5 Vanlife Accessories You Will Regret Making Yourself

By: Scott Adamson
/ August 16, 2022
Converting a van yourself can help save you money, but not all components are worth the time and headache to make yourself. Here are 5 things that I would most certainly not make myself if I could go back in time.

When you start your DIY van conversion, you will probably try to DIY absolutely everything. You’re not alone here! Most DIYers will do this for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Saving Money / Staying within a budget
  • The internet makes things look much easier to DIY than it really is, and 
  • Pride. 

Converting a van can be an extremely expensive project. That’s why most DIY van builders try to stick to a tight budget and keep costs down. This is a good thing, but in some cases, the cost savings just aren’t worth the time, effort, and headache that go into building certain things on your own. Not to mention, the quality at the end of your project can often be less than desirable. You will be confident to build many accessories initially but end up banging your head against the wall when things go south.

In this article, I’m going to share some info on:

  • When you should consider outsourcing or purchasing rather than DIY
  • 5 Accessories that you should never DIY 
  • Why you should go for outsourcing when DIY seems more affordable

When Should You Decide To Purchase/Outsource?

DIY is the buzzword among van enthusiasts, with DIY videos and blogs available on virtually every component of your van build. As a DIYer myself, I can appreciate the pride people have in building their own home-on-wheels.

However, there are a few things to consider before deciding to DIY certain parts of your van:

Quality
A commercially produced accessory can vary significantly from your DIY component. You should go for outsourcing/buying when you are getting substantially better quality at an affordable cost. 

Time
If making an item is going to take you a few days/weeks, you may want to consider just purchasing them. This saves you time and allows you to focus on more important/hard-to-do tasks. 

Long-term Usage
You should consider purchasing if it’s an item or component that needs to withstand the test of time, and not to mention, include a warranty. 

5 Vanlife Accessories to Consider Purchasing vs DIY

Coming to my moment of regret, here is a list of 5 things in my Van Build that I would consider outsourcing or paying for if I was to do everything all over again.

1. Drawer Boxes

For many people, a DIY Van Conversion project is their first venture into the arena of cabinet making. And let me tell you, it can be quite frustrating. 

Here is what I learned from my experience:

Be patient
You will need a lot of patience to ensure your cabinets, drawers, and sliders are square. When it comes to pulling out drawers and drawer boxes, being square and close is not good enough; everything needs to be perfect!

Be open to imperfection
The first drawer box you cut out will probably not be pretty and may require additional work. 

Suggestion: I suggest getting started on one drawer box as a pilot project, getting it all sorted out, and learning from it. This way, you will save money and time by not trying to get everything cut ahead of time only to find out that you made the same mistakes on all 6 drawers in the van!

Many companies can help you customize your drawer boxes and provide reliable and consistent service. You can try a company like Drawerdepot or Fastcabinetdoors to outsource your drawer boxes and save the trouble of building sub-par drawer boxes yourself.  

Full disclosure: I have never used these services, but I would like to explore these in the future! 

2. Insulated Window Covers

Insulated Window Covers are one of those accessories that look so easy to make, on the surface. I was in the same boat and thought I could easily DIY these, so I ended up doing it myself. 

Here’s a short story.

I spent a few days templating the two rear windows and the side window.

After I had the paper templates made, I transferred the paper templates into cardboard templates. I used reflectix, fabric from my local fabric store, and Velcro and put together what I thought was a pretty decent set of window covers. After all, it took an entire week!

However, I soon realized that what I thought was a job well done was a disaster.

  • The fit wasn’t perfect 
  • They didn’t fold nicely. 
  • They were also pretty difficult to store. 
  • On hot sunny days, the Velcro would pull off the shades and the window, leaving this gooey mess that was not worth it at all.

Needless to say, I skipped the windshield and front windows after seeing how the rear window covers turned out. 

A quick update: I have since launched my own window shades online store. We offer professionally-made machine-cut window covers so they can perfectly fit your van’s windows. 

3. Cushions

Who doesn’t like squishy cushions to lay on after a tiring day of driving? You will come across a lot of recommendations on how to sew your cushion covers. 

My first van had amazing cushions that were:

  • Comfortable
  • Added to the aesthetic, and
  • Didn’t take a lot of space

Full disclosure: I didn’t sew the cushions on my first van myself, my mom helped me for the most part, and they turned out amazing! But she’s a far better sewer than I am and still, it required a lot of time and effort on her part.

Therefore, going for DIY cushion covers is perhaps not the best way to go about it. On my second van, I discovered that every city has many talented craftspeople, such as

  • Upholsters
  • Tailors, and 
  • Seamstresses 

These professionals will happily make cushion covers for you. An added advantage is that they don’t charge a lot for the accessory you are getting. 

Suggestion: So, on my future builds, the sewing machine is probably not making an appearance, and I’ll leave that to the professionals. If you are not great at sewing and want to invest your time in something else, you should consider doing the same!  

4. Roof Rack and Ladder

A roof rack and ladder come in handy for several reasons:

  • Good for mounting things like your solar panels, additional storage units, surfboards, etc
  • Gives you access to the roof of your van, whether it is to clean your solar panels or access additional storage. 

To decide between building your own roof rack or purchasing one that is professionally made, you first need to assess a few things: 

  • Can a professionally made roof rack be delivered to your location?
  • What level of DIY skills do you have?
  • What’s your budget? Shipping can add up with such a heavy product, depending on your location. But so can the materials required for a DIY roof rack. 

For me, being located up in Canada, it was really hard to get a rack shipped up here at a somewhat affordable rate and in an amount of time that would let me leave on my desired departure date. That’s why I opted to build my own rack on my first van.

Here’s a quick story.

How NOT to use your rack and ladder!

On my first van, the rack and ladder were originally built and installed and used for one year without any powder coating and just bare aluminum. 

Then when I returned after 1 year, I had to remove the rack and ladder at the powder coat facility (because I didn’t have a trailer big enough to transport it). With the help of my dad, we took it off in their parking lot and used their forklift. 

Because I had been using it for a year, the rack and ladder had to be sandblasted before applying the powder coat. Then once it was complete, we had to drive the van back to their facility and install it again in their parking lot!

So, on my current van, I am looking at an alternative solution rather than DIYing the rack.

Suggestion: As it was a ton of work and took over a year and a half, even with the help of my dad, I would investigate a pre-built rack in the future. 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Flatline Van Company (@flatlinevanco)

There are quite a few companies that sell good-quality roof racks. Here’s a list of a few of them:

5. Privacy Curtain 

To separate the front cab area from the living area, I purchased a black curtain from Ikea along with a custom roller track system. It did a decent job, but it wasn’t long before the roller track started to fall apart. The curtain also wasn’t a custom fit for my van which meant that it a lot of light leaked in around the sides.

I decided to upgrade to a professionally made blackout curtain, thanks to the team at ADF! This curtain did a great job at keeping the heat from the Espar Heater in the back of the van and limited the heat loss through the front cab windows. 

 

Final Thoughts

Choosing to purchase professionally made components for your DIY van conversion can be a hard thing to do. I totally get it! Being able to look around your home-on-wheels and see all the things you’ve built with your own two hands will certainly fill you with pride.

After building out 2 vans and living on the road for several years, the items I’ve listed in this article are simply the ones that I personally would never choose to DIY again. 

Here’s a quick summary: 

  • The internet does a great job at making everything look easier to DIY than it really is. 
  • This article strictly covers my personal experience, and if I were to do things over, the things discussed above are the ones that I would not bother with trying to DIY!
  • You should do a comprehensive cost vs time analysis and go with the decision that best suits you.

Hope you enjoyed this, and best of luck with your next big adventure!

Scott Adamson
Wanderful Idea Guy
Coffee drinker, adventure seeker, below average photographer.
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