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  • Writer's pictureRacquel Foran, Publisher

Van Helen Gets a Makeover

Small projects can make a big difference.

I am excited to inform our readers that after nine months of campervan ownership, and well in time for the new vanventure season, we gave the interior of Van Helen a much-needed interior makeover. One of the big selling points when we purchased this campervan was the amazing shape she was in, particularly the interior. Most importantly, it did not smell as old vehicles often do. All the interior finishing – walls, ceilings, cupboards, sink, fridge, and stovetop – were in great condition. But everything about the interior screamed 1989 and there were a few things that had to go. Specifically, the carpet!

Yep, you read right. The entire van floor was a lovely pale pink plush carpet. Not even auto carpet – the home interior stuff! But I remember people putting carpet in kitchens and bathrooms in the 1980s, so a campervan from this era with carpet is not surprising. I am sure you understand why we would want to remove it though.

In addition to replacing the carpet, the foam bench seats were the originals as well, so they too had to go. The foam was completely worn out and these seats make up our bed, so we had not been sleeping well. Replacing them was high on our priority list before taking another overnight trip.

We also removed a large cabinet. Although it provided a work surface and storage, it was too big and blocked one side of the double door completely. It was so big that when we opened its doors we trapped ourselves between the cabinet and the front passenger seat. And it was UGLY!

The final big project upgrade was a new stereo. The one in the van was an aftermarket installation and whoever did it did a terrible job. It did not fit in the dash opening properly and they made no effort to try and make it look good. It was installed crooked, had wide gaps around it so you could see behind the dash. The speakers were poor quality, the stereo was old, it sounded like crap, and no Bluetooth!

Finally, we did bunch of minor décor and organizational things to spruce the old girl up. But in everything we did, we did not want to lose the original 1980’s feel. I think that you either have to go all out and swap out everything with more modern stuff or stay true to the style of the original era. Since everything was in good shape, we wanted to get the most bang for our buck, and we did not want to take on gutting the entire van, we chose to stick with the original 1980s look. That is, a ton of oak finish and dusty rose upholstery.

New Flooring

On our interior reno priority list removing the carpet was only second to new foam seats. Although the carpet looked remarkably clean, I did not like thinking about what was underneath. I know from ripping out household carpet what lurks beneath the surface, and I was not looking forward to seeing what 40 years of camping build-up looked like. But once again, it was not that bad. Despite all the owners over the years, it was pretty clean.

We decided to leave the carpet that surrounds the toilet enclosure because it is in good shape, and the maneuvering and figuring required to get the new flooring pieces cut into shape was more than we wanted to take on. We also left the carpet in the driver’s cab; there was no way that our new flooring would fit to all the slopes and angles of the cab. We gave the carpet in both these areas a good clean with our handheld carpet cleaner, and I can live with the results.

The rest of the carpet was ripped out from the back door of the van all the way up to where the carpet in the driver’s cab started. It came out really easily. It did take about an hour to pull out all the tiny carpet staples left behind – that is the finicky stuff I hate! The worst of what we found was mildew. Years of moisture never completely drying out meant there were patches of plywood that had quite a bit of mildew. We scrubbed the plywood with a mold and milder cleaner. After it dried we painted the entire surface with mold and mildew resistant bathroom paint. I feel much better now about the air we are breathing.

When it came to choosing flooring, there were a few things that we needed to consider. A big one was that it could not be too thick. There is not a lot of space between the lower cabinet doors and the floor. If the new flooring were too thick, we would not be able to open the doors. We also needed something waterproof, durable, affordable, and easy to install. We finally decided on self-adhesive faux wood vinyl planks. The brand is Eterniti. It advertises as being durable, easy-to-clean, and ideal for high-traffic areas like kitchens and bathrooms. It was only $1.59 a square foot and is only 2mm thick.

We initially thought going with the same colour oak as our walls and cabinets would be too much, but after testing half a dozen sample colours including grey, black, and different shades of brown, we decided the same colour oak was by far the best choice.

Because the flooring was so thin, it allowed us to put a foam underlay down. We again chose a kitchen and bathroom product that was moisture and mildew resistant. This underlay provides a little cushion as well as a bit of insulation. It was easy to install. All we had to do was cut it to size and staple it to the plywood floor of the van. Now we were ready to install the vinyl.

Installing the vinyl was pretty easy. Cutting pieces to size was as easy as scoring and snapping the vinyl. The most difficult part is dealing with the self-adhesive back as it is very sticky, so you need to be sure to place your pieces exactly because there is not much room to adjust once you have placed them. The one challenge was a section of the plywood behind the driver’s cab that is a bit bowed. A couple of the seams will not stick down here – we are going to find a stronger glue for this tough spots.

A lesson learned was that we should have had our trim cut and ready to install as soon as we put the flooring in. Anyone who has installed any kind of flooring knows that the trim works to hold the floor tight in place. We did not have our trim ready until the day after we installed the flooring, so it did shift a little leaving a few minor gaps. We are probably the only ones who will notice, and we plan to have area rugs covering most of the floor most of the time, so we are not too concerned.

Overall, we are thrilled with the final results. The new floor makes the whole space look cleaner and somehow bigger too! Price tag this project – including paint, foam underlay, flooring, trim, and miscellaneous was about $250.

Bench Seats

Replacing the bench seats was an absolute must because we were not sleeping well. If we cannot get a decent sleep in the van, then we are unlikely to want to take her out much. So we needed to choose foam that would be comfortable to sleep on, but we were also replacing upholstery, and this needed to tie in with existing dusty rose upholstery elsewhere that we do not plan to replace. And as mentioned, we did not want anything too modern. Getting the foam was easy. The Foam Shop close to our house and they do all manner of custom work. I was underwhelmed with their upholstery selection though. So I went searching online. It took some time, but I eventually found a pattern that both Jim and I liked (it has bears!!!), and it does an excellent job of pulling in all the other colours in the van. (A mustard yellow dash with walnut inlay; cream ceiling; dusty rose upholstery; oak finish walls and cabinet; and pale pink carpet!) We took the upholstery to The Foam Shop where they wrapped it on 4-inch semi-hard foam. We have not slept on it yet, but we have spent some time sitting on it, and the difference is amazing. We also LOVE the new look. Price tag for this little upgrade, $1,250.

Cabinet Removal and Replacement

Although the big, ugly cabinet blocking the doorway had to go, we could not afford to lose the storage space or the work surface, so we had come up with a replacement. It is these kinds of projects that Jim and I always approach differently. I am a big fan of creative solutions and thinking outside the box. Jim on the other hand likes to stay very much inside the box; everything must be done “properly.” We have spent our entire marriage doing projects together, major yard work, playhouse and shed building, and home renovations, and this is the thing that causes the most arguments. When it comes to anything mechanical or electrical I leave it to Jim, that is his wheelhouse, but for everything else I am just as able if not more so than him, so I push back.

In the case of this cabinet I was a little sly. As he was assessing the new empty space and trying to decide how he was going to “build” a new cabinet, I did not tell him what I was thinking. But what I was thinking is what we ended up doing. The cabinet we removed was roughly 24” by 24” and as mentioned, blocked one of the side doors completely rendering it useless. Our solution was to purchase two 12” by 12” prefabricated cabinets. We built these, braced them together and then mounted them to the floor and the side of the bench seat which is 24” in depth.

This left us with an uneven, 12” by 24” work surface which was not practical or big enough. So we attached a 24” by 18” maple cutting board (thank you Etsy!) to the top of the cabinets. Now this surface does still block the side door a little, but we gained six inches, and below it we gained 12”, so overall the space looks much wider open and spacious. Although we lost some storage space in terms of cabinet depth, this is a better set up because it was too difficult to reach things at the back of a 24” cabinet anyways – especially when you are on your knees with no place to move.

We are really happy with the final result. It did not break the bank, it was relatively easy to do, it is practical, and we think it looks pretty terrific! Cost of this project was approximately $200.

Stereo Replacement

This was a project that I left 100 per cent to Jim. I do not have much interest in electronics. As long as my tunes sound good, I don’t care about anything else. They did not sound good on the old stereo, and without Bluetooth we had to carry around CDs for music once we were out of radio signal. Not convenient or cool!

We gave ourselves a budget of $500 and went shopping. Jim decided on a Pioneer unit that has a built-in amplifier, Bluetooth, USB, and a microphone so the driver can take phone calls hands free. He also bought four new speakers, two for the driver’s cab and two for the back camper.

Despite what I said about Jim having to do things “properly,” when it is readily apparent that no proper way exists, he is quite good at getting creative. And man did he have to get creative with the installation of this stereo. From the cracked and broken plastic of the dash to the rat’s nest of wires he found behind it, the project was surprise followed by challenge followed by surprise followed by challenge! But he got it done.

After spending several hours tracing and marking the wires (there were an astounding number that connect to/do nothing) Jim then had to figure out how to install our new small, modern stereo into the gaping hole in the dash. His creative solution was to cut out a piece of wood the same size as the hole, with a hole cut in the middle of it to accommodate the stereo. He painted the board black and mounted the stereo onto the wood with L-brackets. He then mounted the wood onto the dash; a little complicated to explain how exactly he did this – but he did and it looks great!

Replacing the speakers was easy, except the front two speaker are mounted into the doors and the driver’s side one in particular does not have good place to mount the speaker to. We worked with what we have for now but will likely keep working on it until we are satisfied the installation is secure.

Van Helen is rockin’ now! Final cost of this upgrade $600.

Décor and Organization

To wrap up the interior reno we added a couple of decorative and organizational things. I removed the old MacTac backsplash behind the sink and replaced is with self-adhesive faux stainless tile. I am not thrilled with my installation job. That self-adhesive stuff is a bugger to work with, it sticks too quickly sometimes, and other time does not stick at all! But I do like the look; the space looks brighter and cleaner.

I replaced the ugly beige curtains with new black blackout curtains. We replaced all the heavy, faded brass cabinet handles with lighter-weight nickel finish ones. I installed a little towel rack below the sink. I found a great toilet paper stand that has a drawer that can hold toilet chemicals. And we invested in some hanging closet organizers that have made much better use of open “closet” space at the back of the campervan. This has freed up other cabinet space which makes up for the space lost replacing the cabinet.

I think all these small things make a big difference. Van Helen feels bigger, cleaner, and brighter. The total cost for these improvements was approximately $200.

Total cost of all these interior renovations, $2,500. Cost of a good night’s sleep, rockin’ tunes, and a cozy campervan for two – priceless!

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