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  • Writer's pictureEric

Astro Van quick bed conversion

Full disclosure: This post has absolutely nothing to do with children's poetry or literature or music. But I thought it might be helpful for someone out there searching the great internet universe for tips on outfitting their old Astro van for a bit of road tripping. Let me know if you stumbled upon this post and found it helpful.

This was not meant to be a "van life" sort of conversion in any way. We're not living in our van, only traveling on the cheap. No kitchen. No hideaway cabinets or surround sound or light-up dance floors. The only goal was to have a sturdy, comfortable enough bed surface that could be put away for a larger lounging area.

Ours is a '97 Chevy Astro. (I believe the GMC Safari is pretty much one and the same, yes?) It has been a workhorse vehicle for us and probably brings down the property value in the neighborhood. We originally bought it to more easily transport homestay students (and family and friends), but it's been primarily used for hauling plywood and sheetrock and bags of concrete mix. The thing is built on a truck body. It can handle it.

STEP ONE was the swivel seat on the passenger side. This was one piece where we didn't cut corners. It's carrying someone you love, for crying out loud! We went with a Made in the USA company that listed theirs as "Tested to Comply with DOT FMVSS 207 Safety Standards per sections S4.2, S4.3." It's heavy as heck (good!) and a bugger to turn (probably also good!). The one problem I ran into was that, even though we ordered specifically for the '97 Astro, the predrilled holes were not right for our van. I ended up installing it 90 degrees from how it was intended. That means the release handle is to the left of the seat instead of in front. Even with that, I still had to elongate two of the holes a bit for the sake of the bolts. I also had to remove the left passenger arm rest so the door would close easily when the seat is facing backward.

STEP TWO, we removed the middle bench seat and built rails to support the bed surface panels. This is when my table saw up and died, of course, so everything was constructed with the circular saw and miter saw and never came out exactly as I wanted. (My wife will tell you I'm a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to projects like these, and little flaws drive me nuts.) The rails are 2x4s and 3/4" plywood. (For the entire project, I bought one sheet of 3/4" ACX and used other plywood scraps I had laying around.) Steel rods protruding from one end of each rail slide into the bench seat's headrest holes. I drilled undersized holes about three or four inches into the end of each rail and slammed the rods into place. The right place for those holes, after accounting for the 3/4" thickness of the bed surface, thankfully fell right about midway between the plywood and the 2x4s so that, when I drove a few more screws through the plywood alongside the rods, I successfully sandwiched the rods in place. They never budged throughout a recent two week road trip. (If you look at the rail toward the back in the picture, you can see the 2x4s are in an L shape. Along with the plywood, that's more than enough stability since the box is really taking on the lion's share of the work. I'll add a photo of the underside of the rails at the end.)

IMPORTANT: You want the bed surface to meet the surface of the back bench seat when it is folded forward, so these rails were built to sit 3/4" below that. When the bed panels are put in place, the surface of the bed panels sit flush to the back of seat.

STEP THREE is the box. This was created using mostly scrap plywood and serves a few purposes. Most importantly, it supports the bed rails. It also stores linen and blankets. And it serves as a table when the bed panels are laid across it.

You'll see what looks like nonsensical notches cut in the long sides of the box. Those are there to help hold the rails in place and keep them from shifting side to side. They also keep the folded bed panels in place when your box becomes a table. I can't give you the exact dimensions of every cut. It just came down to identifying exactly where the box was going to sit and doing a lot of measuring and marking and leveling and cutting to fit. (Good luck?) The goal is for your bed rails to run perpendicular to the back bench seat and also run level to the floor of the van. The box needs to be wide enough so your three bed panels fit across it lengthwise when they're folded. Be sure to compensate for the knuckles of the hinges. My box width has an inside dimension of about 16 3/8"; 16" for the panels, 3/8" for the two hinge knuckles. Honestly, that came out a little snug. 16 1/2" would have been better. The two short sides of the box are about 2 1/4" lower than the highest points of the long sides. That's because I used 3/4" plywood for the bed panels which makes my three bed panels 2 1/4" thick when collapsed. I also attached stubby feet (plywood blocks, really) to the underside of the box. Those feet sit in the wells in the floor where the middle bench seat normally clamps down. They keep the box from sliding about.

STEP FOUR is the bed panels. The total surface comes out at almost exactly 4' by 4', so each panel is 16" wide. I hinged them accordion fashion with four-foot piano hinges. My wife and I are not large people. When adding the back surface of the rear seat, there's about 5' 9" of bed. My toes hang over the edge a bit, but that's all fine. If you're 6'4" tall instead of 5'10", well, this might not be a great solution for you. (Should I have mentioned that sooner?)

The bed panels are heavier than I wish. Probably 5/8" plywood would have been a better call. I used a dado bit on my router set at about 3/8" deep and removed a patchwork of squares and triangles from the underside of two of the panels in an artsy sort of way. It took far too long, but it also removed a pound or so of weight and was worth the effort (or so I tell myself). I also used the router to cut a shallow channel across each rail's surface where I realized the one hinge knuckle that points downward was hitting. You can see I've painted the outside of the box and attached chest handles. I'll soon paint the inside as well for the sake of keeping sawdust from the blankets. I also painted about three coats of clear urethane on the very edges of each bed panel because I found I was getting slivers now and again when moving the stack of them.

And that's about it! When you fold the bed panels, they sit in the box as a table surface. Spin the passenger seat, and you and the person sitting in the now upright bench seat have a table for eating, for playing card games, for putting your feet up after a long day's drive... Happy traveling!

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Gracie Johnson
Gracie Johnson
Oct 22, 2022

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