DIY VanLife: GMC Savana Camperization – Bed, Storage, Kitchen

Naive expectation number one: constructing the inside of the van will be waaaaaaaay easier and less finicky than building the initial interior “shell”.

Ha. It turns out the finickiness was very high and compounded by the fact that this part of the construction timeline overlapped with Thanksgiving weekend and my mother’s “Birthday Week” – both of which were essentially no-gos for getting anything done.

Graham and I have decided that the hardest part about doing a conversion is the decision making. We spent most of our time thinking and mapping and rethinking… each decision was critical and changed many times, particularly with the bed plan as this is the most important storage area in our van house. The “underbed” will eventually store:
– ALL climbing gear
– Clothing
– Propane
– Stove
– Kitchen + Kitchenware
– Deep Cycle Battery
– Cables, diode, breaker, controller, etc…
– other stuff

We knew we wanted a stationary bed, so we figured out the width that would work for Graham to sleep sideways across the vehicle. He is 5’11” and after the walls and insulation went in, the van spanned 5’9″ inside. We started our planning by mapping everything out with painter’s tape on my parents’ living room floor. Note: while these photos are similar to our final layout, it did change a fair bit.

My dad had a great idea for our main structural supports that would maximize the underbed space. We used 1″x 3″ wooden beams to build two main “ladders” that would form the sides of our underbed drawers and compartmentalize the storage space. In each ladder, two 57″ beams were separated by five 1″ x 3″ segments screwed into place, and then we used wood glue to attach 1/8″ plywood to the ladders to enhance the shear strength. Our final ladders were exactly 16″ high. Building these stacked structural supports ended up saving us a lot of room on the floor.

Next, we built structural supports to go against the two walls and added horizontal beams throughout the structure to help us further compartmentalize around the wheel wells and add support for the bed top.

The next big mission was building the drawers. We bought 28″ 200lb full extension drawer slides for the back drawer – this will be where we store our gear. For the interior clothing (etc) drawer we picked up 26″ 100lb full extension slides. The drawers themselves actually took quite a while to build, in part due to their large size, and in part due to the fact that there is only 1/32″ wiggle room to play with for the drawer slides. We used 5/8″ plywood for the drawer bases and 1/2″ plywood for the sides. 96 screws and a lot of wood glue later…

After accounting for spacing around the drawers, both ended up being 14 1/4″ deep. The gear drawer is 28 1/2″ long and just over 29″ wide, and the clothing drawer is 27″ long and slightly wider (due to the smaller slides). These are very big drawers! We added a snazzy divider to the clothing drawer so our panties don’t touch 😉

We mounted the drawers and learned some very useful tips from this handy YouTube video (Thanks for sharing Dan!). Once the drawers were in, we screwed the entire bed base down into the floor, via structural beams and corner brackets. As vans shift while driving, we wanted to screw the bed to EITHER the floor or the walls. We opted for the floor as it had a lot more options and seemed like a safer bet.

Two sheets of 5/8″ plywood provided more than enough wood to build our bed top, which we did in three pieces. We measured the width every 4″ to make sure that the wood would curve with the shape of the vehicle. At its largest, the bed is 57 1/2″ long and 70″ wide. Graham will sleep on a bit of an angle, but it’s a very reasonable size for two.

Aside from our kitchen (coming up!) most of the access into the under-bed-storage will be through top down doors. Our battery and wiring will all be in the compartment to the right of the drawers… here is our entry hole!

The other exciting thing that we have built at the back of the van is our kitchen. We have a two-burner propane stove which we really wanted to use, but we weren’t interested in the hassle of doing a proper propane installation in the van. Luckily, opening the back doors creates a nice little kitchen work area, allowing us to cook outside while still being close to home! We designed the left-side underbed compartment as our kitchen storage. As the space is 16″ high, we purchased a stout 11lb propane tank to fit. Graham built a plywood holder for the tank to fit in against the wall, and we added a small strip on the floor to hold the stove up on its side (extra straps for both these items are to come).

On the left back door we cut down a drawer from an old cabinet to become an edged platform for our stove to sit on when cooking. We used a leftover strip of 1/2″ plywood as a support base, and bought and cut piano hinges to connect the platform. We cut webbing out of old backpacks and screwed it to the platform and the metal door so that the platform would sit flat when open. Turns out this was very very tricky… my parents’ driveway slopes in two directions, so figuring out what was level was almost impossible. It took several retries and driving down the street to a flat section equipped with a cordless drill to get it right.

On the right side door we used the same method to create a counter prep space. I used some leftover arborite counter top from one of my parents’ reno-projects and contact-cemented it to a piece of 1/2″ plywood. This worked great, and now we have a smooth waterproof finish! The only change we’re thinking of making to these two drop-down tables is adding adjustable straps.

We’ve got a few more access holes, doors, fences, and straps to add to this part of the van, but otherwise the bed and storage area is done! Meanwhile, we’ve been working hard on other cabinets, and collecting items for our solar set-up. Stay tuned for pictures 🙂

Kim and Graham

8 thoughts on “DIY VanLife: GMC Savana Camperization – Bed, Storage, Kitchen

  1. Hey guys I can give you some good advice about 12v systems/rv electrical/batteries since I have done a fair amount of work with them. Looks good so far!

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  2. Amaze balls! So jealous! One thing worries me – are you going to put the propane tank outside while you sleep? Even a tiny leak could fill up a space that small over night – and then any static spark could cause an explosion. Probably not a likely thing to happen, but I've heard stories! Keep up the good work you two. Ya'll are motivating fer sure. p.s. please come visit 🙂

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  3. Thanks Michelle! Ya, cooking outside pretty much solves the carbon monoxide problem, but not a potential propane leak problem. We haven't fully decided what to do yet, but are thinking of getting a monitor 🙂

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  4. The whole system design really depends on what you want it to do for you. You have to decide what you expect out of it, ie do you want just a few lights, and the ability to charge a cell phone or do want to do more and incorporate an inverter as well? Also the battery is going to have to be recharged properly, so you will likely need to install a battery isolator so that the alternator can charge it as you drive. But it looks to me like you guys chose a group 24 or 27 deep cycle battery for your box there. It would also be a good idea to vent the box outside somehow because the battery will give off hydrogen gas as it is charged.

    So what are your electrical needs?

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  5. I will add to the part about the battery isolator. I saw earlier in your post you said diode, which I assume you are talking about installing a diode based battery isolator. I would not recommend using this type because the voltage drop will be too great and will end up undercharging your battery and getting very slow charge rates. You will want a solenoid type because there is almost no voltage drop. I don't know if this will let me post urls but here, this is what you want, available from any rv store for under 20 bucks
    http://www.etrailer.com/Merchant2/graphics/00000001/pics/T/R/TR118665_1000.jpg
    I might also hit up Grahams facebook to give more details
    Also you will want run at least #6 gauge wire for this battery

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  6. Hi I found your site by mistake when i was searching yahoo for this acne issue, I must say your site is really helpful I also love the design, its amazing!. I don’t have the time at the moment to fully read your site but I have bookmarked it and also add your RSS feeds. I will be back in a day or two. thanks for a great site.
    consumer reports mattresses

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