Should you build or buy your trailer?
There are many misconceptions about building your own trailer. Unfortunately, all too many would-be welders pick up a Hobart MIG welder and post the forum question, “So, is 3×2 tube big enough to weld my own trailer?”
In this article, let’s consider building your own bolt-together or welded trailer versus purchasing from elsewhere.
Building Your Own Trailer As A Rewarding Hobby
You may want to build your own trailer as a hobby. More power to you!
Building your own homemade utility trailer over a few weeks or months, using occasional nights and weekends, is a rewarding and enjoyable experience. You can even share it with your family or friends!
Building trailers is a great hobby if you’re mechanically inclined, enjoy hands-on work, and enjoy occasional technical research. If you’ve never met a tool you didn’t like, you’ll love building your own trailer!
If you lack the ability, patience, or free time to carefully execute your trailer design, then we recommend you purchase a commercial model. Assembling a trailer is not the time to learn how to MIG weld or what an impact drill is.
In fact, I’ll go even further: Designing or assembling your own trailer without proper expertise is irresponsible and incredibly dangerous. You’ll be towing this trailer at 50-70 mph down the highway. If you do not have the requisite skills and knowledge, please leave this project to the experts.
What About a Heavy-Duty Hauler?
Car haulers, deck-over gooseneck trailers, and other heavy equipment haulers are best left to the professionals.
If you require a heavy-duty equipment trailer with a GVWR of more than 7,000 lbs, I recommend you purchase a commercial model or work with a custom trailer manufacturer to fabricate your model. At least have a structural engineer review your plans.
Safety & Space Concerns
Also, basic safety equipment and space are required to build a trailer. You can’t build a trailer in an apartment suite.
- If you’re constructing a simple bolt-together trailer, then you only require basic hand and power tools and personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, eyewear, closed-toe shoes, etc.
- If you’re fabricating a welded trailer frame, then you’ll require significantly more space, more PPE, more tools, specialized work surfaces, fire extinguisher, and so forth.
So before you consider building your own trailer, ensure that you have both the space, the manufacturing tools, the protective gear, and the personal discipline to safely construct your trailer.
Is It Safe to Weld My Own Trailer?
Without a fair amount of experience, most people will be unable to safely weld their own trailer.
There is an enormous difference between laying down a simple FCAW fillet weld connecting two bright and shiny ⅛-inch steel plates …
(Which is how most people learn to weld and what’s taught on YouTube)
… and GMAW welding an all-around V-groove mitered corner or 3-way tee joint with ¼-inch thick steel tube.
(Which is what welding a trailer frame may actually require).
Welding is not a beginner-friendly process. It takes much time to learn, requires a trained eye to inspect, and is difficult to test without destruction.
- Welding steel is difficult. Welding aluminum, even more so! Many experienced trailer builders simply will weld aluminum, as it is so finicky and prone to fatigue.
- There are several critical joints in a trailer design, such as where the hangers mount to the main rails, and where the tongue ties into the main frame, that are particularly susceptible to fatigue. Anything less than a perfect weld can severely limit the performance and lifespan of these welds, and by extension, your trailer.
- Many basic welding rigs are unable to properly weld thick material in a single pass. Entry-level MIG welders may struggle with proper penetration at welds 3/16” or thicker. Without sufficient penetration, welds will simply not hold.
|DIY Bolted||DIY Welded||Commercial||Custom|
|Frame Quality||Good-Excellent||Dependent on Skill||Medium-Good||Dependent on Skill|
|Component Quality||Your Choice!||Your Choice!||Low-Medium||Your Choice!|
|Easiness||Medium||Hard||Buy and Drive!||Medium|
|Waiting Time||Medium||Long||Buy and Drive!||Long|
DIY Vs. Commercial Trailer – Pros and Cons
Let’s consider the cost-benefits of building your own trailer versus purchasing a commercial stock model.
First and foremost, commercial units come with warranties! Your own, obviously, will not.
Contrary to popular opinion, building your own trailer is not necessarily cheaper than purchasing one. Retailers such as Northern Tool, Lowes, Tractor Supply and SLE equipment all offer small- and medium-sized utility trailers at affordable prices.
But when you build your own, you must source all the parts.
- Some materials, like steel, you may be able to find locally for a reasonable price.
- Or, like tires, you may find gently used for a great deal.
- Others, like axles, you should expect to pay at least twice as much as what a manufacturing company would pay.
Unfortunately, no one will sell you these components at wholesale or OEM prices.
If you’re simply wanting the biggest general-purpose trailer you can afford, you will almost certainly spend less by buying a mass-produced commercial model.
However, all these trailers are intentionally built to a low price point. You may see cost-cutting measures when it comes to wiring, decking, hardware, and trailer components.
There may also be cost-cutting measures you can’t see, such as whether the steel was acid-washed, cleaned or sandblasted before powder coated. Or whether the 2-ply tires were $25 a piece shipped on a cargo container from Taiwan.
So if you want something built to a higher standard, or you have custom design requirements, then you should consider the pros and cons of a custom trailer.
DIY Vs. Custom Trailer – Pros and Cons
Where building your own trailer becomes financially rewarding is when you want something custom.
Local trailer builders and welding shops charge a premium for custom work. You could easily pay $1,000 for just a half day’s worth of work!
And that’s just for the frame. You will pay extra when ordering axles, springs, hubs, etc. through the shop. This markup is how the company makes money. It is a fair business practice, but you should be aware of it.
Now, let’s consider a few reasons you might want a custom trailer.
- You want a lightweight, finish-free aluminum frame.
- You want upgraded Nev-R Lube electric brakes.
- You want a soft-ride suspension like a torsion axle or airbags.
- You want a trailer capable of surviving immersion in tidal salt waters.
- You want a flat deck-between trailer, with no sides, for a home RV or camper build.
Many fabrication shops will either charge you an arm and a leg for such custom work, or they’ll have no idea how to design a trailer to meet these requirements. Or both, in some cases.
However, a high-quality trailer shop will be able to work with you to design a trailer to meet your specifications. In some cases, they can even get plans approved by a Professional Engineer. This may or may not be required in order to register your trailer, depending on your state laws.
What’s the Final Answer?
Ultimately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer!
- If you are simply seeking a general-purpose utility trailer, I generally advise you to purchase a stock commercial model. Take advantage of their low pricing, warranty coverage, and time-tested designs.
- If you are seeking a large, heavy-duty custom trailer, I generally recommend working with an experienced designer/engineer to at least design the trailer, if not also fabricate and assemble it.
- But I also understand that there’s a real need for custom small trailers. Homemade small trailers are great for landscaping, farming, camping, or construction. Just don’t make it your first welding project!