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Installing the ceiling in my van conversion was a fun project and one that wasn’t very difficult. The process was easy once I had already laid the foundation with furring strips, insulation, and wiring.
After all of the necessary parts were in order, it was time to cover up the ceiling. I chose to use cedar planks because I love the look of it. There were also other reasons which I’ll discuss later in this article.
I started with the first plank in the near center of the van next to where my shower had already been built since the shower went all the way up and attached to the ceiling.
I had spent a lot of time getting the shower squared so I knew that if I followed the layout of the shower, my planks would end up straight. I used this as a reference to get my first ceiling plank straight.
The first plank went all the way from front to back and that gave me a starting point that I could work off of for the remaining planks. I would be able to continue working from that centerpiece out towards the sides of the van and in theory, everything should end up straight.
This worked out great. Once I got to the sides of the van the planks were still straight. Even parts that were slightly off would be covered with the overhead cabinets anyway so it wasn’t a big deal.
My goal was to make it look completely straight for someone walking in the van and looking up at the ceiling. The visual part of the ceiling would run from the front to the rear of the van and be completely straight to the eye.
I’m a perfectionist on details like this and I wouldn’t be able to stand it if it was slightly crooked. This can make the difference in a professional look or an amateur look so be sure you get your first plank straight and then all the other ones can be built off of this first one and they will stay straight.
After you install the first plank, it’s just a matter of moving either left or right of that first one and installing each subsequent plank in a staggered position from the first one.
It’s best to make sure the seams are not butted up against each other because they will hold tighter and it looks better if they are staggered.
I staggered my boards by measuring different lengths to where the seems would not meet the seem from the plank next to it. I ended up with a few different measurements along the way and repeated it after every third row.
Parts & Tools I Used
- 1/4 inch cedar planks – I purchased these from my local Home Depot. I ordered two boxes of these and each box contained 18 planks. This was more than enough to finish my entire ceiling.
- Miter Saw – This was my most used tool during this process. This is the ideal tool to use for installing cedar planks because it ensures that you will make each cut straight and the ends of the planks will butt together nicely.
- Fine-tooth blade miter saw blade – I recommend using a blade of at least 60 teeth per inch so that you can have a nice clean cut without splintering. I started the process using a rough cut blade and it splintered way too much and didn’t look very good.
- Jigsaw – Beyond a miter saw, I also used a jigsaw with a fine-tooth blade on it for areas that needed more than just a straight cut. You will probably need a jigsaw so that you can cut around different parts throughout the ceiling unless you have an empty ceiling.
- #6 1-inch zinc-coated screws – I used the SPAX brand screws here and most everywhere throughout my van. I chose screws for my ceiling because I wanted it to hold good. If I was to use nails, they could back out over time and come loose as I am driving down the road with the vibrating van.
- LED Lights – As you go along, you’ll have to decide where you want lights if you will be installing flush mount ones as I did. I already knew where my holes needed to be for my lights because my wires were already run and marked.
- 2 1/4 inch Forstner bit – When I came to the spot where I needed a hole for a light, I used a Forstner bit and drilled a 2 1/4 inch hole to allow for my LED lights to fit into. A Forstner bit works great for this application because it drills such a clean hole.
- 3/32 drill bit – When installing the planks with screws, it’s best that you drill a small hole through the wood first. This will help to keep the planks from splitting which happened a few times to me in the process when I tried to do it without drilling a hole.
- Countersink bit – This will create a larger indention in the plank where the screw head will seat.
- Speed square – I also used a speed square so that I could mark straight lines at each location where I was to cut the plank.
Using Screws vs Nails
Some people may decide to use nails to hold these planks against the ceiling but I chose to use screws for a few different reasons.
The first reason is that screws will stay tight without coming loose and even if any were to come loose they are easy to screw back in and tighten up. With screws, I feel more confident that my ceiling is securely installed.
The second reason is that the cedar planks are fragile and may not take the abuse of a nail gun. I have a brad nailer that I tested on a few planks and found that even on the weakest setting, the brad nail almost shot all the way through the plank.
Not only that, but the jolt from the brad nailer puts a dent in the fragile wood at each location where you install a nail.
In my experience, it’s much better to use screws to hold the ceiling planks on. It may be different if you were installing them in a house that isn’t moving. However, a van moves and vibrates constantly so you want to be sure the ceiling is held in tightly.
The Installation Process
The installation process was very easy to do and there wasn’t much to it once you took the time to get the first plank completely straight. Here is the process that I used during the whole installation until it was completed.
Install the first plank in the center or close to the center of the van as I’ve already discussed above. Once you do this, you will have a base in which you can work off of to install all the other planks on both sides of the center one.
Decide on a side to start. For me, it was the passenger side because this was the easiest to work with as it was wide open and nothing had been installed on that side yet.
Decide on the measurements you will need for that row so that the ends are staggered with the row next to it.
Cut one section at a time and install it and then measure again before cutting the next section. For mine, each row of planks has about 3 sections of various lengths staggered throughout the van.
Install the planks. It’s simple, you just place the planks into place and insert the tongue into the groove and make sure they are tightly seated. Be careful though because these 1/4 inch cedar planks are fragile if you try to push too hard on them.
The tongue and groove sections can easily break if you aren’t careful.
Once you have the section in place and tight against the plank beside it, now is the time to drill your hole. I used a 3/32 inch drill bit to drill up through the plank and slightly into the furring strip. I then used a countersink bit to create a seat for the screw head.
Once the holes were in place, I used a drill driver to install the screws. Just make sure not to get these too tight because they may crack under the pressure of a tight screw.
Repeat the process. Keep doing this until you have installed all sections from the center towards the sides of the van. You’ll get the hang of it once you begin the process.
Note: It helps to have two people but it’s not necessary. I did mine completely by myself and had no issues. The planks are so light that one person can easily handle it. Even full-length planks are easy to work with.
The tricky part is going to be the sides of your van along with the front section that curves inward. There may also be sections where you will have to build around something such as the ceiling fan.
You may have to cut some planks with a jigsaw so that they will fit around areas like these.
I had to cut a plank in half longways and at an angle for it to meet up with my wall on the driver’s side. This was probably the most difficult part of the whole install. It was more guesswork than anything coming up with the right angle for a perfect fit.
Parts like these will be trial and error and you’ll have to figure out a plan to make it work.
Pros Of Using Cedar Ceiling Planks
- It’s very lightweight. It weighs next to nothing and is easy to work with because of this. One person can easily do the job.
- It looks awesome! The look of it reminds me of a rugged, outdoor cabin that makes me want to spend time in it. It gives my rig more character.
- It’s easy to install. The ceiling was one of the first things I installed in my van so I was glad that it went so smoothly. It was an easy job for such a great looking finish.
- Mold and mildew resistance. Not that it eliminates the chance of having these issues but it is more resistant than other types of woods that one might use. When you are in a small area like this, mold and mildew could be an issue so having something like cedar is a good idea.
- It smells great! Cedar has a wonderful smell but it does dissipate after a while. After a year of being installed, I can still smell it if I get up close to it so it does last for quite a while.
Cons Of Using Cedar Ceiling Planks
- Expect some planks to be unusable. I purchased three packages of the planks because I knew some would not be useable. Some were warped, cracked, bent and broken so there was quite a bit of waste. Purchase more than you think you need if you are going to use this product.
- Expensive. If you were to use another solution like plywood and just create a solid ceiling, you would spend less money.
- When cutting, be sure and use a fine-tooth blade. This is important if you want it to look well-finished. Using a course blade will create splintering and have it looking like an amateur job. A 60 TPI or higher blade is recommended. I started out using a rough cut saw blade and it looked horrible.
- Be sure and cut each piece as straight as possible. A miter saw is the best choice for making straight cuts as long as your miter saw is set at a true 90°. This is important because you want the ends of each section to be straight when they butt up against another section so there will be no gap.
- Think it through as you are installing it. Be sure to choose pieces that complement each other as you are moving throughout the ceiling. Many of the pieces have different shades of coloring and some are more knotty than others. Be intentional about where you put pieces and make sure they blend in well with other pieces around it.
- Purchase more wood than you think you’ll need. I would guess that 20% of the planks will not be useable for long runs. You will be able to cut shorter pieces from bad pieces but just know that it is normal to have some bad planks.
- Use screws. I would suggest using either stainless steel or zinc coated screws. These shouldn’t rust with any moisture in the van and will keep the ceiling held tightly.
Installing cedar planks on a van ceiling seems like the obvious choice to me. Nothing says outdoorsy and has a camper feel like a cedar plank ceiling.
Living near the Smokey Mountains, I have become accustomed to staying in rustic cabins that have plank walls and ceilings. Although these are usually made from pine, they are similar in style.
When I’m in my van, it makes me feel like I am in a cabin in the woods. It has that rustic feel to it that makes me feel like I am on a vacation.
I used a lot of white in my van as a lot of people do to help brighten up the area and make it feel larger. The Cedar ceiling helps to offset the amount of white throughout the rig.
I recommend using cedar planks in van builds like this because it is super lightweight and that is one of the main things you are looking for. It’s important to keep the weight as low as possible for many different reasons.
The Cedar ceiling gives you a great look without adding a lot of weight.
There are heavier woods and thicker wood that you could use on your ceiling and a lot of people do. However, the quarter-inch planks I used are perfect for a van.