I needed a project, and the void left in my life after my wife’s death last year needed to be filled. In memory of our plans to visit the Shetland Isles, I decided to undertake the trip. Our caravan was sold, but a small motorhome would be more convenient to reach the most remote locations. By converting a panel van myself, I could achieve exactly what I wanted as well as fully occupying my time.
Planning the build
Only Simnel, my 10-year-old beagle-cross, and I would make the trip. The intention was to take six months and work our way up the east coast to Scrabster, north Scotland, then cross to Stromness on the Orkney Isles and from there sail on to Shetland. We’d return to Scrabster, then make our way home via the Scottish west coast.
I was relaxed about the project’s technical aspects, as I’d converted panel vans into motorcaravans, and recently helped Gentleman Jack with ‘Peanuts’, the Practical Motorhome starter ’van. I’d also been involved in both house-building and boatbuilding.
What are the ‘essentials’?
I had to prioritise my needs before roughing out an interior design and choosing a base vehicle for my campervan. The essentials were: full standing height at all times, good insulation, a well-proportioned fixed bed, a separate toilet compartment, on-board water tank, four travel seats, heating, a hob and grill, mains hook-up, plus a microwave and a fridge. Desirables? A wardrobe, a choice of tables and, finally, at least one swivel front seat.
Using the various wheelbase lengths of a Ford Transit van as a guide to dimensions, it became clear that the short-wheelbase version could not possibly work, so I focused on the long-wheelbase types. I received much conflicting advice as to which of the manufacturers would be most reliable. I decided to keep an open mind and judge each vehicle on its own merits, but also to be aware of any problems inherent to a particular model.
Sticking to a budget under £10,000
I set an upper budget limit of £10,000 to cover absolutely everything and estimated that, by using secondhand fixtures and fittings where practical, the conversion would cost in the region of £2000, which left £8000 (including VAT) for the base vehicle. I would consider a lower-priced vehicle ‘if it felt right’.
I viewed several vehicles priced between £3000 and £9000 and aged between three and nine years, including ones with medium, long and even extra-long wheelbases.
It was when test driving long-wheelbase vans that I fully realised their limitations. Although they would make a luxurious and spacious campervan conversion, they had limited parking options and would be difficult to drive on the tight bends encountered as tracks pass through remote farmsteads, so I opted for a medium-wheelbase base vehicle.
Finding the right base van
Many viewings later, I happened upon Braintree Van Sales in Essex, where I met my van: a mid-height, medium-wheelbase Renault Master. I couldn’t test drive it that day, but it started at the touch of the key and the engine sounded healthy. Its only apparent flaw was that the side loading door had been forced at some point and stood slightly proud.
It drove well and I was impressed with its handling, even when light and in a strong crosswind. The only minor concern was that it ‘skipped’ slightly when driven hard around a small roundabout. I figured this would stop once loaded, and since conversion there has been no reoccurrence.
The mileage was 137,144 and we agreed on a VAT-inclusive price of £6000. It had a full-year’s MoT, six months’ Vehicle Excise Duty (the tax disc was still transferrable to me with the vehicle at this point in time) and major items guaranteed for three months. I could now draw an accurate floorplan.
By this time I’d made up my mind to incorporate a boot large enough to hold tools, an awning and associated paraphernalia, together with the spare wheel. Eventually the plan was drawn. A 1.9m x 0.686m (6’3” x 2’3”) permanent bed would be sited on the offside towards the rear, sized for a memory-foam mattress. This would be high enough to go over a 60cm-high fridge and a boot space to hold the spare upright. A water tank could also be placed there.
Opposite this there was just enough room for a gas hob and grill sited over a microwave, which itself would be housed over an electric water heater. Next to the hob there was room for the sink and draining board, together with a small area of worktop. To achieve all this, the kitchen base unit would extend roughly halfway across the side door opening, using otherwise dead space. This arrangement enabled the safe storage of two 6kg gas cylinders as well as creating space to store cooking utensils, food, and the whisky and wine.
Heating would be a 230V electric convector heater and a gas fire. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t fit in a wardrobe or shower without seriously compromising the more essential design.
Looking online, I located a caravan dismantler within a 40-minute drive. Colin Bell of Caraspares proved not only an invaluable source of materials, but also willingly offered useful advice on the project. At this stage I began to think about how best to insulate the van and where to run cables so that additional runs could be installed later.
With the floorplan and 3D sketch drawn based on the actual sizes of the purchased pre-owned fixtures and fittings, I was ready to commence work.
Here’s how the work began
Treated 50mm x 25mm roofing battens framed the metal floor, and Xtratherm 25mm insulation was fitted in the voids. Then the rear bulkhead frame was constructed, filled with insulation and both sides sheathed in 6mm ply. Dense foam carpet underlay was glued to the metal before positioning the Xtratherm insulation. The metal side and roof cross-members were filled with expanding foam to eliminate any cold spots.
The two side and two rear windows and an opening rooflight were fitted (£45 from Caraspares), cut with a 115mm angle grinder fitted with a thin cutting disc. There are no patterns for fitting salvaged windows, so I made a ply frame to test the mountings before cutting into the bodywork.
The two side window hinge rails were packed out with aluminium strips to counter panel bevels. Similar packing was required for the rooflight where it fixed to the ribbed roof.
Then we moved on to framing the units. The washroom, including the housing for the leisure battery and the water pump, were done first, followed by the boot, fridge and bed, the latter topped with a double skin containing insulation.
Need more advice on building your own campervan?
If this story has got you thinking, I worked on Practical Motorhome’s own Project Pilot, another self-build van conversion – to read more, click below:
- Part 1: buying a van – your options
- Part 2: more buying tips and insurance
- Part 3: safety check, towbar and rear step
- Part 4: essential roof repairs
- Part 5: making safe old DIY horrors
- Part 6: refitting the hob, fridge and some wiring
- Part 7: general improvements to the interior
- Part 8: making new door cards
- Part 9: ‘wiring’ for 230V and winter prep
- Part 10: repairing faulty indicators
- Part 11: touching-up the cabinetwork
- Part 12: renewing the floor covering and fixing wipers
- Part 13: cosmetic fixes to the bodywork
- Part 14: final instalment – we catch up with previous owners
And keep a look out for further instalments as I continue my £8000 build.
By converting a panel van myself, I could achieve exactly what I wanted