Van racking is basically just trim carpentry with loads of scribes, using elements of North American face frame construction and European box systems of cabinet making. But it’s also an exercise in extreme organization. Getting it right can save you time and energy on the jobsite—both of which lead to increased productivity and profits.
I’m a lead carpenter—if it’s wood, I do it. From framing roofs to trim carpentry, kitchens, cabinet making and housed string staircases. My van racking system must carry any subset of tools.
The make and model of a van is immaterial to the process of van racking. The van in this article is an LWB Trafic—slightly smaller than a standard Merc Sprinter. Racking a moving toolbox is typically done with ply, 2x and 1x. (If you want a “pimp my van” job, you’ll have to spend your own money!).
Security: Shake, Rattle, and Roll
In heavily populated areas, parking is often far away from the jobsite. You might want to consider fitting deadlocks on the cargo doors. Bulkheads between the cab and cargo area can also increase security, as well as provide wall storage.
This van will eventually get a limo tint, and an internal security cage on the rear tail lift—bricks can open windows!
Everything in the cargo area is subject to shake, rattle, and roll. Tools and toolboxes must be secured so they don’t fall out. Simplicity is always the key. There is nothing more annoying than a squeak you can’t locate. The design and build should take these matters into account.
Ply Lining Kits: A No Brainer
A ply bed in the van reduces drumming and provides a fixing surface—something solid to which other components can be secured. Ply lining to the walls protects the panels from being dented from the inside while also providing another fixing surface. Re-sprays are expensive; ply lining kits are cheap. It’s a no-brainer.
This van came lined, so my first job was to replace the wheel arch covers with 3/4-ply to take weight, and to act as a fixing surface. I’d recommend rebuilding the wheel arch covers in smaller vans with 1x and 1/2-in. plywood to improve strength.
Adhesive/sealants like Sika EBT (an elastic polyurethane adhesive/sealant similar to DAP Polyurethane) are the best choice when incorporating ply linings as a monolithic part of the racking. They also significantly increase the load-bearing capacity, and they take paint if you want to spray the racking.
Don’t use silicone as a cheap alternative—the joints will fail after a couple of years of constant shaking in a van.
Tools Dictate Layout
Long, relatively delicate tools are the greatest challenge for racking layout, since they have to be carried flat. If you plan carefully, you can also build slots for door-hanging levels. Long saw tracks are another matter—they can only be stored down low or high up, and they’ll need protection (see photo, right).
The size and weight of chop saws and portable bench saws means they’ll want to sit on the bed, against the bulkhead. This is also the best place in an emergency stop. Plus, the sliding side door will make for easy access.
Other heavier items, like dust extractors or portable thickness planers and compressors, are compact in size and easier to lift. You can be more flexible in their placement. To avoid stressing your spine, consider positioning them so that you can lift them in and out without bending forward or twisting sideways at the same time you’re lifting. Wormdrives, heavy sidewinders, and transformers should also be placed with careful attention to your back.
Today, the bulk of carpenters’ tools come in boxes—and good boxes, too. The more regular the box sizes, the more compact your racking can be. The remaining space is for everything else.
Measure the Van
The van you have may be the right size for the work you do, but before building any racks, measure it carefully. This van revealed a floor length that will take a 2.7 metre (106 inch) Festool track. The rear lift tailgate makes loading plywood vertically—on its long edge—a bit complicated. However, I had just enough room between the wheel wells—48 1/4 in., after allowing for plywood build-outs—so I opted to transport plywood flat. Building a false floor (see below) made it easy to store my long guide rail, and it made it easier to load and unload plywood.
For this kind of project, you don’t need drawings. I’m no good with 3D drawing packages anyway. Use the tools themselves—draw around them with duct tape on the ply lining.
Identify Fixing Points and Layout Boards
The bed can be a stable, fixing point, as are the now-strengthened wheel covers. The steel bulkhead between the cab and cargo area invariably sports a rib or two. Screw a piece of 1x as another fixing point and leave it long for the moment—you’ll know when it’s time to cut it to length.
If there is no bulkhead, consider installing one! If you use 3/4-ply, it’ll provide more storage space and increased security. Most vans have nuts spot-welded to the wall and roof ribs. If they are available, and in the right place, they make good mounting points.
Fix ply layout boards to the roof ribs for transferring layout lines from bed to roof, and then longitudinally down the van. Occasionally, they will become a permanent part of the racking. The Trafic’s roof ribs have 6×3-in. flat spots at either end, so fixing was easy. Most of the time, the best direction for layout boards is across the van. If you spend some time getting the layout boards parallel to the van bed, in both directions, it’ll make things even easier.
First Item: A False Bed (if required)
I used 2x3s on-edge, which gave the depth of false floor required. Lay the tools on the bed set 2x around them, and screw the lumber down to the existing ply bed. I used screws long enough to fix into the existing ply bed, no further—if you minimize the number of screws used in the metal beds, you’ll reduce the risk of water penetration and rust.
Laying a 4×8 sheet of ply on the 2x gave the position of the “slamstop” in front of the metal bulkhead, and created a possible storage area between it and the bulkhead. The slamstop is constructed from 3×2 framing material. I made mine tall enough to stop 10 sheets of plywood or MDF stacked flat in the truck. I was in a van crash once, and the load acted like a dead blow hammer when it hit the metal bulkhead. I wouldn’t want to be driving a truck if the lock came through the bulkhead! Hence the slamstop: it’s meant to fail in an accident, which will hopefully absorb some of the dead blow effect (like a crumple zone). I secured the slamstop framing to the ply floor with dominoes.
I installed the false floor ply in sections, which allows for future (and easier) alterations, and provided removable panels for easy-access to other tools. All corners and edges of the ply here—and anywhere else in the racking—should be beveled.
Since the Festool track has neoprene anti-slip runners on its underside, it has to be transported upside down. A length of UPVC soffit board on the ply lining bed allows the track to slide in easily. A second piece, ripped narrower and glued to the first, prevents the track from sliding sideways and damaging the guide edge.
Bulkheads tend to follow the shape of the seats in the back of the cab—down low will provide space for larger, longer items, and high up will provide space for smaller items. Bulkheads often have ribs that make for useful fixing points.
I attached two different battens to the ribs, one above and one below the viewing window, which gave a vertical fixing area. I then temporarily screened a 3/4-in sheet of ply with a cut-out for the viewer. This became the back panel to a face frame/box beam cabinet. I couldn’t put any ribs down low, so I found that bonding a 1/2-in. sheet of ply to the steel was a good solution.
Since I installed ribs to the back panel for strength, shelving, and storage, I re-hung the cabinet as a single unit. Before installing a face frame, I bonded shelves for Kapex extension legs and the Festool crosscut system to the raked bulkhead ply below the unit.
I then installed a 1/2-in. ply face frame to bind the bulkhead storage spaces into a single unit, and I incorporated the slamstop, which I fixed to the floor through the Kapex extension leg storage and the installed unit around the viewing panel.
Partial Rebuilds Aren’t Uncommon
I built the lower bulkhead storage so that everything could be slid in and out through the side door. However, once finished it didn’t feel right! The Kapex extension legs are an irregular shape, both on plan and side view. Sliding an irregularly shaped object into place requires a regular oblong space, built to the maximum dimensions of the item. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to live with something that doesn’t make your job easier.
I decided the solution was to face-load the extension legs, which gave me more room and increased the shelf sizes around the viewing panel (those bugged me the most).
Unscrewing the face frame was easy—that’s why screws should be the first option for mechanical fixings for racking; besides, nails loosen within weeks in a moving van. I extended the box beam to get more useful shelf sizes by gluing and pinning 3/4 x 3/4 with 16-gauge nails. Since the box beam takes a good deal of weight, I fixed the new face frame with longer screws so the 16-gauge nails weren’t structural, nor was the PVA glue.
Around four hours spent on a rebuild is nothing compared to years of frustration loading a van with a poor detail.
Maximizing Storage Capacity
Having drawn around the Kapex on its stand with duct tape, it can be left until later.
After laying out enough space for the Kapex,
I installed vertical supports for the tool box shelving.
|Be sure to plan locations for odd-shaped tools before tackling all the tool boxes. I included a spot for my compressor that was easy to access.|
|But later, I realized I had to store my dust collector there!|
|Because I use my compressor on almost every job, and because it’s HEAVY, I found it handy to keep the compressor closer to the doors—after all, the dust collector is on wheels! Yes, expect to make several modifications to your layout plan.|
Tool Box Storage
Now, on with the quick part of a racking job: the carpentry tools that come in boxes!
The regular footprints of systainers make them ideal for maximizing the storage capacity of a van. But other makers in the European market use the same boxes, like Metabo. All toolmakers buy boxes from Tanos. Hilti’s HIT chemical anchor system is sold in a different box, but the footprint is the same.
|With careful layout, I was able to accommodate my large double-size systainer above the dust collector, along with a standard Festool box and a Sortainer.|
Accommodating half a dozen boxes from several makers feels slower than accommodating Tanos boxes—you need to spend time coming up with a standard footprint that suits the boxes you have. I rack sections for these other tools in separate vertical racks to those for the Tanos footprint.
|My biggest fear is that Festool will come out with another must-have tool. Then I’ll have to do a little more remodeling to my racks|
Removing the innards of a Festool box means that more than one tool can be transported in a single box. One of my boxes now carries three sanders, and the other two didn’t go to waste! One has both a Fein MultiMaster and Metabo die grinder—both tools always get used on the same types of work.
Biscuit joiners fit into systainer boxes, and even Lamello ditched their trademark wooden boxes in favor of Tanos. All 4-1/4 inch angle grinders will fit with plenty of room for spare blades.
All of these space-saving and storage techniques translate directly into your shop storage, too. No shop is ever big enough!
Having used face frame construction for the complicated bulkhead, I turned to the European system of cabinet making for the tool box storage. In essence, the system uses standard side elements and standard tops. The shelves are not movable, so they are the same as the tops. There are no 32mm hole positions to bother with!
The standard tops and shelves in van racking need a cutout in the front to allow you to pull out the boxes. I always install a hole centralized over the Tanos box handles, since seeing through solid shelves isn’t possible, and this makes box removal easier. It also makes for useful fixing points, so you can strap down materials or objects carried in the body of the van.
I made the width of the shelves 3/8 to 1/2 in. wider than the boxes. The depths of the shelves are all liable to be different—each one needs to be scribed to the back of the unit (the ply lining). Just make a template for the shelf and rout away!
Similarly, the sides of the units are all the same regardless of the back scribe. The heights are all the same because your roof layout boards are parallel to the bed. The top part of the scribe is the same on all the sides, where the ply lining and roof meet.
The top part of the scribe must be loose, so allow about 3/8, as all vans have wiring looms in this area. This “scribe” can be done once, as a template, and then transferred to all the sides you make. Scribes against the ply lining need to be accurate and should have a 1/8-in. to 3/16-in. gap. This gap will be filled with a sealant/adhesive. Using caulking shapers will increase the strength of the joint. Tight scribes squeak, and no standard wood glue lasts long in this position. The movement of the van will eventually pop glue joints or even crack the wood itself.
Prevent your tools from crashing to the floor
The three simplest ways to prevent your tools or boxes from crashing to the floor when you’re driving are back-angling the shelves, shelf upstands, or dowels. In a racking job, you will use at least two, possibly all three. Other methods are just too clever to use in a moving toolbox.
Back angling shelves often works well. Nine degrees is a good number for soft tool bags, but for solid objects or boxes, you’ll have a point load. Point loads always squeak in a van.
Shelf upstands—or recesses—are a good solution, but they reduce the vertical space available for other boxes. Of course, for some tools recesses or cut-outs are best: they don’t have to be just along the face of the shelf. Wormdrive saws typically don’t come in boxes, and a piece of ply with a cutout that’s the same size as the baseplate for a sidewinder is an effective upstand. You’ll obviously need a slot in the shelf for the blade guard, too.
In my opinion, the most efficient option is a flat “shelf” with dowels. Dowels do the same job as a fixed shelf upstand, with no loss of vertical space, especially if the dowels are removable. Dowels also increase shelf width more than an upstand, and I believe this system wins based on efficiency.
Miller dowels are the best for the job, although it isn’t obvious because they are designed for a tight fit for joinery purposes.When racking, you enlarge the hole slightly so the dowels are removable. Drill a 10-mm. hole through the shelf to take a Miller dowel (10 mm. is half a millimetre larger than the first 3/8 shank of the dowel). The 1/2-in. head of the dowel stops it from falling through, and forms the upstand. The 10-mm. hole also makes the dowels easy to remove, but tight enough so that vibration won’t “jump” them out.
Don’t crowd the rear door pillars
The nooks and crannies are up to you
Having built the racking to this stage, there will be nooks and crannies all over the place. Of course, you’ll need every single one of them if you plan to store all the requisite caulking, sealants, glue, adhesives, etc.
The rest of the job is up to you, your imagination, and the tools and sundries you need to carry. Guys needing to transport large numbers of Bessey K clamps will find rows of plastic waste pipe ideal. I recommend putting a back rake on the tubes so they don’t shoot out.
Here’s the van, fully racked and loaded:
• • •
I learned how to renovate houses at my Mum’s knee, not my Dad’s. We moved from house to house restoring Victorian and Georgian buildings whose features had been ripped out in the “modernization” of the 1950s/60s. Then came half a dozen English timber framed houses in the 250 to 500 year-old-range. Mum was an artist, a ceramic restorer, and wove tapestry for relaxation. In her spare time….?! She also did guilding!
I speak in the past tense because she now has Alzheimer’s, but we’ve found her a care home which is full of architectural details that she loves.
I’ve been in construction all my working life. (I didn’t “make it” at the 16-year-old exams at school and ended up in what we call “technical college.”)
I was second in command of a 253 million (pounds sterling) job—the A13 road out from Canary Wharf. Of that 253 million sterling, I was personally responsible for 80 million pounds (sterling). My smallest sub-contract was 5 million sterling.
Now I’m a carpenter, and small-time contractor. And I mean small.