One of my biggest problems when I was getting started with woodworking was how to transport sheets from the lumberyard to my shop. My family sedan was not up to the task. I had to borrow a truck every time I made a run for stock. That got old very fast. After doing some research I decided to buy a 8x4 utility trailer from Northern Tool. A utility trailer is an economical option to transport sheet goods with just about any car.
The Utility Trailer
A utility trailer is a light trailer built to be towed behind a car. It weighs ~300lbs and supports loads of 1000-2000lbs. These specifications make it uniquely suitable to be towed behind just about any car. The trailer cannot be used to transport heavy things like soil or construction debris. That's not much of an issue, because a heavy load like that would exceed the tow vehicle's capacity.
The trailer is made from angle iron. A plywood top adds rigidity. The whole trailer is certainly the economical option. It has been designed for occasional use. I estimate that it has an expected service life of about 10 years. Commercial use is out of the question. What the trailer does represent, however, is affordable performance for the task at hand.
A sheet of plywood is bulky, but not necessarily heavy. A single sheet weights 50-100lbs. An economy class utility trailer towed behind a family sedan can support 10-20 sheets. The 8x4 model is the perfect size for transporting plywood. A single sheet fits perfectly onto the trailer. Two or three straps secure as much as 5-10 sheets to the trailer without the need for trailer sides.
In addition to choosing the right kind of trailer, you have to check the towing capacity of your vehicle. Towing a trailer increase the load on the transmission, engine, and other parts of the car. The manufacturer specifies the maximum weight of a trailer that can be towed behind a car in the service manual. It is in your best interest to stay below this limit. Exceeding the limit will not only result in unsafe conditions, but will also slowly damage your car.
Unless you own a sub-compact your car will have a maximum towing capacity of 1000lbs or more. That's plenty to support a 300lbs trailer loaded with a few sheets of plywood. You don't need a truck to safely tow a trailer.
In order to tow a trailer, a vehicle has to be equipped with a towing hitch and wiring harness for the trailer lights. Family sedans do not come equipped with these features. Not to worry; after-market trailer hitches can be purchased for most popular cars. Installation of these parts is very much a DIY activity.
The mechanical connection between the trailer and your car is called a trailer hitch. A trailer hitch is a metal frame that connect to the frame of your car. The trailer connects to the ball of the trailer hitch. Bolt-on (no drilling required) trailer hitch assemblies (example) can be purchased online. Find one that fits your make and model. As the name suggest, bolt-on hitch assemblies are installed with a few bolts. No drilling or cutting is required.
In addition to the mechanical connection, the trailer's lights need to be wired into the wiring system of your car. When you brake, the lights of the trailer have to light up. The exact wiring method differs from car to car. Pre-cut wiring harnesses (example) that clip into the existing wiring are available for popular cars. Find an access point (typically one of the rear lights), disconnect the existing connector, and connect the trailer harness.
Routing the trailer end of the harness to the outside will require drilling and a connector plate that support the quick connector. I decided to forgo this extra step. My wiring harness rests in the spare wheel compartment when it is not in use. When I need it, I pull it out and pinch it in place with the trunk's lib. The rubber gasket around the lid holds the wires in place without damaging the harness. Since I don't tow very often, this system works well enough for me.
The following video shows you how installation of a bolt on hitch is done:
Trailer driving, especially reversing, can be a bit challenging at first. You'll get the hang of it eventually. Short trailers like a 8x4 don't require much adjustment to your driving habits when moving forward. You only have to remember to take corners a little wider than usual. The trailer does cut the corner a little more than rear tire of your car.
Reversing with a trailer can be an adventure. It takes a while to master. At first you should avoid situations that force you to go in reverse. Practice in your driveway.
The most important traffic rule related to towing is that you are responsible for securing the load. Material falling off trucks and other vehicles causes many deaths on our roads per year. Please be responsible and secure your load. Plywood and stock can be secured with a few ratcheting tiedowns made for this purpose. It's not really that much work to be safe out there on the roads.
A trailer is an amazingly useful tool to have around. You can move bulky items without having to rent a truck. The utility trailer is perfectly capable of transporting a couch within city limits. Since the trailer has no roof, I'd hesitate to take anything cross country.
If you build side walls and a tailgate for the trailer, you can use the trailer to transport smaller things that are harder to tie down individually. I have used my trailer for helping a friend move. It holds an amazing amount of boxes.
As I mentioned before, entry level trailers do not support a lot of weight. They do not have active brakes installed. The trailer depends on the car's braking power to slow down. At maximum load the trailer "pushes" against the car under braking. This effect is very noticeable. An overloaded trailer can lead to dangerous situations. You have to be very aware of how much weight your trailer supports.
This is easier said than done. When you have a trailer around, you'll find ways to use it. The couch your friend wants to move will not be a problem; the three chords of wet wood you got for free at a yard sale will be. I had to learn that lesson the hard way.
After use the trailer needs to be parked somewhere. A 8x4 trailer takes up as much space as a compact car. If you park it in your garage, you have to give up an entire parking space for your trailer. You can leave it in your driveway, if your subdivision allows it.
Some trailers can be folded and stored upright. Mine is a folding trailer, but I hardly ever use the feature. Folding the trailer is a delicate operation. Even strong men have trouble doing it. I hardly ever bother folding my trailer. I suspect that this is the case for most people. Don't plan on folding your trailer on a regular basis.
Sheet good transportation does not have to be expensive. For a few hundred dollars I was able to retrofit my car and tow an 8x4 utility trailer sold by Northern Tool. I can now transport anything up to 12ft long with my family sedan. The trailer has also come in handy many times. I now have the freedom to go to the lumberyard whenever I want.