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The Ultimate Guide to Carpentry for Van Conversions ๐Ÿชš

Woodwork; the most beautiful and challenging of the trades. It is one part of a van conversion that is completely unavoidable. In this article you will learn everything you need to know (and more) about carpentry for campervans. We will go deep on tools, joinery & cabinetry, colorants & finishes, as well as a bunch of tips & tricks! Taking 20 minutes to read this article will save you a lot of time and money down the road!


I'm Shane, I've been teaching people to convert campervans for many years, I'm the author of The Van Conversion Newsletter, the van conversion instructor at Udemy, and the proud owner of a beautiful self-build campervan called Beans. So let's jump in and learn about carpentry for campervans!

Campervan Carpentry

Items linked in this guide are affiliate links. By using these links, you are helping me to continue writing free educational van conversion content!

You can find the full list of van conversion supplies here.


Index

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Tools

You need tools to build your van; If you're not sure which ones are right for you, this section is for you! Tools can be expensive, but they are essential for the job. When it comes to carpentry, it's important to use the right tool for the job (and your skill level).


I have compiled the following list of the most basic woodwork tools you will need for converting a van:


Power tools & bits:

Manual tools:

Clamps:

Rather necessary:

Personal Protective Equipment:


Those are all the tools you will need to build your dream campervan! It might seem a lot, but each of those tools will last you a lifetime and be well worth their weight in the long term.


Now, let's go deeper on a few of those. We will look at why they are useful, how to use them, and some tips and tricks!


Drill / Screwdriver

A combi drill is one of the most important tools you will need for a successful van conversion. These days, you can buy an all-in-one screwdriver + drill.

campervan drill

The anatomy of a combi drill

The head of the drill is known as a chuck. We can insert different bits into the chuck depending on our need.


You will find a series of numbers around the chuck; these numbers let you select the torque when screwing screws. Selecting a torque setting will stop the driver from screwing when you hit a certain resistance. This prevents you from over tightening a screw.


Higher torque number = Higher resistance threshold

How to change drill torque

At the end of the numbers is a drill icon, this setting tells the tool that you are drilling and therefore it should have no max torque.


The speed (RPM) of a drill is usually controlled by pressure on the trigger, but some drills have a speed selector, similar to the torque selector.


Drill bits and Driving bits

Bits are inserted into the chuck of the drill. There are two types of bits:

  • Drilling bits

  • Driving bits (for screws)

Drilling bits

There are 5 primary types of drill bits we need to concern ourselves with, they are:

  • Helical bits - The 'normal' bit for drilling holes

  • Spade - For larger diameter holes

  • Countersink - To countersink screws (make them flush with a surface)

  • Forstner - For installing hinges / dowels

  • Hole saw - For cutting really big holes with precision

Drill bits for van conversions

Other drill bits that can come in useful are:

  • Wire brush drill bit - Removing rust from metal

  • Pocket hole jig - A woodwork jig with a special bit. For driving screws at an angle

Most drill bits you will encounter are made from High Speed Steel (HSS). If the bit has no coating on it (ie. a clear steel color), it should only be used on PVC, thin metal, and softwood. If the bit is black in color, it means it is treated with black oxide and can be used on thicker metal and harder woods.


Driving bits (screw heads)

A modern drill can also be used to drive screws. There are many different driving bits we can use depending on the types of screw we are using.


A quick note on camming out:

Camming out is a process by which a screwdriver slips out of the head of a screw being driven once the torque required to turn the screw exceeds a certain amount. Repeatedly camming out damages the screw, and possibly also the screwdriver, and should be avoided. This is one reason that there are so many types of driving bits... some screw heads cam-out less than others.


Types of driving bits

Flat head:

The original screw head. Super simple, but very easy to cam out (strip)


Flat head bit

Phillips:

The improvement on the flat head - the plus shape makes it cam out less. This is the most common type of screw.

Philips bit

Torx:

One of the most modern types of screws and becoming increasingly popular. They have a strong resistance to camming out, though are usually a bit more expensive.

Torx bit

Other bits that you may come across are:

  • Allen (hex)

  • Robertson (square)

  • Pozidrive (v. similar to the phillips)


Self tapping vs. self drilling screws

A self tapping screw is what we think of as a 'normal' screw. To screw into sheet metal with a 'self-tapper' we need to first drill a pilot hole, then we can screw in the self-tapper. In contrast a self drilling screw has a drill bit on the end that allows it to punch through sheet metal without having to first drill a pilot hole.


Self drilling screws are often used to attach tongue & groove or plywood panelling to the back or side doors of your van.

Self tapping vs self drilling

Flat vs. pan head screws

A flat screw (fig. e. below) is the most common type of screw you will use. There is no need to countersink a flat screw as it should countersink itself.


In contrast, a pan head screw (fig. a) has a rounded head. In order to get this type of screw flush with a surface we would need to countersink it.

Types of screw heads

How many screws do you need for a van conversion?

Though it varies from van to van, most conversions will require upwards of 1500 screws!


Bolts

Bolts are used for fastening two objects together when you expect there to be shear force. Shear forces is the pull of two planes in opposing directions.

Shear force on a bolt

Screws are not designed to take shear force.


One place in a van conversion where we use a bolt is to attach the wooden stud framing to the structural support beams on the roof. We screw tongue and groove cladding / plywood into the stud framing, putting a lot of weight on it and adding sheer force. Therefore we should use a bolt rather than a screw.

Bolt vs screw van conversion

While you can get bits for a drill that will drive bolts, it is more common to use a ratchet / socket wrench.


Drilling to a certain depth

Sometimes you need to drill to a specific depth. To do this, you can simply place some electrical tape on the drill bit at the point you intend to drill to.

How to drill to a certain depth

Circular saw

A circular saw is used to cut wood in straight lines - it is one of the tools you will use most often in your van conversion.

Circular saw

There are many types of blades you can get for a circular saw (like any power tool). As a general rule of thumb: Large and widely spaced teeth will cut faster but give a rougher finish.


In the image below, the blade on the far left is known as a pointed-tooth blade and is the most common blade you will use. It cuts most wood easily and leaves a reasonable finish.

Circular saw blades

No matter what blade you use, you must ensure it is sharp! A dull blade is not only dangerous, but it also leaves a very poor finish on the wood. From personal experience, I have badly charred some nice wood from using a dull circular saw blade.


Jigsaw

If you could use only one tool for your entire van conversion, it would have to be the jigsaw. This miracle tool does so, so, so much. While it can cut wood in a straight line, what it really excels at is cutting curves.

Jigsaw

A jigsaw with large and widely spaced teeth will cut faster but give a rougher finish.


Note: If you plan to cut metal with your jigsaw (eg. when installing a window), you need a metal cutting jigsaw blade.


Router

A router is an extremely useful, multi-purpose tool. Yes, it could be considered optional for a van build; but with so much it can do, I think it is an excellent purchase.

Router tool

Caution: Whilst we must be cautious with all power tools, we need to be extra cautious with this one! If your finger gets caught in the router, it will be completely eaten up with nothing left to re-attach.


In a nutshell, a router cuts a channel in a straight line.


There are two common uses for a router in a van conversion:

  1. Cabinetry - building cabinets & fitting shelves

  2. Finishing the edges of wood and making them look beautiful

Building shelves with dovetail joints using a router
Building shelves with dovetail joints using a router

There are many different bits you can use in a router to get the desired effect.

The most common bits are:

  • Rabbet

  • Flush trim

  • Roundover

  • Straight cut

Router bits

In fact, it's quite amazing just how ornate router bits can get!

Beautiful router bits

How to use a router:

  • The collet holds the router bit - you need wrenches to replace a route bit

  • You can set the depth of router by adjusting the height of the base

  • Oftentimes a router bit will come with a ball bearing - this allows it to move along the wood smoothly. The ball bearing is located at either the top or bottom of the bit depending on your needs.

  • Most of the time you will want to use a 'fence' with your router - this allows you to do straight cuts. A fence is an attachment that frequently comes with the router.

  • To achieve a deep cut, use a series of shallow passes rather than just one deep pass. It will look better and put a lot less wear on your router.

  • Run the router up the right side of the wood you are cutting. This is known as 'conventional milling' and gives the best results.

Conventional milling with a router

Plane

A plane is another 'optional-but-very-useful' tool. It is used for removing rough surfaces on wood and for reducing it to size. In a van conversion it is often used for making wooden studs flush with the metal interior of the van.

Plane tool

You can go deep down the rabbit hole with these beautiful tools. They are tricky to use, but very satisfying.

Planing the frame for the fan
Planing the frame for the fan


Other tools

The combi drill, circular saw, jigsaw, and router are the main tools you will use for a van conversion. However, there are some other useful tools you should know about:


Woodworking bench:

A woodworking bench is 100% necessary. This is a solid & sturdy surface upon which you will do all your cutting. You can buy one or build one yourself.


Mitre saw:

A mitre saw is very nearly a necessary tool - though it doesn't quite make the list; It is high up on the 'optional' list. A mitre saw allows you to accurately make angled cuts in wood (eg. 45 degree cuts for mitered butt joints).


You can get around buying a mitre saw by using a speed square or a mitre block.


Table saw:

A table saw is a nice luxury when converting a van. If you are an avid woodworker, it is highly recommended. It is essentially a woodworking bench with a built-in circular saw. It allows you to quickly and easily make accurate straight cuts.


Power tool safety

Power tools are mega dangerous. Here is some safety advice (please, please read this):

  • Always wear eye & ear protection

  • Don't wear loose clothing or jewelry

  • Do not cut anywhere near the power cable

  • Unplug the power tool before making adjustments

  • Always clamp the wood you are cutting securely

  • Only use sharp blades


Cutting wood - What you wished you knew before you began

Nominal vs. actual dimensions

Did you know that the dimensions listed on a piece of lumber are not the real dimensions? When you take a measuring tape out, you will find that the wood is probably ~1/2" shorter than listed. The listed dimension is known as the nominal dimension, the real dimension is known as the actual dimension.


Part of the reason for this is that when wood dries after being felled, it shrinks quite considerably.

Nominal vs actual wood dimensions

It is important to keep this fact in mind when doing the carpentry for your van conversion.


Kerf

Kerf is the width of the blade of the tool you are using. It is the difference between the left and right side of the teeth. It is important to consider the kerf when cutting wood as it will detract from the wood.

Kerf

Many power tools have a kerf marker on the base plate so you know where the kerf will cut to. Depending if you cut on the right or left side of a piece of lumber, you can decide which side the kerf eats into.

Blade kerf

Straight cutting

Being able to cut in a straight line is very important in carpentry. There are three techniques we can employ to cut in a straight line.


Speed square

You can use a speed square to draw a straight line with a pencil.

If you want to cut a wooden stud in a straight line, this is your best bet. Make sure you mark a straight line on two sides of the lumber when cutting to ensure you don't drift off course when cutting.

Using a speed square on wood

Chalk line

If you need to cut a straight line on a bigger surface (eg. plywood or board insulation), a chalk line is the way to do it. A chalk line is a piece of twine covered in chalk that you snap down onto a piece of wood to make a straight line.

Chalk line

Fence

Many power tools comes with a fence pre-installed (or allow for one to be attached). It is a metal runner that keeps you in a straight line when cutting.

Circular saw fence

If you do not have a fence attachment, you can DIY it by clamping down a straight edge which you will follow with the tool.

Fence jig