A woman's gloved hand reaches up with a roller to apply Kilmat sound deadening material on the ceiling of a cargo van

Prepping a Campervan for Conversion | A Short Guide

Converting a campervan on your own can be a daunting task. Follow our step by step guide and find out exactly what you need to do in the prep phase to ensure your van stands the test of time.

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This is going to be a pretty straightforward guide on how to prepare your van for conversion. Warning: while it’s not the most exhilarating topic to think or read about, this is easily one of the most important steps in building your van. We’re going to share a few considerations before you go and get your hands dirty and then lay out a step by step plan on what to do. Let’s dive in!

Document, plan, and document some more

First, take some photos

Take photos of everything in the van. Not just for all your before and after posts that’ll be going viral. Take photos of every wall, the ceiling and the floor from every angle so you have something to reference.

Either once the interior is covered up or when you’re away from the van and trying to plan something out, you’ll want photos, trust us.

Looking straight toward the closed rear doors on the interior of an empty Ford Transit cargo vanThe interior of an empty Ford Transit cargo van looking toward the front cab with a closed sliding door on the right

Take TONS of measurements

We would suggest using graph paper to create a sketch of your layout, if you haven’t already.

Take measurements of and between just about everything and write those down on your layout. Some examples: measure the width of your sliding door and the height/depth of the step going to it. Measure distances between the ceiling support ribs that run side to side. Measure the height and width of those individual ribs. 

Take overall measurements of the height of your walls, the width of the van and the length of the living space that you’ll be converting. Be sure to measure in multiple locations, keeping in mind that vans are not boxes made with perfect right angles. The height and width of your van’s cargo area will vary in different places.

Consider creating a 3D mock up

If you want to go the extra mile, or you’re like us and are visually oriented when it comes to design (read: have trouble picturing things accurately in your mind), consider taking all those measurements and creating a 3D model of your van.

Whether you have previous 3D modeling experience or not, Sketchup is a great place to start for free. There are tons of online tutorials on how to use it and you can get started pretty quickly.

We used this exact method to create a simple model of our van based on the measurements we took. While we didn’t rely on it as a precise way to build our van, it gave us an excellent method to virtually step into the space and see how things would or wouldn’t fit.

Imagine you’re shopping for a refrigerator and just aren’t sure how it will look or fit. As long as your measurements are reasonably accurate, you can pull the dimensions of the fridge, create a quick box in Sketchup and move it around as much as you want.

Screenshot of a campervan build designed in SketchUp

Create a wishlist of items you’ll need

You can’t anticipate every single thing you’ll need for your build, but now is a good time to start considering some of the key items.

Creating an Amazon wishlist that you make public and share with friends and family is a great way to start. If you have a birthday soon or the holidays are coming up, direct people to your wishlist, that way they can support your project. You could also just request gift cards to places like Lowe’s, Home Depot, Menards, or Amazon.. places you’re guaranteed to be spending money every week.

Track expenses and stay on budget

Throughout our build we used a spreadsheet to track every single item we purchased for the van. This is useful if you have a strict budget you’re trying to maintain or if you’re just nerdy like us and want to be able to track every single dollar and see the breakdown of spending.

Let us know if you’d like to use our spreadsheet for yourself and we’d be happy to share it.

On a separate tab of that spreadsheet we also tracked the amount of time we spent building the van. In all honesty, it was the last thing we wanted to do after a long day or week of putting in physical work on the van, but it’s a great idea to eventually see how much actual time you’ve invested.

Along with these spreadsheets, find whatever way works best for you to organize all your receipts. We kept a physical copy of each receipt from the store and then organized any online purchases using folders in our email client. This helped us keep the expense spreadsheet up to date in an orderly fashion.

These efforts could also possibly play an important role in an insurance situation, since you’d be able to show exactly how much money you put into your van, with receipts to prove it.

That does it for our less hands-on preparation tasks, so let’s talk about actually working on the van.

Prepare to get dirty

Remove any extra parts or hardware 

This varies widely, but your van may have a lot of extra parts to remove. If you bought your van used it could have additional shelving or cabinets installed. Some vans have a sliding door or bulkhead between the cargo area and cabin.

Carefully remove all those extra items and list them on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist or similar and try to make a little money off of them.

Our van was a used cargo van, but fortunately the interior was pretty bare. We did, however, remove all the bolted in cargo tie-downs. We also disconnected all of the factory LED ceiling lights from the main wiring harness that ran along the driver’s side of the van. 

In our 2020 Ford Transit, there is a plastic cover over that wiring harness. We removed that, as well as some other plastic trim pieces on the C and D pillars. Since all of those things will be eventually covered up, there’s no need to keep them in place and they’ll need to be removed to properly insulate anyway.

Close up on a D-ring cargo tie down attached to the interior of a cargo vanLooking down over the shoulder of a woman handling a D-ring cargo tie down that has just been removed from an empty Ford Transit van

Protect anything you don’t want to get dirty

Use this opportunity to cover up or remove anything you want to keep clean. We put trash bags over our front seats. If you don’t have floor mats, you might want to invest in some (we love these: WeatherTech Custom Fit FloorLiners), or put something else down to protect your flooring.

Give everything a quick clean and then remove any existing rust

Sweep and vacuum to remove that first layer of dirt on the floor. Then, get to work on the most important step: 

Remove any rust. Don’t skip over or shortcut this step, no matter how tempting it is.

In a nutshell, your van is a metal box. Once it’s converted and you’re living or traveling in it, you will introduce a huge amount of moisture. Moisture inside a metal box is going to result in rust on unprotected surfaces. Rust is like cancer and it will spread throughout your van and destroy it.

Looking through the back door of a Ford Transit cargo van at a woman kneeling down to sand the bare metal floor

How do we prevent this problem? First, identify any existing rust and bare metal. Sand those areas down with a fine grit sandpaper until the rust is gone.

In more severe cases you might need to use a grinder or a palm sander. This is more common on the floors of older vans. Keep in mind that rust could be hiding under a layer of paint. Look for bubbling or uneven areas and sand or grind them down.

You may also need a paint scraper or wire brush to get into smaller and tighter areas.

Clean the entire van top to bottom

Get yourself a gentle degreaser, such as Simple Green, dilute it down according to the instructions and clean the entire van from top to bottom. 

You may be totally surprised by the amount of filth inside your van. Even at less than two years old, our used cargo van had a layer of gunk all over the walls and floor. 

Not only is this your opportunity to start with a clean slate (literally) before covering everything up, but it’s crucial that any areas you prime and paint are clean.

From here on you’ll need to keep the floor totally clean, so either take your shoes off or put disposable booties over them when you’re walking around inside.

Prime and paint bare spots and the floor

Use a quality rust prevention primer and a high gloss enamel paint made for metal and exteriors. We recommend these products from Rustoleum:

Stops Rust Clean Metal Primer

Stops Rust Protective Enamel

Some opt to spray paint, but we don’t see the need unless you’re putting a fresh coat on the whole interior. You’ll just be unnecessarily dealing with fumes. We primed and then painted our entire floor, even though we had very little rust, just tons of minor scratches all over. We brushed everything out by hand and it didn’t take long at all.

Before painting the floor, go around the whole van and touch up all those spots you had to sand down and every single scratch in the paint that could expose the metal to moisture.

Now, take a moment to enjoy the fruits of your first major van project. That brand new, shiny finish on the floor should look like the van just rolled off the line!

A low angle looking down the freshly painted floor of a cargo van with a woman's hand pulling a paint brush along in the center of the frame

Sound deadening

This is an optional step, but the ease of installing sound deadening and the relatively cheap cost make it a no-brainer.

So, why do you need sound deadening? Your van has large, thin panels of metal all over that are going to vibrate and rattle while you're on the road. There are a number of products out there to eliminate this issue, but they work on the same basic principle: absorbing and lowering the frequency of some of the vibration to make it quieter.

We noticed an immediate difference in the noise from the interior of our van after this easy, half day project. Insulation and other later steps in your build to prevent noise will pay-off in the long run.

The process is simple and, good news, you've already completed the first step!

Now that your van is squeaky clean (pun intended), it's the perfect time to apply these products, since they need a clean surface to adhere properly.

The bare metal walls of an empty Ford Transit cargo van with Kilmat sound deadening material applied

Again, there are plenty of products available, but we opted for Kilmat. We used three 18 sq. ft. boxes for proper coverage of our High Roof Extended Ford Transit. Contrary to what you'll see from others you do not need to cover every inch of metal in your van, only 25-30% of each panel. The exception is the wheel wells, which you should cover entirely for maximum sound deadening.

You'll need gloves, a utility knife, a cutting surface, and a sturdy roller.

The panels are easily cut into whatever size you need, although they do have a tar-like material on the backside, which is why you want to wear gloves, ventilate the van, and clean off or switch your blade from time to time.

Looking at the panel you want to cover, visualize about 1/4 - 1/3 of it's total size and cut a piece of Kilmat. Then remove the paper backing, apply it smoothly without trapping air bubbles and, finally, roll it out with firm pressure until the foil side is as smooth as you can get it.

Fair warning: you'll get a proper forearm workout from all the rolling and by the time you're done with the ceiling portions your shoulders will be begging for mercy!

Make a template of the floor

The van is totally cleared and cleaned out. You’ve got it looking practically brand new. If your van came with a mat for the cargo area, leave it out for now, because you’re going to use it real soon.

If you don’t have a factory floor mat, now’s the time to get some large pieces of cardboard. Lay them down inside the van and cut pieces to fit along all the edges. You can either try a scribing technique to trace the walls or just cut and then tape pieces of cardboard together until you have one big template.

Next, you’ll use your template on another major project: installing the insulation and subfloor in your van.

Planning to build a campervan? Follow us on Pinterest for more how-to guides and inspiration.

Looking down over the shoulder of a woman handling a D-ring cargo tie down that has just been removed from an empty Ford Transit van with text overlay that says Step by Step Guide on How to Prep Your Van

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