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How To Build Overhead Cabinets In A Camper Van

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

Constructing overhead cabinets is one of the best ways to boost storage space in a camper van. In our tiny home, we use these upper cabinets to store our clothes, dry food, and electronics. And so in this post, we take a step-by-step approach to show how to construct your own overhead cabinets in a camper van.

Specifically, this post will go over:

Along the way, we’ll show you all the materials and tools we used to build our own overhead cabinets.

So if you’re ready, let’s get to it!

Step 1:

Overhead Cabinet Layout Planning & Dimensions

Before constructing your camper’s overhead cabinets, it’s a good idea to plan ahead so that you know where you want to install your upper cabinets and what their overall dimensions will be.

That’s why we recommend creating a digital floor plan of your camper interior. This is a great way to visualize how all your interior furniture will look inside your van. In the below graphic, you can see how we created a digital layout of our van. Our upper cabinets are shaded in green.

Want to know how we made this layout? Read our camper van layout post to learn how to create your own floorplan graphic using any old free software.

Overhead Cabinet Dimensions

How big? How long? How deep?

These are all questions you’ll need to ask yourself when planning your overhead cabinet dimensions. Here are some considerations to think about when planning the size of your cabinets:

  1. Height of vehicle: The taller the vehicle, the taller your cabinets can be. We have a high-roof van, which allows our overhead cabinets to be 16” tall.
  2. Airspace: Think about how much airspace you would like between your cabinets and your bed and/or kitchen counter. If your cabinets are too tall, they may get in the way when you’re trying to cook or sit up in bed.
  3. How much to store?: What percentage of your overall van storage space do you want your overhead cabinets to take up? Because we had a convertible bed (which allows for less storage capacity than a fixed bed), we wanted to maximize our upper cabinet storage space by having large, full-length cabinets.

The exact dimensions of our camper van’s overhead cabinets are:

  • Driver side: W119.5″x H16″
  • Passenger side: W60″ x H16″

Building a camper van? Download our free e-Books with intuitive electrical, solar, and plumbing diagrams.

Step 2:

Constructing The Overhead Cabinet Frame

Once you’ve finalized the overall dimensions, the first step is to build the frame of the overhead cabinet. At the bottom of this section, we will actually link to our favorite cabinet tutorial video on YouTube, but before we do, we wanted to go over some important information first.

Best Wood Material For Overhead Cabinet

When building overhead cabinets for your van, we recommend going with ½” plywood. We find that the ½” thickness is perfect for both durability and thickness.

If you can find it, we highly recommend visiting a local lumber yard and looking for “Baltic Birch” plywood. It’s a higher quality, stiffer plywood that isn’t as prone to warping as the standard Birch plywood that you can find in big box stores, like Home Depot.

Top Tip To Create Strong Cabinet Joints

Because these cabinets will have to carry quite a bit of weight AND withstand relentless vibration and jolts while driving, it’s imperative to create strong and resilient joints between the different plywood pieces.

Simply relying on wood screws to keep the wood joints together will not be enough.

To create a stronger, more robust joint, we used a combination of brass wood screws and wood glue.

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

When joining two plywood boards together, place a bead of wood blue on the edge of one of the boards and screw the two boards together with wood screws. We placed our screws 2” apart. That’s a lot of screws, but we want the cabinets to be able to hold the weight of all our items, 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.

Overhead Cabinet Frame Construction Directions

Below is a step-by-step framework for building your overhead cabinet frame. We also include a YouTube video tutorial by Adam, which we also followed, to help you.

Step 1: The gables (sides) of your cabinets will need to be scribed to fit perfectly with the curvature of your van’s walls and ceiling. Use a cardboard template to create that perfect gable shape, which you can transcribe to your plywood boards later. (See below video for reference).

Step 2: Cut out the boards you need for the top and bottom horizontal pieces for your cabinet.

Step 3: Attach your cabinet gables to the top and bottom plywood boards with wood screws and wood glue.

Step 4: If you will be attaching LED lights on the bottom of your cabinets, drill the necessary holes you need now. We used these LED lights, and so we needed a 2-3/8” hole saw to drill the correct hole.

Step 3:

Build & Attach Overhead Cabinet Fronts

With the cabinet frame finished, you can now work on creating the fronts (doors) for your cabinets. For our own cabinets we used:

Products You Need

Blum soft-close hinges
Magnet Catches

1. Recommended Cabinet Door Dimensions

We made a mistake when sizing our cabinet doors. We wanted our cabinet doors to have a streamlined look and so we only planned a ¼” gap between each door.

However, having such a small gap means you have a small margin for error when attaching the cabinet doors to the frame. In our case, some of our cabinet doors will rub up against each other when lifted at the same time.

If we could do our cabinet doors again, we’d leave a larger 1” gap between each door.

2. Recommended Hinges

We looked at several different cabinet door hinges but ultimately fell in love with the Blum soft-close hinge. While there are plenty of cheaper hinges available online, we liked the high-quality feel of these Blum hinges.

Also, the soft-close feature of these hinges means that we don’t have to worry about our cabinet doors smashing into the frame. After 3+ years in the van, we take these soft-close hinges for granted.

How To Install Beautiful Upper Cabinets In A Campervan - Hinges

The two downsides to using these Blum hinges is:

  1. You will need ¾” plywood for the cabinet doors, instead of the ½” plywood that you used to make the cabinet frame.
  2. You’ll need to purchase the concealed hinge jig to install the hinge in your doors.

But if we could build another set of van overhead cabinets, we would use the exact same hinges as we have now.

3. Cabinet Door Handles

How To Install Beautiful Upper Cabinets In A Campervan - Handles
Boring out our concealed hinge hole

We purchased these beautiful, brushed copper door handles for our upper cabinet fronts.

Instead of trying to estimate where to drill the holes to install the 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.

4. Attaching Gas Struts

With the hinges installed and the handles installed, we moved onto installing these Gas Struts. Gas struts help to hold our fronts open while we move things in and out of our cabinets.

5. Installing 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 magnetic catches is simple enough. Simply screw down the main magnetic housing in the center of the cabinet frame and screw in the single magnetic piece onto the door.

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

Step 4:

Sanding & Painting Overhead Cabinets

With the cabinet frame and doors built, you’re ready to sand and paint them. Here are the products you need for this step.

Products You Need

Concrobium anti-mold spray
anti-mold solution
Random orbit sander - essential tools for a van conversion build
electric sander
Sandpaper for random orbit sander
80-grit sandpaper
120-grit sandpaper
Zinsser mold killing primer
Anti-Mold Primer

1. Anti-Mold Preparation

With the cabinet frame and doors built, you’re ready to sand and paint them.

To prevent against future mold growth on the plywood boards, we sprayed our frame and doors with anti-mold solution. This spray is quick and convenient and was also used in other parts of our van build, including our:

  • Walls
  • Sub-floor
  • Furring strips
  • Kitchen cabinet
  • Bed frame

Simply apply a good coat of the anti-mold solution to the cabinet plywood boards and let them sit to dry.

2. Sanding

Once the anti-mold solution has dried, sand the cabinet frame to create a smooth surface before painting.

With an electric sander, go over the plywood boards with 80-grit sandpaper. 80-grit paper is course, but will sand down the rougher areas of the plywood.

After, go over the plywood boards again with 120-grit sandpaper to really smooth out the surface.

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

Sanding plywood for cabinets

3. Painting

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.

In our case, the white paint we selected is the same color as our walls. To learn more, check out our other post “why white walls are best for camper vans.”

Strong Upper Cabinets For Campervans - Painting The Cabinets

Building a camper van? Download our free e-Books with intuitive electrical, solar, and plumbing diagrams.

Step 5:

Mounting Overhead Cabinets To Van Walls

When the paint has dried, you are ready to mount the cabinets to your van’s walls.

1. Ensure furring strips are installed first

Simply screwing your overhead cabinets to your van’s thin plywood walls won’t give the cabinets the grip they need to stay attached. With all the vibration and side-to-side sway, your van’s cabinets may likely rip out over time.

That’s why we recommend installing furring strip to your van’s metal walls. These furring strips will help to securely hold your walls, cabinets, and all future furniture you intend to place in your van.

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

2. Mount The Overhead Cabinets

Attaching upper cabinets inside a camper van 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 because they are self-tapping screws, meaning no pre-drilling is required.

Finished Van Cabinets Result

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

In our case, we’ve driven 60,000+ miles, many of them on horrendous Latin American roads, and our upper cabinets have survived the journey. They’ve successfully held the weight of all our storage items and still hold tightly to our van’s walls to this day.

Camper Van Overhead 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 to install strong and beautiful overhead cabinets in a camper van. We’re extremely happy with the way our cabinets turned out and we’re confident that your installation project will go smoothly as well.

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

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