Van Cabinets 1.01

This bit of information (maybe even training?) is a bit overdue, but one that can be priceless for those just starting out “creating” their own van camper. And it also applies to any other RV you are creating, whether it be a cargo trailer or full size motorhome. And it has to do with sizing ready-made cabinets.

Many people probably think that cabinets are cabinets, but that’s not true. As in most things, there are industry standards involved. Sometimes, further modification can be done to the cabinets to “customize” them to your own use. So let’s get started…

If your van is a minivan or normal full sized van, there is immediately going to be an issue with the width of it. Obviously, cabinets that would be used in a normal kitchen are going to be way too deep (24-inches), as well as possibly too tall. But many people don’t realize that bathroom cabinets are much smaller. Whereas  kitchen cabinets are normally 24-inches from the front to the wall, bathroom cabinets can be as small as 16-inches. Their height is also less. Where kitchen cabinets are usually 36-inches to the top of the countertop, bathroom countertops are typically only 30-inches.

The other thing to consider when doing your planning is that cabinets are usually built in 3-inch increments in width. In overhead (wall mounted) cabinets, the 3-inch increment also applies to the height. Both usually start at 12-inches, although there are sometimes exceptions for slide-out pantry shelves, which can be installed in as small as a 6-inch-wide cabinet. When installing ANY cabinet in an odd width, there are normally filler pieces that are custom cut on the jobsite to fill the additional space at the ends. That is how you fit factory-made cabinets to odd widths of rooms or spaces.

Base cabinet height is usually a little less than the finished countertop height. Since most countertops are built with 3/4-inch thick particle board covered with laminate, the height of the cabinet is 3/4-inch less than the working height. So a kitchen base cabinet would typically be 35-1/4-inches high, and a bath vanity cabinet would be 29-1/4-inches high.

The professional builders know that there are standards for everything, even to a standard height for where the pipes should come through the back of the cabinet. Anyone who educates themself in their craft and buys the proper handbooks to go with their trades knows these things. Obviously, those who fly by the seat of their pants and refuse to seek the proper information will never realize that proper building practices are NEVER left to chance or individual discretion!

However, since vans aren’t exactly “standard” habitats, we have to allow for a certain “creativity” in modifying components to fit our needs and spaces.

Let’s use a minivan as an example. Even a bathroom countertop height of 30-inches may be too tall for doing something like cooking. When you only have about 45-inches of height (in the center) to begin with, and then it gets shorter near the sides of the van, you may only end up with a foot of height over the counter. If you have a pop-top, or extended top, that’s not a big problem, but lets say that you have a stock roof on your van. If you were to try to cook with only a foot of space above the counter, you would likely set the roof on fire! Even in home construction, the standard is 18-inches of clearance above a countertop, and even more over a stove-top! Fire codes are there for a reason!

But let’s discuss “modifications”. Most bathroom vanities have a kick space at the bottom, below the lowest shelf or floor in the cabinet. If you look at most van cabinets built by factories, they don’t have a kick space. The cabinets go all the way to the floor. So you might be able to adapt a bathroom vanity by laying it on it’s side and cutting off that kick space area at the bottom , which would eliminate about 4-inches of height. That still may not be enough to do any cooking on the countertop, but if you normally use a camp stove outside anyway, at least it would give you a workable height on the countertop (14-18 inches) for doing anything else.

In a full-size van with a stock roof, where you typically have about 4-1/2 feet of height, and will likely do any countertop work sitting down (as you also would in a minivan), having the base cabinets lowered an extra 4-inches  might make it very comfortable. And by starting with a stock bathroom vanity cabinet, your tedious part is all done. It will come with whatever finish you prefer, from unfinished, to white, to whatever wood you like. The doors and drawers will already be installed, so all you have to do is place it in the van and anchor it down. And the fact that it can be as little as 16-inches deep, saves a lot of floor space in the van, which may be necessary to have a decent sized bed. You could probably even recut the cabinet to reduce the depth even further, but that will probably involve adding some new bracing, as well as cutting any drawer guides to a shorter length… but it can be done! The end result is that (if done right) you will have a nicely finished cabinet face that you can be proud of!

Don’t forget about the possible use of wall cabinets, as well. Typical wall cabinets are only 12-inches deep (out from the wall). Widths range from 12-inches up to about 36-inches (in 3-inch increments) and heights range from 12-inches to as high as 42-inches (also in 3-inch increments)! So if you need an even thinner cabinet along your side walls, it is entirely possible that a wall cabinet might do the job for you. The advantage is that you can get it even shorter than a bath cabinet. So if you want a counter that is (for example) 21-inches high, you can get a ready-made cabinet that size! The only thing you will NOT get in wall cabinets are drawers. You may have to settle for shelves instead.

But I always say that nothing is impossible… it just takes little longer.  You can buy some drawer guides and cut them to length, and if you can make the boxes for the drawers, you can always buy the matching drawer fronts from the manufacturer! Simply remove the existing door from the cabinet, carefully plan out how many and what size drawers you can put in that opening, and then make it happen!

Wall cabinets also work great for “under-bed” storage and support. If you have a bed across the back, you can use the height of cabinet that works best, and probably no more than two of them for the width of the van, and have some great looking storage cabinets under your bed! Since they are only a foot deep, it still leaves you plenty of room between them and the back of the van for additional storage accessible from the back of the van! If you have a side gaucho type bed or facing dinette seats, they can be used there as well. If they aren’t quite as deep as you would like, you can still modify them by cutting out the back and doing a little reinforcing. If you want top access under the seats, then simply remove the top of the cabinets! You’ll still have some nice looking cabinetry facing the “public” side that anyone would be proud to have in their van!

Countertops are another issue. Bathroom countertops typically aren’t built out of laminate and particle board anymore. They would deteriorate too fast due to the moisture they endure. Most of the factory-made  countertops at the builders stores are a man-made composite that looks like fake marble. That would probably be OK for a van, and you can certainly get them in various depths and widths. You can also get them with the sink centered or at one end or the other.  However, if they have a sink molded into them, it could be a problem with installing them over a cabinet that is not deep enough (front to wall). For example, if 12-inch deep wall cabinets are used as a base, you may have to pull one forward to cover the bottom of the sink bowl, and then cut out or remove the back of the cabinet to let the sink overlap into that area. In reality, it would probably be better to remove the entire back of that cabinet, other wise it would create some wasted storage area behind it. That is easy enough to do, but be aware of the situation. There’s nothing wrong with using a molded countertop and sink as your one and only sink in your minivan.

So… what about the excess countertop hanging over if you have an 18-inch deep counter and a 12-inch cabinet under it? Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as there’s enough strength in it. After all, you’re going to be sitting most of the time unless you have an extended top on your van. There is a reason that A.D.A. (handicapped code) cabinets are built like desks! When you are sitting down, you have to have room to get your knees under the counter so you don’t have to bend forward all the time, which would be very tiring on your back!

I have already mentioned that the easiest way to move around in a normal van is to use a small rolling step-stool, like mechanics use (with or without storage under them). So the easiest way to navigate the “kitchen” in your van is sitting down. In order to get up close to your cabinets, a certain amount of “knee space” will make it more comfortable, less tiring, and more practical. Besides, you can use the extra countertop space!

Here’s one thing I did on a past van conversion in a full-size Dodge.  I bought a section of ready-made “post formed” laminate countertop, which is available from almost any home builders store in several different finishes. The depth of 25-inches (front to back) (again, a standard) was way more than would work in the van, so I carefully cut the countertop for depth first, using a fine-tooth table saw. I left the nice rounded front with the drip edge on it and cut the back side off. Then I realized that having a backsplash would be nice, but the existing 4-inch-high backsplash was taller than I wanted in the van. This was a window van, so the counter would not fit tight to the wall, and needed something to keep things from falling off the back of the counter, but I didn’t want it taking up any more window space than necessary. So I took the back part of the countertop that I had cut off previously, with the backsplash on it, and ran it through the table saw to cut the curved bottom from it, and reduce the height of it to about 2-inches. Then I re-attached the backsplash to the rear of the countertop using a special clear adhesive caulk to seal the joint and pre-drilled some long wood screws up through it from the under-side. So now I had a nice-looking kitchen countertop that was only 18-inches deep, with a nice curved-top backsplash, and in the exact color that I wanted, which was a gray granite color to match the gray interior of the van!

For a sink, I bought a stainless steel bar sink from the builders store, and added a high-rise faucet to it that was also made for the bar sink. The sink was small enough that it would still fit the “reduced-size” countertop.

This brings us to our last bits of information, regarding the plumbing. Again there are standards involved. The hole spacing for normal kitchen faucets are 6-inches on center to the outside holes (usually there is a center hole, also). On bathroom vanities, bar sinks and most RV sinks, the hole spacing for the faucets is only 4-inches on center. The ONLY exception to this is single hole faucets and the additonal hole used for kitchen sprayers, soap dispensers, filtered water dispensers or other things, none of which are typically used on RV’s.

A word about choices… I have found that having both a high-rise faucet AND a kitchen sprayer  can both be invaluable in a van camper. The high-rise faucet lets you put larger items under it for filling, such as water storage containers, or even your head! That’s right, your head! Even though it may be convenient for some to take a “sponge bath” when no shower is available, washing your hair is always messier! By having a high-rise faucet, you can easily wash your hair in the sink if you need to!

And as much as I like our kitchen sprayer at home, there is one major (but easily done) modification to it that needs to be done for a van camper. Instead of tying it into the faucet body under the sink, it needs to be attached to an aerator adapter at the spigot itself! Why? Here’s the answer… on a typical kitchen faucet setup, the water runs all the time. If you use the sprayer it simply diverts from the spout to the sprayer and back again when you shut the sprayer off. That wastes a lot of water… especially if you were going to use the kitchen sprayer for your “indoor” shower in your van! But by connecting the sprayer to an aerator adaptor on the faucet’s spigot, the water will shut totally off when the sprayer is off… even though the faucet is still open!

For conserving water in your van, this little modification is an absolute necessity, and easily obtained. Kitchen sprayer “add-ons” and replacements are readily available at any hardware or builder supply store, and they work perfectly fine for your “indoor” shower. The better ones will let you leave the spray on without having to hold it, and they are available in everything from cheap white or black plastic to brushed stainless, depending on how fancy you want to get. Simply cut off the fitting that would normally screw into the bottom of the kitchen faucet body, and replace it with whatever combination of fittings it takes to adapt it to an aerator adaptor. (If you have a conventional kitchen faucet, make sure you plug the hole in the bottom of the faucet!)

Caution… aerator adaptors come in several different styles, depending on the style of faucet you have. Some have inside threads and some have outside threads. What they adapt to is also specific as to its use. There are adaptors to quick-connect fittings, such as found on portable dishwashers. There are adaptors which adapt it to a standard hose fitting (you find these types of fittings many times with water beds). There are adaptors for water filters. So just keep in mind, you have to have the right aerator adaptor to the right configuration, which in its simplest form would probably be the standard water hose fitting. From there, all you have to do is get from that to the normal 3/8-inch hose size of the sprayer. If you use the sprayer often, you may want to use a quick connect hose fitting on it, rather than have to screw it on every time. Don’t worry, any competent hardware store clerk should be able to help you come up with the proper fittings, depending on what they have on hand.

You can even make an “extension” for this hose, if you need to. I have seen some campers set up outside showers, such as between their two back doors of their full size vans, with a privacy tarp over the doors. The extension will let you reach those back doors from wherever your sink faucet is, and that way you can take your shower without having to constantly shut the kitchen faucet off to conserve water.

Keep in mind what I’m saying here… you don’t always have to wait until you find an “RV store” to buy such things as shower wands! An ordinary kitchen sprayer will work fine as a shower wand for your van conversion, will likely use a lot less water, and is a lot easier to find! You just have to learn to think “outside the box”!

As to the drains, a normal kitchen sink takes a 1-1/2-inch drain, whereas bathroom vanities, bar sinks and RV sinks normally use 1-1/4-inch drain fittings. If you are draining to a holding tank in the van, you may have to adapt down to an even smaller size, depending on what and where you are draining into. If you have at least a 1-1/2-inch hole in your holding tank, and it’s directly under your sink, then usually a piece of clear Poly-vinyl tubing and a hose clamp is sufficient. Remember, even in a van, you should use a trap under the sink to prevent nasty smells from coming back up through the drain. A typical “S” trap (NOT a “P” trap) will still point the drain straight down, and allow you to position it over the drain in your holding tank. (A “P” trap is used where the drain goes into the wall.) If there is a way to seal the tubing around the hole in your tank, that will also be a bonus. Of course, if you are camping in the wild, and have nothing but sink water going out, there is no reason you can’t let it (discretely) drain outside away from your camper. In that case, a trap won’t be necessary. But if you do any camping at all where you have to catch your gray water, then having a trap installed is necessary.

The word “vent” in plumbing terms means more than just a way for bad air to escape. Vents also let air in, so that when you drain a sink full of water, it doesn’t create a suction in the lines and pull the water out of other traps in the house. There are very strict codes on such things. In normal plumbing (and plain language), there should be a vent near any sink or toilet in the house, so that water can move freely, without any air being trapped in front of it or behind it. Larger RV’s that may have to drain water from one end to the other to reach a holding tank, may also use vents. But in short runs, like in most van conversions, where water goes straight from the sink into a tank, vents aren’t necessary.

As far as water supplies, there are so many variations on what can be done, that it deserves a post all to itself.

If anyone has questions on any of this stuff, please feel free to conact me, or make your comment here. I read all comments before they are posted to the blog, so it’s almost as good as email.