Yep! That’s a van. A plain white cargo van. Looks kinda dull, doesn’t it? For me, it was the culmination of many years of saving, planning, researching, and dreaming. At long last, I had taken the first step toward van life, and it felt great! That is, until I looked in the back of the van and realized just how much work it was going to take to turn this empty box into a comfortable, functional, and tiny living space.
I chose the 1500 low roof cargo van instead of the high roof version because I’m 5’7″ tall and can still stand upright (just barely now that she’s finished) and didn’t want to deal with the extra height for greater ease of driving, parking and avoiding wind issues. This is the medium 136″ wheel base, making it very easy to maneuver and easily fit into regular sized parking spaces. And, it looks just like a plain work van. That was important for stealth reasons. I’ll get into that discussion in later posts.
When I showed the van to my parents, my mother laughed and said I should name it Gypsy because I planned to travel the world as a nomad. The name was fitting and kinda stuck. Gypsy didn’t earn the latter part of her name until later. Keep reading.
I spent a copious amount of time watching YouTube videos, reading blogs, and sketching out the interior design of the van. I got so many great ideas from other Van Lifers and am eternally grateful for their knowledge and willingness to share and help newbies like me. Once I had the design arranged, making sure I had the real estate in the van to accommodate my plan, I thought I had it all figured out. But, nothing goes according to plan. I should have known that based on life experiences. Yet, I was so excited about this venture that I dove head first without really having a clue how I was going to bring Gypsy to life. There was so much to consider: electrical, framing, flooring, walls, a ceiling, cabinets, a bed – oh my!
Given that I had very little experience working with power tools or building anything (I had finished a bathroom, a basement, and designed a photography studio), I was pretty green. Thankfully, a dear friend and neighbor, who happens to be a fantastic craftsman, signed on to help me turn Gypsy into a genuine home on wheels. Thank you, Jim. You are amazing!
Once the flooring was finished we focused on framing and insulation. I chose Havelock lamb’s wool for my insulation. It’s eco friendly, has a high R insulation value, handles moisture extremely well, and deadens noise quite well. It was the most expensive option, but I believe the best choice for my project.
While Jim was building some of the parts for the custom cabinets, I took the van to an electrician to do the wiring. Neither of us had the necessary experience to wire the van safely and effectively. I only wish I had chosen a more reputable electrician. I had a hard time finding someone both available to work on the van and willing to provide a quote, so I went with a company that worked strictly on an hourly fee basis. That was a huge mistake. It became obvious after a while that the owner deliberately left some of the work unfinished or had his incompetent staff (his words, not mine) do some of the installation (like the solar panels and the skylight, which both ended up leaking) so that I had to keep bringing the van back.
Each time I brought the van back, he couldn’t tell me how long it would take to complete the work in spite of the deadlines I gave him. He finally admitted to me after I had lost all confidence in him and took my van back that he had a figure in mind to charge on my project – $10,000. That’s right! He was going to keep finding ways to charge me until he reach his goal. He told me that he has no verifiable way to keep track of the time expended by himself or his staff, so he writes stuff on scraps of paper and makes it up as he generates his invoices. He also charged excessively for parts he demanded that I use and then didn’t even use them, never giving me full credit for the unused parts.
When I finally had a reputable electrician complete the job, I learned that I paid more than four times what I should have for the little bit of work he actually did. And, I had to hire another reputable RV company, RV Incidents, to fix the leaking skylight as it was never properly sealed. No wonder I kept having water in the van! It was an expensive lesson learned.
In retrospect, I wish we had completed the walls and ceiling before installation of the cabinets. It would have made things much easier in the long run. However, trying to time everything around the availability of the parties involved, the weather, and other factors was an issue. Nevertheless, the cabinets turned out fantastic. They were 100% custom built from solid wood and plywood. We had no plans to work from, just the space restrictions and designs in my head.
I purchased two bags of R7 wool batting from Havelock and used nearly all of it. I still have a little in reserve just in case I missed something. I don’t think I did. What do you think?
I chose cedar planks for the walls and ceiling. I had originally planned to use shiplap on the walls and cedar for the ceiling. However, I felt it would be too busy with the addition of the faux brick in the kitchen. Also, with some of the cabinets already in place to facilitate completion of the wiring, using shiplap would have been more complicated. I love the fresh scent of the cedar, albeit mixed with just a hint of barnyard from the lamb’s wool. The smell was a little overwhelming when I first opened the wool bags, but dissipated over time.
I cannot complete this post without thanking Jim’s son-in-law, Tim, for completing the wiring. So much of it was left unfinished or just done wrong. Jim and I had to move some of the USB ports and outlets, and Tim had to complete the connection between the battery bank and the alternator so the batteries could charge as I drove the van. There are three V-Max AGM 125 Amp hour deep cycle batteries linked in parallel providing the necessary power I need for off-grid camping. I also have shore power for those rare times when electrical service is available.
I love the look of the faux brick in the kitchen. It really makes it feel like home. The main kitchen cabinet is made from solid wood and features soft close drawers and rubbed bronze hand pulls. We also added catch latches on the doors so they don’t swing open as I’m driving.
I wanted the bed platform raised to accommodate my Trek bike. It’s higher than I would have otherwise designed. However, the extra space works nicely for having two interior open drawers (with locks) for camera gear and one large pull-out drawer for my hiking gear, camp stove, and tools. I also added a Jensen TV/DVD combo with a locking wall mount so I could watch my favorite shows and movies on rainy days.
I added a spice rack and some veggie and fruit bags for functionality and convenience. The top shelf holds everyday use items and doubles as overflow storage for canned goods.
There are six recessed 12 volt puck lights to illuminate the interior of the van. They are very bright and provide all the lighting I need.
I researched various options for a low wattage refrigerator that would work in the tight space I had available in the kitchen. This one was perfect and features a real, separate freezer. Yay!
And there you have it – my new home on wheels. I promised to share with you how Gypsy earned the last part of her name. Jim coined it after we encountered so many setbacks in the design and build process. He said multiple times that this project was one step forward and two steps back. He wasn’t kidding. It was a long and tedious process, but also one I will treasure my entire life. I am eternally grateful to Jim for his help in bringing Gypsy Two-Step to life. She’s finally complete and ready for all the adventures I’ve been planning for years.
I hope you’ll continue to follow our adventures on the road and throughout the National Parks. There’s so much to see, do, and share with you!