Chewy the Vanagon

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In the spring of 2016, I was aching for a project. Seven months prior I built a simple sleeping platform in my 4Runner and was ready for a new challenge. For days I roamed Craigslist, looking for anything cheap that I could upgrade and live in. At first I was looking at old camper trailers like Shastas, but soon realized that a van would be more low profile while trying to live in Austin. I refined my search and was looking into vans for my next home. 

After many lost hours on Craigslist scrolling though every Ram van and econoline post out there, I came upon an add for a 1986 VW Vanagon. The post had one sketchy photo of an old faded brown, limo tinted, beat up tin can and I was in love. However, this was the opposite of what I was looking for. This van stuck out like a sore thumb; with jet black windows and stickers on the trunk from every "trip fest" you could think of. There would be no way to blend in with this thing.

I decided to still call and met the guy for a test drive the next day. The van barely moved out of the apartment complex parking lot that it had been hibernating in. I was hooked, just like everyone's first vanagon experience. I called my girlfriend, who was living in California at the time, and told her, "Alaina, I found it. I found my new van!". I went on and on about how rad it was and all the possibilities it held. After we hung up, I sent her the Craigslist add and awaited her reply. "If you spend all your money on that junk I will be so mad," is what I got. I was crushed. However, she only said "don't spend all your money." So I called a good friend of mine, Tim, showed him the ad and said "let's split the cost, fix this guy up and sell him." Tim was sold, he helped pay for Chewy without ever seeing him in person. The next time Alaina called I was fumbling through my new four speed trying to get home. When I finally made it, I got out of the van looked at Chewy, then said out loud, "Tim is going to be so f**king pissed." 

I didn't really have much of a plan going into the build. I watched a few conversion videos on YouTube, but that was about it. I knew I wanted to base the build off of a Westfalia, but in a totally unique way. With the help of another friend, Matt, we were able to quickly insulate and frame out a couch/bed design. The learning curve seemed quite steep at first, building and "unbuilding" because we were unsure of what to do next. We probably took apart the bed half a dozen times before we realized the best way to build was from the back forward. 

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My favorite surprise of the build was the lights. On our first late night of work, we needed some extra lighting to keep going so I looked in my friend's garage and found some string lights. After roping them around the inside of the van, we realized how awesome they looked in there. Even though they are very unconventional for this type of use and use more power than LED's, I had to have them in the van permanently. 

One of the most popular parts of Chewy's interior is the cedar paneling, which just so happens to be the cheapest part of the build. I found a local woodworker here in Austin who had tons and tons of cedar 2x4's that he let us load up for no cost. After ripping them down the middle with a table saw we nailed them to the panels with a brad nailer.

One morning I woke up and headed down to the garage to get to work and after opening the door I felt something was off. Everything was gone. I mean everything. At some point that night someone had come and loaded up their truck with all of our tools, waders, tools chests, the list goes on. We were crushed and confused. But after a case of Lonestar beer and some cursing, I called my friend Chris Sawey. He was kind enough to let us finish the build at his shop. To make up for the loss we created T-shirts to raise money for new tools. 

The build time for Chewy was about six months as I could only work on him two days a week. This was quite a bit longer than it would take me now, but this was the first project I had ever taken on.

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When we were finally done we realized we didn't want to let go of Chewy just yet. With the amount of tools I had acquired as well, it would be impossible to live in Chewy. So I got a place to live with a few friends on the eastside of Austin. My goal was to rent Chewy out on Airbnb. I did some minor landscaping that mainly involved pulling bamboo roots, making a gravel pathway, and an outdoor shower. I had little hope about people booking the van. But after three months and many amazing friends made, there were only 10 out of 90 days where we had no guests. With the cash made we were able to have a much needed shopping spree at Gowesty.com, picking up some new tires, rims, and suspension. 

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All in all this project was amazing. There were plenty of hot work days and times where we wanted to quit and cut our loses. However, the memories made from building Chewy are highly treasured. It's been exciting to see people's reaction to Chewy, which has led to him getting a bit of press. He was featured on HGTV's blog called "IheartHGTV" and Foster Huntington's new coffee table book called "Vanlife" which came out October 10th. 

Check back later for more stories about builds and trips!

Brett LewisComment