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The Benefits of a Work Van

Finish carpenters carry a lot of tools. In fact, we carry more tools than any other trade I know, maybe more than any two combined. Sure, plumbers carry a lot of weight, but that’s mostly pipe. We carry tools: table saws, table saw stands, outfeed tables, miter saws, miter saw stands, work tables, nail guns (at least four), drills (at least four), routers (at least four), planers, grinders, sanders, circular saws, track saws, compressors, air hoses, extension cords—and that’s just the big stuff. Then there’s the nails, screws, glue, sand paper…the list goes on and on.

You’d think that after 15 years in this business I’d hate tools, but I love them. The problem is, how to get them to the job, and how to store them so I can find them!

Although I have owned pickups, which are great for framing work, my choice for work vehicles has always been a van. And for finish/trim/cabinet installers, it’s hard to beat an Express Access Van. I first saw this vehicle advertised in The Journal of Light Construction and decided that, if possible, I would own one some day.

Fortunately, that day came.

This is my 2004 1/2 ton Chevy Express/Access van. It came factory equipped with AWD (a must when you live above the snow line) and the access panels. GMC was running a promotion when I bought my van, whereby the interior shelving and cab door were installed at no cost to me by Carter Industries. I also went for the roof rack and tow package.

This is the only van I use for my business, which is interior finish and pick-up work on mostly new construction.

Some benefits of a work van:

  • No trailer to drag around, but if I do need to pull something, the tow package has a button for electronically shifting to a tow gear.
  • Even more than a truck with a cap (for you west-coast carpenters, that’s a shell), a van keeps tools organized, dry, and out of sight at the local parking lot.
  • The shelving is adjustable.
  • Cords and hoses can be hung on the front wall and rear shelf side, to get them off the floor.

The side flip-up panels (see above) allow easy access to small items, which are organized in bins on the shelves. There are three panels total, two on the driver’s side and one on the passenger side (see below). Each access panel can be opened remotely by pressing a marked button on the key fob.

This is the passenger side panel which opens to a cabinet with three drawers for small parts. There’s also space for three nail gun boxes, one nail gun bag, a tool bag, and there’s a shelf on top which holds levels and my 3rd-hand telescoping poles.

Note the fluorescent light on the underside of the panel (above). Each panel has its own switched fluorescent light, which is great for when it gets dark; the cargo area has two additional fluorescent lights besides the cargo light.

The van’s double side doors allow easy access to the floor and shelving in the front of the cargo area, eliminating crawling over stuff from the back doors.

The shelving package came with a cab/storage divider that has a door to access the back from the cab (to the right of the bins in the photo, above). The door can be propped open to allow inside transport of material up to 12 feet long. It also provides a safety barrier between the load and the cab, but still allows me to see through it (see below).

Here’s a view of the rear. Doors and small cabinets can fit inside for transport. There are two shelves on each side which are easily accessible from the interior (there is a lockable door on the lower left). I can get eight-foot pre-hung doors, full plywood sheets, or small cabinets inside this van. Cords and tool bags are stored here for easy access. Also, a portable table saw, chop saw, other larger tools, and full 4×8 sheet goods can all be loaded at the same time without worrying that the sheet goods will crush the tools, like they would in my old pickup.

My chop saw and table saw are mounted on portable stands which I can easily load, one end at a time into the rear of the van, which is much lower than most pickups.

This is what I carry most of the time when starting a job. The Trojan Miter stand has seen about 15 years of duty. The Ridgid table saw is heavy, but has performed well. The small Senco compressor is totally adequate for my needs and doesn’t require a lot of amperage or a large cord. The Rubbermaid cart is my buddy for door hanging, as it carries my gun, nails, shims, etc. Notice the swivel fitting on my nail gun, which makes the hose last much longer.

Sure, a pickup with a cap can work great for certain types of work, but I think it’s hard to deny that when it comes to flexibility, security, and ample storage space, nothing beats a good van.

Please feel free to share pics of your work vehicle, and especially any customized accessories you’ve added that make your job easier!

———

AUTHOR BIO

Doug got started doing small projects as a teenager, having always been interested in tools. His grandparents owned an old hardware store near Muncie, Indiana—the kind with 16-foot ceilings that had rolling ladders on each side, a wood floor, a hand-operated freight elevator, and a penny peanut machine! When Doug got out of the Air Force in 1978, he took a job as a laborer for a framer, then did handyman work, then a stint with a sauna company (which is where he first learned to hang doors). His next major move was to a larger builder who put him on the finish crew, where he had the opportunity to supervise some commercial projects.

Next, Doug and his wife started a retail portable spa store. That lasted for about eight years, during which time he got his contractor license in order to be able to do installations (decks, gazebos, etc.) for their customers. Doug continues doing various finish work, both for himself and other contractors.

Comments/Discussion

37 Responses to “The Benefits of a Work Van”

  1. Kreg mcmahon

    Nice article and yes vans are the best way to go and yes we carry lots of stuff and then some!

    Reply
    • Andy Sziraky

      I bought a trailer “used ” made by tooltrailer.com that works like your access van but on much larger scale with the added convience that I can leave it on site while my guys are working to get materials or work on second site.

      This trailer is by far the best investment I have made for my company.

      ANDY SZIraky

      Reply
      • Eric Tavitian

        The problem with trailers is that even with the finest tongue locks available a thief will still drive off with it when your not around to watch. A friend had even removed the wheels and had a great lock and the next morning after starting a job it was simply gone, never to be seen again. He lost well over $200,000. Yes that’s how much stuff can be loaded into a 16 foot trailer if you do finish carpentry. That is not easy to recover from.

        Reply
        • Robert

          For less than $500 I installed a security system in my trailer that locks up the wheels when activated. I also realize that some criminals just cant be stopped’

          Reply
  2. Bobby Slack

    As much as I agree with you (I own a van for about a year) my preference is the Sprint van from Dodge. Having said that I am extremely happy with this van, I can load material in the rain … way too many positive things and this comment could end up being another article.

    Reply
  3. William Gohdes

    I have owned both vans and pickups during my building contractor days. When I first moved to Los Angeles in the late 70s tool theft was not an issue and my favorite of all vehicles was my Toyota stake body truck. It was superb for carrying sheet goods and lumber as well as tools. Into the mid-80’s however, I began to experience an increasing amount of theft from my vehicles which necessitated purchasing a tool box for my pick-up, and even with the tool box still experienced theft when I failed to lock the box while moving tools into a job site. My next purchase was going to be a van because of the convenience of securing tools and equipment, an important attribute not mentioned in the article. (I ended up moving to the east coast and change of career but would own a van today if I was still in the construction business). The van shown is excellent; I love the way it has been outfitted to accommodate storage.

    Reply
  4. mike pelletier

    Doug, do you know if GM offers the side access panels aftermarket? I have the same van in a blacked out window version, sure would be nice to not have to climb in and out!

    Reply
  5. Joseph C

    Another vote for the work van!
    I had run a pickup with a work shell (and side doors) for a long time, but replaced it with a van. I picked up former fleet vehicle for next to nothing, and it was one of the very best tool choices I’ve ever made. I envy the access panels on this rig, but I have a simple Ford 3/4 ton van that I’ve built shelving/storage to meet my specific needs.

    A word to the wise for all: GET A CARGO PARTITION!!!!
    Accidents do happen, and you never want to run the risk of several hundred pounds of your tools, or even one tool, to continue that 60mph inertia into your body after you’ve stopped.
    I used to work with a younger guy who’d been crushed into his steering wheel in a collision by his tools in the back. He could only supervise, but had to stay home at least once every two weeks because of pain (years later)

    Reply
  6. Roger

    Yup Vans are the way to go, but I’m much happier with my box van than my old regular van. It’s so nice to be able to stand up inside.

    Reply
  7. Jim Hough

    Wow Doug, what a set up. I really like the side access from the outside feature that your van has. I have switched from pick up trucks to an extended cargo van and there is no comparison. I have it set up for total convenience. I don’t believe that I’ll switch back to a pick up and trailer set up. I do not have to haul as many appliances and furniture for family and friends now either. LOL. I like the fact that I can carry 4 x 8 sheet goods, and with the front cab gate open I can carry 14′ long boards and keep them dry with my table saw, miter saw, and all of my other equipment.

    Reply
  8. Kevin Zale

    Nice looking van, where exactly do you live…? I switched from a pickup to a van two years ago. Plenty of room for those tools that you dont use everyday, but need to have, and everything is secure and dry.
    I agree with Bobby though, my next van (I hope) will be a Sprinter.

    Reply
  9. Ryan

    Dodge Sprinter is the way to go.

    My beef with vans is not being able to stand up inside.
    I live in Vancouver so the side accesses wouldn’t be very nice for about 8 months of the year in the pouring rain.

    Sprinter you can stand up inside!
    Either that or even a 4×8 or 5×10 cargo trailer that you can stand up inside would be my preference.

    Your van is indeed nice, and I worked out of a ford econoline for a while. It was definitely a huge step up from a pickup!

    Reply
    • Bailey

      Hello,
      I run & manage 11 Sprinter type vehicles (Dodge & Mercedes mix) in the home automation industry. I can say as a business owner, they are completely functional & efficient. My beef with Sprinters are that my cost of operation tripled because of basic services. Not all dealers are set up to work on them either so it might require inconvenient travel for service. Everything is double cost on each van & in the transition phase when we first started converting, about year 2, we were hit with multiple issues on multiple vans. Electrical issues, dealership not putting enough oil in (6 times across 3 dealers), I got two Dodge types that can’t keep a windshield in them. I have a mercedes that has been out of service more than in. I keep Ford E-250’s around in both markets because I always have a sprinter out of commission.
      You can’t beat their storage & yes, it’s cool to stand up inside with plenty of headroom but you might really look at the market you are in, how long the dealer has been servicing that vehicle & so forth. I am all in love with this Chevy Access package, I had heard about them but have not seen one in action. I am writing this because I am going to start phasing back to traditional vehicles to get my cost of operations back down to realistic math.
      Best regards,
      Bailey

      Reply
  10. Ed Burt

    Nice article. A fitted out van is sure a nice way to go and the dry storage when transporting materials sure beats a pickem-up-truck. I actually work out of a Dodge Grand Caravan for my handyman business. I take out the rear seat which leaves me room for two ladders, two drill kits, tool boxes, and a plethora of other tools. In general, I carry about 90% of the tools I need on any given day and the load remains below the level of the folded-down center bench seat. I can also carry 12′ 2x’s and 4×8 sheet goods and still close the tailgate (a nice feature when it is raining.) Larger materials and ladders get strapped to the roof rack. Been doing this for 6 years and have thought about a cargo-type van but the Caravan does help differentiate me from all my competitors enabling me to command higher pricing. I still may opt for a van but will certainly take advantage of the large sides for professionally designed graphics.

    …Ed
    http://www.BurtHandyman.com

    Reply
  11. ben

    Vans are great but don’t get a one ton unless you are putting a large amount of weight. When you go over bumps without weight everything goes airborne. Most of the time 3/4 is plenty.

    Reply
  12. Mike Hawkins

    Nice article Doug,
    I too used pickups for many years, with caps, without, pulling a trailer, etc. I finally switched in 05 to a Ford 3/4 ton extended van. It came with the free shelving and the dividing wall with a door. I can stick a 16′ garage door in there and it only sticks out the back about 2′. I love the fact I can go buy furniture grade lumber on a rainy day and keep it dry. I have everything organized pretty well and keep the truck pretty clean. I work by myself a lot and it’s my shop away from home.
    Regards,
    Mike Hawkins

    Reply
  13. brew

    I have been lusting after a van like Roger has, just haven’t been busy enough lately to take the plunge.

    Brew

    Reply
  14. Sonny Wiehe

    Very nice set up Doug! Thanks for the ideas.

    I work out of an Express 2500, but not with same side access. That changes the ball game over a standard cargo van. For those with standard cargo van set ups I wanted to share a few custom features that increase my efficiency and comfort after 25+ years of remodeling and tweeking different van set ups.

    1. I insulate the ceiling of my vans with 1″ polystyrene panels between roof ribs and sheet the underside with 3/8″ birch plywood. This reduces heat radiation in the summer, keeps my A/C fuel consumption down, increase the shelf life of my caulks and glues, gives me a variety of custom holds for tools and fixtures that are out of the way, and allows me to easily mount two T8 bulb fluorescent low voltage light fixtures to ceiling of my van so I can see everything easily if I am working late.

    2. I strap a variety of levels to birch ply (see photos) with rubber straps. It works great.

    3. I keep a rectangular knee pad at side entry and rear entry van doors; the kind you can get at Duluth trading. This really saves the knees over the years going in and out. You will be surprised when you take them out for some reason and don’t have ’em at the ready next to you go for a tool.

    4. I use the system one racks and get to the top of my vans via some stainless steel folding foot holds like they use on boats. I cut form fitted pieces of shower pan membrane/liner to isolate hardware from ext. paint and used SS t-nut hardware backed up with Azek blocks heated and form fitted on the inside panels. They work great (no rust or re-tightening)and I feel it gives a cleaner look than a bulky ladder.

    5. My cargo vans did not come with inside panels on rear doors so I made some panels for both sides out of azek (heated and bent to shape; the lock side has a pretty good bend to it) and mounted this 3 tier bin on left rear door. Again, T-nuts for mounting bins securely work great with Azek. I think these panels allows one to make good use out space you can get to while standing outside of van.

    Sonny

    [img]http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/wood ceiling.jpg[/img]
    [img]http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/toe holds.jpg[/img]
    [img]http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/rear bins.jpg[/img]

    Reply
    • Doug Simmons

      Wow, those are some great ideas, I might have to try the insulation and birch ply!

      Reply
  15. Sternberg

    For several years, I worked out of an old 12′ step van. You could stand up in side, walk thru it, and store sheetgoods in a rack along one wall and have a workbench along the other wall.
    One thing is that drawer slides on tool boxes and drawers never held up well to bumps in the road until I started mounting card file cabinets from used office supply houses inside. They were by far cheaper and held up for ever.

    Reply
  16. wdwrkr88

    Nice rig! I first saw one of those on a Pella window truck and was very impressed. My last rig was a small GMC P/U with a cap. I had the dark,tinted lift windows installed on the sides and built shelves to hold the small tools and supplies. Inside I installed a heavy duty roll out to access my compressor, table saw, and chop saw. All my stands were knock down or fold up to save space. I got fairly good gas mileage and loading & unloading were a breeze. I have gotten into a “less-is-more” attitude in recent years as way too much of my overhead was spent getting to & from the job. It’d be interesting to see what our European counterparts use.

    Reply
  17. Jim Seybert

    Very well thought-out article! I agree with the “van crowd” and more so after a friend who is an electrical contractor lost two trailers full of equipment that the theives simply hitched up and towed away.

    Reply
  18. Eric Tavitian

    This was a great article Doug. You really put it out there that “Finish Carpenters” really have to have a van or something that works like a van. I’m General Contractor in Southern California. I have always worked all the trades myself. But really I am a Cabinet & Furniture maker and Finish Carpenter. There is something more to working with wood than concrete footings and steel or plumbing and electrical. It’s just not the same thing. So I have owned vans in one form or another for the past 30 years. Some have been better than others. Your van with the flip open side doors are definitely the way to go when using a standard van. I last owned a Chevy Express van a few years ago and do miss it at times. There was nothing like being able to load 12 to 14 foot lumber inside the van with the doors closed. But I didn’t have the side flip up doors. They would have made a big difference. I now operate with a Chevy Astro, a Toyota Tacoma with beefed up suspension and a lumber rack, a Chevy 3/4 ton tool box utility bed pick up for the really heavy stuff. Each on of my trucks I use for different reasons. My next truck will more than likely be a Sprinter van. At that time I will sell my Astro. There are some aftermarket companies that will install side access doors very similar to the flip up doors on your van. This will help a lot, not to say that my stuff will be left alone. We all know that if you pull up in a ‘Big Box’ store with tools exposed on a pickup your chances of having them when come back out are slim. There was a time you could trust fellow workers or even passerby s to respect that you also work for food on the table and to leave your tools be. But those time are long gone. I’ve even seen union men steal tools.(So what’s up with that?)Are times really that hard? The way I see it we need to look like we know what we’re doing and having a properly outfitted van makes a big difference in what we can command for a wage. And that’s not to mention that our tools will be safe and easy to access. Thanks for bringing this to our attention Doug.

    Reply
  19. Martin Schmidt

    Interesting article, in scandinavia, we all drive vans like this, with all the tools stored properly and with space for supplies and materials, it eases the headache from too little sleep, too much work and the telephone ringing constantly (and the kids asking when youre coming home….) when at least this part of your life is as it should be.
    take care of yourselves, and keep your fingers
    martin

    Reply
  20. Handyman_Business

    Great article! I do think vans are a great work vehicle and use one myself. But then again it really depends upon what type of work that you do, what kinds of tools you need, and what kind of materials you need to haul.

    For those looking into getting a new work vehicle, I would strongly suggest examining how they work and seeing if a van maybe right for them.

    Regards,
    Chuck

    Reply
  21. Joe Stoddard

    Hey Doug – and everyone
    Loved the article here. I’ve always had a fascination with peoples’ work trucks/vans/trailers… there’s nothing better than having everything you need at your fingertips, organized and ready to roll out.

    Along those lines –I’ve been enlisted to do the legwork and generate some interest in an article JLC editors are working on. Hope it’s OK (Gary? ) that I post this here..
    We’re looking for the very “best of” work truck /van / trailer rigs … the most innovative, efficient, unique

    JLC Editors and editorial ‘herd’ will select one or two rigs in each category (Remodeler, New home builder, Individual Trade (Gutter-Spout/Drywall/Mechanical/etc), Pro Handyman, etc…TBD).

    If your rig gets selected for the magazine, at the very least your ingenuity and organizational skills will be elevated to “Guru” level. We might be able to get one or more tool/product mnfcts. involved too if we get enough entries

    Send me:

    – A couple of pictures of your rig – similar to what Doug posted here: Outside, inside, cab or ‘field office'(if applicable). Rough shots with a phone camera are fine for now.

    – Photo of details that are interesting and indispensable for the kind of work you do (innovative rack…fold-down miter station…welder mounted to the bumper…pull-out lunch cooler…)

    – A sentence or two in the email about your rig, your business (so I know what kind of work you’re doing with the rig) and include the stuff that sets it apart (so I know what the pictures are about).

    – Complete contact information, including your website if you have one, phone number, and mailing address.

    We’ll compile the entries for the next few months and then be back in touch with the winning entries for more photos. I’m not sure when the article would run, but I’m going to shoot for either the IBS (January 2011) or JLCLive (March 2011) issues. You can reply to: moucon[AT]yahoo[DOT]com … (substitute the real “@” and “.” in that email address).

    Thanks everyone
    Joe Stoddard
    contributing editor – Journal of Light Construction

    Reply
  22. Ronald Sauve

    I agree that vans are the way to go for those who do a lot of finish work. My last vehicle was a VW Eurovan. A “minivan”. However, this minivan was rated to carry a little over a ton, could tow 4400 pounds, could take a full sheet of plywood behind the front seats, either horizontally or vertically, had excellent visibility all around, and could get 21 mpg. Sadly, it finally died. But I loved it while it lasted. I now get by for now with a small pickup with cap and slideout tray to get access to tools. But it won’t take a full sheet of plywood inside. this can be a problem in inclement weather. I still pine for my old Eurovan. Oh well, maybe soon I can get a Sprinter?

    Reply
  23. c f butler

    I own a 2003 Chevy access van 3500. I totally agree that this access van is a great tool for contractors. Unfortunately I didn’t notice that one of the access doors was opened when I pulled out of the garage and basically ripped it off. I have been trying to find the hinges for these access doors. Chevy parts store tells me that the access doors are not GM. They are an after market feature. I can’t seem to locate who it is that does this conversion to see if they will sell me two hinges for the back drivers side access panel. It didn’t hurt the panel much but broke one hinge and bent the other. Does anyone know anything about this??

    Reply
    • james

      Did you have any luck locating the supplier for the access panels? I need the remote to open the panels. I also have the 03 model. The remote is discontinued and and cannot be special ordered. They also said the newer models might nor work with it because it may be programmed differently.

      Reply
  24. John Gowrie

    I have a 15 year old Ford E-150 that is getting near the end of it’s service life… but I think I can still get another year or two out of her ;)

    I’ve been wondering what to do when the time comes.. Tired of the fuel costs of a full size van but no other vehicle seems to meet the needs of a finish carpenter. You nailed it on the head when you say we carry more tools than any other trade. I love being able to carry all my tools, which basically includes everything needed to set up a portable cabinet shop in someone’s driveway – and still carry the sheet goods I need. There have been a number of vehicles that look appealing – Ford Transit is one – but why they make the damn thing so short is amazing. In Europe, Ford has offered a full size version of that vehicle for years.

    I already decided I will never purchase a new vehicle again after I saw the E-150 I purchased for 19,900 now starts at around 31,000 – insane. SO looking around the lots for something that is around 2-4 years old is where I am at and with the exception of a Sprinter there really isn’t many alternatives. I see Ford “may” be bringing the larger transit vehicle over here but I don’t know if my old girl will make it long enough so I can find one of those used.

    The biggest issue trying to find something a little more economical than a full-size cargo van is that 4×8 cargo we generally need to carry, protected from the elements.

    Reply
    • Jesse Thomas

      Thanks for this reply, John Gowrie.

      I’m searching for the same kind of vehicle as you are, I believe. I would love to find one that I can stand up inside to work in! I’m equally as baffled by the lack of practical and affordable work vehicles that are currently unavailable here in the U.S. for folks in our trade.

      Any updates to your findings?

      Thanks!
      Jesse Thomas
      – Maker/Thinker/Doer
      JT Carpentry, Carrboro, NC
      http://www.jtcarpentrync.com

      Reply
  25. David Laws

    Hi,

    I am in the process of building a campervan conversion from a panel van and absolutely love the way you have the flip-up panels opening on your van. How did you install/make these? and you say they open remotely on the key fob!?! How did you get that to work????
    Amazing. Would be so gratefull of any assistance as trying to make a stealthy campervan look like a work van but with openable sides.

    Thanks, Dave

    Reply
    • Michelle Murphy

      David- Its an option you can get with a Chevy Van. Its called the Pro Package or Side Access Panels. I have the same idea for a camper and have been looking all over, but they are far and few between. There is a guy on Craigslist, in Frederick MD, selling one with 191K miles for $4350 right now. No service records and no inspection though. I am scared to buy it and get stuck with a lousy engine I dont know how to fix. Maybe you are more handy.
      Best,
      Michelle

      Reply

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