Converting a VW Transporter: first steps

‘Let’s get a van,’ we said. ‘Let’s drive it all over the continent,’ we said. ‘We’ll do it up, build a bed in there, chuck in some soft furnishings and live in it.’ That’s pretty much how easily the plan came together. What’s not quite as easy is the work to do it up! Fortunately, we’ve made a good start and the dream is getting a little closer to reality.

The beginning: a shell of a plumber’s van

The van we found is second, third, fourth, who-knows-hand! It’s in good condition generally, although it was previously a plumber’s van. As you can imagine tools, parts and steel toe capped-boots tend to pick up grime. So the first thing to do was remove all of the plywood lining to see what we were dealing with. We also removed the plywood bulkhead and the covers from the rear windows to help with visibility when driving.

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Dirty, grubby, and not very accommodating! At least we could see out of the rear windows now.

When the ply boards came off it was clear that the van hadn’t seen much in the way of a loving clean for a very long time! Getting the old girl dirt and dust-free and ready to work on was going to be a job in itself.

Preparing the van to be insulated.

We rolled up our sleeves and got on with it. We swept, scrubbed, hoovered, swept a little more, and scrubbed, scrubbed, scrubbed until the dirt was all gone. We went through copious buckets of hot, soapy water, and enough J cloths to significantly enhance Vileda’s profits for at least the next two quarters.

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Tools of the trade.
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When you’re cleaning out a van a Swindon Town F.C. mug is an essential element. J cloths optional, but really quite useful.

Insulation: the foundation of a van

What foundations are to a house, insulation is to a van. Especially for someone like me who’s been known to be a little on the cold side sometimes. Well, quite often! We’re on a tight budget, so we wanted to do the most effective job of insulating the van as possible for the smallest cost.

After doing some online research we settled for a mixture of polystyrene boards (in the main), a very small amount of Rockwool (the kind of stuff you find in attics), and what I can only describe as bubble wrap crossed with tin foil.

Pieces of broken off polystyrene board, which can be cut with a Stanley knife, and the adhesive we used to stick the polystyrene.
‘Bubble wrap’ thermal insulation.

We’ve yet to spend a night in the van, so only time will tell how warm it’s going to be. So far it definitely feels as though the insulation makes a big difference. I was working on the van on a chilly day in a sweatshirt and jacket. Once the polystyrene boards went up the jacket came off. Not a terribly scientific experiment, but hopefully it bodes well for van life!

Making the insulation stay put

With solid insulation the foundation of the conversion we wanted to make sure that the various materials we were using would stay put. For the polystyrene board we used tubes of solvent-free adhesive, which can be put into a sealant gun and easily applied to wherever you like. It’s really important to use solvent-free adhesive with polystyrene: anything with solvent in it will cause the polystyrene to dissolve.

We then placed the board where we needed it and held it for 30 seconds before releasing. The ceiling was a little tricky as we were fighting gravity, although we did devise a very nifty holding device, which consisted of a broom wedged against the polystyrene and held in place by chocks of wood and a pile of flooring underlay.

Securing the polystyrene boards with solvent-free adhesive.
The broom we used to prop up the polystyrene boards while the adhesive on the ceiling dried.

The Rockwool was a little trickier as we used a little of this on the ceiling. We found the easiest thing to do was simply tape it into place. We placed it where we wanted it and then used long strips of tape to create a type of cradle that would stop it coming down. We used T-Rex tape, although any strong tape would do.

The thermal ‘bubble wrap’ insulation proved to be the easiest thing to handle. It’s really light so easy to manoeuvre and hold in place and it’s also fairly thin so can be cut very easily. A good few lashings of strong tape and it was in place.

The wall after we’d finished putting the polystyrene boards in place.
Walls and ceiling insulated!
For the uninitiated this is what we call a ‘technical set-up: the broom we used to wedge the ceiling insulation into place.

Insulation: finishing touches

Of course the big job with the insulation was getting the walls, the ceiling and the floor done. On the floor we used underlay tiles (the kind that go under wooden flooring) under the polystyrene boards.

For the fiddlier aspects we used a combination of Rockwool and the thermal bubble wrap. We stuffed the Rockwool into the spaces around and behind the wheel arches. We could have left it as it’s only a small area, but it makes sense to keep it as warm as possible in there – and not let any heat escape after all the hard work of insulating the large surface areas such as the walls.

For the wheel arches themselves we used the thermal bubble wrap. It was a lot easier to use something that moves more like fabric when covering a curved area.

Wheel arch insulated with thermal wrap.

Getting the ply boards back on

Once we’d finished insulating we added a final layer over the top: a vapour barrier to help prevent damp. We then replaced the original plywood boards on the walls and floor. The next step is to line the ceiling with plywood, insulate the rear doors and ply-line them too. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but it’s a good feeling to think we’ve got one of the trickier and important jobs out of the way. Adventures here we come!

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Plywood boards back in place – you can see the vapour barrier sticking out over the wheel arch.

So, what’s next?

The next jobs are pretty important too! Building the bed and sorting out the electrics are next on the agenda. We’ve not fully decided on what we’re going to do about electricty in the van, although it will probably be something pretty low key. Watch this space!

After that it’s soft furnishings! I’ve bought some material to make curtains, which should be good entertainment value at the least, as I’ve never made curtains in my life. We’ve also got the all-important blackout lining: we’re heading way up north so we’ll have the midnight sun to contend with. Not sure if it will make the van one hundred per cent dark, but hopefully it will help.

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