Scope Creep – Rebuilding the Rear Cargo Area

What started out as a solar project ended up as a carpentry, upholstery and sewing project. Scope creep, for sure. We haven’t been camping in a couple of months and don’t have any big trips planned until fall, so now is a good time to creep the scope.

Coachmen did a great job of hiding every bit of the steel van body structure behind padded panels. Looks good, might help deaden sound and might even provide a bit of insulation. But every time I want to muck around in the campervan, I need to figure out how to non-destructively remove the various interior panels and trim pieces. Most of the time that ends up being a lot of work.

For the new solar panel I needed to run a couple wires down from the roof. One of the few places where that looked possible was behind the vinyl padded columns that encase the D-pillar (the rear cargo door frame). To reach the underside of the van roof, I also needed to remove the panels that encase the top of the cargo door frame. Those panels enclosed a fairly large space that was only accessible through a couple of very small pockets. The pockets were hard to access from inside the van and were only large enough to hold the folded-up rear window covers.

The Crossfit/Beyond campervan came with a not-very-useable pull-down bug screen covering the rear cargo doors. The OEM bug screen was inset from the rear doors, so when pulled down it required re-arranging the stuff stored in the back ‘garage’ area. It also interfered with couch when dropped down into a bed. Because it used a spring-loaded a windows-shade mechanism, it was fussy to pull down and retract.

I.E. – All I needed to do was run a a couple of wires – but we had wasted space, hard to access storage, a less than useful rear screen, and an opportunity to bite the bullet, build new overhead storage, new D-pillar columns, a new rear insect screen.

And an excuse to buy a new router.

Can’t go wrong with a project that needs new power tools.

Columns and Storage

The OEM columns were 1/4″ MDF covered with a high quality vinyl with a 3/8″ open cell foam backing. My new D-pillar columns are (cheap) unpadded vinyl glued to1/4″ plywood, with clear pine stock glued and brad nailed to support the corners. The new overhead storage bin is a vinyl-covered shelf and back panel, a hardwood & brushed aluminum frame, and a bungee net to help keep things in place.

Instead of two 5″ x 5″ x 10″ pockets, we now have a 5″ x 15″ x 60″ stuff space. The down side is that I’m unable to cover the upper parts of the van frame, so we’ll probably have hot and cold spots in that storage area.

New storage shelf, wood & brushed aluminum. The white columns to the left and right of the cargo doors and the trim and panels above the cargo doors are new.

Bug Screen

Like with the side cargo door, I dumped the spring-retracting bug screen and fabricated a new screen that Velcro’s in place. The new screen is back far enough that it can be left in place when the couch is flattened into a bed. In theory we could do the #hashtag #vanlife thing and sleep with the rear screen down and cargo doors open. Both the bottom nylon panel and the top screen panel can be rolled up or removed entirely.

I’m using ‘Common-Sense’ twist-lock fasters and ordinary snaps in a few key places. Sewn into the bottom of each panel is a 3/8″ x 1/16″ aluminum stock. That should make the panels easier to roll up. Once rolled up, they’re held in place with Velcro or loop-type bungees.

In the inside, I made a blackout curtain that covers the entire rear door. The curtain is lightweight polyester with a few spots of Velcro to attach it to the inside of the screen and hold it in place. If the bug screen is rolled down, we can use the new blackout curtain. If the screen is rolled up, we can use the original rear window covers.

I hope that the storage space isn’t to difficult to access. If it is, I’ll end up leaving the panels rolled up. Otherwise our plan is to leave them rolled down while camping and traveling.

New Shelf

Since everything else back there is new, I decided to build a new rear shelf, figuring if I do it right I’ll finally find space for the portable solar panel we’ve been (inconveniently) storing inside the living space. The shelf’s purpose is to divide the cargo area into an upper space that has to be clear for the couch to recline, and a lower space that doesn’t interfere with the couch and can stay put at night. The lower space ends up being good for tools and outdoor stuff. The upper space works best for bedding, duffle bags, etc. There’s barely enough room above the water tank and the underside of the couch for one solar panel – provided that the shelf doesn’t interfere with the panel. The old shelf blocked access to the top of the tank, the new one does not.

I used aluminum this time – mostly because I had some expanded aluminum left over from another project, and I’m able to get a tiny bit more clearance under the shelf by using aluminum instead of wood.

The portable solar panel fits under the shelf, on top of the water tank. Of the two portable panels that I bought a year ago, one is now on the roof, the other under the couch, ready to be used if needed.

Next Time

If I were to do this again, I’d make a few changes.

  1. Use higher quality vinyl. The stuff from Joann Fabric isn’t very durable.
  2. Pad the vinyl. Coachmen says that the padding is for insulation and sound deadening. I’m pretty sure that other reasons are that the padding makes the vinyl easier to stretch and shape, hides defects in the framing, and perhaps makes it more tear resistant.
  3. My Velcro didn’t stick to the vinyl very well. I ended using staples to keep the Velcro stuck to the vinyl. A need a better way of attaching Velcro to vinyl .
  4. Instead of a rear shelf, I’d make something closer to a cabinet with a door. The shelf should be very usable for pillows, bedding and other lightweights, but a cabinet might be better.
  5. The hardest part of the project was fitting the upper panel to the van roofline. The rear of the van has compound curves, bend, notches and a couple of protruding door latches. The gap between the panel and the van roof needs to be bug-proof fit – if light leaks out, bugs will leak in. I’ll have to find a better way to fit that next time.

Odds are there will be a next time. 😁

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