Starting A Business Part 2: Tool Storage Inside The Service Van

This is the second in a series of articles about my experiences in starting an automotive locksmith business. Even though I’ve been an automotive locksmith since the mid 1970s, most of my income has come from teaching, writing, and the production of training videos since the late 1980s. In August of 2013, I suddenly had to go back to earning my living as an automotive locksmith. These articles are designed to cover some of the basic choices that I had to make in starting up my new business.

In the first article, I discussed locating a suitable vehicle and providing adequate power for my key machines, tools and equipment. (Read part 1 at www.locksmithledger.com/11288015.) Next, I needed a safe way to store my tools and inventory, workspace, and a place to mount my key machines.

First, I looked into a pre-manufactured “Locksmith Package” specifically designed for my vehicle, a 2010 Ford Transit Connect. A local installation shop represented a variety of manufacturers and I considered interior kits from Adrian Steel (www.adriansteel.com), American Van (www.americanvan.com), and Masterack (www.masterack.com). Most packages included a safety partition between the seating area and the rear workspace. Several of the kits would have done nicely, but they all had a lot of storage space for larger objects such as locksets, deadbolts, exit hardware, door closers, etc. Since I was planning on using my van strictly for automotive work, I didn’t need so many large racks and shelves.

In the end, I bolted down a large roll-around toolbox and used the top of it as a workbench and as a place to mount my key machines. If I had purchased a new truck, I would have gone with one of the manufactured packages. Most major truck manufacturers have special deals available on interior packages as an incentive to buy a new truck, ranging from rebates to very generous discounts. An interior package could also be a good bargaining point when negotiating a deal on a new truck.

At about the same time that I was outfitting my truck, my friend Tom Tate was replacing his elderly step-van with a new Nissan NV Cargo van. He had decided to downsize his vehicle for a number of reasons, including fuel economy, increasing maintenance costs on his older vehicle, and safety. But the real motivator was to have a vehicle with an air conditioned work area! Here in the Florida panhandle, trying to work inside a big aluminum box during the summer can be brutal, no matter how many fans you have running.

His interior options were quite a bit different from mine. He already had an interior package in his old van. He considered an entirely new interior, but opted to have his old interior modified to fit his new vehicle. A local installer helped him decide how to transfer the most important parts of his old interior into the new van and did an excellent job of making sure that the result was what he wanted.

He also wanted to get away from his old noisy gasoline generator, and the local contractor set him up with a 2000 watt inverter system. They did a great looking professional installation and wired in all of his lights and accessories, including electrical outlets in all the right places.

After seeing Tom’s new van, I couldn’t help but admire it. If my finances would have permitted it, I would have loved to have a set-up like his, but since I’m working on a shoestring budget, doing it myself was the best option for me.

Once I decided to use a roll-around tool box as the central part of my storage / workbench system, I measured the floor space and went shopping with my tape measure. I visited Sears, Lowes, Home Depot, and did a lot of online research. Almost as an afterthought, I checked Harbor Freight as well. I buy a lot of stuff at Harbor Freight, but as a general rule I avoid making major purchases there.

Mostly what I buy from Harbor Freight is small stuff like drill bits, cut-off wheels, plastic storage boxes, and some air tools. I was surprised by the quality of their top-of-the-line tool boxes. The one that would fit the best in my van had roller-bearing drawers and appeared well-built. It was designed to accept add-on accessories and had four threaded inserts on each end that were strong enough to support additional tool boxes or cabinets. The work surface on the top included a nice rubber pad and was big enough to mount a key machine on each end and still give me plenty of room to work between the machines.

My timing could not have been better for a purchase like this. After weighing all the options and the prices, I went to make my purchase, only to discover that everything had gone on sale for Father’s Day. Harbor Freight loaded the toolbox into the van with a forklift, and after strapping it down, I headed to my shop to begin the installation.

I had them load it into the van in what I thought would be the proper orientation, and I had no intention of taking it out of the van again. Naturally, it was exactly backwards of the way that I actually wanted it. At my shop, I cut away the outer packaging and removed the wooden blocks that were bolted on the bottom to form a type of pallet. Then I removed the casters by tilting the box from side to side inside the van (shown in photos 5 and 6). Once I had it in position, I cut two aluminum brackets out of an old equipment rack. Using the threaded inserts on the bottom of each end of the tool box, I bolted the brackets onto the ends of the box.

My van came with two “D” rings, like the one shown in photo 8, in the rear for securing cargo. By removing one of those, I had a heavy duty threaded insert that was actually a part of the frame of the truck to use as an anchor point. After bolting the box down to that one point, I drilled holes through the floor of the truck so that I could through-bolt my two brackets in place.

Naturally, Murphy’s Law popped up and I discovered that part of my bracket blocked access to some of the places where I needed to drill holes. Since it was already late in the day, I decided to deal with this inconvenience with the brute-force and ignorance approach. I used a hole-saw to crudely cut away the offending portions of the brackets. So now, every time I look at my handiwork, I am reminded not to take shortcuts! After securing the box, I called it a day.

On the following day, I bolted my key machines to the top of the box. Photo 11 shows my Framon #2 code machine on the left-hand side of the workbench, and Photo 12 shows my early model Framon Express duplicator on the right-hand side of the workbench. I bolted each machine to the top of the workbench using self-tapping bolts, with thread locking compound on the threads, to prevent the bolts from vibrating loose. The last thing that I want is for one of those machines to come free if I am ever in a collision.

Initially, I powered my key machines with a 2000 watt Honda gasoline generator. But that was just a temporary measure until I got the inverter installed as I described in my previous article.

Another side effect of my DIY approach to outfitting my van was that I could try different options to see what worked best for me. I struggled to find an efficient way to stock my key blanks so that they were accessible, organized, and easy to inventory. I have driven way too many trucks with keyboards full of hanging, jingling, and rattling keys that would fly all over the place if you hit a pothole or had to make a sudden stop. I was determined that my new van would NOT have a keyboard!

When I was doing locksmith work part-time out of my old Astro van, I kept my key blanks in plastic storage boxes from Harbor Freight that I would transfer in and out of the van as needed. I initially used the same system until I got the van outfitted. After I installed my toolbox / workbench, I started looking for off- the-shelf drawer organizers that would allow me to keep everything neat.

Since I was limiting myself to automotive work, most of the keys that I needed to keep organized were transponder keys. Unlike mechanical blanks, many transponder keys do not have any identifying part numbers on them, so mixing them up can be a real problem. They usually come individually packaged in plastic bags with the part number printed on the bag. I was planning on carrying about six of each popular transponder blank in my van as well as two each of the less popular blanks. Six transponder keys in individual bags is an awkward bundle that wastes a lot of space.

My initial solution was to punch a hole in each bag and then put all of the bags inside another zipper-style bag labeled with the part number. I punched holes in the bags, including the zipper bag, so that I could squeeze the air out and make the package as small as possible. Then I would stuff the package into a compartment in my drawer organizer.

This system worked, but as you can see in Photo 13, it was anything but neat. In order to identify the correct bag of keys, I would have to pull them out and read the label on the outer bag. The bags would invariably stick up above the organizer and get caught in the cabinet as I opened and closed the drawers. In addition, the organizers themselves wasted a lot of space.

When I was the base locksmith at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, I often found myself working in areas where aircraft and aircraft components were being serviced. Many technicians used a system of small removable red plastic boxes in various sizes for storing parts and tools. The Schaller Corporation (www.schallercorporation.com) produces an amazing variety of these boxes and sells them directly over the web. They come in various depths and sizes so you can completely customize your storage system. They also have packages and assortments designed to cover a lot of different applications.

The cost of the boxes was about the same as I had already spent on molded drawer inserts that didn’t really do the job so I immediately designed a system for a single drawer as a test. I added a couple of their sample assortments so I could experiment with different configurations. The total cost of my order and shipping was slightly under $100, and I consider that one of the best investments that I’ve made in my truck.

I labeled each transponder key that I planned to keep in the van. I then labeled each box and started getting organized. I quickly discovered that this new system was a real space saver in comparison to my old system. I was now able to store all of the keys that I had previously stored in two drawers in a single drawer with room to spare. I was also glad that I had bought the assortments, since naturally my original plan didn’t work out quite as neatly as I had hoped. By playing with the configuration of the boxes, I came up with a system for organizing my transponder keys that worked so well that I also decided to use it for many of my specialty tools. Now all of my Lishi Picks, Kobra Readers and Determinators are safely stored, labeled, and easy to access.

In my next article, I will go into more detail as to which specialty tools I have decided to keep in my van. With the limited amount of space and the relatively high cost of some of these tools, it is important to carry only what I will need the most, and leave the things that I will only use occasionally at the shop.

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