14 Materials To Consider For Your Next Van Conversion

By: Scott Adamson
/ August 22, 2022
Learn what materials the professional van builders are using and why you should consider them for your DIY Van Conversion — Heads up: You won’t find these at your traditional hardware store.

Are you ready to kick off your DIY Van Conversion? Then it’s time to start gathering all of the necessary tools and materials.

While the Vanlife craze is relatively “new”, many of the products that are being used in professional campervan builds have been around for decades.

Naturally, most DIY Van Builders will head straight to their local hardware store and grab commonly used items for a home renovation. To no surprise, you’ll conveniently find a huge percentage of the necessary tools and materials at stores like Home Depot, RONA, and Lowe’s.

But I’m here to share a few other materials you should definitely consider for your van that you won’t necessarily find at the hardware store.

What Materials Should I Consider For My Next Van Conversion?

If your goal is to build a “professional” and durable adventure van that will stand the test of time, then there are a few materials you may want to consider. 

Many of the products being used in professional van builds are inspired by other industries such as boating or yachting. Fabrics, flooring, hardware, and electronics cross over well from the marine world into the van life world.

Let’s jump into a few of the products that I would recommend you check out for your upcoming van project.

Flooring

When it comes to flooring, most DIY van builders will use either:

  • Traditional Laminate 
  • Plank Vinyl Flooring (this is what I used in my first build!)

Plank flooring looks great and is very easy to install. For most people, this will be a perfectly fine solution for their van. But when it comes to building a long-lasting adventure van, there are a couple of issues you should keep in mind. 

Issue #1: Foot Traffic
99% of the foot traffic will be up and down, back and forth, across a 25-inch space down the middle of your van. Here’s why this is a problem 

  • Often times these plank floors are not designed to withstand the high traffic that they will see in a small van setting. 
  • The foot traffic is not spread out over an entire room or hallway. 
  • This increased traffic can cause normal flooring products to wear much quicker.

Issue #2: Changing Temperature
Plank flooring comes in various pieces, which will expand and contract with the changing temperature. Over time it will cause noticeable gaps in your flooring.

Alternative: Sheet Vinyl

For the reasons above, this is why you see most professional van builders using Marine Grade Sheet Vinyl Flooring or Commercial Grade Vinyl Flooring that is all in one piece.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Outside Van® (@outsidevan)

These products are

  • Designed to withstand the increased foot traffic
  • Sustain changing and drastic temperature swings, and
  • the one-piece design of the product eliminates any gaps that form over time with wear and tear.

Some of the most common manufacturers for this flooring are

  1. Lonseal
  2. Nautolex
  3. Gerfloor

In my 2019 Sprinter Van Conversion, I chose to use the Nautolex product, which I purchased from a local company called Jackson. Nautlex products are known for 

  • Being mould-resistant
  • Durable and strong 
  • Variety in designs 

Pro-tip: I would suggest trying to find a local company that sells Marine Grade Vinyl Flooring. 

Wall Ceiling and Panels

When it comes to selecting your wall materials, the options are endless and it’s going to depend on the overall appearance you’re after.

Here are a few great products that you may not have heard of before.

Chilewich

Chilewich is a woven vinyl product that I’ve personally never worked with but I’m starting to see it more and more on professional van builds. It is known for durability and easy maintenance. You can also choose from a range of designs, colors, and qualities from their product range.

 

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A post shared by Yama Vans (@yamavans)

Marine Vinyl

Marine Vinyl is becoming a common product used in van builds. I used perforated Marine Vinyl for my ceiling panels and am happy with how it turned out.

Typically, Marine Vinyl has the following features 

  • UV coating which helps against fading 
  • Water-resistant, which enhances overall life 
  • Stain-resistant; always giving you that fresh look

If you feel that Marine Vinyl is out of your budget you can always switch to standard automotive vinyl. This is especially true for places like the ceiling and walls.

 

Dibond or ACP (Aluminum Composite Panel)

ACP is two thin pieces of aluminum with a strong composite material between them, giving the product its strength and durability.

The benefit of this product is that 

  • It comes in large 4×4 sheets easy to wipe down and keep clean
  • It is easy to install and cost-effective
  • It is available in a wide variety of colors and designs 

After having my first van for 5 years, I can tell you that the ACP looks like the day that I installed it!

To source this product for your van builds, I would recommend contacting some local outdoor sign manufacturers. This is because a standard application of ACP is in exterior signage, so they will be able to either sell it to you or tell you where they purchase it from.

Duotek Acoustic Wall Panels

This product from Richelieu is a super lightweight product to cover up your walls. It feels like a heavy-duty felt with a bit of structure to it. On my second van build, I used this behind all my cabinets as wall covering and cabinet packing.

It is about ½ the weight of ¼ Luan Plywood and gives the inside of your cabinets a really clean, finished look that I think is hard to beat. All in all, I think this product is a gem and I will recommend it one hundred percent!

Duramax Marathon Tweed

This fabric was a game changer and you can find it on so many professional van builder projects. I used it to do the following

  • Cover all the trim areas in the van 
  • Give that professional finished look

This product is easy to work with and is installed using a contact cement type product that I spray using a cheap paint spray gun that I’ve used numerous times throughout this project. 

Even if you are not a professional upholsterer, you will be surprised at the outcomes! The weave pattern in the fabric hides all the small mistakes and minor imperfections, giving you an almost flawless look.

Cabinet Framing

When it comes to cabinet framing, many van lifers opt for traditional wood. I prefer to use 8020 (also called extruded aluminum) as I believe it is a far better option than conventional wood. 

8020 Extruded Aluminum

I prefer 8020 extruded aluminum because it is:

  • More flexible (you can tweak the design) 
  • Unbelievably strong and reliable
  • Easy to install and remove 

Overall, I will recommend going for the 8020 as it is easier to handle, lightweight, and can help you save weight by tweaking the overall outlay of your van.

Here’s a detailed comparison of what I did on the 8020 vs wood that you may find interesting!

9. Cabinet Faces

For the majority of DIY van builders, you are just going to go the route of painting all your cabinets in the van. This method is 100% fine as long as you do it right. 

Here’s when it can become a problem: 

  • When you don’t get the time required to properly prepare the material and sand 
  • When you don’t prepare proper coats to give the cabinet a durable and easy-to-clean surface.

Instead, most people quickly toss on 1 or 2 coats of paint and call it day, and they are left with a surface that marks easily and is impossible to clean. I don’t know how many DIY van builders I’ve seen on Instagram a year later re-painting all their cabinets to “refresh the van”.

High-Pressure Laminate (HPL) by Wilson Art

HPL is a convenient alternative to painting your van yourself. Here’s how HPL stands out from paint:

  • It is quite durable and strong.
  • It is easy to clean and maintain.
  • It is resistant to heat and stains.

Installing HPL may sound complex but it is not that difficult. Here, I have a complete guide on how you can install HPL and the tools you will need. 

The HPL I decided to go with is from Wilson Art and I bought it from Mckillikan, which has a local supplier. Unfortunately, they do not sell to the general public but if you contact them they will direct you to a local representative whom you can purchase through.

The Wilson Art product line has what seems like an endless selection of

  • Solid Colors
  • Wood Grains
  • Abstract Patterns
  • Textures

Overall the aesthetic HPL from The Wilson Art makes the van interior stand out. I chose a combination of wood grains, subtle patterns, and white for the inside of all the cabinets.

The HPL install is a bit time-consuming and messy when it comes to routering all the edges. You can check out my detailed video on HPL here. But all in all, I do think that the HPL is much faster and more flawless than a quality paint application.

Cushions

On the first van build, I went to a local fabric store and selected a fabric that I liked but that store no longer exists. Also, the fabric that I selected had a few drawbacks, especially that it was not waterproof. 

So after extensive research, I found that many professional upfitters use 1 or 2 products for their cushions.

  • Marine Grade Options: These are popular among full-time van lifers who want to opt for more durable and high-quality products. Marine vinyl is a good option to upholster your van cushions. 
  • Traditional Options: These are mostly used by van enthusiasts who are more interested in cutting costs and looking for budget-friendly options. Automotive standard vinyl and leather is a popular (and cheaper) option.

Pro-tip: You can sew the cushions yourself and save on the cost of hiring a professional to upholster. 

Sunbrella Exterior Furniture Fabric

I’ve decided to go with the sunbrella fabric, which is the fabric you see when you are looking at outdoor patio furniture. I decided not to go with vinyl products because

  • Leather seats are not breathable and in warm weather, I become all sweaty.
  • I wanted something a little more comfortable / home feeling and I think the Sunbrella line of fabrics gives you that.

Here’s how Sunbrella’s products compare: 

  • Sunbrella products are soft, comfortable, and breathable. 
  • They are also UV-resistant and do not fade that easily, making them an attractive choice for full-time van lifers.

Drawers

I like drawers in my camper van because of two main reasons:

  1. They help me organize all my stuff, such as equipment, food, and tools, quite easily.
  2. They are also convenient in helping me store a lot of things in a small space.

That said, building drawers from scratch can be quite time-consuming and may not be worth it.

Blum Tandembox

A better alternative is the Blum Tandembox. This product is the perfect replacement for your drawers with a cutting-edge design and color-coordinated sides.

The pros are:

  • It is compact and easy to install and works like magic in your camper van.
  • Has a wide variety in its product range. 
  • Enhanced motion technology helps in the easy opening and closing of drawers.

Key Takeaways

When it comes to building out your DIY campervan conversion, the options are endless! I hope that this list gave you some insights into the popular products and companies that the professional builders are using to complete those builds that you are drooling over on Instagram.

Here are the key takeaways from this article:

  • For flooring: Marine Vinyl / Sheet Vinyl
  • For wall ceilings and panels: Chilewich, Marine Vinyl, Dibond (ACP), Duotek, and Duramax
  • For cabinet framing: 8020 (aluminum)
  • For cabinet faces: HPL by The Wilson Art
  • For cushions: Sunbrella
  • For drawers: Blum Tandembox

Good luck with your next van conversion!

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