Framing

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.

Phase 6.2: Composting Toilet

Going into this build, we were 100% committed to a composting toilet.  After a few years of peeing in bottles and what have you, we knew it was time for a legitimate throne.  We went with the Nature’s Head composting toilet.  While it is on the more expensive price end of the spectrum, we knew that we would own this toilet for a long time.  So if you think about spending $900 on a toilet you will have for potentially 20 years or more in your future off gird homes, that’s not a terrible deal.  

Composting Toilet

We also knew that we wanted the toilet to slide out from under a cabinet. That way it takes up as little space as possible.  We built out a frame for the toilet that fit the toilet very snug with a little bit of breathing room.  Next, we build out a base for the toilet to sit on so that it can pull out like a drawer.  The nice little custom base for the toilet was finished with a built in switch for the toilet fan.  

After this, I decided to finally cut the hole in the floor for the air to vent out.  The Nature’s Head comes with a built in fan and hose that blows air through the toilet, out through a hose, and out your van.  You need a hole saw capable of cutting metal.  I would not advise cutting the hole where I did.  I completely *#%^@d that up.  I didn’t take into account a few things and messed up.  But the fan works and we haven't noticed and terrible scents form the toilet. So, it seems to be working.  I used Lap Sealant around the hose and bought a few plumbing adaptors for the hose and fastened it to the wall.

For the toilet drawer, we installed 24 inch fully extending heavy duty drawer sliders on the base.  I also attached some office type carpet to the bottom of the base.  I did this because the base was going to slide on the ground and not be suspended, even though the rails are heavy duty they cant support the weight of us sitting on them.  So, we have the toilet basically slide out on the floor, with assistance from the rails to keep it in place.  

We are still in the process of the cover for the toilet at the moment we have a fabric.  We think we will keep the fabric but switch up the style to something a bit more “adult.”

After about 3 weeks of using the toilet, we are so satisfied.  It is worth every penny to get up in the night and pee in a toilet and not outside our in a bottle.  It’s also great every morning when nature calls.  I would recommend a composting toilet 100%.  There’s a few out there and I’ve even seen some crafty youtube creations like this one here. kdsfjal. When we leave the van in the heat for a long period of time we’ve noticed a scent of what smells like the garden center at Home Depot from time to time but once you kick on the Fantastic Fan it becomes unnoticeable.  So, in the end, I’m a happy composting toilet owner and it makes vanlife very easy when you can wake up and relive yourself in normal fashion.    

Nature's Head Composting Toilet on Amazon - http://amzn.to/2FkTQq

Phase 5.2: Walls

This one was hard to get started. Although wood paneling seemed pretty easy, we didn’t want our van looking like the inside of a boat with tons and tons of wood paneling every where. We wanted it to look like a little micro-loft or something that might make you forget you were in a van the more time you spend in it. It’s a lot to expect in such a small space and that desired look and functionality is giving us all the headaches everyday :) But, we will see if we can pull it off.

Meaning to go to Home Depot to broaden our selection, we drove across town to what we both pictured as a Home Depot, but it was another Lowe’s. Whoops. We went in anyways to grab the things on our list and just see if they had any more variety in the 4 x 8 MDF textured panels than the Lowe’s near our house. A friend told us he had done all his bedroom accent walls in them and they might work perfect. I had seen the brick ones, but I was still coming around to them. I thought if I paint it white it would be awesome. Kevin wasn’t keen on the idea right then. 

But, he was in luck! We found the stuff, in person, that we saw online and not at the other Lowe’s—the Barn looking textured hardwood panels our friend was telling us about, aka Gray Homesteader Panels! So we bought 3, 4x8 Panels thinking that would be enough. 

We used the previous stock door panelling as stencils for our Gray Homesteader panels. Those were easy. We traced, cut, and installed them with some self tapping screws. A stencil needed to be made for the back door window area. 

I taped some newspaper together over the entire area and poked a hole with my scissors so that I could cut along the cut-out for where the window would go, if there were any on our back doors. Once I got a pretty good newspaper stencil, I traced that on to cardboard. Then, I cut it out and made sure it fit. When it fit, I cut it out of the Gray Homesteader panels. 

To attach our back door panel, we put some 1x3’s in with self tappers on the inside edge of the window indent to use as anchor points for the wall panels. We saw a lot of people covering up the whole door, but we just made individual panels. We didn’t see much out there on how to cover up Sprinter back doors in a camper van conversion; so, this is how we did it and it worked out great!

We ended up needing one more panel for the walls with all the cuts we had already made for the back door and slider door. After spending quite a bit of time talking Kevin into the faux brick, we went to pick it up and finish the wall project. 

We measured the wall at several points. I think it was at every foot going down, we took down a measurement. We measured from the center of the van, (where our center stud runs down to attach the wall and cabinets), to the furthest stud near the back door. Again, we got that measurement across, at every 1’ mark going up. The van curves so it is a different measurement at a couple of them. We had our measurements at each foot then just drew a line connecting the dots and cut. Then, we traced and cut out where our switches would go and jigsaw’d them out. 

Once we had all the wall panels measured and cut, we used a combination of liquid nail and pin nailer to attach the walls to our studs. 

We used thiner grade plywood on the front area because most of it was going to be covered by upper cabinets and the other exposed part was going to be covered in tile. 

Phase 5.1: Ceiling (Mix and Match Panelling) & Van Lighting

At this point, we were ready to start building. All the prep we were doing prior to this felt like work, tedious work and it still looked like an empty van at the end of the day. We knew we had to start with the ceiling to at least get the lights working. That way we could work into the afternoon since it was getting dark so early. 

So we went with a shopping list to Lowe’s. We intended on getting the White Wall Paneling with the lines. But they were out of all but one and it was pretty beat up. We were on a mission to finish this ceiling. So we stood around in the Lumber section of Lowe’s  trying to figure out a quick Plan B that we could both agree on again. 

We were in the wall panel section and I smelt the Cedar walking by and didn’t care about the price. I wanted that smell in my van always. Kevin, although he liked the smell too, he was adding up the price and didn’t like the price tag on the Cedar Walk Planking Kit but he knew I wasn’t giving up on that awesome smell. So while I went out to measure to assure him it really wouldn’t be that much, he had come up with an idea to use one pack of all the planks. Get two of the $10 Planks and one pack, we would stain them. We also grabbed one of these to add to the mix. 

I loved the idea because it replaced my original idea for reclaimed pallets for the roof, but I wouldn’t have to go searching for them and pull them apart once I found them.

In retrospect, I am glad they were out of that paneling because I love the end result so much better and my van smells like cedar every time I open the door! 

Because I had never used a nail gun before, I thought I better start on the side with cabinets so that I could learn where it would be hidden by cabinets anyways. 

It was pretty straight forward. I started by measuring the distance between the ceiling beams we framed out to prep for the ceiling. That way, the panels would always end on a ceiling beam to have a nail anchor point. Once I had that measurement, I cut the planks, and shot the nails into those ceiling beam to hold them up. I didn’t think about it at the time but, a tiny bit of liquid nails might have helped, but I didn’t use it.

We used the Dream Under Cabinet 12V 2W Recessed LED Lighting. When it came time to cut out a place in the panel to recess those lights, I traced around them, drilled a pilot hole, and jig-saw’d them. You can use a hole-saw here, but I really didn’t feel like running to the store again because the one I already had was a wee-bit too small.  Even when I used it, I had to jig-saw anyways. 

**On these lights, they will have black and white cables. The Black is Positive and the White is Negative** 

Jig-saw worked great. The lights are super bright and draw very little power when on. We ordered 12 total lights for the whole van. We have a switch for the back lights to turn on, in the bed area, and a switch for the front lights to turn on, in the kitchen area. (We will also have a set of 3 of these lights under the upper cabinets). 

The planks, since they were all different “actual” sizes from each other, it made the tongue and groove not so groovy in places. It made every fit a challenge, but we got creative in places that gave us headaches and we would still do it all over again even tho it took almost two whole days. (I was working by myself for most of it, while Kevin was working-working on a photo/video gig…So, it could go faster with two people).

The only other part that was difficult was the part by the door. There were some major stenciling on panels that were going down in that area. 

Phase 3.2: Framing

Phase 3.2: Framing

 

We took 1x3’s and cut them to size to fit across the top of the van, on each one to the ribs that hang down. That way, we would have some wood to anchor our ceiling into. 

Once we were done with the easy part, we moved on to the bottom half of the van. We re-used the Embossed FRP White panels that the previous owner had installed. They were cut to size, easy to clean, easy to re-install, and it was going behind the cabinets and under the bed any way. 

Before we put the FRP back where it went. We marked up where the metal lies behind it. That way, we could put the framing exposed and it was easier to work with building the cabinets. 

Once the bottom framing was finished, we moved on to the upper panels framing them out on each metal rib, like we did on the ceiling. Upper cabinets are going above on the drivers side only. So that should be some good support. Then we ran one 1x3 across the center. All we need to do is anchor our wall paneling to it.