By Jenna Lookner
CUSHING — Standing outside a well-appointed woodworking shop housed in a picturesque Cushing barn, it's as easy to admire the scenery as well as the impeccable craftsmanship underway inside — and outside — Eli Ellis's shop. One thing stands out most prevalently: a shiny black GMC cargo van nicknamed Jinx, which sports a custom interior fit for the finest wooden yacht. The catch? Jinx was outfitted on premise.
Jinx is the firstborn for AWOL Adventure Rigs, a company that Eli Ellis and business partner Tyler Vroman established. And building custom adventure vehicles is part of their new venture.
Jinx was completed in 2017, and the vehicle has already traveled to the West Coast and through the Southwest. It was back in Cushing for a few more modifications and the installation of additional systems at the request of the client.
"It all started with this one," Ellis said, gesturing toward Jinx.
Since the completion of Jinx, Ellis and Vroman have outfitted a Mercedes Sprinter van and they are now getting started on another. The projects start with new, empty cargo vans that present a blank canvas. So far, clients have ordered the vans, and like Jinx, many will be outfitted with four-wheel drive. Jinx is outfitted with both a Quigley 4WD conversion and solar panels on the roof.
Jinx boasts breathtaking woodwork and functional, artfully designed cabinets and compartments, each clearly purpose-built. Its finishes are more reminisce of a classic wooden boat than a camper van. Everything has a function, but the design and function are incorporated seamlessly, blending aesthetic appeal with a functional, rugged vehicle that is prepared to carry its occupants wherever they might desire to go.
Ellis and Vroman are both experienced woodworkers with respective backgrounds that count boatbuilding among them. They both plan to focus their attention solely on AWOL.
"After doing custom work for 20 years I was looking to focus exclusively,” Ellis said. “This came along and seemed right.”
He added that the uptick in van culture, including the popular hashtag #vanlife, have opened up a great interest in adventuring on the road and "the simplicity of the cruising lifestyle."
Ellis met Vroman approximately five years ago through mutual friends.
Vroman had previously built a vintage teardrop camper of his own, having moved to Maine to attend the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship.
Vroman worked in boatbuilding for approximately a decade, and put his skills to use at Lyman Morse Boat Building and Front Street Shipyard, where he learned fabrication skills and systems design. Previously, Vroman spent six years doing custom woodwork as an artisan at William Evans Fine Handmade Furniture.
"I wanted to focus on this; there's nothing else like it," Vroman said.
Both Ellis and Vroman acknowledged that there are many campers and adventure-type vehicles available on the market.
"They are a one-size-fits all," Ellis said. "By contrast, our work is custom and has a handmade ‘Made in Maine’ feel. Because our background is in boatbuilding we are able to bring that marine aesthetic into the vehicle."
Ellis and Vroman said that 2018 is a year for growth and organization, all set to the backdrop of their current projects.
"This year is about building a portfolio and building our brand," Ellis said.
The duo added that an article that appeared in Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors garnered them a project.
"Media coverage lends itself to word of mouth," Vroman said.
Ellis and Vroman said that so far they have been presented with Sprinter vans and Chevy cargo vans as "canvasses," but he maintains a very open mind about the type of projects that AWOL would explore with a client.
"We decided on the word ‘rigs’ for a reason: we're interested in working on any kind of adventure vehicle," Ellis said.
"I like to think of it as the art of the possible," Ellis said about creatively outfitting vehicles of varying sizes and designs. He said that design and options vary depending on the vehicle a client begins with, but that he and Vroman are willing to explore and get creative to meet client needs.
The same approach goes to working with different clients to build the rig they've envisioned, Ellis said.
"Some clients are very involved and love to participate,” he said. “others check in monthly. All of our clients are different.”
While AWOL is in its infancy, Ellis and Vroman know they have broken into a niche market.
"Even the Mercedes dealership was happy to have a custom outfitter in Maine," Ellis said.
And the dealership was set to deliver a Sprinter for a new client that afternoon.
Since the waiting list for new Sprinter vans can be as long as a year, and AWOL is a specialized company with Vroman and Ellis as its two employees, planning is an important aspect on all fronts.
"It's just us, one client at a time." Ellis said with a smile.
"I think the best work is done this way," Vroman added.
Jenna Lookner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org