toilet.  Somehow, this drawer works.  With no cabinetry skills, we got lucky on a few of our drawers.  For this cabinet, we used plywood for the door and drawer fronts. We painted them white and then applied a wall paper from Etsy, on top of the heavily sanded and painted plywood, to get a nice finish that we were hoping for.   

We really struggled on an idea for all our cabinet doors since it’s nearly impossible to find the right sizes for our design that is changing and morphing everyday.  We hit the Lowe’s Scrap wood and came up big time.  If you don't know, at Lowe’s in the lumber section, they have tons of scrap behind the saw. Most of it is up for the taking or substantially discounted.  We got a few damaged pieces of plywood that we cut to size and sanded about as much as you could sand to get them smooth and looking less beat up.  After this, we painted them with a Honey Polyurethane Stain.  For best results on this, so called, “1-step poly stain” is to give it a nice thin first coat.  Let the stain dry for at least 8 hours.  Get some fine steel wool (000 or 00) and sand it down to an even finish. (**Use gloves and a mask! If that steel wool gets into your fingers, it will ruin your week, trust us!)  

Then, apply another coat and give it more time to dry. We gave ours a few days, because they smell like a basketball court.  It took a few days for the smell to go away.  Also, remember when dealing with this stuff to wear a mask and have really good air flow where ever you are painting it, preferably do it outdoors. Breathing this stuff in while it is in it’s most volatile state, when it is wet, is ridiculously toxic.

After the doors were dry, they were ready to install.  This is one of the most tedious parts of the cabinet install.  First off it takes many micro adjustments to get the doors to all align and shut perfectly.  Then, after driving for a while they will shift a bit and you will have to adjust.  We used these 90 degree hinges and added these hydraulic arms to keep the doors open.  

Another pain in the ass was installing the push-button latches to all the doors.  Not only is it tedious, it’s kinda risky because when your a beginner like me, you make mistakes.  There’s no room for mistakes here, unless you want to cut and paint cabinet doors that takes at least 2 days to dry.  But seriously, these push-latches take some serious time and measurements to get perfect. Plus, we were using plywood for our doors. We were not using typical width cabinet doors, which is what the push latches usually are installed with. So we had to cut a spacer and to make the cabinet door seem thicker. 

All in all, after doing it. We realized that the hardest part was planning out what we needed on board, in the van, and where it would live. We basically had to build with all of our items in mind. Building it just comes down to framing. Then, you cover it with come pretty doors. Make sure you use correct screws and always use your T Square for every cut and overtime you fasten something, make sure it’s square. It will make life easier in the long run. Check out the video for a better visual idea of how we tackled this project.  

Helpful tools: Kreg Pocket Jig, T Square, Chop Saw, Table Saw, Jig Saw, Drill Gun, Circular Sander.