Van Build Stage Two: Preparing + Fixing

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This was the stage I was totally unprepared for. I knew we’d have to do some fixing but I underestimated just how much there would be to do, how long it would take, how everything needed to be cleaned of 20+ years of grime, and how it never, ever seemed to be done.

Once we had torn everything out of the van, and kept going until we got right to the shell (you can read all about that here), there was even more to take out. We unscrewed things and took them off and peeled back the rubber linings around doors and windows and you know what we discovered? Rust. At the beginning we used to stress about it but the more we found and the more used to it we got, we knew what had to be done. The process of rust repair, which is as follows:

  • Sand the heck out of the rust spot. We used an angle grinder where we could which made the job so much easier. Just be careful that you don’t put a hole through the metal, as then you’ll end up having to repair that too.
  • Brush away the grime from the spot
  • Put a bit of methylated spirits on a clean rag and clean over the spot
  • Paint on the rust convertor (it goes dark when it’s working)
  • Seal and paint the spot (we used specialist rust preventing spray paint over the top)

And hopefully, fingers and toes crossed, that’s it! However, if you do put a hole through the rust spot, whether intentionally or not, you’ve got the added step of having to fibreglass and epoxy over the hole. Which sounds intense but once you’ve got the hang of it (it’s just cleaning the spot, cutting the fibreglass material to shape and then painting the epoxy over it) it’s fairly simple

What we were starting with for this Stage of the van – an empty van

I think the thing that surprised me was just how much cleaning there would be. Whether it was wiping things down, hosing them off, wiping surfaces down with meth in preparation for painting, brushing away the sawdust, vacuuming, sugar soaping, just wiping down things – every day there was something to be cleaned and more often than not, the cleaning had to be done on the same thing several times. That’s the part that frustrated me the most! You’d clean a surface to clean the dirt off. Then you’d clean it in preparation to fix it. Then you’d clean it again after fixing it (ie filling and sanding it). Then you’d clean the area where the new cleaned thing was going to go. Then you’d clean up from putting that new cleaned thing back in the place. Then you’d clean up at the end of each day. So. Much. Cleaning!

One of the first things we had to do was tidy up the ceiling gaps where the skylight and the fan were going to go so that we could install them. We wanted to get everything on the rooftop done first as we had to have scaffolding and ladders up, and once the skylight and fan were in, we’d know where the rest of the roof and wall bracing would need to go. We’d also decided to paint the roof of the van ourselves to save some money, so of course that meant we needed to sand and prepare it for painting too. But we did it! Once that was done, we were able to install the skylight and roof, then the brackets for the solar panels to sit on and then that was it – the roof was done and we could take the scaffolding down! The skylight is going above our bench seat near the front of the van to ensure more light as there isn’t window behind, while the fan is near the kitchen + bed area of the van. Once they were in, silicone went around the edges to prevent any moisture getting in, similar to what we did to the hatches on the side of the van where the gas bottle, toilet cassette, and access to our batteries are.

We also decided to take out everything in the driving area of the van – the two seats, the frames they sat on, the seatbelts, the headliner + everything that was screwed into that, and the floor rubber matting. And what did we find underneath? Yup, you guessed it. More rust. This time on the passenger side it was slightly more serious as there was a hole underneath the step which meant Paul had to get out his welding gear to fix that one. I used boiled linseed oil to rejuvenate the floor rubber mats and over the plastic on the doors and the console to try and get a bit more shine and it came up a treat. While we had them out we took the opportunity to clean everything and spray paint all the black metal pieces that had faded over time to have them looking like new again. It actually worked quite well taking the seats out as it gave us a lot more space to move around in while building the interior.

Checking out the extra space with the removal of the front seats

One of the first internal things we had to do once the driver + passenger seat were out was to install the diesel heater. Having a source of heating in the van was an absolute essential, and we knew from our previous campervan trip that a diesel heater was powerful – it heated up the space super quickly. The heater itself needed to be under the driver seat as it was the safest place for it as it could easily attach to the diesel tank underneath, and the heater itself would be in a prime position in the van to pump out hot air.

As part of the massive clean of everything we took both the fresh water and grey water tanks off and gave them a good clean down too, along with replacing some of the bolts and screws that were holding them on, and giving the brackets a good clean and a coat of the rust prevention spray paint.

We cleaned and painted the hatches before we put them back on the van and sealed them with silicone

Then it was time to focus on the floor. Because we had taken absolutely everything out the first thing we had to do was scrap off as much of the old glue and silicone as we possibly could. We the help of scrapers and acetone we did the best we could but heck, glue that it has been on for 20 years is tough to get off! Then it was back to the cleaning again, as we also had to fibreglass and epoxy over the holes in the floor that were now there because there had been bolts or screws in there that we no longer needed. So out they came and in went the fibreglass. I’d never fibreglassed before but once you’ve got the steps down it was pretty simple:

  1. Clean the area well, with methylated spirits
  2. Let it dry before laying a piece of fibreglass material across it which is just a bit larger than the area you’re wanting to cover.
  3. Gently brush on the epoxy mix and leave it to dry.
Putting the insulation in between the floor framing, ready for the plywood to go on top

It’s a sticky process but a satisfying one! Once we had the floor ready, we were able to put down the timber framing for it, which again we had to be careful with as we had to make sure the screws we were using on the top weren’t going through the floor into something we really didn’t want them going in to! This had an impact on where our framing went and meant it was a slow process, but we got there! Once that was done we then inserted XPS insulation panels between the framing before the ply went on top – and just like that we had a floor!

Throughout this stage we also continued to purchase things for the van. We had bought our fridge and stoven (combined stove + oven) months earlier as our options were fairly limited. We knew we wanted them to be black, a stoven that could be made level with the kitchen bench top, and for them to be 12V. Other things that were purchased over this time included the tapware and showerware, water filter, our bamboo wood benchtop, a memory foam queen mattress that came in a box so it’s easy to move when we need to get underneath the bedframe in the van to access anything we need underneath in the garage area, and we also choose our paint colours. Which I had thought would take a lot longer than it did but I already knew that I wanted to colour scheme to be a minty green, white + black with some wood accents. Well, we were on one of our many trips to Mitre10 Mega to buy something when we stopped at the paint section to have a look at the colours. I think within five minutes we’d chosen our colours and yes, we may have gone off the names – Therapeutic Green and Rain Mist white. It felt really good to have that sorted!

Recovering the headliner (the part that goes directly above the driver + passenger seats)

One of my jobs was to sort out the new carpet and headlining material for the van. After some googling I’d figured out what I wanted and emailed the company for a quote only to get an email back saying they didn’t deal with individual buyers. Ok then, so off to the super helpful team at Napier Auto Upholstery who we actually went to just to get headlining material but they ended up stocking the three other things we were after so we were able to order it through them. We got our carpet, which oddly enough wasn’t for the floor but was for the walls and the overhead storage above the drivers seats, our headliner material, the foam for the bench seat, and some replacement rubber seal for the back doors of the van.

It was actually quite incredible to see how well a lot of things came up once they’d had a good clean and had a coat of spray paint on them. Everything that had once been black but had faded with time/grease/dirt all came up looking so much better and it had a great impact on the overall look of the van. After all, she had a new paint job on the outside so it was only right that she looked great everywhere!

We had taken down the headliner and stripped off the carpet and floor from the overhead cabin storage, so we still had the templates to work with when we put the new fabric on. We had been warned to take our time and do a bit at a time while we got used to what was involved.

The trickiest part was the corners where we had to cut to ensure the fabric fit and the small cut outs where screws and pins needed to go back in to put things like the mirror and sun shades back on. But we managed to do it with no major fails so I’m calling it a success! Carpeting the overhead storage was a slightly trickier prospect just because we had insulation in so didn’t have a super smooth surface to work off, plus it wasn’t straight. But, I think we managed to do a pretty good job between the two of us. It was a job that required both of us, just to have someone to hold the fabric while the other sprayed the glue and to help spread the fabric evenly.

Window tinting

We had wanted to see if we could take the windows out to clean but it turns out that was going to be an incredibly massive and tricky job so we made do with cleaning what we could on the inside and outside. I have yet to figure out how to clean well the tiny area in the windows that come across each other as there’s a 3cm overlap that I just can’t get into clean and it’s so frustrating! Once they were as clean as we could get it was time to window tint. Once I took the roll out of the box it bought back memories of putting duraseal on my school books when I was a kid, as it turns out window tinting is a very similar process. We’d chosen the darkest tint we could as it was to cover the windows that we weren’t going to be using – two by the bathroom and one by the kitchen. While there ended up being a few bubbles in the bathroom one, overall it came out really well. We spray painted the back of the insulation that went over these windows too so there is nothing to see through these windows from the outside. It was the cheapest option for covering these windows as we didn’t want to take them out and have panels put in instead.

Then it was time to get underneath the van and prep that area – thankfully Paul took most of this on, for which I am super grateful (especially it’s because where most of the bugs tended to hang out!) but I did replace some of the old hoses and did some cleaning.

Getting underneath the van to replace the hoses

Now that the floor and the roof were done it was time to get on to the walls and the ceiling but we had to do the initial wiring before then. We knew we had two areas for wiring – the front and the back of the van. Before we could think about the walls and ceiling we needed to know where our power points and things that required wiring were going to be. Once we had the wiring in place and well labelled at both ends, we could get on to the walls and ceiling. Don’t worry, this isn’t the last of the wiring + plumbing, there was a lot more to come!

While in my head I had this as a relatively simple and straightforward process, in a van where nothing is square or straight or even it wasn’t quite as easy as I’d thought (that ended up became a recurring feature throughout the build) With lots of measuring and then measuring again we managed to get the wall framing up. I just remember doing lots of pocket holes in the framing during this process, and a lot of glue and screws! Looking at it now it looks like it should have been able to be done in a day or two but it definitely took us longer than that. We also had to make sure that we had framing where we needed it to be to ensure we could put the bathroom, pantry + wardrobe walls on and have something for them to screw in to, along with the overhead storage in the van. We also needed to make sure we avoided where the wires were in the walls. Once the framing was in and we had triple checked it to to make sure the ply on it would be flush, the ceiling framing went in. We had to make sure we had enough framing in to give the ply something to screw to in the ceiling, but also make sure we avoided certain spots (ie around the skylight/fan), and where the wires for electricity. The ceiling framing was tricky just because working with your arms over your shoulders was always going to be tough going on the muscles.

With the framing in, we were able to start insulating. The van looked very yellow during this process! Trying to ensure that every gap was stuffed with insulation turned out to be an ongoing process, as we needed to make sure it wasn’t around areas where wires were coming through and sometimes we’d need to pull the insulation back out and then put a little bit back in. The hardest part of this for me was doing the insulation in the ceiling and then stapling the building paper across it – I just didn’t have the strength with the stapler to staple overhead! So I ended up stapling what I could and then using my hammer to get the staple in further. Hey, it may have been unconventional but it worked!

And with the walls, floor and ceiling in it was time for us to move into Stage Three: Building + Installing where we could actually start to build stuff and install it in the van – this was the part I was looking forward to as we could actually start putting stuff in the van rather than taking it out!

If you missed it:

What made us choose to build a van and experience van life

Stage One: Buying + Demolishing

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