Building Ernie

Table of Contents

Overview

Ernie, the Adventure Van, was dreamed up after a trip to Baja, California. I discovered van life one day while on a kitesurfing trip in La Ventana, Baja, Mexico.  I meet travelers who had made the pilgrimage to southern Baja in their own custom vans, and I was intrigued. 

After my faithful encounter in Baja, I set out with the goal to buy an adventure van. I had my sights on a Winnebego Revel and was about to purchase one when a friend of mine suggested I build my own, and I did.

The result was five months of learning how to do everything. I barely knew how to use a screwdriver, so I studied, as any good engineer does.  Eventually, I built Ernie the Adventure Van and wouldn’t trade Ernie in for any manufactured van, although they are still awesome.

Disclaimer

This post is not meant to be a detailed explanation of how and why I built Ernie the way I did. There are plenty of sites that go into way more detail on building a van than I will. This post is meant to highlight the key steps in my journey to building Ernie. My goal was to keep it simple, and I think I achieved that goal. 

Overview Specifications

SubjectDataComment
MakeFord Transit 250
Year2015
Cost$26,000Used
Initial Miles36,000
Build Cost$10,000Buying Tools added a lot
Solar350 Watts
Power200Ah
BatteriesBattle Born2x
HeaterWebasto 2000 STC
InverterSamlex 300 WattsHad 2000 watt but didn’t need it
B2B ChargerSterliing B2B30Amp 12V
Initial Build Time3.5 MonthsUpdates ever since

The Build

I began my build with very little knowledge and experience on how to build stuff. So I spent a full week reading and watching everything I could find on the internet.

Like any good engineer, I developed a build plan over the next few weeks on everything I had learned. Once I felt I had enough information written down, I started and never looked back.

Special Thanks to FarOutRide.com for being my number #1 source of build information. Thanks

Build Goals

As an Aerospace Engineer, I know complexity is the root of all evil. So I set out with a few simple goals for my build.

  • Goal 1: Keep it Simple
  • Goal 2: Must be Modular
  • Goal 3: Light Weight
  • Goal 4: Can be repaired on the road
  • Goal 5: Minimize road noise (squeaking) 

Building the Floor

The first task I did was build the floor. The floor is not complicated to build but takes a while to properly measure and cut all the wood.

Step 1: Clear out the original van floor and clean the area

Step 2: Cut small blocks to go in between the floor ribs and glue them to the floor

Step 3: Use the original floor mat to trace out the wood flooring. This saved me considerable time, but I still had to do a little bit of trim work when I installed it.

Step 4: Install the wood floor over the wood ribs. I put down a minimal amount of insulation and used foam spray at the end to fill the gaps.

Step 5: Cut out the linoleum flooring and glue it to the wood floor. 

Step 6: Caulk around the edges and seal the open spaces with spray foam. 

Building the Raised Bed

I built a raised bed because I wanted to store my mountain bike in my van. As a solo nomad, losing the area to a stationary bed to keep my bike in the van was a main part of the van. The odds of someone stealing my $2000+ mountain bike is very high if it is left on a bike rack outside the van at night.

Step 1: Build the bed framing.

Step 2: Attach bed framing to the van. This was time-consuming to make sure all three bed frames were even. 

Step 3: Cut the top plywood. Leave 1/8 inch gap in between seems to minimize rubbing.

Step 4: Attach the top to the frame using a lot of screws to prevent squeaking.  

Step 5: Attached sidewall supports the bed frame for stiffness and insulation. 

Building the Kitchen Cabinet

The most detailed part of my build was building the kitchen cabinet. This is the first time I’ve ever built anything this complex out of wood. It proved to be the most enjoyable task of the entire build. 

Step 1: Plan, measure, and do it over again.

Step 2: Build the outside frame and test fit inside the van

Step 3: Build the first drawer and hope it fits

Step 4: Build remaining drawers and refrigerator slideout.

Step 5: Add sidewalls for strength

Step 6: Place kitchen cabinet into the van and screw into the wall. 

Step 7: Build kitchen cabinet doors

Ste 8: Paint an awesome sade of Blue.

Building the Ceiling

I wish I would have spent a little more time building and installing the ceiling. Although it turned out fine, I made a few cutting errors that drive me crazy every time I see them now.

Step 1: “The Scary Step” cut a hole in the roof for a MaxAir Fan.

Step 2: Pre-drill the holes for the MaxAir screws and build the wood support bracket.

Step 3: Install the MaxAir Fan and screw it to the square support bracket you made.

Step 4: Shape the wood ceiling beams (It took 3 weeks to get them to stay curved)

Step 4: Install the ceiling frames and insulation

Step 5: Install the tongue and groove paneling with electrical.

Step 6: Finish the ceiling and route the wiring. 

Building the Garage

By the time I started building the two cabinets for the garage, my woodworking skills had improved. I build both cabinets in one week. 

Step 1: Build the inside cabinet.

Step 2: Construct table slide out

Step 3: Install the inside cabinet

Step 4: Build and install bike slideout

Step 5: Build and install back garage cabinet

Step 6: Add doors and drawers to the indoor and back cabinets.

Building the Electrical System

Building your van’s electric system is probably the most intimidating job on any build. I’m lucky that I have plenty of experience building electronics as an engineer, but I still had to study up to build a reliable system that wouldn’t shock me. 

I won’t go into too many details, but the job took about a month, and most of that was waiting for electrical parts to be delivered by Amazon.

Step 1: Understand this chart.

Step 2: Install the solar panels

Step 3: Build the electrical box

Step 4: Install the MPPT and Battery

Step 5: Wire the system up

Step 6: Turn the lights on and pray the van doesn’t catch on fire.

Building the Walls

Building the walls is where I deviated from the majority of van builders. I decided to build pillow walls with power magnets instead of insulated pillow walls. I did this to save weight and wanted to give it a try. After two years on the road from Utah snow to the Anza-Borrego desert, it has worked great. 

Step 1: Have my mother build to spec pillow walls. This was way outside my skill level.

Step 2: Install the pillow walls

Step 3: Enjoy the pillow wall artwork

Step 4: Still enjoying them two years later.

Step 5: Enjoying the Pillow Wall Headline too (Map of National Parks)

Building the Upper Cabinets

The process of building the upper cabinets when a lot faster than the kitchen and garage cabinets. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a lot of pictures of their constructions.

Step 1: Measure and plan, and repeat

Step 2: Build cabinet frames

Step 3: Test fit frames in the van.

Step 4: Install the cabinet doors

Step 5: Install the cabinets into the van wall

Webasto Heater Install

The biggest pain in the butt install was the Webasto heater. Putting together all the heater components is straightforward but installing it; no so much.

There isn’t much room under the van to operate, and lowering my gas tank to reach the gas tap was nerve-racking. (Turned out to be easy) 

Step 1: Layout all the pieces of the heater and put them together. This will make sure you have all the pieces. 

Step 2: Still the Webasto heater under the passenger seat.

Step 3: Drill holes thru the floor to attach the intake, exhaust, and wiring. This was a pain in the butt; no room to move. 

Step 4: Drop the gas tank to reach the gas value.

Step 5: Route the fuel line and electrical wiring to the Webasto heater. 

Step 6: Install the exhaust pipe

Step 6: Install the electrical

Step 7: Turn on (It works!!!)

Installing Side and Bunk Windows

Installing both the side and bunk window are nerve-racking experiences. Whenever you cut into your van, it takes a lot of nerve, and these are no exceptions.

The best advice I can give anyone is to take your time and measure, measure, and re-measure.

Step 1: Used the bunk window and a cardboard cut out the mark the hole locations. I marked it wrong the first time, so re-measuring saved me.

Step 2: Cut the hole as close to the line as possible. Take your time with the cut.

Step 3: Install the bunk window.

Step 1: Mark out the side window and re-measure

Step 2: Cut the side window.

Step 3: Install the side window with industrial glue and tape as directed. 

The Finishing Touches

Since my initial build, I’ve added a few extras to Ernie to make life easier on the road to include a new stereo, camera, rearview monitor, door keypad, and much more.

Bull Bar (Old License Plate)
Outdoor Light
Off-Road Lights and Winch
Radio Install
Shore Power

More Pictures 

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