Our van conversion story – from old council van to Tonks! Part 1

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In my last post I mentioned that we had taken on a new challenge which will bring with it new adventures.  That challenge was to turn a scrappy old council van into something that will take us on trips and be a new home for us.  A van conversion was always something we had considered, especially before we bought Gloria for our first big trip a few years back, but the lack of know how, lack of funds and no place to actually carry out the work meant we had put off the idea.  Certainly back in 2012 when we bought our first camper van it was easier for us to buy a coach built, ready to go home on wheels.  This time life is different, we’re not planning on living in it, not yet anyway, and it’s going to be solely for mini adventures as and when we can get away.  So with that in mind the pressure was taken off!  Here’s our story of the conversion with some tips for if you’re considering doing the same.

I’ve decided to break this post up in to several parts as it was becoming a monster of a post – here’s part 1!

If you’re looking to convert a van to camper van then I highly recommend this book by Vandogtraveller Mike Hudson – it covers loads of aspects from insulation to electrics – check it out here: From Van to Home (ebook)

Van conversion Part 1 – buying a van and prepping it for a conversion

Finding a van and our tips for getting it right

Beginning of May 2018

It was just before the bank holiday weekend and I voiced the idea that perhaps we could look to get a van soon and have it ready for our planned holiday in about 6 weeks time.  Surely that would be doable?  We looked round eBay, the local selling sites and nothing came up that we liked in our budget.  Ideally we wanted a minibus with a decent MOT on it so we could not worry about that over this season and make sure we could actually get away in it.  The mini bus preference was because we needed 4 seats and we’d have some already in and fixed properly.  We’d also have windows so one less thing to pay for and fit.

A couple of days went by finding pretty much nothing fitting our requirements (and nearby too – we didn’t want to travel too far) and I found a gumtree advert for a yellow van that looked a bit tired on the outside, but was in budget and had about 10 months MOT on it and low mileage.  Wasn’t too far away either so off we went to have a look.  We are terribly impulsive, don’t really think things through and tend to have made a decision before even viewing anything – so it was no surprise to me that we agreed to buy the van that day and pick it up in a couple of days.  Here’s how she looked that day:

citroen relay yellow van

citroen relay interior van conversion

I had some reservations and spent the evening fretting about it all.  It was a medium wheel base van (MWB) and so wasn’t as long as we’d hoped before hand and I definitely was a little worried about how we’d all fit in.   It was also a panel van and not a mini bus so we’d also need to source a seat and windows and then of course we’d need to fit them too!  James tried to reassure me, but I was definitely a bit worried!

Top tips for finding the right van for you:

  • make yourself aware of the pitfalls of the particular van you’re going to view.  Are they prone to rust?  Do they suffer from gear box problems?  A quick google might give you a good starting point to see what to look out for before you view it.
  • Check whether there is a cam belt that might need replacing and ask whether it has been done in the past.  If you don’t know then you might be wise to factor in how much that might be to replace.  We had to do that with our van as we had no idea if it had been done before – better safe than sorry.
  • Check whether the doors all shut easily and if daylight can be seen through them – doors can be adjusted and of course you can buy new ones but that is of course a cost and something else to worry about.
  • bring a tape measure so you can see just how much space you’d have to work with – it’s really hard to find out specific measurements for vans online and nothing beats measuring up in person.

Cleaning time and unearthing the bad bits

It doesn’t matter what car or van you buy there’s bound to be some bits you didn’t spot were awful on first inspection and test drive.  After all, this is why the van was probably put up for sale in the first place!  In our case the van was an old council van and they get to a point where they aren’t worth keeping for the council and so they replace them – but there was bound to be other nasties we’d find.

So, the first job of any van conversion is always removing any existing plywood panelling, any other interiors the van has and stripping it back to the bare van.  This could be worrying if you’re not sure whether there may be rust hiding underneath!  Thankfully ours wasn’t too bad, the wheel arches showed a little bit of rust and there was a spot at the back where something had been attached to the floor of the van and rotted.  A nice big hole for us to fix!

Tip: Keep the plywood lining and don’t get rid of it straight away.  Any good parts may be useful to use in the van at a later date and even the unusable bits might be handy as a template for cutting the shape of the floor or walls. 

Cleaning is then the next step – it feels like it should just be a small job but it took a long time!  There was a lot of ground in dirt that needed to be removed.

Van Conversion Top Tip – when your van is bare it’s a good idea to take a load of pictures so you can see where any supporting ribs are.  Measuring is a good idea too, you might need it later on when building cupboards and such like.

So what else did we find?  A speedometer that didn’t work and that wasn’t just a fuse as the seller said, the passenger window didn’t work either.  Biggest of all was the door problems.  The van was bashed and battered and that meant that the doors didn’t always shut well or be watertight.  This is a problem in a camper van!  We’d spend quite a few hours just trying to get the doors nice and shutting well in future.  This is definitely something I’d look at more especially when buying an old van – be wary of dents and how they impact shutting.  Test the doors.  Lots.  It’s all very well saying you can buy new doors, but that’s hardly cheap or a nice job to fit.

When the van is bare it’s also a great time to check for any holes, fill them and treat any bare metal so it doesn’t rust in the future.  We used a red oxide primer paint for this which made the van look really weird and spotty – this wasn’t all rust that we were treating but rather just a belts and braces approach so it doesn’t start rusting in future.  The van had a lot of scrapes where builders had not really cared about hitting the panels so we looked for anything like that and treated it.  Afterwards we got some metal paint and painted a coat of that over it – we used black as it was cheap, but might have been easier to use yellow.  Tonks now looked a bit like a cheetah!

panel van rust treatment campervan conversion

James did loads at this stage from using fibreglass on larger holes to getting extremely grubby when sealing the underside of the van with a Waxoyl treatment.  I like to do less messy work!

Rust treating top tips and tools needed for the job

  • you won’t get another chance at having access to the base layer of the van (unless you start over again in the future!) so take your time and do a good, thorough job.  It’s boring but necessary.
  • Treat any part of bare metal regardless of whether it has rust on it or not.  We used red oxide primer and then followed with a coat of metal hammerite paint.
  • If you have existing rust it’s important to remove it all back to the bare metal and then treat as above.  We used a mixture of sanding/grinding it back with a wire brush on our drill and we also used a product called Kurust.  This eats away at the rust and leaves the surface ready for painting.
  • If you have any large holes that appear, which can happen especially after you start removing rust, then you might find you have to fill the holes somehow.  We found an area of corrosion in the cab footwells that needed treating and then filling. There are various ways to do this from welding to fibre glass – ours were small enough to use the fibre glass kit.  It’s not a nice job but works really well.
  • It’s also a good idea to check things like the plastic panels that are on the body work.  Often they are held in with clips that may or may not be watertight (I know Sprinters have an issue with them not being watertight) – might be worth sealing up these holes to prevent water ingress at a later date.
  • The underbody of the van shouldn’t be forgotten about – a good seal of Waxoyl is great for protecting underneath.
  • Finally if you do find that the doors don’t shut well and adjusting them hasn’t worked then getting some foam strips work well for sealing against draughts and leaks – make sure they are waterproof.  We used some of this.

Here’s the tools we used (click on images for more info):

Drill (our most used tool – get one now for the rest of the build!)

Wire brush set


Red Oxide Primer

Hammerite paint

Fibre Glass kit

Waxoyl paint

More posts coming soon and will be linked below!

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Kirsty Bartholomew

Kirsty has been getting lost around the world for over 30 years and writing about it for 10 of those. She loves to explore the UK and Europe and has a particular penchant for historical sites.

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