Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Building a Comfortable Sofa Bed in a Van

Most vans I see have a similar layout: the bed at the back, and the kitchen near the sliding door on the side. I don’t like this layout because, even though the area beneath the bed is used for storage, it closes off half of the van. The bed cannot be converted, like with a sofa bed. There’s very little room to sit inside on a rainy day. You can’t walk from the front to the back of the van.

I built my wood-cabin steampunk van to have a sofa facing the sliding door, which pulls out to a full bed. At first, I tried using the smallest Ikea couch/sofa-bed I could find. But this wasted far too much space (due to awkward angles), and it was hard to convert the couch into a bed because of the limited space. Eventually, I decided to build my own sofa bed.

The results greatly exceeded my expectations. We prefer sleeping in the van to just about anywhere else, and find the bed to be more comfortable than our furniture at home. It takes less than thirty seconds to convert between sofa and bed. The whole thing cost less than $200 to build. Here’s how it works.

Inspiration

Many sofa beds have hinges, springs, and other contraptions. I was wary of being able to build something too mechanically complicated. We looked for inspiration and thought of stacking/nested coffee tables:

Nested coffee tables served as our inspiration.

When stacked, the two “tables” can act as a bench. Then we could pull out the top “table” to create a full bed. The main difference is that the legs of the top table needed to be the same height as the bottom table, so that the two were the same height when placed side-by-side.

It all sounded good in theory, so I began prototyping.

Prototype Sofa Bed

A quick prototype consisted of:

  • 2x pieces of 0.5″ thick top plywood, each 72″x26″
  • 4x pieces of 0.5″ thick side plywood, each 26″x17″
  • A couple extra support legs (each 17″ tall)

When put into “bed mode,” the two pieces of top plywood made for a total bed size of 52″x72″ (very close to a full-sized bed, which is 54″x75″). I had an old memory foam topper lying around to serve as a temporary mattress:

Below the couch you can spot some temporary plastic shelves. I built it to be a bit on the tall side (17″) not only for the storage space, but because it left enough room for our dog, Azuli, to sleep underneath.

Fixes and Improvements

I soon realized I had overlooked an important detail: keeping the two halves of the bed together so that they did not slide apart. To accomplish this, I added metal dowels to the supporting legs. These small metal rods insert into the top sheet of plywood, which is reinforced with a small piece of metal to keep the wood from breaking.

There was definitely some trial and error that went in to this, but by the end, the bed felt very sturdy. It doesn’t move at all, even if I dive/jump on to it at night.

Related: Building a Wood Cabin Steampunk Van

When I bought my van, I had almost no experience in carpentry, construction, or electrical engineering. Yet I was determined to build it all myself. Two years later, here are the plans for my cozy steampunk wood cabin van.

Seat-Belts and Drawers

Sometimes, we want to be able to bring a friend or three along on a trip. To achieve this, I purchased three seat-belts. I used very heavy-duty bolts (1/2″) to affix the seatbelt, bottom bench, and wall together. The seat-belts sit atop the bottom bench, near the back, hidden when not in-use.

I also added 4 stacks of 2 drawers underneath the bench:

sofa ben van cabinets
Installing drawers beneath the sofa. You can also see how the legs of the couch create a nice facade for the cabinets.

Later, I realized that horizontal drawers (facing left/right) in the van can be very annoying when driving. The swaying of the van side-to-side causes these drawers to open very easily. I ended up iterating through many different clasps, magnets, and locks while trying to keep them shut. The best option ended up being a standard barrel-lock, though it’s still a bit annoying to remember to lock them before leaving.

The Final Product

The final touch was two foldable mattress toppers. Each is almost exactly the size of one half of the bed.

These foldable mattress toppers fit perfectly.

One is attached to the wall with velcro when in “couch mode:”

van sofa bed
The completed sofa bed in “couch mode” while we drive

It’s no exaggeration to say I like this bed more than any I’ve ever slept in. The 0.5″ thick plywood provides a firm base, and the 4″ mattress toppers are just enough to make it comfortable. The majority of the cost was the mattress toppers themselves, at about $150 for two of them, plus another $40 or so in plywood and hardware.

Oh, and Azuli’s bed fits underneath.

Azuli pokes her head out for sunrise in Shenandoah National Park.

About the author

(zane) / Technically Wizardry

I've been a game designer, startup founder, and @Airbnb for 6+ years. This blog documents my hobbies of building a vanlife van, "magic" home automation, and interesting software to control it all.

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