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How To Build Strong Upper Cabinets In A Camper Van

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How-To-Build-Strong-Upper-Cabinets-In-A-Campervan

If you’re looking to build upper cabinets in your camper van or RV, you’ve come to the right post. In this article, we will teach how to construct and install strong plywood cabinets in a van.

We love our camper van cabinets not only because they look great, but because they provide ample storage for our needs, and they’ve held a lot of weight (think glass jars and camera equipment) without breaking.

So, in this post, you’ll learn exactly our build process and all the different tools and materials we’ve used to construct our cabinets.

So if you’re ready, let’s get to it!

Table of Contents
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents

    Step 1:

    Plan Van Cabinet Layout & Dimensions

    Before constructing ANYTHING in a camper van, it’s critical to plan ahead so that you know the shape and dimensions of what you’ll be building. That’s why we recommend creating a digital floorplan of your camper interior, like what we created in the diagram below.

    Complete Camper Van Floor Plan Design (Side View)
    Upper Cabinets Shaded In Green

    In the floor plan above, you can see that we planned to build 6 upper cabinets (shaded in green) on the driver’s side of the camper van.

    Don’t have a floor plan yet? Our digital floor plan creator guide teaches you how to create your own layout WITHOUT using any fancy, paid software.

    Step 2:

    Constructing The Van Cabinet Frame

    Constructing Campervan Upper Cabinets - Cabinet Frame

    Once you know the dimensions of your cabinet, the first step is to build the frame.

    Materials & Tools List

    Below are all the materials and tools we used in this stage of the cabinet construction process.

    Table 1.1 - Materials List For Frame Construction

    Product

    Purpose

    Where To Buy

    Baltic Birch Plywood

    Great quality plywood for cabinet construction.

    Local Lumber Yard

    6x1 Wood Screws

    Hold plywood boards together

    Wood Glue

    You'll need lots of this!

    Helpful Tools

    Power Drill

    Drill screws and concealed hinge holes.

    Table/Circular/Jig Saw

    Cut plywood down to size.

    Long Clamps

    Clamps plywood pieces together while wood glue dries.

    Construction Directions

    We built our upper cabinets using 1/2″ Baltic Birch plywood and used a table saw to cut the large plywood boards down to the sizes we needed.

    If we’re being honest, the process of building the cabinet frame is difficult to describe in a written blog, so we will let Adam describe this process in this incredibly informational video.

    We believe Vanessa and Adam are really underrated when it comes to producing campervan build videos. Check them out!

    How To Create Strong Plywood Joints

    How To Construct Upper Cabinets In A Campervan - Frame Construction 2
    How To Construct Upper Cabinets In A Campervan - strong joint van build tips

    Because our van’s upper cabinets would have to withstand relentless vibration and jolts while we drive, we needed the plywood joints to be strong and resilient to movement. Just relying on wood screws to keep the wood joints together would not be enough.

    Therefore, we used a combination of brass wood screws and wood glue for every plywood joint. We found that these particular 6×1 wood screws work very well when screwing together ½” plywood boards.

    When joining two plywood boards together, we placed a bead of wood glue on one of the boards and screwed the two boards together with wood screws spaced 2″ apart. It’s a lot of screws, but we want the cabinets to be able to hold the weight, especially while driving on bumpy roads.

    DIY Pro Tip: It’s important to invest in several 36″ clamps to allow the wood glue to cure the plywood boards in the proper position.

    Step 3:

    Cutting Holes For LED Lights

    Camper van ceiling showing LED lights

    If you can plan for it now, installing LED lights to the underside of your cabinets is a great idea. These lights really allow you to focus the light onto a specific part of the van, such as directly over your kitchen.

    We discuss how to do this here.

    Materials & Tools List

    Below is what you’ll need to install LED lights on the bottom of your cabinets.

    Table 2.1 - Materials List For LED Light Installation

    Product

    Purpose

    Where To Buy

    LED Puck Lights

    Fantastic 12v, low profile lights.

    Helpful Tools

    Power Drill

    Used in conjunction with hole saw.

    2-3/8" Hole Saw

    Drills correct size hole

    Build Instructions

    To make room for these puck lights, we drilled a 2-3/8” hole on the underside of the cabinet frame for every puck light we installed. We did this by using our power drill and a correct size hole saw.

    Once the cabinets are mounted to the camper van walls, you can insert the puck lights and completing the wiring.

    To learn more, check out our 12v instillation post and our wiring LED lights post.

    Table 2.1 - Materials List For LED Light Installation

    Step 4:

    Build & Attach Cabinet Fronts

    With the cabinet frame finished, you can now work on creating the fronts (doors) for your cabinets.

    Materials & Tools List

    Below are all the materials and tools we used to attach our cabinet fronts to the frame.

    Table 3.1 - Materials List For Fronts Installation

    Product

    Purpose

    Where To Buy

    Baltic Birch Plywood

    Great quality plywood for cabinet construction.

    Local Lumber Yard

    Blum Hinges

    High-quality, soft-close cabinet hinges.

    Cabinet Door Handles

    Beautiful brushed bronze cabinet handles.

    Gas Struts

    Keeps cabinet doors in open position.

    Door Magnets

    Keeps doors closed, especially while driving

    Helpful Tools

    Concealed Hinge Jig

    Helps you drill appropriate holes to fit concealed hinges.

    Cabinet Handle Jig

    Allows you to install perfectly located cabinet handles every time.

    Cutting The Plywood

    Making our cabinet door fronts was a simple job since we were cutting simple rectangles.

    We simply measured each open space on our cabinet frame and used our table saw to cut the appropriate size cabinet fronts.

    We use these wonderful soft-close concealed hinges, but to use these hinges you’ll need to use ¾” plywood. This is because you’ll need to bore out a ~0.5” deep hole on the backside of the cabinet front.

    Good To Know: If you want to use other hinges, like these, you can still use standard ½” plywood.

    Attaching Cabinet Fronts To Frame

    Once you’ve got your plywood fronts cut to size, it’s time to attach them to the cabinet frame. We did this process in 4 steps, using 4 different products.

    Attaching The Hinges

    To install a Blum soft-close concealed hinge means having to bore out a sizeable hole on the backside of the cabinet front to fit the hinge inside. To do this you’ll need the Kreg Tool Concealed Hinge Jig.

    Boring out our concealed hinge hole
    How To Install Beautiful Upper Cabinets In A Campervan - Drilling Hinge Holes
    How To Install Beautiful Upper Cabinets In A Campervan - Drilling Hinge Holes 2

    This jig makes it incredibly easy to drill out the appropriate sized hole.

    With a good set of clamps and a drill, boring out the concealed hinge holes was easy.

    All that was left to do was to insert the concealed hinges into the holes and affix them with screws.

    Attaching The Cabinet Handles

    How To Install Beautiful Upper Cabinets In A Campervan - Handles

    We purchased these beautiful brushed copper door handles and it was time to install them.

    Instead of trying to estimate where to drill the holes for our handles, we purchased the Kreg Tool Cabinet Hardware Jig to take the guesswork out of the process. Using the jig ensured that our drill holes would be perfectly level and perfectly spaced apart for our handles.

    Attaching The Gas Struts

    With the hinges installed and the handles installed, the last piece of hardware to go in are our Gas Struts. These struts would help to hold our fronts open while we take things out and put things into our upper cabinets.

    Once the gas struts were in, our upper cabinets were finished.

    We were really excited to get to this point and could finally begin to see the light at the end of the conversion tunnel!

    Installing The Magnetic Door Catches

    With the cabinet doors attached to the frame, we could install our Magnetic Catches. This would help to prevent our upper cabinet doors from swinging open while we were driving.

    Installing the Magnetic Catches was simple enough. Simply screw down the main piece in the center of the cabinet frame and screw in the metal piece onto the door.

    Simple and straight forward. And for our upper cabinets, these magnetic catches work great!

    Step 5:

    Sanding & Painting Van Cabinets

    Strong Upper Cabinets For Campervans - Painting The Cabinets
    Painting & Sanding Our Cabinets

    Materials & Tools List

    Below are all the materials and tools we used to sand and paint our cabinets.

    Table 4.1 - Materials List For Fronts Installation

    Product

    Purpose

    Where To Buy

    80-Grit Sand Paper

    1st stage sanding

    120-Grit Sand Paper

    2nd stage (smoother) sanding

    Anti-Mold Spray

    Kills & deters mold growth

    Anti-Mold Primer

    Kills & deters mold growth

    Paint

    It's paint...

    Hardware Store

    Helpful Tools

    Electric Sander

    Makes sanding easier and quicker

    Filtered Face Mask

    Filters out wood particles and paint fumes.

    Paint Brushes

    To paint with...

    Hardware Store

    Sanding The Cabinets

    Similar to when we constructed our campervan walls, we sanded our cabinet frame and doors with our sander using both 80 & 120-grit sandpaper until the wood was smooth.

    DIY Tip: We recommend wearing a filtered mask while sanding and painting. Keep those particles and noxious gasses out of your lungs.

    Painting The Cabinets

    After sanding, we applied two coats of Anti-Mold Primer and two coats of the same “Twinkling Lights” white paints that we used on our walls.

    Step 6:

    Mounting Cabinets To Van Walls

    When the paint dried, it was time to mount the upper cabinet frame to the walls of our campervan.

    How To Build Strong Upper Cabinets In A Campervan - Frame Finished
    Mounted upper cabinets with cabinet screws

    Materials & Tools List

    Below are the tools and resources we used to attach our cabinets to our van walls.

    Table 5.1 - Materials List For Attaching Cabinets To Walls

    Product

    Purpose

    Where To Find

    GSK Cabinet Screws

    Designed to attach cabinets to walls

    Furring Strips

    Provides strong anchor point for cabinets to hold on to.

    Friends (preferably two)

    Help you to hoist your cabinets.

    Installation Instructions

    Furring strips mounted in a camper van
    Furring strips attached to our campervan's frame

    Simply screwing these cabinets to thin plywood walls isn’t enough. Very likely these cabinets will rip away from the walls.

    Therefore, in an earlier part of our van build, we installed furring strips to our van’s metal walls. These furring strips will help to securely hold our walls, cabinets, and all other furniture we will be putting into the van.

    Attaching upper cabinets is a 3-person job; one person to hold each end of the cabinet in the proper place and the third person to put in the fasteners.

    For this job, we used GRK Cabinet Screws. These screws work perfectly for the job because of the larger screw head area and they are self-tapping screws, meaning no pre-driling is required.

    I’m not sure what carrying weight these cabinet screws are rated for, but I went ahead and over-estimated the amount of cabinet screws I would need.

    Go Back: DIY Campervan Build Guide

    Finished Van Cabinets Result

    When all is finished, you should have beautiful upper cabinets installed in your van.

    Camper Van Upper Cabinets Video

    See our upper cabinets in action.

    Watch our campervan tour video below. The video automatically skips right to when we start talking about our cabinets.

    In this video you can see all the small intricacies of our upper cabinets; like our hinges, magnetic catches, handles, and gas struts.

    We hope you enjoy!

    Campervan Upper Cabinets - Conclusion

    Thanks for reading our overview on how we installed strong and beautiful upper cabinets in our campervan.

    If you have any questions regarding the construction process, please leave a comment below.

    To read more specific campervan build articles like this, head over to our DIY Campervan Build Guide Homepage.

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