Tuesday, May 29, 2018

DIY Storage Cabinet

Almost complete, just needs the splash board installed and then secured to the floor.
As we spent time in the van over the past year, I started envisioning our need for some kind of storage for our pots and pans, camp stove and water.  We wanted something more convenient than the plastic storage boxes kept under the bed, a huge pain to dig through in the dark or when its cold. My vision started as a sketch of a "chest of drawers" with a special slide out to keep our cooler on. Thanks to my visionary wife, Rajo, I saw we could pare it down to a single set of drawers, a slide out and a counter top.

After a second set of drawings I set about deciding how to build the thing. Initially I planned on using 3/4" plywood but I don't have a lot of woodworking tools or skill, nor do we have much room to work with/store large material. As an amateur welder, I decided to take on build the frame out of 1" square steel tubing and intended to construct the drawers with pocket hole screws. I sketched out a plan, took some measurement and called an order into the local steel yard.

After a bit of rummaging around the internet I found a place in San Diego that will build sized to fit drawer boxes with full length sliders, so I chose to go that route to save myself some time. In hindsight, I should have just used the pocket screw joinery as it took over a month to get the drawers back which put me into he middle of the worst time of year for working outside. I have since built the box that sits underneath the flip top counter, where we will store the stove/utensils and what not, and it is really easy to make nice boxes using the Kreg brand joinery tools. Also, it requires you have only a circular saw, straight edge and a drill to build functional drawer boxes. Regardless the drawers are nicely constructed, though some of the edge laminate has come off already. They cost ~$150 plus shipping, which included the slide rails and hardware. Not too bad, but if you are on a tight budget you may want to stick with DIY.

As the fabrication progressed I bought some 90 degree corner jigs to help assemble the frame squarely. They have come in useful for the frame and building boxes with the pocket screw kit

Covered sides
I finished the top with a nice stain and several coats of polyurethane to protect it from water damage. I installed a piano hinge and attached the rear part of the top to the frame using riv nuts. The water tap is a Whale brand Mark IV hand pump. I really didn't want to have to mess with too much plumbing and the van's motto is KISS (keep it simple stupid), so a hand pump seemed to best solution. The Whale came highly recommended by other van builders so I spent the money. The tubing runs out the back of the hidden box under the table top and will eventually go into a secondary cabinet I will build out of melamine to store the water container and the 1 Gal propane that fuels our Mr Buddy heater.

In order to give myself a place to attach the side cabinet, and the future potential of adding a flip up auxiliary counter extension, I used a 1/2"ply, stained and urethaned to cover the side of the kitchen console. I used 4MM corrugated plastic, the kind they make signs out of, for the front side of the cabinet since it will essentially be unused and the material is very lightweight.

The cooler slide in action

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A year in

We bought the bug out van a little over a year ago and started the conversion a year ago this weekend.  After a couple chaotic months of initial build out time we took it on the initial voyage, a 10-day road trip through California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. We've since logged 25 additional nights on trips of various lengths and have been making notes about what to do next.

Crammed in
One of the first things we took notice of was how challenging it can be living out of large plastic totes for things like kitchen ware and food stuff. Its fine in the summer time when its warm enough to setup kitchen on a campground table or our small portable rollup table, but when the weather starts getting cooler, and we want to heat coffee/tea water in the morning before heading outside, it is less than ideal. The inconvenience of having to dig through the container on ones hands and knees, in the dark, under the bed made building a "kitchenette cabinet" our first upgrade priority.

We installed a recycled, folding Ikea table just before the inaugural trip. It has served us well, but is starting to come apart. It was never our intention to leave it in as the primary work surface, especially since it doesn't offer any storage utility.

The rough design
We debated whether to install a full blown inset stove top but have decided instead to continue using our dual burner Camp Chef which allows us to cook outside when the weather allows (I actually hate cooking in the van but sometimes its too darn cold or dark outside).  We want a solid work top and since we have so far eschewed plumbing of any kind, no inset sink basin either.  We have instead designed a steel frame "cabinet" that will encase 2 slide out drawers, a slide out cooler shelf, and a flip up work surface that exposes a "hidden" storage compartment for the stove and utensils. The rear legs will extend up above the work surface to provide an attachment for a "backsplash" onto which we can attach additional storage or bungee netting or magnetic strips.

I prefer working with metal over wood, so I have chose to build a frame out of 1" square steel tubing. My woodworking skills are horrid and I don't have some of the larger tools one needs to make nice wood cabinets. Also, I've planned it in a way that allows for maximum future flexibility where possible, like if we add a fridge or real furnace at some point down the line. And since my woodworking skills aren't great, I found a place on the internet that will custom build drawer boxes to size, for a very reasonable fee, leaving the wood elements I have to build to the base for the slide out cooler shelf and the bottom of the "hidden" storage area under the work surface.

We will skin the front and sides with corrugated plastic, the material they make political signs out of. It is very lightweight and very inexpensive. Its also allows light to pass through so it will help passively lighten up the inside of the cabinet ... at least that is the theory. I don't intend to skin the back since it will be facing the wall, but we can decide that once we get ready to install into the van.
Left and right main frame

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Last bits

We are in the final days of preparing for our 10 day initial van trip to Arizona. This past weekend there weren't many van related projects left to do since we decided to have the local conversion guy take care of the seat swivel and the battery install. The primary project this past weekend was figuring out how to attach an Ikea drop table and covering some of the exposed metal with trunk felt.

The drop table went relatively easily. I cut a 1x4 down to the width of the rib on the drivers side mid panel, drilled some hole and used the mounting hardware I am using to fix the wall panel in place. Then I used some 1 1/2" wood screws with fender washers to attach the table to the 1x4 and we were good to go.  After driving the van to the propane filler, I realized I would need to figure out some way to secure the table when its in the drop position so it doesn't rattle while we drive. The solution, a very long bungie cord and a piece of old bicycle tube spray glued to the bottom side of the table top to reduce wood on wood noise. I love simple solutions like this, and any time I get to reuse some of my stockpiled bicycle tube I feel like a good citizen on spaceship earth.

The trunk felt is really easy to work with. I just took some remnants from our panel covering project and cut to fit the exposed metal over the slider, added some spray glue and pushed it into place. If you cut it a little over size, you can tuck it under the weather stripping for a very "pro" looking finish.

This week we are anxiously awaiting delivery of the Ikea bed supports so we can get the bed platform installed. The plan is to re-use the M8 torx 40 bolts that were originally used to attach the tie downs inside the van. I took them all out to replace with longer M8 bolts in some cases, and because in several places it didn't make sense to leave them in. Regardless, they have a nice large head surface and I think will work perfectly to attach the supports to the van ribs... fingers crossed. Once installed, we will use 10 1x4 planks cut to 60" as the bed slats attached with self tapping screws. We ordered a 5" memory foam, sleeper sofa replacement mattress from amazon to top the slats. It was about $150 and had high reviews so hopefully it works out for our needs.

There are still a few unknowns but for the most part we are ready for our inaugural trip. This project has been a lot of fun and a LOT of work. I would definitely do it again, but knowing what I know now, would plan a few more weeks so we could take a midpoint break and have some fun. Spring has arrived and all our friends are out playing but we have been heads down on the van, time for Spring Break fun!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The final countdown

Almost there!

Our requirements for our initial outing are to have the walls complete, ceiling, flooring and a bed
platform installed. With only two weeks and one full working weekend to get the van ready for our 10 day trip to Arizona, we hustled this week to get the electrical panel, lighting, panel upholstery and flooring in. Unfortunately, the floor covering material may not arrive in time for our inaugural trip, but at least we have the subfloor laid in.

Not sure if we will get bed platform installed, it all depends on when the IKEA beams show up. The closest IKEA is 3 hours away so I had to use their eCommerce site, which doesn't offer expedited shipping. We may have to sleep on the mattress on the floor, but it will be a far cry better than the ground I presume.

In an effort to create some time for prepping our motorcycles and gear, I am going to have our local conversion guy install our house battery and seat swivel, since both require removal of the front seat. He is reliable and has great rates and at this point anything I can do to save myself some time is helpful.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Project Fatigue Leads to Perseverance

This past weekend, the fourth week of the build out, I started suffering project fatigue. This is partially due to the difficulty of hanging the walls panels by myself (Rajo was out of town playing hockey) and partly due to the inclement weather we have been having. We are having a hard winter  in Bend, OR. It started snowing on Dec 8th and hasn't really stopped. Its not uncommon for Bend to have snow in December, but it is very uncommon to have it stick around in town for more than a week. The snow that fell in December just recently melted out, though there are still significant patches in shady areas. I think its the longest I have seen snow on the ground in town in 20 years of living here and it continues to snow.

We have had two snow showery weekends in a row, which has made working on the van more challenging as I find working in the cold extremely tiring. This past weekend I erected my "easy-up" tent as a covered area to cut side panels. I don't like cutting in the garage as the sawdust gets on everything, especially the fine particulate dust created by cutting hardboard.  The weekend prior, Rajo and I made templates out of cardboard for the areas we wanted to cover with hardboard panels. I choose hardboard for a couple of reasons: 1) Its relatively cheap, so screwing up isn't too costly. 2) We plan on glueing trunk felt to the outside of the panels to give them a "softer" feel, and it seemed like using plywood would be overkill. 3) If it doesn't work, we have a nice set of templates ready to go for some other material.

We chose to install the panels to fit into the sections between the main ribs on the sides of the van. One person I talked to suggested that it would be easier if we framed the sides so we could cover the entire wall but I wanted easy access to the wiring and the side ribs and struts for cabinet attachment. I believe he was right about that but I still prefer to have the ribs accessible for future expansion. We will cover the exposed metal with trunk felt once we are fairly happy with the setup.

Installing the panels was more challenging than I had expected. I chose to attach them to the walls with M5 rivnuts instead of self tapping screws. I really like the idea of using the rivnuts as it allows for relatively easy panel removal if/when needed, however getting the holes aligned on the panels was a huge pain. After many bad alignment which caused me to re-drill the holes or slightly expand
the holes I came up with a  slight better method, though still imperfect. I used a very fine drill bit to drill tiny pilot holes and then I could align the panel holes with the center of the rivnuts before making a mess by drilling several holes in a single area. Its very time consuming but it turned out ok. I didn't get all 13 panels installed.  I began getting a little fatigued, frustrated and cold so after getting the 3 panels on the driver's side front of the van, slider and back doors, and center side panels in the rear of the van installed, I decided to switch to electrical for a few hours.

I am pretty confident with my simple electrical setup: 8 LED puck lights, a fan and 3 12v/USB plugs. We aren't going to use solar initially, rather I purchased a Battery Doctor battery isolator. I built a distribution panel out of 3/8" ply, painted and attached with rivnuts to the back side of the drivers seat  mount. I started by completing the circuit to the fan, which I had attached to the wire run a few weeks ago. I had a hiccup with that wire run, I hadn't tested its continuity and when I terminated it and applied power ... nothing. So I cut the butt joints out and did a continuity tests... needless to say, it failed, I had a bad wire pull or I cut it somehow during the installation. Fortunately, before we installed the ceiling I decided at the last minute to pull an additional wire back as an auxiliary. So I tested that run, it was good. Advice for those who follow, test your continuity when you pull the wire, it will save you last minute grief!
My fatigue was relieved a bit by seeing the lights and fan in action.

After sorting out the fan wiring and testing with my 12V bench test power supply hooked up to the distribution panel, I moved on to installing the rear set of LED puck lights. I had decided to wire in parallel so I had to attach one side, then pull a lead through the ceiling to the second light. We pulled some rope into the holes we had drilled in the ceiling last weekend, so pulling the wire was easy as tapping the end to the rope and pulling through. I learned this technique pulling CAT 5 cabling many years ago. I terminated the in wall wire run to the lighting wire and turned on the power ... Oh sweet light!

Recharging with a ride on the Sherpa
We have a goal of having the van ready to camp in for the last week of March, our spring break, for a motorcycle trip. We had hoped to have the insulation, walls, ceiling, floor and electrical done, along with a bed platform. I realized this weekend that its an ambitious goal since I haven't been able to do as much work in the evenings as I thought due to the cold and general exhaustion of an 8 hour work day. I think the pressure of getting everything done has been adding to my burnout so I am scaling back our expectations. One thing we can take of the list is having a completed floor. I will get sub flooring in but the floor covering I ordered from AmericanFloorMats.com won't arrive in time. I didn't see the 4-6 week lead time anywhere on their site, but apparently that is the case. Another thing I can punt on is the bed platform. I have a specific long term concept but was going to make a short term platform spanning the back of the van, suspended on the sides by 2x6 rails attached via rivnuts to the rear side ribs. Rajo agrees that we can throw our mattress on the floor for our trip at the end of the month, so we can focus on finishing the paneling and electrical work without killing our joy of the build. I have to remember this is about having fun!!!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Welcome to #vanlife

Our official Social Media welcome to #vanlife came from part.time.nomad  in response to this photo on Instagram.  https://www.instagram.com/p/BQ_s1vPgNtf/?taken-by=bgnout&hl=en

Whether it was in reference to my anecdote of the task taking twice as long or just the fact that we have a van, either way, we're beginning our own adventure and learning the lessons of the road. 

Here's the top five things we've learned: 
1) Keep it Simple:
If given a choice of doing a task the hard way or the easy way,  pick the easy one.  There's no reason to make a task more difficult or frustrating. Yes, you will come across your own unique challenges, but keep it simple and you'll keep the project a hobby instead creating work. We learned this lesson while making templates for the walls. It was such a simple task and we made it the most difficult. Here's a nugget of wisdom on converting a van, ANY VAN: If you're making templates for the walls, use cardboard. Sounds simple, right? Yes, keep your build simple, especially if this is your first van build or building isn't you're full-time job. Heed our advice: Cardboard for templates, not paper.  You will thank me later.

2) Take Tea Breaks:
While living abroad, I learned that tea is more than just a drink. The Chinese taught me the ceremony of the leaf. The English taught me that work breaks always included a cup of tea, a biscuit and a chat with a colleague. For van builds, tea breaks are not about ceremonies or communion, it's about taking a break, relaxing and putting your tasks into perspective. Building a tiny house on wheels is hard work, mentally and physically. So drink tea, rest, and rejuvenate.  We took tea breaks along the way. Usually when we were making something easy really difficult.  We made a cup of tea, thought about the problem, and watched Youtube videos about van builds. Youtube has been our virtual Bible.  There are a ton experienced people on the Internet. Seek their advice with a cup of tea in hand.

3) Be Humble:
Everything takes longer than anticipated. If you think the job will be easy, well that's usually the task that is the biggest challenge.  Be humble.  Mistakes will happen. It won't be perfect. Enjoy the process. Learn as you build.  Aristotle said, "Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work."   Remember you're making and designing your OWN adventure mobile. How cool!

4) Have a Plan:
A van build out is just like any other life project. We approached this build like we do most task in life. First, it starts with a dream. Then we create a google spreadsheet.  Yes, we are nerds, we communicate a lot by spreadsheets. While we are two novice van builders, we take comfort in plans and To-Do Lists. A  plan puts any daunting task into perspective.  Next, we put the tasks on the calendar, so each day we know where to start instead of looking at the empty shell and asking, "Where do we begin?"  When making a plan include a goal for completion.  We bought the van because of our next scheduled trip, six weeks from the purchase date, we are driving to Arizona to ride motorcycles through the Joshua Tree Desert.  The van won't be completed, but it will be usable.  We're highly motivated. To recap: Make a plan. Make it happen.

5) Create a Mantra:
All you need is a few simple words to keep you motivated. Remember Dory? The fish? She has one, "Just keep swimming." Repeating something positive in your head will keep you swimming through the build. Our Manta:  Get it done. This has been our mantra in our marriage, and it serves us during the build too. We love project managing, so when we get the opportunity to tackle any new task, we "Get It Done."

When approaching your van build, approach it like your life, but better because it is #vanlife. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Beginning the finishing

View of back side of fan with 2x2 and 1x2 firing
Our weekend was a busy one. We were ready to do some visible finish work after last weekend's prep work for the ceiling installation. After talking with Ian the Van Guy,  I decided to abandon the hardboard ceiling panel around the vent and installed a couple of nailer strips on the fore and aft of the fan. I cut two lengths of 2x2 and used the 3M Window Weld Adhesive to secure them to the ceiling (rather than making more holes in the ceiling). A word of advice to anyone endeavoring to
Front of fan with 2x2 firing strip
install a fan, trim it out when you do the install, it will make your life easier in the long run!

Unfortunately I didn't take any photos of the result. The adhesive had 4 days to set before I began stapling into the nailers. I was really worried about this approach but a you can see from these photos, it really turned out ok.

You can see the nailers in these photos. I did have to add a second strip of 1x2 to the rear nailer to take up some additional space and give me a place to attache the four short strips of paneling between the back of the van and the back of the fan.

Finished ceiling with strips of leftover panelling ripped down to  be used to cover staples
We pulled several sections of rope through 1 7/8" holes drilled in the ceiling panels which we will run wires out of for the lighting. We pulled the rope sections through once we had several rows of panelling installed beyond the row where the lights will be installed to give the ceiling enough strength
1 7/8" holes I drilled to pull wire through for surface mount LED puck lighting
to drill through. The tongue and groove pine is very light and flexible, which is great for the van because it can flex as the chassis moves around, but its not great for drilling into. 

 The paneling was relatively easy to install once we worked around the fan. We had to cut notches for the panels that would adjoin the fan shroud. We choose to use a pneumatic staple gun to attache the panels to rib nailers, which turned out great. The stapler was more than adequate and the staples were easy to remove when we screwed up, which happened a few times. To make sure the panels stuck to the ribs, we applied a layer of liquid nails to the ribs as we attached the panels.

Once all the panels were installed, I ripped the tongue and groove edges off a few leftover pieces to use as a finishing board to cover the staples in the rib sections, here are a few photos:
End of rib finishing.

Front passenger corner

Front drivers side corner
All in all we are very happy with the result. I has a slightly rustic cabin feel which suits our aesthetic just fine.
Finished view looking towards the back of the van

View of the ropes we pulled through so we can pull wire for lighting.