Friday, July 28, 2017

Retro Post: Interior build v3.0

In my quest to get the blog caught up with my various forum Build Threads, it's time for another Retro Post.  This time, making a big leap forward with a new approach to the interior systems.

So I'd been talking about doing this for quite a while: Fixing the interior layout to better fit my needs. We love the van, but there's a bit of a "10lbs of crap in a 5lb bag" problem, and some of the decisions I made early on have caused problems down the line.

Most specifically, I really hated that I was never able to find a perfect arrangement for the fridge. I knew I wanted it somewhere behind the driver's seat or under the bed, but lack of overhead height meant the latter was a no-go, and getting any chest fridge to fit behind the seat either wasted a lot of space or forced me to relocate a BUNCH of stuff every time we stopped to camp. Not good. The whole point of this is for things to be easy.

 I spent a lot of time (like literally 2 years) moving things around, building different fridge mounting boxes, and trying to make things 5% more efficient. During this time I was also hanging out at the Samba and daydreaming about how much interior space the Westy VW guys have. There, I got exposed to "the new hot thing" for their kitchens - a Danfoss swing-compressor replacement for the finicky old Dometic Absorption fridges that Westfalia originally installed.  Mechanically, they're the same hardware as all the good "chest" fridges the Overland folks are using, but in upright "front loader" footprints.  The VW guys are loving them because they can slot right into place in the original westy cabinets, but actually hold more food, since the swing compressor takes up less space than the old heat-engine system. Better yet, they run efficiently on 12v batteries and don't carry all the problems of a propane-driven 3-way.


As with all things, design starts with some cardboard templates. Sorry for the blurry photo, but you can probably see my sketch marks to figure out how high I can mount the fridge to ensure clearance, since the van wall curves inwards towards the top.

 Templates were transferred to 1/2" baltic birch ply. I cut these with my ancient Black and Decker skill saw (still refuses to die!), and then machined with the Kreg pocket-screw system.

After that, assembly was quick and easy. Tightbond II and the pocket screws make this thing ring like a wooden bell when you thump it. Very tight. At this point I'm ready to begin the first of many coats of poly. Per my wife's request, no other finish applied, she liked the clean look. (I'd originally planned a light grey paint to match the interior plastics/fabrics.)

The cabinet is as narrow as I could get away with, in order to fit into the space between the bed and driver's seat. This means no face frame and thinnest possible carcass material. Since I would be mounting the fridge directly into the end-grain of the birch ply, I added insert nuts for 10-32 mounting screws. This way I know I can remove/install the fridge as often as needed without worrying about tearing up the end grain or getting a good bite into the material with a wood screw.

I'm continuing with my practice of using the open seat-mounting cleats for the (missing) middle bench as mounting points. In this case, a U-bolt fastens into this base plate. Tightening the nuts pulls the plate down and presses the cabinet to the floor. This holds the cabinet very well, but I've also fastened to the van wall above.

Like everything else in this van, the drawer is an exercise in maximizing use of space and not wasting anything. I hate the idea of making drawer boxes out of 1/2" material, and I don't have the tools to make strong joints on thinner wood.

Instead, I went to what I know, and built the drawer the way I used to build my fighting robots. I started by mitering 4 lengths of aluminum 1" x 3" angle stock on my chop-saw.

Then I cut a matching rectangle from some leftover 1/8" cross-weave carbon fiber plate and started drilling and tapping holes. (What, you don't have surplus carbon fiber plate lying around?)

The only thing holding the drawer sides together is the tight joining to the baseplate, but this works really well if the tolerances are good.  The result is a drawer box strong enough to stand on, but weighs less than half a pound. Over-engineered, probably, but the recovered drawer volume will be important later.

Another advantage of drawers that assemble with machine screws is that you can take them apart for easy installation of drawer slides. Note the guide sticks that make it easy to make sure the drawer is installed level.
And voila'. All finished, assembled and installed. Yes, this was quite a big jump, but I didn't take any pictures of the process of sanding and wiping-on multiple coats of polyurethane.

The fridge is a Truckfridge TF-49, sourced from Karl at Westy Ventures.  Karl was great to deal with and has good prices with free delivery.

I have a plan for treating the fridge door to make it more aesthetically pleasing.  The "Truck Fridge" line seems to be marketed originally towards people installing them in the sleeper-cabs of 18-wheelers.
The TF-49 fits perfectly in the space I had available and serves our small family fine for our usual short trips. I would have preferred the larger TF-63, but that would have required making a very funky cabinet that overhung the foot of the bed.

This has proven to be "big enough", and come cocktail hour, the Mrs. is always happy that we have a freezer box, because now there's ice for the G&Ts!

I added a large vent at the rear of the cabinet near where the compressor and electronics sit at the back of the fridge. No extra fan, yet, unless I find things running hot.  This is an inexpensive 120mm computer case grill - an easy way to add a clean vent without significant cabinet work.

I also have a short upper tray on top of the cabinet, lined with matching carpet. While driving, we've been using it to store the plates and flatware, but with the top popped and the upper bunk lifted up, this is a really useful flat surface that seems to hold toys, books, cameras or whatever.  Next project should be to finish re-covering the exposed edges of the headliner foam where I've cut it to match the bunk hole.

 Another nice improvement for indoor life - a table hangs from the aluminum track under the fridge. The adjustable leg has enough range that I'll use some of the leftover track so I can also use the table as an add-on surface, hanging off my chuck box and/or the dining table.

It will be nice to have an indoor surface for playing cards, etc. if we ever find any weather, but I suspect mostly my kiddo will use this for coloring. I may eventually build a slightly larger table surface and do something special, but for $14 at Ikea, this jumbo size cutting board was a good first pass.

The lower portion of the cabinet will now house my portable toilet. The door opens down and the bottoms are covered with a low-friction plastic so it's easy to slide the toilet in and out.
I've yet to remove the auxiliary heater core (never used), but the shelf over the top of it now holds a basket with extra TP, tank deodorizer, and hand-sanitizer.

Having the toilet stored here is a HUGE improvement for us, for a couple of reasons:

First, up until now we've been limited to the smaller Thetford 135 with a two-gallon waste tank, because that's all that would fit between the front seats.  Usually it was full up by the end of even a short weekend trip. I built this cabinet big enough that we can fit either a Thetford 550 or a Dometic 976 series - either of which will hold FIVE gallons+, which should give us enough overhead to get through a weekend without fear of filling it.

Secondly, not storing the toilet between the front seats now means I can swivel the passenger seat around even for short stops, instead of having to unstrap it, and move it out of the way before swiveling the seat. Yet another multi-step dance that I don't have to go through when setting up and tearing down camp!

And now the reason I wanted to save space in that drawer. I'm just able to fit my butane catering burner in there. If the drawer had been any shallower (or used 1/2" plywood construction), this never would have worked.

Mostly I suspect the burner will be just stored here, but I'm glad to know that in a pinch, I can boil water, make coffee, or heat small meals inside the van.

And here's the best part, from my perspective: I can deploy the bed without having to move anything!

While I'm sure this seems obvious to anyone with a Westy or Sportsmobile, it's a revelation for me.  After spending nearly five years unstrapping and moving the fridge every time I wanted to deploy the bed, (and then reversing the process to break camp), I'm absolutely thrilled with this project.

As usual, more detailed photos are available in the album.

1 comment: