To build a campervan from scratch can be a big job and may be very overwhelming. Of course, everyone has different goals, agendas, budgets and priorities, meaning each build will be unique in some way or another.
How to Build a House on Wheels From Scratch in 15 Steps?
Here we have created a guide of the 15 steps to build a campervan from start to finish of the steps that we took. We intend to give you an overview so you can be more prepared for the process that may come if you decide to do what we have done- Build a camper!
1. Evaluate Your Situation
There are some things that you should evaluate first to see if building a van is possible within your situation, or if you may be better to buy something that is already fitted out.
Some of the things that may limit this choice are:
Everybody has a budget, and this is a good starting point to realise your options.
Begin by looking at the cost of empty vans, semi-completed camper builds, and ready-to-go campers. Many things affect the cost of vans such as; size, brand, age, mileage, the reason for sale and supply vs demand. You may be lucky to find a complete camper that is no longer being used, for a similar price as an empty cargo van.
At this point, you should keep in mind that building a camper from scratch could cost anywhere from €500 up to €30,000 or even more. No matter what price range you are trying to stick to, you should always expect to go a bit over. This is due to inflation, mistakes and miscalculations along the way!
Time and Space Constraints
Thinking about how soon you would like to use the camper, will also help you in the right direction.
If you wish to use the camper in the next few weeks, it may be best to look at some pre-built campers or a more basic design for your self-build. Available space is also important to keep in mind.
- Where will you be working on the camper?
- Do you have a space to store the camper while it is not in use?
This will depend on where you are in the world, some countries have many brands and models of vans available, and some have restrictions as to which vehicles can be used as campers and different costs associated with keeping a van on the road depending on the size and registration class.
These are all good things to check in your area. This will also be affected if you live in a more remote area or close to a city, generally, the more populated areas will have more vehicles for sale. Location will also affect the convenience of purchasing materials to complete the build.
Having an understanding of your skill level will play a big part in your initial evaluation.
- Do you have experience with tools and building things?
- Do you have friends or family who would be willing to help you along the way?
- Do you intend to outsource some aspects of your build?
If you have a friend or family member with a garage or a collection of tools then you may be lucky with this one. Tools can be very expensive and this could affect your budget or your time.
Of course, it is possible to make something fantastic with limited basic tools though it is often a trade-off between time and money. The more that you can spend on good tools, or even outsourcing some tasks, you will spend less time fiddling around with tricking jobs. Giving you more time to spend inside your self-built camper.
2. Make a Plan
Once you have established your options, it is time to start making a plan.
Many services could help you with this step such as Vanspace3D, hiring a designer from Fiverr or a digital conversion guide. It is always nice to dream big in this step, think of all the things that you would like to have in your camper, though be sure to prioritise them.
- Do you want an open space through the day which converts to a bedroom at night?
- Is a big kitchen a priority to feed your friends and family along the way?
- Do you need a shower inside or will you rely on campsites or sports centres?
Check on Instagram, Pinterest, and everything van life to get all the inspiration you can before you get to the difficult part. Yep, that’s right, compromising. Depending on your results in step one, most will find a lot of compromises are necessary. It is a camper; you will need to get creative to fit the things you do need and find a way to live without the rest.
For us the priorities were:
- A fixed double bed
- An inside kitchen with a deep sink, fridge, stove and oven
- A shower with warm water
- Easy access to the cabin
- Seats and table to eat and work at
- Lots of windows
- Water and electricity to keep us off the grid
Once you have figured out your priorities, you can begin to draw. Don’t worry, you do not need to be an artist! We know that even a perfect plan on paper will never match the results though it is nice to start with a bit of a template. It is important to know where to begin building and to keep these priorities in mind throughout the build.
By now you may have decided that a pre-built camper is the best choice for you. If you found something that meets your criteria and fits your budget then the next step may be your last on the way to van life!
3. Choose Your Van/Motorhome
Now you have a realistic idea of your criteria and some options that are available in your area. The next step is to acquire!
Start sending some messages to potential sellers, whether they are camper dealers or private sellers. You want to ask a lot of questions and preferably have the vehicle inspected by yourself and a professional before taking the leap.
Of course, the criteria from the first two steps are important, though the mechanics and health of the vehicle itself are crucial. Be sure to check any extra costs associated with the purchase such as taxes, transfer costs, unpaid costs which may follow the vehicle after purchasing and of course insurance and registration costs for the future.
Once you are confident with the vehicle and have come to an agreement with the seller you can complete the transaction and, if you are buying a pre-built camper, move onto your new van life. Or if you have decided to go with the DIY route, it’s now time to get excited about the next steps!
Once you have bought your van, it is time to start the project! Where to begin?
First, we like to make sure that our empty van is empty. Any wooden panels over the floor or walls can come out. All of the factory cargo lights (unless you wish to keep them) or trims that may be in the way, you can take out too.
When you can see all of the metal that you have to work with, begin looking for any surface rust or scratches in the paint. These should be sealed before going any further.
- Use a small wire brush and fine sandpaper – wet and dry, 180 grit or more – which works well for removing the rust. When the surface rust is removed, the area should be cleaned with mineral spirits and a paper towel or a microfiber cloth.
- Now the bare metal can be painted with a metal primer and finally with a top coat, preferably in the same colour as the rest of the van if the area may stay visible. Spray cans are most convenient if there are multiple areas to cover. Check the instructions provided for painting as the prime and paint can vary in drying time from 30 minutes up to 24 hours between layers.
- When you are confident that all of the metal is sealed, you can begin marking out the placement of your design using tape. This can be a nice way to see the layout more clearly. A tip is to use thicker tape. 50mm is good as it will replicate the size of framing and panels between all of the furniture inside your van.
At this point, we would start to order things, like our insulation, any windows or built-in fans, electrical components and cables, etc. There is nothing worse than having everything ready to continue building and being stuck because you don’t have the main components.
5. Window & Roof Hatches
This is possibly one of the scariest steps. Yes, it has to come so soon.
Preparing and installing windows and roof hatches is not such a difficult task, though it is extremely daunting. You will need to cut some nice big holes into the body of your van. It is important to feel comfortable with the location of these windows and check that they will not be restricted by any of the framings of your van. Also, check that they will not reduce the functionality or safety of the van.
When you have selected the location, you will need to check the dimensions of the hole required. Most standard roof hatches are 40x40cm, though it is always good to be sure. To create maximum ventilation we decided to install a Maxxfan Deluxe and a Dometic Mini Heki.
So, how did we do it?
- Use painter’s tape around the area that we expected to cut, this prevents the paint from chipping up while cutting and tends to make a much neater result.
- Next, we marked the size of the hole on the painter’s tape. Check twice, and cut once.
- Use a large plastic bag that you can tape inside, and around the section that you intend to cut. This will safely collect the metal shavings and prevent them from rusting inside your van.
- A jigsaw or reciprocating saw works best for cutting these shapes into the sheet metal of a van. It is necessary to drill a hole into the area to create a hole for the saw blade to begin cutting.
- Once the hole is cut, get your wet and dry, 180+ grit sandpaper to clean off the edges of the cut metal. Then clean, prime and paint the bare metal following the same instructions from step 4.
- When the paint is dry you can install and fix the window or roof hatch. Some may require an additional frame to be made from wood. This wooden frame would sit on the inside of the panel to screw the outer frame into.
- A good sealing glue will be necessary. We used Sikaflex, and the mounting materials provided. Be sure to smooth off any left-over glue using turpentine or mineral spirits and a glove.
- Fit the glove to your hand, dip a finger in the spirits and wipe over the glue to shape it. This is necessary to prevent mould or dirt from collecting in rough patches of glue.
What keeps you warmer in the cold, and cooler in the heat?
When it comes to insulation, there are many options to choose from and some may be better suited for you depending on your intentions and climate. We decided to go for Armaflex. Spray foam was ideal to reach the tricky areas.
So, how did we do it?
- First, we covered the roof and walls with 19mm Armaflex. It comes in a roll that is 1m wide and 6m long with a peel-and-stick sheet on the back for ease of use.
- Using a permanent marker and a longer piece of wood, we marked out the shapes, and cut with a razor knife. Be sure to measure well to avoid excess offcuts. Now it is as simple as peeling off the plastic and sticking it in place.
- For the cavities that were harder to reach, we used tubes of spray foam. This was a messy task – if you use too much it will expand and drip everywhere. Spray foam is much easier to scrape off metal than it is off your skin, we recommend wearing gloves and some old clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty.
- Once the spray foam was dry, we scraped off all of the excesses and plucked the drops off the floor.
- Only after the roof and walls were fully insulated, we began making frames on the floor.
- We created a wooden frame to lay on the floor, which was glued to the base of the van. The frame will prevent the insulation from getting squashed and creates smaller spaces to fill with the Armaflex. This is a good time to use some off-cuts of insulation, left over from the roof and walls.
We all use more electricity than we realise, and nowadays, it is quite a necessity.
If you intend to rely mostly on campsites, then this step will be relatively easy. In this case, you will primarily rely on a shore power connection. We recommend having this connected by a professional, working with electricity can be dangerous. You may want to have a small battery and battery charger installed to keep the basics running while you travel.
Another good option is a combination battery charger & inverter. These units allow you to connect normal 220v power to your camper which will directly power any outlets that are directly connected. On top of that, it will healthily charge your battery to ensure it is ready when you decide to leave the campsite.
If you would like to be more self-sufficient then you need some extra thinking to prepare the electrical setup. In theory, you will have a power supply (or multiple), a power bank, and power consumers.
This is a bit of a backwards thinking task.
- Firstly, you need an idea of what electronics you will be using. You can start by adding up your expected power consumption. This includes phone charging, lights, a fridge, and anything else that uses power. There are consumption calculators online that will allow you to fill in all of these devices and tell you exactly how much battery power you need.
- Once you know the size of battery required, you can choose between AGM or Lithium. We decided to stick with AGM though they both have pros and cons to consider. It is important to note that AGM is only usable to 50%, therefore you need at least twice the battery capacity that you intend to use.
- Next is the charging method. The main options are shore power charging, which is noted above, and solar power. There is also an option to charge while the vehicle is driving (dc-dc charger), though this is less reliable unless you intend to drive more regularly.
Once the big decisions are made, the preparations can begin. We decided to future-proof by running cables through the walls to two main points inside our van. This gave us three power sources in total. From each of those power sources, we placed conduits towards all of the places where we intended to have power consumers. Finally, we ran cables through the conduit to connect our consumers to the power supply in the later steps.
Take a look here for more in-depth information about campervan electrics.
8. The Foundation
Now we go back to the building. Here we can start to see the foundation of our build.
We began on the floor, placing our subfloor which came with our bus. These are a few pieces of plywood that were cut to fit on the floor of the van. This was glued onto the frames that we laid in step 6. The subfloor gave us a flat surface to work with and provided a strong base to connect our furniture.
From there we began framing the walls. We glued and screwed lengths of wood horizontally along the metal beams on the van walls, to give a seamless shape from the floor to the roof. Then we added more lengths of wood vertically, to provide even support for our wall cladding.
Afterwards, we measured and cut around 100 lengths of tongue and groove cladding, piece by piece to cover our roof and walls. We began in the centre of the roof, working towards one side and then the other, to keep it symmetrical.
No one wants to see what is behind the scenes. Time to close it off!
After installing the walls, we marked out all of the holes that would need to be cut for our lights and electrical outlets. The main thing to check is that the holes would not be obstructed by any of the framings behind the walls. We then took out all of the cladding to cut the holes precisely for each light and outlet.
Next was to treat the wood. We sanded it completely, all of the cut edges, front and back. This is important, not only to give a smooth finish but also to avoid the wood soaking up more paint than necessary. Once each piece was sanded smooth to the touch, they got a nice clean with paint preparing degreaser.
The last was to paint. We decided to paint the backsides of the wood, to protect it from any moisture that may come inside the walls from condensation. We had to be careful not to get paint on the tongues and grooves, otherwise, they may not fit back together.
Now that we had seen which areas of metal would stay visible, we knew they needed to be covered. We bought some white fabric and used an all-surface quick-drying glue to stick the fabric in place, trimming the edges neatly. A day later when the paint was dry, it was time to put the tongue and groove planks back. This time ensuring the cables were in place before completing the walls.
10. Tidying Up
At this point, we have a few unfinished projects. It’s time to clean them up!
Roof & Walls
With the roof and walls in place, we started painting again. The roof got a clear coat, and the walls a plain white. This time we chose to use water-based paint to speed up the drying time. In hindsight, oil-based paint could have been a better option. Again, there are both pros and cons to water-based and oil-based paint. It is another big decision to make.
We continued by connecting the electrical components. We’ve incorporated the 3 charging options from step 7 – solar, shore power, and dc-dc (charge while driving) – to prepare ourselves to be completely off-grid.
This was also the time to work on our sliding door feature which gives us convenient access between the camper and driving sections of the van. This was quite a challenge. Combining some typical hardware from a sliding door system, a few foot locks and a pair of custom-made doors, to create a functional system that would match the style of our interior.
11. Bed & Shower
Prioritise the placements.
When it came to fitting the furniture, we had to prioritise our space. The bed and shower were none negotiable, though we did have leeway with the seating area and kitchen. This was when we came up with the idea of an extended bed. We discussed with some professionals to get a two-piece aluminium frame made to fit.
Indeed, it was a good fit. We need to attach some heavy-duty slides to connect the moving section to the fixed bed frame. We mounted this frame on a set of aluminium angles, one on each side of the vans’ walls. A set of bed slats, and we had our luxury-sized slide bed complete!
We then continued at the front of the van. Creating a shower inside a camper is much trickier than it seems…
The base was a 70x70cm shower tray which we built a basic frame around. Next, we placed several frames for the shower walls, trying to keep everything square as we went. A layer of thin plywood gave us something to glue our marble-styled PVC wall panels. Lastly, we sealed off all of the joints with sanitary silicone.
To continue with the theme of cutting, glueing and screwing, we move on to the cabinetry.
The camper was starting to take shape now which gave us a push forward. We continued with the furniture, getting our frames together. The seats, kitchen bases and overhead cabinets. We made them all and set them in place to start realising what was soon to be our new home.
A few covers were made to hide the wheel wells and also would house the big 125l fresh water tank and boiler on one side and the battery on the other with an additional shelf above. This also made a clear space in the centre of our garage space, neatly under the fixed bed frame. We decided to split this in half, one part accessible from the rear, to fit the gas bottle and diesel heater, and the other accessible from inside the camper to store a slide-out bin and a few extra storage shelves.
Let the furniture Tetris begin!
With all of the frames built, we needed to find a way to install them together. It was important to make some extra holes and keep in mind where our services and connections would eventually go.
Rear Frames & Couches
Starting from the back, we installed all of the frames beneath the bed. Followed by the seats which were fitted tight against the bed frame and would double as extra support for the slide-out section of the bed. The backrest from one of the bunks gives access to our service point, showing the gauges for clean water, dirty water, electricity and control panels for the water boiler and heater.
We then installed the bases for the kitchen, tightly against the seats. On one side would be the sink and fridge with a tall spice-rack style drawer, and the other has a built-in oven and stove top, plus a few extra drawers. The kitchen was topped off with some nice bamboo countertops.
Lastly, the overhead cabinets were fitted, ensuring the cables were all in place. The kitchen overhead cabinet housed a light over the sink. The cabinet over our bed incorporates a charging station with USB plugs.
It is a great feeling to be in the last steps, right?
The placement of our appliances was heavy work. Again, we started from the back. The water tank went in, and with a bit of fiddling around, we connected the hoses to the water pump and water boiler, then further towards the sink and shower.
Connecting the water pipes became quite a challenge. Camper fittings don’t always work well with home appliances, such as our sink and shower. Both drains run through the floor of the van, into a grey water tank which is mounted beneath the van.
We made a section through the battery housing to connect our services (water and battery monitors, and control panels). Then, at the front, we installed the stove and oven connecting the gas pipes through the back of one of the seats and to the gas bottle. Lastly, we installed the fridge, which is removable to access the plumbing.
15. Finishing Touches
Trims, and more trims!
The final step before moving into our van was to close off all of the rough edges. We neatened the furniture edges with plastic trims and the floor edges with aluminium trims. A few wooden covers were made to hide the hoses and cables in the back of the seats, all of which are easily removable as maintenance points. A good clean-up of the dust was necessary before the last coat of paint was applied.
We added an extra pop-up table by the kitchen with some leftover bamboo wood and set up a few shelves and decorations to make it feel a bit more homely. The last piece of the puzzle was to fit our custom curtains and cushions. Then we were on our way, our home on wheels was done!
If you enjoyed reading this post, then you may be interested in checking our blog pages. We have covered a range of topics about Van Life, Van Build, Van Travel, and our Van Buddies, where we share our experiences from living in a campervan for the past two years. You can follow us on Instagram or Facebook to stay up to date with our latest posts and to take a closer look into our daily lives.