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

What Lies Ahead Van Build Guide: Walls, Ceiling, and Our Two Beds

Hi all, Noah here. I’m combining the walls/ceiling section of our guide with our bed builds because after going over our insulation use in our floor post, there’s not a ton of extra info to touch upon! This past summer, we also stripped and rebuilt our bed for a completely different interior arrangement, so I’ll note both here. Let’s get started!

Walls and Ceiling

Just like with the floor, the first step is of course stripping and scrubbing the van interior. With our Nissan NV2500, this involved removing particle board wall panels and even metal accessory tracks from the van’s bygone hauling days. The cleaning step here is always simple, but also time-consuming and laborious.

Unlike with our flooring, we only used fiberglass batting as our sole form of insulation. The way our Nissan is framed out left big gaps between the exterior and the actual framing strips, making it exceedingly simple to stuff fiberglass batting into the walls of the van. The ceiling was the same – our Nissan’s ceiling is segmented into roughly 14″-wide portions, and the fiberglass batting fit perfectly. The only note here is we filled hard-to-reach crevices and the inside of the framing beams with Great Stuff expanding foam so that we weren’t leaving pockets of air where moisture might accumulate.

We used 1/4″ sanded plywood for both the walls and the ceiling. Because our living space is about 9′ long, two 4’x8′ sheets of plywood could easily be cut to fit each section. Six sheets were used in total, with spare strips of remaining plywood used to fill the final cracks of exposed wall, about 6″ on each side of the larger pieces. Like with our floor, I used a jigsaw to cut the wall pieces to fit around the wheel wells (first creating cardboard stencils, of course), and rust-resistant, self-tapping screws secured the plywood to the frame of the van. Most of the process here is virtually identical to the way we laid our floor, so by the time we finished the walls and ceiling, our workflow felt fluid and simple!

The Stationary Bed

Our first bed was a fixed bed that sat about 3′ high, and we designed the bed specifically to have ample storage space for our travels. The build here was actually exceedingly simple.

Three ~4′ tall 2″x4″ planks were mounted vertically along each wall at the rear of the van, screwed directly into the frame for stability, and I cut out a rabbet joint from the top of each board. As you can see in the image below, the rearmost board reaches the floor, but the next two on each side were cut to rest on top of our wheel wells. From there, three more 2″x4″ planks were cut to run from wall to wall, fitting directly into the previously cut rabbet joints.

Next, a handful of 1″x3″ planks were cut to fit the width of our bed (which ran about 4 feet). They were screwed directly into the top of the frontmost and rearmost 2″x4″ boards, and we quickly had a surface for a mattress to sit on! For a mattress, we used an old foam mattress from a pull-out couch. We cut the mattress to fit the dimensions of our bed, threw it into a weatherproof case, and it was ready to go! The rest of the form of our bed came about as we constructed our living area seating and table, which will be detailed in an upcoming blog post.

The Convertible Bed

We realized relatively quickly that our stationary bed setup wasn’t quite to our tastes. We could store so much, but we truly brought along a TON of items that we practically never touched. When we visited home for a portion of the summer, we decided to rebuild the stationary bed into the common convertible bed setup, wherein a full-size table lowers down to fit among benches lining the walls, becoming a surface for your cushions to turn into a mattress.

Well, our convertible bed setup is HUGE. Our last bed took up 4′ of cabin space, and our new full bed is the same 5’10 width from wall-to-wall, but now it stretches a full 6 feet.

Here, we framed out benches in a U shape using our leftover 2″x4″ and 1″x3″ boards. Each van tackling this setup will have completely different measurements – the key here is figuring out your desired table size, centering it on your floor, and measuring the distance between your table and each wall. Our benches are 2′ tall (cutting off a foot of height from our previous bed) but they are also 2′ deep. Ultimately, we ended up with roughly the same amount of storage space!

Once the benches were framed out, we walled off the interior sides of the benches with decorative 1/4″ painted masonite. It was cheap, looks clean, and was an easy way to add a homey touch to our cabin area! We added the same masonite boards to portions of our walls during this renovation period, and we are much more happy with the way our van looks. Simple details can go a long way!

Our table was mounted onto the rear bench using a removeable, swiveling table mount. Finally, as seen in the TikTok above, we topped the benches with large 1/2″ plywood pieces, hinged to turn the benches into chest-like storage spaces. Another TikTok of the table and benches in action can be found here.

For the new mattress, we hand-made large cushions that fit the seating and converted easily into a bed. Our previous mattress was slightly too thin, so we cut the old mattress plus another foam mattress topper into five cushions worth of material: a large cushion for the rear bench, two medium-sized cushions for the side seats, and two long, thin cushions as seat backs which sit along the walls. In bed mode, the seat back cushions slide down flat, and the main side bench cushions slide center to cover the table. We’ll say it: the bed is huge… and we love it.

Did we miss anything? Feel free to reach out to us via our contact page if you have any questions about our build! Each van build is unique to the van and the adventurers living in it, so I tend to cover our thought process rather than type out a big ol’ wood cut list, but if there’s anything specific you’re wondering, don’t be afraid to reach out!

Notes

  • We did not cover the rear doors with any insulation or plywood. Instead, we attached four coat hooks to the door, and our many coats and sweatshirts do a good enough job of retaining any heat that could escape!
  • One issue with our stationary bed build was that a portion of our stored items was exclusively accessible through the back doors. With our bench setup, all of our storage can be accessed inside.

What Lies Ahead Van Build Guide: The Floor

In our Nissan NV2500 van conversion, the first thing we felt made sense to tackle was the floor. That is, of course, after we ripped everything out of the van itself!

Since this post is the introduction into our own take on a Van Build Guide, I want to point out that I will be structuring these posts differently than other guides I’ve seen. You can find guides online that, for example, go deep into the nitty-gritty of how different types of insulation work and the mathematics behind it. Jamie and I are well-read on these facts, but we are not professionals. Rather, I will detail each key component of our build from start-to-finish, and mark clearly where other progress was made on other parts of the van in between steps if that information relevant. Obviously, this chapter will cover our floor, starting from insulation, to plywood flooring itself, and ending with our vinyl tiling choices!

Insulation

After stripping the interior of our cargo van and meticulously spraying, scrubbing, and vacuuming each surface clean, we were left with a bare, ribbed metal flooring. Our first question was – Will the ribbing in our flooring prove annoying (or dangerous) down the line after we lay plywood on top of it?

Both to protect your van floor against mold growth and to maintain the integrity of your insulation, it is imperative that there are not gaps in any sealed area of your van. To solve this issue with our flooring, we cut and laid strips of fiberglass batting (the pink fluffy insulation) inside the ridges of the van’s floor.

The pros and cons of fiberglass batting are as follows: it is a very inexpensive form of insulation, and it is super accessible and easy-to-find, but it can irritate your skin and you must wear a mask when it is openly exposed, because it is toxic to breathe in. The major concern here is that on the road, bumpy driving can shake and disturb this type of insulation and release microscopic fiberglass particles into your cabin. If you, like us, feel confident that this level of insulation will be completely sealed away, you should be able to use it safely.

Fiberglass batting easily fills gaps like what we had in our floor, so for us, this choice was a no-brainer. A more earth-friendly and less toxic alternative would be Havelock Wool, which was unfortunately both outside of our price range and is regularly on backorder.

On top of the fiberglass batting, we laid massive 1/2″ sheets of XPS foam board insulation (also pink!). To fit it around the wheel wells and the back door’s curves, I measured and cut rough cardboard stencils that I then traced and cut out of the foam boards with a standard utility knife. Save your stencils for later – They will also be used to shape your plywood. Our van is on the somewhat short side, so it only took two 4’x8′ sheets to cover the floor with XPS. Don’t worry about gaps along the floor’s edges, those can be filled in with Great Stuff spray foam!

Everything was adhered to our van floor with 3m high-strength spray adhesive. We kept several cans around because that stuff came in handy often.

The Plywood Floor

The actual floor itself wasn’t a huge deal to install. The XPS insulation boards were a sort of test run of how the floor would fit together, and if you go our route, you’ll basically be making the exact same cuts to your plywood as you did to the foam boards.

We used 1/2″ plywood, because with the right amount of pressure at a single point, 1/4″ could certainly crack. This wood doesn’t have to be anything special, we simply made numerous trips to Home Depot and grabbed the least expensive 4’x8′ sheets they have. When we knew the rough width or length we needed, we would ask an employee to make big rip or cross cuts for us. Most of the time, though, we would take the sheets straight home so we could double and triple check all of our measurements. And like I said before, our cardboard stencils continued to be useful for cutting out curves with a jigsaw. The tricky part here was actually locking our flooring down.

We have no drive to use this van as anything other than our own camper, so whereas other conversions take the extra steps to make sure the van can revert to its blank slate form, we… Didn’t. We found rust-resistant, self-tapping screws and stuck with those for virtually all of our van build. A 2″ screw could cleanly drive itself through the plywood, the layer of insulation, and lock itself in the body of the van itself. We screwed down a few key points, particularly where plywood had started to warp (we were after all working during the winter, and things occasionally got a little wet). However, with properly-cut pieces of plywood that conform to the shape of your van well, a tight fit and gravity will do a lot of the work here, so there is no need to go overboard with screws.

Vinyl Tiles

Some vanlifers go the extra mile and sand, stain, and varnish a nice hardwood floor for themselves. In our Nissan, however, after the bed frame and kitchen counter were in place, Jamie and I were left with floor space that was maybe around 4’x4′, and that sort of work didn’t seem worth the trouble. To be clear: we laid the vinyl tiling after the bed and cabinet were mostly finished, which means this step also came after wall, ceiling, and seating construction.

What we went with were faux vinyl shaped and printed to look like hardwood floorboards. They even have texture to them, so they honestly look pretty good! They are also water-resistant, easy to clean, and very easy to install.

The only two things to keep in mind when installing vinyl tiles are that you must always have a firm, measured starting point to base your layoff pattern, and you should separate identical wood textures as much as possible. Our vinyl tile boxes included five or six different floorboard styles – each piece is not totally unique.

Luckily, we had already cut our interior in half with our bed frame, so it was very simple butting a tile right against that framing, offsetting the next row of tiles by about nine inches, butting the next row right up against the frame, and so on. Our tiles were self-adhering, and gravity again helped us keep everything in place.

The only issue with vinyl tiles, in our experience, is that they are extremely susceptible to temperature changes. We tried to run a heater inside the van as much as possible, but we were still working in winter, and our travels from wintry New England to sunny LA cause the tiling to expand and contract considerably. Try to lay your tiles as tightly together as possible, but beware – You may still end up with some tiny gaps.

Notes

Many vanlifers, particularly ones thinking they may rip their floor out someday, will build a subfloor to attach their plywood flooring to. We did not do that, but a guide for that can be found here.

The very thorough guide we followed when settling on insulation was made by Far Out Ride.

We just passed 100k followers on TikTok! Make sure you’re following us!

Until next time,

Noah

How We Designed Our Van Build, Part II – The Kitchen and Upper Cabinets

In my previous blog post regarding how we designed our van, I wrote largely about what I believe to be the core of any van build – the bed. As many of you now know, the cabin of our Nissan NV2500 is only roughly 9′ deep, and our bed takes up just under half of that space. We decided to go with built-in seating that doubles as storage (as opposed to seating that can break down and be stored), so our question was, “How can we maximize the versatility of this remaining space which at best is only 5′ by 5′?”

The Kitchenette

For us, it was an obvious move to also build in a kitchen counter as a non-removable structure (which, if you haven’t noticed, has been our trend!). The final design for our kitchen counter includes a large set of double cabinet doors that open up to fresh and grey water tanks as well as our sink’s foot pump, and the plumbing area is flanked on the right by four small drawers.

The top “drawer” is actually a slide-out cutting board, which at first we found fun and convenient, but ultimately we found that throwing a normal cutting board on the counter or table gave us much more arm space. The sliding cutting board makes for a decent counter extension, but it likely would have served us more as an additional drawer.

The drawers themselves are about 8″ by 15″ so they are fairly narrow, but we made them just over 5″ deep and have been able to fit virtually all of our plates, utensils, and other kitchen items in the three drawers with no issues. In the plumbing area, our water jugs and tubing take up most of the space, but we still have room for cleaning supplies on the floor of the cabinet area.

In a guide I’ll write in the near future, I’ll explain how I made our sink out of a $4 aluminum salad bowl and a basic drain assembly from Home Depot. This was a great way to save money as well as conserve space on our relatively shallow countertop (plus, our TikTok video of it went stupid viral). Another way we saved space was by deciding not to mount a stove onto the counter itself. Instead, we have both a Coleman two-burner propane stove and a small Coleman backpacking stove at our disposal, either of which easily fit onto the counter itself for cooking. This way, we still have plenty of counter space ready to go when we prep food that doesn’t require heating!

The Upper Cabinets

This one was also a no-brainer for us. Because we firmly believe storage is king, we couldn’t let nine feet of straight, bare wall go untouched. The construction was simple (and will be detailed further outside of these design posts): I nabbed a 10″ by 8′ plank, mounted it on the wall, and partitioned it into four sections. I highly recommend using wall space like this to your benefit, particularly if your van as such a high top like ours does. This line of cabinets hangs above our kitchen counter and the foot of our bed, so my head wasn’t going to be up there anyway!

So, did I miss anything? Don’t stop yourself from reaching out if you have specific questions about why we made any of our design choices, and soon, I’ll get into the how.

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

How We Picked and Found Our Van

The process of picking and finding a van can be long and have a few roadblocks, so maybe our story will help!

The two main considerations you have to make when picking a van is what size you’re comfortable with and, obviously, what your budget looks like. Mercedes Sprinter vans, for instance, are large and luxurious, but they can come with a hefty price tag. School buses (“skoolies”) on the other hand can be found fairly cheap and give you the size you might be after, but they are certainly less stealthy than an actual van and can draw attention when parking on residential streets.

Moreover, some vanlifers opt to purchase a new van that they pay for over time, whereas we wanted to try to purchase a used van outright for a lower price. Another consideration vanlifers make is whether to go with an American, European, or Asian vehicle, which primarily affects the availability and price of your auto parts in the event of a breakdown. Typically, any auto shop you visit will have generic auto parts suitable for American vehicles, but the longevity of those vehicles is questionable. We felt the most familiar with Asian car makes, which can have higher price tags on parts but tend to run more reliably in the long haul.

When we were planning our van adventure, our biggest concern was the height of our van – Noah is 6’1″, and we felt that not needing to worry about headspace would alleviate personal tension in the long term. Not everyone needs that kind of space, though. Many vanlifers are more than happy to live a little closer to the ground, and solo vanlifers in particular might not need excessive headspace because they aren’t sharing their small home with another body. For us, after three months on the road as of writing, we are definitely grateful for the ability to stand and stretch inside the van itself.

That made the high-top Nissan NV2500 a perfect pick for us, but there were some trade-offs. The van clocks in around 6’4″ of interior height, so Noah can still stand up straight even after our flooring and ceiling installations, but these Nissan vans run a few feet shorter in length than many used for conversions. The good news is that at less than 18′ in length, we almost always fit into normal parking spots and never have to pay for oversized parking (well, except in LA, where parking can be exceedingly restrictive). Unfortunately, length translates directly into storage space. Headspace is a luxury, but it’s also empty space, and you would be surprised how much bigger the interior feels with only 4′ or 5′ of extra length. For example, our cab is about 9′ long, split roughly in half between our bed and our kitchen/seating area. Imagine that seating area being twice as large!

Nissan vans are also uncommon for van conversions, so we were able to find one in great condition for under $10,000. Cargo vans in general skew on the less expensive side, whereas hunting for that traditional Westfalia or VW bus look might cost you a bit extra.

The key to finding a van at a great deal seems like common sense, but we cannot stress it enough: look every single day. We started our van search pretty casually, looking when we thought of it, sending a stray message out on Facebook Marketplace when a van looked decent, and we got absolutely nowhere. It wasn’t until both of us were looking at least an hour a day on Craigslist, Facebook, and eBay for two or three months straight that we stumbled upon our Nissan, which was perfectly within our budget and in great mechanical condition. Good vans get scooped up quickly, so make sure you’re already looking when they start popping up!

Best of luck in your van search!

Jamie & Noah