“What the heck were we doing here?!”
After flipping on our water pump for the first time, we discovered multiple leaks spraying everywhere under our sink and soaking our plywood boards. We were tired, short-tempered, and frustrated.
Turns out, building a DIY camper van without any experience is HARD.
A Tale Of Two City-Folk With Dreams Of RV Life
Before embarking on one of the biggest challenges of our lifetimes, Yuko and I were regular urbanites from Asia; Eric grew up in Hong Kong and Yuko is from Japan. We studied hard in school, were tech savvy with cushy office jobs, and favored public transportation over car ownership.
Life was good.
But we realized that city living disincentivizes the acquisition of other important life skills. We were uncomfortable with basic home maintenance tasks and had never wielded power tools before. In other words, we couldn’t fix a sink leak even if our lives depended on it. Urban living has its conveniences but has its limitations for fostering self-reliance.
Extending Our Boundaries and Comfort Zones
Four years ago, by chance, we happened upon an online community dedicated to building DIY camper vans. Sitting on the other side of the world, this concept of creating something so complex with our hands was completely foreign to us. But it was here, online, where we learned that we could design and build a camper exactly how we wanted and within a budget we could afford.
We were intrigued. And after several more months of dreaming, we were determined to build our own camper van and drive the Pan-American highway south to Argentina.
It was a bold dream. But with virtually zero prior experience, we were hesitant. Were we biting off more than we could chew?
Finding Camper Van Build Resources
We didn’t truly understand exactly what we were getting ourselves into until we drove our newly purchased Ford Transit van home. It was only then that we had to, in earnest, learn about all the various minute details of insulation, electrical, plumbing, woodworking, and more.
Some days we were simply overwhelmed with questions and technical details! Where could we find the information needed to build our camper?
Abundant Online Resources
Fortunately, in this information era, if you know how to ask the right questions and search in the right places, the Internet will teach you everything you want to learn. And this is very much true when it comes to building a camper van interior.
Youtube Videos: These provide great visual resources that allow you to see exactly what a specific process looks like and helps you anticipate what you might experience when you attempt the same project in your van.
Blogs: Well-written blogs do a fantastic job describing technical knowledge related to a particular project. This includes material sizes, tool specifications, diagrams/outlines, and product recommendations.
Online Forums: Online communities, like the Ford Transit USA forum, provide great avenues for asking individual, specific questions that you might have. You can receive high-quality, technical feedback from experienced DIY camper van members.
Best of all, for anyone on a budget, the majority of these online resources are completely free. And every year, the quality of online content is getting better.
In fact, we recently published our own DIY Camper Van blog to teach and inspire anyone else interested in building their own camper van interior from the ground up. We document how to:
- Select and buy your perfect vehicle,
- Install ventilation fans & windows,
- Wire your own electrical system (including installing solar panels), and
- Build kitchen counters, cabinets, and more
Help Is Also Right Around The Corner
The people living around us were also some of the most instrumental in helping us build our camper. From neighbors and family friends to our friendly, local tool library, we were stunned by the willingness and enthusiasm of our surrounding community to help out, lend tools, and offer specific build advice.
After our camper conversion experience, we’re convinced that the general kindness and generosity of people overcomes our individual differences, no matter our diverse backgrounds and situations. Whether it’s online or in-person, people just want to help other people.
Our Build Story
The story of our camper build is a tale of struggle and growth. But the growth part doesn’t extend from the struggle in a linear way like you might see in a movie or read about in a book. Our journey to a finished camper was more like a game of Snakes & Ladders; we would advance and then fall back down, losing ground and time. Then we would advance a little more and then fall back down again. It was a perfect example of the proverbial expression ‘two steps forward, one step back’.
And each step back usually resulted in a frustrating drive back to the local hardware store in search for a new solution, like with our plumbing leaks. We were warned that building a camper van would result in us being on a first-name basis with the hardware store staff because we would be patroning there so frequently.
And they were absolutely right about that.
Growth & Confidence
We couldn’t see it immediately, but with each mistake and each subsequent revision, our skills and abilities grew a little more. Slowly, we became proficient in cutting through sheet metal, joining wood with strong pocket holes, and hammer crimping thick copper wire lugs.
Eventually, even the way we walked the aisles of the hardware stores changed. Less and less we would wander the aisles feeling overwhelmed and confused. And more often, we became increasingly confident and proficient in getting exactly what we needed. Whether it was a different type of screw, type of wood, or some obscure electrical thingamajig, we got better at identifying what we needed and, just as important, knowing why we needed it.
Best of all, when we eventually began to notice incremental improvements in our DIY knowledge and confidence, we could finally begin to enjoy the process of building our camper van. For one of the first times in our lives, we were actually learning skills that were hands-on and useful for everyday life.
And although Yuko won’t admit it, hardware stores are kind of fun to visit now; to walk down the aisles and imagine what we can create with our own hands.
If We Can Convert A Van, So Can You
Building our own camper interior was one of the hardest, most frustrating, yet most fulfilling experiences in our lives. Though we would never wish plumbing leaks on anyone, converting a van has taught us a plethora of valuable skills and life lessons.
Here are some of our key takeaways:
It’s never too late in life to learn a new skill: Some of us may learn faster than others, but that’s OK! Just go at your own pace and be methodical. If two city kids can build a kitchen counter from comically unwieldy large plywood boards and a table saw, you can do it, too.
Working with your hands and creating is fun!: We left our office cubicle jobs because we were unhappy working with computer screens all day long. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft Excel isn’t all that interesting! But building and creating our camper van with our own two hands was an immensely satisfying and rewarding experience.
Hard Work & Curiosity -> Knowledge & Experience -> CONFIDENCE: One of our biggest hesitations in attempting our own camper van build was because we didn’t have the expertise to complete such a project. We had doubts and lacked confidence. But we learned that not having experience or confidence isn’t reason enough to not try something new. As long as you work hard, stay curious, and know where to find the right answers, you, too, can build a camper interior from scratch.
If you might be interested in building your own camper van, we invite you to visit our camper van conversion guide for more resources and inspiration.
For any questions, please send us an email at [email protected]
Where You Can Find Us
Originally supposed to be a one-year journey, Covid complicated our plans of driving all of Pan-America to Argentina. We are now in year 3 of camper van life and currently sitting in southern Mexico waiting for the land borders in South America to reopen.
For more, you can follow our journey on Instagram: @asobolife.