There are a few unique characteristics to shipping container home construction when compared to more traditional construction techniques.
One area where this is most apparent is the distinctive set of tools required to modify them. We receive a lot of questions about which tools, both power and hand operated, are needed when building your own shipping container home or building. When it comes to selecting your tools, making the right choice is as important as selecting the correct shipping containers. Without the right tool, you will end up wasting time and money and result in an inferior product.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, meaning that we may receive a small commission (at no additional cost to you) on any purchases you make after clicking on these links. Click here for more information
The five tools discussed below are specifically applicable for shipping container homes. We aren’t discussing generic tools (such as handsaws and drills) in this article as there is already a wealth of information published online about such tools.
At the heart of every shipping container build is a trusty welder.
You will use a welder at several key stages of the build:
Among enthusiasts, there is a lot of discussion around the best types of welders to use for container home construction. Below is a description of the most common options:
In practical terms what does it matter?
A stick welder is fairly simple and but requires frequent replacement of electrodes that may prove tiring if you have a lot of welds to make. However, it’s great for thicker welds and on metal that is not as clean. Beginners often have trouble and get frustrated with the electrode “sticking” to the work piece, so you may need some practice!
MIG and wire-feed welders are fast and easy to use, but sometimes produce splatter metal that you have to grind off to get a smooth finish near the weld. They do much better when the welded area is clear of paint, dirt, and other debris. Unless you get a very expensive machine, they have trouble welding thicker metal.
A TIG welder is most difficult to use but typically creates the best welds. It requires using both hands and one foot at the same time, so if you already play a drum set, you may be a step ahead with your hand-eye coordination! A TIG welder also needs good, clean metal to make good welds.
For most DIYers, a MIG welder is the best choice.
If you’re looking for a 110 volt MIG welder, this Hobart model is a great choice:
Note that 110 volt welders typically have trouble welding metal more than 3/16 inch thick. If you have access to 220 volt electric service, a 220 volt welder is recommended. Or, you can get a MIG welder that is dual voltage and handles both, like this one:
If you’re thinking of welding thicker metal (such as the corner castings on your container) and want good weld penetration without spending a fortune on a high-end MIG machine, a stick welder such as this one is a great choice.
If you’re planning to hire a contractor to do the welding, it doesn’t really matter what type of welder they use. Just be clear about your expectations for surface finish post-weld and the amount of welding you’ll need, and they can select the most appropriate equipment.
The type of insulation you are using will drive the decision of whether or not you need to consider a spray foam insulation kit. In most cases, we recommend spray foam insulation for a container build, but you still need to decide if you want a contractor or DIY solution.
If you’re planning for a small home or cabin with one container, the DIY solution may be plausible.
You can purchase pre-mixed solutions which come in cylinders ready to spray. These kits normally include everything you need to install your insulation, including spray nozzles, hose, and cylinders of foam creating chemicals.
Here’s one of the best-rated kits, but note that you’ll need several of these to provide complete wall/ceiling/floor coverage (and in most cases, we’d recommend at least 2 inches of foam).
It’s best to call around to local contractors and get an estimate, then compare that to what the DIY option would cost. The more insulating you have to do (and thus the more containers that your project has), the less economical the DIY option becomes compared to hiring a professional.
One of the most common tools you will use throughout your build is something to cut metal.
You will need this to cut the openings for your doors and windows and also to remove any container walls which aren’t needed.
As for which type of tool to use you have a few main choices: angle grinder, cutting torch or a plasma cutter.
If you’re looking for the cheapest and most DIY friendly then look no further than the angle grinder. It’s simple to use and replacement cutting discs are available for only a couple of bucks. Even if you have no previous experience, you can get up to speed with it very quickly.
Note that the tool can be somewhat heavy and generates a lot of gyroscopic force, which will quickly wear out your forearms if you have a lot of cutting to do. It’s also very loud and generates a lot of sparks, so ear and eye protection are a must.
A high amperage grinder such as this DeWalt model has the power to cut through container walls with ease.
Note the cutting discs are much thinner than grinding discs, so ensure you have the right type installed!
Even better, try out these diamond-impregnated steel cutting discs, which will last much longer than the traditional discs and save you from changing out discs as often. Some owners have talking about using up well over 100 traditional cuttings disks on a single build with multiple containers, so a longer-lasting blade like this could be a life-saver!
If you’re looking for a smooth, clean cut with less effort, then a plasma cutter is your friend. Using a plasma cutter is much less physically demanding than an angle grinder and will make cleaner cuts.
However, plasma cutters are definitely much more expensive and unless you plan to use one for later projects, are probably overkill for a simple container build.
Finally, a cutting torch, typically using oxygen and acetylene gas, is the last option. A cutting torch can be fast and is cheaper than a plasma cutter, but can be difficult to set up and use correctly.
You have to get the settings just right, or you end up making a mess and have a lot of cutting slag that you’ll have to grind off later. For these reasons, we don’t recommend a cutting torch unless you’re already very familiar with using them.
One of our favorite tools isn’t actually a physical tool at all.
It’s a drawing program called ‘SketchUp’ which lets us design and model different ideas for shipping container homes.
While you don’t need a piece of computer software to draw and design your container home, we find it much easier.
SketchUp is available for free for home use as a program that runs in your web browser. You’ll need a pretty fast computer or you might get frustrated with the speed of the program.
It’s available here: https://www.sketchup.com/products/sketchup-free
Alternatively, older versions of SketchUp that run natively on your computer and don’t require a web browser are available here (2014 Make version): https://forums.sketchup.com/t/sketchup-make-2014-download-links-provided-here/11472
And here (Version 8): http://www.oldversion.com/windows/google-sketchup/
If you don’t want to use SketchUp, there are plenty of other programs out there for free, with differing levels of user-friendliness. You can also get design apps for your iPad or Android tablet as well.
However, if you don’t want to use a computer you can always just do it the old-fashioned way and get out a piece of paper and start sketching.
Once you’ve finished drawing you can then scan them and store them on your computer to keep them safe and share.
When your shipping containers are delivered to your land, you will likely need something to lift and place the containers on your foundation, depending on how you’ve designed your build.
You have several options depending on the foundation type you’re using and the access to your land.
If you’re using a slab foundation, and there is good access to your site, when the containers are being delivered you can ask the driver to back right up to the foundation slab and simply slide them right off.
However, in many cases, you’ll need to have a machine physically lift your container and place it.
Options for this are plentiful and include cranes, forklifts, and other options. What’s important is ensuring that you don’t exceed the maximums on the load chart, which is a function of both weight and the distance from the lifting apparatus that the crane sits. An experienced operator will handle this for you, but YouTube is full of crane disaster videos, so make sure you triple check all your planning and be extremely careful during the lifts.
Almost any of these options will cost you several hundred dollars a day to rent, and potentially more if there is not one close by to your location.
Knowing which tools are needed is crucial when planning and sticking to your budget.
While you don’t need to own all of the tools mentioned, you will certainly need access to them (or to hire someone with access to them) at some point during your build.
Are there any crucial tools you think we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments section below.
Is a Container Home right for you?