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Workshop on wheels – how I transformed a flatbed truck into a rolling workbench

 

Living in a big city offers quite a few challenge for anyone interested in crafts, outdoor activities and DIY projects, most notably the very first step of finding a suitable workspace.

To give you an idea of the troubles I faced in my (hardly unique) quest for a simple workshop this is what I went through:

  • While I have both a basement and an attic at my disposal neither of them has power sockets.
    • The basement does not have standing height, no way to air it out and I can hardly turn on the spot without hitting anything.
    • The attic is fully wooden (great for welding, sparks and brazing!), not much space either and I’m directly on top of neighbors who probably don’t like the sound of a running angle grinder too much.

So naturally I went on our craigslist equivalent and started searching for rentable workshops. My expectation was that it should be possible to find either a workshop for myself, a shared workshop or at worst at least a garage somewhere for a small monthly sum.

Little did I know that a shared workspace, usable only on weekends with barely more space than my own basement apparently runs at 350€ and upwards in my city. An underground parking spot (not even a garage) costs around 150€ and real garages either rent for 200+ or sell for 52k (I’m not joking, that’s a garage with nothing else. No power of course).

This cute little mess can be yours for only 52,000€

Several other ideas emerged and subsequently were deemed unsuitable, from allotment gardens over grassland and forest patches that pop up for sale or rent every now and then in reasonable distance to my home.

One idea however kept coming back to my mind that I had first pondered over two years before after following the vanlife-movement for a good while on various social media:

Why not make my own workshop, with black wheels and hooks?

The idea is hardly unique or my own, about everyone who uses tools for a living has a minivan, truck or other kind of vehicle with a tool rack installed but hardly anyone uses them for hobby purposes.

Since through our magnetfishing adventures we sometimes find enough scrap metal to fill a whole truck bed from just one bridge a truck of some sort was a long overdue purchase anyway and after literally years of saving up for one I was finally able to purchase a cute yet massive yellow flatbed truck that would soon serve a variety of purposes.

built in 1998 this Mercedes Sprinter flatbed was too old and too underpowered to find a buyer and died a slow death in the very rear of a shady truck seller’s lot until I adopted it.

In a weird turn of events this truck was bigger and cheaper than any of the pickup trucks you can buy here in Germany, plus it can carry 1.4 tons of additional weight while most pickup trucks here top out at a mere 500kg. Other benefits include extremely simple, mostly mechanical technology and an engine that is widely considered as indestructible and the space and versatility it offers is superior to the minivans that looked like the most affordable option before I stumbled over this.

And so my rolling workshop came to life.

Before starting the whole project I made a short list of what I actually wanted to get out of the truck:

  • A workbench on the bed that I could use. It just so happens that this truck configuration with a low bed has the perfect height to work on.
  • Storage space for my tools. The original plan was a lockable box on the bed, but as I will later explain I found a better way.
  • A way to sleep in the truck, this way I would be able to camp out at a lake or anywhere in nature and work until it became too dark.
  • A way to run powertools that I just could not in my home. Angle grinders, drilling, grinding wheels, the lot.


Final poser pic first. Beautiful location, beautiful sunset, beautiful smell of fresh cut wood. Oh yeah, I like the workbench, too.

The workbench was of course the first step and after about two weeks of owning the truck I found a guy giving away sturdy outdoor-ready pressure treated wood from an old rabbit-cage in his new garden for free. Free wood is always the best wood and so I drove an hour each way to take it off his hands. Fun story: The small house he had bought had set him back a total of 600,000€. It’s a mad world we live in.

I made a video of the whole build (you can watch it here) and as you would expect building a workbench was both fun and relatively uncomplicated, especially with a couple 18v Makita battery tools that I bought to help with the idea of location-independent power supply. It’s hard to explain how much fun a battery powered reciprocating saw is, the chaotic lawful of the tool world.


I got this wood for free (free wood is good wood) out of a house rebuild, a bit of laminated plywood and normal planks. The large sheet on the floor there would have cost 70 bucks at the hardware store, pretty crazy. First step was to remove a couple nails.


I ended up sawing them flush because I couldn’t get them out without breaking since they were so rusty. Plus it was another chance to use my favourite toy Devastator, devourer of, well anything that gets in its way.


With a wood blade Devastator also made short process of straightening the board. I do not own a circular saw, but the recip saw can get some reasonably straight lines which were more than enough for this build.


Measuring 40 centimers, expertly drawn out using a tape measure.

This wood is some seriously strong stuff, I could kneel on it while sawing through seventy percent without it breaking. Cut line turned out a little wobbly, but not too bad. Maybe two or three millimeters of play and it’s the side opposite to the straight edge of the sidewall.

Measuring the length of the beam.

Cutting it with the recip saw. The weight of the beam was enough to secure it in place with one hand and get a reasonably straight cut.

Test assembly


Drawing the notches for the metal bars


And cutting them out. The recip saw is also a surprisingly potent jigsaw. If all you have is a recip every problem looks like it needs some cutting.


Drilling holes into the sidewall with an impact driver and metal drill bit. I do not own a regular battery powered drill right now, but with an adapter for drill bits I found it works perfectly even for drilling metal. It always hurts a bit to drill into my car, but it had to be done.


Screwing two wooden planks against the sidewall so I could later fasten the top to them. Turned out really stable, not a whiff of wobble.


Screwing the top on top, works perfectly without any wobble.


Installed a cute little vise to the almost finished workbench so I could cut some pieces of the plank in half…

… So I could use them to secure the legs to the floor as a final step.

The final result, a perfectly usable workbench at my favourite spot just near a beautiful lake. That’s the life.

With that done and a couple projects built (Scrap-metal lamp and a restored hammer that we found in the water with our magnets) the whole concept proved to be a ton of fun and definitely a success in my opinion.

The workbench is little more than a sturdy table that rests on wooden beams on one side and on the truck bed sidewall on the outside with a cross beam for extra strength. This setup is indestructible and works really well for my purpose. The only difficult part was to cut out notches where the metal frame comes out of the sidewall, but that was easily done with the recip saw.

Mobile Power Supply

In the meantime I had figured out a great way to get a mobile power supply running that allowed me to run any 230v power tool off of the jumpstarter pack that I bought after an unfortunate accident involving a forgetful driver and running lights.

I run most of my tools on battery power, the Makita tools are amazing in that regard and really powerful so wherever I can get them I simply buy the cordless tool and use one of my four batteries (that can be charged with the 230V supply if needed). The runtime on these batteries is pretty decent, so far I have not run into any issues with this setup and moderate use and I can always buy more batteries if I need them.

The whole concept works really well and is so much location independent that it is even independent of the truck and I could theoretically use it anywhere where power is needed. In fact it has proven quite useful on regular camping trips, festivals and outdoor barbecues by the fishing lake so that was another very successful undertaking.

All I needed for this to work was a 12V battery, any car battery would work and the jumpstarter pack I use simply has a couple other benefits like being able to jumpstart my truck and charging it is easy off a home socket.

This is then hooked into a 2,000W pure sine inverter where I can connect any possible device to. The pure sine is important here, they are a little more expensive than the converted sine wave inverters but they provide ‘clean’ power that can run sensitive electronics like computers. The reason I need this is that some powertools with variable speed triggers will only work on full power when hooked up to a converted sine wave and of course I do not want that. I was lucky enough to purchase a spare used one from a guy who had bought two for his boat and only needed one in the end for about half the original price.

A very simple setup, just a jumpstarter pack hooked up to a 2,000W pure sine inverter. It works surprisingly well for how hacky it is.

To use it all you need to do is hook up the inverter either to the corresponding sockets on the battery or in my case use the alligator clamps of the jump starter, switch on both devices and hook up your tool of choice. The way I use it is not exactly safe and OSHA approved and it’s important to find a way to keep the two clamps away from each other, but it works and with a bit of common sense there is no real problem using this method. I will in time invest in a second battery for the truck and have it charged by the alternator, but that is quite pricey and for now I get along using this setup just fine.

Parts:
– Pure Sine inverter (like this). Around 300 bucks. Make sure to get around 2,000W as that will run pretty much any common power tool.
-12V battery of some sort or a jump starter pack (like this)

Storage

For storage I found a really good solution that combines three use-cases in one all for a little under fifty bucks. The rear seats of the truck had already been removed by the previous owner, which saved me the work to do it myself and instead I removed the wooden tool rack they had installed in favour of a folding trunk. This comes with the benefit of (quite a lot of) storage for all my tools, emergency seats should the three front seats not be enough and a surprisingly decent place to sleep at night with a little mattress thrown on top.

This is just a simple box made from wooden boards that I cut to length that is held in place by screwing it into the wooden board the former owner nicely installed for me to use. That board itself is fastened into the bare metal with a couple more screws and I think the fact that one can afford to drill holes into a car like this without hurting the value is pretty great. The top is mounted on two sturdy hinges that fold forward, this way I don’t run into clearing issues like I would have if they were installed at the back.

To fasten the four side panels I simply used metal 90° bends and wooden blocks on the bottom, this turned out to be more than sturdy enough because there are two ridges in the bottom where I had to cut little notches into the wood to fit the box over them. I think they were used to fasten the seats once, now they keep the box from rattling. For further security I installed two wooden cross-beam at the bottom but I don’t think they were really necessary.

As you can see there is a lot of foot room left for either seating or even save enclosed space for my beloved bicycle.


The amount of use I get out of this truck is incredible. The bike especially is very nice to get around when moving the truck would be a waste of fuel or I don’t want to give up a good parking space.

For sleeping purposes this setup is a bit cramped, but not nearly as bad as I thought it would be and in fact I slept incredibly well the couple times I used it. Nothing beats waking up in nature, that much is sure.

Parts:
– Wooden boards of appropriate size, I used pine for the sides and beech for the top because that was available at my local hardware store. Roughly 50 bucks.
– 4 to 8 metal fasteners or wooden blocks to fasten the corners, under ten bucks
– two hinges for the top, about ten bucks.


That about concludes the work I have done on the truck so far, I hope you enjoyed this build log even a fraction of how much I enjoy the truck and the freedom it offers me when it comes to crafting, building and keeping the environment clean one piece of scrap metal at a time.

 

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