First Steps to building a Sprinter Van Conversion: Gutting, Planning, and Designing
Note: this post is about our first Sprinter Van, which we bought in May 2016, converted, lived/traveled in, and sold May 2018. If you are looking for info about our second Sprinter/current project, please check the dates of the post and make sure you're reading posts from 2018/2019. Cheers!
This post will go over the first steps you'll take in converting a new Sprinter Van into a happy home. I'll talk about gutting the van and removing any unnecessary components, designing a layout, and rough wiring and plumbing. If you bought a used van your process may be a little different as there will probably be some cleanup, component removal, and possibly rust removal involved.
So you got a van, what next!? Well, first, do a little happy dance--and pat yourself on the back. Now comes the fun part--you get to design your new home on wheels from the ground up! Take your time and don't expect everything to happen right away. We originally thought we would have the majority of the work done in a few weeks. It took us a few months. But don't worry, it will get done, and it will be awesome! Now it's time to get your hands dirty.
This was the most expensive thing either of us had ever owned, by a long shot. What to do first? Start by tearing it apart and cutting a couple of giant holes in the roof, of course. Before we get ahead of ourselves, we should mention that you’re going to need an appropriate space to work on your van. This will include a driveway where you can run power tools and make a mess, a good garage or workshop, some understanding family/friends/neighbors, and standard tools. We had all of these things thanks to our friends and family, and we never could have finished our project without them. Thanks guys, we love you!
First steps: gut the rear of the van down to the metal shell so we could make measurements, finalize our layout, draw up plans, and start soundproofing and insulating. This is a much easier/ cleaner job on a brand new van. If you buy used, this will probably involve a lot more cleaning, stripping and hardware removal
Remove the rear bench seat and any other unneeded components, take photos, post for sale, set aside in a safe/clean place
Note: You can sell some of these big items on the Sprinter Forum, Craigslist, or local classified ads. There are definitely people looking, especially if it's new or in excellent condition, and we ended up making a good chunk of change back between the bench seat and headliner--takes the sting out of buying a new van!
Remove panels from walls, and headliner from ceiling
Note: You’ll want a panel remover tool to pull down the walls and headliner. The headliner especially can be a bit tricky and we ended up breaking 2 of the many small plastic clips that hold it up. Don't worry, they are easily replaceable. But patience is your friend
Take photos and place headliner for sale, place in safe/clean place
Note: As you remove each component, place small screws/plastic clips/etc in plastic bags or containers with a small note labeling where they came from. Tupperwear or old jars/containers work great. This will come in handy later when you have no recollection of what those random screws are from.
Remove interior factory lights. We ended up clipping the ends of these wires and wrapping them in electrical tape and stowing them out of the way. The same wiring extends to your taillights, so the main section needs to be preserved intact.
Note: Take photos of *EVERYTHING* as you go. Once you have the van insulated and start putting walls back up, you’re going to want to know where every metal rib and every electrical wire is, even if you don't think so now. Take photos of every wall and ceiling panel, every step of the way. Hold up a tape measure to show distance from an obvious reference point for each photo for bonus points. This will ease your struggles later. Promise.
Designing a layout
Once we had our shell emptied, we got out the cardboard, box cutters, and a tape measure and started mocking up our build. We had already decided on a basic layout after months of sifting through photos of other builds on the web and deciding which features we liked and which we didn’t. What we needed to do was decide on measurements for the major aspects of the layout. The fine details will become obvious (and probably change a time or two) throughout the process of the build, but deciding on the major aspects will help your build start to take shape. We had a lot of questions (this is just a sampling):
How high/wide/long should the bed be?
How far out from the wall should the countertop extend and where should it stop behind the driver’s seat?
How much room do we need to get in and out the sliding door--can we fit a functional cabinet in this space?
How much space is available for an overhead cabinet without hitting our heads?
Where is there room for kitchen cabinet doors to open? drawers to extend? etc.
How will we arrange the sink, water tank and pump, stove, refrigerator, and kitchen storage?
How much room do we want for storing gear under the bed--is this more or less of a priority than sitting comfortably in bed?
Rough Wiring and Plumbing
Before we could start framing beds and cabinets, we needed to get a basic wiring diagram planned. This involved deciding on the overhead vent location, where the solar panel wires would pass through from the roof, the location of any lights and electrical outlets (both 12v and 110v), and where we would place the fridge. We also would need to decide where plumbing to the sink would pass from the location of the tank and water pump.
This first stage of building can be overwhelming! There are a million decisions to be made, and each one seems to affect all the others. We made a bunch of drawings with different options/ variations on the design we had imagined and mocked up different cabinet configurations with cardboard boxes, trying to imagine what the space would feel like. After a few days of what probably looked like very intricate fort-building to the neighbors, the drawings we had on paper were starting to make sense and we were prepared to start the building process. We combined a lot of different aspects of various van builds that we had researched. We'll try to link to them as we go, and will compile a list of references at the end of each blog post so you can have the info we had when we started. We relied heavily on a few blogs in particular, and we're super grateful for those who came before us and shared their experiences with us. This is the main reason we started this website, to continue spreading information to the next generation of van builders!
Our Layout: Decisions
We decided on a full-size bed. This can be a little tight for 2 people (and a future dog), but it was worth it to have the room for a bedside cabinet for clothing storage. This cabinet doubles as a bedside shelf too. We've been sleeping on full beds in vans and tiny apartments for years, so we're used to it. A queen does fit in a Sprinter if you use the full width of the van. You can also custom make a foam mattress to your decided width, but we were ready for a 'real' mattress after years of back pain on less-than-supportive beds. This restricted us to standard sizes.
We wanted to maximize rear-access storage underneath the bed while still maintaining enough room above the bed to not feel overly claustrophobic. We love that feeling of crawling into our 'cave' at night, but it's nice to be able to sit up in bed.
We decided to maximize the countertop length from the end of the bed almost to the driver's seat. We left a little space so we could still utilize a driver's seat swivel comfortably. We also made the kitchen cabinets a little taller than standard, as we're both on the taller side of things and hate bending over to cook (Cade is 6'1" and Becca is 5'7")
We definitely wanted a cabinet in the sliding door. We considered putting the sink here, but realized it would be smarter ventilation-wise to have the stove in the door. This eventually turned into what we call 'the most complicated van cabinet in the world', inspired mostly by the Roaming Robos. We made this cabinet as functional as humanly possible with an oven/stovetop, fold-up countertop, indoor/outdoor cooking on drop-down shelf, bonus shoe storage, etc etc. This project taunted us for months, but turned out to be one of our favorite features of our build.
The fridge we would place on a pull-out drawer under the bed. We wanted a top-loader for space and efficiency, and liked the idea of being able to maximize space by keeping it tucked away in a drawer. Drawer inspired by Sprinter Van Diaries, although we put ours in a different spot
We eventually decided to place the sink behind the driver's seat with fresh water tank and water pump in a cabinet below it. This keeps water away from the bed.
We designed overhead cabinet space that would stretch the length of the van on one side--for clothes in the rear and kitchen storage in the front
Note: We'll go in to more detail about each of these components and design features in future posts. This is just a basic guide to our reasoning behind our layout.
Next step: Get to work cutting a gaping 14” by 14” hole in the roof of our shiny brand new van. Yikes!!
Spoiler Alert! For reference, this is what our finished van looks like. This is the easiest way to see our layout, as our 'blueprints' aren't exactly the most sophisticated.
Roaming Robos We stumbled on this van on Instagram, which turned out to be a great accident! Of all the sources we referenced, our final layout is most similar to Jon and Pamela's. Their blog was key to our build process, and Jon answered a few frantic emails with random questions from us as we were deep in the conversion process. We are super grateful to these guys for all their help... and they also happen to be fun to hang out with in 'real life' too!
Sprinter Van Diaries This blog is essential to anyone entering the van conversion process. Great detail and info on every aspect of building out a van. I think every DIY van conversion in the last couple years has used this website (or another one based on it) at one point or another. If they didn't, then they missed out!
Our Home on Wheels Another great van. We love this layout and the clean look these guys have
Traipsing About Great ideas here. We haven't met Dakota yet, but we're hoping someday he'll share his secrets of rear pull-out drawer slides with us so we can take our rear storage area to the next level
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