DIY Storage Boxes

Last year at Overland Expo West & East I taught a workshop on “DIY Storage Solutions for the Budget Overlander” (title was something like that, I honestly don’t remember it verbatim).  Sadly I won’t be teaching it this year, but that does give me an excuse to talk about my new rack.

How to fit 10#’s of shit into an 8# sack

I’m not just going to show off the new rack though.  Mainly because it’s not done yet.  If you read on you’ll get a glimpse back at some older DIY cargo boxes I built…

The JRCM-mk1

The first Jeep Rear Cargo Managment (JRCM) box was built on a whim out of one sheet of plywood, a 2×4, some screws, and a six-pack of beer.  It took about an hour and that was mostly spent looking for a bottle opener.
24″ deep, 42″ wide 19″ tall
Total cost: under $40.
The goal of the JRCM-mk1 was to maximize the storage area in the back of my 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee (ZJ).  I had done a lot of trip with the ZJ (and it’s predecessor) and was well versed in how to pack the Jeep but stuff in the back always ended up piled on top of each other.  This box would allow me to access things on the bottom (tools, spare parts, grill, etc) while keeping soft stuff (sleeping bag, duffle bag, etc) strapped down on the top.
The inside was painted white for visibility
The outside walls were painted black.
The top tray area was painted a textured grey that matched the ZJ’s interior.
Once I was set on the design I painted it up as nice as I could with some rattle cans.  Nothing too crazy.  Just enough to protect the wood and the cargo from each other.
As you can see, it fits perfectly.
It maximizes storage while still maintaining maximum visibility.

The JRCM-mk2

When I got the LJ I knew I’d be wanting a cargo box in the back.  At first I tried to fit the ZJ cargo box into the LJ but it was too wide.  Just wouldn’t fit between the narrow wheel-wells of the Wrangler.  I thought about narrowing it but it seemed silly to cut up a perfectly good box.  I opted to just build a new one specific to the LJ.
First things first, remove the nonessentials
The first thing on the to-do list was to gut the back-half of the LJ.  I removed the rear fold-and-tumble seat, its brackets, as well as the rear seat belts.  I can’t think of a single scenario when I’d need any of that stuff.  However, you can tell by the zip-locks, I did save everything —- just in case.
Dry fitting, measuring…
… refitting and remeasuring…
… like Tetris, only less satisfying because nothing ever goes away.
Growing up I played a lot of Tetris.  I was also the family’s packing specialist when it came time to make a road trip.  As such I’m pretty efficient at making the most out of a small space.  That said, the small confines of the LJ would really test my skills given the amount of crap I wanted to pack back in there.
Every good box starts with a strong foundation.
And every project goes a lot better with good help.
For those that don’t know, the LJ is 15″ longer than a base TJ.  10″ comes from the longer wheelbase and 5″ comes from some extra ghetto booty out back.  This makes the floor length of the rear cargo area exactly 48″ long.  The plan Jim and I came up with was to use four 2×2’s as runners under a half-inch plywood base.  Light, but stable.  I opted to use primered cabinet grade plywood this time around.  While a little more expensive it would save time and money from having to paint it later.
We might have gone a little overkill with the screws… but that’s not a bad thing given the expected loads.

Measure twice, cut once… not the other way around.

Like the JRCM-mk1, the mk2 would also be subdivided for better cargo management.

A unique feature to the mk2 however is the front tray (more on that soon).

As you can see, it fits perfectly.
The only thing I didn’t account for was the rear gate’s latch pin.
Whoops.
Now, to explain the shape of the box, let me first spell out two of my main criteria.  First, the box needed to maximize rear visibility which is why I wanted to keep it short.  Just tall enough to fit things like the cooler and tool boxes, but shallow enough to not obstruct my rear view.  The other thing I wanted to make sure of was being able to recline both front seats.  This second criteria, while not essential, is more about personal comfort than anything.  I wanted to make sure a passenger could recline their seat when wanted.  I also wanted to make sure I could recline the seats when it was time to sleep in the event of bad weather or an emergency “nap.”  These are things to consider when you do your own cargo box.

Even if you don’t DIY, think about these kinds of things when shopping for pre-made boxes and drawers or make sure to outline your expectations and desires to a fabrication shop that is going to build you a custom.  The last thing you want to do is pay someone for a really nice custom or semi-custom install and find out it blocks a blind-spot, a HVAC duct, a speaker, or you can’t slide your seat back all the way.

Part of the reason for the “cut twice.”
We didn’t have the angle right the first time.
This time the seat was able to fully recline without hitting the box.

Here you can see both my laptop (tan Pelican case) and my briefcase behind the seat.
At max-recline the seat doesn’t hit either case.
Win!

Here You can see how things fit.
Cooler on the left, toolbox and grill on the right.

With about 36″ of overall depth to work with I was able to fit two Pelican 1500 cases behind the toolbox and grill.
One P1500 was found in a dumpster… the other I stole from my dad’s old camera.
Just because you’re on a limited budget doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to get good gear.

That’s pretty much how the box was for the 2015 season.  I carried the bulk of the heavy stuff down load with lighter things like my cot, sleeping bag, and duffel bag on the top deck.  All in all the box worked great for as simple and as cheap as it was.  Although not pictured I did add roughly a dozen eye-bolts to the box to both secure the cargo to the box and secure the box to the Jeep.

Changes and adaptations

The best thing about a building a box on the cheap and doing it yourself is when things need to change it’s relatively cheap and easy to do so.  When I added the trailer for the 2016 season I was able to switch things up a little.  I no longer needed to carry my personal gear in the Jeep.  My bedding and clothing would now be relegated to the trailer.  That gave me more room in the back of the Jeep.

In late 2016 it was recommended to me to remove the external spare tire carrier and move the tire inside.  While rock-crawling I was experiencing a phenomena known as “the tail wagging the dog.”  Since I had extra room it made sense to move the tire inside.  It also prevented all that extra weight from rocking the Jeep in technical terrain.
Change in needs means a change in structure and layout.
The box was easy enough to modify.  I removed the center divider and lowered the tray to just above the height of the tire.  This also made it easier, in theory, to access the tools and things like recovery gear.  However, theory is often better than practice.  I was finding I needed to not only open the rear gate but also lift the glass every time I wanted something.  The more I thought about it the more I realized a drawer would make life a lot easier.  I could secure the tire on top and convert the bottom to a drawer.  Sadly, after two years of use, abuse, and modification the wooden box was pretty worn out.  Since I was more sure of what I wanted to build I opted to evolve from a wooden box to a metal rack.

Rack ’em and stack ’em.

I’ve confessed many times I can’t weld.  At the very least I shouldn’t weld.  Don’t make me weld.  I can make sparks.  I can melt metal. If I’m lucky it will stick together.  I just wouldn’t call it welding nor would I want to insult real welders by calling what I do welding.  That’s why I prefer to work in wood.  I might not be a professional carpenter or cabinetmaker, but I can get by.  Welding… not so much.
Alex’s welded rack.
Simple angle-iron frame with an expanded metal tray floor.
It’s also removable so he can put the backseat in.
Apparently he has friends… who knew.
Luckily I know a few welders.  Recently Alex (aka ECOA_Alex on IG) welded up his own rack.  His parameters were a little different than mine, but it got me thinking.  After bribing him with chicken nuggets he said he’d help me to put together a rack.  I opted to use his ideas and build the rack out of angle-iron.

This is where teamwork can overcome a lack of DIY experience or skillset.  Just because you’ve never done something doesn’t mean you can make/find friends who have done it.  This was a learning experience for me and collaborating with both Alex and Jim on the rack design, welding, etc was a fun experience.  I guess an old salty dog like myself can learn a new trick (just don’t ask to see my practice welds).

It doesn’t take much to start.
Just a few 6′ sections of angle-iron cut down to length
I think in total I spent $65 on metal.

The top tray is 34″ x 34″
Just big enough for my 255/85R16 Cooper S/T Maxx

A few legs raise it up for some storage underneath.

Here you can see the general concept.
I added a few more legs and some angle-iron runners on the bottom for stability.

At this point the rack is about 75% done.  It’s functional and does it’s job, but there are still a few things that I need to add.  For starters the tire will get bolted to the stock spare tire carrier which will be bolted to the frame.  This will not only be safe and solid, but it will also be secure since the spare tire will be held down with splined lug-nuts. So if the top is ever off I shouldn’t have to worry (too much) about someone walking off with my spare tire.  As far as other additions, I’m going to convert the bottom to a drawer.

For now everything is strapped down.  It’s not bolted in place, which is the goal.
The final end-game is a pair of locking drawersliders for all the little stuff.
So, that’s where things stand right now.  The rack is still a work in process.  Eventually it will get painted and a new wood or metal deck added.  I also need to finish the front half between the rack and the front seats.  There is more room to work with than with the wooden box so that’s nice.  Just not 100% sure what to do yet.  I’m thinking a mini-rack for the ammo-cans.  We’ll see though.

If you have any questions feel free to comment below.

BONUS!!!

But wait, there’s more.

One of the other DIY storage things built for the LJ was the dual-fuel can carrier.  I don’t need it anymore since I have the GenRight 31.5 gallon Safari Tank.  Still thought I’d show it off.  Props to Jim for the idea, the parts, and the welding.

It’s not pretty, but it works.
It’s also removable to make accessing the spare possible.

I will say this is one reason I opted to get rid of the carrier.
That’s a lot of cantilevered weight.
But it did work.
Not bad for an 11th hour build.
Two trailer fenders, some rebar, pipe, and flat stock.
Cheap, but effective.

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