How to use Cross Nuts in a Campervan Conversion
In this post we will talk about using rivet nuts in a van conversion. What they are, how they work, why you might want to use them, installation tips, tricks, and lessons learned.
One of the major things we wanted to change on our second Sprinter Van buildout was to make the entire conversion removable for later access if needed. There were a few times during our first van conversion process when it would have made our lives *much* easier if we could have removed a wall panel or cabinet after it was installed to fix wiring mistakes or access other things behind walls and cabinets. However, we used self tapping sheet metal screws to attach everything to our first build, so it was pretty much permanent!
Our solution on this build was to install rivet nuts for everything we would attach to the van (walls, ceiling, cabinets, etc). We have seen a few other people use them in van builds here and there, but we decided to go nuts (hah, get it?!) and use them for pretty much everything.
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What are rivet nuts?
If you want to delve into the world of rivet nuts, Wikipedia is always a good start, right? Alternatively, this is a definition from the Plusnut website: A Plusnut® is a blind, threaded fastener recommended for rigid fastening in sheet metal, fiberglass and plastics. The slotted shank spreads and forms large flaps to evenly distribute working loads over a large area.
What does this mean?
Basically, installing a rivet nut into an existing hole gives you a permanent attachment point in the wall/ceiling to thread a bolt/machine screw into, which can then be removed and reinstalled at will. This avoids having to permanently install a wall or cabinet with a screw that you might regret later.
What kid of rivet nut is best?
There are a few different types of rivet nuts (and they go by a variety of nutty names)--Cross Nuts, Plusnuts, Rivnuts, Nutserts. We went with the pre-bulbed Cross Nuts because of the wider footprint they create when clamping onto the metal. We hoped it would be stronger (but again, we are not experts and this, as with most of van building options, is probably up for debate). If you want to do more research on what might be best for you, this is a great post explaining the advantages of pre-bulbed Plusnuts over Rivnuts, with some real world experience of the 'classic' Rivnuts failing after some time. Far Out Ride also has a great post on their Cross Nut installation here (FYI they were working on a Ford Transit, which has uniformly sized holes, unlike the Sprinter).
Prep and Planning
Sprinter vans come stock with hundreds of holes that can be used as a starting point to install rivet nuts all over the inside of the van. The only problem is many of them are different sizes. Rivet nuts do come in a variety of sizes for both the thread size and receiving hole size. However, trying to source and buy lots of different sizes and keep them all sorted and figure out which holes would be used for what purpose sounded like a lot of work to us. So we chose to make all the holes the same size throughout the van. We needed Cross Nuts that would be beefy enough to hold our cabinetry, and used that size throughout the build. We settled on Cross Nuts accepting ¼” - 20 hardware that would install into a ⅜” hole. The one exception is the ones that hold up our bed rails and frame (obviously a significant amount of weight). We’ll cover this in a later post dedicated to that specific topic and link back here once it’s live.
This sizing is slightly larger than the majority of the holes in the van, so we drilled all 190 of the holes out to make them a uniform size. Important: if you are planning on this route, you’ll definitely want to be sure to use a drill stop collar on the drill bit to keep from punching holes through the side of your brand new van and be very cautious, especially when drilling through any spots with multiple layers of metal. We may or may not have *almost* ended up with an accidental extra ventilation hole near the rear driver side door, even with a collar installed.
Also be sure to contain and clean up the metal shavings that you let loose when you’re drilling. These little buggers tend to get *everywhere*, and having tiny pieces of steel inside your walls could start a rust issue that will come back to haunt you later. Our friends at Our Karavan shared the great idea to use rare earth magnets to collect the shavings as you drill. It’s probably worthwhile to cover the interior of the van with tarps or old sheets even if you use the magnet trick. Regardless, a thorough clean with a shop vac will be in order to get any stray shavings that escape once you’re all done with the job. Likewise, you’ll want to carefully seal all metal edges that you expose on the van after drilling and cutting with paint-- we used self etching primer. To avoid overspray, Cade sprayed it on through a hole (slightly larger than ⅜”) in a piece of cardboard.
Once the paint is dry, the holes are ready for installation of the rivet nuts. This is the specific tool to use for this job with Cross Nuts. Being that we would only be using the tool for this one job, we balked at the price and bought a harbor freight manual rivet nut gun that Cade had to modify slightly to work with the Cross Nuts. Because of this, he was having to constantly adjust the tool to make it work properly and we ended up with a few problems with Cross Nuts partially installed and difficult to finish or remove. This turned out to be much more frustrating than it was worth for the money we saved. If we were to do it again, we would invest in the correct tool, which is pretty much the same thing we’ve read on every blog post we’ve ever encountered about working with these things. Buy the tool--it'll be worth it.
One other thing worth mentioning is that the machine screws you will use to actually attach walls, etc will probably end up backing out of the Cross Nuts over time due to vibrations as you drive. We used loctite as we installed the screws to help mitigate this issue. Obviously this is something you’ll want to keep an eye on over time and make sure everything is still snug as time goes on. We'll be covering our wall panels, cabinetry, etc in future posts, but these photos should help you get an idea of how the rivet nuts end up looking once you actually thread machine screws into them.
Overall, using Cross Nuts to attach everything in our build added quite a bit of time and work to our conversion versus a more conventional/ permanent method (like using self tapping sheet metal screws). Installation of the rivet nuts was a tedious process that took longer than we expected it to. From start to finish, drilling all the holes, sealing them, and installing the Cross Nuts ended up taking multiple days, although we were doing a few other projects at the same time. That being said, we do feel that taking this extra step was worth it. It is really nice knowing the entire build can come out of the van at any point if needed.
There are a few scenarios we have seen with other builds where we might want to remove walls, cabinets, etc. Down the road, if we were to have any wiring issues, leaking windows or roof vents, or we just wanted to make changes to the build, everything is removable and far easier to access than with more permanent methods of attachment. The other catastrophic scenario would be if we got into a big accident or suffered damage that totaled the van… we could salvage as much of the interior as possible and install it straight into another van.
After months on the road in the new van, we’ve been really happy with our decision to use Cross Nuts in our conversion. Fortunately, we haven’t had any issues where we needed to take anything major out, but we appreciate the peace of mind knowing that we can if the need arises.
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