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The Van Conversion Series: Timber Ceiling And Walls

Tuesday 17th December 2019
By Ely Power
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By Ely Power

Transform Your Living Space With Plywood And Panelling

Now that the flooring is laid, you’re ready to clad the ceiling and walls!

When it comes to van ceiling ideas and wall inspiration, there’s no material as timeless and charming as timber. There’s just something special about the natural warmth and unique patterns of each plank. Placed together, they create a sense of serenity in your living space, blending in with the wilderness beyond.

For this stage of your van conversion, we recommend using two quality materials: plywood sheets and tongue and groove panels. It’s up to you to decide where you want to install them - affix the same material to both your ceiling and walls, or mix it up between the two! 

Whether you go for head-to-toe panelling, a plywood ceiling with tongue and groove walls or timber ceiling panels and a plywood wall lining, you’ll end up with that cosy cabin feel! To get you on your way, we’ve outlined the pros and cons of each material, as well as some handy tips for their installation and staining. 

As a van owner, you can earn over $10,000 each year by hiring it out on Camplify. As a holidaymaker, Camplify helps you to find the perfect rental so that you can experience the joys of van life without having to own one yourself. 

Interested? Learn more about Camplify here.

Plywood Walls

If you’re after a cheap, quick and easy build, then thin plywood sheets (about 7mm) are your new best friend. The awesome thing about plywood is how pliable it is, bending easily to your van’s contours.

Plywood comes in a variety of types, the most popular of which are pine or lauan (for their price points and grain patterns). You can also find hardwood plywood, which is a solid option for furniture and fixtures. However, it is generally heavier, more expensive and less bendable, making pine or lauan a better bet for walls and ceilings!

For those working with a larger budget, cedar plywood not only looks lovely, it’s also mould and mildew resistant - which is a big bonus if you plan to camp in hot, humid destinations! That said, it’s harder to source, a little bit fragile, and can cost up to five times more than pine or lauan.

  • Very affordable
  • Simple to cut, trim and drill
  • Bends easily
  • Available in a range of different types
  • Stains well
  • Looks-wise, it just doesn’t have the same wow factor as panels

How To Line Your Walls With Plywood

  1. Optional - attach pine studs down the length of the cabin (such as on either side of each metal rib) to prevent screws being drilled directly into your vehicle’s frame.
  2. Hold cardboard up to your target section, measuring and marking its dimensions.
  3. Cut a cardboard template.
  4. Test your template, trimming where necessary to get as flush a fit as possible. 
  5. Once you’re happy with it, trace your template onto plywood sheeting. 
  6. Use a jigsaw to cut along this trace.
  7. To cut out space for your window, puncture four corners with a drill bit before joining the holes with a jigsaw.
  8. Test fit your plywood - although your template has been trimmed, you’ll probably have to trim your plywood sheeting as well to make it a perfect fit.
  9. Affix your plywood to the studs or metal body with self-drilling metal screws, which can pierce through the plywood and into the frame without having to drill pilot holes. Just don’t screw into your van’s exterior sheet!
  10. Do it all over again with the rest of your plywood sheeting! 

Tongue And Groove Walls

If you’re looking to turn your van into a relaxing retreat, there’s no better option than tongue and groove wall panels. A defining feature of any van conversion, panels will fill your cabin with character and create a warm, inviting atmosphere wherever you roam. 

Pine and cedar panelling are both solid options for your van build. As mentioned above, cedar panelling will set you back more but looks amazing and is resistant to mould and mildew. Pine, on the other hand, costs less, looks great and delivers on durability, too. 

Whichever type you choose, we suggest using 7mm boards. Thinner panelling is lighter, cheaper, takes up less space and can bend to your van’s curved surfaces.

The only downside is that tongue and groove installation requires more effort than that of plywood. You’ll be cutting and drilling a lot more, always having to double check whether your lines are straight. But if you have the patience to get the job done, tongue and groove panels are definitely worth the extra work!

  • Creates the ultimate cosy cabin vibe, looking and feeling fantastic
  • If installed correctly, panelling can follow the arc of your van’s curved surfaces
  • Not as easy to install as plywood
  • Not as cheap as plywood

How To Install Tongue And Groove Wall Panels

  1. Optional - attach pine studs down the length of the cabin to prevent screws being drilled directly into your vehicle’s frame.
  2. Measure your wall and ceiling dimensions to determine how many panels you’ll need and where to place each one.*
  3. Cut your panels with a circular saw. If you need to make more intricate cuts and trims, use a handheld jigsaw.
  4. Beginning at what will be the bottom row, get one person to hold a panel in place while the other drills it into the stud or metal rib with self-drilling screws. Just be careful not to pierce your van’s exterior sheet if you don’t have studs!
  5. Position subsequent panelling with the help of the tongue and groove of each board.

*Pro tip:Plan your cuts carefully so that the end of every board is positioned near a pine stud or metal rib for smooth attachment. Don’t place a screw too near a board’s end, either, or it could split!

Creating A Timber Ceiling

First Things First

Before you install your timber ceiling panels or plywood sheets, you’ll need to complete a few crucial steps:

About That Lighting...

If you’re going to install 12V LED spotlights in your ceiling, you’ll need to cut holes to thread their wiring through. Here’s how to do it:

  1. When you reach the row that will hold the lighting, fit a board in the tongue and groove to measure and mark exactly where each light will be.
  2. Take the board down and use a drill and hole saw to cut holes for the lights.
  3. Afterwards, screw the board into the ceiling, feeding the lights’ wiring through each respective hole for lighting installation later on.

Hanging Your Ceiling

You line your ceiling pretty much the same way you do the walls. That said, there are a few roof-specific tips to follow, especially when it comes to tongue and groove ceiling installation:

Your van will likely curve as it reaches the ceiling, tapering at the top of your wall. So to avoid losing valuable space, don’t use a single stud straight from floor to ceiling. Usually, the simplest way to follow the arc is to cut your pine stud into three sections, placing them beside the van’s metal studs.

Alternatively, you can double up the studs on the highest sections of your ceiling to even out the surface. While this will make lining your ceiling easier, bare in mind that you’ll also lose precious height and headroom. 

Once your studs are in, hang your panels one row at a time, switching between the driver’s side and passenger’s side as you go. The aim is to have both sides meet in the middle, so make sure to measure this out beforehand.

Don’t panic if you find that your two sides are meeting at an angle! It just means you’ll just have to cut the middle row to fit between them. Trace the shape of the gap by holding a board up to it and marking the angle. Then cut along this trace with a jigsaw, testing and trimming to make it slot in seamlessly. 

And hey, even if it doesn’t end up being 100% neat and tidy, the great thing about timber is that imperfections only add to its rustic vibe!

Complete The Look With Timber Stain

Has anyone ever disliked stained tongue and groove ceiling?

While your walls and ceiling will already look beautiful, a timber stain gives that magic touch your van deserves. Enhancing grain patterns while adding depth and contrast to each panel, staining will take your walls and ceiling to the next level! 

  1. Take everything out of your van and put down a drop sheet to protect that precious floor of yours.
  2. Put on gloves or you’ll stain your hands, too!
  3. Dip a lint-free cloth into the stain, wiping your walls and ceiling in a circular motion. Begin at one end of your van and continue until you reach a natural finishing point. 
  4. After five minutes or so (the longer you leave it, the darker the color will turn out), go back and wipe over your work with a clean rag to get rid of excess stain.
  5. To create a mismatched look, use a bunch of random stain colors as you go.
  6. Use a small paint brush to stain the little cracks between each panel.
  7. If you’re going for a darker shade, apply a second coat after two hours. Then allow the stain to dry overnight.
  8. Add a polyurethane top coat the next day. This will seal and protect your timber, creating a sheen that enhances the stain underneath.

And that’s it: step back and admire your handiwork - your van has been transformed from an empty shell into what feels like a real living space! It’s not long now until you’re hitting the road in this dream conversion. All you need are some furnishings and electricity to bring it to life. 

To find out how Camplify can work with you and your RV, register today here.

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