We are halfway through our conversion now (we hope!) and we have found certain tools totally invaluable, saving time, money and hopefully letting us achieve a top quality finish!
This post assumes that everyone preparing for a van conversion has a basic tool kit, tape measure, set square, electric drill etc…when you have a thousand screws to place just to attach your cladding, this is not the time to scrimp and opt for a screwdriver!
1. Adobe Illustrator
So you may be slightly surprised that our first tool is actually a piece of software! Illustrator is an amazingly simple yet powerful tool which we used to design a comprehensive set of layouts for our van before we’d even bought it!
Illustrator is a vector graphics editor meaning you can zoom in and modify everything without losing any quality. We tend to work at a 1:10 scale to keep the file size small, for example our dining table measures 700x500mm so we would draw a rectangle of 70x50mm in Illustrator.
The best thing about Illustrator is the ability to create duplicates and subtle variations far quicker than with pen and paper or using a CAD packages, allowing you to tweak and improve your home on wheels until it’s perfect! Microsoft Visio or even PowerPoint can also be used in a similar way, but Illustrator is certainly the best option if you can get around the initial learning curve. If you don’t want to pay for a subscription, you can sign up for a free 30 day trial and get designing!
2. SketchUp (or any other CAD Package)
SketchUp is the other software tool on our list. CAD packages are best used once your concept design is pretty well defined and you are looking for verification that what you think works in 2D is realistic in 3D. It’s incredibly tempting to jump into “cadding” your van straight away or even after a few quick sketches, but don’t! Make sure you have developed a few different ideas to a good resolution before going 3D.
It’s also important to remember what you are trying to achieve from your CAD van. We believe this should be checking that you will have enough for you and your things to fit, and any moving elements aren’t in reality going to clash.
Sketchup offers a free basic CAD package which is quick to learn and offers enough resolution to give you confidence in your design. More sophisticated CAD packages like SolidWorks, Inventor or NX can also be used but we would recommend only using these tools for complex assemblies and mechanisms opposed to an entire van. You don’t want to spend more time cadding the van than building it!
3. Sliding mitre saw
Onto the power tools! A sliding compound mitre saw is a circular saw on a stand which allows you to cut batons or planks of timber with a clean, straight edge. They give you a good degree of accuracy in 3 planes: front to back, or at 2 different angles. If you have ever cut a thick baton of wood with a hand saw or a jigsaw you’ll probably find that the blade drifts away from being straight the deeper you cut, making joining wooden structures together a total nightmare. Even a cheap mitre saw will alleviate this issue and has been an absolute lifesaver for us, saving us hours and hours.
4. Crimping tool
If you’re planning on doing your van electrics, you should look at investing in a crimping tool and a selection of butt crimps. This tool allows you to insert wires into one of many different sized and shaped crimp connectors and join them together. You can try doing this with a pair of pliers or even a hammer, but it’s incredibly hard to crush the connectors reliably to secure the wires. We had to join hundreds of wire ends and this made our lives much easier!
5. Quick Grip clamps
Our quick grip clamps are definitely one of our favourite tools. You’ll be amazed what you end up using these clamps for, particularly if you are working on your own as they give you an infinite amount of extra hands! Whether you need to temporarily hold sheet material down so you can screw it in place, use them in conjunction with thin battens to draw compound curves or even to gain some extra mechanical advantage with your mastic gun, £30 should get you 4 clamps and save hours of bodging!
We bought a cheap jigsaw for cutting out curved profiles and small details, however we quickly realised it was actually miles better at cutting straight lines than our Bosch handheld circular saw (see below!). We used the jigsaw to cut through steel panels in our van to add windows, as well as hardwoods, softwoods and plastics.
It’s perhaps best described as being utterly ferocious and will eat through practically anything scarily quick, so be careful! No doubt a better quality jigsaw would be less violent and scary to use!
...The Bosch circular saw is useless. It’s incredibly difficult to cut in a straight line, despite that being pretty much its only purpose, and it drains the battery in minutes. Having since used a Makita handheld circular saw which cost 3 times the price which was amazing, we would suggest only buying a high quality circular saw if you intend to use it after your build, otherwise just use the jigsaw.
7. Screwdriver bit set
A very basic tool, a screwdriver bit set can cost just a few pounds and typically come with a magnetic attachment which allows you to quickly switch between Flat, Philips, Hex, Star and Pozi heads in seconds. We tried to work out how many screws we had placed to date and got lost in the low thousands. When building your van you’ll constantly be changing between screwdriver types and sizes, and having a collection of drill attachments is so much quicker and cheaper than 30 different screwdrivers!
8. Hole saw set
A cheap hole saw set is super useful when you need to add vents in your ceiling or floor, cut holes for spotlights into cladding, or drill a hole for your kitchen tap. Occasionally holes like this can be achieved with a jigsaw but the smaller the diameter of the hole or the deeper the material, the messier job you’ll achieve with a jigsaw.
To date we have used 5 different hole saw sizes just a few times each so its worth buying a cheap but large set so you can use the closest standard size for your application. It is possible to buy a single adjustable hole saw but these can be hard to get tidy results with and don’t work well in small spaces.
9. Pocket hole screw jig
A pocket hole saw jig is use to drill a hole at an angle, typically 15 degrees, into a piece of wood, and joins it with a second piece of wood with a self-tapping screw. The jig is placed a couple of centimeters from the end of the wood and clamped down with your new Irwin Quick Grip.
Used carefully you can hide away any screws from visible faces whilst joining the both sheet material and sawn timber. Trying to replicate a 15 degree hole by hand is really difficult and usually results in something much steeper which will likely result in the screw poking through or a split piece of wood.
10. Something long, straight and flat!
A slightly vague but incredibly useful number 10 - something long, straight and flat is ideal for drawing lines on material or as a guide to run power tools against to ensure you get a straight cut. Don’t be tempted to use a batten of wood, as most aren’t very straight! Something ranging between 1 and 2.5 metres is ideal...spanning a sheet of 8x4 is tricky without something as long as 2.5m.
If you haven’t started your build yet you will quickly come to realise that nothing in your home on wheels is flat, level or perpendicular, and even if you do find something, you need to remember that your van is probably on wonky ground! Instead of using a spirit level, measure from constant points like the floor or a bulkhead.
There you have it, 10 tools which will hopefully save you a tonne of time, money and keep your van build psyche high. Let us know what your favourite tools are!
And a bonus one for you...
11. A spoon!
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