Building the Extended Roof for The Van: Phase One

There’s a lot that goes into building a new roof on top of your cargo van, so we’ve broken down the build into a couple phases. This blog post will be about how we got started.

After researching the different year/makes/models of cargo vans, we found that Chevy had the best reviews. We found a good deal on a 2007 Chevy Express with all-wheel drive– the perfect feature for our winter adventuring. Extending the roof was the first thing to tackle after our purchase, and we soon realized that buying a fiberglass topper would not only be a pricey investment, but it would lack in character compared to the VW Transporter we came from. I have a bit of construction experience, so banking on that and knowing our van’s payload limit was 2,300 pounds, we decided to build a roof extension in a similar manner to the walls of house and attach it to the frame of the van. In all honesty, we didn’t know how it would turnout beforehand– there were no drawings or technical details other than a rough game-plan in our heads. In the end it worked out– hopefully you learn something from our experience:

Step One: Cutting Out the Roof

Cutting the roof (1 of 1)

This was the most unnerving step– once you start cutting, there’s no going back! We had debated if it would be better to build the new frame before cutting out the roof so that we could expedite the amount of time our vehicle would be without a roof, but because we didn’t know the exact measurements of the frame until the metal roof was removed, we opted to make the cut and get a better idea of what we would be working with. Luckily the weather gods blessed us with a week of sunshine. Cutting the roof 2 (1 of 1)

My weapon of choice for the roof extraction was an angle grinder– maybe there’s a better tool out there, but it’s what I had access to and it worked just fine. Playing it safe, I cut about four inches from the frame around the back and sides of the van, and ended the cut behind the front cab. After removing this big chunk of metal, I was able to stand inside the van and get a more precise cut to expose the frame of the van where our base 2×4 boards would sit.

The Roof (1 of 1)
Looking at the extracted roof on the ground while Matt makes a precise cut around the frame

Step Two: Building the Extended Frame

base frame (1 of 1)We figured if 2×4’s are good enough for a house they are good enough for a van.  We put the studs on 16″ centers with a 5 degree lean to make the walls of the extension match the curve of the van.  I wanted to beef up the extension wherever possible, so all the corners have double stacked studs and the openings at the front and back are double plated top and bottom.  We used 2×4’s for ceiling joists on 10″ centers and hung them with joist hangers from the doubled top plate at the front and back.  The whole frame was screwed together instead of nailed.  It was more expensive and slower than nails but with the amount of vibration this frame will see, I did not want nails working their way loose.

We also framed an opening for a skylight with an exhaust fan.  This will help bring light into our window-less van, and vent out steam when we cook.

Window (1 of 1)

Step Three: Securing the Extended Frame

installing roof (1 of 1)
Getting the frame up is easy if you and your dad are giants.  If not you’ll want to enlist the help of more than just one other person.

Frame Bolts (1 of 1)

With the frame on the van, it was time to center it up and clamp it down.  I have found that with stuff like this, eyeballing first and then measuring to see if its close, works better than just measuring.  Trust your eyes, there is no guarantee that the walls are perfect, and it won’t matter if your tape says its off a 1/16th of an inch.

Once it was centered up and clamped down I drilled holes through the bottom plate and into the frame of the van to secure it.  I bolted it in 3 places at the back and in between each stud along both sides– amounting to about 30 3/8th’s bolts. I worked my way form the back to the front bolting both sides at the same time.  This made the frame I built flex and match the curve of the van which gave us a nice tight fit and a cool look.

Front Joists (1 of 1)After that came time to cut and secure the joists that go from the top of the frame forward angling down to meed the roof above the windshield.  This was a pain! I made the middle two joists even, and the two side joists even. This made for one flat section at the front of the van, while the two side sections angled in. The hope in doing this was to make the vehicle more aerodynamic as well as give the new top an aesthetic flow. There was not room to use a bolt and nut to secure these joists, so I drilled a pilot hole and secured them with 3/8th’s lag bolts that went through the roofs skin and into the frame below.

 

After that was all done I made sure to fill any gaps between the bottom plate and the frame of the van with silicone so to have a good, solid, water tight fit.

the fort (1 of 1)

Please ask if you have more detailed questions and stay tuned for how we finished the roof!

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10 thoughts on “Building the Extended Roof for The Van: Phase One

  1. Wow great timing. I purchased a dodge ram 3500 van extended and am doing some roof expansions. I’m focusing on a pop up tent type expansion similar to the VW bus.

    One thing to consider is with a vehicle unlike a house , you are moving at extremely high speeds so there is heavy wind resistance coming at the van. This is something to keep in mind with your design. A house never has anywhere near that kind of wind resistance unless its a hurricane.

    Also will the highway patrol or police flag you for an unsafe vehicle with the wood top like that, or will it look like other work vans on the road with ladders and other stuff on the top of the vehicle?

    Look forward to more on the roof expansion, i’ve never seen it done like this. I’ve seen those sports mobile conversion pop tops but those cost 3,000 plus.

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    1. We took all that into consideration. Every joint has been reinforced with glue and screws instead of nails. I don’t think we could get flagged for an unsafe vehicle. Convertibles pass a safety test, and jeeps can drive without doors. As long as you can pass the normal safety and emissions test every year you are good to go. The roof has nothing to do with that.

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    1. We skinned it with osb, tyvek, tongue and groove on the sides and 18 gauge metal on top. We have posted a part two that details finishing it off

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  2. I’m following your guys foot steps and building a wooden roof. I am using a ford econoline extended 350 instead. Currently gutting the van now and getting ready to make the cuts. The curve of the roof at the very end running the length of the van is more then I expected and looks like its gonna be a problem when I try to mount the first 2×4. When you cut off the first section of the roof and then made the precise cuts were you cutting off all the sheet metal and exposing the frame? I’m trying to get an idea exactly where the frame will sit so I can get a measurement and see if in need to angle the 2x4s. Please let me know what you think.

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    1. Hi thomas,
      Yes I only cut sheet metal to expose the frame. Then I got my measurements and built the 2×4 frame on the ground. For that curve in the back that runs side to side on the van I stacked two 2×4’s vertically and scribed the curve onto one and cut it with a jig saw. Then I just cut the other one to match. That way when they sat on the metal they fit like two puzzle pieces. You can see this in the pics if you look hard. The 4th and 6th photo in the blog post. The 4th pic the frame is on the ground and it really clearly shows it. The 6th pic my dad is holding the cut 2×4’s as we lift the frame on the van.

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  3. Hi Matt, finished result looks great. I’m also trying to figure out how to deal with the curvature around the outer edges of the roof. For the boards running driver side to passenger side, the arc you cut into the 2×4 is pretty clear.

    What I’m wondering is for the 2x4s running front to back, were these mounted to the front and back 2x4s with some tilt included to help them sit flush with the remaining portion of the roof that they sit on?

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    1. Hi Jay,

      The boards running front to back along the sides I didn’t cut an arc into. I built the frame on the ground, cut the arc into the boards on the back part and then when I bolted it down I bolted back to front so it flexed the frame to the curve from the front to back of the van. Then when I clad the outside with tongue and groove I had to cut that arc into the bottom peice of T&G.

      Good luck! I’m excited to see how it turns out for you!

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