How To Build A Wooden Truck Camper
Want the secret to building a sturdy truck camper faster than you ever thought possible?
Build your truck camper out of wood!
Many people assume (and even insist on believing) that a wooden camper could never be as good as one made of fiberglass or aluminum. And that’s complete nonsense!
In fact MOST small campers and RVs are primarily made of wood. They may be skinned with something else, such as an outer layer of fiberglass or aluminum sheeting, but the internal framing is generally made of wood.
Here are some advantages of wood construction:
- Wood is the least expensive option by far.
- Wood is extremely easy to work with, even for beginners with little construction experience.
- Wood is not only readily available, but is easy to find, even for free.
- Unlike metals, wood is a very good insulator, meaning wood construction will keep you cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
And contrary to the common assumption, wood construction isn’t necessarily heavier than with other materials — it depends on how you design the structure. In fact, if you actually look up the weights of campers made of different materials, you may be surprised to discover that within the same price range, even campers advertised as “lightweight” campers are often about the same weight as all the others. That’s because raw material strength is closely related to its mass. Take “lightweight” aluminum for example. For an all-aluminum frame to be the same strength as an identical steel frame, you’ll need a lot more aluminum — so much more that your aluminum frame will wind up nearly the same weight as the steel one! The weight savings from aluminum depend on using an advanced framing structure that takes advantage of aluminum’s properties… and that advanced structure typically costs quite a bit more.
The same applies to building with wood. A wood structure can also be made to be very lightweight using some advanced engineering and expert craftsmanship using combinations of hardwoods, composites, creative geometries, and interesting laminates. (More on that in a moment.)
Then again… another way to keep things lightweight (if that’s really something you need, maybe because you have a tiny truck and no desire to upgrade your suspension) is to keep things really simple and not load the *inside* of your camper down with heavy furniture! And yet another way is to make a short camper or use a popup design that requires less wall material. In the end it’s not the choice of material that makes the difference — it’s in how you design it.
So how do you design a wooden truck camper?
Any design starts with defining your priorities, i.e. your “design criteria”.
- How “Easy” does it need to be to build? ie. How much construction and woodworking experience do you have? (Even beginners can make a wooden camper with lumber, but the more woodworking experience you have, the more creativity you can employ to eliminate unnecessary bulk and make it look more like a work of art than a “shack”, if that’s what you’re into.)
- Do you need it to be lightweight, or would "average camper weight" be fine for your needs? (There are countless "average weight" designs to choose from. An ultra-lightweight design will limit your construction choices quite a bit.)
- How complex of a camper do you need? A simple bolted-on box design is really easy. Once you start adding features like a cabover, rear extension, popup, demountable (slide-on) design, lightweight construction, aerodynamic construction, windows, skylights, slide-outs... each choice alters your construction options, sometimes quite a lot.
- What's your timeframe? This will limit your design choices way more than you could ever anticipate. Unless you already have an idea in mind and have the experience to know exactly how to accomplish it, up to 80-90% of your "construction" time is going to be consumed by research and shopping. Some of that research time is going to come *after* you've started construction, when you put something together and realize it's not going to work the way you hoped, and you need to research and rethink things. So you need to take that into account if you have a short deadline like a week or a month -- ex. If you have only 20 hours available to plan and build, then figure to spend 16-17 hours researching, planning, and shopping for something super-simple you can build in just 3-4 hours! (It's possible. I researched my somewhat-complex cabover + extension + popup build for 1 month, planned and shopped for 1 week, and built it in 3 days. My secret: I kept it simple.)
- Do you need it to be "pretty"? That's actually a biggie. The less you care about looks and needing to impress others, the quicker you can build it, and the more money you can save, by a huge factor. Though I actually have quite a bit of artistic skill, for my quick-and-dirty truck camper, I specifically sacrificed looks, because I wanted not just to save money, but to be able to say, "I made my wooden camper for less than $250 in just three days." And now that I'm full-timing in it, I have all the time in the world to think about ways to make it look nicer, should I ever be inspired to do so.