Tools of the Trade for a Van Conversion
One of the best parts about doing a DIY build? Picking up shiny new tools and STILL saving a truckload of money versus shop labor costs. Here are the tools that I used & abused, loved & despised, and still choose to haul around with me (or not).
Which tool brand should you go with?
A recommendation that I have right off the bat is to use the same brand and series for all of your cordless tools. This has several benefits:
- Batteries can be swapped easily.
- You only need one battery charger.
- You need fewer batteries overall (which are often more expensive than the tool itself).
I personally chose to go with Hitachi and, although I’ve been satisfied, would not do so again. Being a sucker for resiliency, they won we over with their “Lifetime Warranty”. I soon discovered that it meant for the lifetime of the tool… Which is about two years if you’re lucky. I should have seen that one coming.
To pick, ask yourself which of these personalities fits you best:
- You are a working man’s man (or woman). You trust brands that have been in it for the long haul. Favorite coffee? Dunkin. Favorite beer? Anything that comes in at least a 12 pack. You absolutely cannot wrap your mind around the people that spend $100 on jeans and $5 on cups of coffee. Seriously, what are they thinking?
- You think your choice of tool brands says as much about you as the truck you drive. What matters most to you is performance and dependability. You going about your life at 9 AM on a Wednesday is enough material to make a pickup truck ad. Your go-to tool is your impact wrench and man does that puppy rip.
- You don’t leave things to chance and trust only the best. Why drive a Ford when you can have the dependability of a Tacoma? Your shirt is tucked and your beard is trimmed. You can’t wait to take a palm sander to that fine slab of wood that’s aging in your garage.
- When there’s the option, you pick metric. You don’t care for nonsense advertising and branding. You want simple but powerful. Well thought-out and feature rich. You are more likely to be found using a plunge router than an orbital sander.
First? DeWalt. Second? Milwaukee. Third? Makita. Fourth? Bosch.
Me personally? If I was to do it all over again, I would go with DeWalt. They make a wide range of tools in terms of both variety and tier and sell conversion kits that allow batteries and tools from different generations to work well together. You can often find their packaged kits on sale or used on eBay and Craigslist. Their stuff is no-nonsense and is the most popular on the market for a reason. They also manufacture a number of their tools in the USA, if that matters to you.
That being said, all of those brands make solid tools. Until one of them pays me money, I won’t say that one is better than another. It simply depends on the person and their needs. Pick one and stick with it. If you keep using tools throughout your life, you’ll probably switch once or twice. And again, this only really matters for cordless tools. If you’re going corded, pick the best tool without regard to whether or not the color matches your drill.
The Essential Power Tools
- Circular Saw
Really, Really Nice-to-Have Tools
- Chop Saw or Miter Saw
- Oscillating Multi-Tool
- Table Saw
Accessories for Productivity and Safety
- Tool Belt
- Heavy Apron
- Work Pants
- Work Boots
- Safety Goggles
You can’t build a van without these. Well, maybe you could, but you shouldn’t.
Drill & Impact Driver
I’m all for ‘muscle over motor’, but there’s no way anyone is converting a van without a decent drill and driver. I started with this combo drill/driver and quickly moved on to a kit with two separate tools. The primary reason? Being able to swap between the two without changing bits. This is hugely advantageous when you’re doing something like popping holes with a step bit, installing a plusnut, and then driving a bolt.
My choice: DeWalt DCK280C2 20-Volt Max Li-Ion 1.5 Ah Compact Drill and Impact Driver Combo Kit. It’s powerful, 20V, made in the USA and is a slammin’ deal with the two batteries. If you order it, be careful adjusting the package options as it may change the drill/driver included in your order. The reason that this costs twice as much as an entry level kit is that it’s stronger and has improved battery life! Why does this matter? A Sprinter van has some hefty bolts that will take quite a bit of torque to remove.
Want better battery life? Get the brushless option. Want the cream of the crop? Go with the Milwaukee M18 set.
I used my jigsaw almost as much as my drill for the Sprinter project. The fan and window install alone were enough to justify one of these guys. In fact, I don’t think a van conversion could be done without one. They don’t use a ton of power when running compared to something like a circ saw, so cordless is very much the way to go.
My choice: DEWALT DCS331B 20-Volt MAX Li-Ion Jig Saw. OK, another expensive tool. But seriously, these are the ones that are critical to a successful build. This saw is fairly lightweight but still has metal where most saws have plastic. The blade release mechanism is intuitive and the trigger control runs consistently well. Don’t bother with the stock blades are adding the DeWalt blades to your cart, pick these Bosch ones up instead.
My first inclination when picking up a circ saw for the van was to go big. I had used a standard Skilsaw for years but decided to upgrade to a worm drive. I was going to be making more cuts, needed more precision, yadda yadda yadda. I ended up picking up this guy… And returned it a few uses later. The deal breaker? It wouldn’t work well with my Kreg guide!
My choice: SKILSAW SOUTHPAW SPT67M8-01 15 Amp 7-1/4 In. Magnesium Left Blade Sidewinder Circular Saw. There are four important features of this saw: 1) it’s made by Skilsaw, 2) the blade is ‘southpaw’ so that it’s easier (or more natural) to see the line while you’re cutting, 3) magnesium construction makes it lighter than entry-level options, 4) it’s corded. This is a saw that you’ll have for decades. Another important feature is that it works with…
The Kreg Circular Saw Guide! Could I have built the van without this? Sure, if I had a table saw. This tool is critical for cutting sheets of ply for everything from the bed platform to custom cabinets.
Do you already have a table saw, or plan to buy one? In that case, I would get a worm drive saw. The Mag 77 specifically is the F-250 of circ saws. When in doubt, trust the experts. Or should I say, the expert! Scott, the Essential Craftsman, could recommend a pair of socks and I’d buy them. He’s been building houses and cutting up trees for decades — my recommendation is to do what he says. I own this saw as well and would say it’s more suited to building a tiny home than building a van.
Link: SKILSAW SPT77WML-01 15-Amp 7-1/4-Inch Lightweight Worm Drive Circular Saw
Note on blades: I suggest having a do-it-all blade and a fine tooth blade. The stock Skil blades are a little rough for my liking. Here is a good kit from DeWalt.
Sawzall (Reciprocating Saw)
The sawzall is useful in many contexts. For a van conversion, I found it’s primary job to be cutting thick stock (like the Unistrut roof rails and bed rails). You might also find yourself pulling it out to cut up a fence or table in order to reuse the materials in your build.
My choice: DEWALT DWE357 12-Amp Compact Reciprocating Saw. What I like about this saw is that it’s compact while having all of the horsepower of something longer and heavier. It’s easier to control, in my experience, and better for close-up work (versus something like reaching for a tree limb). Other perks are that it’s made in the USA and matches the color scheme of the cordless tools. The industry favorite blades, by a long margin, are the Milwaukees.
You could get by without these, but you’ll likely run into a situation where you find yourself wishing for one.
Unless you’re a circ saw aficionado, you’ll want to use a miter saw for many of your cuts. It makes precise cuts of lengths of lumber or even aluminum a breeze. In case you’re curious, the difference between this and a chop saw is that this can make angled cuts.
There are a number of considerations here, the most important of which is whether you want ‘sliding’ or not. This feature means that the blade has a longer track and can move forward and back during the cutting motion. Imagine dropping a 12″ saw straight down — you can only cut something that’s 10-12″ wide, right (this varies by thickness)? Then imagine that you can move the blade forward and back. The end result is a saw that makes clean cuts on a much wider range of widths and thicknesses of wood. Regardless of which saw you get, I recommend getting a portable stand to help with transport and setup (unless you’ll be giving it a permanent workbench spot).
My choice: DEWALT DWS779 12″ Sliding Compound Miter Saw. The 4.8 star rating is hard to argue with. This is the most popular of the sliding miter saws and for good reason. This will do just about everything that the $1k+ options can do. It’s not cheap, though, clocking it between $350 and $400. If you want to save a buck…
Cost-effective choice: Hitachi C10FCG 15-Amp 10″ Single Bevel Compound Miter Saw. In reality, you aren’t going to be cutting very big pieces of lumber for a van build, or even medium-sized. Reviews claim that this can cut up to a 4×6 and appears to be reputable. I see this guy in hardware stores all of the time. A good bet if you anticipate light use, and certainly better than no miter saw at all. Note that it has 10″ blades and order accordingly.
Dremel (Rotary Tool)
Need to sand down a tight inside corner? Clean up the edge of the hole you just drilled for your heater? CUT that hole for the heater? The rotary tool is dynamic and comes in handy.
My choice: Dremel 4300 Kit. As Skil is to circ saws, Dremel is to rotary tools. I tried the cheaper 3000 model first and was quick to return it. If you’re doing any serious cutting or buffing, you need the motor of the 4300. There are an insane number of attachments for these things as well.
This tool is especially useful when you need to trim something that’s already installed. For example, the T&G cedar boards of your ceiling in order to make your fan trim fit (speaking from experience). You might also use it to plunge cut a section out of the wall in order to install a light switch or some USB ports. Again, really nice to have.
My choice: Dremel MM40-05 Multi-Max 3.8-Amp Oscillating Tool Kit. While the gold standard for this tool is the Fein Multimaster, you don’t need that level of performance for casual usage. The Dremel version of the tool provides a whole lot of bang for your buck coming in at one-third the price of the Fein. Rival options from the major tool manufacturers average between $150 – $250, but there isn’t any extra performance, as far as I know, to warrant the price jump.
Feel like making cabinet building a snap?