The shipping container you recently bought (or are planning to soon) is an excellent investment. Perhaps it's a new part of your home or office? Or you want a quirky summer house for the garden? As useful as it is, a shipping container by itself does not always look the greatest, and it was never meant to.
Additionally, the standard interior of a shipping container might not be best for the use you have in mind. In many cases, you might just want better insulation to keep the cold or heat out of the container while you are inside. If people are spending more time in the container, you need to finish the inside of it properly.
You want to show off your building to your guests and clients, and finishing walls is a vital component of that. You will need to do it early in the process, and what type of wall you decide on can have implications for the longevity of your container.
There are plenty of decisions to be made and many options. We are here to help. Here is all the general information you might need when finishing your shipping container:
How do you want to finish your container? Do you want to use wooden walls, stick with metal walls, or do something a bit different? There are plenty of possibilities, but there are certainly some more logical choices than others if you have a specific purpose in mind. If you don't yet know precisely how you'll use the container, then there are still some of the more common and popular options that have worked well for thousands of other converted containers. The standard options are standard for a reason.
Yet ultimately, we think that your container's intended function should be the main dictator of how you finish it. If you want to make your container office space, you can focus more on certain types of paneling and create a clean, bright look that helps you focus. If you want to make a study, then you might prefer the look of a den with darker paneling.
If you are creating a workshop, creative space, or just an additional room and do not care about purely practical considerations or what others might think, feel free to go wild. Do something innovative, mix and match the aesthetic, or go with a style based on your needs and whims. It is your container, and you should be happy with it.
Of course, once you finish the inside of the container, you can put up decorations or, in some cases, even wallpaper and paint. The finishing is not the final aesthetic statement, just a significant step. You do not have to ultimately compromise on your idea for a design if you need a specific type of finishing for practical reasons.
Moving on to essential steps in the process, before anything else, you should make sure the container is sturdy, in good condition, and will not fall apart or wear out. While you hopefully can do so before buying the container, either seeing it yourself or getting a guarantee of quality, you should check the structure before going to finish it. It will be much easier to fix any issues before you complete the inside of the container.
If you have a new container, then you should not have much to worry about. Just make a simple check that nothing happened during the shipping and installation process. Containers are designed to be sturdy and keep the elements out, protecting what's inside. If they can be used to safely store complex machinery and at-times delicate goods for long periods at sea, they can keep their contents safe on land as well.
Used containers can be a bit trickier. While most dealers will not sell you a used shipping container that cannot be finished or has deep structural problems, there might be more issues such as rust or dents. Depending on the severity, these issues need to be dealt with first before finishing the containers. Patching up even the most minor problems or hammering out imperfections can save you a lot of time later on. Removing rust, so it does not spread and treating the container against future rust is an investment you will want to make before you start the finishing process.
Alternative to both options is that you might be working with a pre-fabricated container and wish to re-finish it. That is a bit more of a complex process. We would recommend consulting a professional if only because you cannot be entirely sure how the container was finished in the first place and whether there will be special considerations. While unlikely to be an issue, you do not wish to hurt the container's integrity by blindly ripping the sides out and hoping for the best.
When looking to finish your container, you need to consider the additional objects and entryways that have been or will be installed. Do you have the tools to cut the paneling or whatever you might be using to the correct size? Will properly sealing the spaces be an issue? If the finishing process will take a few inches of space away from the dimensions of the container, will you still be able to fit everything you hope to?
There are too many variations for us to go over here. Yet making sure you answer all of these questions can help you avoid issues in the long term. If you install walls after the windows and doors are in place, you also need to consider cutting the wall material around these insulations. This shouldn't be an issue, but it does require careful measurements and planning.
If you start with a standard, unmodified container and plan on having windows and doors, we recommend making the cuts beforehand. You will need to install a box frame for the windows to maintain stability and build a similar structure for any doors you might install.
The roof might not be as much of a concern. However, you will want to treat or finish it, both on the inside and the outside. It will need to keep out the rain, potentially snow, and other elements. Make sure it is sturdy, will not be affected by the rain, and resistant to whatever else might come its way. You may wish to install ceiling panels, insulation, etc., to make the ceiling match both the floors and walls, though try not to make the ceiling too low in the process.
While you are free to do with your container precisely what you wish, a few methods are more commonly used than others. A few less widely used materials might have a specific use that you want to consider. Regardless of your intentions, here are some of the most common options:
Drywall: Drywall can generally be the easiest to use and will be the option to make your shipping container look like a typical building or room. Do note that if you are ordering a shipping container, you can have drywall installed ahead of time by a manufacturer or the seller for a modest cost, and in most cases, it will be worth it.
Drywall may not be the best option if you move the container frequently, or the container will live in relatively unstable conditions. Impacts or heavy vibrations can make the drywall crack and break, requiring repairs or even starting the process over from scratch.
Wood Paneling: Instead of drywall, you can use wood paneling if you want that office feel.
FRP: FRP is a plywood paneling covered with plastic (nearly always white). FRP is easily cleaned, making it ideal for bathrooms or areas that are likely to get messy quickly. While with this method, there will be seams to contend with, you can either use a sealant or a series of white trim strips to keep things looking nice. FRP can work in some more highly trafficked office environments as well.
Steel or Aluminum Sheets: Using steel or aluminum sheets to finish your container and then using spray insulation behind it to keep things warm certainly has its place as well. While not the best for areas with a lot of foot traffic (it can seem kind of cold), it is much easier to keep sterile and clean and can keep the elements and pests out far better than most of the other options listed above. Unfortunately, we should note that it will be more expensive than most other options too.
Perforated Steel: Having perforated steel walls is effectively the same as having the outside of the container match the inside of the container. It might be confusing why you are choosing to finish the container if you are going with this. Nonetheless, perforated steel is sturdy and will keep things safe if you primarily use the container as storage space. Additionally, some people will install sound insulation and then cover it with perforated steel to have a clean yet work-safe interior for labs, offices, etc.
Shiplap: A unique option that has been increasingly available in recent times. Shiplap is typically used for building exteriors but might be a good choice for your shipping container if you want to give it a unique look and vibe. Perhaps something reminiscent of the seaside?
Sanded Wood Paneling: With a tighter grain and nicer look than most options (in the opinion of many, at least), sanded wood paneling is recommended for spaces that will see a lot of living and people-time. You can easily paint over it to remove the "panel" effect, and you can insert strips of trim or another material to seal up the gaps between the panels. It also happens to be pretty sturdy and easy to install, making it a great all-around choice.
Plywood Paneling: While it will be cheaper than sanded wood, plywood paneling will show knots in the wood, might stick out more, and generally be more uneven. That said, it will work just fine for many purposes and can be a good choice for people on a budget. We recommend its use for work environments focusing on functionality rather than aesthetics unless you wanted to create a more rustic, "workshop" style for your office or living space.
In this case, we are not talking about the intended usage of your shipping container. Instead, we are talking about how you want to get it done. While this is mostly a guide on how to plan the process yourself and some tips on how to get started, there are situations where you may want to get help. It might be purely that you need an extra pair of hands. Those extra hands might be outright necessary depending on what you are doing, and an expert can give you a reliable opinion on what you should be finishing your container with. Remember that research can only take you so far compared to years of professional experience.
If it just general panel installation and you know what you are doing or have installed walls before, you should be able to do it yourself. Just be sure to follow any instructions, ask for a helping hand or two when needed, and try not to force anything if it is not working. You want your container to be safe, secure, and useable for the long term. You also do not want to waste materials unnecessarily.
Just remember also to value your time when you are working on this project. There is an opportunity cost to doing this, and delegation to an expert can be the right financial move if you can make that back elsewhere or just want to spend your time elsewhere. Remember that while a professional will be expensive, they can also likely get the job done much faster than you can, both in terms of time to completion and the total hours required to get the work done.
Shipping containers can get cold or hold in heat very easily. When finishing the container, you need to deal with this or risk a great deal of discomfort (or even potential danger in some more extreme climates.) Yet shipping containers also post unique insulation problems.
Since shipping container walls are much thinner than most other walls, they do not insulate well. That means that you will need to add insulation when finishing the container. Adding insulation can take up several inches of precious space on each side of the container. This can be a big sacrifice, given how small they are by default. Therefore, you should think carefully about insulation in terms of how you want to do it and what you want to use.
The installation will vary depending on your wall type and other factors, but as for the material, some options include:
Spray Foam – Spray foam can be an excellent option for shipping container insulation as it is compact, practical, and easily installed. However, spray foam also brings potential health and environmental concerns with it, so you will want to be careful about its use and weigh all your options.
Cotton/Denim – A product with many uses, cotton can be used as an excellent insulation method for your shipping container, especially if the needs are not too extreme. It is also affordable, usually sustainable (much cotton insulation is made from recycled denim), and more easily installed than some other options. While all of this sounds great, the main problem with cotton or denim insulation is that you do not want it to get wet, as if it does, it will not be nearly as effective and take a long time to return to normal. Make sure the container is genuinely water-tight if you use this option.
Wool – While great for insulating people, many people might not think of wool for insulating buildings (and shipping containers,) but it is commonly used. You can get it in different levels of thickness and different varieties based on your insulation needs.
Cork – Cork insulation is becoming more popular. It is a renewable option (harvesting cork does not kill the tree if done correctly) that will overall take carbon out of the atmosphere, making it a great environmental choice. It also has sound dampening qualities that are useful if you are concerned about making a racket in your container or worrying about the sound coming in. There are several options for cork insulation, so do your research to determine what type you will need.
Insulation Panels – Generally easy to install but not the cheapest option, insulation panels are a great choice if you want results and don't mind paying for them.
Depending on what you use from the materials listed above, you will also want to paint your walls, if only to prevent splinters and better preserve them for long-term use. Naturally, if you are using metal walls or panels that have already been painted, you can skip this step. Otherwise, you should have a plan to get your container in working order as fast as possible.
For the inside of a shipping container, how you paint will depend on the material you use to finish the walls. If the walls will still be metal, use a paint that works on metal, and so on. We recommend you consult painting guides specific to your situation.
If you are using wood, you might want to keep the wood look and instead use a coating or varnish to help keep it stable and safe. Alternatively, some of the options you have available for wood walls might be pre-treated or coated, so use your best judgment and balance convenience and affordability.
When painting, do not forget to follow all of the best practices for painting a wall. Since many shipping containers do not have the best ventilation, be careful and do not overwhelm yourself with any fumes and follow best safety practices.
One last thing we should mention is that while not directly related to finishing the inside of your container, you should consider painting the outside of your container too. There are paints available perfect for the process, and a good paint job can help prevent corrosion and rust in the process.
When finishing your container, you may also want to take care of the floors. They are just as crucial to the look and feel of your container as the walls. Most containers have a wooden floor by default, but you probably want something just a bit nicer for any container you plan to spend some time in. In fact, given that many container floors by default were treated with pesticides, it is a bad idea to leave them in.
When picking out a floor (or vice versa), you will want to make sure that you have a decent match with what you picked out for your walls. Steel walls with a softer, lighter floor might be a bit jarring. Of course, whatever you prefer is your choice, but make sure the structure is good, and no issue could pop up in the future.
We strongly recommend against sanding or treating the default floor in the shipping container. That could bring up toxins in the flooring and present a significant health hazard. While the toxins will not be so harmful if the container is a few years old, it is still a risk you should not take. Replacing your floor entirely is the best option.
Safety is paramount, so please do the following and whatever else you feel is necessary when you are finishing the inside of your container:
Finishing the inside of your shipping container can hard work. Still, it can be what turns your container from a cold, lifeless box into a beautiful part of your home or workspace. Whatever your need, we hope that all your plans go off without a hitch and that you can modify your container quickly and safely to be exactly as you want it.