Update: Vanderlust Americas will be taken down shortly. The "How To Install A Floor In Your Van" post will be transferred to a new site. // #longliveadventure
This project has been on our list for quite some time. It's really the foundational piece to everything we want to do to the interior - cabinets, electrical, even curtains and upholstery - everything. It took so long for multiple reasons, one of which is lack of know-how. We've never done this before, and couldn't really find much on the interwebs about installing a floor in a Vanagon, at least, nothing solid. So, I decided to document our project to help out those that are thinking of doing the same.
Before I get into it, I'd like to take a moment and remind everyone that there is more than one way to do this job. There is no "right" way or "wrong" way. There are, MOST DEFINITELY, some very questionable ways to do this job. There are also some very over-the-top ways to do this job. There are expensive ways, cheap ways, and frugal ways. This is the just the way we chose to do it, like it or not.
We're a little biased, but we think Big Blue is in pretty decent shape despite the fact he is 30 years old - no real signs of rust, only slightly musty, a few stains here and there, and some bald spots - nothing too bad.
But, with the knowledge we'd be transitioning into full-time vanlife at some point, and because I've always had an interest in interior design, I wanted to customize the interior which starts with the floor. Danielle, of course, was a huge advocate for this as well. So, I started researching what flooring types different people used, what the measurements are, types of sub-floors, vapor barriers, sound deadening, insulating, the list goes on.
What did I find? Well, not much. Vanagon Travels had a decent write-up on installing tile floors in their Westfalia Weekender, but I guess I was looking for something a little more in-depth. I also snooped around the Samba, but man, I really have a hard time with that site, from the navigation to the heckling and pointless banter - I didn't snoop long. (If you know of other good resources, let me know so I can add it here to help out others.)
Sometimes, you just gotta go for it. So we decided to take a time out from our adventures and dedicate several weekends to finally getting the interior dialed (or close to it). We took all of the gear out of the van and took measurements.
Luckily, vans are pretty straight forward when it comes to measurements - they're giant rectangles. Vanagons are no different. On the advice of two of our VanFam buddies, Michael Abegg (@michaelabegg) and Drew Konzelman (@drewkonzelman), we left a 1" channel on the drivers side and along the engine deck to allow a space for wiring to be ran which left us with a 5' x 5' area. Abegg mentioned running a 1" aluminum channel along the side to protect the wires which I'm still deciding whether or not to add. If we do, I'll do it before installing the cabinets.
After figuring out where to put all our stuff from inside the van, the next biggest consideration was what type of wood to use for the sub-floor. Two things really mattered - size and quality. Typically, plywood comes in 4' x 8' sheets which means you'd need three sections to cover a 5' x 5' area. Some speciality plywood comes wider, in 5' x 8' sheets, which is nice because your sub-floor is one solid piece of plywood (in a Vanagon). They also come in different thicknesses - most often in ~1/2" (15/32") or 3/4". I'd been told by several folks that 3/4" was too thick, especially if you've got a Westfalia or are planning to install Westy cabinets.
In terms of quality, we wanted something that would last. The possibility of wood rotting out, especially up here in the wet Pacific Northwest, was a concern. So, marine-grade plywood was on the mind, but it's on the expensive end. Drew found a place that sold 5' x 8' x 3/4", 7-ply, marine-grade plywood for around $90 a pop! We considered it, but decided it was way too much for us. In the end, we went with Home Depot exterior plywood sheathing (4' x 8' x 1/2") which came in right around $20.
Side note: I also, briefly, consider using a product called DRIcore instead of plywood. It's meant to be used a subfloor in concrete basements or similar situations and seemed like it could be a cool alternative. But coming in at 1" thick and not having any knowledge of the product, I decided to stick to something more traditional.
When it came to fastening the sub-floor to the sheet metal floor of the van, rust was my biggest consideration. I knew we had to go with stainless steel hardware. The Vanagon floor is corrugated (think peaks and valleys or ridges and grooves). So, while I was at Home Depot, I bought #10 x 1.5" flat-head stainless sheet metal screws and called it a day. I planned to drill 1/8" pilot holes into the ridges (peaks), screw the #10s, then glob RTV silicone around the exposed ends of the screws from underneath the van. Easy peasy, right? Well...
Insulation And Sound Deadening
I'll have a post specifically about insulation and sound deadening, but in regards to the floor...
We had been using Reflectix to insulate and self-adhesive duct insulation to sound deaden. Early on, we had decided to cut strips of Reflectix to fill the grooves (valleys) in the corrugated floor and from my time studying green building, I also knew I wanted to try and eliminate thermal bridging by using a layer of Reflectix to cover the entire 5' x 5' section. I'd use HVAC foil tape to tape the seams and spray adhesive to hold it all down.
We knew we wanted the wood look, but specifically something with a grey hue (think old barn wood or aged teak) to match the blue and grey interior. We were indifferent to whether it was actual wood or laminate. But, we were fortunate enough to have our perfect flooring come to us at zero cost. It came in the form of Armstrong luxury vinyl tile that comes in 3' x 8" "planks", are made to look and feel like real wood, but extremely durable, waterproof, and had the gray tones we wanted. My work had just constructed a new clinic and had used this flooring for the main areas. With one box of these tiles remaining, they were awesome enough to let me use half - just the amount we needed to cover ~22 square feet.
Putting It All Together: Nate vs. Floor - Round 1
The plan was simple enough. Cut and lay down the Reflectix. Cut the 4' x 8' sheet of plywood into three sections - the main section (4' x 5'), and two smaller sections (3' x 1' and 2' x 1', to avoid have a 1' x 1' piece). Position the main section with the 5' side running the length of the passenger's side of the van, and the the two smaller sections running the length of the driver's side. Drill the pilot holes; 6 screws in the main section, 3 in each smaller section. Screw down the three sections. RTV exposed ends. Then install the vinyl tiles.
Round 1 Winner: Floor :(
Our original plan failed for multiple reasons. The layer of Reflectix between the sub-floor and the floor made a crumpled up foil noise when you stepped and it made the floor seem squishy (which makes sense since it's essentially a giant air bubble. Should've listened to ya, Dave!). The edges of the of the sub-floor were not solid because the corrugated section of the floor did not span the entire area; we'd need shims. The screws were too long and I didn't like their placement. And finally, we questioned if the smaller sections would be secure enough to hold the Westfalia cabinetry and our custom piece that will sit between the driver's seat and the middle cabinet. Moreover, it just didn't feel right.
Nate vs. Floor - Round 2
Thank God for friends; am I right? I got on the horn with Dave (@vanagonlife) who had sent me an email right after posting about gutting the van on Instagram, asking some questions about the particulars of his email (which included what he did for his floor job). I also ran it by my two engineering friends, Ben and Merlin (both VW Bus-men), and sought their advice. Re-gathering my wits, I headed over to Ben's place for Round 2.
I bought shorter screws, 1", that were also thicker, #12s which would allow for a bigger pilot hole. On Dave's advice, I also bought a 6" drill bit which would allow me to drill up from underneath the van, through the holes in the chassis rails (the two rails that run the length of the van; take a peak underneath, your fuel filter is attached to the passenger-side rail).
Another sheet of exterior plywood sheathing was bought so we could have a two-panel setup for the 5' x 5' sub-floor, one 5' x 4', one 5' x 1'. The big piece would be up front, and the 5' would run from side to side. The smaller section would be in the rear where the seat/storage will be. The excess plywood will be used to construct the rear seat.
Deciding to be better safe than sorry, and re-affirming "doing it right", Ben welded shut the holes from Round 1 as I shamefully watched. I ground down my mistakes and sprayed some rust-inhibitor primer over the bare metal both above and below.
To address the thermal bridging, the bare van floor was lined with the same stuff we're using as sound deadener - Frost King Self Adhesive Foil and Foam Duct Insulation. Then we used 3M Hi-Strength 90 spray adhesive to adhere the strips of Reflectix we used in Round 1.
Again, with Ben's help, we made some shims out of scraps of 3/16" strips he had laying around. Cut into 2" sections, the shims were stacked two-tall along the slider entrance (with notches cut out to fit around the black plastic holes on the floor), and along the driver's side, with separate sections in between the old middle-seat bolts which I left in the floor. The shims were secured to the van floor, each other, and the sub-floor using Liquid Nails that Ben had lying around. (Note: Along the front, driver's side corner and the rear, passenger side corner, only one shim was necessary because of some coating that was on that section of the floor.)
I sprayed the completed insulation/sound deadening layer and the underside of the sub-floor then placed the two pieces down. Spraying the adhesive at this step was probably overkill, but I wanted to - for sure - not ever hear the Reflectix strips.
Burning the midnight oil, Ben sat on a work bench on the sub-floor while I crawled underneath and drilled up through the chassis rails. I aimed for the raised sections of the floor just to be sure the 1" screws would make it. We ended up with 5 holes in the 5' x 4' section and 4 holes in the 5' x 1' section. On Ben's advice, a last minute audible was made and I used 1" long #10 machine screws with fender washers and nyloc nuts instead of the screws I bought (some were a little longer as these were one's he had in the garage). Because the fuel tank mounts to the chassis rails, you can't drill up through the floor. Instead, after you have the other holes drilled, used them as a guide and drown down (from inside the van). It was nerve racking. But you end up between the rails, not in the fuel tank. (Note: Measure, check, and re-check before doing this!)
The next day Danielle and I were chomping at the bit to get the flooring in. We've never tiled before so, again, this was one of those "let's just go for it" moments! We arrange the tiles lengthwise from front to rear instead of passenger side to driver's side. We feel like this makes the space look larger. The industrial "luxury" vinyl tiles were 3' x 8" so we tried 2' and 3' pieces, staggered, first, but it looked weird having them all lined up like that. After playing around with different options, we ended up going super random with 2', 3', and 1' tile sections which makes it look much more "natural" - like a regular floor. The final step was using a 1/16" u-notch trowel to lay the Robert's Fiberglass Sheet & Luxury Vinyl Tile Adhesive (#2310).
Round 2 Winner: Nate & Danielle :)
When I first started this project I quickly realized how bent out of shape I can get with the details. I obsessed over finding the "right" way to do it - how to do it, what supplies I needed, what tools I needed. No, not your typical research, it was to the point where it was almost debilitating; I had, as our buddy Joe of Das Mule says, "analysis paralysis".
The lesson was forcing myself to let go. Of course to do the initial research and not just swing blindly, but to let go and just go for it. Otherwise, you can get caught up in a never ending battle of knowledge-seeking that consumes your time and never allows you to actually DO the damn project!
Just go for it.
- Gather materials. (See list below.)
- Sound deadening and insulation (if wanted)
- 15/32", 4' x 8', Exterior Plywood Sheathing
- 6" x (whatever size your pilot holes need to be; for us it was 5/32) Drill Bit
- Stainless Steel Machine Screws, Fender Washers, Nyloc Nuts (Set of 9)
- #12 x 1" Stainless Steel Sheet Screws (2-pack)
- Whatever flooring you choose, you need ~22 square feet's worth.
- Aluminum railing for slider entry. (We haven't picked one up yet.)
- Some people put trim along the front side of the floor.
- Clear out the van.
- Remove seats, carpet, orignal padding, seat rails.
- Decide how you want to seal the factory seat mount holes. We just used the factory bolts and tightened them down.
- If applicable, Cut strips of Reflectix for "valleys". These are ~2" x (varied lengths), but remember, it's not an exact science!
- Clean floor.
- Use a non-greasy cleaner. We used some acetone I had around.
- If applicable, lay sound deadening (self adhesive duct insulation).
- Make sure to gently work it into the grooves so you don't crack the foil backing. If you do crack the foil backing, that's okay. Just use the foil tape.
- Use the foil tape to tape the seams where the pieces of sound deadening meet. If you do this, the foil backed duct insulation and tape should act as a vapor barrier.
- Use spray adhesive to adhere the Reflectix strips to the duct insulation.
- Cut sub-floor sections. (Total area is 5' x 5')
- If you go with one piece of plywood, it'll be 3 sections - 5' x 4', 3' x 1', and 2' x 1'
- If you go with two pieces of plywood like we did, it'll be 2 sections - 5' x '4' and 5' x 1'
- Cut and place shims on the driver's and passenger's side. (There's really no clear way to describe this section; all I can say is that once you get in there and look at the floor, it should be more clear. Let me know if you have any questions.)
- We used scrap 3/16" wood cut into 2" sections at varied lengths, stacked two tall in most sections. Just one was used where the floor had a raised, coated section (near the corners).
- Passenger's side: Measure the length of the non-coated section. Double that (because you're stacking two tall). Cut notches out of the bottom piece. Then measure the length of the two coated sections.
- Driver's side: We had three sections due to the middle seat bolt heads popping up. Your situation may be different, but it's the same process as the passenger side, just without the notches cut into the bottom piece.
- Install shims. We used Liquid Nails on the van floor, then on each shim piece.
- Optional: Use spray adhesive on insulation layer and backside of plywood (make sure you've got the right side up! Usually the side with the writing).
- Affix sub-floor sections. We chose to put the big section up front, with the 5' side spanning driver's side to passenger's side.
- Drill holes up through the chassis rails.
- Grab a helper and have them sit on a bucket (or something, just as long as you don't drill through their foot!), while you crawl under to drill.
- For the 5' x 4' section, we ended up with 2 holes along the passenger side rail, and 3 holes along the driver's side. For the 5' x 1' section, there were 4 holes, 2 in each rail.
- Attach floor using screws or machine screws, washers and nyloc nuts.
- Using those holes as a guide, drill two more holes from above (inside the van) along each rail towards the front of the van and screw down. Remember!: Measure meticulously and be sure to check yourself - the fuel tank is below that section but your goal is to pop out still between the chassis rails.
- Take the time to think about how you want to layout your floor. Experiment with different patterns.
- Choose the one you like.
- Measure and cut all the needed pieces.
- Sweep off the sub-floor; you're almost done!
- Read instructions on floor adhesive and make sure you know how to install whatever flooring you've chosen. (YouTube can be a real lifesaver.)
- Lay adhesive then lay flooring!
- Celebrate with high fives and beers, if you like.
- Go out and get it dirty!!
Parts List and Cost Breakdown
(I'll be the first to admit it, I need to do a better job of tracking expenses if I'm going to post about it to help others. But, it's allll a learning process, right? Also, these links are all Amazon Associate links - meaning you don't pay any extra, but if you purchase the product using one of our links, we get a small cut - gas for our next adventure!)
- Frost King Self Adhesive Foil and Foam Duct Insulation: $18.77
- Reflectix Foil Tape: ~$5.00
- Reflectix Foil Insulation: $24.45 (Only used for the strips so use the rest of the roll for insulating the walls.)
- 3M Hi-Strength 90 Spray Adhesive: $17.00
- 15/32", 4' x 8', Exterior Plywood Sheathing: $18.45 (3 section sub-floor), OR, $18.45 x 1.5 = $27.45 (2 section sub-floor)
- 6" x (whatever size your pilot holes need to be; for us it was 5/32) Drill Bit: ~$9.00
- Stainless Steel Machine Screws, Fender Washers, Nyloc Nuts (Set of 9): $12.50
- #12 x 1" Stainless Steel Sheet Screws (2-pack): $0.98
- Robert's Fiberglass Sheet & Luxury Vinyl Tile Adhesive (#2310): $27.97 (Note: We were forced to buy the 1 gallon tub because they were out of the smaller sizes. You definitely do not need 1 whole gallon; we only use 1/3.)
- Friends: Priceless
TOTAL COST = $143.12
Not exactly cheap, eh? And that total doesn't even include the cost for flooring. But, there's a certain piece of mind that comes with knowing you did it, and that you did it in a way that is built well and will last (hopefully, haha.) Also, keep in mind we used two plywood sheets and had to buy the whole gallon of the luxury vinyl tile adhesive.