Building the walls and ceiling in a Sprinter camper van conversion

Posted on Friday, Feb. 05, 2016 in Van Building

Materials List

If you’ve been following along, you may have noticed I’ve gotten a little out of order. In my post about insulation, you can see that I already began the walls. As I was building, I didn’t necessarily follow a strict order, nor did I ever seem to finish one thing before moving on to the next. I’ll just say that the walls, ceiling and floor were more or less completed around the same time before moving on to building furniture. And even the ceiling wasn’t totally completed until nearly the end of the build.

Building the walls

This section will be relatively brief. I will say this, the lessons learned on the walls will be a little more thoughtful than the install itself. When I do another build, my wall choices will be much different! Keep reading below to see my thoughts on that.

When planning out the walls, I had a couple big decisions stump me for awhile: color & material. I settled on color first, white. I wanted to keep the inside of the van very clean and bright. As for material, I initially thought I would install some sort of plastic-based layer – I had even purchased some thin plastic sheeting from Home Depot with the intention of glueing it over a wood surface.

At the last minute, I went a different direction – I would install 1/8” plywood and paint it white. The primary reason for my switcharoo was cost. The plastic sheeting was something like $30 per sheet and I would need several to cut into all the shapes I needed. The plain plywood I think was $9 per sheet, but then I had the additional costs of the paint, probably another $30 (sorry I don’t have this number at the moment).

The build of the walls was a very straight forward process of planning out my 4x8 sheets so that they would align with the metal wall studs (the ribs of the van). I planned it so I would have as few seams in the main visible areas as possible.

Danny wall My enlisted help giving me an assist with attaching the wall panels

In doing the curvy bits around the wheel wells, I first cut out cardboard templates to shape then traced those on to my plywood.

To attach the plywood to the wall of the van, I predrilled directly into the metal studs and used wide-headed sheet metal screws for attachment.

Once all the plywood was installed, I primed and gave them three coats of white paint with a fair bit of sanding between coats.

Wall paint One coat done, two more to go

Walls lessons learned

Now here’s the meat of the story. I said earlier I would absolutely do my walls differently the next time around. Here’s why:

The painting process to get a nice finish ended up eating several days of time and costing quite a bit by the time I factored in the cans of primer and paint. This is time I didn’t have to spare since I was on a very tight time crunch.

Part of my decision making came as a result of not finding the exact material I desired for wall covering. My primary source of materials was Home Depot and their selection of durable white wall covering was limited. They had a few choices: shiny white MDF (sort of like a whiteboard material), super-thin plastic wall board which would have to be applied to a sublayer with adhesive, or thicker FRP wall panels like you see in industrial restrooms.

These choices left a lot to be desired. I wanted something durable, so the first one was out. I didn’t want to have to deal with days of glueing, so the second one was out. And I didn’t like that restroom look, so the third one was out. I initially thought they were all out due to cost, but I’ve since reevaluated my thoughts on this given how much time I spent on the plywood plus paint route I took.

So what’s my lesson learned? Next time I will spend more time sourcing better materials. I live in Las Vegas and there’s one thing we do not have a shortage of and that’s construction supply shops. I know there is something out there that will suit my needs, I just need to find a local source for it.

Building the ceiling

Now here’s the fun part! Along with the flooring, the ceiling was another one of the most gratifying parts of this build. I often still lay in bed staring at the ceiling and marvel as just how cool it is.

I knew early on exactly what I wanted to do with my ceiling and that thought never wavered throughout my planning process. The material I wanted to use was 1/4” thick, 3” wide tongue & groove pine planks.

Initially, sourcing this material was a problem. I think I found one package of the stuff at a nearby home depot, but that was it. I checked probably four other stores in town and nothing. No one even know they sold such a product. I kept trying store after store as I was working on the earlier stages, but was quickly becoming discouraged.

Then I found it! I happened to be searching for something unrelated in a Lowes on the far side of town and caught a glimpse of the 1/4” pine planks I’d been searching for. I bought their entire stock.

Pine plank
Pine plank

Installing this stuff is pretty easy, just tedious time consuming. I started from the exact center as to ensure my roof vent was perfectly framed by the pine planks. I measured the center point on every ceiling rib from front to back so I could keep everything going in the same direction. Every slat was cut to begin and end on a ceiling rib and each adjacent rib was offset so that no two adjacent seam would line up with each other.

If there is one day you can coax a friend into helping you, this is the day. Finagling the tongues and grooves together across the entire length of a long slat while pre-drilling your hole into the steel ceiling rib then installing a screw proved to be quite the solo challenge.

The ceiling process itself was very quick, but mine took forever as I waited until I built in the ceiling cabinetry to finish installing the pine planks. The biggest hiccup I had was figuring out how to round that dang ceiling corner! See my lesson learned below for how I would do it if I repeat this process some day.

What I ended up doing was very difficult and did not result in the perfect finish (though still very acceptable). The basis of the issue is the ceiling corner was a very small radius, though not square. I needed to find a way to cover this curved section with my chosen pine planks.

My first idea was to fabricate a wooden shim to smooth out the corner radius a bit. This would have worked, but it took too much away from the ceiling height in the corners. At this point I had my bed built, so when I sat in the bed and leaned up against the wall, this shim made it just low enough to bonk my head.

The idea that ended up working was to rip my ceiling planks into thirds, lay them next to each other with a bit of a gap and staple plastic strips across the three planks on the back. This formed a flexible slat that would conform to the corner radius and give me the maximum possible head room. Remember how I mentioned you could use a friend here? Imagine trying to fit a wiggly, floppy slat to a curved corner over an 8-foot stretch all the while trying to get the tongue and groove to line up. Then holding all of that still enough to drill and screw. After an hour, I finally ended up calling a friend over to assist.

Ceiling corner
Ceiling corner

Finishing the ceiling was a breeze process of sanding with 220 grit and applying two coats of finish.

Ceiling finished The finished product, months after completion.

Note: While using the pine planks produced a lot of waste since I had to trim each one to start and end on a ceiling rib, I came up with a few fun uses for the leftover bits. Sliding door

Ceiling lessons learned

Ceiling corner

Months after I installed my ceiling, I stumbled upon a solution that someone else had come up with. It was so obvious that it was frustrating I didn’t do it. I’ll let the following illustration do the talking.

Drawing This plan also leaves a very accessible cable trough running front to rear.


As you know, I live in Las Vegas. Here, we have a humidity level approaching negative numbers. After getting my van all finished out and heading north, I quickly learned how much wood swells when it breathes in a little humidity. Nothing ever warped permanently or broke, but there were a couple months in there where I continually prodded at the swelled-up ceiling in worry. After returning south, all settled perfectly back into place.

If I chose to work with this material again, and I’m sure I will, I may look into humidifying it first. Perhaps locking it in a room with a humidifier for a couple weeks in advance would do the trick? Sure, things might sit a little loose once the wood loses it’s humidity, but I think I could remedy any rattles easily.