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VW van conversion (part one)



Main image: Suitably equipped with trade plates, a pre-owned VW was taken out for a road test

I seldom resist a challenge and any excuse to get involved in a campervan self-build project.

That’s what happened when a fellow outdoor enthusiast confessed that he’d always hankered after a small ‘campervan’.

There was only one problem. He didn’t have the money to buy a new one. So he asked me how easy it would be to build a camper himself. There was a reason for asking this question.

Before Dave spent three years training to be a teacher, he had briefly worked as a joiner. So the prospect of building cabinets to fit inside a van didn’t phase him one bit. However, he didn’t know much about motorhomes.

For instance when I asked him if he preferred an absorption fridge as opposed to a compressor model, a glazed look appeared on his face. Similarly, his entire knowledge of 12V cables and their different gauges could be written in looped-up handwriting on the back of a postage stamp. Dave was bemused but willing to learn.

So we formed a team of two in spite of the fact that he lives near Newport, South Wales, whereas I’m East Anglia-based. That’s why I insisted that his initiation into the world of motorhomes should begin at the Peterborough showground and the National Motorhome Show.

The outdoor exhibition was a great place to start and Dave and his wife were impressed. After comparing base vehicles we agreed that a VW Transporter T5 would meet all our needs so our search began for a pre-owned example. That’s where our problems began.

Buying a base vehicle

For a variety of reasons, I thought it best to buy a panel van. The window van versions are undoubtedly smart vehicles, but I wanted a bit of double glazing in the back, with some spare wall space as well. So Dave started following up adverts in the land of his fathers while I scoured the south east of England.

Stupidly, I thought it would be easy to find half decent ‘vans at a very decent price. Times are hard at present and many tradespeople who use vans for work are holding on to them for longer than normal. We also didn’t want one that had transported rubble, cement mixers, and bore marks of building site scrapes. After six months of failure, nothing had turned up at all. Now it was time for plan two.

Through my annual visits to shows organised by Warners, I had got to know several of the small-scale van converters. I’d also discovered that several of these buy nearly-new pre-owned vehicles and fit them out to high standards. Mike Young at Young conversions in Bletchley does this. And he can also get hold of vans for his clients.

So, too, can Graham Law of Middlesex Motorcaravans (MMC) who operates from a workshop in Edgware. In fact I’d often wondered why his fine exhibits at the Warners’ shows were often a bit cheaper than other firms’ products. Their number plates gave things away. Among his contacts are vehicle hirers who sell their stock at periodic intervals. So I decided to give Graham a call.

We didn’t strike gold in a hurry, but out of the blue a 2006 vehicle appeared with a full service history, a high mileage, but in remarkably good condition. As we’d expected, it was a bit over the intended budget, but it had a new MoT and looked notably smart.

Then, to practise what I preach, we asked for a test drive, and it was soon apparent that this van was a good ’un.

I decided to buy it at once.

Get insured

From the outset, the van had to be insured and one of the specialists supporting self-build projects is Shield Total Insurance, which has a number of guidelines for DIY builders and certain items that have to be included in the finished vehicle.

Weighbridge checks

Having made the purchase, and arranged insurance, an important job had to be carried out. Any serious self-builder wouldn’t want to build a vehicle which is unsafe on the road and illegal to drive. Accordingly, all constructors have to ensure that their project van won’t exceed any weight limits. This is what needs to be done.
Firstly, the weight plate (normally fastened in the engine compartment) has to be checked. You must find out its permitted gross vehicle weight – which must not be exceeded when the converted van has been loaded up, and is carrying passengers. This figure is marked on a plate. So, too, is the maximum permitted weight that bears down on both its front and back axles. 

Before any work starts, you must get to a weighbridge to establish the empty van’s weight, before you start adding the parts. It’s also recommended to arrive at the weighbridge with a brimful fuel tank. You then know that no further fuel could ever be added, which would inevitably produce even more weight. The weighbridge operation is shown alongside.

Each weight check currently costs £12 at my weighbridge and it amazes me that hundreds of self builders completely ignore this all-important matter. Let’s hope that when their conversion is finally complete, the vehicle’s finished weight is checked at the end.

My weighbridge address came from the Local Council’s Trading Standards Dept and I always phone before arriving The rear of the vehicle is then reversed on to the platform to check its rear axle loading. All details are then printed on a dated form with the vehicle’s reg no

Weight Data

The weighbridge result was 1,880kg. The plated information for this vehicle reads:
  • Gross vehicle weight – 2,800kg
  • Gross train weight – 4,900kg (max weight of van plus laden trailer)
  • Front axle limit – 1,450kg (weighbridge result 1,140kg calculated)
  • Rear axle limit – 1,550kg (weighbridge result was 740kg)
As long as neither of the axles is overloaded, the gross vehicle weight of 2,800kg minus the actual overall weight of 1,880kg measured on the weighbridge reveals that there was scope to add a further 920kg. The 920kg is therefore available for necessary services including water and gas, the occupants, all their gear and all the equipment used in the conversion.

Note: Terminology varies, as explained on Page 57 of Build Your Own Motorcaravan book as written by yours truly.

Buying parts

A number of basic parts were going to be needed straight away. For instance, one of the early tasks is to insulate and line an interior using lightweight fabric.

This isn’t sold in typical DIY stores and it made sense to choose one of the fabrics stocked by Middlesex Motorcaravans and to make a purchase when collecting the van. Graham knows how much is needed ‘off the roll’, bearing in mind that we had agreed to adopt a popular layout.

Dave had also learnt enough from his first National Motorhome Show at Peterborough’s East of England Showground to compile a rough and ready shopping list. He had decided, for example, to fit a rock and roll bed because that yields a flat double which most people like. Rather than trying to find a bed structure back in Newport, Dave also purchased the metal framework from Middlesex. Like many of the UK’s small-scale converters, this company is quite willing to sell components that they use in their own conversions.
In practice, buying bits and pieces can be difficult for self-builders and a whole chapter is devoted to ‘Tracking down materials’ in the Build Your Own Motorcaravan book. For instance, my previous projects have often used surplus products purchased from Magnum Caravan Surplus in Grimsby. I’d even got a lot of ash-framed cupboard fronts left in a garage so Dave picked these up before heading home.

I must say that he didn’t look entirely confident as he headed off home with a van stuffed with multifarious bits and pieces in the back and a copy of BYO Motorcaravan in the front.

Progress in pictures

When it comes to photography, Dave has always been a competent camera clicker. That’s good because photographic records are important, especially when you can’t quite remember where you ran a length of cable before a wallboard was later installed.
Suffice it to say we documented every bit of the project and I stopped counting after 1,480 of David’s images had been downloaded on to my hard drive. There were also hundreds more of my own.

Tools and strategies

Not a huge array of tools was used. It obviously helps if you own a saw table, a router and an electric sander, but Noah built an Ark with much less

Although it must be good to own a well-equipped workshop, it’s surprising what is possible with a few hand tools, a portable electric drill, a jigsaw and a bench in the sun-lounge.

There’s also a need to choose one of two strategies when converting a van. Some constructors build everything in situ and that’s what I’ve done in the past. However, in this van conversion, we adopted the strategy preferred by manufacturers like Bilbo’s where cabinets are built on a workbench and then transferred to a van to be fitted.

Wall cladding

There are a variety of ways to clad internal walls. Some motorcaravan builders purchase 3mm ply that is finished with a decorative facing. Specialists like Magnum Caravan Supplies can supply sheets of this in a wide choice of colours. Another approach, which was used for this project, is to purchase standard 3mm plywood at a timber merchant which you later cover with a fabric.

Before fabric-faced panels are fitted, the bare interior of a van should be carefully photographed to provide reminders of the locations of metal ribs, pipes runs, electrical cables or whatever. Photos like this can be extremely useful at a later date. I often include a metal tape measure in a photo to confirm the precise location of this and that before it gets hidden by panels.

Original panels in many vans are finished with plasticised facing sections. These were removed from the VW and used as templates in order to replicate their shape on plywood The original plastic facing lacks the warm feel of a motorcaravan lining fabric. This can be stuck to ply surfaces using adhesive like this spray-on product from Wickes The lining fabric is thin and too much adhesive could seep right through it. However, with practice you soon achieve a smart result

Templates need to be made for all the individual panels - a time-consuming and quite fiddly task to get right Some thicker 6mm plywood was used and the cladding was temporarily fixed with short staples. Later, it was fixed with adhesive Insulation in the wall voids is important and this was liberally positioned. All cables were protected from abrasion by ribbed conduit

The lining material is light and flexible enough to fit around contoured shapes like this wheel moulding. A rounded knife handle was used to press it into flutings In the upper sides, small blocks of ply were bonded to the steel using Sikaflex-512 Caravan adhesive sealant. Blocks provide fixing points for wood screws later Fixing the upper panels used very few screws because Sikaflex bonds wood to wood and to metal. But it takes 24 hours to bond completely so some screws were temporary

Floor fit and cables

It was decided to commence conversion work by fitting a new floor panel. To ensure that sufficient hidden cables run from one side of a floor to the other or behind wall panels, consider multicore cable used by caravanners. To couple-up a caravan’s electrics to the12S socket on a car there’s a complement of seven automotive flexible cables held in a grey-coloured sheath. Bigger still is the latest thirteen cable version which includes coloured 1.5mm² and 2.5mm² cables to provide different power ratings. Running a length of multicore cable behind a panel allows you (at a later stage) to pick up any of its individual cables to run appliances that you might have overlooked in your original plans.
The original thin plywood floor was badly marked and this had to be removed. All the panels were taken out and put aside to use as templates Cables have to be laid under a plywood floor so a Powerpart 230V mains kit was purchased. Plastic pipe can also be laid with a pull string inside To support the new ply and to leave a narrow void for cables and insulation, 40x25mm (1½x1in) battens were fitted to the floor pan. I prefer to bond these using Sikaflex-512 Caravan
Good quality WBP ply was used and patience is needed when trimming it to fit. Typically it has to be placed and removed many times to achieve a close register all round the edges Automotive cable of the correct gauge and rating is used for the 12V circuits. Lengths also need laying in advance Ventilation and gas drop-out holes are very important and plastic vents were fitted after vinyl flooring had been stuck down. Some cables were also protected in flexible conduit

Rear windows

VW Transporters are available with a wide range of different specification and this particular panel van didn’t have windows in its rear doors. However, Volkswagen sells purpose-made glass and a pair of units was purchased for around £80. That was the easy bit of the process.

I’ve often said that wise self-builders shouldn’t attempt to do everything themselves. We can’t be good at everything and Dave didn’t relish the prospect of cutting through the rear door metal and bonding in a pair of windows. He didn’t have the right tools for the job either.

So the job was done by a specialist. The trouble was that it only looked smart on the outside: the internal finish was not very good and Dave had to tidy it up.

It might be better to install two Seitz S4 framed, double-glazed windows on the rear doors but the curved, single-glazed units from VW fit neatly into the recess Cutting out the shape of this aperture needs the right tools and a steady hand. However, the ragged edge was not entirely successful when viewed from indoors despite added trim Caption: Windscreen and glass fitters no longer use rubber surrounds because modern adhesive sealants bond glass to metal. But they must be supported for several hours

Commencing the cabinets

Don’t laugh, but up to this point, detailed plans had remained in the head of the builder. No computer-aided design drawing here. However, there were now some issues calling for precise measurements.
Having studied a number of similar layouts, we knew that the sink, stove and drainer would dictate the supporting cabinet dimensions. The detailed catalogue from Caravan Accessories of Kenilworth (CAK) also showed different stoves and sinks. Jonathan Frost is CAK’s director and as a motorhome owner he knows what works reliably. His advice was certainly useful and we purchased one of the kitchen units which was duly dispatched by mail order.
This one-piece sink/hob assembly prescribed the length of the supporting work top. In addition, the sizes of fridges determined the height of the unit.

Dave constructed a heavy ply top to accommodate the sink and hob unit. Annoyingly, a large piece of the ply gets discarded after the cut-out has been formed Having compared many different ways to store fresh water, Dave settled on using the twin container fresh water system with submersible pump that Middlesex Motorcaravans successfully fit The unit was built using ply and assembled as a tough carcase with the embellishments left until later. One of Magnum’s Ash frames was ideal for making a door

There were now some major decisions to make. We couldn’t agree on a replacement roof and the type of fridge was an issue as well. So was the installation of a leisure battery and there were windows to fit in the sides. Next month’s report reveals how we accomplished these tasks. There were more than a few surprises...


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20/01/2012 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

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