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Build your own motor caravan

Do you fancy the challenge of constructing a motor caravan yourself? We asked technical expert John Wickersham, the renowned author of such titles as “The Motorcaravan Manual”, “Build your own Motorcaravan” and “Caravanning Handbook” for some practical advice on how to build your own motorhome or DIY self build campervan conversion.

Creating a motor caravan yourself is not as hard as it sounds. It’s true that a few self-build enthusiasts complete their projects unaided but the majority get experts to complete certain tasks.

A self-builder’s personal involvement depends on their skills. Some people do no more than ‘project manage’ the construction work without lifting a hammer themselves. Experts are brought in to complete all the jobs. At the other extreme, a few determined constructors try to do everything themselves – an approach that can lead to problems. Admittedly some people possess a wide range of skills but few are capable of achieving excellence in every single operation. What’s more, tasks like installing a gas supply system should never be tackled by inexperienced, unqualified amateur builders.

A DIY panel van converter must decide on their personal strategy. Once that point is clear, obtaining a base vehicle marks the start of the project.

Most self builders start with a pre-owned van and few experience problems. A few, buy a brand new model. Then, if they’re worried by the prospect of undertaking radical modifications, there are small-scale specialists who can undertake part-build projects e.g. undertaking more exacting jobs like fitting windows or installing a high top roof.

Irrespective of the preferred build-strategy, a finished vehicle must comply with issues of health/safety and be legal to drive on the road. One of the first “essentials” is to get your base vehicle checked on a weighbridge before commencing its conversion. This involves getting: a) a total weight check, and b) a back axle weight check. It’s best to do this with a full tank of fuel and no-one on board. Also note down if items like emergency tools were on board at the time of the check. Having obtained this information, you should then compare the confirmed weights with the limits shown on the vehicle’s data plate.

Finding parts can be one of the hardest things of all. Some DIY converters use the interiors stripped from a scrapped caravan: others purchase manufacturers’ surplus build materials, windows, doors and so on from specialists that buy end-of-line products from the manufacturers. There are also caravan breakers who may have write-offs only a year or so old and nearly new interior fittings. Heavy-duty automotive parts are sold by specialists that supply truck manufacturers and ambulance converters.

Remember throughout the fitting-out operation that weight-saving is important so avoid using domestic DIY products like chipboard. When it comes to woodwork, many techniques used in our homes are entirely inappropriate when fitting-out a motorhome. Keeping things light is obviously one issue, but there’s also the problem of movement. Roads and campsite fields can be bumpy which causes structures to move. Flexion sometimes damages traditional cabinets so the motorhome joiner uses plastic trims that disguise the gaps that often appear.

Equally, interior panelling is normally constructed using 3mm lightweight plywood. This is bonded on one face with either an imitation wood grain or a ceiling-type plasticised paper. However, you can’t buy these 3mm boards in DIY stores, whereas a supplier like Magnum Caravan Surplus stocks hundreds of 3mm sheets in all sorts of finishes.

Everyone’s preferred type of motorcaravan is a personal matter

To see what keen amateurs have achieved, check out the Self Build Motor Caravanners’ Club (SBMCC) website. Even better is to attend one of their “get-togethers”. Dozens of members attend in their project vans and the Club often attracts potential self-builders who later become members when they see what’s on offer.

Anyone contemplating a self-build project needs determination and a practical understanding of basic constructional tasks. You won’t find any detailed working drawings or step-by-step, hand-holding instructions applicable to every type of base vehicle. If you’re not able to measure-up a vehicle and cut materials yourself, get hold of the Reimo catalogue. This includes numerous self-assembly furniture units that are tailor made for many kinds of van. Alternatively, the purchase of an elderly, professionally-built vehicle that is in urgent need of renovation might be a better way forward.

For an in-depth overview of DIY conversion work, see “Build Your Own Motorcaravan” by John Wickersham, Haynes Publishing.

Finally, there are erroneous claims that self built motorcaravans and similar leisure vehicles are difficult to insure. That is completely untrue. Naturally, you need to approach a self build motorhome insurance specialist who supports these fields of automotive endeavour. Shield Total Insurance has provided insurance cover for a huge number of owner built motorcaravans.