Welcome, and thanks for being here!
The “Canavan” is a 2016 Mercedes Benz Sprinter 144″ WB Cargo van in Blue grey, with a 2.1L 4-cylinder engine and two-wheel drive. It was custom ordered from the dealer in September, and arrived later in December. The build mission was as follows:
- Create a rolling, fully functional kitchen that encourages cooking delicious meals in remote locations.
- Have designated and easily accessible storage for a ton of recreational gear.
- Find a good balance between project cost, time committed, and quality of build. Create something of value, but don’t go overboard.
If you’re arriving to this site after reading 284 other build diaries, you can skip to the most innovative parts of this one:
- Custom Headliner Shelf
- Underseat Diesel Fired Webasto Heater
- Outdoor Propane Shower
- Gear Garage
- Range, Oven & Undermount Propane Tank
- DIY Roof Rack & Solar Panel Integration
Our needs are probably different, and there seems to be endless information out there on van builds, but don’t get lost in the noise. This build was just a sampling of other builds’ ideas/layouts/functions, and would encourage you to approach it in a similar manner – choose the best options that suits you and your lifestyle. If you feel the need to understand all the options available, I’d recommend checking out this comprehensive build guide. I opted to NOT buy the guide and regret that decision – it would have saved so much time flip-flopping between the varied opinions that you will find online.
Time & Cost Commitment
About 6 months of planning went into the rig, but I think you need quite a bit less. A foundational amount of research is necessary, but I would encourage that you spend less time making up your mind, and more getting to it!
The actual build consisted of 3 months of half-assing it, and 2 months of full-assing it. Then about four weeks of tinkering/making things fit. 99% of the build was performed by one, while working a full-time job. More help, or less work = less build time!
$20K CAD is the rough total, which I was able to finance through salary cash flow during the build phase (no time to spend it anywhere else). Living on a budget helps too!
A shop and tools are necessary, experience is optional.
I rented a room in a (pretty dang nice) house with half of the garage to be outfitted as a workshop for $850 a month. My roommate/landlord was cool, and ended up being very supportive of the build process throughout. Be upfront, honest, reasonable in your timing and expectations, respectful of the property, and you won’t have any issues here. Don’t get caught up on this part and discourage yourself from starting!
Check and see if you have a local tool library. We have one in Calgary with annual dues of $60. Not a typo. $60 to borrow pretty much any tool for two weeks at a time. There were a few things that are needed for an extended period of time, a drill, bit set, tablesaw, clamps etc. I borrowed most of these items from friends who weren’t doing winter projects (cause it’s cold as heck), but probably spent $200 on tools (metal hole saws are expensive), and then donated them to the tool library! Feel good points here.
On the experience front – you don’t need much. I made a skateboard jump when I was 12, which is the extent of my woodworking career. Mechanically a bit more inclined, rebuilding an audi engine, eventually… only after bending valves on the first two attempts.
There are unlimited resources out there for each constituent part of the van build (Electrical, woodworking, fastening etc). What you really need is a humble approach, a desire to learn, and a bit of mental fortitude. Some moments will be hard, but you can totally do this.
Also – you’ll need an Amazon Prime membership. No joke. I bought most of my supplies from Amazon, two day shipping to my office, then just took it home with me. Saved many trips to the hardware store but don’t worry… you’ll get plenty of those too.
Heating is essential for four seasons use. A Webasto Air Top STC 2000 diesel-fired heater was installed underneath the passenger seat, which is a great location as to not impede on the living space.
It is a balancing act: choosing a heater that has enough gusto to keep the living space toasty warm, but not the potential to turn the van into a sauna. After reading about the overkill experienced with more powerful models, the Air Top 2000 STC became the natural choice. Fun fact, it uses 0.12 to 0.24 liters per hour, only on the higher side when outside temperatures are -20 celsius, or lower.
The exhaust channels behind the passenger wheel fender, and air intake goes towards the rear of the van. Electrical and fuel line for the pump runs through a conduit between the seats, and out a conveniently located, pre-existing hole above the fuel tank. The 10′ controller harness is the perfect length to route through the same conduit, behind the galley, and end up on a panel surface next to the sink! The detailed write up on the heater install can be found here.
Insulation to capture that warmth is also important. A lot of time can be invested in trying to fill up every nook and gap… but ultimately there will be exposed steel that conducts heat/cold from the outside. The 80/20 rule applies here! I filled major voids with varying sizes of XPS Rigid foam insulation, minor ones with spray foam, and some EcoBatt insulation in tough-to-fill areas. There is a 1/2″ of XPS underneath the Luxury Vinyl Tile floor, too. After a weekend test run, I put a layer of Reflectix behind the finished wall panels which made a huge difference in keeping heat out. In almost all the build DIY’s i’ve read, Reflectix has been used somewhere in the layering of insulation.
Roof fan options are available, but the Fantastic Fan 7350 seems to be the gold standard. Rain sensing, temperature controlled, and comes with a REMOTE! The thought of drilling and cutting holes in the roof to install this one was overwhelming, so I spent a few days making excuses, how I was “taking my time” and trying to “enjoy the build process without rushing” before getting started. Full on procrastinating. In hindsight, it’s really not a hard job. For a thoughtful touch, I installed $20 of hand-planed black walnut as trim around the fan, which gives the fixture screws something to bite into on the inside.
Solar panels are the best way to keep you topped up when parked for longer periods. This 200W Renogy kit from Amazon comes with a charge controller and weatherproof connectors, which ingress through this combiner box located just in front of the roof ran.
On the topic of roof racks: they can be costly accessory for your build. I was quoted $4,500 for a custom, aluminum rack. I’m not poor… but I certainly would be after eating that bill. I used a combo of elevator bolts (use these fasteners instead) and unistrut aluminum to create cross bars that support the solar panels up front, and a 4×6′ cedar deck and a Thule roof box. A prime design rear door ladder gets you access to the goods… and let me tell you, it’s nice up here!
Having the added vantage point, and place to relax and enjoy the sunset, is really fantastic. The entire setup came in under $600 CAD, including the renogy solar kit. More on the roof rack & patio build here.
Batteries make storing the juice is easy, too! These two Golf Cart Batteries located underneath each seat, connected in series by battery cable, hold 200 amp hours of the tingly sparky stuff. While lithium ion batteries can be attractive, the value for money of the lead acid batteries are hard to beat.
When the engine is on, the Sure Power Battery Separator under the seat flips open, and assists with charging the house system. This is necessary in the winter months!
Just when you thought it was getting pretty crowded under there, this Xantrex 1500W remote-switch inverter squeezes in too! This one has a remote switch, and after extending the stock GFI outlet with some household wiring, all is nicely accessible next to the galley sink. The unit runs a Ninja Blender (1000W, perfect van size) without issue.
The Solar charge controller for the Renogy kit fits nicely on the outside of the seat podium, allowing for use of some existing accessory holes to run wires.
The balance of wiring can be found heading to a marine-grade fuse panel located behind the controls. The fridge and fan feed directly into it, where the other accessories route through a switch panel, which also has some handy USB and DC outlets. Fortunately, the panel now comes with the switch labels off. Clean look, and affordable!
Other kitchen related items to consider are: A modern stainless sink, which includes most drain accessories to send the water into this 5 gal grey water tank. All that was needed is plumbing fitting and a short piece of vinyl tubing to connect the two. A rubber strap and some eye screws to secure the tank to the interior of the cabinet wall, making it easy to empty by hand every few days. Manual emptying sure beats waiting in line at an RV pump-out station!
The freshwater component is a 80L Tank, flowing into this simple faucet by the power of a 12v automatic marine pump – which has enough gusto to power the outdoor shower as well. The tank rests on a plywood bench over the rear passenger wheel. Large enough to go a week without filling up, yet short and narrow to allow the mountain bike handlebars to clear the top and the sides.
Cabinets are constructed out of primarily 3/4″ Baltic Birch, joined with brad nails and dowel pins. Using a handy jig for what’s known as dowel joinery, it all managed to go together like lego despite having no carpentry skills. The stain is a gel based dark walnut, finished with a protective polyurethane coat.
The counter tops are a laminate, which is applied with contact cement and trimmed with a router. The vision here was to have something refined, yet rustic by leaving the plywood edges exposed, which also happens to be easier than fussing with laminate edge caps! Looking good with less effort.
The cabinet carcasses are secured to the floor via a 1-5/8″ unistrut frame, which also allows for toe kick room. This unistrut is secured to the vehicle subframe via the existing cargo floor mounts. Rivet nuts are also used to secure the back of the cabinet/wardrobe to the steel frame ribs along the interior of the van.
Early build days. Galley in place and island cabinet about to go in.
Drawer Slides are something that you don’t want to cheap out on. Who wants to star in Final Destination 17 with a basket of sharp knives flying towards the dash? Then you need these: Knape & Vogt 8400 RV Model 18″, and the 12″ version for thinner cabinets.
These require a significant pulling force to overcome the latch spring. 21 sliding drawers later and a few thousand kilometres – nothing has opened during transit yet!
There are three sliding units: Bikes, utility, and the Ski/Climb rack. The original idea of modular sliding racking was stolen from this dude, then improved upon (your words, Dakota!).
The heavy duty locking sliders are key for maximizing utility of the space and ultra accessibility. They lock automatically in the open/close position, where pulling the levers releases the latch. The trays themselves are a plywood base, covered with luxury vinyl tile (flooring leftovers), and trimmed with aluminum extrusion
The bike tray measures 17″ x 60″ and happily secures via fork mounts two enduro style bikes, or one MTB and a touring/road bike. This one requires a 48″ slider.
Storage in the centre is a 14″ x 36″ plywood box, with two front and two side accessible drawers, along with 6″ of top-load storage area for misc stuff that you want to keep handy. This heavier guy uses a 36″ slider.
Lastly, the Ski/Climb rack was custom made with aluminum C channel, very rigid, light, and inexpensive in materials. Everything is fastened with nuts and bolts. Have you ever played with Kinex? This was a lot like that. There is room for 5/6 pairs of skis on the left (or other long things, like a SUP paddle), and a ton of space on the right for climbing gear. You can rack it however you’d like! This one extends 30″ to gain access to the climbing gear.
In reflection, I wish I had left the centre open for a few totes with gear/parts and other loose storage. Not having a place to put a piece of luggage, or a full backpack, can sometimes be a pain. On the bright side of having to neatly repack your gear after each session means there’s no more forgotten lunches going moldy back there!
Low profile unistrut over the wall covering makes an angled rack for whatever you desire. I put surfboards on the left wall, and some utility hooks on the right for coiling the hose and securing camp chairs.
On the left door I mounted a bike repair stand to make as-needed repairs a breeze.
This Eccotemp L5 propane shower is cheap, compact, and works with an existing pressurized water system. Only two things were needed to supply the unit: 1) Splice in to the existing, post-regulator propane line 2) Tee an auxiliary hose off the water pump. A propane shop made quick work of the splice, and I barely handled the water side myself outside a Home Depot. Parking lot jobs never go that smooth.
Both lines coil up cleanly when stowed, and extend out to quick-connect receivers installed on the Eccotemp unit when in use.
Insulated Window covers keep the peepers out in the city, and the heat in during the winter.
Fortunately, there is a high-quality, low cost option available from Eurocampers for the front cabin. Back when I completed my build, only the RB Components covers were available. I took one look at the price and said “what a rip, buildin’ em myself!” only to get slapped with a fabrics bill of roughly the same amount – plus a massive amount of cutting and sewing still to complete.
From outside to inside they are layered reflectix, thinsulate, patio fabric, joined with 3m spray adhesive. The side windows are large and have sag potential, so we included a vertical dowel to give it some rigidity but still allow it to be rolled up. Storage is made possible by a cubby above the portable toilet, eyelet screws and shock cord, which makes elastic storage cubbies for each individual cover.
You will, without a doubt, leave this blog with more questions than answers. The permutations of options just keeps growing! Remember, the Sprinter Van Build Guide can serve as a fantastic information baseline – saving you countless hours of forum dwelling and indecision. If it saves you one hour, that’s worth the $40 right there.
Questions? Comments? If you’re thinking about building a van, or actively in the process, I’d love to help however I can. Leave a note below!
Also, If you're interested in experiencing the van life yourself, I'd definitely recommend trying before buying. Outdoorsy, a global marketplace for peer to peer RV rentals, offers cool, unique conversions that are worth looking at. Check out the widget below to see some vans you can rent for your next outdoor adventure!