The Building of Silver Stage 3: Bed and Pull-out Table

Things have moved on apace in the last two weeks. We have had some beautiful, if chilly, weather here and I think that helps. Having said that, Dave is absolutely stellar in getting out into the van every morning and he sometimes stays out there for most of the day. I think it is the new “man cave”. We have also really benefitted over the past week from the help of Jason. There have been many deep conversations and much pontification over the structure of the pull-out table and the bed but finally work started a week ago.

We have decided that one of the main purposes of van life is to be outside as much as possible. We already have a canopy, camping chairs, table and fire pit to facilitate that happening in all weathers. However, we have to acknowledge that there will be times when we will want to be in the van and so we will need a seating area of some kind and a table to eat and do other things at. We have had to compromise on this quite a bit in order to have a 2m bed and a shower so we have allowed a 1.2m bench seat where we can sit side-by side to eat (as we would at home on the sofa). This is not intended as a lounging area, as we will do most of that on the huge bed. You can see how the layout of the van is starting to take shape in the picture below.

A couple of months ago we acquired table sliders to allow us to build a table that will sit underneath the bed and pull out when we need it. The aim was to construct a table that would require no legs to support it. This was a challenge but we know it is doable as we have seen examples on other people’s van tours on YouTube. Now I have not been involved in this much, as it is above my pay grade, so I cannot explain the feats of engineering that have made this possible. I do know that the height of the table dictates the height of the bed as there is no point having a table that is too high or too low to use.

They worked long into the evening on Tuesday to produce this magnificent thing and have every reason to be very proud.

The bed structure has also been the subject of a lot of discussion. As I explained before, we are going for a fixed bed so that we can utilise the space underneath as storage. The fresh water tank and batteries for the solar power system will be stored in there as well as our bicycles (if we can fit them in) and other stuff that will not fit in the inside storage. The “garage” will be accessible from the rear doors but we also want it to be accessible to some extent from the inside of the van. We will have a laundry chute here and will need to get laundry out for example. There is enough space for a king size bed 150cm x 200cm but if we opt for a double bed we have an extra 15cm to play with. That does not sound like much but every little helps.We will be building cupboards to store clothes above the bed on one side and if we compromise with a double bed then we will also have more space for cupboards, which for me means more clothes. Yes to that!

Cupboards will be built to the right of the bed up to the ceiling but not on the left to avoid it feeling too claustrophobic and to allow us to lean back on the wall.

It was not an easy decision as we did not agree but once the basic structure was created it was apparent that a double bed would work better. As a standard double bed is only 190cm long though, we have opted to stick with 200cm in length and have a memory foam mattress made to fit 135cm x 200cm. Hopefully, it will arrive this week. Technically we could then use the van if we wanted to get away but it seems we might be moving into a full lockdown situation within the next week.

What you don’t anticipate when you take on a van build is just how many decisions there are to make each day and how tedious some of them are. For example this week I have been in the weeds researching the following.

  1. Memory foam vs sprung mattresses -which is best for the van? How deep does the mattress need to be and can we get a sprung mattress that shallow or not? Where can be source a bespoke memory foam mattress? Is memory foam too hot? if so then can we get a mattress topper to keep us cool? Will we be able to get one made to fit our bespoke bed size or can we manage with standard size topper? What are toppers made of and where do we source one?
  2. Shower mixers-shower components are made from brass and this is very heavy to support in a van shower cubicle. The thermostatic bar mixer we ordered from Screwfix was incredibly heavy and when we checked other options online, they seem to be just as if not more heavy. Can we get an old fashioned pair of taps that we mix at source? Can we find a set that does not include a bath mixer? Will it go on the wall? How does it work? What is a microswitch and is it relevant?
  3. Lining the ceiling – should we use 3mm furniture board, hardboard or plywood? How will we join the pieces for a smooth finish? How do you paint plywood for a good finish? Which is the best primer? Should we use trade paint? Where can we source this? Should we use acrylic, eggshell or water based paint?
  4. Shower cubicle-do we construct it from plywood and then use 3mm PVC sheets to line it or can we construct it from 10mm acrylic sheets alone? Where do we source the sheets? How do we cut it? Can we get sealant that colour matches to the blue we want to use?
  5. Kitchen cupboards and drawers-will we buy the doors already cut or make our own? What kind of catches should we have so they don’t come open when we are moving? Can we find marine catches (for boats) that we like the look of and can afford? What colour doors should we have? Should we go for a gloss or matt finish. Is all white boring? Should the kitchen cupboards be the same colour as the other cupboards/table or different. Could we build them ourselves and them cover them with a veneer? What is a veneer exactly? What colour options are there? Where do you buy them from and how much do they cost?
  6. Kitchen worktop-is wood the only option if we want to cut it to size ourselves? Will it be hardwearing enough? Which wood should we go for? How heavy will it be? Will a light colour get stained? Can we get samples so we can see it before we choose? Where do we get these from?
  7. Wall finish-should we paint the ply walls or finish with a wallpaper or vinyl. What options are there for each of these? Are there any we like? Can we get samples sent?
  8. Cab divider curtains-can we make these? How do we bend the curtain pole to make it fit? How do we attach the curtain to the walls so there is no gap for the cold and light to get through? Can we buy on ready-made? Where can we source this from? Will it fit our van?
  9. Blinds for cab-there is no metal around the windscreen so we cannot use magnetic blinds. Can we buy a metal strip to glue around the windscreen? Can we find one that will match the colour of the trim? Will a magnetic strip work or does it have to be a metal strip? If we cannot find one the right colour should we use suckers instead? If so then should we just buy one ready made or make our own?

Really this is just the tip of the iceberg. It takes up a lot of time each day looking into these things, discussing them and making decisions. We have still had time for an excursion to Denbigh Castle though and lunch sitting outside a cafe. As you can see, we both have new puffer jackets as we are only allowed at present to socialise out of doors so we are learning to wrap up for the cold. We ate a Thai takeaway in full thermal underwear, puffer coats and sheepskin lined boots on Wednesday evening. Apparently, the sale of fire pits and patio heaters has gone up 400% in the last month. It is going to be a very strange winter.

I have also been finishing up the garden for winter. The potatoes have finished flowering and are dying back so hopefully we will get some more to dig up in the next month.

I have a bed of kale, spinach and lettuces that have been doing well for months and I have filled in the gaps where I pulled up the carrots.

I have also put in a third bed of brassicas which I hope will grow over winter but if not will be ready for spring. Here I have pak choi, tsatsoi, spinach, ruby chard, mizuma and rocket. I love my greens!

So I mentioned the impending full lockdown. We expect to hear tomorrow that there will be a full period of “stay at home” in place by the end of the week for 2-3 weeks as a “circuit breaker”. This has meant that we need to make decisions about many van-related things now so that we can place orders before the non-essential shops close for what will hopefully be only 2-3 weeks but could be longer if the government does not have the courage to bring us out of the lockdown.

So that is where we are at present. We have a bed and a table. Dave has started working on the bench seat. We hope to install the MaxxFans in the ceiling this week if the rain holds off. Plus we now have a kitchen even more crowded with stuff waiting to be installed. At least we have plenty to keep us busy during the coming lockdown.

More soon I hope…

The Building of Silver Stage Two: Heating, Insulation and Flooring

Since the last post, it has been very slow progress with the van build but in the last week we have finally seen significant change. Why slow? Well we have been doing other things. Dave has spent a couple of days helping Jason build a “rum shack” in his garden.

Building the “Rum Shack”

We also had a few days away in the van on a beautiful campsite in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire.

We had a quick but wonderful trip to visit Dave’s family…

A typical British summer picnic in the rain

…and and I spent 5 days with mine in Lichfield, as my nephew prepared to leave for uni in Glasgow.

We also had a great day out on the motorbikes in mid-Wales with Jason and Ali in stunning scenery.

I have been busy writing my other blogs and had a couple of articles published in magazines and I have been working on the garden. So we have no doubt been occupied but, in truth, there has still been plenty of time for the van. I can offer up no reason as to why the build slowed to a snail’s pace. After fitting the windows, we just seemed unable to gain momentum. However, thankfully that seems to have changed over the last few days and we have now turned a corner. So where are we up to?

One of the most important tasks in converting a van for full time living is to ensure it is warm. We plan to use Silver in Scottish or alpine winters so it needs to be cosy and free of condensation. This means that it needs to be insulated and also have heating installed for the coldest nights. Dave began the process of installing heaters for both water and air about two months ago. This involved a lot of discussion with Jason and pontification which, I have learned over the last 27 years, is what happens when you put two engineers together. I can sustain interest in the conversation for about 20 minutes before giving up the will to live and drifting into the kitchen to wash up or sweep the floor or something equally more interesting. Eventually, after considering al the options. they concurred that we would have gas heaters fuelled by a propane tank installed underneath the van. The waste water tank also goes under the van so they had to make sure there was space for everything and that it could all be installed safely. This also involved cutting holes in the floor of the van in order to bring the heaters partially inside.

All of this seems to have taken many weeks to get right as the correct brackets and different bits and bobs (technical term) had to be ordered and installed. As with most things on a van conversion, you don’t get it right first time so there was inevitable delay as Dave sourced or crafted the right accessories. However, after weeks of delay, we finally completed installation of the heaters last week and brought them through into the van ready to install ducting/pipes at some point in the future and so insulation and the laying of an impermeable vapour barrier (i.e. plastic sheet) could finally be tackled.

Insulation is a real pig of a job. When asked which job they would least like to do again, many van lifers mention insulation. The floor, walls and ceiling all need to be insulated, with either 50mm insulation board or soft insulation, the same as you use in your loft, and then a vapour barrier is secured. Now our van in only just about tall enough for Dave to stand up in metal to metal. If we laid down 50mm of insulation on both the floor and ceiling, as most do, it would be 10cm too short for Dave, so this is not an option for us. It took a while to decide how to resolve this but we decided to add 25mm strips of insulation on the floor between the ridges so there would at least be some insulation but no loss of height (as seen in the photo above). The ceiling will be fully insulated so we will lose 4-5cm in all. The floor is not fully insulated and it remains to be seen if this will be a problem with cold coming up through the floor but with a gas heater installed, I am assured it will stay warm. It took Dave a while to cut and secure all the strips of 25mm insulation board and in the meantime I made a start with insulating the walls, which turned out to be much tricker than we both expected.

Dave cutting 25mm strips of insulation board

Insulation board is flat but the walls of a Sprinter are not. They come with various indentations, where windows can be added, and other channels and gulleys, which make installing flat insulation board very challenging. After one attempt to cut and install the board, which took up a whole morning, we both agreed that our work was not up to standard and needed to be redone. This was hard to accept, as the board isn’t cheap but mostly because the work is filthy and not something you want to do twice if it can be avoided. Sawing or cutting polystyrene is easy enough but it creates bits and dust that get everywhere, including onto your chest if you forget to wear a mask, and on a windy day it blows around the garden and over into the neighbours’ gardens. Our back lawn has a white tinge, almost as if it has lightly snowed. I have no idea how to get rid of it and it might be there forever.

The first tool we used on the insulation board and an example of forgetting to put on my mask

While accepting our work was shoddy, we were stuck as to how to make the board fit properly so we went back to the trusty YouTube videos to learn what others did. No-one seems to show the whole process, I suspect that’s because there is always an element of bodging involved that they don’t want subscribers to see. We picked up some tips though and started again the next day. I must admit that I had partly lost interest by then but Dave was dogged and did a stellar job sculpting and carving the board to fit the larger spaces.

The second tool…
…the third tool
A perfect fit

Around this time I departed for Lichfield for the best part of a week and when I returned Dave had completed all of the larger sections of wall insulation. That was not strategic on my part but worked well for me.

Insulation board in place just in time for our short break. We could not take a guitar camping on the motorbike.

Immediately upon my return to Wales, the weather became unexpectedly good so we decided to get away in Silver for a few days. Before we left we installed a sun canopy. Like everything else, the decision about which canopy to buy was not an easy one. We really wanted a Fiamma retractable awning, which is fitted to the van permanently and pulls out and retracts as needed. However, they cost around 800 quid and weigh 50kg. Although they are very popular, we decided that this was out of the question for us. We eventually settled on a Vango Sun Canopy, which we bought half price on eBay for 70 quid plus the cost of the awning rail which we had to glue to the roof of the van.

Installing the awning rail

We now have a 4m awning which gives both shade and protection from the rain at a bargain price. It does have to be attached to the rail each time we set up camp, which involves Dave climbing on the roof but we are happy enough with the choice we made.

We had a great few days away. Most people would view sleeping in the back of a van on an inflatable mattress as quite squalid (and from the photo of the inside of the van posted above, you can see that it was) but it felt like the height of luxury when compared to a tiny tent and motorbike. We could take everything we wanted, boxes of stuff. We had a comfy bed. As you get older Thermarest mattresses lose their appeal, although we found that an air bed does not keep the cold out in the same way as a closed cell foam mattress. We had chairs and a table rather than sitting on the ground.

We also had a fire pit for the chilly evenings.

Dave goes for PJs while I prefer a cashmere blanket

We loved it all and it made us realise just how great it will be when Silver is eventually finished.

We returned from the trip with renewed purpose, determined to make more progress so we could enjoy more short trips away in the coming weeks (this was before we were placed into local lockdown but more about that later). We finished fitting the heaters under the van..

I found much to my surprise that I love being underneath the van…who knew?

and insulating the floor, allowing us to put down the vapour layer and restore the original floor as a base for the vinyl flooring. It turned out that my sewing skills in making 2D materials fit a 3D body finally came in handy and I was able to lay the vapour barrier, which is a sheet of plastic, around and over the wheel arches without too much difficulty.

We then set to completing the insulation of the walls using a soft insulation material made from recycled plastic bottles, which is much nicer to work with than the traditional glass fibre stuff and more environmentally friendly. Both walls were then covered with more sheets of plastic, definitely a two-man job but fairly satisfying to complete.

Silver was now ready to have walls installed. The nature of these walls has been the topic of much debate. Factory built motorhomes use board covered in wallpaper to achieve a professional finish, whereas the use of what is called 4-way stretch carpet on top of plywood is much more popular with VW owners and converters. However, the new breed of millennial van lifers much prefer to finish their walls with tongue and groove panels, which give a nice finish when painted or varnished and are easy to install. The drawback is that they are heavy. A Sprinter van has a maximum legal weight of 3.5 tonnes. Exceeding this weight, once the build is complete, and the mass of two adults, all their stuff, fuel and water is added, not only impacts on the safety of the vehicle but is liable to a hefty fine and impounding of the van. Many campervan owners dismiss this issue as not important but as motorcyclists and old duffers, we are always safety and legal first so we have committed to keep the build as light as possible. This precludes us from using tongue and groove and leaves us with the plywood option to create our walls and ceiling.

We discovered a couple of weeks ago that there are companies that sell ready-cut ply linings for Sprinter vans at a very reasonable price so we took delivery of the 6mm ply panels ready to install. The panels are not perfect but they are good enough and as 6mm ply retains some flexibility, they fit snug to the shell of the van without wasting crucial space.

We still have to decide what finish we will use but, given the visible joins between the panels and the visible screw heads, we are unlikely to paint them and more likely to use a neutral wallpaper. The jury is still out on that one.

With the walls installed we were ready to lay the flooring. We decided on industrial sheet vinyl flooring which is non-slip, waterproof and very hard-wearing. The design we chose comes with sparkly bits in show catch the light when the sun shines and prevents it from looking too much like the stuff used in mental hospitals. What we hadn’t bargained for is how hard the vinyl is to cut, especially when cold. It seemed to defeat the ordinary Stanley blade and the special hook-shaped Stanley blade but we soon discovered with the help of Google that heating the flooring with a hairdryer softened it and made it easier to cut.

I have laid vinyl a few times before but this was much harder to manage and manipulate and took us several hours to get it how we wanted it. It is great to see the first decorative finish of the van take shape though and the first indication that it is more than just a cargo van.

Our next job is to batten out the layout of the van interior, starting with the bed and then the shower, seating area and kitchen. Work begins on this tomorrow. But you haven’t insulated the ceiling yet, I hear you say. Well there is a reason for that. Before insulating the ceiling, we need to install a pair of MaxxFans in the roof to both suck and blow air, and keep us cool and ventilated. One of these fans will go directly over the shower cubicle, as there is already a hole in the roof and a small fan installed in that area and we do not want to cut an extra hole. However, we need to ensure that the placement of the MaxxFan is 100% accurate over the shower, rather than part in and part out of the cubicle but we cannot do this until the shower cubicle is battened out. This means that installation of the MaxxFans and insulation of the ceiling will take place after battening out the layout. This is a bit arse about face but was the best solution we could come up with. As I said, nothing is straightforward with a van build.

The MaxxFans have been sitting in the garage for 2 months but in preparation for the next exciting stage of the build we also now have the shower tray, Nature’s Head composting toilet, fridge and cooker purchased and taking up space in the bungalow.

I have also bought the materials to make blackout, insulating blinds for the windows and the foam for the seat cushion, which I will cover with old curtain fabric. So there is plenty to be getting on with as the nights draw in and the days get chillier. Hopefully I will report back more quickly next time as we continue to make more rapid progress.

Since Thursday, we are longer allowed to leave the county or mix indoors with anyone that we do not live with, under the new COVID restrictions for North Wales. It seems a bit daft that we cannot legally visit the garden of friends who live 20 minutes away in a different county but people from England can travel here freely. We don’t have a major DIY store within the boundaries of our county so that may pose problems in the coming weeks. Dave is also very upset that while he can visit Toolstation in Denbigh, he can no longer go to Screwfix in Mold, which is only 10 minutes further away…how will he cope? More importantly, a much looked forward to visit from Dave’s family to celebrate a birthday has also had to be cancelled. Nevertheless, we support the measures taken by the Welsh assembly to keep us safe and we will abide by the new rules despite the confusion and inconsistencies. We like our own and each other’s company and we have plenty of hobbies and interests to keep us occupied and plenty of food in supply in case things get worse. We also have the whole winter to finish and dream about using our van again.