Breadbox to Cedar Chest

Feet outstretched atop a colorful quilt with van doors opened to a stunning scene. We've all seen the photos. A cozy living room with constantly changing wall art. That is #vanlife.

For weeks what we saw in those photos was the walls. Plywood, plastic, lumber, and all manner of other materials nailed, screwed, and glued to mask what was before a giant metal breadbox. How did they attach this? How did they span that? Did they follow or cut that corner? Those were our questions.

Our brains were busy with costs and benefits, theories and complications. Then we saw the cedar. Long thin planks with tapered tongues and squared grooves stacked neatly into white boxes. Flourishes of yellow sapwood and rough, dark knots decorated the planks. It was beautiful. 

That said, we can generate a list of rational reasons for our choice. The cedar planks:

  • resist rot;
  • repel bugs;
  • bend a bit to accommodate the oddities of the van;
  • are very lightweight; and
  • are thin (3/8" thick).

The decision to go with cedar has turned out to be the easiest part of building the ceiling and walls. As we knew but hadn't quite internalized, the cargo area is very irregular. Corners aren't square. Support beams don't jut out the same amount. Many of the "flatish" metal surfaces are studded with holes and welds, making them tricky to use as attachment points.

QUICK LOOK
Time Spent: countless hours 
Materials Cost: $800 (approx.)
Products Used: 
    * Waterlox Marine Sealer
    * metal drill bit (for pilot holes)
    * hole saw (for light holes)
    * Sikaflex 221 (for ceiling studs)
    * #8 self-tapping screws
    * #8 wood screws
    * #8 finishing washers
    * ITC 3" Radiance LED screw-mount lights
Special Tools: 
    * expandable shower curtain rods
    * mitre saw
    * hole saw
Frustration Factor: high

I'll pause here and note that this will be a lengthy post rich with details that may be of interest only if you too are working on a van. If you, dear reader, seek the digest version, here it is: we purchased, we sealed, we cut, we drilled, we screwed (snicker, snicker), we repeated. The results are gorgeous. The effort was greater than we expected. We recommend drilling pilot holes. (Feel free to scroll through the pretty pictures below.)

 Sealing some cedar. We applied marine-grade sealant to the exterior facing side of the cedar planks that line our walls.

Sealing some cedar. We applied marine-grade sealant to the exterior facing side of the cedar planks that line our walls.

Returning to the extended narrative...

We are logging hours spent on the van. For a time, the majority of entries read "seal some cedar." We're applying marine-grade water sealant to one side of our planks so as to prevent damage from the oils in our skin, cooking mishaps, and the cloud of dust and grime that surrounds most climbers.

When possible, we set out to attach planks directly to the metal interior of the van. When necessary, i.e. often, we added wood studs to bring surfaces closer to square. In the end, most planks are attached to a mix of metal and wood.

Most studs we attached with screws. On the ceiling, where there was less space between the interior metal and the actual roof, we used adhesive. We countersunk screws into the studs so as to provide an even surface throughout.

We used standard #8 wood screws to attach to the wood studs and #8 self-tapping screws to attach to the metal beams. The length of the screws varied between 0.75" and 2", depending on the thickness of the stud and the depth to which we could countersink the screw. We used stainless steel finishing washers with all screws securing the cedar planks.

After some trial and error, we can recommend drilling pilot holes into the metal even when using the self-tapping screws. We split a few boards before implementing this practice.

The rear walls--above the wheel wells--required several studs. The stud just inside the rear doors is a 1x1 split into three pieces to better accommodate irregularities in the beam and the curvature of the van wall. The 2x4 studs center and forward are single pieces.

 The first two cedar planks installed. (Note the maple, the lighter and larger piece of wood, will hold the bed frame.)

The first two cedar planks installed. (Note the maple, the lighter and larger piece of wood, will hold the bed frame.)

 We used cedar shims at the interface of our wood studs and the horizontal metal beams. There are two metal beam on each wall, and they jut out different distances from that wall. We removed the tape after adding the screws.

We used cedar shims at the interface of our wood studs and the horizontal metal beams. There are two metal beam on each wall, and they jut out different distances from that wall. We removed the tape after adding the screws.

We hadn't intended to place the two middle studs but found that they were needed to prevent bowing of the planks. We anticipate sitting on the bed and leaning against this wall to read, and so the planks need to feel solid along this wall.

Shims lurk behind many planks. More than once we discovered odd angles and small discrepancies in height between adjacent beams. We bought bundles of shims, treated them all, and had them on hand when paneling the walls. Most often we secured the shims in place and screwed directly through all layers--cedar, shim, stud--and into the van walls.

The ceiling required only one set of studs at the very rear of the van. Initially we cut a single stud out of a 1x1. Before attaching, we cut the stud into three pieces, two shorter for the ends and a slightly longer piece for the middle. This allows the board to better follow the contour of the roof. 

The fan presents the biggest challenge on the ceiling, and so we started there. The fan itself is framed in wood and is slightly inset from the metal beams in the ceiling. A plastic "garnish ring" slides into the fan assembly and is screwed to the ceiling material.

 Look at the bottom right corner of the fan. Two planks meet under the garnish ring here.

Look at the bottom right corner of the fan. Two planks meet under the garnish ring here.

First, we ran a continuous plank from the rear of the cargo space to the front of the fan on the driver's side. Next, we ran three planks on either end of the fan, from the rear of the van to the fan, and from fan to the front of the van.

Of course the width of the planks can't be evenly divided into the width of the fan, and so we needed to cut a plank to wrap around the fan. Because we don't have a jigsaw, we devised a way to do this with an "L" cut at the end of one board. The photo below probably offers the best explanation.

On either side of the fan, we staggered the connection points of the planks. We worried that a continuous line of screws might make the van feel even more like a submarine. Also, we found it difficult to get two planks to stay perfectly flush at the ends where they meet. Staggering the boards scatter these imperfections, making them less noticeable.

 A shower curtain rod secures a soon to be installed plank (R) against an already installed plank (L, with screw). The scrap of plank keeps the newly placed planks aligned during installation.

A shower curtain rod secures a soon to be installed plank (R) against an already installed plank (L, with screw). The scrap of plank keeps the newly placed planks aligned during installation.

Shower curtain rods were essential equipment for this job. Originally we bought them to hold tight the ceiling studs while the glue dried. Then we used them repeatedly when installing the ceiling.

It takes two sets of hands to drill pilot holes and set the screws in the planks. The rods keep the other end of a plank in place while we work. They also help hold planks in alignment when one plank spans the junction of two other planks.

To cut holes for the lights, we used a 2 1/4 inch hole saw attached to our power drill. (More on our lighting plan to come.) You know the bit is almost through the plank when the smoke swirls up from below the board. Other than the fire hazard, this task proved simple. Brian will write elsewhere about the electrical system, but I'll note here that we used 3" recessed, screw-mount LED lights, and they were easy to install.

 Shower curtain rods secure the first ceiling plank as Brian searches for the right drill bit for pilot holes.

Shower curtain rods secure the first ceiling plank as Brian searches for the right drill bit for pilot holes.

After much back and forth, we've decided to cover the rear, lower walls with plastic panels from the manufacturer. When the van is finished, this area will be (a) under the bed and (b) subject to lots of wear and tear as we push bins and gear in and out of the storage area. The plastic isn't so pretty, but it better fits the requirements of that region. Plus, there are factory holes in the metal beams and matching holes in the panel. It was refreshing to hold up the plastic, align the pre-punched holes, pop in a few clips, and be done with it.

As you see in the photo below, I'm writing this after we've finished the ceiling and most of the walls. Remaining are (a) the region of the ceiling where we will drill a hole for the solar panel cable, and (b) the walls behind what will be cabinets.  We plan to take the van on a test run or two before building out those components.

 Walls and ceiling (mostly) finished. Gaps left to accommodate hole in roof for solar panel connection and cabinets.

Walls and ceiling (mostly) finished. Gaps left to accommodate hole in roof for solar panel connection and cabinets.

The corners--the junction of the wall with the ceiling--present many challenges. We're still not sure we've solved them all. The wall and ceiling supports jut out different amounts, and the angles at which they meet vary, of course.

Look closely at the photo below, and you'll notice the topmost wall piece has three notches cut to accommodate junctions in the frame. The row above it, the final ceiling plank, is actually several planks, each cut to span the gap between those same junctions. We had hoped to use a single plank to stretch most of the length of the van in that location, but inconsistencies in the van and in our "planking" disallowed that.

 Driver-side rear corner.

Driver-side rear corner.

As shown above, we're left with a somewhat awkward corner bit and some weird shaped areas above the doors. Plans for those involve a jigsaw and trim. Exciting times. Stay tuned!