By Hailey Brennan -
Like many during the crazy time that was 2020, I was looking to do something with my time and figure out a way to travel that was both safe and comfortable. The logical answer? A van conversion! I figured I’d start small and bought a Ford Transit Connect. How hard could it be, right? I thought I would be on the road in a month, tops.
Cut to a month later, and I still had an empty van. While the wealth of information on the internet for van conversions is fantastic, it can also be very overwhelming. I found myself spending hours on different blogs reading about the best types of insulation, framing, fans, water system, etc., and still not finding any answers. Finally, I landed on a layout and was ready to start my build.
The first thing I did was tape off what I wanted to do – just to get a picture of how everything would lay out. It was a disaster. What worked perfectly in my diagrams and planning was cramped, bulky, and just wasn’t going to work. So, it was back to the drawing board for a new layout.
After many trips between the computer and the van, I finally had a layout that would work - now it was time to get working. I am not a carpenter by any means, but I am comfortable enough with tools and have done some building projects in the past, so I wasn’t a total newbie at this sort of thing. But as I soon found out, a van is a totally different ball game.
There is so much more to consider in terms of sound, moisture, curves, connection points, and the list goes on. Projects I thought would take a couple hours took days, and soon I had been working on the van full time for almost 3 months and still had a ways to go. One wrong cut, and you have to start all over.
One small example was my upper cabinets. The roof of the Transit Connect has a sizeable curve making the cabinet uneven from one side to the other – no big deal, right? Trying to make templates, cutting cabinet fronts, and partitions that are not a perfect square is no easy task. This probably took me 5 tries to get right. And not only is the roof curved, but the walls are not all on the same plane, so you end up with gaps at the edges of the cabinets. How do you trim that out when your wall panel is only a ¼” thick? I had no idea. I spent hours staring at the different sections of the hardware store, buying things I thought might work. As much as there is online, every van is different, and the way you build your van will always be slightly unique.
Slowly but surely, my scrap pile started to grow, and my project just kept extending. I’m sure my neighbors loved the long hours of cutting and re-cutting panels as well. As you can probably imagine, there was a lot of money wasted due to mistakes throughout the process. From incorrect plumbing connections to an ill-sized template to wood splitting to cutting electrical leads too short... and the list goes on.
A little over 3 months later, the project was finally done. I love my van and am proud of how it turned out, but it definitely introduced me to some of the drawbacks of going the full DIY route. The van is a daily driver for me and because of my active lifestyle, I often find myself needing to haul gear, bikes, and supplies. I love to camp, but there's so many activities I do more frequently that I could use the van for if I could move and remove things. But because the cabinetry and bed system are permanently attached, it limits what we can carry inside the van. This is not something I thought about during the build, and to be honest, figuring out a modular system requires a higher skill level than I possess.
Ironically, not more than two months after I finished my build I started working for a company that makes modular van interiors that install in a week! Converting a van definitely gave me a new perspective and appreciation for the AdWag System and why it's so popular. It's hard to understate the value of being able to complete a build so quickly and then be able to configure it how you want from one trip to the next.
All in all, I don’t regret my build at all; it was an incredible learning experience. But, while the building process was fun, it was stressful at times and I missed an entire summer of adventuring while I was wrenching away. I may undertake another build in the future, but I'll be much more realistic when planning out the cost and timeline.