I wrote this article on van high tops for my friend, Bob, last July. I never posted the full text here because it was on his site, but now I can’t find on it on his site because he’s in the middle of renovating it. Anyway, here it is for those who need the info.
Hi everyone! I’m Christine, and this is my van. Her name is Gypsy. I bought her last March, and I had the high top installed about a month after I bought the van. My boyfriend, Jef, and I plan to live in the van full-time as soon as we finish converting it. I get a lot of questions about the high top, so I’m going to try to be as thorough as possible.
I have a lot to say about this subject, so in the interest of communicating in a coherent manner, I’ve divided this post into three segments:
I. Gypsy’s High Top
II. Things to Know if You Are Considering a High Top
III. About Fiberine
I. Gypsy’s High Top
Gypsy’s top is a 30” camper top. It was designed by the manufacturer so that a bed could be installed in the space over the cab, and an air conditioner could be mounted on top of the roof. I will be doing neither of those things, but that doesn’t mean that the top will be any less useful.
When I purchased the top I did intend to put a bed over the cab, but a test run using some plywood and an air mattress revealed that the space was simply too small for two adults. There is only 26” of space up there, and it’s 55” wide. After putting in a plywood platform and inflating an air mattress, there was less than 18” of vertical wiggle room. That might be workable for a small child, but it didn’t work for us. It was very coffin-like—not that I’ve ever been inside a coffin, but that’s what it reminded me of. I kept hitting the walls and the ceiling when I moved around. Instead of a bed, we plan to use the wonderfully cavernous space for storage.
The photo above was taken after I put in the sound deadening and insulation. You can see the white areas that I left untouched. Those areas are being reserved for windows, which I plan to install myself later on down the road. It’s worth noting that I specifically asked Fiberine not to place any wood reinforcement in that area. I gave them specific instructions for where to place the wood reinforcement, and wrote out the a list of specifications. Here is one of the photos that I sent them:
With the high top installed, Gypsy now stands at 110” tall. She has the tallest high top I’ve ever seen on a van. Inside, I can stand up straight, and in some spots there’s a good ten inches of space between the ceiling and the top of my head. That said, Jef and I still haven’t gotten used to having a high top on the van. We usually walk around crouched over as if the van still had the original roof. And, of course, when we remember that we can stand up inside, it never fails that we try to stand up in one of the few spots that isn’t high enough to stand up in.
Here’s a photo illustrating how much room there is. For reference, I’m 5’5” tall, and this is the lowest part of the ceiling.
II. Things to Know if You Are Considering a High Top
I did quite a lot of research when I was looking at high tops. Most shops quoted me $2700-$3300 for an 18” high top, including installation. While it’s always tempting to simply go for the lowest price, you have to be very careful and very explicit in telling the shop what you want. I’d advise anyone considering a high top to visit the shop and ask to see real examples of installed high tops. Ask as many questions as you need to fully understand the details.
High tops come with a variety of options. It’s helpful if you know exactly what you plan to do with your high top before you order one, so that you can choose which options your need.
High tops can be purchased with or without wood reinforcement. Wood reinforcement is essentially just strips of wood embedded in the fiberglass. They provide a sturdy backing for anything that will be attached to the high top. If you are planning to purchase a high top solely for the purpose of having more head room in your van, then you will not need any wood reinforcement. However, if you are planning to attach cabinetry to the inside of the top, or mount an air conditioner on the roof, then you will absolutely need wood reinforcement. Lightweight solar panels may or may not need wood reinforcement, depending on how heavy the panels are and how you plan to install them.
The camper top that I ordered has an area specifically designed to receive an air conditioner, and therefore has extra of wood reinforcement at the rear. The sides, front, and back are reinforced with 0.5”x6” wood strips (except for where the windows will go), and the ceiling has three 0.5”x4” strips running down the length of the top. Here’s a photo illustrating placement of the wood.
Gel coat is a resin that is applied to fiberglass to provide a smooth, shiny finish. While gel coat does come in a variety of colors, most high top manufacturers offer it in white only. You may order your high top without the white gel coat, in which case, it will most likely come with a grey primer. You can then take the top to an auto body shop where they will paint it to match whatever color you choose.
High tops can be purchased with or without a liner. The liner is a thin fiberglass layer that provides a finished look to the interior. It’s smooth, easy to clean, and it gives the interior a polished look. Without a liner, the interior of the high top will look very much unfinished. It will be bumpy and unsightly. Some shops give you the option of having fiberglass insulation inserted between the high top and the liner.
The liner cannot be installed with wood reinforcement, so you’ll have to choose one or the other. If all you’re looking for is headroom, then you might want to go with a liner. If you plan to install cabinets, you’ll need the wood reinforcement, and you can plan to cover up the unsightly areas later.
Taller high tops (generally 24” and higher) can often have windows installed wherever you like. If you plan to add cabinets and windows, then you’ll need to specify where to omit wood reinforcement because wood reinforcement will get in the way of the window installation.
Part of the original roof can be left intact to help support cabinetry and other structures that will be attached to the high top. I chose to leave about 18” of the original roof at the rear because I plan to use that space for storage. Be very careful with the edges of the original roof. They’re unbelievably sharp, and they can be difficult to see because they’re so thin. Cover the edges with rubber tubing right away, and you won’t cut yourself as many times as I did.
At the front, most installers will cut just behind the first cross bar behind the driver’s seat. This is because most people don’t need a raised roof over the front seats, and will use this space for storage. If you have special requests regarding where to cut off the original roof, be sure to communicate that to your installer.
If you’re having a high top installed by a shop (versus doing it yourself), there are a few things you will most likely need to take care of prior to installation.
- Remove the seats. The people installing the high top will need to be able to move around easily inside the van, and seats will not only get in their way, but also stand the risk of being damaged.
- Remove the headliner. They’re going to cut a gigantic hole in the roof of your van, so the headliner will most definitely get in the way.
- Rust on the roof and drip rails should be addressed. The high top will sit on a 4” band around the perimeter of the original roof. Once the top is installed it will be impossible to get rid of any rust along that band because it will be covered by the high top flange, so if rust is a concern for you, get rid of it prior to the high top installation.
III. About Fiberine
My experience with Fiberine was 100% wonderful, and I feel totally comfortable recommending them to anyone who is in the market for a high top, or any other type of fiberglass product. They also manufacture running boards, shower pans, and fiberglass furniture.
Fiberine has been in business for over 30 years. They have plenty of experience with high tops, as evidenced by the stacks and stacks of high top molds taking up room at their shop. Here’s an abbreviated list of the makes of models of vans for which they can produce high tops:
- Buick Terraza
- Chevy Astro
- Chevy Express
- Chevy Uplander
- Dodge Sprinter
- Ford F-350
- Ford Transit Connect
- GMC Savana
- Nissan NV
- Toyota Sienna
- VW Vanagon
At Fiberine, manufacturing a high top takes 3-4 business days, and installation takes one full day. I mailed them a personal check on a Friday, they received it on Monday morning, and they started manufacturing my high top on Tuesday after the check cleared. They called me the that Friday to let me know that the high top was finished, and the very next week they installed it on my van. It was a very smooth process.
Fiberine does payment in two installments. The first installment is due at the start of work, and can be a personal check, cash, money order, or cashier’s check. The second installment is due when work has been completed, and must be cash, money order, or cashier’s check.
Fiberine’s products come with a 90-day warranty for defects in material and workmanship. They do not warranty the gel coat finish on their high tops, and they are refreshingly upfront about it. The kind of gel coat they use is not fully UV resistant, and can yellow and dull over time. Fiberine recommends waxing any gel coated surface 3-4 times per year to maintain the finish. I’ve had my high top for 3 months (my, how time flies!) and haven’t noticed any yellowing or dulling at all.
When I know that I’m dealing with a company run by nice people I feel better about forking over my hard-earned cash. Fiberine is family owned, and everyone there is super friendly, knowledgeable, and accommodating. Their work is excellent, and their prices are reasonable. I had a very positive experience with them, and I’m sure you will, too.
So there you have it. This was probably more than you ever wanted to know about high tops. Kudos if you made it this far. With that, I’ll wrap it up. Please feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions. firstname.lastname@example.org. Safe travels, everyone!