Not Your Plumber's Van

What’s the difference between a plumber’s work van and a #vanlife adventure-mobile?  Better scenery and a bed.  We’ll be working on the scenery later.  For now, we’ve taken care of the bed.

Our requirements were pretty simple this time.  We wanted the bed platform large enough for a queen size mattress, high enough to store a lot of stuff under it, but low enough for us to sit up comfortably (remember, we’re really tall).  Plus bonus points for a design that could transform part of the bed platform into a table and seating area.

Materials Cost: $1,500 (approx.)
Products Used: 
    * 80/20 15 Series Aluminum Extrusions
Special Tools: 
    * Miter Saw
    * Diablo saw blade by Freud (D1080N)
    * Astro 1442 13" Nut/Thread Hand Riveter Kit
Frustration Factor: Medium

As usual, we scoured the internet for blog posts, message boards and Instagram feeds for layout ideas.  After checking out lots of options we decided to go with a fairly typical platform design at the rear of the van.  A 7-foot long platform spanning the full width of the van would provide ample room for a queen size mattress.  For our beta-test version we’re going with just a flat platform, but we have a design idea to make the forward two feet of the platform convert into a table in the middle with seats facing each other from the sides of the van. 

While looking for design ideas, I stumbled across a post in one of the Sprinter forums about 80/20 Aluminum extrusions (a strange word that apparently just means a long piece of metal).  The self-described “industrial erector set” looked fantastic.  It was strong, light weight and easy to customize into an infinite number of configurations.  We decided to make this the main building material supporting the bed platform.

We started with two 7-foot long pieces of 80/20 from their 15 Series – 1.5 inches wide and 3 inches tall.  These would be bolted to the wall to form rails as the foundation of the bed platform.  Our first big decision was how high to set these rails.  Originally, I planned to bolt the rails directly to the Van’s side-walls using rivnuts into the main crossbeam that runs horizontal across the back of the van about 3 feet above the floor.  However, after several mock ups using a big wooden exercise box, we concluded that would be too high.  So we bought two solid maple boards, bolted those into the walls’ crossbeams with rivnuts and then bolted the aluminum rails to the maple boards a few inches lower.  

A quick side note about rivnuts…  They are awesome.  We used them multiple times in the van, mostly in the existing holes.  After some research on the internet, I discovered the hex shaped holes in the van’s cross beams are 11mm wide and intended for M8 size hex-shaped twist-resistant rivnuts.  You can find these at McMaster Carr, but we actually just went with standard 5/16 rivnuts bought on Amazon.  I was really worried about how to install them at first because I kept seeing expensive pneumatic tools on the internet.  Luckily, I found a newsgroup post about a manual tool from Astro (Model 1442) that worked just great for about $70.

With the rails solidly attached to the walls, we then spread four 1.5 inch square beams of aluminum across the van between the rails.  We bought these pieces sized to 6 feet long but had to trim about an inch off of each to make them fit.  Our miter saw cut through the aluminum quite easily using a Diablo blade from Freud (part number D1080N).  It makes a huge mess, though.  Make sure you have a plan to contain the metal dust.

The four beams are sturdy enough to support the bed without needing any support legs so we have tons of open storage space under the bed.  However, in anticipation of our future convertible table / seats design, we added support legs down to the floor under the two front beams.  These legs will also serve as attachment points to make some drawers and shelves at the front of the bed.

With the aluminum skeleton in place, we moved on to cover it with wood for the actual platform supporting the mattress.  Most people just use solid plywood for their bed platforms, but Andrea had the great idea to incorporate open slats into the design to improve airflow under the mattress and cut down on the chances of mold or other gross stuff growing under there.  So we created a hybrid design with open slats in the middle and solid plywood on the sides.  We fastened the wood to the aluminum beams using L brackets from 80/20.  

One lesson we learned pretty quickly after driving around town was the wood rattles like crazy on top of the aluminum beams.  Rather than use a ton of extra L brackets and bolts to secure the wood everywhere, I found 80/20 makes a rubber piece designed to pop into the slot in the middle of the beams and cover the metal.  Filling each of the 4 beams with this rubber eliminated the rattle with minimal work.

We’ve had the first version of the bed platform in place for several weeks now.  It’s survived three short test trips, keeping us securely off the ground and comfortable on our mattress on top.