Next to wiring the electricity, building cabinets was something I was really nervous about. I have not done a lot of wood-working, and cabinets require a lot of precise skills. The last thing I want are lop-sided cabinets with wonky shelves that don't stay closed. In reality, the cabinets only took a couple weeks to do, and for the most part, turned out pretty well. In the original layout plan, I knew I wanted a bed that can convert into a sofa. Allowing an open walkway increases the usable space in the van, both visually and functionally. This left the other half of the van to be used as storage. Because of this design, the storage space needed to to reach from floor to ceiling.
My first piece of advise is to use 3D modeling software to plan everything out. This will save you so much time. Once you have it designed, it's a matter of making a cut list and cutting it out. Google has free design software called SketchUp. Pretty straightforward to use. I use the software for both the overall layout and designing each piece of furniture. In designing the bedside storage, I knew I needed a couple of large spaces for bouldering pads (super bulky), as well as ample storage for clothes, other climbing gear, and an assortment of photography equipment. The design we settled on was a large storage space on the bottom half, which shelving of various sizes at the top.
Things you need:
- Plywood - I went with 3/4" prefinished birch. It's a bit more expensive, but saves an extra step of having to apply a finish yourself. Behind the shelving, I lined the entire wall with 1/4" plywood. For doors, I used 1/2" prefinished birch.
- Braces - This ran the length of the cabinet to provide extra stability and an additional anchor point to the van walls
- Tablesaw, circular saw, jigsaw. Get a blade with a high tooth count, specifically for plywood
- Pocket jig and pocket screws. I used a Kreg Pocket Jig.
- Self-drilling wafer screws - used to attach wood to metal. Secures the piece to the van
- T-square or rafter square.
- Hinges, latches, and pulls for doors
One of the first problems to address is the curvature of the van wall. The van walls are widest at the bottom and slowly taper in (repeat, no straight lines in the van!) If you drop a straight line down from the ceiling, the difference in width is around 6 inches. To cut the sides of the cabinet to match the curvature of the wall, I used cheap rigid foam insulation and cut a rectangle the same size as the plywood. I then used climbing tape and taped a sharpie to the end of a long stick. I held the foam in the place where the shelf sides would go, as close to the van wall as possible. I then used the stick to trace the contour of the wall, which in turn drew the contour on the foam with the sharpie. I cut out the contour, and bingo! A template of the van curves. This was transferred onto the plywood and cut out with the jigsaw. Use a high tooth count blade (Bosch 101AO).
Another issue I ran into was having the build the shelves inside the van while i installed them. Because of the size of this unit, the shelving would not fit in the van door, and the van roof/sides would prevent it from tipping upright. So building it outside of the van, where I could check for squareness and levelness, was not possible. To help ensure the shelves were standing upright, square, and level, I used the floor as a reference and used a rafter square when putting everything together. That way, everything was square relative to the floor.
In theory, this seemed right. Add that the van was parked on a sloped street and that a 6 foot piece wood are rarely perfectly straight, everything became a little off. But this wasn't noticeable until I tried to install the doors (more to come).
Overall, building the shelves went relatively smoothly. Using the Kreg Pocket Jig made it really simple to put together and it went by rather quickly. I then used the self-drilling wafer screws to secure the shelving to the van. These went in both the ceiling as well as the wall. The sides were also secured to the floor using pocket holes and long screws.
Next, I measured out the spaces for the doors and cut them out of 1/2" prefinished birch plywood. At this point, I applied iron-on pre-finished edgebanding to all the exposed plywood edges. This gives it a clean finished look. Unfortunately, edgebanding only comes in two sizes and has to be trimmed down to be flush with the wood. I learned how to do this using a single cut mill bastard file. After you use an iron to melt the glue, hold the flat side of the file slightly raised at an angle from the cabinet face and file inward. The narrow edge of the file will cut the edgebanding against the cabinet corner. I did this to all the door sides, as well as to the exposed edges in the shelving.
After edgebanding was done, i installed the hinges on the doors. I decided to use black coated iron strap hinges and pulls. I liked the rustic look it gave the doors and definitely makes the interior feel more cabin-like. For the sliding door, I used a plastic friction track for bypass doors. This track does not rely on any moving hardware like a closet door. The track nailed into the floor and into the middle of the cabinet.
Installing the doors were a nightmare. When doors are square but the cabinet itself is not quite, it really exacerbates any slight crookedness. For the storage shelves, I decided to fully inlay the doors, so that they set flush with the sides of the cabinet. However, I did not allow myself enough clearance between the doors. So when installed, everything fit together really tight. After adjusting some of the holes and filing the edges more, the doors were finally able to close. The larger doors do not meet perfectly in the middle. At the top, it probably has a 1/16" gap, whereas at the bottom it's at least a 1/4". Not perfect, and bugs me every time i look at it. Perhaps in the future I will try to fix it, but for a first try in cabinet making, it wasn't horrible.
- Take measures to prevent chip-out in plywood. Plywood chips like crazy and it will drive you insane. To prevent it, use a high tooth count saw blade and make sure it's set at the right height. Also, score your cut with a utility knife and use painters tape on the exit cut side. Chip outs are especially bad doing cross cuts
- If possible, build the shelves in a level space and install them. Thought it was not possible in this case, it will save you headaches
- Leave ample room when measuring and cutting doors. I think I added 1/8" to my measurements, but under-cut some of my lines.
- T-Squares and Rafter Squares are your friends
- Edgeband before you install. Edgebanding the shelves after they were installed was kind of annoying. Using a file is harder at weird angles.
- Furniture making is much easier with a pocket jig. They are expensive, but worth it.
- Inset doors are tough as a first attempt. Measurements and cuts need to be pretty precise. I believe overlay doors (which i used in the kitchen) left a little more room for error. Or at least, errors are less noticeable.