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The floor is in place. The electrics are running to all the right places under the floor. I’m getting to know, and to trust, and to very much like the guys in the workshop. A week or two has gone by since I started here (very much part time, as I’m still working Mon-Thu, 9-5). And now it’s time to build stuff.

Wonderfully, also, my parents just got here, and they’re super excited to come and hang out for a day or two in this workshop that I’ve been talking about endlessly. My mum (not a DIYer at ALL) brings her Kindle and I install her in a camping chair with a cold drink while my dad and I get to work building the beginnings of the fit out.

As you’d have seen from the plan, the bed in my campervan is fairly high: it’s 60cm from the floor of the van, which, given that the bed base and mattress adds another 17cm, puts the overall surface only about 60-65cm lower than the ceiling — though of course when you lie on the mattress it does compress down a bit. One of the guys in the workshop tells me that this is standard, Australian-Navy issue bunk height, and I don’t know quite how to feel about this. Reassured? Restricted? Anyway, this height is OK to sleep in, but not really enough to sit up and e.g. write on a laptop. But I’m going to install a poptop roof (mid Dec; booked in; v exciting). And so although I don’t yet know for sure, I’m hoping with every fibre of my being that what I’ve gained under the bed in storage space is going to be OK. Raising the bed in this way is a compromise in terms of what it’s like to sit up/hang out/write in bed (and writing is one of the key things I do). But once the poptop is in, I hope it will be just fine.

The thinking behind the high, princess bed is getting the big stuff to fit under it: the fridge and the stacked water tanks, mainly, but also the big, leisure battery and plenty of storage space. Fortuitously, also, there are strong supportive screw-in brackets already in place on the van walls at exactly 60cm height. (Meant to be? Van karma? Think so.)

So the bed base is going to be at 60cm from the floor, and part of what supports the bed base is a storage unit. So, naturally, I looked for such a thing commercially, rather than having to build one from scratch. (Remember, at this stage I still thought you had to get wood cut ‘properly’ at Bunnings, and I was still totally unconfident about sawing anything accurately.)

Joyously, I found something that would fit: two Ikea kitchen units (40W x 60H x 60D), placed back to back. These have metal strapping across the top, and they’re pretty strong. The bed is also supported with brackets attached to the van’s side walls, and also with brackets to the back end of the kitchen bench unit. It all feels pretty strong and, as the bed base is in two pieces, there’s a bit of movement in it too (as the van moves around I don’t want it to be TOO rigid, or over time it could break).

So task 1 was to build the two Ikea units and put them in place. Here’s a video in which my dad and I are doing exactly that, one fine Saturday in the workshop (and those feet you see, on the left of the screen, are my mum’s. She’s busy advising us on ALL THE THINGS.) We’re also cutting out holes for the wiring to run through, which is what you can see me doing with the pale blue hole saw* in the video.

*You’ll notice that I drop this mention of a hole saw in casually. The crazy thing is, I didn’t even know what a hole saw WAS a few weeks ago. And now I’m confidently using one without it wrenching my arm off (as it wanted to at first). This is one of the VERY MANY things I’ve learned as a result of this project. And, as with learning in general, it’s been an almost imperceptible process of struggling, acquiring new info, applying this info with focus and effort (exhaustingly, at first), gradually building a new skill, and finally doing the thing on autopilot with almost no memory of ever having struggled with it. It’s a fascinating process to observe. It’s also fascinating to observe how transferable it all is. Today, the hole saw; tomorrow, the world the jigsaw!

Those things done, we lined up the fridge slider and fridge, the storage units, and the water tanks, all in a line, side by side, across the back of the van. Nothing was fixed down yet, as we still needed to figure out the kitchen unit, which is what we built and installed next (again, it’s from Ikea).

Of course, I’d been super fastidious in measuring everything and checking again and again the product specs on the various websites. But still, it was good, and gratifying, to see that it DID all fit in as planned. It all fitted. Just take that in for a moment. It fitted.

And so the next thing was to build the kitchen benchtop (just pine, not from Ikea). This was a task that would take ages, partly because the can of varnish wanted four coats (I gave it three. Don’t try to boss me around, Varnish), with each coat taking a day to dry properly. Partly, also, this was because of the tricksy impossibility of the cutouts for the sink and the stove top (neither of which came with a template, FFS). The kitchen benchtop, between all the bloody varnishing and the fiddling with holesaw and jigsaw to get the exact right shape and size cutout, along with a healthy dose of swearing and sweating, took a good long while. But we got there in the end.

While my dad figured out the benchtop cutouts, I designed and built a wooden boxlike structure that would sit along the back of the bench. This is the ‘upstand’ (my dad called it this; OK, it needed a name…) into which the electrics and switches were to go and which would serve both as a back edge to the work surface but also a little bottle rack for holding insect repellent and Tabasco sauce, for instance. (Must not confuse these items!) Eventually these things came together and we had the benchtop for the kitchen:

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Then there were all the cutouts inside the cupboards themselves: the water tanks peep through, which necessitated a biggish side-wall cutout from the kitchen cupboard. The plumbing necessitated a bunch of holes for pipes. The stove needed a cutout under the bench, as it sits between the two cabinets. We made a lot of sawdust that day.

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Then my folks left for Adelaide and I carried on with the conversion, finishing off the varnishing over several days, fixing the split that had appeared in the benchtop because of all the cutouts (!), and setting everything up in the space under the bed. The water tanks and fridge slider each needed a little wooden plinth, so they’d be slightly raised (the fridge so it would slide out over the rug and the tanks so they would come thru the gap at the base of the cupboard, which in turn was raised up so the doors would open). As with so much else, each little action begets so many others. You raise the tanks up, but now the strap that you just made to hold them in place needs to be lengthened. You cut a hole here, but now you need to move the angle bracket there. You change X about Y, and it has a knock on effect on A and B. A butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo and the horses sneeze in Argentina. Something like that.

This stage of the conversion seemed both fast and slow. Fast because there were many separate tasks and lots of biggish things getting ticked off lists fairly quickly. But slow because, with everything being dependent on everything else, nothing could get finally screwed into place for THE LONGEST TIME and so it always felt like everything was still very tenuous and temporary and never quite right.

And by this point I was completely SICK of going to Bunnings. There are two branches near the workshop. The flashy newish Alexandria branch, which is the flagship Sydney store and which is spread over two enormous levels. This one carries every conceivable hardware item known to humankind. Then there’s the closer but infinitely scruffier branch at Mascot, where every item and (some of the staff) has a layer of dust, where the ‘service’ counter folks don’t care if you live or die, and where every trolley is fucked in some way. But it’s closer and faster to get around because you’re navigating a smaller area that does not include a glacial escalator on which it is inevitable you will get stuck behind someone with a trolley, and then you’re riding up or down (with no stair alternative) at a snail’s pace (honestly, who thought of that, Alexandria Bunnings? #servicedesignfail Grrr. Can you see how, even now, I’m really over Bunnings?)

But I had to go and get the last bit of plywood to make the bed base. I hadn’t bought this piece initially because I’d been unsure about how I was going to do the bed (two long strips across the van? One single piece — but if so, how to get it in? Two pieces with something supporting them in the middle? Not sure. Many possibilities.) So at around 8pm on a Friday night I went to Mascot Bunnings in search of 19mm plywood, to be cut to size (120Wx165L, but in two pieces, so 120×80 & 120×85). And of course there was no-one around at all at any of the service desks, or the wood-cutting place, or anywhere else. The couple of times I saw staff members in the distance and hollered ‘excuse me?’ they ignored me. And I couldn’t just buy a giant sheet of ply, in part because I couldn’t lift it by myself but also because I’d brought my little Honda Jazz to pick it up. I needed it to be cut down to a size that would fit into the car. And for that I needed to find a staff member. And I couldn’t.

But, ah ha. Maybe there’s an alternative? Maybe, instead of buying a large, thick (19mm) sheet of ply and getting it cut up, I could buy four smaller, thinner (9mm) sheets of hobby ply and some glue. I can stick the sheets together! It was more expensive and less convenient, but Bunnings Mascot was like the fucking Marie Celeste on a Friday night, so I felt I had no choice.

Ah, but how to stick together large-ish sheets of plywood? Dave and Andrew were still in the workshop when I got back, and they handed me a beer and watched, amused, as I glued and then stood on the two sheets of ply, slippery from being glued together, trying to get them to hold still. But they kept curling up slightly at one edge or the other as the ply wasn’t quite flat. As I slid around on the gluey ply, they got out of alignment again and again. This just wasn’t going to work.

‘What you need,’ Andrew observed from behind a beer, ‘is a heavy object to put on it overnight, to hold it while the glue dries’. Mmm, but what? A battery? A couple of batteries? A couple of TRUCK batteries? There’s certainly no shortage of heavy stuff sitting around in the workshop.

And then they starting laughing.

How about a road train, driven onto the plywood panels? As chance would have it, they had a road train (in for a service? Belonging to someone they knew? I don’t know) sitting just out the front. How about that? ‘It should be heavy enough’.

And so Dave helped me pull apart the ply panels and glue them again, right to the edges this time, and we brought them out the front of the yard and put them in place while Andrew drove the road train onto them.

I said, will you be here in the morning, to drive it off them for me? And he laughed and said, I’ll leave you the keys.

“Haha, very funny. You’ll see me on the evening news: ‘woman drives road train into Sydney canal'”.

‘But yeah, no worries,’ he said. ‘I’ll move it early when I come in’. And he did.

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And so I came in on Saturday, picked up my now-glued panels (into which I put several lines of small screws anyway, just in case), and was ready to cut everything out for the bed base, which was the last bit of the furniture fit out still to do. Here’s a video of me doing that:

After I knew for sure that this was going to fit, everything could be screwed into place properly: the base units under the bed, the kitchen cabinet, the benchtop, and the bed base. That day, the day that everything went in, and got locked down into place, it felt amazing. For the first time it looked to me, to the passerby observers, to the boys in the workshop, that I was making progress. I still had panelling* and a million other things to do, but I was pretty much THERE on the fitout.

*You can see, in the video above, on the right hand side of the screen, over the insulation, I’ve now glued the ‘ladder’ bars into place onto which I then screwed the 3mm marine ply that lines the walls. I had to wait, though, as the glue was still drying, which meant I ended up having to crawl in under the bed base to do the wall lining underneath. But OK, I wanted to get the fitout happening. And I did.

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This is slightly further on – note that the panelling is now in above the bed and has been painted. The cables are pulled thru in the right places for connecting up to the appliances. And the black thing on the floor is just the folded corflute floor template to protect the vinyl while I work.

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