I don’t know about you but our trips typically revolve around two things: our chosen activity and food. We love food. We love to eat and we like to cook. Cooking was a bit of a chore with all of our cooking hardware in a big bin. We needed a better solution.
Thanks to the internet, a few hours of searching led us to something called a ‘Chuck Box’, presumably named after the Chuck Wagons of old. In the Boy Scout world these are often called a ‘Patrol Box’. Many chuck boxes are simple in design and materials. Many are also quite large, even requiring their own trailer when cooking for large parties.
Our 2008 Ford E350 AdventureVan is only so big and the platform I build for storage and a bed was built with these bins in mind. As it is, we can store four of these 24"x16" bins with storage on either side and room for the kids to sleep partially under the platform as well. In other words, we have four 24"x16" equivalent spots to play with when thinking about ways to improve our cooking system. Also of note, our plat form allows for 15 inches of vertical clearance.
I considered taking up two of these spots by making one larger 24"x32"x15" chuck box. I considered several designs but most of them were taller than 15". I spent a lot of time thinking through various designs and use cases. I decided that being able to have a self-standing chuck box was nice to have but not required for this first iteration. I determined my most important use cases to be the ability to cook out of the back of the van and the ability to cook off the end of a picnic table or similar surface.
I took inspiration from various images I found online and decided to ere on the side of simplicity. My initial sketch was relatively close to the final but I decided to add doors that were not the whole height of the box.
Many of the reviews and builds I read or watched complained about the weight of the final product because they generally used birch or maple plywood, which is beautiful but heavy. Many also used 3/4" plywood which is even heavier. I determined that I didn’t need the strength of 3/4" plywood, so I decided to use a lighter weight 1/2" and 1/4" plywood to save weight.
As I’ve stated before, when it comes to carpentry I am a hack of the ‘good from far but far from good’ variety. Because of that, I made a lot of mistakes during the build. I also like to blame the weather which caused me to rush a few times since I need to work outside. I thought I would be cool and cut things oversize and trim them down to their final dimensions before glue up. Well, I forgot that step and glued up a box too big to fit under the platform. Because of that I ended up cutting off some from the back, front, and top.
I also initially tried corner joints that were too complex for my skill and for the integrity of the plywood I used. In the end a simple rabbit joint worked best as it is both simple and strong enough for me and the plywood.
When it came to the back I determined that it was just as easy to allow it to open as it would be to seal it. So I altered my design a bit to allow for a fold down door-platform on both the front and back which allows those seated at the picnic table to reach in and grab a cup or utensils easily.
As you can see, the platforms are large enough for two butane burners allowing more flexibility when cooking. I often just use one but have used two simultaneously on occasion.
Another mistake I made was to make my two doors the exact width of the opening thus not allowing enough space to actually open the doors. This turned out to be a happy accident though since it allowed me to utilize the full depth of the box on the right side, as well as underneath, for longer items like paper towels and a large frying pan respectively.
After a couple of trips using the chuck box we have made a few small arrangement changes and I still want to build a drawer for the middle section to hold cutlery. Having this chuck box removes so much of the running and digging around that caused me a lot of stress when I was trying to get dinner ready while the kids were off playing. It took me about 12 hours of build and assembly time, largely due to the fact that I was both designing as I went and making some significant mistakes. If I were to need to build it again I expect it would take me about half that time.
My outer dimensions were very limiting and dictated by the existing structures in the van therefore the end product is a result of those dimension constraints and the two main use cases of using either out of the back of the van or on a surface. I highly recommend building one for your van assuming you like cooking outside as opposed to inside your van.
Even though I have a fair amount of time invested in this project it has already dramatically improved my food prep experience.