“What would you do differently if you had to start over?” is one of the questions we get asked to most. Well, we ARE starting over (we just got a new van!), so it’s a good opportunity to reflect on what we could do better. First and foremost on our list of lessons learned: Getting the right tools for the job. Don’t get us wrong, it’s possible to convert a van with just basic tools; our first Ford Transit van conversion is the proof you actually can (we basically just had a circular saw, jigsaw, drill, and we did it!). However, there was a lot of frustration and time wasted. This time our goal is to enjoy the build process more (instead of just focusing on the end result), and work smarter and faster. And getting the right tools (and learning how to use them) is a good starting point. So below is a list of the tools we use for our DIY van conversion: the essentials, but also the less-essential that makes our work easier and better.
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1- About Us
We both have engineering background, so it’s fair to say we’re in our comfort zone planning and designing. But we have limited experience actually building stuff with our hands. We learned a lot during our first van conversion, but it did not turned us into experts. So if you’re looking for pro-tips and for the right techniques, there are excellent YouTube channels dedicated to woodworking (and such) hosted by professionals. But if you have limited experience building stuff and you’re interested in seeing how “normal” people with “normal” tools can do it, then stick with us 🙂
2- Lesson Learned From Our Previous Van Conversion
The most sophisticated tools we had during our first van conversion was a drill, a circular saw and a jigsaw. We didn’t have a dedicated workspace and worked outside (for the most part), rain or shine (thanks to our awning), sometimes below freezing temperatures and in the snow. As a result, hours were wasted trying to make straight cuts, searching for lost tools and hardware, etc. Needless to say, it made it difficult to fully enjoy the build process.
For our second build, we paused our full time Vanlife and were very lucky to find an apartment with a small garage space. The van doesn’t fit in the garage unfortunately, but at least we’ll be able to do some work inside and create a neat little workspace.
A clean and organized workspace = happy builders! Less time is wasted searching for tools and hardware, productivity is increased, and ergonomics is better. All of these provide a boost of confidence and is empowering! Our workspace is small and simple, but hey it’s a temporary setup (until we hit the road full time again) and it’s already a huge improvement compared to our previous van conversion 🙂
DIY Workbench Plans
We needed low-cost and easy to make workbench, so we came up with this. The frame is 2×3’s lumber (the cheap stuff from hardware store) and the top/shelf is 5/8″ plywood (more or less thick would work too). The two workbenches are identical, and together they fit nicely with the 4′ x 8′ pegboard. Here are the workbench plans:
Below is a list of the tools we use for our van conversion. The essentials, but also the less-essential that makes our work easier and better.
Power Drill/Impact Driver
A power drill is primarily used to drill holes, but it can also drive screws in most applications. It exerts a constant torque (constant rotational force) to rotate the drill bit. Compared to our impact driver, speed is easier to control and there is a torque limiter, so it’s more adequate for “delicate” jobs.
Impact drivers are high-torque (and high speed) tools primarily used for driving screws and tightening nuts. When additional torque is needed, it exerts a repeated rotational impact force (50 times per second or such) and forward thrust (impact). This creates more torque and helps drive screws/nuts much faster than a drill. Impact drivers are also more compact than power drill.
Which one do I need?
Impact drivers excels at high-torque applications (e.g. building a deck, screw in concrete, etc.), which is not really the case when building van. So if a power drill is what you got, it’ll do just fine. But if you got a power drill AND an impact driver, you’ll appreciate not having to switch between a drill bit and a screwdriver bit each time you have to pilot & screw (a pilot hole is when you pre-drill a small hole before driving a screw into the material. It prevents cracking the wood). We went with the DEWALT power drill/impact driver combo because it includes 2 batteries (which we can use for several other tools) and it’s a great value.
Power Drill Accessories:
A jigsaw is a must for converting a van! As opposed to a track saw (or circular saw) which can make straight cuts fast (and precise), a jigsaw is great for more detailed cuts (i.e. not straight). It’s one of the first tool you’ll use (to cut the roof for the fan installation), and you’ll keep using it for almost every projects involving cutting wood or metal.
Metal cutting (roof fan, windows, etc.), or any project involving non-straight cuts through wood (bed platform, cabinets, etc.).
- Nibblers, shear or multitool can also be used to cut sheet metal, but the versatility of a jigsaw is hard to beat.
A miter saw is great at making cuts (cross cut, miter cut, bevel cut, compound cut), precisely and quickly through boards (e.g. 2×3, 2×4, etc.). Compared to a circular saw, it is much faster, accurate, and repeatable. It excels at making perfectly accurate 90-degree cut (the most common cut). However, as opposed to a circular saw, it cannot make long cuts (for example, our DEWALT 7-1/4″ miter saw can make 8″ cut max).
Bed platform, slide-out-bike-rack, cabinets, walls & ceiling, etc. Any project where making a crosscut through a board is required (which is quite often)!
- Circular saw. That’s what we used in our first build to make crosscuts. We had to use a guide each time and clamp the guide, and even with these precautions cuts were not always square. It was also super time consuming (turns out there are a LOT of cuts to make when building a van!).
- Jigsaw (not recommended for crosscuts). A jigsaw is not very good at making perfectly square cuts through lumber, even with a guide (because the blade often bends slightly during the cut).
DEWALT needs no introduction; they make high-quality, professional grade tools. You get what you pay for. We went with a cordless miter saw, because we might have to move to different locations during our van conversion, so we wanted the flexibility. One thing that surprised us is how quiet the saw operates; our garage is annexed to the neighbor’s room, so that’s a welcomed feature!
Miter Saw Accessories:
A track saw is great at making long, accurate cuts, faster and better than a circular or table saw. The saw is paired to a track; the saw glides smoothly into the track and makes for easy and precise cuts. The circular blade is well contained, the saw is “locked” into the track, and there is an anti-kickback mechanism; as a result a track saw is safer to use. It’s also better at collecting dust than a circular saw (thanks to the dust port that can be hooked to a dust collector or a vacuum). Bottom word: It is safe, light weight, portable, accurate, and super fast to set up!
Floor, bed platform, slide-out-bike-rack, cabinets, walls & ceiling, etc. Really anytime when cutting plywood is required (which is quite often)!
- Circular saw. To make long and straight cuts with a circular saw, a guide is needed. Locating the guide requires to take into account and calculate the distance from the blade to the edge of the saw shoe for every cut, which can introduce errors. Also, clamps are needed to keep the guide in place.
- Table saw. Similar results can be achieved to cut plywood, but a table saw cost more and is not as portative as a track saw.
Brand/model and accessories We Use:
- WEN CT1065 10-Amp 6.5-inch track saw (blade included).
- Powertec 55″ guide rail for track saw (pair, joiner included).
- WEN 6″ quick-release track saw clamps (pair). Helps keeping the track in place during the cut.
We couldn’t justify spending over $500 for a major brand track saw… so it was either the WEN track saw or nothing. We normally avoid buying the cheapest stuff, but after reading several positive reviews we decided to go for it. And we’re glad we did! This setup gets the job done for an occasional use (e.g. to build a van), it’s a major upgrade over a circular saw. That being said, professionals or serious woodworkers should probably restrain from getting the WEN track saw, because the switches and levers are all plastic and feel quite flimsy; it probably wouldn’t last in a harsh environment or for the everyday use.
Tip: Get the Powertec tracks instead of the WEN tracks, as they glide better and are a bit longer which helps starting the cut over a full size 4×8 sheet. Be aware that for ANY TRACK, the rubber splinter guard must first be trimmed as follows: Track Saw Splinter Guard Trim (YouTube).
How To Make a Cut:
Don’t worry a drill press isn’t an essential tool by any mean; in fact, you probably won’t need one. But if you plan on building your van out of 80/20 t-slot aluminum extrusions, we think you should consider it. A drill press allows to machine t-slot aluminum extrusions to accept anchor fasteners, which are much stronger and reliable than corner brackets. We know: the cool thing to do is to make your own brackets out of an aluminum angle and use carriage bolts, but this method requires to use 15 series extrusion. Because anchor fasteners are stronger, using 10 series is totally acceptable and the final cost will be in the same ball park, but the end result will look cleaner and be stronger.
80/20 T-Slot ALuminum Extrusion Guide:
If we lost you at “80/20”, “T-Slot”, or “anchor fasteners”, then check out our dedicated guide about 80/20 t-slot aluminum extrusion:
T-slot (80/20) aluminum extrusion | Complete Guide (Coming soon!)
- Portable Drill Guide for Power Drill (Amazon). It’s a cheaper and portable adapter to use with your current power drill, however it won’t be enough to install anchor fastener in t-slot aluminum.
Again when we can’t justify buying a specialized tool for a single job (converting one van), we have a look at Wen tools… At just a little over $100 US, we think it’s worth the investment if you plan on building your van out of t-slot aluminum extrusions (80/20). It allows to install anchor fasteners in lieu of corner bracket, which are much stronger and reliable.
Drill Press Accessories:
Alright, not the most exciting thing… but nonetheless, it’s a very essential tool not to be forgotten! There is ALWAYS something to clean. And it’s especially essential knowing it can act as a dust collector for some tools (for the track saw, miter saw, etc.).
Our space is rather limited, so we chose a model that’s a bit more compact yet powerful. Hose diameter is 1-7/8 inch (a bit smaller than the standard 2.5-inch for “full-size” vacuums). We used it to vacuum saw dust, broken glass, snow (don’t ask), just about anything really. It’s also the vacuum we use in the apartment we’re renting at the moment. 100% happy with it!
BONUS: dust collection!
A dust collection system is out-of-our-scope, but with a little creativity (and a neat 3D Printer) we turned our vacuum into a dust collector! We designed and printed some adaptors that allow us to connect our vacuum to the dust port of several power tools, dramatically reducing the amount of saw dust in the workshop (and in our lungs):
DEWALT Miter Saw
DEWALT Orbital Sander
Our vacuum adapter is a custom solution to our own little problem, but we made it available in case you face the same problem than us 🙂
Vacuum Adapters for Power Tools Dust Collection
Punching metal before drilling prevents the drill bit to “roam” and “wander” around and therefore greatly increases precision. You can use a punch with a hammer, or use a Spring Loaded Automatic Center Punch for one-hand operation. The sharp edge can also be used to mark (e.g. make a line) on wood or metal.
Roof fan, window, air heater, etc.
You probably heard it before: nothing is straight in a van! A contour gauge helps transposing funky shapes onto wood for marking.
Floor, cabinets, walls, ceiling, etc.
One of our the most essential tool, it needs no introduction…
We use a speed square to quickly and precisely mark cuts (straight or angled). It’s just fast and convenient to use. There are dozens of advanced use for a speed square, but this person knows better than us: anikasdiylife.com/speed-square-beginners-guide
Cabinets, walls, ceiling, bed, etc.
A straight edge is useful to mark long straight lines, or to make measurements.
Cabinets, walls, ceiling, bed, etc.
Magnetic Pick Up Tool
Life has several creative ways of blocking the advancement of your projects, and dropping a screw somewhere sneaky under the floor of your van is one of them! Save yourself the hassle and time and get one of these telescoping magnetic pick up tool 😉
Yep, a pencil is an essential tool! There are a few things we like about the Pentel P-207 drafting mechanical pencil. First of all, it has a fine profile (near the tip) which makes marking easier. Second of all, each click dispense a small amount of lead compared to a cheaper pen. Because of that, we can use a fine lead (0.7mm) and still be able to mark without breaking it. We also like to use darker 2B lead refill.
Sharpie (Ultra FIne Point)
You’ll need a Sharpie to mark on metal. The ultra fine point helps with precision.
Roof fan, window, air heater, etc.