How To Renovate A Vintage Caravan: The Outside

Since we came up with the plan to renovate a vintage caravan for our lap of Australia, we’ve been obsessed with it. It feels like we’ve been thinking about the new layout and new look and all our plans forever. And we kind of have been!

We bought our van in October last year. The minute we laid eyes on it, we could see the vision of what we wanted to create. Since then our poor little van has been completely ripped apart, right down to it’s skeleton frame in most parts, and then from the bare bones of the frame we have been slowly putting it back together bit by bit.

It’s been a long journey, but we’re finally getting there and it’s so rewarding to be able to finally close up the van again after months of it sitting in our drive way with no windows or doors and completely exposed to the elements. We’re going to publish a few posts in this how to renovate a vintage caravan series, but today we’re focusing on the first step – the outside.

Just a bit of a disclaimer, we’re sharing the details of the companies that we used and found helpful, but nothing in this post is sponsored. We just had such a difficult time finding good companies to work with in Victoria, that we wanted to share their details with you.

the original van

Our vans before photo – the day we brought it home

What we wanted to change

We never actually planned to completely pull our van apart, but as we started getting into the renovation it quickly became clear that that was probably the best way to make it work.

At the beginning of the build our main plans for the outside was to give the van a brand new chassis and checker plate the bottom of the van to transform it into an off-road caravan. After that we wanted to –

  • Remove the super old air conditioner at the front of the van and replace with a full length double window like we had at the back
  • Move the door over a little bit so we could fit our bed at the front of the van
  • Add one new window in at the front, which is where our bed is going to go
  • Pull out all the windows and give them a real clean
  • Give the whole van a complete paint job

The outside of our van quickly took over our life for at least the first seven months of this year. It’s been heaps of work and it took a lot longer than we thought, but it’s definitely worth it seeing it all come together!

rainy van days

When you start working on the windows on a clear morning and an hour later Melbourne offers you this

Roadblocks and issues throughout the renovation

Throughout all of this year, renovating has been our side hobby and we both work full time jobs. By the time we get home from work during the winter months, it’s already dark and we were limited with what we can do on the outside of the van.

One of the reasons the outside build took so long was because we were predominately working on it during winter. For most of the time, what we could do was limited by what the weather was going to be on the weekends. If it was going to be raining or very windy for the whole weekend, there were often weekends when we couldn’t really work on anything at all.

Closing the van up and finishing off the outside takes this problem away now, so we’re excited to start smashing out the inside renovation, because we can work on it almost every night and on the weekends as well.

inside of our van

Our van’s original inside, it was actually so pretty

The demolition of our van

Technically the inside of the van, but it did happen before anything else so it probably should be mentioned in this post as well. Getting to demo the van and rip everything out was actually pretty fun. Turns out destroying things is a great way to spend a few days! It didn’t take very long either, only a weekend to pull out all the insides of our van.

One thing we didn’t think about before we started was the insulation. OH WOW, HOW ANNOYING IS INSULATION. Our first encounter with it was when Thom pulled down a sheet from the roof, and a huge cloud of dust completely took over the van. It’s a good idea to maybe wear a face mask if you’re going to be pulling out insulation all day.

demolition time

The second annoying thing about insulation is that it was literally everywhere and just completely crumbles as soon as you touch it. We had to pick up pieces so delicately and get them into a garbage bag super quickly before they just disintegrated into dust in our hands. I spent many many days pulling insulation out of every crack, ledge and frame of the van.

THANK GOD THAT IS OVER.

READ MORE:
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the new chassis

The Chassis

Getting a new chassis was a non-negotiable for Thom and it also turned into our biggest hassle, a months-long drama and the most anxiety inducing experience from the whole build.

The short story is that one day after we paid the deposit for the work on our chassis to begin, the company we were using went into receivership and we couldn’t get straight answers out of them for more than three months. For most of that time we actually thought that we had lost our van and didn’t know if we would even be able to get it back with or without the work done. If you want to hear the long story, we shared all the details in this blog post.

Thankfully the work finally got done in the end (after a new company bought out the old one) and now our new chassis is as strong as can be. It’s super tough and we should be able to be taken anywhere we want. The new chassis actually ended up being built straight onto the bottom of the van, giving it extra strength by using the chassis fame that was already there.

the chassis build

Some of the things we asked for on the new chassis were –

  • Independent suspension
  • A 1600mm draw bar
  • An off-road hitch (DO35)
  • Electric brakes
  • Sway control
  • 3.2 tonne rating
  • Wheels to match our towing vehicle
  • 3 water tanks
  • Ground clearance

Just from photos and by looking at it you can see how much tougher the new chassis is compared to the old chassis. It’s super strong and sturdy, and we can’t wait to test it off-road.

READ MORE:
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the van before

The original cladding on the van

The outside cladding

We hadn’t planned to completely change the cladding on the van, we loved the old vintage cladding that it originally came from and it’s authentic look.

However, as we started to plan out the inside of the van we realised that we were going to have to move the door over a few centimetres to make sure we could fit our bed in at the front of the van. Once we figured out that the door was going to have to move it was almost like the more we looked at the cladding, the more we realised that we were going to have to source new cladding.

We wanted to try and find cladding that looked as close to the original as possible, but since our van is more than 40 years old that proved to be pretty difficult.

Trying to source new cladding as an independent person is no easy feat. The caravan industry is notoriously difficult to deal with, most people never got back to us, didn’t bother to return our enquiries or respond to our calls or emails.

outside of van
cladding
new cladding on the van

Finally we came across Allytech Australia who are located in Campbellfield in Victoria. Look, their communication still could use some work, but they were the only people who took us seriously and actually got back to us, so we’re still grateful.

We purchased 14 lengths of the 6 metre smooth cladding from them. They were able to give us a couple of samples to hold up against the van and decide which style we thought would look best. Once we had put our order in they only needed a couple of days to have everything ready to pick up and finally we were a step closer.

In total it cost us $600.60 for the smooth cladding and we ended up having quite a bit spare, so we probably could have done a slightly smaller order.

Allytech Australia || 12 Bancell Street, Campbellfield || Ph: 9914 0122 || [email protected]

cutting the cladding

Cutting the curves into the cladding to match the vintage van

We also wanted to sheet the bottom of the van in checker-plate so give it a stronger bottom half in case rocks kick back at it in some of the more corrugated parts of the country. Checker-plate is available to buy from lots of different places and it cost us around $300 to sheet about a third of each side of the van.

The front and the back of the van we left with it’s original cladding. It was still in good condition and didn’t need to be changed for any real reason. Plus the view of the van from the back is just so cute!

painted pop rivetts

We punched a whole bunch of pop rivets into an old boot box to spray them white so they would match the new cladding

The windows & van trim

The most tiresome, boring and frustrating part of our build so far was dealing with the windows. They’re so pretty but oh my god, they were so annoying! Every single window in our van has pretty much been completely pulled apart, restored, repaired, replaced and put back together.

The windows were not looking great. They were like 40 years old though, who could blame them. To begin with we organised to replace all the glass with extra strong plastic. This would reduce the risk of any windows breaking or cracking during our trip, especially on corrugated roads.

The first part was cleaning up the window frames. When we say that this was a boring and tedious task, that is an absolute understatement. It literally took us weeks to pull apart all those windows, clean them out (many had years worth of dirt and dust caked into the frames) and then clean all the silicone and paint off them so they looked a bit shiner and prettier.

before and after window trim

Look at that difference! Before and after of our new window plastic, and how clean the frames came up in the end!

It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to bring these back to life, but here were the steps we followed:

  • Pulled each window apart, removed any old rubber from the window
  • Cleaned out any remaining dirt (or sometimes mud) that was caught in the frame and pulled off any excess glue or silicone that was still stuck to the frame
  • Wiped everything down with antibacterial wipes – not very environmentally friendly, but it was the best thing we could find the get off the majority of the marks/stains that were on the frames
  • For any frames that had paint on them, we scrubbed them down with paint thinner and in some cases, nail polish remover (it actually worked better most of the time!)
  • We then used a Josco 100mm Abrasive Nylon Wheel Brush on a drill to get rid of any extra pieces of glue, paint or rust that were a bit too stubborn to be scrubbed off
  • Then we wiped everything down with mineral turpentine, and for the REALLY bad frames, we also used the a combination of aluminium de-oxsidiser purple polish to make it an extra bit shinier (check out the photo of everything we used before)

We also followed the same steps to clean up the trip that runs around the whole caravan, although these were in way worse condition than the window frames, often with a thick layer of silicone covering the whole trim. For these pieces we ending up using a  Josco 50mm Spindle-Mounted Wheel Brush on a drill along the whole trim, absolutely every single piece of the trim was brushed down.

Grinding with the spindle-mount wheel brush can leave some scratches on the aluminium, but we found that if we continuously grind in the same direction and make sure we cover every piece of the trim it didn’t look like scratches at all. We also went over the trim lightly with the abrasive nylon wheel brush over the top as well and it actually came up really nice and shiny!

how to restore caravan windows
old corner windows

After that we still had to change all the plastic.

The most difficult part of this was finding someone who would be able to replicate the curved corner windows on each side of the van. It took many phone calls and a lot of frustrating dead ends before we came found Hendrick at Indesign Plastics + Display in Dandenong. He was an absolute legend and up for the challenge of making these unique windows for us.

They were ready in just a couple of weeks and cost us $300 for all four corner windows (I believe the actual cost was $150 per set). They fit perfectly inside the original frames and with a bit of window rubber and sealer, have made the corners of our caravan so much clearer!

Indesign Plastics + Display || 25 -27 Cheltenham Road, Dandenong || (03) 9791 4779 || [email protected]

For the rest of the window plastic we ended up going to Warlond Plastics, only because it was so much closer to home compared to Indesign. We ordered 2 sheets of the clear poly-carbonate at 4.5mm and then they were able to cut it all to the different sizes that we needed for each window. That way, when we got it home, Thom only had to cut the curved edges on the bottom corner and they could slot right in. It cost us an additional $451 for the plastic for 10 windows on our van, including the cutting cost.

old window reveals
window reveals

Left: The original window reveal once we took the windows out. Right: After the original reveals had been removed. 

The old wooden window reveals at the front and the back of the caravan was also completely rotted out (check out the photo on the left above), once we took the windows out it was clear that we couldn’t keep them the way they were. Thom built new window reveals out of Tassie oak hardwood, that look absolutely beautiful and so much better! It was a little tricky to tetris all the different pieces of the end windows back together, but we got there in the end.

For the rest of our window repairs, Caravans Plus was pretty much our very best friend. They have an amazing step by step wind-out window repair guide on their website that tells you each and every step to take to fix up and replace different parts of your windows. These old style winder windows are pretty unique, so while parts can be relatively easy to find, they can definitely add up quickly in cost.

Originally we were going to try and salvage as many of the old window parts as we could, but the further into the window restoration we got, the more frustrating at difficult it became. In the end we literally just replaced everything, so that it was all nice and matching, and everything is clean and working correctly.

new window reveals

Fitting the new window reveals into the back of the van

Here’s the final shopping list of everything we ended up ordering from Caravans Plus. To match the originals as much as possible we chose to use the Starlite / Australite branded items:

  • 10 Winder Control Boxes LEFT (4 large and 6 small)
  • 10 Winder Control Boxes RIGHT (4 large and 6 small)
  • 6 Cross Shaft Support
  • 20 Windout Window End Plugs
  • 10 Windout Window Handle Straight
  • 20 Windout Window Link Box
  • 20 Windout Window Slide Lock, 2 parts
  • 4 Starlite Cross Shaft 762mm
  • 6 Starlite Cross Shaft 1524mm
  • 3 Round Bottom Corner Fly Screens for 280h x 1524w window
  • 6 PVC Window Surround Moulding White 2.4m long 25x6mm

You can search for everything you need in their Windows & Doors section of their shop. We’re reluctant to even do the maths on how much we have spent on window things from Caravans Plus at this stage. Their shipping is calculated by weight, so that could get pretty pricey at times, but apart from that Caravans Plus literally saved our butt in this window reno, with everything delivered to us within about 2 days of our order being placed. It was so speedy and efficient!

Make sure you also check out their Caravan Articles & Guides section, where they literally have all kinds of handy step by step instructions to help you with your renovations.

roof removed from the vannew roof on the van

The roof & the floor

Ripping the roof off our van might just have been the scariest part of the whole build for me. I don’t want to be dramatic, but I just really couldn’t understand the building side of the roof – how it would all go back together, and how we would make sure there were no leaks, gaps or cracks. Luckily Thom was a lot more confident than me, so I just stayed quiet and helped out wherever I could. And it seemed to work out great!

The old roof frame was just made out of timber, with only a couple of beams reinforced with some stronger steel. For the amount of weight we’re planning to put onto the roof, with an air-conditioner and a whole bunch of solar panels, it just wasn’t going to be strong enough. So everything came out and for a few days, we had absolutely no roof on the van. So glad we whipped the drone out to get a picture of that, it’s an insane view from up there.

We replaced the old frame with metal roof battens across the whole top of the van, adding two battens side by side anywhere we thought was going to be particularly load bearing. Over the top we used three sheets of aluminium composite sheeting to create the new roof. Plus there is SO MUCH sikaflex up there, honestly a drop of rain wouldn’t be able to find it’s way in anywhere! Thom used a combination of pop rivets and heavier screws to hold down the roof sheets and then our original trim went back onto each side to tie it all together.

no floor in the van

I’m not sure whether we actually needed a new floor, or if Thom just wanted to rip out the old one so that he could get a good look at the new chassis! Either way the new floor is so much better – stronger and much thicker than the original flooring.

We used form ply to cover the whole floor of the caravan, and we also used it to put together some boxes to go over our wheel arches. Eventually we’ll obviously be covering the floor with something a little bit prettier, but for now this strong sturdy base is perfect to work on.

new paint job

Our beautiful new paint job, so in love with this colour

Painting the van

Once all the new cladding was on the van, everything needed to be fully painted. But nothing is easy in a vintage caravan renovation, not even painting.

Our first hurdle was obviously the weather, we needed to wait for a sunny weekend, with a minimum temperature of about 15°C over both days, despite it being the middle of winter. The second hurdle was a little more out of our control, we actually got a tin of faulty paint – and within 48 hours of finishing the whole job it started to flake off.

Give. Us. A. Break.

Our second attempt was much more successful though, we were able to get a second sunny weekend in August (we were definitely surprised too) and our van is looking so pretty and all refreshed now! We were able to just spray the van in our backyard, with a Ryobi Air Compressor and a couple of the Ozito Gravity Feed Spray Guns. If you’re doing a primer before your top coat we highly recommend buying two spray guns for the different types of paint, because they do not like mixing with other paints.

We started with a layer of the Rust Guard SLS Etch Primer, followed by two layers of the Rust Guard Epoxy Enamel in gloss white. For our pink stripe, we chose a colour from the White Knights paint cards, and the paint wizards at Bunnings were able to whip it up for us in a pot of the epoxy enamel. All the paints are good for external use, weather resistant and some of the strongest paints you can use!

If you’re painting your van make sure you choose a weekend between 10°C and 30°C, generally somewhere in the low twenties is perfect. We chose a pretty still weekend as well, so there was no issue with paint flying around in the air – although Thom and both our Dads ended up with white eyelashes and eyebrows after they all took turns painting! We did three coats over 2 days, and then finished our pink layer a couple of weeks later. Leave between 3-4 hours between coats to make sure it’s dry enough to re-coat.

building a caravan

One of our biggest issues during the outside of our build was that we had to work around the weather. By the time we finally got our van back from the chassis builders and then had a couple more hiccups trying to source materials for the outside, we didn’t really get started on the outside of the van until about May, which was heaps later than we had planned.

So far, nothing about this renovation has been easy. There has been moments when we have literally cried and screamed because something went wrong or we didn’t know what to do. There was one day when Thom said he hated our caravan more than he hates cats. That was a very dark day.

But overall we are still having fun, and seeing the inside start to come together now is like watching our little vision actually come to life. Next year when we’re sitting in the sunshine and cooking our dinner outdoors all of these mini meltdowns would have been worth it.

recladding the caravan

We also have to say a HUGE thank you to our best mate Shane Blacklock (featured in many of the photos in this post), who has helped us so much during this build, and has kept Thom sane through many late night issues and freezing cold work nights. As well as our parents, who have come over to help whenever they could and always been so excited about every little thing that changes on the van! Your support and enthusiasm really keeps us going!

If you’re also renovating a vintage caravan we’d love to see your build! Drop us a DM on Instagram or leave us a comment below with your handle so we can check you out.

Nothing in this blog post is sponsored and we paid for all the materials and items listed and linked to in this post. We just wanted to share what worked for us in the hopes that it might make another persons van build a little easier!

Check out more of our van renovation

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HOW TO RENOVATE A VINTAGE CARAVAN: THE OUTSIDE   HOW TO RENOVATE A VINTAGE CARAVAN: THE OUTSIDE

Happy travels,



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Emma is a travel photographer and blogger, living in Melbourne, Australia with her husband Thom in between adventures. She started Explore Shaw to share her experiences, travel tips and destination advice, and to inspire others to travel the world and their own backyard whenever they can.

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4 Comments

  • Martin and Dawn Garratt September 15, 2019 at 9:58 am

    Hi guys you are my inspiration, will be starting my 69 Viscount renovation in February after recovering from shoulder surgery . Hope you are up for a million questions. Cheers, Martin.

    • Emma Shaw September 15, 2019 at 9:17 pm

      Thanks so much Martin! Absolutely we would love for you to ask us any questions you might have 🙂 we’ll be posting heaps more in the next few months about the inside and the electrics and everything so I hope it can help with your renovation too!

  • Millie September 15, 2019 at 11:04 pm

    This is absolutely amazing! You guys did a great job! I’ve been thinking of getting a trailer and fixing it up. Maybe in a year or 2 but maybe sooner this post was super inspiring:) thanks for sharing!

    • Emma Shaw September 16, 2019 at 7:56 am

      Thanks so much Millie! Our plan actually started back in 2017 and has taken more than 2 years to do all our savings and start working on everything, so it’s good to have a long term plan! Hope you find your dream trailer! 🙂 x

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    Just two twenty-something married Aussies, visiting as many places as we can in between normal life, and hoping to inspire and offer advice for your travel planning.

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