Meet Dayton Kohler, a mechanical engineer turned custom van designer. He uses his engineering background, SketchUp, and Fabber to create out-of-the-box van conversions at VanBuilders in Salt Lake City. Learn about the challenges he’s faced, the projects he takes on, and his ultimate fabrication workflow.
Tell me a little bit about your background, Van Builders, and your current role.
I went to school in Montana and got my degree in mechanical engineering. As soon as I graduated I got a job as a designer at a van conversion startup which is when I first discovered SketchUp. Once I started using SketchUp, I went to 3D Basecamp 2018 in Palm Springs to learn more about SketchUp and fabrication. In Palm Springs, I took Eric Schimelpfenig’s course on fabrication, which was super interesting and eye-opening for me and my workflow.
Currently, I work as a designer at VanBuilders in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was able to take all of my prior SketchUp knowledge from the startup and use it in my new role. VanBuilders focuses on converting Mercedes Sprinter vans for a variety of uses, the main one being recreational or outdoor adventure vehicles. We also outfit commercial vehicles. For example, we’ve converted vans for grocery stores to help deliver groceries to people. With the commercial vans, we focus on shelving and how to optimize the space for gear.
Dayton in front of one of his sprinter van builds.
In my role as the sole designer, I’ve been trying to standardize all of the components on our standard builds so we can quickly and efficiently convert vans. Before me, everything was custom work. Now, I use SketchUp to create all of our models as well as a process for standardization.
Another part of the business is working in conjunction with the Mercedes Sprinter dealership. Sometimes we will upfit vans they want to sell or rent.
From Mercedes sprinter van to custom van build.
What types of projects do you take on at Van Builders?
We work on a wide variety of recreational and commercial vans — my focus is on recreational vans since it requires the most design work. We saw a huge increase in van conversion projects when the pandemic hit because everyone was able to work remotely.
Most of the requests we get are from couples that want to travel regularly in comfort. These vans usually require a place to sleep, cook, and sometimes a toilet. These are a lot of fun to design because I can be very creative with the layout.
Getting creative with the layout with hideaway shelving, a place to sleep, a place to cook, and water storage.
Tell me a little bit about your SketchUp and CNC workflow.
Normally the salesperson takes down the customer’s requirements and then they hand that information over to me. I take it all and put it into SketchUp. I’ll design the layout and all of the different components.
From there, I do a design review with the internal team including my boss, sales, purchasing, and the shop manager. This is to ensure that all of the parts are presented including electrical, lighting and that it is something the team can actually build.
Once the team has reviewed and signed off, we present a few different design iterations in SketchUp to the customer. This is a very fluid process and we go back and forth on edits until they are happy with the final design. When we are presenting it to a client, I like to leave everything blank. I don’t like to show materials or colors because I don’t want to sway their design choices. Once they’ve made those choices separately, I will input them into SketchUp to help them see the final version. SketchUp really helps them visualize the final product.
Visualizing the final product with SketchUp.
Finally, the customer purchases, and then I begin to make all of the parts CNC-ready with Fabber. Fabber makes it so easy to go from SketchUp to CNC — there’s no rework, no learning curve, just super straightforward. At the beginning of my CNC journey, I reached out to Eric Schimelpfenig and he was kind enough to work with me through Zoom to get it all set up. With his expertise, I now have it all down to a process. Once the CNC is complete, I give all of the parts to the guys in the shop to assemble.
Assembling the CNC pieces.
“Using SketchUp and Fabber has reduced our wood fabrication and assembly time by 80%. It used to take weeks to go from design to production; now it’s just a day.”
What are some benefits of SketchUp in your workflow?
SketchUp is above all a time-saver. As I mentioned, it has reduced our time spent on wood fabrication and assembly time by 80%. It also has such a low learning curve that I was able to get up and running fast. When I first looked into CNC fabrication, it seemed like an overwhelming idea. There are so many different things you have to consider: software, CNC machining, speeds, and feeds, etc. With SketchUp and Fabber, I haven’t been overwhelmed at all and I am able to problem solve and put out fires fast. In addition to quick design work, I can also help the guys in the shop design a part real quick if needed. So SketchUp isn’t just helpful for me and my workflow, but it’s helpful for everyone at the company.
The whole shop in action.
Where the fabrication magic happens: the CNC.
What are some challenges you run into when fabricating these van conversions?
I’ve definitely had an overall learning curve to combat. My background is in engineering, not cabinetry design so I had a lot to learn from the guys in the shop. Also, designing for small spaces is a challenge. I can’t just design a set of cabinets, I have to design them to maximize the use of a small space. For example, if we have tall cabinets, I need to design them in two separate designs; otherwise, they won’t fit during assembly.
Getting into the design details with cabinetry.
What have been some of your favorite projects?
I have a few favorite projects. The projects I enjoy the most are the ones with a lot of guidelines; otherwise, I can spend days reworking a design or iterating different options. If I have a clear set of guidelines, like how the person will use their van, or what they like to do, I can design to those specifications.
This is one of my favorite projects because it was unique and it was the first time I used Fabber. This van was created to help distribute vaccines and test for various diseases. Since privacy was of the utmost concern, we designed around that with pull curtains separating the spaces out.
Another favorite project is one where we pulled out all of the design stops. The customer was heavily involved with the design and we were able to put in a few extra custom options. In the end, I feel like it was a van conversion that had the best use of space — the layout truly maximized the space available.
Any tips for people out there converting their vans for work/living?
Whether you are doing your own conversion, or you are having someone like VanBuilders do the conversion, you have to think about how you will use the space and what you will be using your van to do. It’s such a tight space that every inch matters. For example, if you are a surfer, you’ll need to make sure you account for room to fit your surfboard. Always, maximize the space for what you want to do.