The First Tool Truck?


Tool Trucks 101

This page updated January 17, 2008


Specially-equipped trucks used in the business of selling automotive hand tools and equipment to auto technicians, dealerships, shop owners, aviation hangers, and wherever specialty tools are used, are known simply as “ Tool Trucks “. To the casual eye they may look like just ordinary step vans or box trucks with a tool company logo on the side and liftgate on the back. But once you take a peek inside, you will see why a new tool truck costs more than most luxury cars: tool truck interiors are literally rolling showrooms, a mobile tool store. The best are designed to efficiently display and demo tools and equipment for sale, while carrying a large inventory to allow for ongoing and impulse sales.

Tool truck interior designs are based upon input from the tool companies and their dealers and distributors. Standard additions to the basic bare truck body include insulated walls and ceiling, shelving, lighting, a security system, and creature comforts such as AC, propane heat, and Liftgate. More optioned vehicles can include a diesel furnace, security cameras, DVD players and LCD flip down monitor, chrome pegboard ceiling, glass and chrome display cases, and much, much more. Everything has to be heavy-duty and competently constructed to withstand the continuous weight load of the tools and the steady foot traffic and constant looking around of customers, while offering a good shopping experience. In a well-designed tool truck, the interior display area is as user-friendly and functional as any good hardware or retail store. Sometimes the truck is a technicians only refuge on a hot summer day, and a welcome break from a hard job.

What makes the tool business unique, of course, is the way tool dealers and distributors take their products directly to their target customer, the professional automotive technician. Rather than renting a store in a strip mall and waiting for customers to walk in, the tool dealer drives the store, literally a rolling showroom, a mobile tool store, to his - or her - customers. Properly laid out, it is literally a store on wheels, and it offers a complete sales environment every time, everywhere it goes. Tool sales interiors are also being built in trailers such as Pace and Featherlite, so a tool distributor who owns a dually Ford or GM pickup for his boat or camper gets double duty out of this vehicle.

Running a regular route, most tool distributors stop by their customer’s workplace at least once a week, usually on the same day and the best stop at approximately the same time.

Tool Truck construction

The manufacturing process of tool trucks has evolved from the industrious do-it-yourselfers of the 1960’s into the capable hands of a dedicated and technologically-sophisticated group of interior manufacturers, or tool truck “builders”. Literally the first tool trucks were often put together in the dealer's backyard. Today there are approximately 10 specialized tool truck builders across North America. Tool truck builders start with an empty step van, box, or cab-chassis truck, and customize it to an extent that compares very favorably to the best RVs and motor coaches on the market, albeit a commercial version.

Starting up front, the driver's area is of high importance. R elatively little modification of the cab in a cab-chassis truck is done; after all, who does it better than the original truck manufacturer? The driver’s area of a step van has to be a little more "built out" to make it comfortable; the walls and roof are bare aluminum. The builder usually builds a shelf across the engine cover and one across the front of the truck above the windshield, and finishes the walls and ceiling with carpet or pegboard. With either style of truck, the real work begins in back, in the cargo area, known in the industry as the “interior” (a common question at tool meetings is who built your interior?). And because tool truck bodies range in size from 16’ to 28’, there is a lot of work to do. Sidenote: when someone says they have an 18' tool truck, by industry practice they are referring to the inside dimensions of the cargo area. In a step van, this is the measurement from the driver’s seat to the rear doors. In a cab-chassis truck, the number we are quoting is the length of the “box” itself, i.e., 24’. The actual measurement loses about 6" due to interior pegboard and insulation.

When a tool truck order is received, some sort of computer-drafting drawings are produced with exact specifications, also known as a build sheet. The cabinet makers and assemblers pore over the plans and begin the conversion process. Holes in the body are cut as needed, modifications made, and special durable flooring installed over the standard aluminum floor, usually on a plywood sub-floor. The exact locations and techniques of the various modifications are closely guarded tool truck builder company secrets, hard- earned over years of experience. Because everything is custom, there aren't usually any wiring diagrams or assembly manuals available, but because the truck builders are in a very competitive business, they will usually provide this information when asked.

Hundreds of feet of wire are pulled and run from end to end of the interior to accommodate all the electrical functions of a modern tool truck: lights, security system, auxiliary power outlets, liftgate, furnace, backup camera, and sound system. Then the larger components such as the AC units, hydraulic lift gate, and auxiliary generator are installed. At this point it still does not resemble a tool truck, with wires dangling everywhere and various underwall support structures under construction. Usually the pegboard ceiling, in white or chrome finish, with bungy laced throughout the holes, is the next installation. The insulation and then pegboard or carpeted walls are put in place. Finally, ceiling lights are installed in the pre-wired locations.

Now the interior is taking shape, and it is time for final assembly. While the truck was being wired and prepped, the cabinet shop was busy building the shelves, desks, and drawers. Today there are two primary methods of shelf construction, shelves that are supported by and hang from the wall, or shelves that are built in a cabinet section where the weight sits on the floor. A third new trend, based upon retail stores, is slowly emerging. The shelf itself is usually plywood, and the shelf front some kind of hard wood, such as oak. Some of the more creative truck builders offer other wood selections for shelf fronts such as maple, and several have experimented with aluminum fronts, which failed to catch on but seem to be making a minor comeback as of this writing.

Cabinet-type shelves set the weight of the tools on the floor versus the walls, but often have support poles that can hinder the view of the product and usually cannot be adjusted. Wall-hung shelves often have no visible support poles and can be adjusted height-wise. Wall-supported shelves are more flexible to change and can be removed without dismantling the shelf section. Both work equally well, so it's really a matter of personal preference.

With the shelves in, finally it is starting to resemble a tool truck. After final installation of a million and one little things like drawer locks, undershelf lights, display racks, and other miscellaneous items, and a good vacuuming of all the sawdust, the interior process is complete. Finishing up outside, there’s installation of the company decals, an entry assist step, and the modern tool truck is ready for delivery.

The construction process usually takes place over a 5 to 21-day period. Prices for a new tool truck range from the high $70,000’s to over $150,000, and 50% - 60% of the cost of the truck is for the interior and its related accessories. Constructing a tool truck may appear simple on a surface level, but it’s every bit as sophisticated and specialized as any vehicle manufacturing going on today. And when considering a new or used tool truck, what you don’t see under the pegboard or carpeted walls is every bit as important as the shelving, lights, drawers, etc., that you do see.

If you have read this far, and you are considering entering the tool business, you probably would like one more question answered: what is the right truck for me? Your tool company will recommend and may require the truck they would like to see a new distributor start out in. It will usually be a 16' - 18' step van or a 16' - 18' cab chassis truck. These sizes allow you to take the starter inventory and make the interior look full, and they are easier to drive than a larger vehicle. Sure, a larger truck will hold more inventory, but it also costs more $$$ to buy more inventory, and your business budget may not allow it at first. It is better to have a smaller truck that looks full than the appearance of a larger truck with light inventory. When your business outgrows it, buy or lease a larger truck!

Tool Truck Body Styles

The Step Van; the P30

Box Trucks, Cab-Chassis Trucks

The Medium Duty Truck