Building cabinets in a Sprinter camper van conversion

Posted on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016 in Van Building

Materials list


As my van build progressed, I kept putting off the ceiling cabinets as I knew they were going to be a daunting task. I had no idea how I was going to accommodate the two different roof rib structures all the while keeping things in perfect alignment.

Planning

My original thought was to have a row of low-profile ceiling cabinets on both sides of the van. The driver’s side cabinets would span the entire length of the van to provide storage both above the kitchen and above the bed. The passenger’s side cabinets would only span the short distance over the bed.

As my build progressed (and perhaps my deadline loomed), I decided to hold off on the passenger’s side row and only build the driver’s side cabinets. This, I figured, would provide adequate storage for kitchen and closet but not make the interior of the van too cramped. The deadline I mentioned was when my girlfriend finished her school year as a teacher on June 5th and we hit the road for the summer. I figured, if anything, I could add the second row of cabinets once we returned.

As for cabinet specifics, again, I originally wanted doors that opened upward. But after seeing a number of other van builds without doors, I decided to go that route for the time being to save myself time, money and weight. I would just leave the cabinets open and use curtains to hide what was inside.

I wanted to use maple plywood for the fronts and repeat the same pine plank construction I used on the ceiling on the bottom of the cabinets.

Templating

You can see in the following photo from the insulation phase that the ceiling consists of five ribs (the forward most rib is semi-hidden) with one of those being a different style. I figured if I could affix the structural component of the cabinets to these ribs, I could get away with using a lot less framing material and still build a very sturdy cabinet.

Ribs
Ribs

To conform my cabinet component to these ribs, I created two different templates out of cardboard. There as nothing fancy about my process, simply take cardboard and scissors and keep trimming the template until it fits into place.

(I don’t have a photo of the template I used, but down below you’ll see the wood component which was cut from the template, so just envision that but as a piece of cardboard and you’ll have it!)

Another obstacle I ran into was figuring out how to make the cabinets level and square. If you’ve spent any time trying to build something in a van, you’ll know that there is no flat and level surface to be found. The walls are curved, the ceiling is curved, the floor is flat but I had no perfectly level surface to park on.

My solution to this was to create a leveling guide that spanned the entire width of the van. In the above photo, you can see horizontal wall structures about a foot below the ceiling that run from front to back. These are identical on both sides of the van. I found the straightest piece of wood I had lying around and cut it down so that it would span the width of the van with each end resting on the horizontal wall component. There I had my leveling guide.

With my template and leveling guide in place, I could then proceed to define the bottom and front of my cabinets. There was nothing fancy here, either. I just put my template in place and trimmed the bottom of it where I wanted the bottom of by cabinet, making sure this cut was parallel with the leveling guide. Then I squared off the front and trimmed it to size. I now had template that was an exact cross cut of my cabinet.

Building

For the structural component I would attach to each ceiling rib, I used 3/4” MDF board. This would provide a sturdy platform to build upon and also allow plenty of thickness to use pocket hole screws to attach the component to the ceiling rib.

Using my two templates, I cut out my five pieces. They fit the ceiling perfectly. Score! I then used my pocket hole jig to drill out spots for six screws per component.

To get each component in place, it was choreographed dance consisting of positioning the component in place on the ceiling rib, clamping it on to the leveling guide I made earlier to ensure the piece was sitting perfectly square, pre-drilling each of the six holes into the rib of the van, then finally screwing it into place.

After more hours than I care to count, I had all components into place!

Cabinet frame
Cabinet frame

From here, the rest of the process seemed simple. The next step was to put on the cabinet fronts.

As I mentioned before, I planned to use maple plywood for my cabinetry. I chose 1/2” plywood as a weight savings over the typical 3/4”. I planned to construct the face with two very long horizontal pieces spanning front to back, then six vertical pieces to sit over the frame components installed earlier.

Ah ha! If you’re following along closely, you’ll notice the discrepancy between the number of framing components I made earlier (five) to the number I just mentioned (six). Let me explain. The cabinet would, indeed, span exactly five ceiling ribs – the front one being where the cab meets the cargo area and the remaining four continuing back.

Ideally, there would be six ribs with the final one being at the rear doors. There is a sort of rib at the rear doors, but it it almost entirely overlapped by the rear door in the closed position. Therefore, this rib is almost useless to me. So in constructing my cabinets, I did continue them all the way to the rear, but the very back does not end on a rib, it sort of floats out there in space. I then used a very simplified template to cut this end cap piece. I did end up adding a bit of structural support to this end cap by extending a metal bracket I found at Home Depot from the end cap to that rear rib.

Okay, back on track.

I purchased a very beautiful piece of white maple plywood and ripped it into two-inch stock on the table saw. This process was quite a bit more nerve racking than I like as keeping a whole piece of plywood straight on an old rust table saw for the entire eight foot length is quite a challenge. I conscripted the help of a few friends for this process.

With my two-inch stock in hand, I was ready to chop it to size and screw it together with my handy pocket hole jig.

Cabinet face
Cabinet face

With the help of a friend again, I managed to get the face lifted carefully into place and tacked to the frame.

Cabinet face 2
Cabinet face 2

Once I was happy with the positioning, I tacked it on further and used L-brackets from the back side to keep the face from rattling off on some bumpy road in the middle of nowhere.

With the face in place, finishing was simply a matter of cutting more pine planks to size and attaching them to the bottom.

Cabinet bottom
Cabinet bottom
Cabinet finished
Cabinet finished

The final details for the cabinets are the curtains. I will write this up in a separate post as it was my introduction to sewing and I think others may benefit from my lessons learned.

Until then, Cheers!