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How to renovate a caravan to live in 

Samantha and Herb, the couple behind the Instagram handle @hello_mr_pemberton, are no strangers to makeovers.

They have renovated a whopping 13 properties in their 20-plus years together.

In the middle of lockdowns in 2020, they decided to renovate and then hit the road full time travelling in a 1973 Viscount Royal caravan. Named Hunter, they brought the van back to life from a disused shell.

Here, Samantha shares their story and secrets to successfully completing a van reno, including fascinating video tour of the finished product.

Hunter is pretty as a picture. And just wait until you see inside...

Where did you find Hunter?

He was found on Facebook Marketplace. I had alerts set up on Facebook, Gumtree, and eBay. Competition was hot for old vans, and I had missed out on several and seen countless more that were unsuitable.

Once we decided we were going to renovate a vintage caravan, the real search in earnest lasted about two months.

Hunter was sitting in a paddock in Caboolture, just north of Brisbane, and was in a terrible state. But I fell in love, and we purchased the van for $2100.

When Samantha and Herb bought Hunter, he was in a right old state. 

What did the reno involve?

It’s probably better to ask what the reno didn’t involve! The only things we kept were the skin and the chassis. The chassis was in unbelievable condition for a caravan that had been so badly neglected.

Every single window was either smashed, glued shut, boarded over, or missing. The entire original structure had been stripped out, except for a few overhead cupboards and part of the kitchen. 

There was much work to be done.

A conventional single bed had replaced the original dinette, there was a canvas mural on the back wall, empty Milo tins had been converted into downlights, and the box over the wheel hub that acted as an inside toilet had to be seen to be believed!

The roof hatches were long gone and had been boarded over with old signs.

Every single thing in Hunter is new. From the internal walls and all the fixtures, fittings, wirings, and insulation to the Perspex in the windows, his new axel and tyres, supporting legs, jockey wheel, and gorgeous custom awning.

The old Hunter wouldn't recognise himself now, as you'll soon see...

How long did the reno take?

We were both working full time during Hunter’s renovation, and he was located at a friend’s house a 40min drive from where we lived in Brisbane.

We worked on Hunter ever single weekend, then in December 2020 I spent three weeks of annual leave working on him full time. We started in June 2020 and finally finished in January 2021. It was a full seven months and 800-plus hours.

The long road to renovation success.

What was the toughest thing/s about the process?

The hardest thing with a vintage caravan is nothing is straight or square. There are curves and weird corners and things poking out where you wouldn’t expect them to be. You can’t use the regular materials that we used in home renovations, as many of them are too heavy.

Being a Viscount, Hunter has an aluminium frame, so this was also a different medium for us to be working with. We had never worked with metal before, and there’s a whole new way of fixing things to it with rivets and self-tapping screws.

By far the biggest challenge in the whole rebuild – and most people will agree – were the windows. One was completely missing, and all the others had parts missing. They were glued shut, riveted shut, painted over, contacted over, and in such a mess that just to take the frames apart took us three whole weeks.

I took them home to our apartment and we used to work on them at night on our kitchen counter. There are even videos of me taking them into the shower to wash them off!!

Replacing the windows proved to be a massive challenge.

So, replacing the windows was the most tedious aspect?

By far! The parts weren’t available to rebuild them and when they were, they were incredibly expensive. We did outsource the Perspex phase, as Hunter has corner curved windows, and there was no way we were attempting to curve our own Perspex.

It was relatively easy to put them back in, until we came to the tedious stage of installing the window box winders that we painstakingly cleaned and restored. We did have to buy a few new ones, and this all really tested our patience.

Patience was tested, but here the reno is starting to take shape.

What was the easiest part?

For me, it was doing what I do well, and that is the design and interior fit out. I had a clear vision from day one of the colours, the layout, and the finish I wanted to achieve.

Hunter is exactly as the picture in my head, although poor Herb had to rely on my sketches and inspiration pictures from Pinterest and suppliers to understand the brief. I have a great imagination, and he was working blind most of the time!

Poor Herb was flying blind!

What surprised you?

Both the expense and the timeframe surprised us, and both were bad! Our budget was double what we thought, and our timeframe was just over double. We had initially budgeted $10,000 and three months.

The timeframe blew out, as we didn’t anticipate the steep learning curve and things going wrong.

We spent a lot of time on Instagram asking others their experience, and we googled and watched many YouTube videos.

We were totally immersed in the experience, and Herb said I became obsessed! But the result speaks for itself.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the handsomest van of them all?

What aspect/s are you most proud of?

We are so proud of the entire build. We love our modified Ikea flatpack kitchen, which is black, and we adore his striking, mainly black colour scheme. There is no mistaking us on the road with his name in big, bold white writing on the side.

Everyone else seemed to be using pastel colours, with white and rattan kitchens. While I love this look, we wanted something different and that reflected who we were and how we wanted to live. 

Paint it black: There's no mistaking Hunter.

I wasn’t even sure I would enjoy travelling in Hunter when we were building him. At one stage, he was just going to be a project to flip.

We wanted him to be a cross between our high-end apartment in Brisbane and a luxury hotel. We nailed it, even if we do say so ourselves!

Yep, nailed it.

What did you learn along the way?

Oh gosh, where do I start?! We learnt so much, both physically in terms of the construction and personally. Renovating a vintage caravan tests your relationship in ways that you don’t anticipate.

We were working full time, 50hr-plus per week each in very physical jobs and then every single weekend on the caravan, down the side of our friend’s driveway in the full sun with no garage or shelter.

The couple puts to bed any thoughts that a reno is an easy task. But the rewards are immense.

Everything was kept in the van. We had minimal tools and every single stick of timber was hand-cut by Herb with a hand saw.

Hunter was a passion project and a labour of love. We learnt so many new skills and have gone on to renovate other caravans with friends. 

Once again, the results demonstrate it's all worth it.

With time over, what would you do differently?

The only thing we would do differently is not work a full-time job and renovate every single weekend.  

Wouldn't change a thing.

Do you have any handy hints for renovating a van?

  • ‘Stalk’ the social accounts of vans you love
  • Ask lots of questions and do your own research
  • Do what you love and don’t follow what everyone else is doing
  • Shop around for bargain second-hand products where you can
  • Don’t go in and demolish everything – so much can be reused
  • Focus on one area at a time
  • Order your materials well in advance
  • Make sure you have a budget with a 25% buffer
  • Don’t compromise on quality to save a few dollars or hours
  • Live close to a hardware store!
  • Quality over quantity
  • Go in with an open mind

Tip of the day: Do what you love.

Finished product.

What’s your most memorable travel experience with the van?

We absolutely loved Tasmania. There is so much natural beauty there and unbelievable scenery. I look back on our photographs with such fond, fond memories.

Another amazing travel highlight is the animal encounters we have had, most of them in their natural settings.

And Mother Nature has also dazzled us with the most divine sunsets and sunrises.

Tasmania teems with seriously sensational scenery.

You’re on the road full time – how do you find that?

We love it. I never thought I would be saying it, but we can’t imagine going back to a bricks-and-mortar lifestyle.

We have retired and, as luck would have it, we then began another very special new project.

We have purchased a bus, named Mr Pemberton, that we turned into a mobile home. We started the project in January 2022 and completed it in a few months.

We now travel the Australian winters in Europe for six months and then travel Australia the other six months of the year in Mr Pemberton.

Goodbye, conventional living.

What do you most love about van/bus life?

We love the flexibility that no two days are the same. There is no agenda, nowhere to be, nothing to tie us down, and no one making demands. We wake up when we want, go where we want, and eat whenever we want.

If we don’t like a place, we can simply pack up within 30min and be back on the road to explore the next destination.

We have stayed in parks with million-dollar views, right on the water for $45 a night. We get to live like millionaires, without the price tag or the commitment.

Maintenance and cleaning are also minimal with a tiny home. There is nothing not to love.

Follow Herb and Samantha’s current adventures on Instagram @hello_mr_pemberton.

If you want to follow Hunter's adventures via its new owners, you can follow the van on Instragam @RestoringHunter.

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