As we were building out the van in Pennsylvania last March, it started snowing (a lot) out west. At that point we had only completed the bed frame, but decided to take a little break from building and go on a 10 day “test” trip from Pennsylvania to Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, to ski. While on this trip, we realized how much we missed being able to make our own food, pull over and grab something quickly from the back or even make our own coffee in the morning. We realized we were completely dependent on either dry snacks or eating out, and it felt awful. We knew that we wanted to build a kitchen that could not only store enough fresh goods and non-perishables to last a few days or even a week, but mostly importantly, we wanted to build a kitchen that was comfortable and convenient to use. Here’s a list of a our main considerations:
- Storage for dry goods, fresh goods and fridge. Given we’d be accessing this area at least 3 times a day, we wanted storage to be shallow and easily accessible to prevent food from getting buried under things. We also wanted quick and easy access while cooking. We wanted it to be as convenient as possible to help encourage cooking rather than going out.
- Stove top: we wanted a portable stove top that allows cooking inside as well as outside when weather was nice
- Sink: We wanted a small sink with a manual water pump. The sink would only be used for washing a few dishes and brushing teeth so we didn’t want to take up too much space. A hand pump would help conserve water usage.
- Counter space: we wanted ample space to fit the stove top and additional space to the side to use while the stove top was out
We figured the best solution would be to build a large counter top with easily accessible and organized storage underneath, from the bed frame to behind the driver’s seat. We also wanted some overhead storage to hold light items. After some time in the van, we actually found the overhead storage to be inconvenient to both access and to store anything but large items, so we moved most of the items from the over head storage area to the forward facing drawers under the bed. Regardless, this post became too long when we added overhead storage, so we’ll post something on that separately in the next few weeks.
- Tools: saw(s) (We happened to have a circular saw, jig saw and miter saw), power drill, measuring tape, pocket screw jig (Amazon), right angle measure (Amazon)
- Wood: ½” Birch veneer (4×8), 1×3 pine studs, counter top
- Hardware: 4 door handles (Amazon) Could also use Turn to Open Latch, 5 roller locks (Amazon), 2 fridge handles, 2 simple hinges (Amazon), two ½” overlay hinges (Amazon), 6 Low-Profile Castors, 1″ L-brackets
- Kitchen components: hand pump (Amazon), sink (Amazon), fridge (Amazon), stove (Amazon)
- Other: Polyurethane
The kitchen cabinet was the last big piece of furniture that went into the van. Therefore, it’s dimensions were largely dictated by the bed frame construction that was already installed. Our bed platform was designed to accommodate a 50” wide bed with the remaining 18” of space for the cabinets to its side – the kitchen counter was designed to continue along those lines (i.e a depth of 18”).
We didn’t want the counter top to cover the window, which meant that the counter could be up to 33” tall, a height at which it would be comfortable for both of us and flush with the bottom of the side window. We decided to end the counter with some space to the driver’s seat, in order to leave some leg room when the driver’s seat was swiveled around.
Overall the dimensions of the kitchen cabinet are 54”x18 ½ ”x32” (LxDxH- not including the counter top). The countertop itself is a bit larger, overlapping around the entire counter. On the passenger side of the cabinet (the right side if you’re facing toward of the front of the car), the overlap is ½ inch. Facing the passenger side, the overlap is ¼”. On the side facing the window, the counter indents to leave less of a gap between counter and window. The dimensions of the counter at its widest are 54 ½”x20”.
A big component of the kitchen cabinet would be our ARB fridge. We opted with an ARB 37Q Fridge (Amazon). We designed a pull-out drawer on six casters that would securely lock into place while driving that the fridge would rest on. The dimensions of this space are 30”x19” (LxH).
The ARB pull-out drawer left about 13” inches of space to the countertop. We divided this space width-wise into half, with the right side leaving space for a sink, and the left side for drawers. Each half would be 15”x13” (LxH). With a height of 13”, 2 drawers would be ideal for the left half. We opted to make these drawers different heights – a silverware drawer (5 ½”) and one for plates, bowls and cups (7 ½”).
Finally, on the left side of the cabinet (towards the rear of the car), the remaining space would be separated with a shelf, but one cabinet door. The bottom of it contains water tanks (fresh and grey) as well as our gas tank, while the top contains some dry goods and cans. We decided to make this accessible through a simple door, with a hinge on the left / rear of car (for easier access the door opens toward the bed frame).
As with all other furniture, we used ½” birch veneer (polyurethaned) for the cabinet construction. We used three 1×3 pine studs as supports. The frame consists of 2 birch side panels (32”x18” HxD) with the 3 pine studs running the length of the cabinet. The studs are located along the back bottom (next to the car wall and along the floor), as well as one at each side of the top corners of the cabinet. We cut grooves in the panels to accomodate the studs, and joined these pieces using pocket screws (Amazon).
To make the fridge drawer, we cut a 29 ¾”x18” (WxD) platform from ½” birch veneer and another panel that would be the front of the drawer for the fridge storage of 30 ¾”x18” (WxH). They are supported by two 1×3” pine studs that connect these two boards at a 45 degree angle. The fridge sits on the platform, secured by a strap. We used 6 low profile casters (same as for our pullout box underneath the bed) at the bottom of the drawer platform to allow us to roll the fridge in and out. Lastly, we opted for pull to open latches for a durable, strong and convenient locking mechanism. We’re very happy with them.
Once we finalized the fridge drawer, we added one large horizontal shelf above the fridge (would function as a shelf for storage below the sink and structural reinforcement) and another vertical divider between the sink area and drawers (would also be one of the attachment points for the drawer rails and section off the area below the sink for storage). These dividers were made of ½” birch veneer and attached using the pocket jig. We didn’t put the shelf into the left most storage compartment until we put the entire counter into the van. One end was attached to the ½” birch veneer middle panel and the other end was attached to the 2×3” vertical pine stud used in the bed frame.
We wanted the counter top to sit on top of the sink, not only because it looks better, but also because it allows you to cover the sink area with a board, using it as an extension of counter space. The sink therefore would be sitting directly on the 1×3” pine studs but we needed to cut grooves into the studs for the sink to fit and allow the counter to lay flat.
With the structural part of the kitchen done we were ready to attached the frame into the van. The cabinets are attached to the floor, the car wall, as well as the bed frame. We used pocket screws for the floor and the bed frame, and self-tapping sheet metal screws to attach to the car wall.
Once all was in place, we were ready to make the drawers and put doors onto the cabinet spaces. All the drawers are made with full overlay (none of the framing is showing when you look at the cabinet front). The drawers were made the same way as our forward-facing drawers under the bed frame, using ½” birch veneer. Since they aren’t exposed to the same forces as our forward-facing drawers, simple roller catches would keep the drawers closed while driving. Under the sink, we put a door using ½” overlay hinges (Amazon).
Attaching the door for the tall storage area on the left was a little tricky because we wanted the hinges to be on the left. To do so, we cut a ½” strip of ½” birch veneer that we carefully screwed into the bed frame post. We shaved out grooves for a flush finish and used simple hinges (Amazon) to attach the cabinet door.
We used the same handles (Amazon) for all doors.
Finally, the counter top. We bought a pine panel from Lowes. It’s 1” thick. Since it had a width of 20”, it would work nicely using our intended measurements. We cut a rounded outline to accommodate for the window, and cut out a piece to make it fit with the bed frame. Next we cut the area out for the sink (it came with a cardboard template). All of this was done using a jig saw, and we sanded the cutout until it was smooth. For the hand pump, we used a 2” hole saw. Lastly we used a router to round the edges of the countertop.
The completed countertop was then stained (we used a light color) and coated with polyurethane. We knew this space would see a lot of wear and tear so we applied generous coats. After 9 months of daily use, you can see hardly any signs of wear.
We attached the counter top to the struts which we did using the pocket jig placed in all 4 corners of the counter.
What we learned / important things to consider / what we would have done differently:
- Our sink is on the small end of what we would recommend. We really like that it has a flat bottom – it’s great to leave things there, even while driving. However, we would consider a larger sink.
- We ended up fitting our plumbing system and propane into the bottom of the largest storage compartment, after the cabinet was built. We got very lucky in that we found tanks that fit perfectly into the cabinet we had designed. If you have a different design in mind, that needs to strongly factor into your cabinet dimensions.
- The kitchen counter works great with a portable stove because we designed a storage compartment for the stove, more on that in a later post. It’s one of our favorite things in the van.
- We almost went with a smaller fridge thinking it was cheaper and that we wouldn’t need it but are very happy we didn’t and find this larger one almost always full. Fridge space doesn’t really go to waste – you can always store a few extra veggies, water or more importantly, beer.