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 1-Strip Out and Windows

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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.

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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”.

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One version of Machinemartfixstation

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.

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With the bulkhead

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Without the bulkhead

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.

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The ramp in the rear doorway

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.

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Our first local chippy since 2005

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).

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Once the reinforcement was off, we made a rough cut of the aperture with a jigsaw.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Sawthingsclearer Reborn with a New Trusty Steed

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Many of you will recall the trip we did 5 years ago across the USA and Central America on our Triumph Tiger 955, Silver. It was without doubt the best experience of my life so far. Since then we have been living and working in the pressure cooker of Hong Kong. We have managed a few shorter motorcycle trips including two weeks on the North Island of  New Zealand in 2016 on a rented bike.

A month in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada in 2017 also on a rented bike…
…and quick trips to Ireland and Northern Spain/Portugal on our Triumph Tiger 800 bought in 2017 to fill the gap left by the sale of our glorious Silver.

The work-focused life in Hong Kong combined with some health problems has caused us to reflect on how we want to spend our future and a year ago we took the decision to retire from work this summer, buy a campervan and spend a few years travelling around Europe looking for the right place to eventually settle and buy a forever home. While motorcycling will always be part of our life together and we still have our  Triumph Tiger 800 here in the UK, we have found that long days spent on the bike and nights spent in a tent are taking an increasing toll on our middle-aged bodies and impacting negatively on our enjoyment of travelling. We always knew we would move over to a campervan one day but imagined that would not be until we were into our 70s. However, we find we want to travel and sleep in more comfort and be able to camp all year round, in all weathers, so we took the decision to move to a campervan and keep the bike for shorter jaunts.

The original plan, conceived a year ago, was to buy a professionally converted van. We had our eyes on a Swift Select 122. We love how light it is inside and the rear lounge layout, which allows you to lie on the sofa with the barn doors open, admiring the view. We spent the winter months in Hong Kong (yes they do have a winter there) obsessively checking Autotrader, fixating on vans generally and watching van life videos on Youtube.  We planned to purchase a Select 122 as soon as we arrived back in the UK in June and spend the first few weeks visiting family and friends before heading off for the continent. Then COVID 19 hit and the realisation gradually dawned upon us that this might not be the best plan. Back in March we were not sure how quickly borders would open up and we are still unsure about whether there might be a second or third wave that could cause borders to close again. I have a health condition that makes me more vulnerable to complications from the virus so we want to be as safe as possible. At first, it was a huge blow to acknowledge that our plans would have to change but like everyone else during this time, we have adapted and come up with a new idea.

Dave and I agreed that the safest option would be to return home to the UK for a period of at least 6 months to wait things out. We have not lived in the UK for 15 years so that was a big decision. At some point, and I cannot remember exactly when or how this happened if I am honest, we decided that, rather than buy a professionally converted van, we would build our own. Our reasons were threefold- firstly, it would give us something to do while we were waiting out the virus; secondly we could spec the van with higher quality components than you usually get in a shop bought vehicle, such as lithium batteries, bigger solar panels, an oven and a better fridge and finally, we could build a van with a fixed bed in the back which allows for a lot more storage space underneath than that offered by a Select 122. This will allow us to take all kinds of shit with us to enhance our life on the road, including an electric guitar and small amp (yes really).

So the decision was made and the next stage was to spend the remaining weeks of self-isolation in Hong Kong researching the kind of van we needed to meet our needs. A simple task you would think but nothing is ever easy in the world of the campervan when one of you is 192cm tall. We eventually realised that, in order for Dave to be able to lie flat in bed, we would have to position our bed along the length of the van rather than across the width, which means that, if we are to fit in a shower and kitchen, we will need a long van- what is called an L4. Also, in order for Dave to stand up in the van (or almost stand up) we would need a tall van- what is called an H3. While Mercedes Sprinters are the vans of choice for most larger van conversions these days, we were initially considering investing in a brand new Fiat Ducato or Citroen Relay as there were many bargains to be had during the lockdown in the UK, placing them around ten thousand pounds cheaper than a new Sprinter.

It was only by chance that one day less than a month ago I happened upon a vanlife forum post that referred to the impossibility of registering a right hand drive commercial vehicle on the continent of Europe, due to the sliding door being on the wrong side for safe use. We realised that, sadly but unavoidably, this van we plan to convert cannot be our forever van if we eventually move to Europe. When we move, we will need to sell the van either as a campervan conversion or deconstruct it and sell it as a van with windows and then possibly build another left hand drive vehicle for future use. It is just too risky to invest so much cash in the base vehicle if we are not going to be able to keep it forever and if there is uncertainty about how much we will get back on it in 3-4 years time. We did briefly consider sourcing a left hand drive van but it proved to be too complicated and expensive, so we pivoted again and decided to buy something secondhand to reduce the potential loss on resale.

The advantage of deciding to buy something used is that a Mercedes Sprinter was now on the table. They are generally considered to be much better vans than pretty much anything else on the market so this quickly became our first choice. On returning to the UK three and a half weeks ago, we had to wait out our quarantine before we could start looking. Our first trip out was to view a selection of ex-police vehicles at a dealer in the Midlands. Although they only had one Sprinter, we had high expectations and set off with Jason for a five hour round trip on a gloomy British summer’s day. We stopped for socially distanced tea and toast along the way as cafes in England are now open both outdoors and indoors. Our hopes of buying the first van we saw were dashed by the general poor quality of the vehicle which had clearly lived a hard life. It did come with a cell in the back though.

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We were almost tempted to the ambulance but it had done 250,000 miles already

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Jason in his special car inspection outfit searching for rust

Over a very late fried breakfast at a classic greasy spoon, we identified a place nearby that specialised in selling on Sprinters that had been used by a courier company. The rain poured down as we were shown around a huge yard full of vehicles in the process of having liveries removed and being tarted up to sell. They were all in need of a lot more than a bit of TLC. We were shown one van covered in dents, with a partially ripped off front bumper and damaged rear doors. It came with no service history but the promise that damaged doors and bumpers would be replaced if we were interested. On the drive home, we decided we were not, the price was good but the van was not.

Fortunately, within a couple of days we located a dealer in Manchester that sold on ex lease vehicles for Mercedes Benz, most of which had been used by the health service. We viewed four Sprinters, none more than 5 years old, all in decent condition and chose a 2015 Silver Sprinter 313 cdi LWB. We drove it home that day.

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Dave managed to clip the van on his right with the back end as he pulled out. Not a good start.

So there we are, we have a van. It is sitting on the drive of our rented house in North Wales waiting for us to start work on it. We have taken it out for a drive today to do some chores and it seems great.

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Man in his van

It is big but Dave says it is easy to drive. I plan to have a go myself in the next few days. It is full of potential and the holder of our hopes and dreams. I can’t wait to get started but more about the next time.

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Son of Silver or “Silver” to his friends