If you are new to self-build projects, the start of your van conversion journey will also mark the beginning of a slide down a magical black hole of tool geekery. Phrases like ‘offset angled keyless drill chuck’ will not only have meaning, they will become exciting. Even now, I’ve been dreaming of an elegantly engineered German ratchet spanner and bit set for months, and plan to reward myself with the object of my affection on the other side of an upcoming build milestone.
But be warned, fair self-building warrior: tool lust is a dangerous mistress who will transmogrify a few cheeky trips down the local hardware shop into a dusty void where your bank account used to be. Discipline is needed.
Therefore, I have compiled a sweet 16 of the tools most essential for a campervan build, heavily informed by discussion with other campervan and tiny house builders throughout the UK, as well as my own first build experience.
Please note, this list is focused on tools rather than materials you’ll need. For the purposes of this article, the guideline is that if you have the same amount of it at the beginning as at the end, it is a tool: e.g. a hammer. If you have noticeably less of it: e.g. duct/gaffa tape - then it is a material.
One other note, with BITS being only in the second week of it’s life, none of this information is sponsored. (In future we will feature some select sponsored recommendations only if we have tried the product, know it would be huge benefit to you and believe in it ourselves.)
16. Nail/stable gun (if you are using ply + batten type construction)
Perhaps you could get away with a mallet and good technique, but on lightweight furniture where a thin ply skin is needed, this allows the small pin nails to go in without breaking the frame consistently.
15. Dremel drill
This was a surprise. On the van it was used again and again - it cut through metal stays, cut off the end of too long screws, sanded in tight places. The cheapest version of this took all the abuse I hurled at it.
14. Powered sander
This saved me so much time and pain it made a huge difference to the speed and quality of the project. It may be optional though for those using pre-finished lightweight ply board rather than plywood.
13. Decent electrical cable wire cutter, wire stripper and ratchet crimper
Admittedly listing these together is a small cheat, but they are used so much at once it feels like one thing. The good quality versions of these don’t cost much more than the ones which can cause the delicate wires in electrical cables to break, or the crimps not to crimp securely.
12. Good set of screwdrivers and allen/hex keys
Cheat #2: but often these come as a set, so am going with it. Sometimes a long, thing screwdriver can get where your drill and bits can’t. The batteries also do not run out. Get decent allen keys; the cheap ones strip themselves and your bolts.
11. A bad to the bone half round file
The death toll on the Martha van build for cheap files was 2. Then a relative visiting from the States brought me a ‘Craftsman’ file as a present. The handle hasn’t fallen off and it is still going.
10. Heavy duty sealant gun
You will use a large amount of grab adhesive and/or sealant/adhesive goo in the van. I broke 3 cheaper ones in spectacular projectile fashion. Just get the toughest one you can afford at the beginning.
9. Powered multi-tool
This saved me many times when a ‘mostly-built’ thing went wrong and part had to be cut out - not uncommon when working with lightweight pine battens and doing my first van. It also does sanding and cuts out clever box shapes from plywood lining.
8. Good work surfaces
It is a rare and fortunate campervan builder who has access to a workshop. Some collapsible sawhorses and a thick offset of ply from the local timber merchant will work just fine, just be aware the top isn’t attached! I also found it very helpful to have a second smaller folding table for an outrigger for the first table, or to hold pieces where I had to make more intricate cuts.
7. Circular saw
I hesitated getting one of these mutilation-hungry monsters. But, with practice, a DIY saw guide rail and the boldness that comes with steel capped boots, it does save loads of time and makes nice straight cuts. Fortunately a friend also lent me a mitre saw - whilst this isn’t on the essential list, it deserves an honourable mention if you are cutting hundreds of wood battens. It also stays in one place, so it can’t be dropped.
THE tool that makes curved cuts in plywood, or slices out a huge chunk of van sidewall to for a window. Ensure blades are the right type for your material and in good condition (the fact they come in multipacks is a clue: new cut in side of van = new blade). Use a lubricant, like silicone spray, for a good cut.
5. Healthy collection of clamps
It is particularly important to have several operable with one hand. You can’t cut a moving target accurately and large paper patterns will blow off at the tiniest puff of a breeze.
An ‘engineer’s square’ will help you make completely accurate 90 degree lines on battens of wood, critical throughout the build. I also used a huge roofing square to figure out vertical with the floor as a datum - due to the drive sloping significantly in two planes. A little plastic transparent one from a maths set bought in the back-to-school sales was extremely useful when needed to see the lines under where I was marking.
3. Ratchet spanner set with non-chocolate bits
Here in the UK we say something is as useful ‘as a chocolate teapot’ when it is utterly hopeless for the purpose intended. Even if you get a fairly economical ratchet set (I got a cool mini one for small spaces at a very well known warehouse membership store) a small set of top quality bits will save you where cheap ones turn themselves and your fasteners to mush. Look for ‘diamond tipped’ or recommendations from other builders.
2. Cordless drill
The most essential powered tool. It drills, screws, makes large holes and scrubs off rust. I initially bought one second hand but gave in to a new one when that one broke (and wasn’t big enough for the coveted offset angled keyless chuck above). Getting one with two batteries and a decent amount of power fully made up for the investment and it will have a place in almost any future DIY project.
1. Personal protective equipment (PPE)
According to an audiologist collegue in a former job, any sound you have to raise your voice to be heard over is loud enough to damage that frequency of hearing. Seriously, she wears ear plugs when drying her hair. Almost any power tool will be louder than that. Think about how much you value your eyesight, hearing and lungs. A set of ear defenders, some goggles and a good respirator mask are less than a pub dinner. Don't progress without them.
This little beast is my favourite tool - it makes beautiful edges and cool cutouts. It’s also gloriously expensive for a small one you can hold easily at weird angles. A heavier, and tougher version can be had time to time at a discount, but usually is best mounted in a table (more expense or DIY). But, if you can borrow, be gifted or save for one and spend the time learning to use it, it is amazingly versatile.
Another big, serious cutting tool - but nothing will slice through metal box section, sheets or angle like this will. It’s a little expensive and certainly blood-thirsty, so not right for everyone, but my build couldn’t have happened without it. If you aren't cutting and mucking about with lots of metal, you can get by with a hacksaw and your jigsaw instead for a fraction of the price.
Do you have a recommendation for tools on a campervan or other small space project? Know of a high quality file available in the UK? Let us know in the comments.
Thanks to all of you, current or future self building heroes, for stopping by BITS for a while. Get out there, enjoy it and email us if there is any content you would like to see. Really, we'd love to hear from you.
Who's writing this, anyway?
Me, Feta Brown, who dreamed of building a camper van retreat for an embarrassingly long time. In 2015 I plunged into doing just that. Now am enjoying my fully functioning camper van with solar powered array, woodburner, sofa bed, lovely kitchen and composting toilet. I want to empower you to build your own retreat on wheels by sharing my journey and top tips from experts in their fields.