With a long history of campervan ownership, Andy McCandlish has bought, converted and driven them for more than 250,000 miles over the past 13 years.
They’ve been his everyday vehicle and workhorse for travelling the country and now, with two children, they are firmly ingrained in family life.
As his latest vehicle is converted by local Glasgow firm Caledonian Campers, Andy shares some of the specialist knowledge built up by himself (and the team at Caledonian) over the years to help you get the best campervan.
Andy takes up the story…
When I embarked on this project, I had intended to do the bulk of the work myself. I did my last ‘van, and that ran successfully for over 13 years, so of course I would be doing this one.
On my previous vehicle, the roof and windows were fitted by an Edinburgh conversion company – the idea of taking a grinder to my new van was, frankly, terrifying – and the rest was tackled by me and my long-suffering Uncle Alan, who had the misfortune to retire as a skilled joiner shortly before I needed a skilled joiner to build my cabinets!
This was before ready-made camper furniture was a thing, so he had the job of building some laminate I had sourced into an intricate pattern of cabinet doors and cupboards. I distinctly remember him getting into the van for the first time and scratching his head. When I nervously asked what was wrong, he frowned, saying: “I’ve just realised I can’t use a spirit level in here…” But once this hurdle was overcome, he got to work and, over the space of a few months of weekends and the occasional evening, the ‘van took shape – he did an incredible job.
Between these visits I would be insulating the walls and floor, then ply-lining and carpeting – all skills learned on the job through mistakes and retries – then wiring throughout.
A plumber friend set the finishing touches, connecting the Campingaz to the Smev stovetop and Propex heating I had fixed under the cabinet area. Finally, the RIB seat was bolted through the floor, sandwiching a steel plate underneath.
So a lot of time, effort and learning went into it, and it was one very satisfied owner who glued the last bit of carpet, bolted the seat down over the new leisure battery and flicked the switches to ‘on’ for the first time.
Sarah, my wife, and I took off north the next day and didn’t come back for a blissful fortnight, ranging as far as Orkney. Having previously spent plenty of time in tents as the rain sluiced down on us, the level of comfort was beyond words.
Employing the experts
So why not convert my latest camper myself? In a word, children! Disappearing in the evenings and at weekends for long spells wouldn’t work these days.
After a walk around Caledonian Campers, I was very taken with the care and finish being applied to the rows of vehicles in the workshop, and they pretty much covered every niggle and preference that we had built up over years of T5 ownership, without us having to say a thing. Of course they did: they are well into four figures for the number of vans they have converted. It began to make sense to hand over to them completely.
I asked John Craven, head of all things customer at Caledonian, how long it would take. He ran his finger down the organiser on his desk. “If you can get me the van next week, I can fit you into this workshop intake… after that it will be around two to three weeks,” he told me.
From that point, it was a whirlwind of handing over the van, then popping in to observe different stages of the conversion. Watching the teams swarm over the shell, each with their own speciality, was a pleasure. As the roof was readied to be cut off, I was surprised to see the grinder wielder square up to the metalwork so quickly.
“Don’t you need a template or something to work to?” I asked, with only a slight tremor in my voice. He just smiled the smile of a man who has cut off a thousand roofs, and replied with a wink, “No, I know where to cut – I’ve done a few now.”
And off he went, dropping his visor to disappear in a blizzard of sparks and mechanical shrieking. I had to look away, feeling a bit like the owner who has brought his dog in for a particularly painful veterinary procedure.
But the roof was off in minutes, a kindness for my nerves, then it was the turn of the windows. Before I had time to swoon, it was all over. John had only just led me to a chair, glass of water and smelling salts at the ready, when it went quiet. “Just rebuilding from here,” he reassured me.
The cabinets were constructed remotely, wired for power with the luxury of having nothing but open workshop around them, rather than the cramped van walls I had worked within.
Even cutting the cabinets seemed easy – CNC machines were programmed with the dimensions and got to work, cutting the laminate boards to shape and size. I couldn’t bear to tell Uncle Alan, who had laboriously marked and jigsawed the cupboards one at a time, painfully aware that one slip could write off an expensive sheet.
Uncle Alan also carefully scribed the walls to fit the curves in the bodywork. It was amazing to watch, but I’m sure he would have been happy to sit back and let the computer take the strain.
At one point, Terry the electrician popped his head up to ask where I wanted the powerpoints, and spent time talking me through the lithium battery system he was lovingly wiring in.
I reflected that everyone seemed to enjoy their job, whichever part that might be, and cheery banter was always echoing around the workshop. A happy place for a camper to be born.
Ready for the road
As each part of the process was completed, the extra financial pain of Caledonian converting the van seemed more remote, the nagging doubts that I could have done it myself fading back to a distant whisper. Then, as our new camper rolled out bang on time, they went quiet for good.
On the day of final pick-up and sign-off, each team took the time to show me how to work their particular masterpiece. The plumbers showed me the water system, Terry the electrician concluded his lithium chat and John skimmed through the overall set-up. Each person wished us well with the ‘van as they headed off, pride in their work evident from the hearty handshakes and smiles as they returned to the workshop for the next job. The camper shone with its final delivery polishing and the new black alloys set off the whole look.
Looking to the future
So would I ever convert a van myself again? Yes, I would. Materials are much easier to get hold of now – for example, ready-made furniture kits would take weeks off the job – and it really was an enormously satisfying project to complete.
Then again, I had the freedom back then to take my time and learn as I went along. At my current time-starved stage of life, it would have been a race to get it done before I needed the vehicle, and that would definitely have taken the edge off the potential pleasure of the experience.
Of course, there are so many other reasons that handing it over to the experts was a good idea. Little touches, experience gained over years of van use and conversions, all added up to a very polished and complete product.
So using the ‘van will be a slicker experience, but also, looking to the future, resale value from a good conversion company should always be better, too. Caledonian is an NCC-approved workshop, which guarantees the standard of work.
Whoever you might choose to carry out your van conversion, it is well worth keeping this in mind as a mark of quality.
There is nothing like the feeling of driving your new campervan out of the workshop for the very first time, those wide horizons just waiting to be explored – so now was the perfect time to see how the conversion performed in the field.
If you’d like more conversion inspiration, find out how David and Gillian Rivers got on when they started converting a double decker bus.
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Watching the teams swarm over the shell, each with their own speciality, was a pleasure. As the roof was readied to be cut off, I was surprised to see the grinder wielder square up to the metalwork so quickly