Beautiful cedar planks run along the top of your newly built campervan. The stain is exactly what you envisioned and it matches your motif perfectly. Now let’s rewind to today when you are researching what ceiling material to use and how to install your van build ceiling.
After installing two ceilings in campervans we have learned the proper steps to take to get the ideal ceiling you imagined in your van. From the type of material to use to campervan ceiling instructions we have the experience to help walk you through your van build ceiling installation.
Before you pick a material and begin your installation process, read over these top qualities you need to make this the best van build ceiling that you can make!
Table of Contents
What to look for in a campervan ceiling
Not all materials are made equal when looking at van build ceiling options. There are certain qualities that you should be on the lookout for when picking out your van build ceiling.
Lightweight – When building a van into a campervan, everything you put into your van adds up. The lighter you can make your van, the better fuel economy you will get not to mention the wear on your van. Your ceiling is no exception, as much as possible, try to get wood that is lightweight.
Easy to Install – When installing your van build ceiling, you will need to attach it somehow. One of the more popular ways is to attach it to the ribs of your roof. This means that whatever material you choose to use, needs to be able to be attached to the ribs in your van roof.
Flexible- Not all van ceilings are perfectly even. The Ford Transit, for example, curves at the front of the van. This means that a thicker wood plank will not work on the ceiling. You need a material that has a bit of flexibility so it won’t crack under the pressure of the bend of the roof. If not you need a plan for the parts of your ceiling that isn’t perfectly flat.
Types of Van Build Ceiling Options
There are a few popular van build ceiling options to pick from when deciding on material. From wood planks to plywood, it’s all about the look you are trying to achieve and your van build budget. For our Sprinter van build we went with a Shiplap from Lowes that I was obsessed with but for our Ford Transit we needed something thinner and went with a thin wooden plank.
Shiplap (My Favorite)
Beadboard or Plywood
Tongue and Groove
For our Ford Transit we used Timeline Skinnies, they are super thin and you can buy them already painted or stained which is pretty cool. We bought the pine ones but they do have a water coating on them which means you need to sand them or plane them before applying a stain. If you are willing to do the extra work then it might be worth it, if not I would go with a different brand if you want to stain or paint the boards yourself.
Van Build Ceiling Installation Step by Step Instructions
When it comes to van builds there isn’t one straightforward way to do it. Everyone I know puts their own spin on the build and how they get it done. For a conversion van ceiling, the same can be said. Below are the basic steps that we recommend for you to install a simple wood ceiling in your campervan. Before starting with your ceiling make sure that you have your campervan fan installed and your solar wires ran ( if your build includes solar panels mounted on the roof ) as well as your van life insulation put in.
Camper Ceiling Material Needed
To build your conversion van ceiling you don’t need a ton of items but everything on this list is pretty essential to getting the job done. From your ceiling to the tools, here is the list of all the items you will need to build your van ceiling.
- Ceiling of choice
- Furring Strips (plywood)
- Ceiling lights
- Screws (we used an antiqued brass screw to flow better with our stain)
- Poly and Stain
- Power Drill
- Table Saw or Circular Saw
- Finishing Circular Saw Blade
Step 1: Attach Furring Strips
The first step when you are ready to install your van build ceiling is to put up furring strips. Furring strips are pieces of wood that you affix to the ribs in your ceiling that will allow you to have a flat and wider surface area to screw your wood planks into. Since you do not want to screw into the actual ceiling you only have the ridges as an option. We used 3/8 inch plywood cut them 6 inches wide and 61 inches (the width of the van) long.
The important thing to remember is most vans aren’t perfectly square so the thinner the boards for furring strips are, the better. Especially on the Ford Transit where the ceiling is super curved from side to side and even front to back.
Step 2: Decide on a Pattern
When installing a van build ceiling, if you are using planks instead of plywood, the first step is to decide the pattern on your ceiling. Depending on the length of your wood, you likely will need to have more than one plank to run the length of your ceiling. Personally, I like the wood to be broken up into pieces as it gives it more character and you can add screws that match your stain and give it dimension.
For our Ford Transit van ceiling we use 10″, 22″, 33″, and a full plank 48″. You only need to use this pattern on the first row of your ceiling planks and then from there you simply add full-length planks. Of course, this is until you get to the fan where you might have to cut your plank shorter.
Pro Tip: We LOVED how our ceiling turned out with the Wood we used, however since they were only 48″ it did get complicated towards the front of the van where it curves near the cab. If you want to make it easier I recommend getting planks that run the entire length of the ceiling or at least longer planks so you won’t end up having planks that stop right before the ceiling ends.
Step 3: Stain or Paint Wood
Now it is time to decide on whether you want to stain or paint your wood planks. For our Sprinter van ceiling, we used beautiful pine wood planks from Lowe’s and only used wood conditioner and polyurethane. The ceiling was my favorite part of that van and was a super easy process. For our Ford Transit ceiling, we wanted it to be a little different and try a stain. We were going for a “Northwest” look but ended up a little darker than intended.
We still loved it and for reference we used wood conditioner waited 10 minutes, applied Minwax Rustic Beige (waited 1-2 hours), then applied Minwax Special Walnut twice waiting 1-2 hours between. When applying your stain, make sure and apply the stain evenly and go with the grain, lastly wipe off each stain coat after about 10 minutes of drying.
Another popular option is to paint your ceiling instead of staining it. I really love this option as it is moving van builds closer to looking like a “real” home and gives it a classy look.
Step 4: Add in Lighting
Before you can install your van build ceiling, you need to wire in your lighting. For both of our van builds, we used 12V campervan lighting and were very happy with the result. You want to consider where different parts of your van build will be and use that to decide where to have your lights.
For our Sprinter van build ceiling, we had 6 puck lights, 2 on each side of the fan, and 4 more spread evenly across the ceiling. Although we liked our lighting, it was not quite bright enough when cooking so we recommend adding lighting below the cabinets by the kitchen or wherever you might need extra light. For our Ford Transit van build ceiling, we decided to add quite a few more lights and had 4 in the front and 3 in the back plus 4 lights under the cabinets. We also went with a brighter light this time using bright instead of warm lighting.
Once your lights are installed, tape them on the ceiling to hold them up until you are ready to add them to your planks!
Step 5: Install Wood Planks
Once you are ready to install your wood planks, you can begin by starting with one of your cut pieces and follow with a full plank. I recommend building your ceiling line by line, so start at the back of the van and run back to the front with each line of planks. This will help keep your planks even and you won’t have to worry about squeezing any planks in like you would installing side to side.
To install your planks, put two screws in where your furring strips are located. This gives the screw something to hold onto without screwing into your installation or accidentally going into the ceiling.
Once you have a plank that will have a light on it, measure where the light will be on the plank and place it in the middle. Using a hole saw, cut the hole and install your light.
Ford Transit Van Build Ceiling Tips
We found the Ford Transit to have a more difficult ceiling to put in than the Sprinter van. The sprinter van ceiling was pretty straightforward and took us about a half-day to install where our Ford Transit took over a week to install. This being said here are a few tips to help make the Transit ceiling easier for you than it was for us!
Ford Transit Curved Ceiling
The Ford Transit ceiling is not an easy ceiling to install as it is curved from side to side and front to back. This being said you will likely need to use a thinner wood so it can be bent. Another option is if you are going to build a big shelf or a pocket door in the front then the wood will not need to go all the way to the headliner which lessens the curve your wood will have to make.
On our Ford Transit van build, we did not want a headliner shelf or a pocket door, so we had to find a nice thin wood. Even with a thinner wood coming in at about 5/16”, it still did not want to bend without cracking. To help with this we did something called “kerfing”. Basically, you cut lines in the parts of the wood that need to be curved.
Using a circular saw set your depth to 1/3 of the depth of your ceiling planks. Then cut lines on the back of your planks up and down the parts of the wood that will be curved. This allows the plank to move a little more freely without cracking. Make sure and leave the parts of the wood uncut that you will need to screw into, or you could risk cracking.
To help with the curved ceiling we purchased wood that was thinner but unfortunately the planks we loved were only 48″ long so in several places the wood planks would end and begin in between furring strips. To prevent these pieces from falling or vibrating when driving we added in wood scabs which joined the two planks together.
To create the wood scabs we used 3/8″ leftover plywood from the furring strips on the walls and ceiling. You only need enough of a piece of wood to be able to screw in two screws on the end of one plank and the beginning of the next plank.
For the front of the van, we ended up having to install a large piece of 3/8″ plywood and wedge it into pieces of 1×1 that we attached on the rib closest to the headliner with Gorilla Glue Ultimate construction adhesive. To ensure the large piece of plywood stayed up we then created a wood riser stack by gluing 4 pieces of 3/8″ plywood together and attaching it to the ceiling with construction adhesive. Beware when doing this if the stack is too short it can pull on the van roof when attaching the van build ceiling and can dent the outside. Make sure to measure the depth of the ceiling and create your riser stack to mimic the van rib and firring strip.
Custom plank pieces
In the front of the Ford Transit Van, there are styrofoam pieces that are part of the airbag system. We do not recommend you take out these pieces as it could cause issues with your curtain airbag and possibly affect your car insurance. Therefore we built around these pieces which made for some tricky plank modifications.
To get the correct cuts, we used butcher paper and cut pieces the exact size of our wood planks. Then we taped up the pieces and traced out the parts that needed to be cut. From there take the butcher paper and lay it on a full wooden plank trace the template out, Then cut to fit!
After you are finished with all of your pieces, consider adding in quarter-round or trim pieces to finish off the front and the back. Other than that, you have a beautiful campervan ceiling to stare at every night!