The Executive Summary
With the insulation of the walls completed, I put up a plastic sheeting to act as a vapor barrier. This would keep the insulation from accumulating moisture which can cause mold. I ordered some 3M weatherstrip adhesive on Amazon to stick the plastic to the metals walls of the vehicle frame. I also removed the bulkhead to open things up a bit. To do this, I used a steel punch to punch out the middle of the rivets and then sheared off the heads with a chisel.
With the walls and floor now both insulated, it was time to start thinking about how to finish the walls. I knew that I had wanted to finish the walls in wood, but there were many different options. I had seen some people use fiberglass wall panels, these are nice because of how thin they are and they’re relatively cheap. So they’re a great option if you’re looking to save space and money. I didn’t like how cheap and plastic it made everything feel though. This van was going to be my home and I wanted it to feel solid and a bit more rustic. There is no shortage of builds out there using wood so there was plenty to use for inspiration.
With my focus turned to wood options, I started looking at several. Some people use plywood. This is a nice option because it’s cheap and relatively easy to work with. It can look really nice if you plan to stain it afterward and, if you go with a thinner plywood, you shouldn’t have much trouble getting it to bend to the walls of the van. In building out my van I’ve come to realize that nothing is straight. Everything curves in some way and that has been the biggest challenge. Working with a thin plywood would be much easier to fit the curves of the walls.
Another common option is knotty pine. Knots cause difficulty in building and so knotted wood is always cheaper than non-knotted wood also called “clear” wood. Pine is a fairly cheap wood so knotty pine is a great option if you want a nice looking finish on the cheap. Staining the pine when you’re done can help to protect the wood and give it a really nice finish.
Although plywood and pine were both great options, I eventually settled on cedar. From what I had read, cedar was moisture and rot resistant and also repelled bugs, at least to some degree. I assumed that the van would encounter both moisture and bugs in my travels and so it seemed like a great fit. Not to mention the scent that cedar wood gives off is also great! My grandfather was a woodworker by trade and worked strictly with cedar. The smell of the cedar reminded me of his woodshop from my childhood.
Now I had picked out my finish for the falls, but there were still a few small outstanding items that needed to be addressed before we could begin. Before installing the wood boards for the walls, we needed a vapor barrier. This wasn’t something I was familiar with, but it came up several times as I was researching van builds and seeing what others had done. I had used fiberglass to insulate my walls and you don’t want fiberglass to get wet. If it does, it could not only cause mold to form, but it can also cause the fiberglass to fall down the side of the wall and build up at the base as it becomes heavy from the moisture. If this happens, then your insulation isn’t actually insulating at that point.
A vapor barrier is simply a sheet of thin plastic that you use to cover your insulation. This prevents moisture from getting in from the walls and into your insulation. This stuff should be easily purchased at your local hardware store. I found some thick heavy stuff at Home Depot that did the trick. I then used some caulk to stick it to the metal walls of the van.
My first attempt at the vapor barrier didn’t go so well though. It was difficult to get the plastic to stick because the adhesive I used takes time to dry and the plastic wants to fall away from the wall while you’re putting it up. In addition to this, because the plastic is so smooth, there isn’t much for the adhesive to stick to. I finally got the barrier to stay on one wall, but after letting it cure for several days, some of it was still wet underneath the plastic and the plastic was easily peeled back away from the wall. I didn’t like this and so I ended up removing it the plastic to try again. Before I could take a second crack at it though, I now had to clean the wall of the old caulking so that I had a clean and smooth surface for my second attempt. This process was a nightmare! I initially tried using acetone to remove the old adhesive. This worked okay, but not great. It also began to take the paint off, which I didn’t want. Stripping the paint away and exposing the metal would make it more susceptible to rust in the future. Thanks to the help of a friend who showed up as I was doing this, we ultimately got the wall cleaned off by simply scraping off the old adhesive with a razor blade.
For my second attempt, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to have the same problem. I had helped a friend of mine replace a door handle in his car a few weeks back a noticed that when we disassembled the door, there was a vapor barrier in his car door that protected the locking mechanism of the door. That vapor barrier had been held on with this black sticky adhesive that allowed the plastic to be peeled back and the stuck back in place because the adhesive remained tacky instead of curing. I took to the internet to try and find out what type of adhesive this was. I eventually ended up on a Mercedes forum that claimed Mercedes dealers used this stuff, 3M weatherstrip adhesive. While it wasn’t quite the same stuff that I had seen in my buddy’s car door, it worked far better than the caulking I had previously tried.
In the process of putting up the vapor barrier, I was persuaded that it might be a good idea to remove the bulkhead that separated the cargo area from the driver’s cabin. I had initially been hesitant to do this for a few reasons. The first was insulation. I thought that having a metal wall at the end of the van would allow me to insulate and panel it like I had done with the rest of the van. This would keep it warmer. The second was legal. If I was going to be living in it, there was a chance that at some point in time I would likely have an open bottle of wine or whiskey stored in it. While I’m not entirely up to date on the various laws from each state that would come into play in such a situation, I figured I would be safe if any open containers were not directly accessible to the driver. Despite these concerns, I ended up removing the bulkhead. I think this was the right choice. It lets in far more light and allows me to move freely between the driver’s seat and the rest of the vehicle. This is not only extremely convenient but also lends itself to stealth camping as I don’t have to exit and reenter the vehicle once parked.
Bulkheads come in all shapes and sizes. This one was solid steel and riveted to the frame. After doing some YouTube investigation on how to remove rivets, I got out my drill and began to drill out the center of the rivets so that I could then shear off the outside with a hammer and chisel. I quickly discovered, however, that this was not going to work. I had not only broken two drill bits but burned through the entire battery on my drill in removing only the first few rivets. Luckily, I received a little help. I was advised to try a small steel punch to try punching out the inside of the rivets. This worked perfectly and made quick work of the remaining rivets. With the center of the rivets removed, it’s easy to shear off the heads with a chisel.
I now had the bulkhead out and the vapor barrier up. It was time to finally get some wood and begin my walls!