For Work And WildernessGear
Stories Behind the Gear: Ovano
An interview with Josh Orchard about his two-year journey to handcraft functional van units for work and adventure.
Written by Harriet Osborne // Photography Rich Lock
Father and son founders Nick and Josh Orchard are carpenters from Bristol, UK. In 2019, they set out to craft a unit to hide their tools, provide greater accessibility, and facilitate weekend adventures. After two years of refining and road testing, they founded Ovano, an ultra-functional van unit that performs at work and in the wilderness.
It was a sunny Friday afternoon when Josh Orchard turfed out his tools from the van after a day of carpentry in Bristol, UK. He packed up his surfboard, filled the storage unit with camping equipment, and headed to the coast. ‘The unit ticked all the boxes, and I had so many compliments from people at the campsite. That’s when I knew I was ready to push it for real.’
Father and son founders, Nick and Josh, spent two years building Ovano – an ultra-functional van unit for work and the wilderness, based around the Volkswagen Transporter range. ‘My Dad wasn’t fully sold on the drawer when I started mocking up the first iteration,’ Josh explains. ‘But when I went onto version two and used the hand-me-down prototype for a month or two fitting kitchens, he ate humble pie and agreed it made life much easier.
After growing frustrated with the functionality of his van, Josh decided to seek out a solution to three problems he had experienced as an inner-city tradesman in 2019. He wanted to build a unit to hide his expensive equipment, increase capacity and accessibility, and facilitate outdoor adventure.
The self-funded journey to the final product took two years. Josh and Nick repeatedly refined handmade prototypes and tested the designs in various environments. ‘My dad and I were full-time carpenters throughout the product development stage. He fitted kitchens, and I was a set carpenter for TV shows like Crystal Maze and Big Brother. It was an evening and weekend affair, so progress was slow. We spent a lot of time standing at the back of my van, hashing out the geometry of moving parts with pencil and paper and numerous rough mockups.
Problem-solving runs in the family. ‘I learned a lot of skills from my dad,’ he says. ‘Both of us like solving problems to make life easier and using design to make things look good at the same time.’ They learned many lessons from years of fitting space-saving solutions in kitchens. ‘Aesthetic is the biggest part of a kitchen, but a lot is going on behind the scenes that you don’t necessarily see. Getting the most out of a small space is quite hard but very satisfying when you get it right.’
Ovano is committed to high-quality design, durability, and a clean aesthetic. The units are made from Birch Plywood, Forrest Stewardship Council (FSC) accredited, and predominantly sourced from Latvia. The unit is finished with a contrasting black phenolic coating which is extremely hard wearing. ‘My approach has always been that these units would be going into some very expensive vans, so it has to look as good as it functions.’
While most of the prototyping was done by hand, Ovano units are now made with Computer Numerical Control (CNC), a manufacturing process in which pre-programmed computer software dictates the movement of factory tools to ensure a precision fit. All cut edges are hand-sanded, varnished, and smoothed.
Fixtures and fittings also over-perform on every level. The units feature corrosion-resistant stainless steel hinges, drawer runners that are 48-hour sea salt tested, and fixings with threaded inserts for extra strength and improved reusability. A clever drawer fitted into the back of the van doubles the payload because users have dual height and gain access to all their luggage. ‘They are very well thought out and expensive components, but we wanted to go up and over in every way we could,’ Josh says.
The components are quick to install – it takes around 15 minutes in total. The functionality attracts a wide-ranging customer base from photographers and tradespeople to everyday adventurers and explorers. ‘Some people use it as an everyday vehicle as they find it makes the most out of a small space. Vans are super practical, but we make them more practical by creating clever solutions to fill the empty void. I think those improvements benefit nearly anyone, no matter what you’re doing.’
The units can also be removed and transferred if the owner decides to upgrade their van, making it a long-standing investment. ‘We designed our products to increase the time spent by the coast and amongst trees, so we feel responsible for limiting our impact on the environment. It makes sense to build our products to last, so they shouldn’t need to be updated or discarded.’
The environment is big on Ovano’s conscience. They have two charitable partnerships, Ecologi, a social enterprise helping to fund impactful climate solutions, and Surfers Against Sewage, a grassroots environmental charity, dedicated to protecting the ocean. ‘We want to offset any imperfections that we have as a manufacturer. We’ve already offset the carbon footprint of our small workforce. Now, we’re looking to offset those who freelance and sub-contract to us. Their small unit is also completely powered by renewable energy.
The next step is to address the way they receive components. ‘It makes me sad when components come in more plastic than product,’ Josh says. ‘The bigger we get, the more I’m hoping buying power can leverage our preferences on plastic.’ There are other sustainable practices they have more control over. ‘We work really hard to use any offcuts in other products to cut down on waste in general. We also send our mats in old tubes from a local carpet shop to cut down on plastic.’
Often when people set up businesses, there’s an expectation they will always get bigger and require more time to keep up with demand. Josh feels as though bigger isn’t necessarily always the way. ‘Although I think we’ll increase in size to some degree, I love the idea of keeping small and efficient.’ Beyond Josh and his Dad, the business now employs Josh’s partner Sarah and their close friend Mary to keep things running smoothly with orders, enquiries, installs, socials, etc. They also use close friend Rich Lock for his photography skills and Mary’s partner Mo Taha as their web designer, so it’s very family and friend-oriented.
Josh says, ‘It’s easy to get caught up in it, but I’ve no intentions to be huge. It only takes a sunny day to realise you’ve said yes to too many things, but we have to remember why we’re doing this, and a big part of it is to facilitate more time outdoors.’