Putt Step Van Build


I'll get there.
Hi! I'm Putts.


That ain't right. How about this?

I'm two years into a step van build.

It's named Putt. I know, confusing.

See, I'm Putts on ADVrider.com, too. I used Putts because I putt around on motorcycles, and I don't go fast. My main bike is a KLR, but I've had/have quite a few. (FJR, TW200, XT350, TT350, CB360, TY125, TY250, R80G/S) Obviously, other than the KLR that rules the world for a cheap bike that will get you anywhere on the planet, the Beemer that's a friggen classic, and the Honda which was a basket case that fell in my lap, I'm a Yamaha guy. Anyway, when I started to post what I was doing with my camper (in a smaller private adventure motorcycle forum) those guys thought it would be a hoot if named my truck Putt so that I could have my travel thread titled "Putts putts in Putt." Ha, ha. Oh well, it stuck.

Mainly I ride bike to go on adventures. I love to travel and see stuff. And I love the natural world, so I tend to explore the less populated places...little towns, old mines, you know. Me and my buddy Paul sometimes do summer vacations where we travel maybe 800 miles over the course of the week going from one forest service cabin to another, staying off pavement as much as possible. Great stuff.

Sheesh...time for a pic or two. This was a trip with a bunch of guys.

Anywho, I love the outdoors...but I'm getting too old for the motorbike adventure touring thing. I'm also sick, fed up, and tired of working---I want to go adventure full-time. A couple of years ago a thought popped into my head: I could build a vehicle to live in, sell the house, and retire at 62 on social security and the proceeds of the house. (Had three wives...there goes your 401k.)

What I'd really love is a Unicat...but no way could I afford that. I figured in the roughly three years I had I could finance a step van, build it out on my income, and pull out of the driveway with it paid off. Basically, build an expedition vehicle on the cheap. No, it won't be overland capable, but it certainly could be Forest Service road capable---way more than a class-C RV.

Why a step van? I wanted a rugged vehicle, which basically left out any pre-made RV. I wanted some roomy comfort, which ruled out a 4WD van. So it was either a box truck or step van. Box trucks have better ground clearance, but I'll be living in this thing into my 70s (knock wood) so the extra height would mean that many more steps up and down. And I also liked the easy movement from outside, to cockpit, to cabin of a step van. The down side is the lower ground clearance and they're loud. (Noise canceling headphones to the rescue.)

It's kinda weird to me, I looked all over the place and step vans builds are pretty rare. Maybe it wasn't a good choice? Ah well, I tend to do my own thing; my logic felt sound to me; I went for it.

I looked around for a forum to start a build thread for advice. Expedition Portal, Pirate 4x4, and Cheap RV Living looked promising---all of them could give advice on solar, refrigerators, and LED lighting. I ruled out this place because I didn't feel like I was building an expedition vehicle; I ruled out Pirate 4x4 because, though I knew it could serve as such, I wasn't building a bug out vehicle, so I went with CheapRVLiving. I got good advice on that kind of stuff early on, but in the end I've found that I really am building an expedition vehicle, just not a very capable one. Which actually makes my questions about whether or not to switch to big singles, what kind of winch is best for me, and various recovery gear all the more important. I now feel like I've got to be here to get the advice I need.

So, howdy!

I also think my build is pretty unusual and may offer some good ideas for folks looking to get into an affordable vehicle to adventure in. Took me a while to accept that, and a while longer to decide that it was worth the effort to reconstruct a build thread here, but here I am. I've got a few hours to start posting up before the kids start showing up for Christmas, I reckon it's a good time to start.

Welcome to Putt!
Last edited:


I'll get there.
Putt is 14' behind the driver's seat. Initially I had been looking at stepvans that were 16'. I did a lot of scrounging around in the on-line classifieds and came to the conclusion that I needed to spend about $16k on a pre-2007ish diesel that would run on dirty fuel in Central America. That's a sentence that took six months to write.

Then, I was driving down the frontage road here in Bozeman, Montana, where I live (yes, I'll fill in my profile) and saw this out in front of the Culligan Man's place.

$20k and two feet shorter than I wanted. But...it was in good shape, and I dug the **** out of the test drive. 2006 with 70k miles...theoretically just broke in for a vehicle like this. It was too much dough though, so I said no thanks.

Then, about six months later, my neighbor across the street from me, who is a sales guy at the local Ford dealership, tells me they have a used stepvan on the lot. I go take a look. Sure as shootin' it's the same vehicle; the Culligan dude did a trade-in for a new truck that would fit in his dock, and now the Ford dudes had to figure out how to unload it. It was listed at $16,999...I told him I'd do $16k out the door and we were done. Then I went to my Farmer's home owners and vehicle insurance agent and my bank and did the paperwork, and I was a proud owner of a commercial vehicle that would sit in my driveway and pay registration and full-boat insurance as if it was delivering newspapers on public roads for 40 hours a week.

I tell you, I'm so friggen grateful that I can just afford to pull the switch on all that paperwork crap. In so many forums I've seen so many people have to struggle to get a commercial vehicle into a position where they can even start a conversion it's disheartening. I just bled my paycheck into the right hole and it happened. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting away with it easy.

So, as of October 2015, Putt has lived in my driveway.



I'll get there.
Putt is a 2006 Morgan Olson step van on an International SC1652 chassis with a Navistar VT365 engine. This is where the real gear heads start to cringe. The VT365 engine is the foundation of the Ford Powerstroke 6 liter engine; an engine well know to blow itself to bits. Mostly, this is because idiot kids chipping their engine and want to roll coal at 70mph. Morans.

Anyhow, there is some problems built into this engine.
  • Head bolts used from the factory were not strong enough and will stretch if put under too much load for too long.
  • Once they stretch you start to get coolant/oil contamination.
  • Which overheats the exhaust gas recirculator (EGR) and starts to corrode the radiator in there, which then starts to leak coolant, which ends up getting into the intake fuel mixture, which screws up all sorts of stuff, and eventually causes the engine to blow.
  • Or...the VT365 turbos from '05 and '06 have a nasty habit of grenading at the worst possible moment.
Fortunately, all these things are fairly repairable. Replacing the headbolts is well beyond my comfort zone, so once the house sells I'll find a good mechanic, set up and appointment, and spend a few days in a motel while the work is done. At the same time I'll have an EGR bypass installed---it's mostly an emissions thing and the vehicle will actually run more efficiently with it bypassed entirely...or so I read on the web. And I'll have an '07 or later turbo installed. I'm hoping I can convince Bill Hewitt at Powerstrokehelp.com to do the work. Anybody here have experience with him? Any other suggestions?

Empty, Putt weighs in at about 10,500 lbs. GVWR is 19,500 lbs. So I can add up to 9000 lbs of stuff to Putt. I've done the mental math before with 100 gallons of water, a 60 gallon extended range tank (the normal tank is 25 giving me about a 350 mile range and I don't like that), four batteries, back bumper and motorcycle, food, interior build, and my fat butt, and I can't figure out how I could add more than about 5000 lbs.

My thought here is that my weight will be fairly stable, so once she's build and on the road, I might consider some suspension modifications to set it right for the weight and soften up the ride a bit...but maybe not. I'll just have to see how she rides at weight.


I'll get there.
Okie dokie, this is the post that will give you a good vision of what Putt's going to look like indside.

Like I said, I'm a bit of a geek, and have in the past done some mechanical design work. So I know how to run a 3D computer aided design program called Solidworks. It's one of the two main 3D CAD programs out there, the other well known one is AutoCAD. These programs cost in the neighborhood of $1500 to purchase, and technically you need to pay a $500/year seat fee or something. Anyway, Solid works is crazy expensive. But, bless their ever lovin' hearts, they offer a program for veterans where you can buy if for personal use for $25. Woot!

So I drew up Putt. Mostly it's a sketch to work from, I don't take any measurements from the drawings. Hell, I hardly ever look at them any more. But it was great in the planning stages to be able to shuffle things around to consider different layouts.

Here's what I settled on, and I say settled because when doing something like this it's all about where you're willing to compromise. If the crapper's an inch wider, then the counter and drawers have an inch less. Here's the top view of the basic layout with the upper cabinets not shown so you can see the floor plan better.

The first thing to notice is that the rear door opens to a storage area that will be completely separate from the cabin. I don't want to live with the smell of a chainsaw in my space. That back area will store all the chairs, tables, firewood, fire ring, buckets, shovels, spare parts, tools, blah, blah, blah.

The bed runs crossways above the wheel wells. That's a standard single mattress you see there; there will be just enough room for a little headboard shelf with reading light, book holder, glasses storage, iPad charging, etc.

At the top is the kitchen cabinet that contains, from left to right: a composting toilet; propane range (mine will actually be just one burner), sink and faucet, and then the top-loading refrigerator under a hinged counter top.

The bottom side shows the dinette. The forward seat will be a car seat bolted to the top of the battery box. The rear seat will be a compact RV swivel recliner.

Here's a side view.

Here you can see all the storage compartments. Under and above bed is all my personal stuff. Above the kitchen will be for food. Above the dinette will be all the electronics. The bed, over bed, and kitchen cabinet will have a single door that flips up on hydraulic lifters. The kitchen counter unit will have drawers for all the dishes and pans etc. The garbage will be under the range accessed through a flappy panel.

Here's a quick look inside the kitchen counter unit.

The turquoise box is the 60 gallon water tank. I eventually plan to put two more tanks between the wheel wells for a total of about 120 gallons. The dark blue box is a water cube for the gray water under the sink. I had planned to just manually empy this but have changed my mind and will be installing a small 10 gallon tank that can be drained with a valve. The orange box is the fridge. I bought a Dometic CFX-50W that runs on 12VDC or 110AC.


I'll get there.
The Start

I had those drawings but for a 2' longer vehicle than Putt, so as soon as I got it, I knew what I was on about. I bought it in October 2015, and it's cold and getting colder that time of year, so it was mostly intensive planning and doing stuff that didn't need adhesives.

Here's what she looked like in the driveway once home.

Rigged up some stairs.

And went to work. My table rassa. (some hippy East Indian word for blank slate.)

Basically, job one was removing and prepping the walls, and fabbing up the conduits to pull wires in the future.

Originally the vehicle had been sold to the Chicago Tribune. I found a stack of newspapers in one of the walls and a sweet little whisk broom.

Since I have the luxury, I'm not going to post this in time sequence. I'll put each part of the project in it's own set of posts.

Where to start?


I'll get there.
The walls and conduits are kinda complicated; I spent a lot of time thinking about how, exactly, I was going to do stuff. While I was doing that, I kept having to open and close the rear door and it was the one place on the vehicle that had a significant amount of rust.

It was worst at the bottom of the door. When I got Putt, it had a lot of rock salt I had to sweep out of the back. Remember, it was used by a Culligan Man. I think the salt really corroded the back door. I've looked around underneath and things look pretty good; some rust, but not much.

Anyhow, I decided, "Screw that door, I'm not going to lift that damned thing up and down for the next 15 years." So I bought a new one.

Out with the old...

In with the new!

Well, there was a lot of scrubbing with a wire brush and Ospho applications, but those are boring pics.


I'll get there.
The fun pics were removing the hardware; painting it in my livingroom ('cuz it's 0 degrees outside sometimes around here in winter); installing the new door; and remounting the hardware.

Tensioning the springs was a bit tricky, but all in all a pretty straight forward job...kind of a wallet crusher at about $1600 though.


I'll get there.
Okie dokie. I come up with some crazy ideas sometimes...it took numerous beers and a lot of time sitting in a folding chair looking at the walls, but here's one of them.

I'm sorry to say you'll probably have to put your thinking caps on to get what the hell I'm going to talk about here, but I think it'll be worth your time in the end if you're so inclined.

The problem with a vehicle is it's a hot box. You get solar gain because the sun shines on the skin and heats up. The normal solution is to insulate...which is completely logical and rational.

But I'm not. So, I came up with an alternate solution.


Geebus...did I just say that out loud?

No. Well, yes...but let's just let that slide for a moment.

The beautiful thing about shade is that the thing providing the shade doesn't usually heat up. You get under a tree, it shades you from the sun and eats that energy up to protect you from the heat, and you get to sit in ambient air temperature without the sun's heat. Lovely.

But in a vehicle, all that metal heats up like a mother. You can insulate all you want, but if you're not cooling it to ambient you're not ever going to get shade temperature inside you vehicle. As I sat in winter contemplation of Putt's structure, I soon came to the conclusion that it could have a separate plenum for the walls and ceiling to evacuate air undergoing thermal gain in the vehicle.

Eh...a plenum is basically a space reserved for airflow. Wiki has a bunch of ways to explain it. Basically, Putt has a plenum for airflow in the back, walls, and ceiling to evacuate hot air created from sun on her skin. This allows the inside temp to be that of under the shade of a tree. Here's how it works:

This is a cross section of Putt. The rear Fantastic vent evacuates air from the cabin. The forward vent only evacuates air from within the false ceiling.

The walls are four inches of thick between the outside skin and the inside plywood. I put an inch of insulation on either side, but that still left a full two inch void. So I drilled a bunch of holes on the wall studs...

...so that air could flow within the walls.

It's a little hard to explain without seeing it, but I will have air flow through all the walls and ceiling that is completely separate from the cabin air system.

In the end, I will have a vent that can get rid of hot air from Putt's solar gain, while keeping the cabin at ambient shade temperature.

That's the theory, anyway.

Please feel free to tell me where I'm loosing touch with reality.

Extra points for telling me what "reality" actually is.


I'll get there.

Another big task readying the cabin for build was to install the wiring conduits....they had to be in behind the walls, so they had to be early in the process. I cogitated a good long while and figured out that there was a good spot for the runs at the top of the walls.

Here's a wooden dowel in the area where the run would go.

There are so many things PVC is bad for when building something (it's to floppy and flexible usually) that it was fun to find a good use for it.
Turned out the biggest hassle was the pull ropes had to be in the PVC as it was constructed and I often wound up wound up in the string.

Eventually, it all got tucked into place.

Right sidewall.

And forward into the cab.

And aft into the bed cabinet and shed.

Left side.

Close up at the top pf the wall. Here you can see the walls to the rear are capped, and then once forward enough there are a series of holes that ventilate the walls into the ceiling for the heat removal.

Little bit of conduit to go from the kitchen cabinet to the bottom counter unit, and AC to the kitchen outlet.
Not very code-ish. (Shhhhhh.)

Same wall from the front once installed.

All the pull ropes have big washers on them that don't fit through the pipe. That way I don't accidentally pull a rope all the way through.

So, both sides of Putt has runs that run the full length of the vehicle with outlets in the cab, cabin forward cabinets, bed cabinet, and rear shed.


I'll get there.
The big, big, big thing that got installed the first year is the window.

Here's when it first showed up.

Then it spent a few months in my living room as I rattle canned it.

Meanwhile, out in Putt I was figuring out exactly how the window was going to fit in...it was definitely a tricky job. A measure 10 times and cut once sort of job.

Here's the bare wall were the window would go.

That center metal wall stud would have to get cut.

The one just to the rear of it would have to change as well. For the window to be most secure it would have to be bolted through the skin and into the studs. But the studs are sort of S shaped. Here's the one I cut off for the window.

Well, all the studs had the same orientation, and I needed that rear stud to be flipped the other way, and then moved a few inches in order to properly fit the window. Sorry, no pix of all that.

Then once I had clear out the place for it, I had to cut a 4' x 3' hole in the side of my precious Putt. Nerve wracking.

Almost done cutting.


I brought the window out, put it up on sawhorses, then filled the mating surfaces with Dicor butyl tape. Then a buddy helped me poke it in the hole.

It fit perfectly! Woot!

I had planned to use the existing rivet holes in the stud to attach the window and measured accordingly. When we put the window in, my buddy got inside, put the drill bit in the stud hole, and drilled through the window as I stood outside breathless waiting to see where the drill poked out.

It was damned near dead center in the bolt head groove.

Alright, maybe a 1/16th off. But that's still damned close all things considered.


I'll get there.
The sides of the window are bolted into the steel stud on either side, but to bottom and top were bolted to some aluminum C beams. Here's what that looked like.

Close up.

A virtual buddy of mine on a motorcycle forum who is a structural engineer for huge projects (like the new central railway station in Hong Kong) saw that and told me I had to tie the aluminum to the steel studs or the outside skin of Putt would fatigue and crack. Well, that's why you want people looking over your shoulder as you do stuff like this. So I fabbed up some brackets from the stud that I had cut off for the window.

It was right about here that I did a lot of research on galvanic corrosion. I don't remember it all right now, but as I recall stainless steel has about the same galvanic potential as aluminum, so I used stainless hardware to bolt stuff together. I also used electrical tape between the brakets and aluminum as an insulator. I've no idea if it's really going to work well, but Morgan Olson had put what looked like electrical tape between the studs and aluminum skin so I figured I'd just follow right along.

Hm...seems like I don't have a full view of the finished window. Oh well, you get the idea.


I'll get there.
Last little but critical step to finishing up cutting holes through the skin was to put in access hatches on both sides. The driver's side hatch will be for access to the water system for filling and emptying tanks, also the 110VAC shore tie. Eventually, when I get a 12V water pump mounted inside, I will also have a hand held shower head inside the hatch that I can bring outside, and will build some mounts on the side for the shower head a little privacy curtain. The access hatch on the passenger side will be for 12VDC and 110VAC cables to supply juice outside while camping.

Wanna see the door on the other side? Nah, it's the same thing.


I'll get there.
Well, after all that it was mostly an exercise in sanding and priming the plywood wall panels, glueing insulating panels on the inside of the aluminum skin, and another layer behind the plywood walls with spacers in between to assure that if the adhesives failed they'd stay put. I don't have many pix but it looked like a lot of this.

Here's the finished right wall.

The only thing to note here is that I cut off the two pre-existing wall panels to either side of the window so I could put in one long piece on top that would strengthen the top of the window. Wow. A full year to get back to an empty box.

Next bit was the floor.

Trying to get the glue to adhere.

The little open space on the left is the hatch to get to the fuel tank sender and pump.


I'll get there.
Alrightythen. Time to build a cabinet.

You should know I'm not a wood worker of any sort...but that's never stopped me from trying. Built all sorts of stuff over the years, but it's been pretty much plywood, 2x4, screws and glue and right angles. Oh! I have a Chevy Express 3500 15 passenger van that I built a bed and a table into for camping and traveling. No fancy stuff though, just the table and bed.

Anyhow, my buddy Wally is a construction guy and has built all sorts of weird stuff, so he's my go to for help. He said hardwood, dowel pins, screws and glue would be the way to go. I've never done dowels before so I watched some youtubes, became a friggen expert, bought a little dowel kit, and went at it.

(Not a doobie---NTTAWWT---I just roll my own smokes.)

And so it begins...

60 gallon water tank...yeah baby. Future plans include 40 more gallons in two tanks between the wheel wells. *crosses fingers*
Got the Dometic 50 portable fridge. Thought it would be good to be able to get that heat generator outside on a table when camping, and I needed to make double damned sure I would build the cabinet so it fit.

Second side.

Finished cabinet framing.

In Putt with tank in place.

Allicazzam! Now with top, sink, and shelf over the water tank.

The shelf over the water tank and the countertop are removable---screws and a nice tight fit, but no glue. I wanted to make sure I could remove and repair the tank if it ever sprung a leak. The drawer railing (that you can't see) up and just left of the fridge is glued in because it needs the strength; I figure I could just cut it out and replace it if the tank had to be removed.

And an inside view.

The water tote under the sink for grey water will eventually be replaced with a real tank and drain, but I figure this would work for a while...it is functional. I'll strap it down at some point but I'll always dump it before driving. I just cut off its spout and the drain fits right into it. The half moon cutout is to reach the drain valve through the access hatch. The tube running up the wall is the vent pipe---I've covered it with no-see-um screen and then a metal mesh hose clamped on so bugs can't get in.

When the interior is complete I'm going to have to disassemble just about everything for painting. I will eventually be putting Formica countertops on after painting. It's going to be painted white with gray and black trim. I love the wood, but I also want to fight darkness induced claustrophobia. With only the one side window, natural light will be at a premium. And it'll be really dark with the window cover shut. Lots of LED strip lighting in a number of places will bring lots of light...but it'll be a lot brighter with a white interior.


I'll get there.
Just aft of the cabinet is the composting toilet.

A composting toilet have three required features:

You MUST separate the pee from the poo. Otherwise it'll stink. All commercial nautical and RV composting toilets have separate holding tanks for each.

All composting toilets have ventilation systems. Everything I've read or seen says they don't stink, so it's not for the smell. The good aerobic bacteria that break down the poo to compost need a lot of fresh air and oxygen to live and thrive; they also have significant heat and moisture that must be vented out. An outside, closed loop air ventilation system to provide oxygen and evacuate moisture is required to work properly.

You must stir the poo daily. Commercial systems have a mixer with an outside handle to agitate. I'll have a stick.
I bought the Separett Privy 500. The important bit looks like this...

Pee in the front; poo in the back. Yes boys, you gotta learn to pee sitting down. I'm pathologically lazy so I do it that way anyway. It's got a styrofoam seat made for cold weather, which was all they had when I had done my initial research. Had I looked into again I would have gone for their new Privy 501, which has a more normal seat. I'll probably eventually buy the seat for that one and remount it as I think the styrofoam may trap crud in it's pores. Ah well, live and learn. This isn't the first time, and most likely not the last, that I'll spend money unwisely.

At any rate, here's the first mock up.

The PVC is just a fake spacer. There will be a fair dinkum hose to whatever the final bottle choice is.

Then, somehow, I had to figure out how to make a relatively air-tight seal the very odd shape of the toilet into the five gallon bucket below. Got out the saber saw and started hacking away at a five gallon bucket and came up with this.

The hose is just here for cogitative purposes. In the hole is a piece of 5/8 plywood cut to just fit within---you can see it's shadow on the side of the bucket bit---and then the bucket piece is screwed in from the sides.

Closed in the box and installed hinges.

And now, the big reveal: Welcome to the poop snorkel.

The top bit of bucket is cut from a 5 gallon bucket just below the ridges near the handle, making it seal fairly air tight.

You can see the intake and exhaust snorkels going from the rim job up on top that seals into the load bucket, and on down to the stench plenum below.

Note the virtually explosion-proof 37/64" marine grade plywood used.

Here you can see the intake and exhaust chambers---they're symmetrical because a good evacuation should have balance.

Fiber too. You'll see the stack of about 6 fiber vent pads under a metal mesh.

There's another metal mesh on the bottom stapled to some spacers to make a void on the bottom where the pooterpipes exit.
The two interior walls have holes in them to mount 40mm computer box fans.

Pooter pipes and holes in the floor.

I don't want to look at my crapper all day long and want the extra counter space. Here it's up and latched to the wall.

Half way down.

And closed.