Camper Van - Build Tutorials

Episode 1 - Kichen / Utility Unit

Building Your Own Kitchen Unit

This post is the first in a series of step by step tutorials where I will be covering the design and build of various elements of a campervan build. The first in the series focuses on my own utility kitchen unit build.

I will be including the specifications and dimensions of this particular unit in a later post for those of you reading who may be interested in building a replica or a version of it for yourself.

If you follow this blog or my Vanlife Resources YouTube Channel, you will know that I like to keep things modular and free of complexity. I also like to design things for dual-use and with the built-in adaptability to reuse or repurpose what I have built as my circumstances and requirements change over time. Firstly let's take a look at the finished article so we can see the kind of results we are looking to achieve.

The completed kitchen unit
The completed kitchen unit

Firstly I want to point out that this unit has been entirely built using readily available stock softwood purchased from large high street DIY retailers. There is nothing fancy about the components or construction, its all about the finish, as you will see.

You will also notice that although I use this as my main unit for food preparation, cooking and even ablution duties, I have resisted the temptation to add built-in components like a nice shiny sink or double cooker range. I have done this by design. I have a small camping cooker unit that I can stow away when not in use. I can also take it outside to cook alfresco should I wish to do so. I have a bowl for washing up and daily ablutions and that's all I really need. Another consideration apart from added complexity is that building in a sink, and cooker removes valuable storage space from within the unit itself which for me is not worth the trade-off. Your design, however, will be dependent upon your own specific requirements so just keep this in mind when you are drawing up the specifications and building your own unit.

Now before we get started it’s important to mention tools. I’m no expert carpenter, I don't have a dedicated workshop nor do I have a plethora of expensive tools to call upon. My total toolbox consists of the following.

A handheld electric drill - Pretty essential for this type of work.

A tabletop Mitre/cross saw - Not essential, and a good hand saw will do the job but the tabletop saw just makes life so much quicker and easier to produce uniform results than can be achieved when cutting everything by hand.

A Jigsaw - Again, not absolutely essential but fast, quick and easy.

A skill saw - A jigsaw can do much of the cutting needed on a build like this, but a skill saw is very handy for accurately cutting those long straight edges needed for doors and tabletops.

A Router - This is very much a luxury and can be used to provide nice rounded edges, decorative cuts and inlays for your tabletops. I rarely use one, because I want my furniture to have a certain rustic appeal rather than decorative but the choice is yours.

A T-Square of some sort - Again not essential but good for being able to make accurate angle cutting guides.

A Sander - Again not compulsory but very inexpensive, effective and much quicker and more uniform than hand sanding. I rarely use a sander on furniture that has a natural rustic finish, I prefer the inconsistencies you get from hand sanding, but you will get much better end results with a sander if you’re going to paint the finished article.

Bar the usual screwdrivers, screws and accompanying cabinetry hardware that’s about it.

Another thing to point out at this stage is that my tools are not top of the range products, in fact far from it. Many are inexpensive home branded products but are more than capable of doing the job nonetheless. The alternative if you’re really strapped for cash is to go old school with the simple tape measure, saw and hand-cranked drill, or even better beg, borrow or steal someone else's for the duration of the build.

Ok so with the tools out of the way lets talk a little about build accuracy. Now whilst you will want your nice new cabinet to be as good as it can be, don't make the mistake of getting hung up on perfection. What I mean by that is don't be tempted to get obsessed with accuracy to within a nano mm. why? Well for one thing wood being a natural resource it warps, bends and moves with changing weather conditions and cheap untreated wood even more so. Remember, the aim is not to be able to replicate a piece of fine Chippendale art here. Our primary focus is to build a cheap, functional and sturdy piece of usable furniture. Added to which the chances of your van being perfectly square on the floor and walls is virtually zero. My point here is that no matter how accurate you are in your build efforts your vans dimensions and construction idiosyncrasies are going to blow that plan clear out of the water in many cases. I often have to use, shims, wedges, make uneven adjustments and strong-arm things into place to get them to fit clean and level due to the discrepancies in the construction of the van.

If you’re a first time or even second time builder, the bottom line is this. No matter how well you prepare and how careful you measure and build, your first attempts are going to take five times longer than they should, cost double what you thought they would and will have more floors than a New York skyscraper. Live with it, it's part of building stuff yourself.

Ok with the preamble out of the way lets start looking at the build itself. When it comes to building units like this you broadly have two contruction options.

Option one - You follow a simple box construction similar to that used in the construction of standard kitchen cabinets, in as much as you build a simple box comprising of a number of panels, bottom, sides and top. Whilst these are great for home installed kitchen cabinets this type of construction can take some practice to get right and produce good sturdy results, especially for those just starting out building their own furniture.

Option 2 - You go for a frame box design, whereby your unit consists of a number of frames joined together to form the box compartments. Utilising this type of construction is a lot simpler and easier to produce robust good looking results, even if you have never built anything like it before. This principle can also be used to build a wide range variety of different cabinets and units types in future, so it's a good option to learn if you’re just getting started.

Measurements can be deceiving

Another really valuable point to discuss at this stage is that of measurements. Whilst slight vagaries of build accuracy are acceptable when building camper furniture, mistakes in overall dimension measurements certainly are not, and can often lead to having to undertake complete unit rebuilds, implement significant workarounds or having to compromise on other build elements as a result.

One of the biggest mistakes I see new van builders make is relying upon flat measurements as their only guide for validating their designs. Let me explain that a little. Whilst it makes perfect sense, of course, to make accurate measurements of length breadth and depth of your build space prior to starting the build, after all, you want to maximise the space whilst ensuring that everything is going to fit like a glove. Width, height and depth are not the only measurements to consider.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have seen people install their newly built units only to find that it’s bigger or smaller than they thought, or it's the wrong height or more often than not is going to get in the way of something else. I have been there and done it and have had to do more rebuilds, mods and adjustments than I care to mention as a result. The reason why this happens with such regularity if you haven't already figured it out is that using flat measurements does not give you an accurate gauge of dimensional volume. It’s like when you measure that plush new sofa in the shop, according to your measurements, it’s going to fit fine within your living room space only to find that once installed it looks enormous, gets, in the way and is generally a bulky eyesore, that's the volume dimension at work. This issue is exacerbated even further when you’re working with very small spaces and tight tolerances. The only reliable ways to gauge actual volume is to mock up your design before you start the build. There are a couple of ways you can do this.

#1. Using tape and cardboard, tape out your units outline on the floor of your van and then use the cardboard to fashion a real life-size representation of your unit. This will give you a good idea of the volume, alongside the associated impacts. Make your adjustments, taking into consideration other important factors, like, bed design other storage space and then validate your final measurements.

#2. Tape out the outline as in option one but this time make a simple mockup a frame out of wood. A couple of simple frames can quickly give you a very good idea if your design ideas are going to work in the real world.

Ok, that's it for this post, In the next one, we will get down to the nuts and bolts of the actual kitchen unit construction. In the meantime why not catch up on my van build videos here.

Don't forget, you can get the latest information, build tutorials and resources by signing up to my occasional Give Up The Grind & Retire From The Job newsletter. You can do that here.

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