Working on our school bus conversion and other projects since, there have been a few basic hand tools that have been absolutely essential at every step of the way. Before you get started on your bus or van project, make sure that you have these simple and cheap tools at your disposal, you’ll be glad you do.
If this is the only project you plan on undertaking in the foreseeable future, go for Harbor Freight or buy cheap on Amazon. If you plan on a long life of similar projects, it’s not a bad idea to spend a little more on quality here. These are tools you may be using for the rest of your life!
You may scan through this list and say, “Hey, what about a skill saw or a power drill?” You’d be right in thinking that those are fantastic tools to have, but the focus of this is to get you set up with the basics first. I’ll talk about some of the power tools that we found to be critical in another post.
1. Measuring Tape
This is really the cornerstone of any fabrication project. You’ll use your measuring tape for everything from roughing out your space during the design process to making precision marks before cutting the sides of your cabinets. There’s something about measuring tapes that make them want to jump right out of your hand so a well-built tape that can withstand a few dozen falls onto the concrete is not a bad idea. I’d recommend a 25’ tape. This seems to be the most common size and cover most applications.
Alyssa and I both went with the classic Stanley PowerLock 25′ 1 inch measuring tape. This design hasn’t changed in a while and for good reason. Solid, dependable, and reasonably priced.
2. Rip-claw Hammer
The only nails that went into the bus came out of a nail gun. That doesn’t mean that Alyssa and I didn’t both use hammers on the job site every day. A good hammer will be an indispensable tool for any kind of demolition, sliding heavy objects into the right place, or giving your perfectly crafted furnishings that extra nudge into perfect square.
Most standard hammers have a curved claw that’s handy for pull out nails and not much more, but a rip-claw (also known as a straight claw) hammer with a straight (or just barely curved) claw can easily be considered one of the most valuable and versatile tools on any job.
We highly recommend the Estwing E3-16S Straight Claw Hammer. This is another classic that gives you the basics and not much else. Because of that, you can count on this thing being in your toolbox in 20 more years.
3. Square and pencil
When it comes time to take your measurements and mark up your lumber to start making cuts, a quick square and good sturdy pencil will come in handy. This is one thing on the list that you might be able to get away with not having, but it’s so simple and cheap that you should consider it a worthy investment for the project. There are a few different types of squares, but I found the “quick square” to be particularly useful, especially when we need to make the 45 degree marks for some of the bus components.
We went with the Stanley 7″ Premium Quick Square Layout Tool, which for about $5.99 was a totally worthwhile addition to our tool kit.
4. Straight Edge
A good, long straight edge will come in handy time and time again during the project. Bonus points if it has some height to it when it’s laying down so you can use it as a guide for your skill saw. You’ll use this to mark straight lines from point to point before making cuts, as a guide for your skill saw, and to check how level your built ins are (if you took the time to level the vehicle). We used a 48 inch level for most of our project which turned out to be just what we needed.
I’ll admit that we didn’t go out and buy a level just for this project because my parents already had their own in the shop. If and when I do buy one for myself, I’ll probably consider going with something like the Empire E80.48True Blue 48-Inch Heavy Duty Level which seems to hit the sweet spot between quality and price.
5. Utility Knife
Some tools you use once a day, others you use once every few minutes. Other tools on this list might have stayed in the shop until noon or later on certain days, but my utility knife started and ended in my pocket every day. It constantly came in handy from opening packaging to removing old caulk and gunk from the bus. You could get away with an old pocket knife, but the interchangeable blades of the utility knife mean that you never have to go long with a bad cutting edge.
Once again, I went with the classic Stanley product, the Stanley 10-099 6-Inch Classic 99 Retractable Utility Knife. This is another one of those tools that hasn’t changed in decades just because it doesn’t need to. Simple, functional, and so reasonably priced that there’s no reason not to throw it in your cart.
Are there any other essential hand tools that you can’t live without? Comment below if you think there’s anything we missed!