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Converting a 1999 Ford E-250 into a camper van

Old 04-08-2010, 11:28 AM
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Converting a 1999 Ford E-250 into a camper van

Hello All,
Since July of 2009 I've been working on converting a Ford 1999 E-250 into a camper van. I was posting updates on the progress to another Ford forum. That forum has been hacked with all my posts being deleted. The owners of that forum are just letting it go to hell so I figured I'd move to this forum and recreate my posts from Google cache.
I'm going to start this thread from the beginning. That means some of the information, like how I was working during the winter, is going to seem a bit odd but eventually I'll catch-up to the present day.

Here goes.

Warning: This is my first ever van so I'm making it up as I go along. Use any and all information at your own risk.

I'm sure others will point out my mistakes but that's OK. I don't even pretend to know what I'm doing and the purpose of posting this is so others may learn something. Maybe even be tempted to try something similar themselves.

OK, Lets go. Step one. Buy a van off of craigslist.

The seller is a home renovator in the Pittsburgh area. He was the original owner and had all the maintenance records, about a three inch high stack. The transmission had been replaced at 80,000 miles.
We agreed on $2500.00
If I'd known the rust problems I would run into later that amount would have been lower. Just to be clear. I don't think the previous has hiding anything. I doubt he knew about most if it.

Lesson Learned: If buying a used Ford van look for rust in the following areas:
Under the driver side floor mat.
Remove the cargo mat and look for signs.
Check around the rear wheel wells.

The van the day I picked it up 7/11/2009.

The van looked used not abused.

I was aware of rust on the drivers side rocker panel:

bottom edge of a couple doors:

And where the roof rack had been attached.

I'll return to the rust later.

The first thing you need to do after getting the van home is to sit inside facing the back and say to yourself over and over,
"What the #&*@ did I just get myself into!!

To get over that feeling I then started reminding myself, and still occasional do, of this riddle.
Q. How do you eat an elephant?
A. One bite at a time.

Supper time!

I've named it "Hal The Van".
Old 04-08-2010, 11:31 AM
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After removing the rear cargo mat and cleaning out the inside of the van I started my first fix.
The PO had drilled holes in the floor for metal shelves. Some of these had become rusted. Decided to treat and plug the holes.
Skil 4-12 6 amp grinder $29.97 (Every new project is just an excuse to buy more tools. Insert grunting noise here.)
DeWalt 4-1/2 x 7/8 120 grit sanding wheel $7.93
4 knotted wire brush DW49 - $13.97
wire brush $1.98
2 masking tape $2.48
Assorted sand paper
Advance Auto:
Dupli-color paint bright white T346 $6.59
Dupli-color sandable primer white primer 1689 $5.29
Bondo plastic spreaders $2.99
Bondo body filler $10.39
Purple Power De-Ruster 1-qt $6.19

I hadn't done any body work for 20+ years so I thought this would be a good place to practice since everything will be covered over. I bought good old Bondo. I didn't know about the newer kind with fibers. Now I do.

Here is what the average hole looked like.

First thing was to use my new grinder with a sand paper wheel. Mistake. The wheel really scores the metal.

Went back to Lowes and got the wire wheel.

The wire wheel does a better job of just removing the rust and leaving the good metal alone.

From underneath the van I'd use a hand wire brush to knock of the worst of the rust.

Next step was to brush on rust converter around the hole inside and underneath. After it dries cover the holes from underneath with duct tape.

Then it was "Fun With Bondo" time. The stuff was just how I remembered it. If you owned an AMC vehicle back in the day Bondo and you would have been VERY good friends.

After the Bondo dried I sanded it down because I needed the practice.
Mask it off then prime and paint it. It's not clear from this photo but the spray can paint I got from the local auto store wasn't going to match the van's paint. Here it was no problem but I'd have to do something different for the visible repairs.

Finished by pulled off the duct tape from the bottom of the van. The rust underneath will need treated but I'll come back to that later.
Old 04-08-2010, 11:33 AM
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After removing the rear cargo mat and padding found this underneath.
There are large bolts that secure the van body to the under frame.
The rearmost set of bolts, a couple of feet from the back doors, shows bubbling under the paint.

After grinding off the paint and chipping at the rust underneath you have this:

The under frame cross beam that the bolts go to is located behind the rear wheels. In the winter DOH uses a lot of salt on the roads around here. From underneath it looks like road salt/water is sprayed from the back wheels to catch where the beam meets the bed. Perfect place to breed rust. With this design I think this would be a common problem.

The view from underneath.

This job required welding which is beyond me so I farmed it out to local shop.
After photos:

Mask and paint the new plates.

The shop charged me $350.
Old 04-08-2010, 11:36 AM
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Early on I realized I'd have to put more thoughts into paint.
Since I couldn't get spray can paint that would match the van color I'd have to use custom mixed paint. I knew nothing on the subject and had never touched a air gun before. Maybe it's just me but there seems to be a kind of mystique about automotive painting. Like it can only be done by specially trained craftsmen in dust-proof painting bays.
Not true. I wouldn't compare my efforts to someone who does this for a living but considering this is the first thing I've painted and I'm working on the street in front of my house the results are not half bad. That's not just my opinion. If you are spray painting on the street in front of your house other people will be bound to give you their opinion.
A big shout-out goes to the folks at my local NAPA store. I couldn't have done it without their help.
Kobalt Small Gravity Feed Spray Gun - $37.96
Spray Gun Air Adjusting Valve - $14.96
Acetone – Quart - $6.98 (times 3) next time buy by the gallon.
320 grit 3 pack $3.97
2” masking tape $2.48 (times 3)

Advance Auto
Dupli-color sandable primer white primer 1689 $5.29 (times 12)
Sandpaper 1000 grit - $4.19

Intermix MS Quart 56A Oxford White - $32.69 (times 2)
Overall Clearcoat MS Quart FC720 - $23.49 (times 2)
Reducer MS Quart CR232 - $13.49 (times 2)
Medium hardener MS 8-0z FH612 - $10.99 (times 2)
Sandpaper 1500 grit - $8.69

on hand
A good respirator and set of goggles
A small air compressor (borrowed) and a boat load of old newspapers
A big piece of cardboard is handy/necessary for dialing in the gun.

The paint sprayer I use is the "Kobalt Small Gravity Feed Spray Gun - $37.96" from Lowe's.
This type holds the paint in a small container on top of the gun. The main advantage is since it's a gravity feed there is less parts to clean vs the type where the paint is held underneath the gun. Disadvantage is that it doesn't hold a lot of paint but if you run out it's easy to refill.
I also bought a "Air Adjusting Valve - $14.96" that attaches between the gun and the air hose so you can adjust the pressure right at the gun (important).

I had the advantage of practicing on the inside parts of the van which will be covered over when the conversion is complete. It doesn't take that long to get the hang of the painting. Learning how to properly adjust the gun I found to be harder.

Here are the steps I used to repaint. I'm new at this and these instructions are what worked for me. Your mileage my vary.

If there was any sign of rust use the wire brush on the grinder to remove the rust and any paint near it.

Use rust converter on the rust.

If there were no signs of rust use 320-400 grit wet/dry sandpaper to prepare paint. Use the sandpaper with a bucket of water. Keep wetting it frequently. Go over the whole area you're going to paint. This will be messy. If it's not messy you're not using enough water.

Clean up your mess and get a clean bucket of water and wipe down the sanded area.

Mask off the area you're going to paint. This is the most tedious of the jobs but if you don't take the time to do it right you'll regret it later. The more paper covering the better.

Next get a rag and use acetone to wipe down the area you'll be painting.

Time for the respirator and goggles. I'll skip the safety lecture.

Primer. I used rattle spray can primer. NAPA carried the type of primer for air guns but it came in a larger quantity than I needed. Spray cans worked fine. Just need a lot of them. I tend to use short light strokes and to go over the area more than once. Probably equal to a coat and a half.

After priming use the 1000 grit sandpaper dry and VERY LIGHTLY go over the area. One thing I noticed. On the inside of the doors the primed layer seemed extra rough at the lower corners of the windows. Extra sanding was required. This happened with every door. Must be something about the primer collecting in the corner.

Take a dry soft rag and make sure there's no loose sanding dust left laying on the surface.

Now you're ready to paint. Run a little acetone through the spray gun to make sure it's OK. Check the air pressure AT THE GUN. Your gun instructions should tell you what PSI is recommended
Mix the paint and reducer. I was advised to use 4:1 but was never super accurate with the mix ratios and the end results were always the same.

Put paint in the gun and do some test sprays. A big sheet of cardboard is real handy for this. You'll need to dial in the gun at this point. This step was always the hardest for me. There are three adjustment ***** on the gun I bought and if you adjusted one it seems to effect the other two. It seems like a balancing act and I never felt like I had it perfect, just good enough.

I set the gun for a light spray. Remember that as you move the gun to keep it parallel to the surface you're painting. Don't swing your arm back in forth in an arc. I would do short strokes until I thought I'd given good coverage to the whole area once. Put down the gun and take a short break. In just a few minutes the paint would be dry. I'd then do another coat.

After finishing the second coat pour out any paint not used. Be sure to keep the mixed and unmixed paint separate.

NOTE: I'm working in the garage with the doors open and there are no ignition sources or open flames anywhere nearby.

Wipe out the inside of the gun's paint reservoir with paper towels. If you use cloth rags be careful of clogging the gun with a stray thread. Next use acetone and paper towels to wipe out the reservoir. You want to get it as clean as you can. I also wipe off the outside of the gun.

The gun instructions advise disassembling it at this point and cleaning the internal bits separate. I'm always worried about losing one of the small bits so instead I clean the inside by running acetone through it. Just pour a little acetone into the bottom of the reservoir and spray it into a garbage can till empty. Do this three or four times and the gun should be clear.

Next step is the clear coat. Some people advise sanding the new paint with 1500 grit sandpaper. It did try this and it does improve the look but for what I'm doing It didn't improve it that much and besides, I don't need a mirror like finish.

Applying the clearcoat is just like applying the paint. Follow the same steps including mixing ratio except for the cleatcoat you'll be adding hardener not reducer. The clearcoat flows differently so you'll have to re-dial the gun. Be sure to apply the clearcoat in light layers. If the layers are too thick you'll see a surface that looks like an orange peel. I'll usually apply three coats of clearcoat.

That's it. Clean the gun like you did with the paint. After you remove the masking you might have a slight edge to your paint area. You can blend it down with the 1500 grit sandpaper. Step back and marvel at you work.



Two tips. If you're painting outside, don't paint after dark. You'll be picking out the bugs later. You can get overspray off windows with a single edged razor blade. Don't ask me how I know.
Old 04-08-2010, 11:39 AM
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The PO had used ladder racks which caused rusting and stains.

To remove the rust stains down the sides of the van I used CLR.
It will take the stains off but elbow grease and patience is required.

I tried using sandpaper on the rusted drip edge but the rust wasn't just on the surface so I had to use the wire wheel on it. Primed and then repainted the drip edge.

Didn't finish this job till after dark.
Old 04-08-2010, 11:41 AM
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Fun with fiberglass.

When I bought the van there was this rusted area on the drivers side rocker panel to the left of the rear wheel. I thought it was some surface rust.

Didn't realize how bad it was until I took the wire wheel to it.

This is the view from inside the wheel well.

I'm guessing that the rocker panel rusted through inside the wheel well first. Then water entered into the rocker panel from the hole which caused it to rust from the inside out. That's why it didn't look as bad as it was. I should have checked inside the wheel wells.

There's different ways to repair a hole like this but since I'd never used a fiberglass patch before I thought this would be a good chance to try.

Supplies: Advance Auto
Bondo brand Fiberglass Repair Kit - $15.59

First I coated all the rusted metal with Rust Bullet.

To use the fiberglass patch kit you cut the big fiberglass sheet to smaller pieces that fit the job.
Mix up the fiberglass resin with the liquid hardener inside the included plastic tray.

Before going any farther put on rubber gloves because it's going to get messy. The liquid resin has the consistency of caramel ice cream topping and just as sticky. You dip the fiberglass cloth pieces into the liquid resin then place them against the van to cover the hole. I don't have any pictures of me applying the patches coated with resin because I wasn't getting my sticky, dipping hands anywhere near my camera.
Did I mention how totally messy this is.

Here's what it looked like after I was finished with the first layer. It sets up fairly quickly. After hardening those parts hanging down can easily be snapped off.

Also had to patch the hole inside the wheel well.
Here it is after adding more layers. I tried sanding it down but it's too hard. Wasn't able to smooth it out.

Used regular Bondo to smooth out the surface.

Sand, prime and paint.

It's not as smooth as I'd like but much better than I found it. Had some time constraints. I might revisit it if I repaint the whole van.
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Old 04-08-2010, 11:43 AM
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Drivers side floor rust.

When I pulled up the front carpet I found some really bad rust on the floor.

Ground off all the rust and treated with rust converter.

Since this is hidden I didn't bother with the air gun and just used rattle cans to prime and paint.

Needed some sheet steel for a patch and I know where I can get some.
Really old computers. 15 years ago those suckers were made to last.

Cut out a template:

Transfer design:

Fun with the cutting wheel. Remove the stamped edges.

Looks neater without the flash:

So start with flat piece of steel:

Then do some hammering an chiseling an saber sawing then more hammering:

Starting to get there:

Success! A flat piece of steel no more. Every little ding you can see represents a blow from the round end of the ball peen hammer. I used self-tapping screws to hold the patch in position. Started at the bottom and worked towards the top shaping the patch as I went.

Screws have been replaced with pop rivets.
I used Bondo around the edges since the metal was sharp and I didn't want it cutting into whatever matting I laid on top. Finished off with rattle can primer and paint.
Old 04-08-2010, 11:44 AM
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I've covered most of the body repair issues.
Now onto other things.
Leaf Springs.

I was working under the unloaded van on level ground and noticed the following.
Drivers side rear.

Passengers side rear.

I don't claim to know much about suspensions but even to my uneducated eye it's obvious there is a problem. These will need to be replaced.
I started read on line about leaf springs and I noticed several people talking about upgrading to heavier duty springs to increase load rating but hopefully the camper conversion wont be overloading the van so I'll stick with stock replacements.

If you're replacing your springs you need the code from the door sticker.
Donor's van sticker

Look under "SPR"
First letter is front springs, Second letter rear springs.

Time to head out to the local salvage yard.
Meet the donor van.

Since I was messing with the rear suspension I went ahead and bought new rear shocks.

I had the local garage do the work.

Supplies & Costs:
Rock Auto: MONROE #34761 Gas-Magnum Shock Absorber (2) $36.89 ea
Salvage yard: Code "R" rear leaf springs (2) $50 ea
Local Garage: $294.90 in labor but that included wheel rotation

After I had the work done a friend passed by the house asked me what I had done to the van. I asked him what he meant. He said it was sitting a lot higher.
Old 04-08-2010, 11:46 AM
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I quickly found out that my 2wd Ford E-250 had a open differential. I don't plan to go off-road but I do plan to go off-pavement so I upgraded to a Limited Slip Differential.
This is not a how-to since I had a local shop do it but I thought others might find the info useful. The parts used here apply to my van. The rear axles are by no means universal. This is all new to me so take everything here with a block of salt.

First step was to remove the current differential to get part numbers.
Van de-differentialed:

You're looking at the pinion gear.

Here is a view of the old differential with various numbers visible on the ring gear.
12 07 98 DANA D 47664 P4L578 45 11

It is a Dana 60 unit.
The last two number "45" & "11" represent the number of teeth on the ring gear and the teeth on the pinion.
45 / 11 = 4.090909
That equates to a "4.09" gear ratio

Here is the old unit next to the new unit. Inside the top of the new unit is a set of plates that act like a clutch to transmit torque to both axles if one axle starts to spin too much in relation to the other axle.

A couple close ups of the new unit.

You can just see the words "Trac-Lok" on the top of the new unit. That's a trademark for Dana. This is a OEM unit.
This is how it looked installed.

There were two problems with my install. The first new unit that was shipped had the wrong splines. The splines on the van's axle shafts are 35 which is the number of grooves or ridges. The new differential came with 32's. A bigger number means a bigger axle which is more heavy duty. Had to wait for a replacement differential.

Second problem was the cover. Mine was so rusted the threads came out when they removed the fill plug. Had to order a new one from the local Ford dealer.

Close up:

Final Bill (less tax):
Dana 60 Posi Unit - $445
Carrier Bearings - $60
Bearing Races - $30
Labor 6.5 hrs at $55/hr - $357.50
Valvoline Posi Gear Oil - $20
Rear Cover Assy. - $65
Total - $977.50

Here is a Dana diagram and a parts list. (click pics to enlarge)
Old 04-08-2010, 11:49 AM
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Rear bumper upgrade and Front bumper repair.

My van originally came with a regular rear bumper. I wanted to upgrade to a step bumper. Had to check around but finally found one for $100 at a junkyard.

Obviously a junkyard near Pittsburgh.

Before painting you need to remove the two plastic step covers. There are a plastic clips that slip through the bumper. You need to squeeze both sides of the clips to get them to slide back up through the bumper.

Grind off all of the old rust and bumper sticker.

Brush on a rust converter.

I used spray can primer. For paint I used NAPA Intermix MS Pint 56A (black)- $7.75.
Covered the paint with NAPA clearcoat. On the plastic parts I used black Krylon Fusion spray paint.

While the bumper was off I painted the tail end of the van.

Reinstalled the rear bumper. I didn't take a picture at the time but you can see how nice it looks today.

Or maybe not. We're in the middle of a blizzard at the moment. I'll post another picture in the spring.

Front Bumper.
Since the back bumper is now black the front has to match. There is a noticeable dent in the front bumper that was there when I bought it.

To pound it out I read that some advise using a wood block and a hammer. I tried for a while and it didn't seem to improve much so I started using the round end of a ball-peen. Don't bang real hard, just tap tap tap tap tap.

After about an hour and a half the dent was much improved. Probably could have used a few more minutes but by then I was bored out of my skull.

Before re-installing I needed to take care of the rust on the bumper mounts. I used a product called Rust Bullet.
Before and After.

Used the same paint and clearcoat that I used on rear bumper. Not to shabby.
Old 04-08-2010, 11:51 AM
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Installing mud flaps.
The install instructions say to park on level surface and measure the guards from the ground up. Unfortunately here in WV it's a bit hilly so I had to come up with my own instructions.

Here's a little HowTo.
Pro-Fit Truck Splash Guards - Model #6
Pro-Fit company web page

Comes with two guards and 8 screws.

Park the van so that it's level inside.

Since the front wheel is so close to the mounted mud guard you have to turn the wheel as far as it will go and remove the hub cap to get enough room to work.

Rear wheels are OK as is.

Before you can put in the first screw you have to position the mud guard. There are three different adjustments that need to be done.
1. The guards have a lip that fits against the corner of the wheel well.

The plastic is stiff so you have to push in hard so it fits tight against the van.

Below the bottom edge of the lip is accordeon like folds. Don't confuse them with what I consider the bottom edge of the lip.

2. While holding the guard tight against the van slide it up and down until the bottom of the lip is even with the bottom of the rear quarter panel. You can feel when it's lined up. the reason you'll be relying on your sense of touch to line up the bottom is because at the same time you're trying to get the next adjustment right.

3. You''ll want the guard to be perpendicular to the body of the van. With the front wheel wells you'll just have to make a good guess since the tire is at an angle. With the rear guards you can use the tire as a guide. Parallel to the tire = perpendicular to the body.
Not parallel:


When the you have the guard tight against the van the ridged plastic of the lip will act like a spring and make the guard difficult to hold in one place. It keeps wanting to slip around so once you have all the adjustments just right mark it with a pencil line.

With the guard in position use a 1/8" drill bit to make a top hole through both the guard and the metal of the wheel well then use a 5/16" bit to enlarge the hole in just the plastic guard.

Screw in just the top screw but don't tighten it all the way.

With the top screw acting as a pivot point hold a small level against the guard's bottom edge. Rotate back and forth until level.
(The level's level but the camera isn't.)

Holding the guard level drill a second hole then set the second screw. This will hold the guard in place while you finish with the last two screws. With the rear tire you'll need a socket set with a phillips bit since it's such a tight fit. With the wheel in the way you'll have to drill the bottom holes at an angle but with care you can insert the screws and then tighten then down so the head is flat.

All done.
Old 04-08-2010, 11:53 AM
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Time to start on the camper conversion.
First layer.
I'm using 4x6 Rubber mats for a sound deadening layer.
Special order from Lowe's. $45 each.

Lay it out on plywood for easier cutting.

Tape together old newspapers to be same size as mat.

Create a template.

Cut the first mat to size and lay in van. Move on to the second mat with a new template.

Next do the front mat. I wussed out on trying to do all the complicated cuts needed for the front wheel wells. I'll go back and do them as smaller pieces. This way only have to cut around the dog house. Didn't bother with template. Just measured and cut a rectangle (56" x 31", I think) then laid it down and trimmed.

Fourth mat goes between the back two and the front one. 6' x 28" wide. The gap between the mats is not perfectly parallel so a little trim to fit is needed.

Use double sided carpet tape to finish the rear wheel wells.
From remnants cut (2) 42"x10.5" pieces. One for each side to be wrapped over the top.

Almost all done with this layer.
Old 04-08-2010, 02:22 PM
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Nice job, WVVan. Over the years, I've had two Turtle Top camper vans (A '73 Ford flatnose and an '86 GMC). Those were made really shabbily and we ended up redoing the interior of the '86.

Since we really did not use them as much for camping as for day trips, my last 2 vans have been passenger conversions, a '96 Savana (van from hell) and my current '02 E150 which is a mild conversion with factory glass. It saw my son through Boy Scouts and serves it summers as a bicycling/bike race support van; we're going to a collegiate race in Columbus this weekend.

In Michigan, I will note the E150 is *starting* to rust in a few spots. I have flooded two of the doors with aluminized wax when I discovered the seams bubbling the slightest bit. I also put an Eaton posi in my van when it was nearly new--came out of dealer stock with an open rear axle.

It looks as though a great deal of your work is just getting to step #1 of a clean body, and in retrospect, you might have just gotten a newer, cleaner van up front for a grand or two more.

Good luck; I'll be watching your pictorial...I've had big vans continuously since 1986, and there is nothing that works better as a traveling box for 2-4 people with gear inside.

Old 04-08-2010, 02:23 PM
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Thanks for posting this, it looks like you are doing a good job for someone who doesn't know what he is doing. I have been in the process of customizing a van for camping too, so I'm interested in what you are doing. I'm a bit further along but I didn't have any of your rust problems. If I could figure out how to post pictures I put them in here but I didn't take any as I went along.
Old 04-08-2010, 03:59 PM
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Hey VWVan:

Did you see my thread about converting a van?

Unlike you, I am lazy --- have not posted much pictures.

I have some immediate comments regarding your job --- especially on the rust issue.

If you are in northern climates, the rust will be back within a year with your method.

I have been working on some ways of dealing with it that is more permanent.

Contact me by PM and we can chat on skype.

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