In the past two days I've gotten some incredible energizing advice from people with exactly the experience I need to hear from. The first is Kyle Durrie of Power and Light Press and the second is Mary Morgan at Seredni Tire on Lakeside.
Kyle Durrie made a truck, called the Type Truck or Moveable Type, that is very close to my vision for my studio - the closest thing I've found, actually. There's a little intro to it here if you want to see more - check it out, it's so so cool! If this project (or another) takes me to New Mexico I definitely want to visit her current printshop which appears to endlessly generate bawdy and playful printed goods.
Kyle got on the phone with me yesterday and answered a bunch of my questions about buying and converting a step van with the intent to work in and out of it. Most of my questions amounted to: "is this a bad idea? you did it - would you do it again? is this a bad idea?" ... so most of Kyle's answers were "yes, it's fine, you can do it, it's fine, you should totally do it, it's fine." I felt a little silly at the end, because I realized that I knew more than I thought and was worrying more than I needed to. To quote Kyle, "definitely hold onto a healthy amount of fear, but don't be afraid."
Some notes from my conversation with Kyle Durrie about the Type Truck, converting a step van, and kickstarter funding:
go for big windows
trust the person you are buying from. lots of maintenance records is a big key
max speed was low, but that's not bad - it's a lot of truck to be driving, and going fast is let important than keeping control
a step van is really loud to drive
beware of low clearance!
a big water holder and a cooler were enough, but she wasn't washing a lot of paint etc... no other 'amenities' or plumbing of any kind.
trucks go on lifts (sometimes) but some garages have pits to get under them. (I didn't know that was a thing!)
shell out to get professional building inside it - it's worth it to make sure everything is stable. (I actually came across another mobile studio trailer which was more DIY, and they had horror stories of cabinets shaking apart on the road.)
kickstarter worked well, but it may have been a timing/trending hotspot of kickstarter itself and printing presses both being very popular. reward fulfillment is always harder than you expect.
connect to a specific community
a travel plan is also popular, plus a broader spectrum of people could personally access and benefit from the project
electricity from 2 golf cart batteries hooked to charge from the engine ran lights and other misc. for maybe 2 days worth of power. alternatively, a conventional RV plug is good when you're in an RV situation.
no big problems with it being an older truck, generally
she successfully found an insurance company that would work with her for a reasonable amount... eventually (but who?)
one day the (currently non-functional) type-truck.com site will come back! as a devoted creeper, I can't wait!
To get back from plans to reality, I talked to Mary Morgan today - she's a mechanic with about 35 years of experience working on commercial vehicles who has agreed to look over some of the listings I've saved. I've never shopped for a car, let alone a big truck, and I know there are pitfalls that would be easily avoided with a little know-how. Mary is very straightforward and down to earth with her advice - it's a huge relief to find her.
Before our talk, this was my list of viable vans, culled from maybe hundreds of possible vans found amongst thousands of listings on five or six search sites (and craigslist, and ebay). I'm always afraid I'll miss something, so I tend to over-research, if you can't already tell.
In about 20 minutes we'd whittled it down to 6 possibilities, with 2 top runners. I'm going to keep prowling the new listings, but I feel like I have a much better handle on what to look for.
Some notes from my conversation with Mary Morgan about what to look for in a cheap step van on Craigslist:
"P30" in a vehicle listing or VIN means that it's a 1-ton truck
a 1-ton truck is way more weight than I need, and built to carry more weight than I'll have
you can tell how heavy-duty a truck is by the lug bolts: 6-8 is heavy duty, 5 is lighter
always take the time to roll under a truck I'm checking out - check for rust on the gas tank and floorboard, as well as built up grease or oil
RVs are a nightmare to work with, avoid
look out for blue smoke
test drive - is it all over the road? does it feel like it's driving itself? bad bad bad
'aluminum body' just means the box - the chassis (everything underneath) is still rustable
something sitting for longer than ~3 months is suspect, as is anything with ~300,000 miles
anything made around or before '84 has a carburetor system and I'll need to learn about how to start it and tweak it.
if I get a manual transmission (not out of the question), one that goes down to the floor is much simpler than the dashboard ones, since the parts for those are totally antiquated, hard to work with and hard to find.
newer tires have a date code on them: 2815 means that the tire was made in the 28th week of 2015. tires should last for 6-8 years before the rubber starts getting cracked/unsafe/unstable.
lots of short trips isn't great for the lifespan of a vehicle, so if something has a lot of mileage and was only driven short distances, many things are probably worn out or gunked up.
Next steps: email all the possible van sellers, keep hunting!