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The kitchen is a surprisingly important part of van living. Without it, you find every meal has to be eaten at restaurants and rest stops – not a problem at first, but costs add up. And it won’t be long until you’re craving a home cooked dinner.

To make the most of the kitchen, building your own cabinets is essential. This allows you to do two of the most important things in any van build: minimize weight, and maximize space.

Minimize Weight

You’ve probably realized by now how important it is to keep the weight of the van down. A lighter van is both easier to maneuver, and, most importantly, keeps fuel costs lower.

As you add more and more items to make your van livable, you’ll be looking for ways to cut weight. You don’t want to find yourself thinking of how to rip out cabinets that are already fixed. Building cabinets gives you control over how they look, and how much they weigh.

To cut weight, we recommend stick building, and being careful with plywood choices. You also want to use as few cabinets as possible, which brings us to the next important point.

Maximize Space

Every square inch of a van can be utilized for a purpose, even if that purpose is only relaxing.

A well organized kitchen and storage area has everything put away, without wasting space. Doing this correctly means you can carry the essentials plus anything extra, without tripping over all the time.

An organized drawer is the difference between only having room for one pan, and a well furnished kitchen

Our guide teaches you how to make your own cabinets, focusing on these two features.

Designing the Cabinets

The very first thing you need to do is figure out where everything goes. Start by taking stock of what’s in the van kitchen. This might be the stove, refrigerator, sink, trash cabinet, and any storage for utensils. Don’t forget the food!

Start by drawing up a basic design of where things will fit. Remember, the idea is to save as much space as possible. Think where there may be excess, and what can be done to use this space rather than wasting it.

If you’re building from the ground up, use masking tape to block out where things will go in the van. Be sure to measure the spaces as accurately as possible.

You should also consider the size of the utensils/items being stored. Even if a cabinet may fit perfectly in the space you’ve allotted, it won’t matter if you can’t fit anything in it. Once you know the basics, you can start drawing your design.

You can draw this by hand, or use an online 3D modelling service such as SketchUp. Start with the very basics and build from there, adding detail. This doesn’t need to be artistic, it just needs to be understandable. Include as many necessary details as you can.

Height, width, and depth are obvious, but also look for where hinges may be, drawer handles, and so on. When you come to build, you want to be able to turn to this at any time to answer questions.

If you’re building multiple cabinets, now’s the time to decide the order to do things. For the less experienced amongst us, starting with the easiest is always a good idea.

That way, you can get a feel for how everything works. However, if you have some expertise, you may prefer to get the difficult designs out of the way.

A quick tip for multiple cabinets: be sure to distribute the weight evenly across the van. You don’t want it to all on one side.

Building the Cabinets

With the designs all ready to go, the next step is actually building the cabinets. To do this, we like to use a method called stick building.

What is stick building?

Stick building is a method of construction where a basic frame is formed from sticks of lumber, before facing material is added.

For a van, that allows you to cut down on weight by using a thinner plywood. Where in a traditional build the plywood walls have to be thick to support the structure, in the stick build the frame is already doing the work. So rather than using sheets of ¾” plywood, you can use ¼”, or even ⅛”, for unseen areas.

Another advantage you’ll find is a flexibility with construction. With a stick build it’s easy to see the construction of the frame, so you can add and change as necessary.

One final reason for stick building – it can be much cheaper. With clever construction you can alter designs to fit whatever lumber you already have.

Materials and Fittings

There are two key materials to this build, and that’s the lumber and the plywood.

The lumber is standard sizing, 2×2 and 2×4 for example, and you can base your design around what lumber you know you have available if you’re looking to cut costs. The larger pieces will hold the sides of the frame, where the smaller pieces can be used as supports.

For plywood, there are different options. The thicker the plywood the more secure it is, but the heavier the cabinets become. Ideally, you want to be using ¼”, to keep the weight down.

In order to do so, we recommend using a higher quality plywood such as Baltic Birch. This is a stronger plywood, allowing you to use thinner sheets. However, it is harder to buy. For more common plywood, look for ½” to ¾” sheets. While they have the extra weight, they do mean your cabinets aren’t at risk of breaking.

Baltic Birch Plywood

Baltic Birch Plywood, 6 mm 1/4 x 12 x 24 Inch Craft Wood, Box of 3 B/BB Grade Baltic Birch Sheets, Perfect for Laser, CNC Cutting and Wood Burning, by Woodpeckers

Baltic Birch Plywood, 6 mm 1/4 x 12 x 24 Inch Craft Wood, Box of 3 B/BB Grade Baltic Birch Sheets, Perfect for Laser, CNC Cutting and Wood Burning, by Woodpeckers
  • STRONG, DURABLE, HEAVY-DUTY - These craft wood pieces of multi-coated Baltic Birch plywood offer exceptional durability, rigidity, and stability for all your woodworking needs. The surfaces provide excellent holding power for glue and screws and the birch edges create cleaner joinery.
  • BEAUTIFUL WOOD, BEAUTIFUL PROJECT- Russian-grown Baltic Birch plywood is prized by woodworkers everywhere. Manufactured using the latest methods in wood production, this hardwood from the snowy forests of the north is extremely durable and creep resistant. It has a beautiful lengthwise grain and takes stain well. TRUE SIZE: 11-7/8” x 23-7/8”.
  • CHOOSE LASER CUTTER WOOD - The layers of the Baltic Birch sheets of thick plywood are designed to smoothly glide through laser cutters and scroll saws, making it the ideal thin wood sheets for efficient woodcutting. Are you looking for wood for wood burning projects? Woodpeckers has the perfect wood boards for crafts.
  • GRADE B/BB - Graded according to the Russian Baltic plywood standard as B/BB, this hardwood has a single piece face and a back veneer. The face veneer has a smooth surface with a light uniform color while the back surface typically has 1-2 small color-matched patches. The thick face veneer provides a smoother surface for CNC routers or engraving machines to glide on the birch wood.
  • SERVICE & SELECTION - We are dedicated to partnering with business owners, home crafters, and woodwork artisans. Our customer care agents are thoroughly familiar with our products, and we will be happy to assist you with any concerns and inquiries. Looking for plywood boards in different sizes? Visit the Woodpeckers storefront for a large selection of plywood squares in both 1/4" and 1/8" thickness.

If you have some experience with DIY, then you likely already have the tools required. We do recommend purchasing a pocket hole jig. We’ll get into why later, but this tool makes sturdy fixings without needing fiddly carpentry.

From a standard toolkit you’re likely to require:

  • Hammer
  • Nail punch
  • Cordless drill
  • Jigsaw
  • Clamps
  • Chisels

Next, the fixings and additional items to make your cabinets functional. These include angle brackets, drawer slides and rear brackets, latches, and door hinges. For hinges, we recommend concealed hinges. These are on the inside of the door, and work well for enclosed spaces as clothing won’t get caught.

You may also wish to purchase handles. These are necessary to open and close the drawers, but be careful of the enclosed space in a van.

Finally, you will require a backing panel of ½” or ¾” plywood, and something to attach the cabinet to the van. This may be an angle bracket, or you may have plusnuts.

The Build

We always say that before you start building make sure you have all your equipment ready, and be sure what order you want to do things in. Otherwise, it can very quickly become confusing.

Cut your lumber into size, and cut your plywood down to size. For large, and even small builds, marking the lumber can help you quickly determine what goes where.

Everyone has their own method for building, but we prefer to start by fixing together the sturdy sides. These large areas of the frame tend to form foundational pieces that can then be attached to one another.

As you add the connecting lumber across the top and bottom, you’ll very quickly see your cabinet form. Then, you can work on the smaller inner fixings. To fix the lumber, the best thing to use are pocket holes.

If you’re using the cabinets to hold something heavy, such as a stove or sink, then you should support these items on some form of shelving or extra lumber. This will keep it anchored, and add an extra layer of security.

Now would also be the time to make any drawers you may require. These will be made out of a simple plywood construction. It’s better to use thicker plywood, ½”, so they hold together and can accept the screws of the drawer slides.

Simply build your box, and attach your drawer slides. For extra security, you may want to purchase push to open drawer slides, which lock into place to prevent falling open as you drive. However, a simple latch achieves the same purpose.

With the frame secure, it’s time to attach the plywood. Again, start with any sides. Especially those that are inside a larger cabinet. The plywood can be attached with wood glue and fixing nails.

The next step is to attach doors and fixings. To do so, first you must cut the size of the door out of plywood. We recommend using a thicker plywood, preferably ½”.

This size allows you to use concealed door hinges. The concealed hinges look good, and they don’t catch on clothing and fabrics. This is especially useful in the enclosed space of a van.

Some prefer to leave the doors until the cabinet is fixed in. Especially if the cabinet may need to fix to the plumbing, or other work inside is necessary once the cabinet is in place. Do what feels easiest for you.

With both the drawers and the doors, you need to consider handles. You may prefer to simply cut a finger hole into the door front, which you can hook open easily. Alternatively, look for handles with only a small projection.

Finally, you want to stain and finish the cabinets. This is especially useful for any countertops, and for work surfaces you may want to use laminate countertops.

Amazon Basics Traditional Craftsman Cabinet Handle 

Amazon Basics Traditional Craftsman Cabinet Handle, 5.13-inch Length (3-inch Hole Center), Flat Black, 10-Pack

Amazon Basics Traditional Craftsman Cabinet Handle, 5.13-inch Length (3-inch Hole Center), Flat Black, 10-Pack
  • Flat Black Finish
  • Pull length: 5. 13-inch
  • Hole to hole center: 3-inch
  • Projection: 0. 86-inch
  • includes M8-32 x 22mm( 0.86 inch)  and M8-32 x 40mm (1.57 inch) mounting screws

What are pocket holes?

Pocket holes are a form of wood fastening that’s both lightweight and secure. A type of the traditional ‘butt’ joint, but diagonal. This gives them extra security, because they’re angled into the face grain. For van building, they’re light and effective, without requiring hours of woodwork.

The only downside is that if you want to create a pocket hole then you need to buy special equipment. Honestly, it’s worth the extra expense. You may be paying more upfront, but you save time, and money, when your cabinets hold together.

The Kreg R3 Jr. Pocket Hole Jig System is cheap and gets the job done. The Kreg R5 is more expensive, but ideal if you have a big build coming up (like a van).

Kreg R3 Jr. Pocket Hole Jig System  

Kreg R3 Jr. Pocket Hole Jig System (Jig System)

Kreg R3 Jr. Pocket Hole Jig System (Jig System)
  • The Kreg Jig Jr(R3) is an amazing repair jig and an exceptionally handy addition to any tool collection
  • Easy to use and install
  • Whether you're crawling under a table to make a quick repair or taking Kreg Joinery on the road
  • Pocket hole jig system for do-it-yourselfers
  • Easy to adjust for materials 1/2-Inch to 1-1/2-Inch

Kreg K5 Pocket-Hole Jig 

Kreg K5 Pocket-Hole Jig

Kreg K5 Pocket-Hole Jig
  • The new Kreg Jig K5 is packed with features your are sure to appreciate. The clamping method is Toggle clamp on benchtop base
  • It comes with a convenient front-mounted clamping handle, and it's connected to a ratcheting clamp mechanism that adjusts without tools or lock nuts
  • The quick-release Drill Guide Block makes set up simple
  • Front-mounted clamp handle makes clamping easy
  • Ratcheting clamp mechanism adjusts without tools

Fixing the Cabinets to the Van

Before you go to fix the cabinets to the van, you want to be sure that it will fit into the space properly. The best time for an initial test fitting is when the frame is complete, but the plywood isn’t fixed.

Assuming you’ve measured carefully, the fitting should be no problem. However, issues do occur, so it’s always best to be sure before you’ve spent time fixing handles and hinges.

For the backing, we recommend a sturdy ½” plywood. This material can support the frame, and the items inside, and anchor solidly to the wall. This backing also provides a straight surface for the frame, to offset any potential curve of the van.

To accommodate for any curves, place cut pieces of lumber across the backing, to anchor when the wall curves away.

There are different options for actually fixing the cabinet to the wall. If you’ve built the van yourself using plusnuts, then these are ideal for creating a sturdy fixing. They also mean you don’t have to drill into the wall of the van itself.

Alternatively, you may attach the cabinets to the floor using angle brackets and self-tapping screws. This gives a sturdy base without the need to drill through the walls. It’s true that it’s better to be safe than sorry, so you may find you use a lot of angle brackets.

The fixtures have to withstand whatever terrain you may be driving over.

The last thing to do is fix on the latches. These may not seem immediately necessary, but you’ll soon realize their importance when your doors fly open in the middle of a long drive. It’s best to install these across all cabinets and drawers.

Once you have a solid design, the build of the cabinets is relatively simple – especially if you use the stick build method. Be sure of your measurements, work methodically, and have confidence in your skills.

Cabinet Door Latch

Cabinet Door Latch/ 4 Pack RV Drawer Latches 8 lbs Pull Force Cabinet Latch, Holder for Home/RV Cabinet Doors with Mounting Screws - Perfect for RV, Trailer, Motor Home, Camper, OEM Replacement

Cabinet Door Latch/ 4 Pack RV Drawer Latches 8 lbs Pull Force Cabinet Latch, Holder for Home/RV Cabinet Doors with Mounting Screws - Perfect for RV, Trailer, Motor Home, Camper, OEM Replacement
  • 【Durable RV drawer latches - Replacement For Most RV】- CRANACH cabinet door latch designed for solving the problem with a drawer popping open on your RV, replaces worn out/ broken cabinets latches, CRANACH RV drawer latches are a great replacement for older latches used on old RV cabinet, made it stop squeaking. the latch can be used in cabinets, drawers, sliding doors, screen doors, etc. the RV drawer catch will be needed for your home, RV, trailer and much more places.
  • 【Sturdy And Durable - Pull Force 8 lbs】- CRANACH push latch with all weather high impact ABS material, strong latches to easily keep doors closed with 8 lbs of pull force. The cabinet will no longer open automatically when on the road, drawer latch is pretty tight, you have to pull the latch open with some strength. We Installed the RV latches on most cabinets and had no problems now with traveled more than 10 thousand miles. Sturdy and durable RV drawer latches and catches.
  • 【Wide Application - Not Only For RV But Also For Home】- CRANACH cabinet catch is also essential for cabinets and drawers in the home kitchen and room to add extra safety. Do you know that more than 80% of injuries occur at home? In order to protect your children from potential risks, make your drawers and cabinets safe from now on. With CRANACH cabinet door latch, your children will no longer be able to open drawers and hurt themselves when you are not paying attention to them.
  • 【Easy to Install & No Damage To Your RV】- CRANACH drawer latches come with mounting screws, you only need an electric drill to install the lock easily. Cabinet locks do not need to disassemble cabinet doors and do not damage your motor homes. Just several minutes of installation, you will no longer to endure from the troubles of these time bombs. It must be worth it.
  • 【Satisfied Warranty】- CRANACH drawer latch is made of durable ABS with strong pull force. the cabinet latch will remain as good as new for a long time. If however, you are not entirely thrilled with your purchase, like the cabinet catch arrives broken, or you have no idea how to install, please feel free to contact us! CRANACH RV cupboard latch provides worry free warranty. If you want to get more details, just click the store name beside the cart, then click “Ask a question” to let us know.

Adapting IKEA Furniture

If you’re intimidated by the thought of building your own cabinets, then this isn’t the only solution. There are pros and cons to adapting IKEA furniture, but for a nervous builder this may be the better option.

The major plus is that most of the build is done for you. IKEA cabinets are sturdy, adaptable, and come in a range. Much of the IKEA furniture comes in small items, so you can build up your own basic design. For newcomers to DIY, adapting a cabinet is an easier step than building your own from scratch. You can also be sure of getting high quality hinges and drawer slides.

If you are new to DIY, then you may be worrying about future repairs for your homemade items. One advantage of IKEA is the stores are everywhere. You can rest assured that if there is a fault, then it won’t be long until you’re able to pop in and get it fixed.

The biggest con of adapting IKEA furniture is that you’re limited to what you can find in-store. This means you need to work with what you can get, which won’t allow you to maximize the space. And there also isn’t the same option of minimizing weight. IKEA furniture can be heavy, because it’s built in the traditional style. It’s also MDF, which doesn’t stand up well when damp.

Which option you choose will ultimately be decided by what you feel most comfortable doing. If you want to make the most of your space and don’t mind the work, then building your own is best. However, if you’re unsure of your talent, you may prefer the lower risk option of adapting IKEA furniture.

One bit of DIY that’s necessary for both IKEA and from scratch are the latches. Be sure to install them across the doors of your adapted IKEA furniture.

Final Thoughts

Building your own cabinets can seem like an intimidating prospect. However, as long as you take time with the design, the build itself is relatively easy.

The advantages do, for the most part, outweigh the time commitment. Building your own allows you to minimize weight, maximize space, and add your own personality to the van.

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