How Can We Help?

How to Install a Van High-Top From a Junk Yard

You are here:
< All Topics
1. Sandy's Van before the installation.

1. Sandy’s Van before the installation.

I’m at the RTR right now and I’m so busy I just haven’t had time to write a new post, so this is a reprint of a post I originally did a long time ago but somehow was lost and is no longer on the website. It’s the story of how a friend of mine, Sandy, installed a high-top from a donor van he bought at a junk yard.  I hope you get some ideas from it and I’ll have a post from the RTR soon.
2. Donor Van

2. Donor Van

Sandy is a great guy I met through the Vandwellers Yahoo group. He is one of those guys who can do just about anything with a set of tools. He had this 1986 GMC 1/2 ton Vandura (picture #1) but really to take pictures and share with me the details of how he installed it. You may be thinking, “I could never do a project that hard!” But Sandy breaks it down into smaller steps and really, anyone with a modicum of skills with tools could probably do it themselves. Let’s get started.

3, Donor roof elevated.

3, Donor roof elevated.

First, Sandy found the 1985 Chevy van with a high top to in the picture above to be the donor van. He paid $350 for the van and sold the tires off it for $150, so the van only cost him $200. The first thing he did was loosen the top off the donor van so he see how much of the roof he needed to cut off his van.
Removing the old top was straight forward. There is an extruded aluminum frame that holds it down. The first step is to remove the black trim molding on top of it. Start at a joint and pry off the molding. If it is in good shape you can reuse it, if not, buy a new one at any RV parts store, it is a standard item. Under the trim you will see the screws that attach the roof. Remove all those.  The caulking they used will still hold the roof on, so no worries about it just falling off. Using a putty knife, very gently cut through the caulking and then pry the top off. You can see in picture #3 that Sandy put 2X4 lumber on the corners to keep it elevated. The next job is to cut the roof off the receiving van, but before you can do that you need to know how much old roof to leave on for the new roof to screw down onto. So, with the donor roof elevated, you need to look to see how much the roof extends in from the sides.
4. Marking the roof.

4. Marking the roof.

Next he marks where he is going to cut. Using the measurements he took from the donor van, he measured in from the gutter and used a straight edge to make the long lines. For the curved lines he drilled holes to follow the curve and hand marked the curved lines.
5. Cutting the roof.

5. Cutting the roof.

In pictures 5 and 6, he cuts the roof off his van. This is something of a dramatic moment, the moment of no turning back! Everything you have done up to now can be reversed, but once you start cutting that roof off, you are committed. So take a deep breath, and let’s go!
6. You can see the two outside "fingers." The third is underneath ready to make another cut.

6. You can see the two outside “fingers.” The third is underneath ready to make another cut.

Most people will tell you to use a sawz-all, reciprocating saw, jig saw, or even a skill saw to cut the roof off with. And they will get the job done, but they are all going to create a lot of sparks and vibration, and will probably destroy some expensive blades. The tool Sandy used is an air chisel. It worked super well and he had the roof off in about 15 minutes without even the slightest problem. They can be bought for around $20 from WalMart or Harbor Freight. They do require an air compressor which you can rent if you don’t own one or can’t borrow one from a friend.
It has three fingers, with the middle one lower than the outside ones. The middle one goes down into one of the holes you pre-drilled.  The fingers are forced forward like a chisel by the hammer action of the tool. It goes trough the roof like butter. You can see the long, thin piece of metal it leaves behind as it cuts. It reminded Sandy of the old ham cans or Spam cans that used a key to turn and cut the lid off. The red stuff on the ribs is a foam applied at the factory that acts as a glue and sound dead-ener. Once you’ve made the cut on the roof, you have to go back inside and push the roof up and push a knife over the ribs and under the roof to cut through the red foam, then remove the roof. You still have to cut out the ribs. They are spot welded onto the body, so just use a mini-grinder or small angle-grinder to cut off the welds and then pop the ribs off (picture #8).
7. Roof with Ribs. Note the red foam on the ribs.

7. Here the sheet metal is off, but Ribs are still on. Note the red foam on the ribs.

With the roof off your van, you are ready to transfer the high-top from the donor van. First, you want to get the roof of your van very clean, and then clean the bottom of the high-top as well. Next, park the two vans close to each other, and run two planks across between them, then, just slide it over. Although the top is fairly heavy, Sandy was able to do this alone. Once it’s across and on top of your van, get it where it needs to go and put boards under the corners so it’s still up in the air.

8. Ribs cut out.

8. Ribs cut out. You may want to consider not cutting off one end of the ribs and sheet metal, instead leaving them on as a storage area. Sandy wanted to be ale to walk everywhere inside so he took it all off.

You will need two rolls of RV Mastic, one to go under the high-top, the second to go around the outside of the high-top. You can buy them at any RV parts store. It looks like a roll of flat putty tape about an inch wide. Buy the best quality they sell. With the high-top on blocks over your van, start to unroll the mastic and press it onto the bottom of the high-top. When you come to one of the blocks holding the top up, you will have to move the blocks to where you have already rolled the mastic. You don’t want the mastic to stick to the block so put wax paper between the mastic and the block.  When you’re ready to drop the high-top, first put a centering mark on the high-top and the van roof. Do this on the front and back so that you know the high-top is centered when it comes down. Once you know it’s centered, work your way around removing blocks and let the high-top down onto your van. It’s weight will seal the mastic.

9. Ready to transfer the roof.

9. Ready to transfer the roof.

Next, push the second roll of mastic into the joint where the high-top meets the top of the van roof.  Then place the extruded aluminum frame around the base of the high-top. You’ll see all the holes where you removed the screws holding it onto the donor van. Screw through those holes using #8, one inch stainless steel screw, through the mastic, and into the roof of your van. Then push the black molding into place (picture #12). This should be good enough, but just to be on the very safe side, Sandy used a very high quality caulking on the inside of the joint as well. Finally, take the van to a self-serve car wash and blast away with the high-pressure hose to see if there are any leaks. There shouldn’t be, but if there are, caulk around them really well.

10. Van ready to receive the roof.

10. Sandy’s van ready to receive the roof.

11. Applying outside mastic.

11. Applying outside mastic.

11. Applying outside mastic.

12. Applying black trim.

The upholstery on the donor high-top was old and ugly, so he removed it (pictures 13 and 14). He used a wire brush, knives and a heat gun. It is tedious work, but you just keep at it till the old stuff is all gone.

13. Removing old upholstery.

13. Removing old upholstery.

He reupholstered half the roof with cheap carpet he bought from WalMart. He used contact cement to glue it on. On the rest of the roof and the sidewalls he used one inch pieces of Styrofoam that he cut into 5 sections and covered with upholstery he bought at WalMart. He glued the upholstery to the Styrofoam using Borden’s Foam and Fabric Glue, also bought at WalMart. Part of his roof already had plywood attached to the high-top, so that is the part he covered with  Styrofoam. He just used screws and washers to attach the Styrofoam.


We hope you are inspired to consider doing it yourself. Sometimes the idea of a project seems so daunting that we don’t even consider it a possibility. Hopefully, seeing it broken down into small, easy, steps will show you that it is within the average person’s ability. So, if you are sick of stooping down in your van home, start searching junk yards for a donor van. Hopefully you’ll find just the right one!


I’m making Videos on my good friends James and Kyndal’s YouTube Channel. See them here:

Thanks for supporting this site by using these links to Amazon. I’ll make a small percentage on your purchase and it won’t cost you anything, even if you buy something different.



  1. Kevin

    Like the cost mention at the beginning. But how much does it cost to get rid of the van, now that it has no tires? or will he just keep it in the front yard? Think that junk yards will haul it away for no cost some times.

    • Canine

      A salvage yard with a rollback will pick that up at no cost. If he has a friend that has a flatbed trailer and a winch, they could go half and half on the cost of salvaging the rest of the van. You would get about $150 for the van. But then you have the trouble of disposing the antifreeze, oil, etc.; that can be very difficult.
      If you take the time to remove the battery, the cat, aluminum parts (radiator, intake,) etc. separately, then you can double that. Those are approximations, but it makes a big difference. You wouldn’t need a truck or trailer for this part.

    • Bob

      Kevin, I’m sorry but i don’t know. It sounds like Canine knows what he’s taking about so I’d trust him.


    Hey, great table! That shares a lot of important information really quickly.

    • Bob

      Thanks Falcon, I try!

  3. Tyrone

    I need some help on parts for my 1991 GMC Vandura Explorer 2500 van

    • Bob

      Tyrone, I’m afraid I’m not a car guy and can’t help you, but I’d srongly suggest joining my forum where there are many people who would love to help you and are great mechanics.

  4. Timothy

    This is Amazing.. Thank You so much for sharing.
    I just watched a great video of a Professional installation.
    and now seeing this.. Such a project seems very do-able, and is helping me consider different vehicles.
    Truly great.

    • Bob

      Thanks Timothy, that’s a friend that did that and when I saw these pictures it changed my mind as well!

Table of Contents