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One of the toughest parts of building a DIY Campervan can be the van build cabinets. Cabinets are in general something the average person has not built, nevertheless in a van that isn’t square. From finding the angle, getting the cabinets square inside the van, and a proper paint job, building campervan cabinets as a beginner can be quite overwhelming.
When we set out to build campervan cabinets in a Sprinter we had zero clue what we were doing. Honestly, we didn’t even know that you needed to make things square. After building our first set in the Sprinter to remodeling the cabinets (with a friend’s help), to being so proud of our campervan cabinets in our Transit, we are here to help you build out your next set.
Whether this is your first set of campervan cabinets or you are here to get some extra tips, this information is here to make the process as smooth as possible.
Designing Your Campervan Cabinets
First, you need to decide your campervan layout. It’s important to really dive deep into what you want your campervan to look like before building. This will make the rest of the process easier since it is such a small space and building one area sets you up for the rest. Once you have decided on a layout, it’s time to pick out a cabinet design.
3 Types of Campervan Cabinet Designs
There are several types of cabinet designs meaning what the doors look like and how they lay in or on the cabinet itself. There are endless ways to design your cabinets and doors but here are a few of my favorite and most popular cabinet designs in campervans.
Shaker Style Cabinets
Shaker-style cabinets are my absolute favorite and the choice we went with for our Ford Transit van build. Shaker-style cabinet doors sit on top of the cabinet framing and cover up a majority of the cabinet. This means from the outside you can only see the doors or drawers of the cabinet, you do not see the framing. They were also fairly easy for us to build with 1×2 pieces of pine and 1/4″ luan sheeting.
Slab Door Cabinets
Photo Credit @SoWeBoughtaVan
Slab door cabinets are one of the more popular style campervan cabinets in the van life world. They are a great option as they are very sleek, stylish and give you a minimalist look that many vanlifers love. Most often they are paired with an inset cabinet handle making it even more, space-friendly. Although we love the look, we personally wanted a more cozy look than the slab door cabinets can provide. Our friend Katie used the slab door cabinets and frankly, her home looks like a stunning condo in a big city instead of a campervan. It’s truly impressive.
Inset Cabinet Doors
For our Sprinter van cabinets, when we remodeled we chose inset cabinet doors. This means the door sits flush with the cabinet face frame. This option will give you the most space as the doors do not take up any additional room. If you have a smaller van or are trying to maximize your space then I would consider these.
Types of Cabinet Door Hinges
The next step is to pick out your cabinet door hinges. Hinges are important esthetically and practically, as they can sit on the outside or inside of your cabinet frame as well as determine how the door closes.
There are so many cabinet hinges out there and frankly too many to list on this post. Below are the cabinet hinges we would consider for our builds. To see a list of different hinges check out this article on 18 different hinge types. The types below are available in both concealed hinges and non-concealed meaning they are viewable from the outside of the cabinet or invisible from the outside.
- Overlay – Full, Half, 3/4, 3/8
- Face Mount – Sprinter
Picking out a Stain or Paint Color
Once you have the design of your cabinets down, now you get to work on the fun stuff. Hopefully, by now you have decided on or have begun to think about a theme for your build and considered some vanlife decorations. The next big decision is what color you want your cabinets to be whether you paint them or stain them.
No matter which you choose, ideally you would use good quality wood for your cabinets. However, if you want to stain your wood over painting it, then I recommend finding a prettier wood such as baltic birch. If you are going to paint your campervan cabinets then your main priority is to sand the wood so it’s as smooth as possible.
Recommended Paint Supplies
If you opt to paint your campervan cabinets then these are the supplies that we personally would purchase to get the best-looking painted cabinets. The most important thing is to purchase high-quality paint and high-quality rollers. Instead of purchasing your paint from Lowe’s or Home Depot opt for the more expensive places like Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore. High-quality paint allows room for errors and is more forgiving to beginners.
- Sherwin Williams Trim Enamel (They often have big sales)
- Purdy Mini Paint Roller 3/4″ core
- Purdy 1/4 inch nap paint cover
- Paint tape (Only if you need to paint the cabinets inside the van)
- 220 Grit Sand Paper
Recommended Staining Supplies
Staining your cabinets is a popular choice in the van life world as many people opt for the tiny cabin in the woods feel to their van. Staining is arguably the easier route as staining is a bit easier than painting. However, it can be a task to find the right color of stain and it can be important to stain everything at the same time as the color can vary depending on the conditions in which you stain.
For example, we stained our walls but it was warm outside and they dried in direct sunlight. When we had to add a few new planks it was colder outside and the sun wasn’t as direct, although they looked similar enough, you could definitely see a difference.
- High-quality stain (We use Min-wax)
- Staining clothes (You can tear up old T-shirts or buy them by the bag at the hardware store)
- Wood Conditioner
How to Build Campervan Cabinets in 10 Easy Steps
Alright, it’s time to get to work and build those cabinets! You’ve picked out your style and gotten most of your supplies. There are only a few remaining items left to grab and it’s time to start building. It can be daunting to build cabinets for the first time but go slow, measure two, three, four times, and be forgiving of yourself. Building cabinets can be frustrating but it’s also one of the most rewarding parts of the build!
Before beginning, let’s make sure you have insulated your van, if not head to my post all about vanlife insulation. It’s also important to decide if you want to build your cabinets on top of your walls or if you are planning on having a back piece on your cabinets in which case you could build directly onto the van. We personally liked having our wall showing, so we built our cabinets directly on the van in an open frame, and then added the wall planks after the cabinets were in.
*Although these directions will work for most cabinets that you build, I specifically will be referring to shaker-style cabinets in this guide unless otherwise noted.*
Supplies Needed for Campervan Cabinets:
- Table Saw (You don’t NEED a Table saw but it does come in handy)
- Circular Saw
- speed square / combination square ( this helps to quickly draw straight lines)
- 1/2 inch Birch Plywood (go to your local lumberyard over Lowe’s or Home Depot. The quality is often MUCH better)
- 1×3 Pine planks for doors
- Cabinet Door Hinges
- Plus Nuts
- Plus Nut Tool
- 1/4 inch luan
- Electric Sander (You can manually sand but it is time-consuming)
- 150 grit and 220 grit sandpaper
- Wood Glue
- Screws #6 1 1/2″
- #6 countersink
- natural wood filler
- putty knife
- Paint or Stain
1. Find Your Cabinet Measurements
During your time discovering your layout, hopefully, you decided where you want your cabinets to be including how big you want them. If you haven’t then now is the time to start looking into how long, tall, and deep you want your cabinets. It’s important to consider every detail of your build, for example, you don’t want your cabinets too deep and then you don’t have much room when you are sitting on your bed or you want to make sure the doors can properly opened on your kitchen cabinets if you have a couch or bathroom on the other side of the van.
For example, we have our toilet underneath our kitchen and it slides out. We had to make sure that on the other side of the van where our couch will be that the couch is not too deep and there was room for the toilet to slide out.
I recommend looking at your own home and other people’s homes and checking out how big their cabinets are. What do you like about them? Where is their kitchen counter sitting in reference to your body, too short or too tall? How deep are the upper cabinets? Are there dividers in them to keep it organized? These are all things to consider.
For your reference, these are the measurements for our cabinets in our Ford Transit Van Build. The depth measurements below are from the front bottom to the rear bottom while the height is measured from the bottom to the top of the face or front of the cabinet. Due to the Transit walls being slightly slanted the cabinets aren’t an even square, hence why we suggested an angle finder in our supply list above.
Upper Cabinets Passenger side above kitchen only:
Driver Side Cabinets:
2. Find Your Cabinet Angle
As I mentioned before, building cabinets in a van is a bit different than building them in a home. The main difference is that van walls are not at a 90-degree angle so you have to find the angle they need to be at before beginning to build. The easiest way to do this is with an angle finder. You simply take the tool and rest it against the wall and the ceiling until it is flat. Tighten the nut to hold the angle, now you have the proper angle for your cabinet end pieces.
3. Create a Cardboard Template
Next, we recommend using a cardboard template to create the end piece for your upper cabinets. For example, let’s start with the driver-side cabinets, wherever you are going to end or begin your cabinets, that is where you will look for your angle for that end piece.
Begin by tracing your template with the height and length measurements. Using your angle finder, you can trace out a straight line from the back of the cardboard to the proper length. Then using scissors cut out your template as neatly as possible. It’s important to go back to the van to make sure the template is flush with the back and top of the van. Finally, check to make sure you like your length and height.
Now repeat this for any dividers and the other end of the endcaps. It’s important that you measure each part of the cabinet separately as no van is perfect the Transit gets narrower towards the front of the van therefore the angle changed slightly as we moved down the van.
4. Build your Campervan Cabinet End Pieces
Once you have confirmed that your template is as perfect as it can get, it is time to make a real end piece! Using your template, trace with a pencil on your 1/2 birch plywood. Using your circular saw, cut out your template. Just as you did with the template make sure your end piece fits flush on your van wall and ceiling. This is important as it could throw off the rest of your cabinet if it isn’t flush.
5. Built Your Cabinet Body
Ok, you have your end pieces, now it is time to build the rest of your body. If you know your measurements then you simply need to trace out the length of your cabinet and the width for the bottom of your cabinet. Once you have cut this out using your circular saw, you can sand it down and attach it to your end pieces.
We personally used wood glue as well as #6 1 1/2 inch countersunk wood screws to adhere the pieces together. Make sure that the surface is nice and flush before you drill in the screws. Repeat this with all of the ends and dividers.
Repeat this step for the back of the cabinet as well as the top if you are boxing in the entire frame. If you want an open frame cabinet then you will need to simply cut pieces of 1×3 or rip 3 inch wide pieces of birch to the length and height of the cabinets and adhere to the end pieces and bottom piece.
6. Hang Your Cabinets
Before the wood glue dries, we do recommend bringing the cabinets inside the van and making sure they fit properly. That way if anything went wrong you can adjust before it’s too late.
Next once the glue has dried, 12-24 hours later, it’s time to officially hang your cabinets! We personally used plus nuts and bolted our cabinets to the wall of the van.
7. Create Campervan Cabinet Doors
This step is very specific to shaker-style doors as they sit on the outside of the cabinet and they are the shaker design. They were fairly easy to make and I absolutely loved the way they turned out.
We used 1×3 prefinished pine boards to create our cabinet doors. You simply measure your cabinet and create doors that cover the entirety of it, depending on the hinges you buy. Personally, we bought blum concealed soft close hinges (BTW the hinges will work with a frame or frameless style cabinet) which meant we need about 1/2 an inch room on the top of the cabinet so they could open properly. Otherwise, they would not open properly.
After cutting four pieces for the frame, we used a Kreg pocket jig to predrill holes, then screwed and glued it all together. Next, we simply added a 1/4 inch piece of luan to the back of the door. If at all possible it would be more convenient to use a router and route out a spot for the middle of the door frame inside of the 1×3 pieces.
8. Attach Hinges
Now it’s time to attach your hinges to the door frame and the cabinet body. Using a Kreg concealed hinge jig attachment you can create a cup in your door frame where your hinge will sit. For more detailed instructions check out this video on using a Kreg.
Next, attach your hinge to the door and finally hang your door and admire the beautiful cabinets you just made.
9. Prep the Cabinets
Ok, the hard part is over! Congratulate yourself on your awesome handy work and get excited to make your cabinets look completely finished. Before you can paint or sand, you need to prep your cabinets. To make it easiest we took our cabinets down and prepped them outside the van.
The first thing you need to do is completely sand your cabinets using 150 grit sandpaper. I personally usde a hand sander to save time but you could do it by hand. Next, you will want to use wood filler to fill any holes that you may have created with screws or any inconsistencies in the wood. I’m really terrible with wood filler so I recommend letting it dry, lightly hand sanding it, and then using wood filler again until it appears smooth.
Next use a 220 grit block or sandpaper to make sure the wood has a beautiful sanded glossy look to it.
10. Paint or Stain Your Cabinets
Now it’s time to paint or stain your cabinets. This is the most exciting part to me and the last finishing touch. Before painting make sure to take off the doors and any hinges.
Before painting or staining, wipe down with a moist cloth to ensure there are no pieces of wood remaining on the cabinets. This is super important or you could end up with gritty-looking cabinets.
Now you can hang your cabinets and bask in the beauty of them! Are you building a campervan or have you built campervan cabinets before? Let me know how it is going in the comments!