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Time to complete project: 2-3 hours (could be more depending on complexity of your design)
Project difficulty: 3/5
Tools you’ll need:
Supplies for the rack itself (these will vary depending on the design used):
- Aluminum pipes
- Silicone waterproofing spray
- Aluminum t-brackets
- Aluminum flanges
- Round head bolts with nuts
- Aluminum nipples
- Aluminum caps
Your van is more than just your ride. It’s a statement about who you are, a companion on long adventures, and in many cases, it’s your actual home. If you want to make it as comfortable as possible, adding a DIY van roof rack is one of the easiest ways to improve your vehicle’s versatility.
Words of Caution: A roof racks will change the weight profile of your van. Too much weight on top can make the van less stable. Take a look at our post on modifying your build for more detail.
Of course, roof racks are also fairly expensive — unless you make and install one yourself, that is.
Regardless of whether you’re looking to attach solar panels or simply want more room for your stuff, installing a roof rack will be a decision you’re not likely to regret. And while it will take a little bit of know-how and elbow grease, the installation process can be done by just about anyone — no professionals necessary.
Even leaving the savings aside, performing the installation yourself will allow you to design a rack that’s custom-fit for the purposes you want the rack to serve. When you’re finished, not only will you have an incredible feeling of accomplishment, but you’ll also have a van that’s perfectly suited to your lifestyle.
How to Build a DIY Van Roof Rack
There are two basic steps to building a DIY van roof rack. The first is assembling the actual rack itself, which is easy and hard to screw up. The second is attaching it to your van, and that’s where you can get yourself in trouble.
Warning! Putting this rack on your van will require you to drill holes in the roof. If that makes you uneasy, or you’re a person whose credo is “measure occasionally, cut often,” you may want to either enlist the help of a professional or ask a more reliable friend to assist you.
As we stated above, this isn’t really all that complicated to do — but since it requires poking holes in your precious van, it feels like the stakes are incredibly high. There’s absolutely no shame in pawning the job off on a professional.
With that out of the way, let’s get started building a roof rack, shall we?
Measure Your Roof
There’s nothing you can do (or rather, nothing you should do) until you know the dimensions you’re working with.
Don’t do anything before you’ve measured your roof — don’t buy supplies, don’t drill holes, don’t do anything. What’s that behind your back? It had better not be a drill!
Once you know the size of your roof, you can start to plan the design. You may not want the rack to run the whole length of the roof, so tailor your measurements according to your needs.
Gather Your Supplies
With your measurements and design in hand, you have our permission to head down to the hardware store and start grabbing supplies.
This raises the question: what are you going to build the rack out of? There are two materials that are generally used for this sort of thing:
- Galvanized steel: this is the cheapest material, and while it’s incredibly durable, it’s also incredibly heavy. That puts a lot of strain on the roof — and that’s before you add on solar panels, camping gear, the vanquished bodies of your foes, or whatever else you’re toting around. It can also torpedo your gas mileage (which, let’s face it, means you’ll go from something like 4 mpg to 2 mpg).
- Aluminum tubing: while aluminum is usually more expensive than steel, it’s almost as strong and a heck of a lot lighter. This is what most roof racks are made out of, and it’s what we recommend you use.
How much tubing you’ll need will depend on your design and measurements (see, aren’t you glad we didn’t let you go to the hardware store before measuring the roof?). You can get tubing in the exact length you need, but if you use aluminum, you’ll find it’s also easy to cut with a miter saw.
You’ll also need a way to connect the tubing (our suggestions are on the materials list at the top of this article), and if you don’t have things like a drill or socket wrench, now’s the time to treat yourself.
Assemble the Rack
You should put the rack together before you do anything to the van itself. Fortunately, this step is easy and shouldn’t take too terribly long.
Unless you’re getting incredibly fancy, the finished design will probably be a basic rectangle of some sort. All you need to do is screw together some tubing with a t-bracket, and then connect the bracket with a flange (using an aluminum nipple over the bracket). If you have the skills, welding provides a far stronger join, so a superior option.
Assuming that the rack will extend the length of the roof (or close to it), we’d recommend using 3 t-brackets on each rack to better support the weight.
Clean the Roof
This will be the last time you’ll have unfettered access to your roof, so give it a good cleaning. You should also take this opportunity to treat any rust you may find up there.
Mount the Rack
Now for the moment of truth. This is the hardest part, and yes, it will require putting some holes in your beloved van. While you can do this yourself, we recommend grabbing an extra set of hands (and it would help if there were people attached to them), as you don’t want things sliding around at an inopportune moment.
Set the assembled rack on top of the roof and place it in the correct position. Then, using a pencil, draw circles around the flanges and mark the spots where the round head bolts will go. Set the roof back down, take a deep breath, and grab the drill — it’s time to turn your roof into Swiss cheese (this is a joke — we hope).
Using a drill bit that’s slightly smaller than the bolts you’ll need, drill all the holes you have marked. Put the rack back in its proper place, then put a bolt in all the holes in the flanges. We recommend coating the bolts with silicone waterproofing spray first (you’ll thank us when it rains, or when the vanquished bodies of your foes start to ooze).
You’ll need two people for this step, as one needs to be inside the van holding the nut on the bolt with a socket wrench while the other is on top screwing the bolt in. Once you’re done, you may want to give each of the bolts another pass with the waterproofing spray.
Once this step is complete, congrats! You now have a roof rack attached to your van! Now just be careful the next time you pull into your garage — you did measure your clearance as well, didn’t you?