BUILDING A PHOTOGRAPHIC VAN
Many moons ago a photographer was often someone with a team of horses and a light-tight covered wagon. They'd roam town to town and offer portrait services to the community. The first documentary travel photography began this way. The methods have changed throughout the years, but the madness is basically the same.
My grandfather used to build small RVs from scratch... it was his obsession, along with carpeting the insides of cabinets and drawers. When I was a kid I'd stand at his feet and watch him tinker away in his blue coveralls, afterwhich we would drive to the lake and cook hotdogs. Due to contagion and/or genes, this venture is in my blood.
Inspired by the traveling darkrooms of yesteryear, and the DNA of my tinkering grandfather, this is dedicated to all those curious vagabonds. It is folks like John Steinbeck, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank in whom this expedition finds its' spirit.
Long live my 2001 Volkswagen Golf TDI. 50 miles per gallon, durable, fun to drive, and It's amazing how much gear I could actually fit in that hatchback. When I am out on the road shooting for work or for play I either lay out a sleeping bag or rent a cheap motel room... Motel 6 if the dog is along for the ride. Now it's time for a van, one with a bed, a shower, and a photo studio / darkroom built in for good measure. I shoot mostly for magazines, but the idea is to make more portraits for myself - the kinds of images our society used to treasure. I want this van to be the method to that madness.
PURCHASING A USED SPRINTER VAN
A T1N (pre '07) or an NCV3 (post '06) model? Mercedes made very significant changes between those years. They improved the look and quality of the body, but a governmental mandate to make the emissions cleaner also made the engine suffer in performance and reliability... not to mention the expensive-to-maintain Diesel Particulate Filter. Every Sprinter mechanic I asked said, "if you are going used, go old." The T1N it is.
I found one in Pittsburg with just over 100,000 miles. No AC and it's got a few rust holes, but a diesel mechanic looked it over and gave me a thumbs up, so I drove it home.
FROM GREASE TRAP TO EMPTY BOX
I removed the shelves and gave them to my neighbor. I drilled out the floor rivets and ripped up the floor. Underneath was a nice surprise: 8 years worth of spilled motor oil soaked into the insulation below the floor. The previous owner was a mechanic... a messy mechanic. I used the back of my hammer to scrape the insulation into a very heavy pile. Thankfully my rubbish bin has wheels, though probably not the best ingredient for a landfill.
WHEELS, TIRES, FENDER PAINT, ETC
The first major improvement I decided to make was a new set of tires. The old ones were short on tread and just plain short: 197/70 R15's. I wanted to replace them with something that would fill up the wheel well with no trimming required; something that had a bit of tread on them too, enough for long trips down dirt roads and the occasional mud puddle or sandy beach. I considered highway tread for the two up front, but decided against it and I can't remember why... I think for the sake of tire rotation. After a bit of research I settled upon a set of BFGoodrich 225/75 R16 and a set of used 16" steel rims from Eurocamper.
A few of the 16" steel wheels were fairly busted up... some had paint on them, some rust. I sanded them down, primed them up, and painted them black.
I took off the bumpers and the trim and painted them black too.
I rubberized the wheel wells to reduce road noise. Probably fairly worthless without 14 cans of that stuff.
The steering wheel got a two-tone all leather wrap from Wheelskins - note: the seems for connecting the two-tones are right at 10 and 2... which makes for an uncomfortable long haul on my hands.
I added a black spray-on-peel-off stripe down the side to see if I'd like it. I do. I may keep it. I may add a black scuff guard made out of truck bed liner to the bottom 8 inches of the side of the van... that location has been prime for rust to spawn, so perhaps it too could benefit from a sand and repair and repaint.
I put up a couple of wind and rain deflectors. These insert into the door frame instead of glueing on. We've already driven through some very rough storms, including one in eastern Colorado so windy that it grounded us to a motel. I always kept the windows cracked for fresh air though. They did their job well.
THE AWNING INSTALL
I wanted one that didn't need support arms, but they only make it for the newer Sprinters. However, as long as I only extend it a couple of feet or so this one, the 3 meter Fiamma F45Si, seems to work OK without. Good enough for sitting in the doorway during a drizzle.
I'd recommend having a friend around to assist, but I was able to do this install solo. Drilled some holes, spread some glue, bolted the brackets, then balanced that sucker like a barbell in a front squat and climbed up a stepladder to set it in its' place.
Rust is a problem on any T1N Sprinter van... Mercedes did a pisspoor job of protecting the skin. You'd be hard pressed to find one without at least a handful of holes. My sliding cargo door was so bad that it had to be replaced with a junkyard part. The rest of these holes I am going to fix, the majority of which are at the bottom where rocks and salt have been pelting it for years.
I used my grinder to remove the rust around the bottom of the van. I sanded it enough to reveal the bare metal beneath. Where there were holes I used bondo. As a final step I painted the bottom of the van with a pickup-truck bed liner, hoping to protect it further. We shall see.
SILENCING THE INTERIOR
Yes, it's an empty box with metal walls, so there is no wondering why it's so loud inside my head when I'm driving down the road... but it doesn't have to be that way.
I covered the floor, the walls and the ceiling with sheets of butyl rubber to dampen vibrations in the metal. I installed additional weather seals for the doors to soften the wind. Finally, I lined the inside of the dashboard and firewall with Thinsulate to muffle the rattle of the diesel engine.
Before and after, though not a perfectly reliable measurement, I took averaged decible readings with an app on my phone. Both to my ears, and to the app, there was a noticable and significant difference.
THE TRANSFER OF HEAT
The sun pushes heat energy through the sheetmetal walls of the van, around the insulation and into the structural ribs where it radiates into the empty space. Heat moves through this metal like water though cracks in a dam: when blocked, say by insulation, if there exists connected and exposed metal elsewhere, the heat energy will flow through the metal to that point and exhaust.
Thats what you see happening in this video (45 minutes elapsed time). 1" Pink board insulation is up in the recessed space, but the ribs are still exposed. The van was inside my 78-degree garage all night long. I backed it outside into mostly sunny 85 degree weather. Keep in mind, I also have 4 solar panels on the roof, so it is, in a sense, partly shaded... by metal... which both collects, transferrs, and radiats heat energy, and may actually be transferring more heat to the roof of the van than the sun would by itself shining onto the white roof.
Solution: Spray Foam Insulation to cover every inch of exposed metal on the walls and ceiling, including the metal ribs, not just the recessed areas.
SPRAY FOAM INSULATION
The first method I tried of insulating my van was pink hardboard foam insulation cut and squeezed into every nook and covered with Reflectix. This did not work well. I left an airgap in any place that I could, but where the Reflectix touched the metal of the van, specifically the ribs in which I taped the material, the Reflectix acted as a syphone and moved heat at tremondous rates into the interior of the van. I could feel it radiating down anytime the sun was out. Freakin' misserable. So I sucked up my pride, tore out my hard work, and splurged for closed cell spray foam insulation. I found a great local company, Graber InSEALators, and gave them my coin. In order to save some cost I did all of the plastic tarping myself. Grabor did an excelent job and I am thankful to them. The only areas I chose NOT to have insulation were the recessed spaces in the back where windows normally go. Because I wanted my bed to go sideways I needed to spare every inch that I could.In these spotI used two layers of ThinSulate instead. I am very happy with my decision.
WINDOW UNIT AC UNDER VAN
The roof is covered with solar panels, so a roof-top AC was out of the question. ProAir makes an undercarriage air conditioner for the Roadtrek, but you have to buy the whole van to get it. The marine industry sells some really great machines, but even the smallest one is well over a thousand dollars. Out of reasonable options, I figured I'd convert a small window unit and build an undercarriage air conditioner myself.
GREY WATER TANK
If I am going to have running water and a sink I am going to need a place to put the Grey Water - or water that isn't fresh and isn't sewage. I am not a fan of the van plans in which keep the grey water in a bin under the sink... I have other plans for under the sink. The most economical solution my brain could muster was a 6-inch PVC pipe strapped underneath the chassis. I use a bottle trap, or P-trap, to help prevent fumes from backing up the sink pipe and a brass electric solenoid valve to discharge the tank when it is full.
EDIT: The one week link has been the P-trap inside the tank. in freezing weather it freezes and stays frozen, preventing the sink from draining. I have since removed it. I have an S-trap under the sink and a loop in the darkroom, both of which prevent the backdraft of fumes. I also removed the switch operated valve as it always seemed to drip drip drip. Now there is only a lever actuated ball valve, though while not as fancy, is much more reliable.
IMAGINGING THE INTERIOR
Mobile studio, digital lab, traditional darkroom, and RV - fully self contained and solar powered - a capable beast. Designed to require only biodiesel and sunlight, the idea is long term deployment in the field. Most of the amenities of home, less the sheer size of them: bed, sink, stove, microwave, toilet, and climate control. There will be a digital darkroom and a traditional chemical one too. The studio will have a paper backdrop, wall-mount arms with strobes attached, and storage enough for all the lighting and camera gear I deem necessary. There will even be garage space for a bicycle. Conceptualized in CAD software, I built a version out of cardboard to doublecheck the legitimacy of the design before I started vutting wood.... thank the gods that I did!!! My initial design was entirely subpar and cramped cramped cramped. Back to the drawing boards I went and what you see on the left is pretty close to the final design. My next step was to join my local makerspace, MAKER13, and get to chopping. For anyone who doesn't have tools at home, as I did not, join a makespace. It was my single most productive decision.
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
Who would have thunk it? Spending a thousand hours learning something new can actually yield rewards. Despite my grandfather's talent with a saw and a hammer, mine was lacking. Have no fear, the Vaniture is here!
Assembled with only a rubber mallet, some carpenter glue and a nail gun, Vaniture' is the wave of the future for DIY VanLife'rs...
FIRST FEW NIGHTS OUT
No electricity yet... no running water... no hot shower... but we do have the dome lights (red - to save our night vision) and some 1-gallon water jugs.
We've got another few weeks before we can hit the road, as I am finishing up a few jobs around here. We've been spending many nights on a hilltop cleared of trees by an F5 tornado (drops fork - Finger of God). It's a midway trailhead / parking lot on the Knobstone Trail north of Louisville.
UPS is based in Louisville, and when the winds are southerly their planes fly right overhead this spot. It's something to see and hear. Stupid camera batteries ran dead just as the stars were coming out and the moon reflection was rising in the window, but it is a pretty cool timelapse non-the-less.