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The Inertia

If you’re interested in building your own pop top camper or learning functional and sustainable design philosophy from a DIY icon, check out Jay Nelson’s Guide to Building a Pop Top Camper.


A few years ago, a good friend of mine invited me and a few friends to try our hand at shaping a surfboard. It was an opportunity to learn about what goes into the process of creating functional surf craft and all that entails. We got to see firsthand the process of having a vision (a Mini-Simmons), drawing, designing, and hacking at foam to see if we could translate our vision into a tangible object that actually slides across waves.

We learned a lot through that journey. First, I learned that shaping a surfboard is terribly challenging. I learned my hands are clumsy and untrained. I also learned that creating something yourself is thoroughly rewarding. When that Mini-Simmons came back from the glass shop and I looked it up and down, I had never appreciated an object’s lines and imperfections more.

Then I put it in the water and caught a wave. It worked! Not only did it work; miraculously, it worked well. Now, when people ask about it (which happens a decent amount with a rectangular/soapbar shaped surfboard), I get to do my “I got to try my hand at shaping…” schpiel, and typically that facilitates a friendly encounter.

Which is all to say that the act of creating something yourself is thoroughly rewarding – from start to finish. And the finish doesn’t exactly exist, because new experiences nurture new ideas about the product and the process. It’s an endlessly rewarding cycle.

Jay Nelson Builds a Pop Top Camper

Jay preps materials for the build. Photo: The Inertia/Tyler Manson

In that spirit, we couldn’t be more excited to team up with iconic artist and builder Jay Nelson to launch his DIY Guide to Building a Pop-Top Camper. In this 27-chapter course, the San Francisco-based craftsman shares his philosophy on creating items that you will love and use forever while explaining his approach to building a pop-top camper on a 1994 Toyota Previa he bought on Craigslist.

“I am going to show you step-by-step how to build a camper that is geared toward the intermediate to beginner builder,” says Jay Nelson of his new course. “The goal in the end is for you to walk away with something that you’re proud of, something that’s handmade, and something that’s unique to you.”

Nelson is an award-winning artist, who has built out vans for Rob Machado, treehouses for Facebook, and beautiful installations around the world. Each project he takes on starts with a vision and a desire to build resourcefully and sustainably. Most of his projects consist entirely of salvaged or reused materials, which can make the builds more complicated – but also that much more rewarding.

“This project is about taking something that’s more affordable and turning it into a nice little camper versus buying something really expensive like a Sprinter,” says Nelson. “For me, it’s always about the project. I love the project, and I love the adventure of building them, and I love doing it myself.”

The dream of hitting the open road with just the essentials (surfboards included) in a self-sufficient vehicle to chase swell along the coast is fundamental to the surf experience. While the #vanlife market has been inundated with kitted-out vehicles that require about $100,000 to get rolling, we (Jay included) fundamentally disagree that the path to adventure is so costly. Put simply, it’s not. It just requires imagination and some elbow grease – something Jay Nelson knows a lot about.

“Buying things is easy,” says Jay Nelson. “The things that I really love in life are the things that I’ve made. “Those are the things that I want to keep around and that I can’t get rid of…I want to make everything myself – I want to make every single thing in my life myself, or at least as much as I possibly can.”

Beyond that, Nelson believes in the DIY process – that it has rich educational and personal value.

“There are moments where you’re unsure of yourself and you’re thinking you’re going to fail when you take on a project,” says Nelson in his new class. “Generally, I find that those moments are actually really important, because that usually means that you’re in uncharted territory. You think you might fail, and then you have to work through that. It’s a life lesson. It’s a really important thing to do.”

Jay Nelson Builds a Pop Top Camper on a 1994 Toyota Previa

Few things are as rewarding as the pride of building something for yourself. Jay Nelson teaches how to build a pop top camper in his brand new course. Photo: The Inertia/Tyler Manson

If you’re interested in building your own pop top camper or learning functional and sustainable design philosophy from a DIY icon, Jay Nelson’s 27-chapter course is a great place to start. The first 500 students save $50 with code JAYPOP50, so enroll now to start your journey. Jay’s course is solar-powered by Goal Zero.

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