It’s been about a month now since we brought (Son of) Silver home and during that time we have been very busy planning, ordering and doing. In between van stuff we have had many lovely visits from our local friends and a visit from my family, some trips out on sunny days to Llandudno, Llangollen and Chester as well as putting in work on the vegetable garden. All in all, this retirement business is pretty amazing. The only disappointment is that Dave’s family are in local lockdown in Lancashire and we have not been able to see them yet.
We are getting used to owning a van as our primary vehicle. It is massive but actually quite easy to drive, although I haven’t tried reversing it yet. It takes up two whole spaces end to end on a carpark and we are already developing an intimate knowledge of where we can and cannot park in most towns within a 30 mile radius.
There’s a lot to be done to turn the van from an empty silver box into a comfortable and functional home that we may well live in for 2-3 years or more. We started by stripping out the lining back to the metal and removing the bulkhead to allow access from the cab into the back. What I am learning already, is that regardless of how many tools you have in the garage, you seldom have the correct tool in the right size to complete the job at hand. We have become regular visitors to a range of tools shops that I call Machinemartfixstation-those of you who are into tools will know the shops I mean. Fortunately, we have all the major tool shop chains within a 20 minute drive, which in rural North Wales is considered to be “around the corner” or “just down the road”.
The removal of the final bolts that secure the bulkhead required the only size of a particular tool, of which we had many sizes, that we did not have, so my first experience of working on the van comprised of spending an hour undoing a load of bolts, only to have to do half of them up again to resecure the bulkhead so we could drive to Machinemartfixstation to acquire the right tool. I suspect this may become a familiar pattern.
In his previous life, Silver was a Mercedes lease van working for a contractor to the NHS and he came with a heavy, steel ramp to load wheelchairs into the back. We were able to sell this on Ebay for a few hundred quid and enjoyed an hour in the company of Compo and Clegg from Last of the Summer Wine who arrived from Sheffield to collect it. Dressed in baggy singlets to make the most of the sunny weather, these septagenarians regaled Dave and our visitors with their tall stories, while they drank tea at an annoying leisurely pace before setting off for the four hour drive home. Having lived abroad for 20 years, I love these incidental encounters with people who speak the same language (well almost), that I really missed.
It is unfortunate that when converting a van, one of the first jobs you have to complete is one of the trickiest, fitting the windows. Many “stealth” vanlifers who park up in towns each night forgo windows to maintain the appearance of being a normal, commercial vehicle. This means light sources are limited to the windscreen and any roof fans or skylights that they install. We decided to install windows in the sliding door and barn doors at the back. We ordered these from Van Pimps at a very reasonable price and decided to fit them ourselves as most vanlifers seem to. We spent a few days watching as many Youtube videos as we could of both professionals and vanlifers fitting windows. There is no one right way apparently so we decided on a scheme of work combining the best of what we had learned. We were a bit thrown when we discovered that our Van Build Guru, the ever sensible Greg Virgoe, did not fit his own windows but engaged the services of Glass4Vans, but we rallied and pressed on, after getting a last minute quote for professional fitting of 300 quid.
The thought of cutting a hole in the side of your van is pretty scary and I must admit that the stress of the day actually made me quite ill and almost spoilt the celebratory trip to the chippy that evening. However, I rallied when I saw that our lovely chippy man had given me free batter bits, or scraps as they call them up north to go with my chips, peas and curry sauce.
Although Dave and I have been a couple for 26 years, we have never built something together, so we are experiencing something new. I am glad we waited until now as we are older, calmer and more patient with each other than we were in the past. Back in the early days, we couldn’t even put a tent up together without a blazing row and even to this day, Dave erects the tent on his own while I unpack the rest of the gear. It seems we have mellowed though and we got through a whole day of window fitting without a harsh word spoken. Now that is progress.
Vans come with recesses where windows are intended to go and the glass sits on top of those recesses, bonded to the metal, so it is not a question of cutting an aperture to the exact size of the glass, where 1mm could make the difference between the windows fitting or not. Once I realised this, it seemed less scary. However, we are both keen to do a good job. We want our van to look professional and not like a product of Odge Bodge and Codge Ltd. so we took our time, hoping to get it right. We started with the side window as the back windows, although smaller, have to be done as a pair, to ensure they line up correctly.
The first stage was to remove the metal reinforcement from the window recess with an angle grinder. This involved a lot of noise and sparks and a quick cycle down to the builders merchants after 5 minutes of trying to cut using a grinding disc, to buy a cutting disc (see my earlier comment abut never having the right tools in there garage).
Once the reinforcement was off, we made a rough cut of the aperture with a jigsaw.
The hard part is getting the final cut the right size, as the recess that guides you is on the inside of the van but you have to cut from the outside. Professionals use special tools like electric shears that allow them to work from the outside while following the recess on the inside, while amateurs tend to create a template that they draw round on the outside of the van with a marker pen and then follow with the jigsaw. We came up with our own, more accurate, method which was to drill a number of holes from the inside following the line of the recess and then join these holes up with a marker pen on the outside. We drilled more holes around the curves to ensure they were accurate. This worked really well-mostly.
We then applied Hammerite to the cut edge to rust-proof it and had some lunch while we waited for this to dry.
Once the final cut was done, we thought the worst was over but this was not the case. There as more stress to come. We cleaned the window and used what is called Window Activator-no idea what this is or what it does but it comes as a little wipe in a sachet with the fitting kit. The best part of this stage was lying a large sheet of bubble wrap on the kitchen floor to receive the window and then walking over the bubble wrap in heavy boots. What a great and terrifying noise it makes – try it. We then had to apply glass primer to both the edges of the glass and the metal. This dripped a bit in a way that it did not on the professional videos and got all over our hands as we stupidly did not use the plastic gloves provided. Ridiculously we made the same mistake again when we fitted the rear windows three days later.
The glass bonding comes in tubes and is applied using a mastic gun. When Dave pierced the tube with a screwdriver, he did not pierce the whole thing and consequently struggled to squeeze the bonding out of the tube onto the metal-rookie error. We thought this would be the easy part-the professionals make it look very straightforward-but it was actually really hard to apply the bonding all around the large aperture in one smooth line. Dave’s arms were aching from squeezing the bonding through the inadequate hole. Although we knew that the bonding does not form a skin for an hour, there was a sense of panic to get it done as quickly as possible.
Finally, we offered up the window to the aperture and pressed it on. I was left holding on the window with both hands while Dave, seemingly at a snail’s pace, cut and applied the tape to hold it while it dried.
It looked great and we felt really proud of our work…briefly.
From the outside it looked amazing and completely professional. Inside was a different story though, We realised on closer inspection that we should have cut the aperture to be completely flush with the inner skin of the window recess. While we had done this on the most part, some areas of the aperture had 2-3mm of extra metal that should not be there. We presumed this would be covered by the rubber trim that had been supplied for this purpose. However, when Dave came to apply the trim it would not go on evenly over both skins and definitely had an air of Odge, Bodge and Friends about it, with a wavy finish. We removed the trim and found it went well over just the cut edge of the inner skin leaving unfinished edges on the outer skin where we had removed the reinforcement with the angle grinder. We decided to call it a day and take a walk to the chippy. Tomorrow was another day.
After 24 hours of recriminations about the standard of our finish, I remembered watching our hero Greg Virgoe applying his window trim, after the professional fitted his glass, so I went back and rewatched the video. He refers to using 9mm trim to ensure it goes over both skins. We had 6mm trim. My superior and obsessive internet search skills came into play seeking out a trim that would work for us. We ordered some and waited but sadly when it came it didn’t fit. However, I realised when examining photos of other vans on Pinterest that most people build a window frame around their windows to give a nicer finish so the trim does not show. So I have moved on and stopped worrying about it. We took the weekend off in between fitting the side and rear windows. The weather has been great so we enjoyed the rare Welsh sunshine and moved on to discuss the next stage of the build. On Monday we returned to window fitting, older and wiser. This time we were faster and it was much less stressful. We used the right disc on the angle grinder, made sure to cut the apertures flush with the outer skin, we pierced the bonding tube properly and found that the trim went over both inner and outer skin to give a perfect finish as there gap between the skins is less on the rear windows. However, we did apply a bit too much bonding on the offside window, a bit too close to the edge so we have some trimming to do with a Stanley knife when it is completely set. No harm done though.
It’s great to have the windows in. They look so cool from the outside and they bring in much-needed light inside the van. So next we focus on installing the electrics and solar and gas systems. We have a heavy shopping list of expensive items for this. We also ordered the roof fans yesterday which are out of stock till the end of the month due to the huge demand. It seems the world and his dog are building a campervan this summer. We also have to make a decision about the canopy/awning, which needs to be installed before the solar panels go on the roof. I am still in disbelief that a wind-out canopy costs around 700 quid, campervan accessories are so expensive but more about that next time.