Van Copies Llama, And Llama Don’t Care

Once in a while, when I’m working on the van in the parking lot behind my apartment and my jigsaw isn’t buzzing and the newborn in the end unit is not crying, I’ll suddenly hear someone softly chewing behind me. A slow, indifferent type of chewing, like a llama pulling at last year’s grass.

I mean, that’s exactly who it is behind me—a llama. I live on the edge of town, next to a horse and llama farm. Really, it’s a bunch of horses and just one llama. For more than a year now, I’ve been waiting for the llama to befriend the horses, maybe even to begin to mistake herself for a horse, kicking up dust with the rest of them. But the closest I ever see the llama to anyone is when she’s trying to get at the long grasses that sprout out of the edges of her barbed wire enclosure (barbed to keep the coyotes out, I think), and I happen to be standing on the other side of the fence. If I talk to the llama in a high enough pitch for long enough, she will look at me, not with what appears to be annoyance, but worse—pure disinterest, her jaw slack, her eyelids closing.

Meanwhile, the inside of my van is looking more like the llama every day. Insulated with wool batting, the van now sends small tufts of hair into the air when I leave the doors open to the wind. The hairs rise up above the van, out of the shade, where the sun changes them from cream-colored to white. The llama’s fly-away hairs do the same thing. At a certain time of day, with the light hitting her a certain way, the llama looks as if she’s standing in a cloud of powdered sugar.

Wool insulation in Transit Connect 2010 Wool insulation in Transit Connect 2010

Wool insulation in Transit Connect 2010Wool insulation in Transit Connect 2010

There are lots of options for insulating a van. (Here’s a great rundown of insulation types by Gnomad Home.) I chose wool because it’s nontoxic, unlike fiberglass (the pink batting that insulates most U.S. houses and requires a respirator to apply). Wool is also good at regulating moisture. In wet weather, it absorbs most of its weight in water without feeling wet to the touch, and then, when the humidity eventually drops, it slowly releases its water reserves.

Lining the van with wool was easy. I just cut the wool to size and attached it with hot glue.

What was challenging was everything I did to the van before the insulation step. For instance, the ceiling—that’s where I left off in my last blog post. When I went to screw in my first cedar plank, it splintered and fell on my head.

Installing cedar ceiling in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
This was my third attempt at attaching the first plank. I succeeded on this try because by this point I’d learned how to use a driver properly (press hard on the screw and maintain a high, even speed), and because I added a countersink hole to each pilot hole (countersink holes reduce the chance of splintering).
Ironing a cedar board
I also reduced cracking by straightening warped boards before attempting to secure them to the ceiling. I wrapped the boards in wet towels and steam-ironed them on my kitchen table. Water and heat moves wood.
Installing a cedar ceiling in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
As I attached more planks, I stuffed the van’s “attic” with 2″ of wool. I also ran some electrical wires through the ceiling.
Installing LED lights in cedar ceiling in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
I decided to light my van with dimmable LED strips encased in an aluminum housing. To embed the aluminum housing into the ceiling, I knew I had to cut long holes in two of the cedar planks—I just didn’t know how to make those cuts. So I joined my local maker space (basically, a communal woodshop) and learned to use a table saw (lifting the blade up into the middle of the wood) and a hand chisel.
Cedar ceiling in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
On warm, humid days, my van now smells like a sauna. Look at that wild wood grain, the mother of all abstract art.

After the ceiling, my next big project was the wind fairing. Months ago, shortly after installing the solar panels, I noticed that, because of the wind passing under the panels, the van now produced more road noise. The additional wind resistance likely reduced the van’s gas mileage, too. I decided to fix this problem by installing a wind fairing in front of the solar panels. But I didn’t want to buy a wind fairing because most of the fairings on the market are made to fit roof racks, which my van doesn’t have. Plus, they’re unreasonably expensive. So I made one.

Making a wind fairing for Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
To hold up my homemade wind fairing, I cut four brackets out of thick acrylic on a bandsaw. Not shown: I cut the wind fairing itself out of acrylic too, but from a much thinner stock (3/16″).
Drilling bolt holes for wind fairing for Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
To attach the brackets, I drilled eight bolt holes in the roof.
Custom wind fairing on Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
I cushioned the bottom and top of each bracket with butyl tape. I also applied lap sealant around the base of each bracket (not shown here).
Measurement for wind fairing for Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
The location of the bolt holes in the roof had to match the location of the holes in the curved brackets, which had to match the location of the holes in the wind fairing. Because of the curved (and hail damaged) roof, all this was inexplicably difficult to measure, and I ended up measuring for three hours until I was absolutely certain that everything would line up. Here, the wind fairing’s paper liner is covered with the many pen and pencil markings I made while measuring.
Custom wind fairing for Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
I applied the last bead of lap sealant to the wind fairing just before an afternoon rainstorm rolled in. The next day, I took the van for a drive, and the wind fairing did what it was supposed to do—reduced wind noise substantially.

Now that I’d tuned my ears to road noise, I wanted the van even quieter. Before adding wool to the cabin ceiling, I lined it with Kilmat, a sound deadener. One of the sources of road noise is vibrating sheet metal, and sound deadeners kill these vibrations.

Kilmat sound deadener in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
Kilmat sound deadener in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
I didn’t just apply sound deadener to the cabin ceiling. I went wild and stuck it EVERYWHERE. Now the van is pleasingly quiet to drive, like a luxury car.
Hardwood roller for applying Kilmat sound deadener
The steely, ominous lighting here is intentional. Applying Kilmat is easy in theory—you just stick it where you want it and then press it firmly with a roller (like the one above), until the boxy pattern printed on the deadener’s face smoothens. The only problem is, Kilmat gets exponentially harder to roll in the cold, and the day I chose to apply deadener to the floor was particularly chilly. I warmed the deadener with a heat gun, which helped somewhat, though I still had to press so hard that, after six hours of continuous rolling, I developed tendonitis in my right hand. True story. Now I can’t rock climb or shoot bows or use a computer mouse with my right hand. Another drawback of Kilmat: Now that I’ve deadened most of the van’s road noise (and still haven’t replaced the stock radio I removed a while ago), all I have to listen to while driving are my own winding thoughts.


Next I banged out the floor.

Insulating the floor in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
I lined the valleys of the van’s ridged floor with wool.
Insulating the wheel wells in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
I also glued wool to the wheel wells and then lined them with gray automotive carpet (in the foreground).
Metal floor extension for Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
My van came with this nice hunk of metal that extends the van’s cargo floor into the cabin area by a few inches. I cleaned and repainted this floor extender—removing the rust pictured above—and reinstalled it.
Floor for Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
Then I made a floor out of 1/2″ plywood.
Floor in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
I primed the floor with a white mold inhibitor (in case the floor ever gets moist) and lined its underside with more wool (not pictured). Then Mike helped me maneuver the floor into the van. Perfect fit!
Cleaning cabin floor in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
I also paid some attention to the floor underneath the driver and passenger seat. I removed both seats, lifted the carpet, cleaned the floor with mold inhibitor, painted over some surface rust, applied a couple squares of Kilmat, reinstalled the seats, and called this area done.

Next, I routed the rest of the van’s electrical wires. For such a small vehicle, this van has the potential to generate a lot of solar power, 200 watts. That should be enough to power three 12-volt outlets (one of them dedicated to the refrigerator), two 120-volt outlets, four USB ports, the roof fan, another fan, an electric water pump, two ceiling-mounted LED lights, and two mood lights. That adds up to 26 wires.

Electrical wiring in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
This is what the van looked like in the middle of the electric install. Honestly, this is the level of chaos present inside the van most of the time.
Electrical wiring in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
This is what the electric wires look like now, emerging tidily from the wall, ready to be connected to the solar battery’s fuse box. I color coded each wire with electrical tape and created a corresponding paper electrical map which I plan to digitize, so I’ll always know which wire leads where.
Electrical wiring in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
The hardest part of the electric install was threading speaker wires through this black rubber housing that connects the body of the van to the cargo door. (I plan to install speakers in the cargo doors.) That rubber housing is obnoxiously tight. To give myself a bit more room, I removed some wires that didn’t actually lead to anything functional (rear defroster and rear windshield wipers, which my van doesn’t have). Then I taped the speaker wires to a coat hanger, lubed everything up with laundry detergent, and cursed a whole lot as I pushed the coat hanger through.

Okay, now I had just one more to-do before I could rip into that very large bag of $170 wool. I added four wooden supports to the doors, bolting them to the van’s metal frame. Two of the supports will eventually hold hooks, and the others will support fold-out tables.

Furring in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
Eventually, I’ll screw hooks through this door’s plywood wall (currently non-existent) and into this wooden support.
Furring in Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
This support (the white plank spanning the cargo door) will hold hooks, too.

During these last couple months, I began to embrace two truths as I worked on the van. The first truth: Rough drafts are okay. I’ve done a lot of things twice (sometimes even thrice, like in the case of that first cedar plank). The first time I ran the electrical wiring, I sent most of it down through the floor extension and around the area where the sink will eventually sit. Then, worrying about moisture, I redid all the wiring, sending all of it through the walls and ceiling. I had a similar change of heart when making the floor. At first, I did what a lot of van builders do—made a subfloor out of really thin plywood (1/4″) and covered it with vinyl planks. But I hated the look of the vinyl planks, just couldn’t stand how their faux wood design competed with my wooden ceiling’s real wood grain. Plus, I worried about moisture getting trapped between the vinyl and the plywood. So I took everything out and remade the floor with 1/2″ plywood, no vinyl.

I’m beginning to approach my van projects with the same philosophy as my writing projects: Everything should be redone at least once. Rough drafts help get bad ideas out of the way, making me more likely to say what I actually want to say. Earlier today, I wrote another version of this post, again with the llama as the opener, except this time I talked about how the llama’s eating reminded me of Mike glumly chewing a chunk of black licorice at lunch while I howled at him until he agreed to stop. I wrote it all down, and then paused to ask myself—was this really where I wanted this van update to go, misophonia?

Floor for Transit Connect 2010 van conversion
My first take on the van floor. This is the subfloor, with its wool backing. I didn’t even photograph the vinyl planks that were supposed to go on top of this subfloor because their ugliness offended me so much. That’s Mike, sans licorice.

Another truth I’m learning to accept is that I’m not a person who does things one at a time. I thought I was, but all evidence points elsewhere. Currently, I’m working on constructing the van’s rear awning, the mosquito netting, the sunshades, the bed, and the plumbing. I’m learning how to laser cut, vinyl cut, make finger joints, make half-lap joints, sew zippers and cording. Nothing is finished, not even the things I wrote about above: the floor still needs to be wallpapered and brushed with five coats of polyurethane; some of the screws in the ceiling are still loose (evident in the photos if you look closely); the ceiling needs trim too; one section of one of the cargo doors is missing wool, which I will make right as soon as I fix a broken wiring harness in that door (the previous owner seems to have illegally cut off the wires that lead to the lights that illuminate the license plate, presumably to better escape the police; remember, I bought this van in Texas). Because I’m doing it all at once, it feels like I’m doing a lot. But also, because nothing is really finished, it feels like I’m doing nothing at all.

Doing everything simultaneously yet accomplishing nothing—yes, I’m well acquainted with this phenomenon. In my writing program, some of my professors occasionally started class with a timed warmup. Write in response to a prompt for 15 minutes and then share aloud with the class. Don’t worry if you don’t finish, just read what you do have. My problem is that I don’t write in sentences; the sentences form only after I’ve figured out exactly what I want to say for the entirety of the piece. I’d begin the warmups by writing down my ideas as a long list of words. Then I’d circle back to the beginning of the list, adding descriptors, then back again, adding more details, but still no full sentences, not one part of the essay completely done. The professor would call time, and I’d invariably have to race to conform the list of words to human speech pattern. That’s how I feel now, sharing these photos of my many unfinished projects with you: I’m standing up in front of the class, reading aloud whatever draft of this post you happen to have caught. “Llama alone, nice hair balls in sun.”

(Really, I rarely read aloud in grad school. I learned to avoid it by feigning crippling shyness.)

Prototype of cargo door awning for Ford Transit Connect Prototype of rock-and-roll hinge sofa/bed for Ford Transit Connect 2010 Cut license plate light wiring harness from Ford Transit Connect 2010 Mosquito netting prototype for Ford Transit Connect 2010 Solar battery for Ford Transit Connect 2010 Plumbing supplies for Ford Transit Connect 2010 van conversion

Above: rear awning prototype, bed hinge prototype, cut wiring harness for license plate lights, unfinished custom mosquito netting, solar battery, plumbing supplies

4 thoughts on “Van Copies Llama, And Llama Don’t Care”

  1. Dang, Corey has had tendonitis for a while now because of editing at the computer so much. I hope yours goes away fast!

    1. Thanks, I’m happy to say that mine is almost gone now. Computer-induced tendonitis seems like the worst … hard to get rid of without giving up computing for a while, which I’m sure isn’t an option for Corey.

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