Installing Custom Cabinets in Nacho Vanagon

When I was 13 I got a job at a vineyard in my hometown.  My job was to go around and pick the small elm trees that were starting to grow under the vines.  In theory this would be simple, like pulling weeds.  In reality it was a twisted Alighierian version of hell on Earth.  Elm trees are like the icebergs of the land; their root systems are extensive and deep.  Landbergs.  I was an illegal child laborer, so I was only getting paid $20/day.  What they needed was a tractor, not a schoolboy.  I quit that job after one day.

My naiveté when it comes to perceived work required versus actual work required extends to this very day, as evidenced by our decision to design and build our own cabinets for Nacho.  By the time we’d finished designing them, we were already in too deep to back out.  Nacho was gutted and the files had been sent to the woodshop.  No turning back now.  Sucker.

The boards came back from the CNC machine (basically a magic saw), and were ready to be sanded.  What? You mean they’re not ready to put together when they come out of the magic saw?  Nope, every board had to be hand sanded while being careful not to sand through the thin anigre veneer.

Once sanded and masked, we sent them back to Different By Design to be sprayed with finish.

The finished boards showed up and we went to work assembling them.  This meant first going through and manually drilling diagonal holes in everything for pocket screws, and then masking around all of the seams where we would be applying glue.  Not only would the three billion tabs and pockets act like Legos to hold our cabinets together, we would also be using gorilla glue and pocket screws.  It’s the “belt, suspenders, and bailing wire” method.

One by one, we put together the cabinet modules.  We put glue in the pockets and along the seams, fit them together, added the pocket screws, and then clamped the bejeezus out of them while the glue dried.

After many days of assembly we finally had several cabinet units that resembled the CAD models that I had created.  So far so good.

We did a test fit of the refrigerator, sink, and stove before putting the countertop on.  The benefit of designing these in CAD was that we could ensure that every cubic inch was put to use.  The fridge fits exactly up to the drawers, which fit exactly up to the water tanks, which butt up against the electrical box.  The stove fits over the drawers like a nicely placed Tetris piece.

The cabinet assembly wasn’t easy, but at least it was fun.  Designing the cabinets in CAD was fun for a few days, but got old after six months.  Sanding, drilling, and masking them was like a rusty spoon to the eye.  Assembling?  Kind of fun actually.  The next step was to install these Bad Larries in Nacho.

Everything fit perfectly in the van with the exception of the rear corner of the tall rear unit, which contacted the wall in an unexpected place.  After a bit of belt sanding it slid right in.

In all we built and installed five units; the under-seat storage, main counter unit, rear cabinet unit, spice rack, and overhead library unit.  The final result:

We completed this project just prior to our test trip to Baja.  Our main concern with the cabinets was that the joints would pop apart as the van body twisted.  We made them in modules and attached them all together such that they could flex, but you never know until you try.

The main test came on a day-long stretch of very rough dirt road on Baja’s gulf side.  Sheena tried sitting in the back of Nacho for part of the trip, but got sea sick as Nacho’s front wheels continually dove up and down over six-foot undulations in the road.   At one point our microwave was pitched out of its hole and crashed to the ground.  Wires broke apart in our engine compartment and our exhaust gaskets disintegrated.

But the cabinets?  They made it through with nary a creak or pop.  They may have been the only part of our setup, including ourselves, which made it through unscathed.  These cabinets are indestructible, just like landbergs.

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