By Billy Ulmer
So what’s that thing on top of our van, and how did it get there?
As I mentioned in my introduction post to the van, my partner and I knew we wanted a full head height van from the beginning. Sprinters were out of our price range, and Ford Transits and Ram Pro Masters had great height and boxiness, but no all wheel drive options. We looked into standard aftermarket fiberglass high tops too, and they’re a totally legit way to go, but we just wanted something different.
There isn’t much information out there about custom van high tops or DIY van high tops at this point, so we wanted to share how this thing is made. This isn’t a strict “DIY” project in that we didn’t do it ourselves, but it’s also not a standard product or service you’ll find anywhere else at this point. Someone with a different set of skills could tackle something similar with some professional help, or by themselves if they’re real skilled or real gutsy.
Custom and DIY Van High Tops We Loved
The first time we saw a really droolworthy custom hightop was in the parking lot at the Pickathon music festival. It looked like the underside of a wooden boat. We later saw it on Instagram because it turned out to belong to an old friend of my partner’s. The couple had made it themselves, the inside was gorgeous, and we became officially van obsessed.
Neither of us is a boat builder, however, so we were pretty sure we’d need help to do anything similar. Luckily for us, we knew an amazing tiny house builder with a penchant for custom vehicles. My buddy Derin from Shelter Wise had never converted a van before, but he’d done about everything else, from pioneering tiny house designs to building a custom camper into a tiny pick up truck, and he was game for something new.
It was Derin who found The Bus Life’s custom high top, which became the inspiration for ours. They had the same van we were eyeing, and they were even kind enough to do a couple blog posts about how they DIYed it. We liked that look aesthetically, but Derin had a different approach to building it that changed the process and interior significantly, even though it looks pretty much the same from the outside.
Our DIY Van High Top Design
Derin’s approach was to have a metal fabricator cut out the top of the van, weld an extended tube steel frame on, then side that somewhat like a house. I say “somewhat” because when Derin saw how great the tube steel frame looked, he recommended just painting it and leaving it exposed on the interior, and insulating and siding it on the outside. You can see the same look in his Bunk Box Tiny House Plans, with its exposed framing and electrical conduits.
We both thought that was great, so in our van, the tube steel frame is visible from the inside. It not only looks super architectural and interesting, but also lets us hang things from super strong magnets, and gives us a few extra inches of interior space, which we sure won’t turn down. Finish plywood is visible behind the frame, then it’s insulated, then it’s exterior sided with cedar all the way around. Commercial grade rubber roofing runs over the top and down the front, which was also cedar sided for aesthetics.
We basically live in Rain Town USA and Derin spent the last several years discovering the million different ways water tries to enter a home on wheels, so he took extra care in channeling the water down from the high top roof in ways that would keep it moving instead of puddling. That’s one of the many, many reasons I was not the right person to do this type of work myself, and was glad I got outside help.
DIY Van High Top Cost
So how much did this super custom, quasi DIY van high top cost? What we did wasn’t the cheapest option out there, but we feel great about it. It’s unique, beautiful, functional, thoughtfully designed and expertly made. We estimated for about $6,000 for the high top, and it came in around $8,000. That type of increase is not unexpected in custom design and construction, and it was no fault of Derin’s.
The hardest part of the project on his end was simply finding a metal fabricator that understood what he wanted and was engaged in the project. He had to visit several before finding one that was a good fit, but they were a great fit, and we were thrilled. The original design called for a few spot welds to hold the frame on, and they recommended doing a continuous weld all the way around for increased strength. We happily said yes to that suggestion, and its associated price increase, because it will hold up better on bumpy roads in the future and be safer over all.
Our van is young (for a van, anyway) and I bought it with a loan that I didn’t have to put much down for, so sinking some cash into this crucial piece of architecture feels pretty reasonable to me. The only other option I cost compared it against was driving to Southern California and having a fiberglass top put on, which would probably have cost at least $4,000 with travel. For not much more, we got something we were really pumped about.
But What About…
Here’s a quick FAQ based on what we get asked a lot:
Is it top heavy?
I thought it would be! But it drives really well and feels balanced and safe. I thought it would feel prone to tipping right now, especially, because it’s still empty inside and we haven’t added the grounding weight of a floor, framing, cabinets, etc, but it drives fine. Derin estimated that the high top added around 450 pounds of weight, but the roof they took off weighed about 250 pounds, so that’s only a net gain of 200 pounds. Like all boxy vehicles, it can be a beast to drive in the wind, but that’s par for the course with tall vans.
Is it safe?
One reason I loved Derin’s plan is that the tube steel frame is a lot stronger than a conventional wood-framed structure would be in the case of rolling, which we obviously hope will never, ever, ever happen. “Safe” also means well built for the safety of other people on the road. This thing is solid as a rock, and isn’t going to tip or fly apart on the highway. We just took an existing, sound structure and put a fancy hat on it.
It’s worth noting that I’ve seen a handful of very DIY-looking van high tops like this around Portland in the last year, and a couple have had tarps strapped down over them, likely because some part of the hightop to van seal has broken and water was getting in. That’s the very real threat of an inexpertly done version of this. It’s an easier gamble if you live in a dry climate.
We’ve been asked whether it’s “legal” too. Oregon inspects cars for their emissions, but not for general normalcy, and the RV and even tiny house culture out here is so entrenched that I don’t think cops or the DMV are all that interested in anything weird. Eventually when it’s built out, I’ll look into insuring it as an RV rather than a conventional car, but right now the only risk we run is that the value of the high top isn’t insured in any way. I’m not even sure how RV insurance would address that, but I’ve heard it would let me deduct the interest on my car loan as though it were mortgage interest, so I want to look into it when we get there.
Can I get one?
If you’re in the Portland area and interested in this exact DIY van high top, get in touch with Derin on Instagram. He may or may not be taking clients at any given time, but it’s worth a shot. And like all new design ideas, I’m sure someone will come along with something similar any minute now, either as a DIYer or a professional, so keep an eye out! I won’t be at all surprised in two years if I see vans that look like this all the time.
What Happens Next?
We finally start work on the interior! Stay tuned to our Instagram, Wheel of the West, to see our build out come together!