A beautiful camper van ceiling is one of the showpieces inside a van conversion. And that’s no surprise since the ceiling assumes such a large amount of interior real estate. When we invite guests into our van, one of the first things they often notice and remark on is our DIY ceiling.
The picture below highlights the ceiling of our camper van. It uses stained cedar tongue-and-groove planks and includes six LED lights and a ventilation fan.
This post will teach you how to build a ceiling for your camper van conversion. We discuss popular materials and review the different layers that go into a complete ceiling, including insulation and furring strips. Lastly, we’ll provide a nine-step installation guide to get your stunning van ceiling up and running.
Anatomy Of A Camper Van Ceiling: The Different Layers
A camper van ceiling is made up of several sections. Each part serves a critical function, from insulation to support to the outer aesthetic layer.
Layer 1: Sound Insulation
Like the van’s floor and walls, the roof is made of large sheets of thin metal. As a result, the roof vibrates and rattles while you drive, creating an annoying noise when driving for hours. You can dampen this vibration by adhering strips of sound-deadener directly to the sheet metal ceiling.
Layer 2: Thermal Insulation
The van’s roof will bear the brunt of the sun’s rays. This is where most of the heat during the day gets transferred into the van. Therefore, it’s essential to properly insulate the ceiling to slow down the transfer of heat through the roof to the van’s interior. We’ll show you how to do this with a combination of Reflectix and Polyiso foam boards.
Layer 3: Furring Strips
Although you could screw the outer ceiling boards directly onto the van’s metal frame, we don’t advise this. Not only are you creating new holes in your van, but the pull-out resistance of these screws will be low. This means, over time, your ceiling boards can come loose and fall out. By installing furring strips instead, you can drastically improve the pull-out strength of your screws, and we’ll show you a way to do this without drilling any new holes in your van.
Layer 4: Outer Aesthetic Layer
This is the van ceiling’s bottom-most layer, the part you will see daily. This layer will also hold the ceiling lights to illuminate the van’s interior. You can choose from several different ceiling materials here, and we detail the two most popular choices below.
Which Van Ceiling Material Is Best?
Natural wood is the most common material for the bottom-most part of a van’s ceiling (layer 4). Natural wood looks great, is widely available, and, assuming you choose the right type of wood, isn’t very heavy. Below, we discuss two popular van conversion ceiling options.
A thin sheet of plywood is the favored choice for budget van conversions. The material is thin, lightweight, and cost-efficient. Plywood is also easy to paint, so you can choose from thousands of colors for your ceiling. The biggest downside is that plywood doesn’t have the best natural-wood look. Though you could stain it, the overall look and feel aren’t the same as whole wood boards.
Tip: If you can find it, look for ‘Baltic Birch’ plywood at your local lumberyard. It is a higher-quality wood that is less prone to warping.
While many different types of wood boards are available, we recommend looking for ‘tongue-and-groove’ planks. These boards have specially designed edges that allow the planks to insert into one another to form an entire ceiling without edge gaps.
Tip: If your hardware store carries it, look for cedar wood tongue-and-groove planks. Cedar is relatively lightweight and looks beautiful both in its natural color or if you decide to stain it. We use cedar boards in our van and love the overall aesthetic. In the installation chapter below, we’ll show you how to install your own cedar plank ceiling.
Below are the materials you will need to install a ceiling in your van conversion. We’ll review these materials again in our step-by-step installation guide further below.
- Sound deadener mat
- Sound deadener roller
- Duct tape
- Polyiso foam board
- Furring strips
- Cross nuts (vehicle specific)
- Cross nut bolts (vehicle specific)
- 14 AWG wire
- Wire loom
- Zip tie mounts
- Cedar plank boards
- Wood stain
- Stain pad
- Trim head screws
- Miter saw
How To Install A Camper Van Ceiling In 9 Steps
We recommend these nine steps to install a complete camper van ceiling. Throughout this chapter, we’ll suggest the tools and materials you’ll need to complete this ceiling project.
Step 1: Add Sound Deadener Patches To Metal Roof
The van’s sheet metal ceiling panels vibrate and rattle while you drive, creating an unending noise when driving. Installing a sound-dampener mat can help reduce this noise and improve your driving. We also use sound deadener on our van’s floor and walls.
This hefty, self-adhesive mat sticks directly onto thin sheet metal, dampening the vibration and rattle while driving. Cut the mat into strips and place it on your van's metal floor, ceiling, and walls.
Sound deadener mats come in large sheets. You DO NOT need to cover the entire roof with this mat. Doing so adds unnecessary weight to your van and wastes money. Instead, use a blade to cut strips from this mat and adhere these strips intermittently throughout the roof.
In the picture below, we attached three 6″ x 8″ sound deadener patches in the center of our van’s roof panels. We would later apply another nine patches for a total of twelve throughout our van’s ceiling.
Install Tip: Use a wheel roller to ensure the sound deadener patches are pressed adequately onto the metal roof and create a firm seal. If not, you risk the patches falling off over time. The mat’s top layer has a raised texture that you must flatten with the roller for proper installation.
Step 2: Place Reflectix Onto Sheet Metal Roof
The van’s roof absorbs most of the sun’s rays, and the sheet metal gets hot. Without proper insulation, this heat quickly transfers to the van’s interior, heating the inside.
As a first layer of insulation defense, cut out and place single sheets of reflectix directly onto the sheet metal panels of the roof with strong duct tape. Reflectix, which is foil-enclosed bubble wrap, is a fantastic base-layer insulation solution because it reflects heat back toward the sheet metal and is a thin material that doesn’t reduce your camper van’s overall headspace.
Note: To those who would like to remind us that Reflectix does not work efficiently without an air gap, we hear you. But the Reflectix isn’t being pasted directly onto the sheet metal. When duct-taping the perimeter of the Reflectix sheet, there will inevitably be air gaps.
On the right-hand side of the below image, you can see the layer of Reflectix that we taped directly to the van’s metal roof. You can also see the small black strips of duct tape used to keep the Reflectix in place. We would recommend using A LOT more duct tape than we did here. You want to ensure that the Reflectix doesn’t fall off later in the future.
Tip: Don’t cover your van’s ceiling cross ribs with Reflectix. Leave them exposed because you will be adding furring strips directly onto them in Step 4.
Step 3: Add Polyiso Foam Board On Reflectix Layer
Next, we recommend adding a layer of Polyiso foam board on top of the Reflectix for additional thermal insulation. Polyiso foam boards provide an excellent level of insulation relative to their thickness.
Foam board thickness: Polyiso boards often come in 1/2″, 1″, and 1.5″ thicknesses. The thicker the board, the better the insulation value, but the reduced headspace you’ll ultimately have when your floor is completed. We used 1″ boards in our van.
Polyiso often comes in 4′ x 8′ boards and you can often find them at any large hardware store. Below is an example of what a foam board looks like. You must cut these boards down to fit around the curvature of your van’s ceiling.
In the picture below, we cut out a piece of foam board and taped it on top of the Reflectix. Like in the previous step, we recommend using A LOT more duct tape than we used here. Don’t be stingy!
Tip: Before you get to this point, you should have already installed your ventilation fan. I you haven’t, check out our Maxair vent fan installation guide.
Step 4: Install Furring Strips
Installing furring strips is the ideal way to build a ceiling in a van. The final ceiling boards will screw into these furring strips instead of directly onto the van’s metal roof to improve grip strength and pull-out resistance.
If you have an empty shell of a van, you should be able to see 4 or 5 metal ribs that run horizontally across the inside of your van’s roof. The cross ribs are to provide structural support to the van’s frame. The picture below identifies the five cross ribs in our van. We will install furring strips along each of these ribs.
There are two standard methods for installing furring strips onto these cross ribs: cross nuts and construction adhesive.
Method 1: Cross Nuts
Each rib should have several pre-fabricated holes punched through the sheet metal. Insert and install cross nuts into these holes and compress the body to create a firm grip on the sheet metal. Doing this creates a threaded anchor point for the furring strips to attach to.
Note: Different vehicles have different-sized pre-fabricated holes. If you have a Sprinter, Transit, or Promaster van, we provide the correct size cross nuts for your vehicle.
Our top recommendation for fixing plywood walls, ceiling boards, and furniture to your van's sheet metal frame. Different vans use different size cross nuts, refer to the links below to locate the specific size you need.
Once the cross nuts are installed, you can affix furring strips to the cross ribs by inserting a bolt through the furring strip and into the cross nut.
Learn more: How to install furring strips in a van with cross nuts.
Method 2: Construction Adhesive
For a simpler approach, you can adhere the furring strips to the cross ribs using construction-grade adhesive. Use a caulking gun to apply the adhesive directly to the furring strips and hold the wood onto the cross ribs until the glue dries. We recommend using support poles to keep the furring strips in place.
No matter your chosen method, the result will be the same with furring strips attached to your van’s cross ribs. In the picture below, you can see the white furring strips that we stuck to the roof of our camper.
Step 5: Plan Your Van Ceiling Layout
In this ceiling installation guide, we will be installing tongue-and-groove planks. But before we do, we recommend that you create a layout (digital or on paper) so that you know how long each plank has to be and where it will be installed.
The image below is the ceiling layout we created for our van conversion. Everything is to scale, including the length/width of the wood boards and vent fan dimensions. You can see the location of each of the wood planks we planned to install. In the diagram, the wood planks have alternating colors, but in real life, the colors of the boards will all be the same.
Unsure how to do this? Read our camper van layout creator post. You will learn how to create a ‘to-scale’ floor plan for your van conversion, which will help when installing your ceiling and furniture.
The diagram above also indicates the location of the five cross-rib furring strips in our van. (You can go back to view these cross ribs in real life). Where two planks butt up against each other is where a furring strip is located.
Design tip: If you are installing ceiling planks, we recommend starting with a single plank that runs down the middle of the van, from the back to the front. Once the centerboard is put in, add the subsequent boards toward the driver-side and passenger-side edges.
Add Design Details (i.e., lights and vent fan)
Creating a ceiling layout in advance also helps you plan the location of your ceiling lights and ventilation fan. In the ceiling layout diagram, you can see how we accounted for our six LED ceiling lights (black circles) and vent fan (grey square).
Step 6: Lay Out Your Electrical Wiring
Once you’ve completed your ceiling layout design, you should know where you plan to install your ceiling electrical devices, such as the lights and ventilation fan. This is important because you must lay out your electrical wiring to these locations before you put up the final ceiling boards.
You don’t have to have your electrical system already up and running. You just need to lay out the wires that will eventually connect to your batteries and ceiling devices.
Recommendation: For all your 12V ceiling devices, we recommend running 14 AWG wires inside a wire loom. The loom adds an essential protective layer that prevents the cables from getting damaged while the van is driving and experiencing constant vibrations. Anchor the loom along the van’s roof using self-adhesive zip tie mounts.
We DID NOT do this in our van and just taped our wires along the foam boards. It worked, but we don’t recommend it. We would use loom and zip tie mounts if we had a second van.
Step 7: Cut Holes In The Ceiling Wood To Fit LED Lights
Based on the layout plan you made in Step 5, you should know where the puck lights will be installed on your van’s ceiling. In our van, we decided to install four circular LED lights in the rear half of the camper and two LED lights in the front half.
Recommendation: If you haven’t yet picked out your ceiling lights, we recommend Acegood’s 12V puck lights. They’re easy to install on both plywood and planks materials, have a thin profile, and each light only uses about 3 watts of power. This means they won’t be a significant drain on your auxiliary batteries. These lights come in either a “cool white” or “warm white” temperature, but we recommend the warm white version.
We use 12 of these 12V puck lights in our camper van. They fill the van with bright, warm white light and only consume 3W per device. Slim profile means they take up minimal ceiling space. Easy to wire to batteries.
To install these puck lights into the ceiling, you will need to cut out holes in the ceiling wood. To do this, use a hole saw to drill a 2-3/8″ hole into the wood for each light fixture. This saw attaches to any standard power drill and lets you make precise, clean cuts in your ceiling wood boards.
When you’re finished cutting out the holes for each light, you should have something that resembles the photo below. In this image, we are about to insert the puck light into one of the holes we cut out.
Later on, we will show you how to wire these lights to the batteries in Step 9.
Step 7: Staining Van Ceiling Wood Boards
This step shows you how to stain your ceiling wood to turn up the vibrance and showcase the wood grain. However, if you prefer to keep the natural color of your wood and don’t want to change it, you can skip this step.
Pick Your Stain
There are many different stain colors to choose from. From Golden Oak to Mohoganny to Dark Walnut, the multitude of choices can be overwhelming. One important thing to know is that the example color you see on the stain label IS NOT necessarily how your ceiling wood will look in real life.
It’s wise to test your stains on some scrap wood first to see how you like the color. In this picture, we tested our stains on a scrap piece of cedar wood to see how the colors would turn out. Because we were mixing two different stains, we blended the stains in different proportions to get the exact shade we wanted.
We could not find a stain to produce the exact color we wanted. So, we mixed two different stains – Special Walnut and Espresso (3:1 mixture) – from Minwax to get our final result.
Once you select the correct color, you can stain your ceiling boards. For a consistent color across all boards, applying the stain with the same even coat to every inch of every board is critical. If you’re not careful, some parts of your ceiling wood can be darker than others.
Stain tip: Using a stain pad can help ensure that you apply a consistent and even amount of stain across the entire wood surface. These pads don’t cost very much and help to speed up your staining project and improve the overall quality.
After applying the stain, allow the stain to sit on the wood for about 5 minutes. Then, wipe off any excess stain with paper towels. In the picture below, we let our cedar planks dry overnight in the van.
Polyurethane top coat? Adding a layer of polyurethane with a foam brush after the stain has dried gives the wood a glossy finish and makes the wood scratch resistant. We did not add this coating since we wanted our ceiling boards to look more matted.
Step 8: Install Ceiling Wood Boards to Furring Strips
Once the ceiling wood boards have dried, you can attach them to the furring strips. This is a great time to go back and refer to the ceiling layout you created in Step 5. The goal should be to replicate this layout as much as possible.
We mentioned it in Step 5, but it’s worth repeating. If you are installing wood planks, we recommend installing a board right down the middle of the van’s ceiling. Be sure that this plank is equidistant from either side of the van. This ensures that every subsequent plank will run parallel down the van.
Can you spot them? Looking carefully at the five ceiling boards in the above picture, you can see the four holes we created with our hole saw. We will install the LED lights in those holes later.
To fix the ceiling boards to the furring strips, we recommend using “trim screws.” These screws have smaller diameter heads than traditional screws, meaning they’re not as noticeable once they’re fixed into the ceiling wood. You can even countersink the heads by 1/4″ to keep the screws out of sight.
If your ceiling boards are ‘tongue-and-groove,’ installation is straightforward. Insert the “tongue” edge of one board into the “groove” edge of another board and fix the boards to the ceiling with trim screws. By the end of the day, you should have a perfect-looking cedar plank camper van ceiling!
Tool recommendation: We recommend using a miter saw to cut your boards to the correct length. Miter saws make perfectly straight cuts, which are essential if you want a clean look when butting up two different ceiling boards together.
Pull Through Your Electrical Wires
As you install the ceiling boards to the furring strips, be sure to pull the electrical wire out of the loom and through each puck light hole. If you zoom into the above picture, you can see how roughly 6 inches of wire is sticking out of each hole. In the next step, we will attach the lights to these wires and insert the lights into the holes.
Step 9: Wiring LED Lights Into the Ceiling
You can install the puck lights now that the ceiling boards are installed. The LED lights we recommend already come with thin red and black wires attached to them. You will need to connect these wires to your 14-gauge wires using butt connectors. Refer to the below image and see how a single butt connector is used to connect the black wires together.
We recommend using Wirefy-branded butt connectors. After inserting and crimping the cables you want to connect, activate the included heat shrink with a heat gun for a solid connection.
Once you’re finished connecting the puck light to your existing wiring, insert the lights into your ceiling boards. And that’s it!
If you want to learn more about all the details to wire the puck lights to your auxiliary batteries, check out our LED ceiling lights installation post, where we provide another step-by-step guide and helpful wiring diagrams.
Van Ceiling FAQ
Both plywood and tongue-and-groove planks are some of the best materials for a van conversion ceiling. Plywood is perfect for beginners and budget-conscious builders, whereas tongue-and-groove planks offer a better aesthetic look, especially when finished with an oil or stain.
For general lighting purposes, LED puck lights are a fantastic choice for camper van ceilings. These lights have a thin profile, are easy to wire, and consume minimal electricity. At 3 watts per light, puck lights don’t demand too much energy from the leisure batteries.
We recommend following our 9-step ceiling install guide. First, you will install the sound and thermal insulation layers and set up the furring strips. Finally, our post will show you how to install tongue-and-groove planks to the furring strips for a clean and finished look.
The Final Result: A Beautiful Cedar Plank Ceiling
Once all the cedar boards are installed, the final result should resemble our photo below. We love our tongue-and-groove cedar planks and wouldn’t change anything about our van ceiling build. And these ceiling boards have held up nicely during all the thousands of miles we’ve driven.
Though this install project might seem daunting at first, we’re convinced you build your own stunning ceiling for your DIY van conversion if you go slow and take a methodical approach to each step.
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