Knowledge guide

Installing a Slatted Ceiling in a DIY Cargo Trailer Conversion

Installing a Slatted Ceiling in a DIY Cargo Trailer Conversion

Selecting a design for the ceiling is an essential part of building your own cargo camper conversion.

After all, you spend a lot of time looking up, and the ceiling casts a natural design over the rest of the interior build. An ugly ceiling will draw the eye and overshadow any other beautiful design elements you have chosen.

Let's dive into designing and building a ceiling for a DIY cargo trailer conversion.

Choosing a Design for Your Cargo Trailer Ceiling

When Cait and I looked for inspiration for our ceiling, we again turned to the van life community.

Vanlifers are famous for their ceilings, and we came across a lot of fantastic designs. Let's take a look at some of the techniques we considered.

The Easiest Cargo Trailer Ceiling: Paneling


A simple panel ceiling is one of the first designs we considered. It's cheap, easy, and immediately gives you the "wood look." if that's what you are going for.

However, we also quickly rejected this design because, well, we think it's ugly.

We knew our design would heavily feature natural wood grains. The paneling just has a manufactured look.

Another cheap option may be to simply use ¼ inch Baltic birch plywood as it's a much more natural and beautiful material. A little stain, and you might just be in business.

Bead board may also be a good option, given its shape and design. It comes in large panels and is more sturdy than cheap paneling.

The Most Common Cargo Trailer Ceiling: Cedar Planks

Cedar planks are by far the most common ceiling we came across, and it's easy to see why. It's quick, simple, and a breeze to work on.

There's also the added benefit of that rich cedar smell if you choose to go with true cedar.

There are other materials worth considering, though. Shiplap and tongue and groove pine are other cheaper, similar materials.

To install planks, all you need is a furring strip on the roof to mount to, and you're in business.

The Most Beautiful Cargo Trailer Ceiling: Stained Slats

We immediately fell in love with and then settled on a slatted ceiling design with a black background that shows through the slats.

This is undoubtedly a more challenging design, but we loved the look it gives the entire interior.

The clean lines draw the eye and set a nice tone for the remainder of the build. It also seems to make the space look bigger somehow.

Regardless, we settled on this design and set it to work. Let's walk through the build steps.

How to Install a Slatted Ceiling in a Cargo Trailer Conversion


We won't lie. Building and installing a slatted ceiling was the most challenging job we've done so far on our DIY cargo trailer conversion.

We certainly took most of our inspiration from the van life folks, which we realized after the fact is a much smaller space to build. Whereas a van has about a 5x8 foot ceiling space to cover, our ceiling needed to be a whopping 7x14 feet.

We did take a lot of advice from Vanlife Sagas over on YouTube. Check out their video before you get started.

Step 1: Measure, Measure, Measure

The first step is to take your measurements. Note that the flooring is not the exact dimensions of the ceiling. Our ceiling, in particular, has a slight curve to it which added some challenge.

Using a partner, measure all the available ceiling space. Note that we intended to do the shower ceiling in a different, more waterproof material, so we went ahead and framed out the shower to design our ceiling around it.

Step 2: Design the Panels & Backing

After you have your measurements, take some time to plan the layout and familiarize yourself with the materials.

For our materials, we used cheap ½ inch plywood as the backing and lovely ¾ inch birch for the slats themselves. We used a total of 3 sheets of birch and 3 sheets ½ inch for the entire design.

It wasn't until we went to take the measurements that we realized that we would need to split our design into 4 panels. We also learned that we needed to cut a hole for the fan in the corner of one of the panels.

Here is the layout of how our backing panels looked in the design phase:

When designing your panels, make sure you consider where your ceiling studs are as you will want the seams to be right over the studs to properly attach. You want to make sure there is overlap at your seams.

Here is what our design looked like when placed up against the studs. Notice that the highlighted center stud covers the seam near the fan in this top-down view. Those vertical boards indicate where our ceiling studs are.

Step 3: Design the Slat Layout

Planning where the slats are attached is vital because you want your seams to be covered so the design appears continuous.

Start by covering the major seams and outlining the fan hole. Look at the image below to see the first four slats we laid. Notice the design is flipped over here.

Trailer (10).jpg

From there, space out your slats a half-inch apart. Note that they are 2.5 inches wide, so to estimate how many you need, measure the space you need to cover and divide by 3 (2.5-inch slat plus 0.5-inch space).

Here's the finished design:

2021-08-09 13.14.25.jpg

Step 4: Cut the Lumber

Now that the planning step is out of the way cut your lumber!

Start by cutting your backing pieces. We used ½ inch regular old plywood for this. Since it's mostly covered and the only visible is painted black, you don't have to worry too much about imperfections.

Once you have the backing cut, use some handhold tools to hold them in place and make sure they fit on the ceiling properly. We used these from Harbor Freight which worked nicely. You can find them on Amazon as well.

If you have to do any trimming on the backing, make sure to revisit the design if you have to shorten the slats or make any changes.

Lastly, cut your slats. We used a table saw to make our slats from birch plywood.

We saved a lot of money by making our own slats rather than buying individual 2.5-3 inch pieces. We were concerned that the sides of the strips would look funny once hung, but we are very pleased with the outcome. You can't even really see the sides once it's mounted.

I don't think I would attempt to make these cuts without an extra person. The total sheet of plywood is heavy, and many fingers have been lost in table saws.

Step 5: Paint & Stain

Next up is painting. We used some leftover black paint from painting our basement ceiling, but any old paint will do. Most of it will be covered anyway.

Layout your sheets and roll on a nice coat. It will probably only need one coat.

The staining is a little trickier as there are lots of splinters to catch your rag or brush even after sanding. We found the most straightforward method was to lay out a bunch of pieces side by side to stain then turn them up on the side while stacked to do the sides.

Make sure you put it on thick on the sides. It really absorbs a lot of stain there, and we have some light spots. We used a classic golden oak stain.

Step 6: Cut Slats and Attach to Backing

Cut your slats to size with a miter saw. Make sure to leave some room at the end of the sides with seams for cross members. Check out the image below to see what I mean.

We totally forgot to leave this small gap, and I ended up going back with a skill saw to cut off that little ¾ inch from the end to re-expose the backing, and it was a massive pain in the rear.

When you're ready to mount the slats, remember to start from the seam and leave some overhang so the seam will be covered entirely.

Start at one side and make your way to the other, gluing and nailing the slats to the backing. This was by far the trickiest part of this entire job, and we developed many great tips and tricks for this process that we outline in the next section.

Step 7: Hang and Mount Ceiling

The last step takes the most muscle. It’s time to hang the completed pieces.

Note that this step is why we break up the ceiling into sections. The whole thing would be simply too heavy to lift and mount all at once.

This is absolutely a 2-3 person job, and an absolutely essential tool was a few of these quick support rods, which makes this a doable job.

We found it easiest to pick up the piece to the lowest height the rods extend and hold it steady while we slowly clicked the rods upward until the piece was flush with the ceiling. Then, back off the tension enough that you can shift around the pieces.

IMPORTANT: Make sure you have your electrical wiring for your lights ready to go! The ceiling is pretty snug, and it will be hard to get your wiring in place, even with a wire puller. We cut long enough pieces of marine-grade wire to hang through the holes and off the side so we could go back and get them wired in later.

Finally, use long screws to attach to your furring strips once the piece is secure and placed correctly. We used extra long screws that were long enough to go through the furring strips and into the steel ceiling joists for extra strength.

Now, take a step back and look upon your work!

Slat Ceiling Build Tips and Tricks

After doing this project, we learned a lot that should make this easier for you. Take a look at this list of build tips.

Support Structure and Planning

  1. Ceiling Joists: The ceiling is heavy. That means your support joists have to be very sturdy. We recommend going overboard with attaching the ceiling furring strips to the steel roof supports. We attached ¾ inch plywood using 3-inch screws as our furring strips. I figure we probably put about 6-8 screws in each board about 12 inches apart. I literally held on to each strip with all my body weight to make sure they were secure.
  2. Seams: I mentioned this above, but just to reiterate, make sure the seams of your ceiling will overlap your furring strips on your ceiling. We really almost missed this obvious step.

The Fan Hole

Finding the hole for the fan was really tricky, and I'm sure someone with more construction experience could probably discuss a better way to do it.

We used the hand-lift poles to press the cut piece that was set to overlay the fan hole against the ceiling and hold it in place. Then we took a pencil and marked all the edges on the furring strips, and used our best guess to mark where the fan hole would be on the ceiling piece.

Then we set the piece on the floor and used the marks to measure the fan hole on the ceiling and transfer those measurements to the ceiling piece. For example, the hole was about 4.5 inches from the mark on the closest furring strip to the left of the hole. So we started the hole on the ceiling about 4.5 inches from the left side of the ceiling piece.

Our hole was close but not perfect. But we are satisfied with it.

Attaching Slats to Backing

  1. Securing the first slat: Make sure that the first slat is absolutely perfect before permanently attaching. If you get the first piece wrong, the entire sheet will be off by those millimeters. We measured the distance needed to get the overlap and used clamps to lock it in place.
  2. Spacers: Use some 0.5-inch pieces of wood as spacers between the slats as you lay them down. This is much better than trying to get every piece lined up. Just push up against the spacer, and you're good to go.
  3. Nail gun from the back: Put wood glue on the back and press it into place, then use a nail gun to pop into place from the underside. But putting nails in from the back, all your nail holes are hidden.
  4. Chalk your lines: Before you start gluing and nailing, lay out all your slats using your spacers and have them in about the exact place, they will be. Then use a pencil to mark on the edge of the backing the center point of each slat. Then, remove all the slats, flip over the backing and use a chalk line to mark the centers of each slat onto the backing. Then, flip back over and start laying out the slats. Now, you have a nice red line that marks where your nails need to be! This was a lifesaver for us. We didn't do this on the largest piece in our ceiling, and it was hard to line up the nails. Note I cover this in our video at 8:32.

Mounting the Ceiling

  1. Support Rods: You HAVE to get some of these quick support rods. I wouldn't even attempt to mount the ceiling without them.
  2. Lift first, position later: Once you get the pieces pressed up against the ceiling with support rods, you can then focus on shifting them around. Get them lifted first, then worry about exact placement. Make them snug using the rod, then loosen and adjust as necessary
  3. Run your light wiring: Don't forget your lighting! You must at least get your wiring in place for your lights. The ceiling is pretty snug, and it will be hard to get your wiring in place, even with a wire puller. We cut long enough pieces of marine-grade wire to hang through the holes and off the side so we could go back and get them wired in later.

The Final Product

We are VERY pleased with how our ceiling turned out. It is an absolutely stunning addition to the build, and it really made the trailer start to feel finished.

Let us know if this guide helped you, and good luck with your own trailer ceiling.

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