Days 2-6: Installing Sturdy, Good-Looking Plywood Walls in a Van

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Walls are the thing that that first transformed the way my cargo van felt. It went from an industrial/shipping vibe to… something vaguely cozy within just a few days.

Why Plywood?

I liked the idea of a wood aesthetic, but I didn’t want the walls to look too rugged. The idea was for a little woodgrain to show through lightly-stained walls to improve the sense of spaciousness in such a tiny area.

I opted for 1/2″ plywood, enough to provide sturdy walls. I have seen others use 1/4″ or even 1/8″ plywood attached to furring strips. In retrospect, this may have been easier to install (the furring strips would be easier to attach to the metal walls, and the thinner plywood easier to work with). Still, the strong 1/2″ plywood walls are great for hanging things. I don’t have to worry about connecting things on thin wooden strips hidden behind the plywood. Rather, I can be guaranteed that the entirety of the wall can support most things.

Parts

  • 8x 8′ x 4′ @ 1/2″ plywood, finished, high-quality (~$40/sheet)
  • 1 1/2″ and 2″ self-drilling metal screws (~$10 / box)
  • “Natural” (light colored) stain

Tools

  • Cobalt drill bits (way better than titanium for going through metal)
  • Power drill
  • Circular saw
  • Jigsaw
  • Power sander (4″ round)
  • Sawhorses
  • Safety equipment

Templating

In retrospect, my desire to cover the doors entirely with plywood made life a lot harder. Just have a look at the piece for the sliding door, below. It took most of the day to create this single piece.

None of the lines are quite straight, and there are three grooves for bumpers and handles. To make such pieces, we taped cardboard to the doors and cut it into a template before using that template to cut the plywood. While this helped, there was still a lot of up-and-down with the plywood.

Each time we held the plywood up to the door to examine the fit, we put a screw into a small pilot hole to serve as an anchor in the door. This way, our alignment was consistent. All in all, it took us two days to cut and affix the three doors.

To affix the plywood to the walls we first drilled a pilot hole through the 1″ of insulation and 1/2″ of plywood into the inside layer of sheet metal in the van. We started with 1/8″ titanium drill bits, but moved to cobalt drill bits and had much more success punching through the steel. Then, we were able to run the self-drilling bits into the steel.

Unexpected Challenges

In some places the steel of the walls was much thicker than others. This was especially true in the front, where the walls and ceiling bow inward.
There’s also the fact that we needed to drill into the “ribs” of the van. We mostly did a good job of marking where the mount points were, but we still could have prepared better to ensure we always drilled in the correct location.

We also had to watch out for contact points. For example, this part of the sliding side door rubbed against the track, preventing the door from opening easily.

This is one place where the thickness of the plywood was a major disadvantage. I suspect that 1/4″ or 1/8″ plywood would have had no problem. For lack of a better option, I ended up using the power sander to take a groove out of the door.

I’m a bit frustrated we were forced to do this, but I don’t think it looks terrible. Friends have even said it looks “interesting,” and I’m not sure if that is a euphemism.

Wrapping Up

We also put a floating sub-floor down made of the same plywood. This will serve as the foundation for the real floor, later.

One mildly interesting decision was to overlap the sliding door, hiding some of the gap. I did this to give me more effective wall space to work with when installing the cabinetry. This way, the cabinets can extend a little into the doorway.

Overall it took us (two people):

  • 1 day for the back doors.
  • 1 day for the side door.
  • 1 day for the walls.
  • 1/2 day for the floor.

If I were to do it again, I’d vary the plywood thickness to the location. Doors would be better with 1/4″ or 1/8″ plywood, but I’d keep the 1/2″ on the walls.

About the author

zane

I make things, often with technology. The van plan has been my cornerstone project since late 2017.

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