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Tool Trucks 101 - The Truck, your mobile store

This page last updated December 3, 2010

Specially-equipped trucks used in the business of selling automotive hand tools and equipment to auto technicians, dealerships, shop owners, aircraft maintenance companies, and wherever specialty tools are used, are known as “ Tool Trucks “. Many people call the mobile hand tools and equipment business the "Tool Business".

To the casual eye, a Tool Truck may look like just an ordinary step van or box truck with a tool company logo on the side and liftgate on the rear. If you take a look inside, you will see why a new tool truck costs more than most luxury cars. Tool Truck interiors are literally rolling showrooms; some call it a "mobile tool store". The best interiors are laid out to efficiently display and demo tools and equipment for sale, with a dealer work area and usually a place to make small repairs to tools.

Tool Truck interiors have evolved and grown more sophisticated since the mid-1970s, when the orderly productionof Tool trucks began. Interior layouts are primarily based upon input from the tool companies and their dealers and distributors. This is especially important when creating openings for the Tool Boxes the companies sell.

Tool Truck "Builders" start with a cab chassis or step van and an empty body. Generally, the bodies are pre-wired for the upcoming features and options, and then insulated walls and ceiling are put in. Next comes the shelving, lighting, security system, and creature comforts such as AC, Heat in the rear, and Liftgate. More heavily-optioned vehicles can include a diesel furnace, security camera, 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 while offering a good retail 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 an auto techs only air conditioned 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 his 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, the Tool Truck builders. 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, including a Canadian manufacturer.

Starting up front, the driver's area is of high importance. Cab chassis trucks are constructed by the truck manufacturer, so relatively little modification of the cab in a cab-chassis truck is done. The driver’s area of a step van is more challenging - it's empty when it arrives at the truck builder - so it has to be a little more "built out" to make it comfortable. 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.

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 14’ to 30’, there is a lot of work to do. Sidenote: when someone says they have an 18' tool truck, it's important to know how they are measuring it. In a step van, the body size is the measurement from the driver’s seat to the rear doors inside. In a cab-chassis truck, the number we are quoting is the length of the “box” itself, i.e., 24’, the exterior of the body. In both cases, the stated size loses about 6" due to interior pegboard and insulation.

When a tool truck order is received, computer-drafting drawings are produced with exact specifications, also known as a "build sheet". With most builders, employees specialize in their job duties. Cabinet makers get to work on the shelving, while the assemblers prep and pre-wire the body and install the large options like AC and Liftgate. 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. At this point it still does not resemble a tool truck, with wires dangling everywhere and various underwall support structures under construction. Because everything is custom, there aren't usually any wiring diagrams or assembly manuals available, but the truck builders will usually provide this information when asked.

The pegboard ceiling, in white or chrome finish, with bungy laced throughout the holes, is the next installation. 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. The finsihed walls are next: insulation and then pegboard or carpeted walls are put in place. Finally, ceiling lights are installed in the pre-wired locations. So you have a finished-out but empty interior.

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 hang from the wall, and shelves that are built in a cabinet section where the weight sits on the floor. The shelf base is usually 3/4" plywood, and the shelf front some kind of hard wood, such as oak, cherry, or maple. One of the more creative truck builders is always experimenting and is offering an interior which closely resembles a retail department store, with lots of chrome and black plastic, appropriately named the MTS interior.

Back to the shelving. 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, you can now see 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 what is known as 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 to fill it, and your business budget may not allow this at first. Many professionals feel It is better to have a smaller truck that is full than a larger truck with the appearance of a light inventory.

Tool Truck Body Styles

The Step Van; the P30

Box Trucks, Cab-Chassis Trucks

The Medium Duty Truck