The van we bought was a 1996 Chevy Express high top conversion van with a wheelchair lift. The good thing about buying a van like this is that many of them have some pretty nice amenities – leather seats, power windows and locks, etc. – and, of course, the high top. While we can’t fully stand up in it (or, at least, John can’t), it’s still much better than dealing with the lower roof of a standard van.

before-shot-wheelchair-lift-down

The bad thing about buying this type of van is that you need to gut it before you do anything else.

before-shot-1

Gutting our van didn’t end up being too difficult, but it still took up a few days of our time and energy when we could have jumped right into building if we had bought something like a work van. And we made some mistakes along the way that caused us some headaches later on.

Ripping Out the Interior

When we first got the van it was fully decked out with a TV, VHS player, speakers, fake wood accents, multi-colored LED mood lighting, the whole shebang.

before-shot-3

It was almost a shame to rip apart something so nice, but we needed to put in insulation, wiring and our own customizations so it all had to go.

selfie-with-tools

We began taking everything out as soon as we got the van home. We took our cordless drill and ratchet drive screwdriver and just started unscrewing every screw we could see.

taking-out-cubbies-from-ceiling

Before we knew it we were removing whole panels from the walls and ceiling.

ripping-apart-ceiling-1

It was actually much easier than we had anticipated. Removing the larger items like the built-in cabinets and the TV was just a matter of removing a few screws and unplugging some wires.

taking-apart-window-frames

And we got to have a little fun along the way smashing things with hammers and working together to yank sections out of the van and throwing them into the driveway in triumphant glory.

gutted-conversion-parts

Challenges: Bench Seat and Wheelchair Lift

inside-after-back-seat-removal-1

Our first challenge was taking out the rear bench seat. This was wired to an auxiliary battery so it could fold flat with the touch of a button. We first took apart the wiring then tried in vain to undo the bolts holding it to the floor. These things would not come out.

Finally our neighbor pointed out that it was probably bolted directly to the vehicle from underneath. John shimmied under the van to take a look, and sure enough there were bolts coming through the frame. Once we figured that out it was just a matter of teaming up to remove the bolts.

unscrewing-floor

Once we got everything out of the van we tore up the carpet and removed the plywood subfloor. Then it was just the wiring and the wheelchair lift remaining.

The wheelchair lift seemed intimidating so we tried to do everything possible to avoid removing it ourselves. We had read online that others had success selling their wheelchair lifts and having the buyer remove them, so we posted ads on Craigslist and Ebay. We also looked into donating it to a nonprofit. But no one was interested in an old used wheelchair lift, and we didn’t have time to halt our van build for long.

A friend of ours who is working towards living the same lifestyle told us he had removed a wheelchair lift from his bus. He came over with his angle grinder to help us remove ours, and it was actually much easier than we expected. It took us less than two hours to take the whole thing apart and get it out of the van.

angle-grinder-wheelchair-lift

Where Does All This Wiring Go?

excess-wires

Now we just had the wiring to deal with. When we gutted the van, we unplugged everything without giving it much thought, so we had a nest of wires and no clue where they connected to. Since we didn’t want a bunch of extra wiring in our van, we spent a couple hours figuring out what we needed and taking out everything else.

This could have been much easier if we had labeled the wires when we gutted the van. That way we would know what was part of the vehicle and what was just extra wiring. It’s easy to get carried away ripping stuff out, but taking a little extra effort to label everything can save you time later on.

The whole gutting process ended up being relatively simple. And we were excited to get on to actually building our van into a home!

100-percent-gutted

Tips for Gutting a Conversion Van

  • Label all your wires! This will help you figure out what’s vital (like tail lights) and what was just part of the conversion (like mood lighting).
  • Some parts may be bolted to the frame from underneath, so if a bolt is really giving you trouble take a look under the van.

We want to give a massive shout out to all of you for all of the love, support, shares, comments, etc we have received this past week in response to our first blog post! We can NOT thank nor love you all enough! You are all seriously the best!

We are so excited to have you all join us on this new adventure and life transition! Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram: @gnomad_home and on Facebook at: Gnomad Home. Hit us up for any questions, comments, suggestions, etc! We want to hear everything! Love and light to you all!

Enjoyed this post?

More Dope Sh...enanigans

  • Hello Great Read! Can you tell me more about how you disconnect the fuse box? or just more on how to disconnect tv/radio/outlets stuff from from the battery? Thank you!!

    • Hi Seth, thanks for reading! As far as what we did, we just followed the wiring as far forward as we could (to the point where it went underneath the driver’s seat), cut it, folded it over, and taped it off with electrical tape. Our van has a fuse box down by the driver’s feet, so my assumption is that wiring continues underneath the driver’s seat (and under the carpeting) and terminates at that fuse box. If you choose to fully remove your wiring, you may have to remove one of the front seats and possibly lift up the carpeting. But it should terminate at a fuse box, which is then connected to the battery.

      Your fuse box may have fuses for things you want to keep (for example, ours has a fuse for our motorized driver’s seat adjustment), so I would just remove the wires for things you’re not using. Hope that helps!

      ~John

  • Hey! Love your posts, since I just bought a similar high top conversion van (mine is just Ford instead of Chevy). I’ve basically gutted the entire van, and I’m hoping to rip out the wires today. I know you gave a tip a the end of this post to label the wires that you ripped out, but I’m a total noob, so I was wondering if you could go more in depth on the steps to remove the wires in the first place? Some wires I already cut in order to remove the object it was attached to. I cut those wires as close to the object as possible. But where do I make the “final cut”? Presumably they’re connected to the car battery? Do I follow the wires I need to cut there? Or do I just cut enough so that they’re out of sight and wrap the ends?

    • Hi Silver, I apologize for the delay in my response. I’m sure you’ve done this by now, but I will respond here in case others have the same question.

      If you are removing the object that the wire is attached to (such as speakers, mood lighting, etc), then feel free to cut the wiring. Our recommendation to label the wiring was so that when it comes time to fully remove the wiring, you will know what wiring was for items that you removed vs vehicle wiring you may need to keep.

      Where to make the final cut: The wiring *probably* runs up front to a fuse box, which is connected to the battery. If you choose to, you can trace the wiring all the way up front and disconnect it at the fuse box. However, this may involve removing one of the front seats, and removing wiring from underneath the carpeting in the cab. For example, in our van the wiring went underneath the cab carpeting, underneath the driver’s seat, and to a fuse box located underneath the steering wheel down by the driver’s feet. To remove all of the wiring, we would have had to take out the driver’s seat and lift up the carpeting. We chose not to do this, and instead traced the wire as far up as possible, cut the ends, folded them over, and wrapped with electrical tape.

      I hope that was a helpful explanation, and best of luck with your build!

      ~John

  • Hey, I wanted to know how long the gutting process eventually took? If anyone can give me an estimate timeline of the gutting process (I work full time and will have to separate it into blocks of 3 hours a night) I’d appreciate that!

    • Hi Manny, the gutting process didn’t take us long at all. We got the bulk of it done in a Saturday, and including removing all of the excess wiring it was a weekend project. Hope that helps!

      ~John

  • I see that the rear ac/heat is still in the vehicle. Is it still hooked up and functional? Or did you remove the lines running to it?

    I am in the process of building my own van(2002 gmc savana conversion van) and want to remove this thing. But, I am a bit nervious about removing the lines that run to it from the refrigerant and coolant.

    Any suggestions?

    • Hi Greg, we actually ended up taking ours out, but only because we had to cap the AC line to fix a leak. If you want to remove your rear unit, this is NOT something you should do yourself. The AC lines are under high pressure, and they need to be evacuated, cut, and capped by a qualified professional (we had to have a custom cap fabricated), then recharged once you’re done. This cost us a few hundred dollars in total. The heater line also needs to be cut and rerouted, but this is not under high pressure so you can conceivably do this yourself. Once you deal with all the lines, the unit should unbolt and come right out – then you’ll have to patch the big hole in the floor. Hope that helps!

      ~John

  • I have a 1994 GMC Vandura Tiara: where is the auxiliary battery? I want to remove the bench seat but don’t want it connected to the battery when I do it. Any tips on the removal?

    • Hi Carol, the auxiliary battery for our bench seat was just located directly under the bench seat in our van. Conversion vans are all different, though, so yours may be in a different place, or your seat may be powered by the starting battery (our van also had a wheelchair lift that necessitated a separate battery).

      If your seat is electrically powered, there should be a wire coming from it that connects to a clip-in wiring harness. Disconnecting this clip will cut the power to the seat. If you think it’s powered by the starting battery, you can also disconnect the negative battery terminal to cut all the electric for safety. Other than that, the biggest tip we have is that the seat is probably bolted to the frame, so you’ll probably need a second person under the van with a wrench to get the bolts out. It took us a little while to figure that one out, haha. Hope that helps and best of luck!

      ~John

  • Hi! I am curious as to what the roof (ceiling) was like once stripped? I have gutted a van with the same profile, but didn’t touch the inside roof. Did you find wasted space under the fabric/ lights? Were you able to get any additional height?
    I dont want to go thru the work if nothing is really gained. Once i cut into that fabric there is no turning back.

    • Hi Nao, any space that we gained by ripping out our ceiling we filled right back up with our own insulation and ceiling paneling. So if the main reason you would rip your ceiling out is to gain additional height, you probably won’t gain much. We ripped ours out so that we could put up better insulation (there wasn’t much to speak of behind our walls/ceiling), install lights, and put up wood paneling (we’re big on the homey log cabin feel). But if you don’t see the need to do any of those things, then keeping the stock ceiling can work fine and will certainly save you some time and effort – and get you out on the road sooner, which is always a good thing 🙂

      I hope that helps!

      ~John

  • Hi, I love all your tips and getting to read about the process of your van build. My hubby and I are just starting out and are very excited. I love how your home turned out and am trying to do the same thing. We have a ’96 chevy express conversion van similar to yours. I was just wondering how you guys got the seat rails/bolts out?? We have two rails. Any tips you can pass along would be wonderful. Happy roaming.

    • Hi Emily, so glad you enjoy our blog! We’re big fans of our ’96 Chevy, you should have a fun adventure building it out! Our van didn’t have rails in it, but it did have the rear bench seat. We had a tough time figuring it out at first, until we realized that they were bolted through the floor. Here’s how we got ours out: one of us was under the van with a wrench holding the nut to prevent it from the turning. The other person was inside the van, loosening the other side with a ratchet. If yours are bolted through the floor, then one of you will definitely have to hold the nut on the underside while the other ratchets from the top (or vice versa).

      I hope that helps! Best of luck with your build!

      ~John

  • Looks really good! My girlfriend and I are in the process of doing the exact same thing right now. What did you do with the wires that you didn’t need? (How did you remove them?) Did you cut them and wire cap them, or did you follow them all the way to the source and remove them from the battery? We are leaving some of the lighting on the top and the bundles of wires get quite complex when they all meet at the battery so we don’t know the best way to do this.

    • Hi Greg, welcome, and I hope this post was helpful!

      For our van, we thought it would be too complex to follow all the wires to the source, since they all went under the rug to the driver’s seat and we didn’t think it was worth gutting the cab to follow these wires. We just cut the ones that we knew we didn’t need and capped/taped them off. To figure out which ones we needed/didn’t need, we basically reverse-engineered them (i.e. figured out which wires go to the tail lights, etc.). Fortunately, all the vehicle wires were bundled together, and all the extra “conversion wires” were separated out a bit, so we were able to figure out what we didn’t need without too much trouble – but it would definitely be easier if we had labeled all the wires during the gutting process, rather than trying to figure it out later.

      Best of luck on your build!

      ~John

  • So I have the gmc that is just like the express. In fact, most of the parts are interchangeable. The top is also raised and have been considering stripping it out. Excet for the top! Is there any reason other than needing to insulate that I really need to.strip out the top? I don.t plan on visiting any cold areas with this van.

    • Hey Barbara, if you’re happy with the factory interior of your van then you definitely don’t need to strip it out. We gutted ours because we wanted to control how it was insulated, and also because we wanted to fully customize our interior with wood. But there are plenty of vandwellers who leave in the factory interior and just build it out with their own furniture. It’s totally up to you, and if you’re not planning on visiting cold areas then the factory insulation should do fine. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

      Hope that helps!

      ~John

  • Hi!! Can you tell me what you did to seal up the holes you made in the floor when you removed the frame! Ps. We love your blog and are going to be following a lot of your posts while we convert our 94 ford econoline conversion van! Thanks for being so awesome!!!

  • This is amazing. My GF and i bought a conversion van recently and we have been doing all the same things. It’s crazy. After months of research, buying a van, stripping it out and starting to plan out the interior we finally discovered this site. I was trying to find someone who had an idea how to mount solar panels to this crazy, curvy roof. I like your method. I will probably do something very similar. But i have a couple questions.

    What did you do with the holes in the floor after removing the rear bench and such? We stripped out most of what was behind the front seats and discovered 14 bolt holes that allowed us to see the driveway. We only removed 12 bolts so we are pretty curious what the other 2 bolt holes went to. We planned to do a vinyl flooring and purchased some dynamat for sound deadening, some pink panel insulation (XPS) and 1/4″ 5 ply to put the vinyl on. We live in a chilly climate and want a bit of extra insulation and it will provide some additional support for the 1/4″ plywood. We currently have protected the holes from rust and put fresh bolts and sealant back in them. We had to do something. We are expecting a few inches of snow today. Not really sure how to work around these bolts. Do we leave them in and allow our insulating foam to be crushed where the bolts are at? Should we get those holes welded? Just so much to consider.

    What are you doing with the carpet in the front? We cut straight across behind the front seats and peeled it all out behind that. We are considering a couple options; fresh carpet and even rubberizing the entire floor up front. If we carpet, how will we tack down the edge along the rear flooring? We are still working this part out.

    Also, our van has about a milliin miles of conversion van company installed wiring just like yours. Thankfully i was labelling all the wires when stripping. I can follow all the unnecessary wiring through the system as far as getting the the drivers door. I know there are more wires going forward and into the engine compartment. How did you get those out? Identifying the aftermarket wires is seemingly impossible. Or did you just cut and cap the ends of the pointless wires?

    • Hi Timmy,

      Thanks for reading! We also had a tough time finding anything about dealing with a conversion van topper (mounting solar panels, putting up a ceiling, etc). I hope what we’ve put together on the blog helps you in your build!

      To answer your questions:
      We actually left the holes in our floor open. Our van originally had a wheelchair lift in it, so we had holes for all the wiring to and from the lift that were already wide open, in addition to the holes for mounting the rear seat/seatbelts. None of the holes were rusting and it was all painted (…and we were newbies at this point) so we just left them as is. If I had to do it again I would probably plug them up somehow to make sure there won’t be any moisture getting in.

      I found this forum thread that talks about plugging the holes with Bondo (fiberglass), then painting both sides to seal from rust:
      https://www.sportsmobileforum.com/forums/f24/quick-question-rust-inhibitor-and-plugging-holes-3311.html
      That would be a flat patch so you won’t have to worry about working around a bolt. I also wonder if you could glue a bolt in with heavy duty adhesive (with the bolt sticking up from the floor) then use an angle grinder to cut off the excess?

      Good call on the Dynamat! We skipped that step and road noise is definitely an issue in our van.

      For the carpet, we also cut it right behind the seats. We joined it to the flooring using this seam binder from Menard’s (it’s metal with a wood pattern):
      https://www.menards.com/main/flooring-rugs/flooring-trims-edgings/m-d-building-products-reg-metaldecor-smooth-1-1-4-x-72-seam-binder/p-1444438736316-c-12603.htm?tid=8200167067314067937
      We used 1/2″ screws (the ones it comes with are a lot longer) and screwed it right into the flooring, overlapping the carpet.

      Right now we’re keeping the carpet up front, but whenever we have extended down time in one place we want to rip it all out, soundproof the whole cab (the road/engine noise is pretty loud) and lay down some sort of vinyl or rubberized flooring. We just don’t have the time at the moment, and we spent so long building our van that we want to enjoy it for awhile before we rip it apart again 🙂

      For the wires, we basically just cut and capped whatever we thought was aftermarket/unnecessary wiring right where it comes out behind the driver’s seat. I don’t think it’s totally necessary to try to follow it all the way up to the engine compartment. The big thing for us was just cleaning up the mess of wires in the rear of the van.

      I hope this was of some help, and we’re happy to answer any other questions you have. Good luck with the build!