What Lies Ahead Van Build Guide: The Kitchenette

Aside from our bed, the other major component of our van build is our kitchenette. This is also the most significant portion of the van build that has gone virtually unchanged since our initial departure in February 2021. In this post I will detail our drawers and pullout cutting board, our fresh and grey water tank system, and of course our famous salad bowl sink.

For those who don’t know, our stainless steel salad-bowl-turned-sink went absurdly viral on TikTok, racking up over 18 million views and single-handedly sending our modest account straight into the TikTok Creator Fund program. Check out that video here, and let’s get started!

The Sink and Countertop

This DIY hack has been kicking around the internet for many years, and it is a ridiculously easy way to save money in your build. Buying a pre-built sink (usually a small bar sink) can easily cost one or two hundred dollars. Alternatively… You can cut a hole in a stainless steel salad bowl!

The idea here is very simple. We found a stainless steel bowl at Home Goods for $4 and a basic drain assembly at Home Depot for about $10. Our van build uses a very small, six-gallon closed sink system powered manually by a foot pump. More robust kitchen builds may use an electric pump, go for a larger sink, and incorporate overflow drainage, but all we needed was a simple sink drain that wouldn’t leak. I used an ordinary drill bit to create a pilot hole in the bottom of the salad bowl, and using a 1 1/4″ hole saw, I carefully drilled a hole suitable for our drain assembly. It’s worth noting here that metal-on-metal friction can be dangerous – I highly advise going slow and wearing gloves and eye protection to avoid heat- or spark-based injuries.

Moving forward, the rim of the drain hole should be coated with a thin line of plumber’s putty, which will help prevent unwanted leaks. Your drain assembly should have a rubber gasket for each side of the hole as well, and with the gaskets and putty we have never experienced a leak coming from the sides of our drain assembly. To further seal the drain, you could also rim the drain top with silicone caulking.

To fit the sink snugly into our countertop, I placed it upside-down where we wanted it to rest within our chunk of wood and traced the exterior edge. Our bowl had roughly a 1/4″ lip around its rim, which meant that I needed to then measure and draw a smaller circle on our countertop 1/4″ in from the previous tracing. Then like with any interior cut, I drilled a starter hole in the center of my cutting area, placed my jigsaw blade within it, and cut toward my edge and around the circle between my two lines. When my hole was cut out, it was slightly smaller than my salad bowl’s rim which allowed it to sit nicely in place in the countertop. Some clear silicone caulking applied around the edge attached it firmly to the counter and prevented water dripping into the kitchenette from the countertop!

Our TikTok shows some of this and the water system at work.

The Water System

Our grey water and fresh water each live in a six gallon BPA-free plastic jug from Walmart. The rectangular shape of the two jugs allows them to snugly sit side-by-side under the counter, and having the fill/pour hole on top allows for easy gravity-fed drainage.

We use a Whale Gusher Galley foot pump to run our water. The setup here is dead simple: using vinyl beverage tubing with a 1/2″ interior diameter, the lower valve on the foot pump connects to your fresh water tank, and the upper valve connects to your faucet. This tubing is nothing special – we found it sold by the foot at our local True Value. The most important part of this setup is making sure you use hose clamps at every connection. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a few leaks I’m sure you’d like to avoid! Here’s a video of the pump in action:

The Drawers

We custom-built drawers to fit in the space remaining after spacing out the water tanks and foot pump. The build here was simple and off-the-cuff; I measured and cut three 1/2″ squares of plywood that fit the width and depth of the empty kitchenette space. The “walls” of the drawers were cut from 1/4″ plywood and run about 5″ tall. The top drawer of the four is actually a cutting board (which honestly doesn’t get much use because we can’t pull it out as far as we’d like)!

We also made veneers for our drawer fronts using flat pieces of moulding and mounted them in the kitchenette with standard drawer rollers. Almost all of the outward-facing wood we used in the van has been stained and varnished with the same semi-transparent cherry woodstain and semigloss lacquer.

Here’s a TikTok about our drawers!

The Dishwasher

That would be me.

– Noah

Descend on Bend 2021

We kicked off the next leg of our vanlife journey with Descend on Bend, a large-scale van meetup in the Oregon outback rife with art and inspirational living. The festival kicked off September 2nd and ran through the morning of September 6th, and those four full days were packed with partying. We took plenty of pictures and met plenty of people, and we’re excited to share our experience at Descend.

The Art

A big draw for me was the amount of artists and craftspeople present at Descend. Three days of the weekend had a two-hour block dedicated to a Makers Market where merchants were invited to set up around the main stage and peddle their creations. Most artwork was Descend or vanliving-oriented, including jewelry, posters, and some wooden crafts, but many setups were also selling food and homemade organic hygiene items. Our favorites were two kids – one was a girl selling cookies to save up for her own bus someday, and the other a boy selling fly lures that he was tying right in front of you.

A significant portion of the art present at Descend came in the form of vans themselves. Roughly 1,000 vans made it out for the festival, and we saw all manner of rigs. Minivans and Honda Elements, school buses, campers, and of course cargo vans like our Nissan NV2500. Numerous vehicles had extensive hand-built elements or intricate paint jobs. A particularly impressive build came in the form of a log cabin built as a truck-towed tiny house camper.

The Music

Each evening featured several hours of incredible independent music acts on the main stage – and outside of the main stage.

Two key acts that blew us away included the why-are-they-in-the-desert funk outfit The Humidors who made a huge impression among the rest of the largely acoustic-oriented folk artists. The other act we loved was Trego, a good old-fashioned rock group including some horns and a cello. The main stage shows drew big numbers each night, and being situated next to the sponsor beer garden tent from Worthy Brewing didn’t hurt either (their Worthy NW IPA rocks, by the way).

Off the stage, typically as an after party once the main stage artists wrapped, groups popped up all over for late night activities. One huge circle of vans in particular held their own potluck one evening – open to all, of course – and each night hosted a side concert spearheaded by multi-instrumentalist Daniel Park. That guy rocked his acoustic guitar and electric violin with a looper and brought out every cover he could to get people moving. It was great, and those evenings really highlighted the off-the-cuff community element that Descend cultivated well.

During the day, Jamie and I would walk around and find people everywhere sitting on their cobbled-together stoops with guitars and beers, running impromptu jam sessions with their new best friends.

The People

Speaking of new best friends, as two travelers new to the Pacific Northwest, we were excited to make so many new friends on the road. In fact, the first leg of our van journey was fairly fast-paced and isolated; this was our first meetup of any kind. Coming out of it with a large handful of new connections feels awesome, and we (finally) feel very grounded in this lifestyle.

The unconditional acceptance is simply wild. Each day we would arbitrarily run into someone new, maybe getting water or grabbing a bite, and every time it would turn into, “Well, follow me and meet my friends!” Our circle of contacts grew exponentially by the day, and we met influencers we had seen before online, low-profile weekend warriors local to the area who have invited us to visit them at home, and of course the dogs. So many dogs! Famous dogs!

We’re very grateful that we fell into a solid group of travelers. The van lifestyle gives everyone a very solid starting point for conversation, and the connection is immediate. We even had a crazy small-world moment when we met someone who attended our alma mater at the same time we did!

The Random Cool Things

  • Each day was fueled by a robust coffee van serving cold brew, all espresso-based drinks imaginable, chai, and even milkshakes
  • On our first day, we found a van with a sign reading “Come play me in cribbage,” so I did… again and again
  • On the last night, the Worthy Brewing tent “didn’t want to bring anything back,” so they started selling flats (24 beers) for $20
  • The final full day of Descend each year involves numerous vans and dirtbikes riding into a deep nearby crater, setting up ramps, and doing jumps. Our van is nowhere near that adventurous…

Thanks Descend, we hope to see you next year!

– Noah

How We Designed Our Van Build, Part 1 – The Bed and Seating

When it comes to figuring out what you want in your van home, you truly have a blank canvas to work with, and the internet is absolutely filled with incredible vanlife inspiration. Unfortunately, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the limitless build options, and you can never quite tell how elements of your build work out until you’ve already installed it, which can be especially difficult if you don’t have a background in carpentry and have a hard time adjusting and rebuilding. There’s no such thing as too much planning, so let me break down how we designed our build, and what changed in the finished product.

The Bed

This was easily the focal point of our conversion, as I imagine it is with most vanlifers’ conversions. I believe the setup of the bed directly impacts your day-to-day vanlife experience more than any other element of the conversion for a few key reasons:

First, especially in our setup, it dictates how much storage space you have and how easily accessible said storage is. Any belongings of ours that aren’t food or day-to-day clothing go under our bed, which includes all of our camping gear, music and art equipment, our fridge, our toilet, and our off-season clothes.

Second, the sheer size of the bed can dominate your walking space, especially in a shorter van like our Nissan NV2500.

Third, if you go with a non-stationary bed (for example, a bed that converts into a seating area during the day), then rearranging your bed becomes a significant part of your morning and evening routines.

We went with a raised stationary bed. We didn’t want to worry about converting the bed to and from a seating area every day, and we felt strongly that storage access is king. Our raised bed has multiple drawers and cabinet doors used for accessing storage beneath our mattress, and our larger “basement” area can be accessed via the back door. So far, we’ve had no issue loading all of our belongings into storage, including additions we’ve picked up on our journey like an inflatable kayak!

That being said, building a bed that converts to a table and benches is a very popular choice. It allows for much more walking room, which is especially useful for vanlife couples who can certainly use the extra space, but it cuts down on rear storage space significantly.

Seating

This element is much simpler to decide on.

As you can see in the picture above, our bed frame is attached directly to the seating frame, for one key reason… More storage! If there is one lesson in van design I want all readers to take away from our experience, it’s this: everything in your van should have more than one use.

For our bed and our seating, having more than one use is simple – they both double as storage. Shortly after framing out the seats, we walled off the outer rim of the seats with 1/4″ plywood, and the tops of the seats have chest-like hinges on them and can flip open. Our two seats have enough space between them for virtually all of our daily clothing.

Seating alternatives we’ve seen online include transforming, storable seats that may flip up into the wall, and we’ve also seen vanlifers convert their front driver and passenger seats into swiveling captain’s chairs. Builds in smaller vans may forgo chairs entirely and simply rely on the bed for lounging, or larger vans with convertible beds might use the rest of the cabin for just counter space! Like with the bed, we think your choice of seating depends mostly on your storage needs.

Keep an eye out for Friday’s post, where I’ll be detailing the rest of our cabin’s design! See you soon!

Noah

Welcome to What Lies Ahead!

Hey all! Jamie and Noah here. Welcome to the launch of our blog!

If you’ve been keeping up with our TikTok and Instagram accounts, you already know some of our story. For anybody new, we’re so excited for you to take a look at our vanlife journey!

Vanlife had been a shared dream of ours for a few years – in college, we discovered vanlife and fell in love with all of the van-oriented Instagram accounts and websites we found, and we couldn’t stop scrolling through everyone’s van stories and build processes. In July of 2020, after months of searching through Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace for the perfect van, we finally found a 2013 Nissan NV2500 with a high top roof. We brought her home August 23rd and immediately got to work!

Jamie was wrapping up college and Noah worked full-time on the other side of the state, so every weekend Noah drove out to work on the van at Jamie’s house. After five months of slow research and work, we were able to finally kick off our adventure in the middle of February 2021! Noah will be going through all of our pictures and videos to write blog posts for each segment of our van build. We want to give back to the vanlife community by helping aspiring vanlifers with their own builds by showing all of the behind-the-scenes on our own!

We’re also excited to share with you other peeks into our current lifestyle, including details on hikes and sightseeing spots we recommend, how we handle day-to-day necessities, and personal journal entries on other projects we may be involved in. We are both artists across multiple disciplines, so we always have something cooking on the side! Check out our About page for more info on the two of us.

See you later for more of our vanlife adventure!