When you intend on downsizing your life into a tiny van you will quickly learn that storage is key. Building overhead cabinets in a van offer a great deal of storage and are relatively unintrusive – a win, win situation.
Prerequisites: Install Walls and a Ceiling
Step 1: Finalise the layout of the overhead cabinets in your van
When deciding where and how many overhead cabinets to install in a van there are a few things you should take into consideration:
- How much storage you need
- Where to position the cabinets
- If you are going to use standard-sized (shop-bought) door fronts
1. How much storage you need
Trying to fit your life into a small box can be difficult, therefore we think that there is no such thing as too much storage. You will need storage for clothes, kitchen wear, towels, toiletries, and much much more – many things you won’t even realise until you hit the road!
2. Where to position the overhead cabinets in your van
Although it may be tempting to completely line the walls with cabinets, it is not advised. It will instantly make your already small van feel even smaller. We recommend placing a couple of cabinets at each side of the van but staggered (to not close in the space).
It is also important to consider what’s underneath the cabinet e.g. seating or kitchen etc. This will influence the depth and height of the cabinets.
For reference: we have 2 cabinets above our kitchen, and 2 above our sofa area. They are 300mm deep and are 300mm in height. We believe this is ample storage for our needs!
3. What door fronts you are using.
If possible, we recommend creating overhead cabinets that adhere to standard door front sizes as this will allow you to save time. IKEA cabinet fronts come in a range of sizes and should work in most spaces.
Step 2: Create the front structure (figure of 8)
The front panel should resemble a figure of 8. This design is extremely strong and will be the foundation of the cabinet build.
- 2x 44x18mm battens to the width of your cabinets (1330mm)
- 3x 44x18mm battens to the height of your cabinets minus 80mm – these battens sit between the 2 long battens (220mm)
Secure the structure together using pocket holes in the positions shown in the diagram above.
Step 3: Modify the front structure to allow for hinges
Once the basic structure is complete, it is time to add additional pieces of wood to the structure to accommodate the base and the hinges.
- 4x 44x18mm battens to the same length of the short battens in step 2 + 30mm (250mm)
Attach the battens to the back of the figure of 8 frame. They should be flush with the edge of the panel as the hinge needs this area to attach to. The battens should be positioned with 15mm hanging over each end onto the large horizontal battens.
Secure these battens in place using pocket hole screws.
Note: when picking the placement for the screws, check where the hinge screws into the wood. This will allow you to pick a placement that doesn’t conflict with the position of the hinge.
Step 4: Attach a batten to the bottom of the figure of 8.
The next step is to attach a batten that will eventually support the base of the overhead cabinets.
This batten will run the full width of the cabinet and fit snuggly beneath the vertical battens installed in step 3.
- 1x 44x18mm battens to the width of your cabinets (1330mm)
Secure this batten in place using a combination of pocket holes and regular 25mm screws.
Firstly, use 4 screws, these will go directly into the vertical battens. Make sure to use a pilot hole and screw slowly to avoid the batten splitting. If you think the batten is splitting, do not proceed! It will be plenty secure without them, it just makes it easier to align the batten for the pocket hole screws, and takes away the need to use clamps. Use 2-4 pocket holes evenly spaced on the underside of the batten as this will eventually be covered with plywood.
Step 5: Cut the base panel of the cabinet
Once you have decided on the depth of your cabinet, it is time to cut the base panel.
We recommend using 5mm plywood as it is strong (when spanning short distances) and lightweight – an important factor when building a van.
- 5mm plywood to the length x depth of the overhead cabinet
We recommend a depth of 300-400mm as it is reasonably unobtrusive – making the space feel as open as possible whilst still providing ample storage.
Step 6: Secure a batten to the roof
Firstly, you will need to decide how far out from the wall in your van you want the overhead cabinets to be.
Note: 300mm is the widest point of our cabinet – from the back wall to the bottom of the cabinet. The cabinet is approximately 50mm smaller at the top due to the curvature of the wall.
Unfortunately, van walls are not straight making this process a little bit trickier. There is no easy way to find out how far out to place the batten on the roof.
We found placing the bottom panel against the wall whilst holding the figure of 8 structure up is the best starting point. From then we used a spirit level to roughly guide us into position. After a lot of trial and error, we trusted our gut and just went with what felt (and looked) right! It’s so easy to get caught up in the small details.
- 44x18mm batten the width of your cabinet (1330mm)
This batten will be secured to the roof with 30mm screws. Prior to screwing the batten to the roof. Identify where the roof battens are and try to screw into them as it will provide a stronger connection.
Find out how to install a roof here!
Step 7: Secure a batten to the back wall
- 44x18mm batten the width of your cabinet (1330mm)
Attach a batten the width of your overhead cabinet to the back wall of your van. Ideally, you will have strategically positioned the framing of the van so that you can screw into the framing for a strong connection.
The batten should be positioned 5mm above the depth of the cabinet – this is to allow the base panel to be attached underneath for a seamless finish.
Step 8: Create the cabinet door fronts (OPTIONAL)
If you intend on using door fronts that are bought from a retailer skip to Step 9.
We opted to create our door fronts out of 12mm plywood for a couple of reasons:
- It’s cheap
- It’s strong
- It will eventually have a sleek, smooth finish
- … and mainly because we have a LOT of it left over!
- 1 piece of plywood to the entire length of the cabinet
Note: if the end of the cabinet is exposed (e.g. not enclosed) you may wish to make the plywood panel 5mm longer at each end. This will cover the end panels/battens and create a modern look.
Cut this large piece into 2 (or however many doors you need) using a circular saw. The width of the blade will create the perfect gap when you eventually attach the doors to the cabinet.
You may wish to make a mark on the top left corner of each door to remind you of the exact orientation of the doors when it comes to fitting them.
Step 9: Paint the overhead cabinets in your van
Now that all the essential pieces have been cut to size paint (or stain) them. We recommend applying at least one coat as this will make life a little bit easier for you further down the line.
Step 10: Attach the hinges
Firstly, you must decide what type of hinges you want. We knew we wanted hinges that didn’t require any support to keep the doors open – that’s why we chose these spring-loaded hinges from Screwfix. They are incredibly strong and mean that not only can they hold the doors up, they are also so tight that they do not need any additional locking system on the door to stop it from flying open during transit.
Installing the hinges is relatively straight forward. Just make sure you position the hinges at the top corner of the figure of 8 frame and push them so they are flush with the front.
Simply screw them into position and they will be good to go.
Step 11: Attach the door fronts
Lay the figure of 8 frame on the floor with the hinges open. Place a piece of rigid cardboard or thin plywood (we used an aqua panel (2.5mm) on top of the frame above the hinges – this will act as a spacer so that your doors have enough room for the hinges to operate. It also helps with aligning them and making the finish look uniform.
Place the door in position and using a bradawl (or similar pointy tool) create an indent on the back of the door where you will be screwing into it.
Note: we recommend only putting one screw in on each hinge, and then checking how it looks. If you are satisfied, continue adding the other 2 screws to each hinge.
Remove the door and put 12mm screws into the door where you have marked – they only need to be 50% in.
Place the door back onto the hinges and slide it into position. The hinges must be in the closed position to achieve this.
Tighten the screws up and open the door to check it works.
Note: these hinges are quite aggressive and may open quicker than expected.
Step 12: Install the frame (and cabinet fronts)
This requires 2 people.
Note: the door fronts must be attached to the figure of 8 frame when installing the overhead cabinets.
Firstly, hold the frame with the doors attached in position. Mark on the back of the frame where the screws on the batten attached to the roof are. This will ensure you do not accidentally screw into another screw.
Next, mark where you intend to screw through the frame. Drill pilot holes and countersink them too.
Note: Do NOT screw into the wood as high as possible, this will make it difficult for a screwdriver to access the screws. We recommend screwing approximately 12-15mm down from the roof in order to securely bite into the batten behind and to avoid damaging the roof when installing.
One person needs to hold the frame steadily in position whilst the other screws through the frame into the batten. We recommend using 30mm screws.
Step 13: Install the base
This requires 2 people.
Firstly, mark onto the base where the screws are on the underside of the figure of 8 frame and on the batten attached to the back wall. Next, mark where you intend to screw through the base. We opted for 6 screws at each side to provide ample strength to the base.
Drill and countersink the base. We recommend partially screwing the screws into the base prior to installing it.
Next, lift the base into position and firmly screw it in using 20mm screws. Check to see if it is capable of bearing plenty of weight. If you aren’t satisfied, you can always add more screws for extra strength.
Step 14: Cut and Attach the side panels
The side panels are reasonably visible and therefore accuracy is key when creating these bespoke pieces. The most important element to get right is finessing the curve of the back wall – this will elevate the look of your van – people will think you are a true carpenter!
Using a makeshift curve template tool, carefully craft a cardboard template by following the unique curves of your van. An element of trial and error is required to get the perfect curve.
Once satisfied, trace around the cardboard template onto 5mm plywood.
Use a jigsaw to cut them out. Trial fit the panel and make any necessary adjustments to it until you are completely happy.
Secure it into position using 20mm screws. Make sure to countersink them and caulk over them for a sleek finish.
Creating kitchen cabinets can be time-consuming and a little bit frustrating. The need to account for your van’s unique curves makes everything a bit more challenging than initially suspected.
This step-by-step guide was designed to take the guesswork out of building overhead cabinets in a van! We have prioritised space whilst keeping the cabinets extremely lightweight – something a lot of other methods don’t account for!
Feel free to ask us questions regarding overhead cabinets, whether it is about materials, price, time, or whatever else. You can always find us in the comments.
Next Step: Installing the kitchen unit