Campervan cladding; The single step that takes your van from nothing to something. Cladding a van is definitely an emotionally rewarding process. In this article we will learn everything about campervan cladding: from the roof to the campervan wall panels. We will look at how to clad awkwards places like the side and back doors as well as how to build a campervan floor. We will also look at how to install campervan carpet.
I'm Shane, I've been teaching people to convert campervans for years; I'm the author of Roaming Home; The Comprehensive Guide for Converting Your Van Into a Campervan,writer of The Van Conversion Newsletter, instructor of The Van Conversion Course over at Udemy. And full-time vanlifer for 4 years!
Now let's jump in and learn about campervan cladding!
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Design the campervan first
Before hopping into campervan carpentry, it is essential that you mock it up on paper or with CAD software first! Here is a full guide on campervan design that will help you get started. I highly recommend Vanspace3D for designing your campervan interior - it's an awesome drag n' drop CAD tool specifically for van conversions.
Campervan Cladding vs. Plywood
Broadly speaking, there are two options you can use for panelling the walls and roof of your campervan: cladding or plywood.
In our 2023 study, we found that the slight majority of people choose to ply-line their van, rather than cladding it with tongue & groove.
Tongue and groove cladding
Cladding a campervan gives a more rustic look than ply lining. It takes longer to install (and costs a little more), but is well worth the effort for the superb finish.
There are many different styles of cladding, including clapboard, dutch lap. beaded lap, shiplap, and the list goes on and on...
For van conversions, most people choose to go with tongue & groove. It is easy to get hold of and easy to install. The cladding just pops together.
A ply lined panelling typically gives a more modern feel. It is normally quicker and cheaper to install than cladding.
There are four grades of plywood: A, B, C, and D. In that order, they go from the highest quality to the lowest quality. Lower grades than A will start to have some knots / point of weakness.
'Marine plywood' is considered to be of very high grade - it is cross-laminated (each ply is perpendicular to the last) making it capable of withstanding the elements better.
Number of ply:
Plywood consists of veneers of wood that are glued together.
3-ply is the most common for campervan wall panels.
People often opt to use decorative plywood (also known as veneered or furniture plywood) for campervan wall panels. This gives a finish that looks great and provides a lot of resistance to wear and tear. It typically has a glossy texture. It is the standard in professionally built campervans and caravans.
If you choose to use regular plywood over decorative plywood, make sure you finish the wood to protect it! Typically this is done with paint.
A great benefit of ply lining a van (particularly with decorative plywood) is that it acts as moisture barrier - a protective layer to keep your sacred insulation dry! You can read all about insulation and moisture barriers here.
NOTE: Do not use MDF or particle board for ply lining a campervan. They are brittle, heavy, and susceptible to moisture.
Other types of campervan cladding
Tongue and groove cladding or ply lining are the two most common techniques employed in van conversions. However self-builds are all about creativity! With that in mind...
Scrap wood / Pallet wood
Some people opt to panel their van using scrap wood or pallet wood. I salute thee. However you must beware with this method!
This type of wood typically has a high moisture content and will warp over time as it dries. This can frequently lead to cracks in the wood appearing, particularly if there is a cross batten restricting movement.
Scrap wood or pallet wood also tends to be very heavy, something not to be overlooked when building a campervan.
The final word of caution is that scrapwood can frequently contain wood worm, the wood-eating larva of many species of beetle.
However, if you manage to avoid the pitfalls above, a scrap wood van can give a very bohemian look.
Slatted cladding is pretty rare, but when it is pulled off well, it looks incredible!
How to install campervan cladding
Screws vs. Cladding clips
Campervan cladding is typically attached to wooden furring (battens of timber that run down the length of the van).
Cladding can be attached to the furring using two methods: screws or cladding clips.
Screws are the simplest method, you simply screw the tongue and groove to the furring with a self tapping screw.
If you really don't want the screwhead to be visible in your campervan, you could opt to use cladding clips. They are a nifty way to install campervan cladding. However, it should be noted that this method adds double the time to an already lengthy process!
An alternative to using cladding clips, while still hiding the head of the screw could be to countersink the screw and use wood plugs to hide the hole.
What size tongue and groove to use
8 to 10mm tongue and groove cladding is typically used for van conversions.
How to save weight
Weight is typically at the forefront of many a van converter's mind. There are a few things you can do when cladding a van to reduce weight.
Tip 1: Firstly, and somewhat intuitively... Don't use heavy wood to clad! This means pallet wood, hardwood, laminboard, among others.
Tip 2: Go as thick as you need, but no thicker. 8mm tongue and groove or 3-ply plywood will do.
Tip 3: Don't install campervan wall panels where they won't be seen. ie. you could skip cladding behind the kitchen sink or inside storage lockers.
When cladding, it is important to stagger the joints in the wood. It provides a stronger campervan wall panel and looks way better!
On the topic of aesthetics, the cladding on the roof, floor, and walls should all run in the same direction - typically this is up the length of the van. This looks a lot better than cladding that is straight in one place and side on in others.
Before hopping into the cladding... If you want your van conversion to look really great, you will want to install campervan carpet first (also known as autocarpet)! This will give a really nice finish to any exposed metal or ugly surfaces that the cladding won't cover. Campervan carpet is a thin, stretchy carpet that is very common in cars.
Campervan carpet is stuck to a surface using spray contact adhesive. After you have stuck the carpet down, you can remove air bubbles by using a squeegee tool. Make sure you use a mask and gloves when apply spray adhesive!
Take your time when cutting the campervan carpet, a patchy job will be very evident when it is finished (from personal experience...). Better to measure well and cut right.
Campervan wall panels
Before installing campervan wall panels, you should have already insulated your van.
The cladding for the campervan wall panels is attached to wooden furring that runs vertically up the walls of the van. There will normally be three levels of furring (due to the curvature of the van): lower, middle, and upper.
The furring is screwed into the metal of the van using self-drilling screws or self tapping screws (requires drilling a pilot hole first). I actually prefer the second way (though it takes longer) as the screws are more sturdy once installed. I used 2X1 furring.
You should start cladding from the bottom and work your way up to the roof. Here are a front and side plan of how the cladding should look on your wall:
Note: There are certain places in the campervan cladding where electrical wiring will need to be fed through. The most common appliances you will need to account for are the Solar charge controller & monitor, plug sockets, dimmer switches, thermostat, and leisure batteries. Before installing the cladding, make sure you pre-cut these in the wood.
Note: Installing tongue and groove can be tricky at times - it's finicky business when the cladding just won't slot together! A rubber mallet makes the job a lot easier - just lightly tap the cladding and they will pop together.
Campervan ceiling cladding
After you have finished cladding the campervan wall panels, next up is the ceiling!
You will find 4-5 metal structural support beams running up the length of your van. The wooden furrings will be bolted to these support beams. Drill into the metal support beams on each side of the metal so that we can slot a bolt through. Drill a hole in the metal of size M6 or M8.
Drill the same sized hole (M6/M8) in the appropriate location on the timber furring and slot a long M6/M8 bolt through the wood and metal. Screw a nut on to secure it in place.
Note: Use a bolt running right through, not a screw.
After you have installed the roof cladding, you will notice gaps on either side when the walls and roof meet. You can cover this gap in a really tasteful manner by using stripwood (also known as decorative timber). Strip wood is simply lengths of thin wood that is sometimes shaped ornately (manufacturer has used a fancy router bit)
Campervan door panelling
Cladding the back and side doors of a campervan is a little different to the roof, walls, and floor. Instead of attaching the cladding to wooden furring, we instead screw the cladding directly into the metal of the van.
This can be done using self-drilling screws or self tapping screws (requires drilling a pilot hole first). I opted to use self-drilling screws in my van conversion, but in retrospect I would have preferred self-tapping screws as the screws are more sturdy once installed.
The majority of the work for installing a campervan floor is actually done in the insulation phase (the floor furring, insulation, and sub-floor). So all that is left for us to do is to install the floorboards!
By a country mile, your best bet for installing a campervan floor is to use laminate flooring. Laminate flooring is commonly used in houses and you can pick it up at most DIY shops. Laminate floor is very easy to install (tongue and groove style), it is heavy duty, scratch proof, and waterproof. In my opinion it is a must.
To install the laminate campervan floor, you just need to squirt some wood glue on the subfloor and then stick down the laminate on top. Put some heavy weights on it overnight to seal the deal.
I chose a darker color wood for my campervan floor and I love it!
After you have finished cladding your van you will need to apply some finish to protect it. This is normally done at the tail end of the build, once all the furniture has been installed. You can learn all about wood finishes and colorants here.
I personally used Danish oil on all tongue and groove in the van. I applied it in 3 layers using a microfiber cloth. Leave 24 hours between each coat. There is a lot of off-gassing when applying finishing oil, so it is important that keep the van well ventilated when using it and wear a mask!
And that's all there is to know about campervan cladding!
Don't forget to subscribe to The Van Conversion Newsletter for everything you need to get started with your own van conversion (I'll send you a free wiring diagram when you join).
If you're looking for some guidance with your van conversion, you might be interested in Roaming Home; The Comprehensive Guide for Converting Your Van Into a Campervan. In the 380-page book (or ebook), you'll learn directly from me how to convert a van into your dream home - no prior experience needed!
Until next time,