How To Build A Bench Seat In a Van Explained

How to Build a Van Bench Seat

In this article I’m (Charlie) going to share the reasons why we put a bench seat with storage in our van, and what we would do next time if we were doing a build all over again.

bench seat with storage van conversion
Our finished bench seat. A lot of amazing memories were made right here!

When planning our Ford Transit Van conversion, we always placed a priority on having fixed seating. Everyone’s priorities will be different, but, after viewing lots and lots and LOTS of other vans on the internet we concluded that we wanted a fixed seating area in our van where we could dine, relax and complete remote work.

We definitely didn’t want to have to fold the bed down everytime we wanted to have a table and chairs.

Why Build a Bench Seats with Storage

Space is such a valuable commodity in a van.

It is the ultimate commodity actually and it will influence nearly every single decision you make in your van conversion.

We knew that our seating had to combine storage into our seating plan in some way. This is where the bench seat design truly shines. We were able to not only have a great fixed seating arrangement in the van, but also increased our storage capability greatly.

In fact, the under seat storage was so large that we were able to store all of our beach-going stuff, and all of our 2-year-old son’s toys.

How to build a bench seat in a van
Our little man enjoying brekkie from the bench seat!

Designing Your Van Bench Seat

Every single DIY van conversion is different.

We all plan the van space differently, and we all have different wants and needs that we are trying to answer.

So, the first thing to do when thinking about designing a bench seat for your van conversion is simply to figure out the following;

Do I even want seating in my van.

This is the most important question regarding your design.
Some van lifers don’t want fixed seating. They would much rather use that space for more kitchen bench space, or for an inbuilt shower, or even an additional bed. Everything in your van build is a comprimise and this is no different.
So ask yourself, can you get away with eating on your bed, or always eating outside? Do you need a seat at all?

Does my van have enough space to accomodate fixed seating.

If you decide you do want fixed bench seating, you then need to figure out if you even have the capacity to fit your intended seating. Or, do you have to accomodate your seating by changing some other part of your van build design?

This is what happened to us. We decided to shorten the cupboard we had running down the same interior wall of the van. We did this so that we could have an extra 30cm length to the bench seat. This made all the difference, as it meant there was enough seating for the three of us to sit at together.

What would I be looking to place in the bench seat storage?
Am I sure it will fit when seat is built?

Are you able to fit the things you want to in the underseat storage?
For instance, maybe you are looking to locate your fridge inside the bench seat to store it out of the way seamlessly.

Or maybe you want to hide all of the van electricals underneath the seat?
You need to know how much space you need and then you can adjust your bench seat plan accordingly. It might me that your bench seat needs to be an extra 100mm (4inches) deeper in order to accomodate the lithium batteries you are using.

It’s better to plan all of this out now, so that you don’t have any nasty surprises later once the van bench seat is built and installed.

How I Built Our Bench Seat With Storage

The bench seat in our van was one of the very first projects I started on.

It was a really great warmup project before I got to the bigger parts of the build such as solar or insulation.

I don’t have a building background, I’m not a carpenter, in fact, my day job consists of being in front of a computer for hours on end. So, it’s for this reason that I thought starting with the bench seat would be good, as it was just a bit of old-fashioned woodworking like I completed in high school.

Step 1 – Plan out your bench seat shape and size.

Some thoughtful questions to ask yourself are;

  • How many people will be sitting on the bench seat at any one time?
  • What will you likely store under the seat? Will the dimensions you are working to give you enough space, or do you need to tweak the design?

In our case, we wanted to have the ability for 3 full-sized people to sit at our table.

And, we didn’t want to all be facing the same way, as we thought that would feel quite strange. So instead we settled for an L-shape bench seat. This meant that when seated, everyone would be facing each other, at least a little bit.

I definitely suggest looking at L-seat bench designs if planning seating for more than one person.

van build bench seat frame

Step 2 – Build out the frame.

Questions to ask yourself at this stage of the build is are;

  • What materials are available to use. What are the pros and cons of each.
  • How are you going to clad the bench seat.

For our seat frame, we settled with 30mm (1.2 inches) pine. This is inexpensive at our local big box hardware store. It was perfectly up to the task and gave a solid feel to the construction once complete.

Van bench seat frame only
Our bench seat starting to take shape.

As for the actual design plan you choose, well that really depends on what you are looking to achieve. Everyone’s bench seat dimensions will be different. That being said…

There are some universal rules worth following when building your seat frame.

  • Make sure your horizontal top bars are not too far across before they connect to and become supported by a vertical bar.
    How far your cross beams can go without support really depends on the material you use. For 1.181 inch pine (30mm) like we used a vertical bar every 40cm or so.
  • When connecting your horizontal beam to the vertical beam, make sure that the horizontal beam actually sit atop the vertical beam.
    This will allow the vertical beam to take all of the horizontal beams weight.
    If you do it the other way, then the weight is only being held up by the strength of the screws you have used to attach the beams together.

If I were to do build another bench storage seat again, I would actually look at using aluminum click and connect systems like Metal Mate, or 80/20.

These are DIY systems that allow you to create precisely what you want easily.

With Metal Mate You simply purchase a length of aluminum square bar, which you then cut to the lengths you need. Simply connect the frame together using the plastic joint connectors. If planned well, the builds can be strong and, most importantly, light!

aluminium for bench seat in a van
Metal Mate plastic connectors

We actually used the Metal Mate aluminium square bar to build the clothes storage cupboard in our van.

We used the Metal Mate system to build this clothes cupboard. It is strong and light.

Step 3 – Clad the bench seat.

You’ve built the frame, now it is time to clad the bench seat. This is where it really starts to look like something resembling a bench seat.

For our build, we used 3/8 inch plywood with V grooves to clad the seat. This was the same plywood we were planning to use for our walls.

There are a variety of ways you can attach the cladding.

Screws would be the simplest.
The problem with doing that was that I didn’t want to see the screw heads.

Sure, I could have drilled them in so the screw heads were reccessed to the plwood surface, and then wood puttied and sanded them. I decided against this as it was a lot of extra work. Instead, I used a super strong tape that I was using at the time to attach the solar panels to the roof.

The tape is called 3M VHB tape and it is used in the building of airplanes and cars. If its good enough to hold an airplane together, it’s good enough to hold my bench sead cladding on.

Here you can see the tape in place. I have yet to peel the red protective plastic off on the exposed side.

The 3M VHB tape worked an absolute treat. The cladding stayed put after 30 seconds of light pressure.

Step 4 – Make the bench seat lid.

Ok, lets give the seat something we can actually sit on!

We used 5/8 inch (15mm) plywood for the seat lid. This had to be thick enough to withstand our weight, expecially our dynamic weight (Though short lived, in the period where we land on the seat, we will actually impart more weight into the seat than when we are just sitting still).

How to build a plywood bench seat for a van

I cut the plywood seats to size, and actually left an overhang at the back. This was so the plywood lid would actually go past the frame of the seat and all the way to the wall.

As you can see, the side wall cladding and the plywood lid both extend past the seat frame. This is so they would sit flush with the wall.

Then I cut the plywood lid along the length of the plywood. This is where I would hinge the lid so that it could be opened and closed. I don’t have a photo of this, instead I have drawn a diagram.

Creating a hinged lid for DIY bench seat

Step 5 – Sand and paint.

Its time to give your seat a few coats of paint. In order to give your seat the best look, there are a few pointers to follow.

Painting a bench seat for a van conversion
Adding 3 coats of paint to our bench seat.
  • Sand with the grain not against it.
    • The first commandment of sanding is as follows – Thou shalt not sand against the grain! The grain is the direction in which the fibres of the the wood are pointing.
      If you sand against the grain, you will inevitably end up leaving scratches across the wood, and that defeats the point.
  • Sand between each coat of paint.
    • After each coat of paint has dried completely, it is best to do a light sand with a fine grain of sandpaper. Somewhere around 320 to 400 grit would be about right. This will help leave the surface feeling and looking smooth.
  • Do more than one coat of paint!
    • I would suggest at least 3 coats of paint. This will mean there are no abnormalities in the spread of paint, and the whole surface will look uniform.
  • Do NOT use a matte paint. Use a high gloss.
    • The reason is that matte paints are more pourous so they allow stains and shoe scuff marks to penetrate the paint, making them impossible to clean off.

      Think about the where the surface of your bench seat is located. It will be close to the ground and will likely be scuffed by shoes as people sit and interact with the seat. With a high gloss paint, you can simply wipe scuff marks and other stains with a damp towel and 99% of the time they come right off.

How To Make DIY Cushions for Van Bench Seat

We used yoga mats for our bench seat cushions.

For our bench seat cushions, we thought outside the box and decided upon yoga mats. Our reasoning was that they were cheap, easy to cut and shape, and upon testing, seemed able to return to their original shape whenever we applied and then removed pressure.

From memory it took 3 yoga mats to cover the entire seat. We did NOT cover the hinges on the seat. This was because we still needed the hinges to move freely.

How To Upholster Bench Seat Cushions

What Would We Do Differently Next Time?

If I was to start this van bench seat again, I would likely make the bedrame out of 80/20 or Metal Mate square aluminium. I would do this for 2 main reasons.

Firstly, the build would take a lot less time. It’s simply a matter of planning all of the lengths needed and then putting them together using the plastic joint connectors. The other reason is weight. The aluminium square bar is super light, and if made with enough vertical bar supports, super strong.

Thanks for reading this article. I hope it helps you to decide if a bench seat with storage is the right choice for your own van conversion!

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