Van Conversion: Cedar Plank Walls + Ceiling

The Vanna Project - Van Conversion - Walls Ceiling + Cedar Planks - Tips + Ideas for Your DIY Conversion Van

We’ve been meaning to post about this for a while because it was honestly one of the most challenging projects we took on in the van conversion, but one that brought our home together greatly. To make this I’m going to break this down as easily as possible to walk through the following:

  • Tips and techniques for cutting and attaching custom plywood boards to the steel walls of your vehicle
  • Tips and techniques for installing cedar planks into your camper
  • Bonus: how to hide the Ford Transit’s huge electrical cable bundle on the driver side wall

This post does not cover insulation to any great extent (which you will need to have completed prior to the wall build), but there are some pretty awesome posts out there on insulation herehere, and here. The van life community really differs on how to insulate so do your research and make the decision that is best for you!

Installing the walls of your van is a dynamic undertaking, so please read this post to the end prior to running off to Home Depot in a fit of excitement!


Plywood, Cedar Planks, or Both?

Due to our late decision to install cedar planks, we installed both plywood boards as well as cedar planks. Do you need both? No, not really. You can install cedar planks with furring strips or other mounting points you create on the van. Is it more durable with the plywood behind the cedar planks? Yes, definitely. Since Vanna is an adventuremobile and we move a lot of items around, it’s nice to know we’re less likely to bust up the walls. You can also skip the planks altogether and opt for painted or stained plywood, which will save you on money and weight. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to separate these projects into 2 parts and let you decide what you’d like the end result to be!


Plywood Wall Installation

 

What You Need:

  • Rivet Nuts
  • Rivet Nut Setter
  • Drill Bits for Stainless Steel (high speed, cobalt, or titanium are good)
  • Machine Screws
  • Washers
  • Electric Drill
  • Cutting Fluid
  • Electrical Tape
  • Large metal file
  • Plywood Board
  • Jigsaw
  • Measuring Tape
  • Butcher Paper or Thin Cardboard
  • Pencil
  • Scissors or Exact-o Knife
  • Sand Paper
vannaThe Vanna Project - Van Conversion - Walls Ceiling + Cedar Planks - Tips + Ideas for Your DIY Conversion Van-walls-38.jpg

 

How to Install:

1. Create plywood wall piece templates. Trial-and-error is really unavoidable in the process of figuring out how your wall pieces will be shaped, so taking cardboard and create templates from it was extremely helpful. Others we know have used butcher paper and that sounds like it might work better.

2. Trace your template shapes onto plywood pieces and cut with a jigsaw. We ended up with 5 portrait-oriented pieces in total and they are all a very unique shape. Once they were cut to the correct shape, we lightly sanded the outer edges and the plane surfaces.

The Vanna Project - Van Conversion - Walls Ceiling + Cedar Planks - Tips + Ideas for Your DIY Conversion Van

3. Determine where you will be drilling for your rivet nut placement. We recommend drilling pilot holes first to ensure you can in fact drill through the steel as you imagine. Also, be sure to ensure you are not planning to drill into electrical lines of the vehicle. Lastly, we recommend placing the drill marks on your template so you can easily transfer these locations to your actual plywood pieces when the time is right.

4. Prepare your drill bits. We learned this from experience, but your drill bits (especially if they’re new like ours were) can be aggressive, and the sheet metal you will be screwing into is thin. To keep the drill bits from piercing the outside layer of sheet metal (also known as drilling a hole in the side of your van), determine how deep you need the drill bit to go and wrap electrical tape around the bit past that point, essentially creating a stopper. Make sure you’re using drill bit oil as well to keep things going smoothly!

5. Drill your holes. If you use the appropriate amount of drill bit oil, you will hopefully avoid any metal snagging. However, if you have any rough edges after drilling, simply use the metal file to finish off any of the drilled holes.

The Vanna Project - Van Conversion - Walls Ceiling + Cedar Planks - Tips + Ideas for Your DIY Conversion Van

6. Use your rivet nut setter to install your rivet nuts. We followed the instructions provided with the rivet nut setter, and since it was our first time we practiced on a spare piece of plywood first, which we highly recommend. The practice round also gave us the opportunity to ensure that we had the correct screw and washer set. The rivet nut setter requires a lot of force so be ready to grip tight!

The Vanna Project - Van Conversion - Walls Ceiling + Cedar Planks - Tips + Ideas for Your DIY Conversion Van
The Vanna Project - Van Conversion - Walls Ceiling + Cedar Planks - Tips + Ideas for Your DIY Conversion Van

7. Install your plywood boards. You’ll want to use your template with the marked drill spots to determine where to begin your pilot holes– then, once you have determined that those are the correct locations you can drill and screw your hardware (screws and washers) into place.

Vanna White, Valentines Weekend 2015. Walls freshly up, original utility sink ratchet-strapped to the floor, and version 1 of our bed installed!

Vanna White, Valentines Weekend 2015. Walls freshly up, original utility sink ratchet-strapped to the floor, and version 1 of our bed installed!

Cedar Plank Installation

There are many ways you can choose to install your cedar planks, but for several reasons we decided to drill, bevel, and screw each plank into place with 2-3 anchor points. While this is a significant amount more work than nailing each board into place, you have not only increased durability with the method described below, but you can also take your cedar planks off the walls without destroying them, which is important if you experience a leak or want to make electrical fixes/improvements.

The biggest piece of advice we can offer for this kind of project is to take everything one step at a time and to celebrate along the way. Every piece is unique, so come in with the expectation that this project might require more time than you think. It’ll be worth it once you have the planks installed!

 

What You Need:

  • Tongue and Groove Cedar Planks
  • Electric Drill + Standard Bits
  • Bevel
  • Wood Screws
  • Table Saw
  • Jigsaw
  • Screwdriver
  • Measuring tape
  • Plywood
  • Square Wooden Moulding (like this or something similar)
  • Sand Paper
  • Danish Oil
  • Rags

 

How to Install:

1. Oil your cedar planks. Using Danish Oil or another wood oil, get your planks looking nice up front. Why? The tongue and groove feature of the cedar planks that makes this project possible will also create tiny nooks that are very hard to get into once the wood is installed up on your walls. We used a natural oil finish do allow the organic cedar colors come through.

2. Decide how you would like to arrange your planks. We decided that we wanted the seams on the wall to alternate as much as possible so that there was no aligned crease in the cedar. For the ceiling, we used the same approach but needed to create 1 seam near our fan.

PRO TIP: We hope you never need to remove your planks, but the truth is you might. Make it easier for yourself by creating a labeling system for your planks so you know what order they go in. Write the labels on the backside of your planks before installing. Write yourself added instructions and keep them somewhere in the event you ever need to take your planks off. Trust us, if you ever need to remove your planks, you will thank yourself that you aren’t worrying about accidentally creating a huge cedar plank puzzle!

3. Start with the walls. Create and install each plank one at a time, starting at the bottom of your wall. For each plank, you’ll want to measure, cut, determine drill points, drill pilot holes, drill and bevel the holes, and screw the plank into place. This is the part that takes some time and patience, so take it one plank at a time and enjoy the progress!

The Vanna Project - Van Conversion - Walls Ceiling + Cedar Planks - Tips + Ideas for Your DIY Conversion Van

4. Once your walls are completed, continue on to the ceiling. Begin by creating struts out of plywood to anchor the planks to. Screw the plywood pieces into the ceiling and allow the plywood to fit to the curve of the ceiling.

5. Using the same method as with the walls, install your ceiling planks starting from the center point. For each plank, you’ll want to measure, cut, determine drill points, drill pilot holes, drill and bevel the holes, and screw the plank into place. The back of the van is fairly straight-forward, but the front section has a lot of curvature. We weren’t sure that the planks would work in the front but because of the tongue-and-groove they have some give and can fan out a bit as needed.

6. Finish up the wall-to-ceiling space. You’ll probably have a gap between your walls and ceiling. You can polish this off by purchasing a basic moulding from Home Depot, but we wanted to create one from the cedar planks. Shane spent a lot of time creating these pieces by taking square moulding dowels and cutting them in half diagonally to create triangular mounting pieces. After screwing them into the upper corner of the van’s walls, he installed cedar planks diagonally into the corners, sanding the undersides of the cedar planks as needed to make them fit well. Perhaps the most custom 2 pieces Shane made from the cedar planks were the 2 fin-like shapes he sanded to fit in the triangular corner behind the driver and passenger seats.

The Vanna Project - Van Conversion - Walls Ceiling + Cedar Planks - Tips + Ideas for Your DIY Conversion Van

Bonus: Cable Cover for the Ford Transit

One of the quirks of the Ford Transit is the huge cable bundle running from the front to the rear of the van along the driver’s side. Due to the steel beam placement of the van, it’s not the easiest to run behind the wall, leaving it dangling outside for all to see. I was very excited when Shane came up with an easy solution to hide it

 

What You Need:

  • Nails
  • 2 Cedar Planks
  • Square Wooden Moulding (like this or something similar)
  • Screws
  • Wire Loom
  • Zip Ties

 

How to Install:

1. Cut 2 rails from the square wooden moulding to fit the length of the wall. You’ll be creating a U-shaped cover and these 2 rails will be the legs.

2. Cut enough cedar plank to fit the length of the wall. It should be the same length as the 2 rails.

3. Nail the cedar planks to the 2 rails so that there is a channel through the middle underside of the cedar plank. The channel in the underside middle should be big enough for the cable to fit into.

4. Cut the wire loom to the correct size to cover the cable that runs over the door, and install it with zip ties to keep it in place. We chose a white plastic cable loom so it matched the van’t paint job, but they come in a variety of colors.

5. Install the cedar plank cover by screwing it into the wall over the cable bundle. And enjoy! You’ll never need to see that cable bundle again (fingers crossed).

The Vanna Project - Van Conversion - Walls Ceiling + Cedar Planks - Tips + Ideas for Your DIY Conversion Van

What tips do you have for wall installations? Leave your tips and thoughts in the comments or tag us on Instagram @vannathetransit!