Converting my van to an RV

I've been thinking about buying a van for a couple of years now, since pulling my wheelchair in behind the drivers seat of my car was getting to be a pain in the neck (literally). I couldn't bring myself to do it just for convenience though, since I like driving a car (especially on twisty mountain roads!)

I had thought that perhaps I could use the van as an RV, but that wasn't enough to convince me either. What finally did the trick was the idea that I could use it as an office. I've been doing a little of that already, and definitely like it a lot. (see picture above.) I still need to do something about powering my laptop computer though. The batteries die just as I'm getting started.

A simple desk would do for an office, but I still thought an RV would be fun. So I tried to design a layout that would work. It's a challenge! I need a bed, a desk, a sink and cooktop, a shower and enough storage for all my stuff. I mocked up size of all the pieces with boxes of poster board and lived with that for a few weeks.

My first problem is that I have nowhere to work on this. I live in an apartment without any workshop or garage space. The public parking garage down on the street has power for recharging electric vehicles, but those spaces are usually full (I think the owners get the electricity for free, which must make their electric vehicles considerably cheaper to run!) I asked the apartment complex where I could work, and they suggested down next to the garbage bins in the basement. I looked it over, but there's no power there either (just an overpowering smell!) So it had to be inside my apartment. The bathroom turned out to be the easiest place to deal with lots of sawdust.

This also means that I need to screw together the pieces, rather than using nails or glue. I'm going to build this all in the apartment, get it right there, then take it apart and cart it piece by piece down to the van, and put it back together again.

Once I decided on the basic design, and how it had to be put together, I went out and bought some tools and a couple of pine boards to mess with. I've never done anything with tools before, so my first project was to build a simple box, using angle braces and screws to hold it together. Here's the result:

I did a second one as well, with wood screws, but the pine board was so rotten that it split and fell apart as I was working on it! I decided to switch to melamine, which has a nice surface and no knots or splits. Of course, when I got a pile of it from Home Depot, I also discovered the stuff is heavy, the edges are sharp, and the coating is incredibly slippery! In fact, the 7 ft. boards I bought were so hard for me to carry up to the apartment, I was ready to give up after toting the second one up. Fortunately, I realized I just needed some kind of cart to carry them up (and down again when I'm ready to install them.) So I built one:

By this time, I had learned two important lessons:

1. Measure first! (note the top and bottom holes)

2. Respect the saw! (what's that noise? Oh, cutting through steel!)

With all the wood upstairs and a design in mind, I was ready to start on my bed/desk/kitchen combo. First, I built the sides. Since they hold the thing up, I went overboard with the bolts to hold on the legs.

Added to the sides, a simple top and back. This took two tries, since for some reason, I am unable to accurately measure where to drill holes! My board cart and test box are doing duty again here as props to hold up the sides:

The bed is supposed to slide out from under the desk like a drawer. So there are rails along the inside bottom edge of the desk sides. I'm going to use sliding door wheels there, and two legs with casters in the middle to hold up the bed. I built this upside down, then flipped it over:

I'm not sure the height of the desk is right until I put the keyboard tray in. If it's too high, I'm going to have to cut down all the legs. And that will mean the height of the bed legs will need adjusting as well. So I didn't put casters there yet.

I did want to see if this was going to be at all comfortable though, so I slept in it last night. The mattress is 4 inches of "memory foam" that I bought online at

The bed is a bit short, but otherwise comfortable enough.

Next, I need to buy a sink and position it, put in the keyboard tray, and decide about the height. Then I can finish the bed wheels. Finally, I need to put drawers in as many places as I can fit them (under the sides of the bed, and under the desk.)

Then I can cart it all down and see if it actually fits in the van! I already know I have to do something with the front-left leg. When I measured the van, I got 67", so I built it to that width. When it looked too wide, I went down and measured it again. The width is right, but I had not noticed that the walls of the van are curved, so there's less room at the bottom than in the middle. The narrow point is where the front-left leg hits the side door motor. I'm going to have to shorten it or cut a hole in it.

See Part 2

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