Introduction: Build Your Own Teardrop Camping Trailer!
While preparing for my wedding this past June, I started planning a trip for our honeymoon. We thought about doing an old-fashioned great American road trip, but wanted something a little more comfortable to stay in than a tent. While planning some of the places we would be visiting, I started to look into small camping trailers and other inexpensive ways of camping. I ran into some forums about teardrop trailers, and found a few build-journals about building your own teardrop camping trailer out of a flatbed trailer, plywood sheets, and some elbow grease!
After consulting my wife to be, a few online forums, and taking a hard look at our finances, we decided that this would be the perfect way to travel during our honeymoon! This Instructable is a build-journal about our whole process of designing, building and travelling in our own home-made teardrop camping trailer! I also have a blog where I posted pictures and details as I went through the build process. You can find those posts at my blog site, www.patpeters.org.
I'm also entering this in the Epilog Contest to win a CNC Laser cutter! If I should win that contest, I want to use the laser cutter as my first machine for a new MakerSpace in Omaha, geared towards bringing teens and youths into the IoT movement! So if you're a fan of the trailer, Omaha, or the Internet of Things, vote for me!
Step 1: Initial Ideas and Planning
Our first step in building the teardrop was determining what size and design pattern fit us best for our needs while still fitting in our budget. To help us decide what type of trailer fit us best, we used the Teardrop n Tiny Travel Trailer forum here. I can't recommend this site enough, the people on this forum were a ton of help to us, and I don't think we would have been able to do this project without them!
Also a special thanks to instructable user e1ioan! His instructable on the teardrop trailer he built was my direct inspiration, and I borrowed many of his ideas during our build. You can find his instructable here.
These were our needs coming into this project:
- The trailer must be fairly light. We were towing this trailer with our 2009 Nissan Versa which isn't recommended to tow more then 1500 lbs over long distances.
- The trailer needed to be big enough for 2 adults to sleep comfortably inside. We also wanted extra storage space and room for a small kitchen with a sink and counter space for a fold up stove.
- The trailer needed to fit inside a standard 1 car garage.
- We needed decent ventilation throughout the whole trailer. This would mean decent sized doors and windows that we can open up, and some sort of fan or AC.
- For electricity, the trailer needed to be able to fully operate without charging for at least 48 hours. Several of the places we were staying in wouldn't have electrical hook-ups, which meant we would be running completely off of whatever battery we would decide to use for those nights.
- Our spending limit (not including additional tools) is 2,000. We have an additional 200 set aside for tools.
From our requirements, we figured out that a 5'x8' flatbed trailer would be just big enough for us to use as our foundation without weighing down our tow-load too much.
Step 2: Tools and Materials for the Trailer
Our goal with this project for buying all of the materials and tools was to keep it below $2200. To help keep some of the costs down, I had to borrow a few tools from my family and from friends (table saw, extra jig saw, extra power drill, angle grinder). Other then those tools and a few I had around the house, we had to purchase all of the tools along with the materials as we were going through this build process. I tried to the best of my abilities to keep track of all of our purchases through this project, but I lost track about half way. The biggest obstacle in materials for this project was the fact that most of the wood and metal sheets I needed only came in 4'X8' sheets, but the trailer was 5'X8'. Because of this, for all of the materials in the roof and floor I had to buy 2 - 4'X8' sheets of whatever I needed, then cut them to 5'X4' and double them up to 5'X8'. This added considerably to our costs, and made it that much harder to stay under budget (on the plus side, it gave me a ton of 3'X4' scrap wood and metal pieces!). For tools we also had to buy as many battery powered tools as we could, because our garage was an apartment garage that only had 1 electrical outlet! Here is a comprehensive list of all the materials and tools that we needed:
Flatbed Trailer - We picked up a $500 5'X8' flatbed trailer from Northern Tool. You can find it here.
Door and Window - We had to buy the door and window online, none of the RV dealerships around sold just doors and windows. I bought mine off ebay, it was about $375 total (90 for the window, 285 for the door).
Lights - We bought 2 reading lamps and some string LEDs. These we also purchased off of Ebay, make sure you buy lights with compatible voltages (in our case 12V DC lights). For both reading lamps and the string lights, it was about $74.
Flooring - Laminate from Lowes. $80
Paint - Also from Lowes. $16
Fan - I bought the Fan-Tastic RV roof vent from Ebay for $113. You can find those fans here.
Hatch hinge - We bought the Frank Bear Hurricane Hinge from Ebay to serve as our back hatch's hinge. It was $55.
Storage Box - We bolted on a heavy duty plastic storage locker to the front of the trailer that I bought from Menards for $35.
Aluminum - We bought the aluminum sheets from Millard Metal Services in Omaha, NE. We bought .032 gauge aluminum sheets at $115 a sheet. We needed 3 sheets, so we spent $345.
Battery - I picked up a 12V, 110 amp-hour, Deep Cycle boat battery from Wal-Mart. I think the price has gone up now, but at the time I picked it up for $85.
Wire - 100 feet, 14 AWG, stranded copper wire - $20
Hard Foam insulation - I used 1/2" 4'X8' sheets. I bought 4 sheets total, at $10 a piece. so $40.
Asphalt Emulsion - I bought 2 - 1 gallon cans from Lowes for about $10 each. $20 total.
Contact Cement - I bought 1 gallon can of contact cement from the local hardware store for about $10.
Fiberglass Epoxy - I bought West Systems Epoxy. You can find their epoxy here, I used the System 105 epoxy resin with the System 207 special clear hardener. For our trailer we needed 1 gallon of 105 and .1/3 gallons of 207.
Wood Glue - I bought 1 gallon of Elmers wood glue from Lowes. Go nuts!
1/2" 4'X8' Plywood - I bought 4 sheets (2 for the floor and back wall, 2 for the side walls)
1/4" 4'X8' Plywood Panels - I used 2 of these for the inside walls.
1/8" 4'X8' Lauan - I bought 5 of these for the interior and exterior sections of the roof. You can also use 1/8" birch plywood if you can find it, but I wasn't able to find any around my area.
2"X4"X8' studs - I bought 6 of these, and only ended up using 4.
1"X2"X8' studs - I'm honestly not sure how many I needed in the end, but I know I went through at least 10 of these.
2"X2"x8' studs - I bought 4 of these for the floor framework and for the back hatch supports.
3/8" 3" long carriage bolts and nuts (for securing the floor to the metal trailer) - 20pcs
#8 1 1/2" long wood screws - This was one of the main types of screws I used. Not sure exactly, but I think I went through probably about 3 or 4 boxes of these (100 pcs in each box I believe). If you need more/less, I apologize.
#8 3/4" long wood screws - This was one of the other main screw types I used. I used 2 boxes of these.
#8 2 1/2" long exterior screws - I used 1 box of 100 of these, and had plenty left over.
3/4" metal rivets -
-2 Power Drills
-2 Jig Saws
-Plastic and Metal Clamps (lots of them!)
-Socket Wrench (for trailer frame and wood floor)
-Brushes and paint rollers (several for paint, contact cement, asphalt emulsion, and fiberglass epoxy)
-Floodlight (our garage is dark)
Step 3: Assembling the Flatbed
We ordered the 5'X8' flatbed from Northern Tool. Since they didn't have the trailer in stock, we had to have it shipped and then we assembled it.
This trailer didn't have an actual bed on it, so assembly wasn't too difficult. All of the screws, nuts and bolts were limited to 3 sizes, and the instructions were almost painfully clear in how to assemble. Once we put together the flatbed, it was time to take it out for a test drive while we drove to the hardware store to pick up wood and supplies!
Step 4: Cutting the Frame for the Foundation
For this step, I had to first cut the 2"X4"x8' studs into 2"X2"X8's to fit over the frame of the flatbed. This is what the foundation will rest on, so I took my time with this step. I was originally planning on using full 2"X4"s on the frame, but I wasn't able to get them to work very well, hence cutting to 2X2s. The middle bar (where the axle is) was wide enough to where I used a full 2X4 though.
When you're on this step, make sure to cut slots for the tops of the bolts to fit into, so that the wood will sit as close to the frame as possible. Remember, measure twice so you only cut once!
To stabilize the corners, I used 2" wide 90 degree metal angles. Once I put all of those in, we had a rock-solid frame!
Step 5: Putting Down the Foundation
After framing the trailer bed, it was time to put a plywood floor on top to serve as our foundation. Our trailer bed is 5'X8' and all of the plywood that I could find came only in 4'X8' sheets. To make up for this, I took two 4'X8' sheets, cut them down to 4'X5' sheets, and put them together. Once I put the two pieces together, We fit the pieces on top of the trailer, and used #8 1 1/2" wood screws to attach the plywood to the frame. Next!
Step 6: Asphalt Emulsion and Hard Foam Insulation
Now that we had a solid foundation for the trailer, we needed to insulate and waterproof the bottom of the trailer to protect it from the elements.
After flipping the plywood and 2X2 frame over, we attached 1/2" thick hard foam insulation to the bottom with glue and screws. The foam panels were then coated in Asphalt Emulsion (used for roof repairs) to water proof the bottom of the trailer and seal up the foundation. I also used asphalt emulsion to join the seam between the two pieces of plywood we used for the floor.
After the emulsion was dry, we flipped the foundation right side up, and attached the foundation to the metal trailer by boring several holes in the outer frame of the foundation, linking the trailer to the foundation with 3" carriage bolts, and coating said bolts in (guess what?) more asphalt emulsion. By the end, we had a solid, water-tight foundation that wasn't going anywhere!
Step 7: Cutting and Shaping the Walls
Now that we had a foundation, it was time to draw out and cut the profile for our walls. For drawing the curves, I made a compass out of a pencil, a tack and some string. (I honestly can't remember what I set for my radius's in drawing these, sorry!) I outlined the profile of one of the walls this way, cut that profile out and then traced the outline of this profile onto the other wall. After cutting out the second wall, I stacked the two walls together and sanded them smooth so that they were as close to identical in shape as I could get.
For doors and windows, I ordered some off of Ebay. You can also find good trailer accessories at teardropshop.com. After cutting out the wall profiles, I traced and cut the openings for the door and windows. I really botched the opening for the window (I'll be fixing that later.....), but the door opening was perfect!
Step 8: Putting Up Walls!
For this step, I needed the help of my Dad and Brothers! I made some jigs out of the scrap 2x4s and leftover wood from cutting out the profiles (that's what the weird curves on the ends of the jig were). After putting together the jigs, all it took was a couple of big, burly men to hold up the walls while I glued and pre-drilled. Then I screwed in the walls with #8 2 1/2" exterior screws. The jigs and support helped keep the walls straight while the glue dried. Walls were up!
Step 9: Framing Up the Walls
After we put up the plywood walls for the trailer, we needed to glue framing up around the edges of the wall for the insulation to rest upon, and to give the walls some girth. For our framing, I used 2"x1" pieces and various scrap wood pieces from earlier. This process took quite a while, especially because I didn't have very many clamps! Also, it was the middle of winter when I was gluing these pieces (wood glue is ineffective below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and my garage isn't heated).
Eventually though, we had a 1" thick by 2" wide strip around the sides and top of both walls and around the opening for the door!
Step 10: Putting Up the Back Wall.
After we put up the walls, I noticed the plywood for one of our walls was slightly warped, and was causing the wall to bow inward a slight bit. To solve for this, and also separate the sleeping area from the kitchen, we put up a back wall to reinforce the overall structure.
The back wall was a 3/4" thick piece of 5'X4' plywood, with 2 - 2X4 studs for stability. I then sealed the seams of these walls with a combination of spray 'n seal liquid rubber and expanding spray-foam. I used the same foam and liquid rubber for sealing up all of the seams between the walls and the floor. Now it was time for insulation!
Step 11: Insulating and Wiring.
Now that we had (somewhat) solid walls put up, it was time to insulate the walls, and start putting up electrical wiring for the lights and fan!
For insulation, I used the same 1/2" hard foam insulation that we used for insulating the flooring, with wood glue and 3/4" #8 screws to attach to the walls.
For electrical wiring, I used 14 gauge electrical wire that I connected to a 12V, 110 amp-hour DC boat battery I picked up from Wal Mart. Since all of the lights and the fan that we used are low power LEDs and low power DC motors, we should be good to go for taking this trailer off-grid for a while. If we're conservative with our power (only running the fan while we're in the trailer and only using the lights at night before bed), we can make this battery last for over a week on a single charge!
I stapled the wire to the walls, dry-fit the insulation panels over everything, and strategically cut holes for the wire to stick out of for connections. After thoroughly testing that our wires would work permanently, we glued and screwed the insulation panels down.
Step 12: Adding Internal Wall Panels and Flooring
The next two steps in our teardrop trailer project were adding the inner wall panels and then laying some laminate flooring to spruce up the trailer a bit!
The wood panels were 1/4" thick 4X8ft sheets of composite project wood. I picked these up, because they were fairly cheap, but extremely tough for their thickness (a lot of wood that thin can be rather brittle and snap pretty easily). It also sands and paints really well, so it was perfect for our interior!
This step was fairly easy since we still had 1 side of our trailer open to slide these in. All we had to do was line the panels up to the wall, apply a little bit of wood glue, put in some 1 1/2 inch #8 screws to hold it in place, and cut the profile out to size!
I had to use 2 panels on the back wall, so there was a slight seam in between the panels, but I was planning on covering it with a shelf anyways, so I wasn't too worried.
Laying the laminate was also fairly easy since we still had one side of our trailer open! When we laid out the panels, we found we were about 5 1/2" too short from one wall, so we had to cut one panel in half and fit it in the small space. The laminate fit in very nicely after that, so we applied a little bit of laminate adhesive, tacked a couple of extra black screws for good measure, and cut the remaining panels that were overhanging to size! Not bad for a weekend's work! Special thanks to my Dad (guy in the Iowa Hawkeyes coat), my brother, and my good friend Brian for helping me out on these steps!
Step 13: Wood Spars for the Roof Supports
Next step in this project was putting up 1"X2" spars to support the roof. Quick tip, this should have been a simple case of measure twice, cut and fit once. However, I was impatient and fit a few of these spars on quite crooked, which made it a little hard to fit the panels for the roofing on correctly and cost me some time. LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES!! ALWAYS MEASURE!!!
I also had to make a box-frame out of supports for the fan to fit into (I actually did that part before putting in flooring, but saved the step until now).
Then, once I had all of the wood spars attached to the two walls, I had to put the wood panels on for the inner layer of the roof (our "ceiling"). Another quick tip, cut small grooves in your walls for where the wood panel should fit so that you can (hopefully) have an easier time sliding this into place than I did.
For the ceiling panels, I used 1/8" thick 4X8 foot sheets of Lauan plywood that I had to special order. This wood was very flexible, but also very delicate, which made fitting this into the trailer quite difficult and stressful! Eventually though (after a lot of careful pushing and some tears of pain, joy, and anguish), I was able to get the ceiling put up for the trailer, with only a few very small gaps in one corner that I caulked.
Step 14: Painting, Patching and Wiring!
Now that we had a roof over our heads, it was time to paint the interior of the trailer. We went back and forth quite a bit on whether we wanted to paint, stain, wall paper or some sort of combination. In the end, we decided to paint with bright colors, because dark stains or dark colors would have made the inside seem smaller then it was.
Before putting on our first layer of paint, we needed to seal up the few cracks and seams we had run into in putting up the walls and ceiling. We caulked all of the seams in the wall, then applied a "patch" of scrap wood and caulking to cover a particularly nasty section of the roof that I worried would leak. we also applied thin layers of wood filler to cover the silver screws we had used to secure the ceiling to the roof supports. 1 day of drying and curing later, we were ready to paint!
Painting in the trailer wasn't too different then painting any other room in a house. Though we put on thin layers of wood filler, they were still thick enough to require some extra sanding and painting to completely cover. 3 coats of paint later, the inside of the trailer (minus the floor) was a lovely "warm welcome" yellow (according to the paint can).
Lastly, in this step we wired the lights to our grid after the paint dried. We soldered two reading lamps and screwed them in to their respective places. We still have to connect a string of LED lights and the ceiling fan, but we wanted to wait on doing that until after we finished the roof.
With the reading lights installed, I dry fitted the door and ceiling fan on to get an idea of how everything looked. Not too shabby!
Step 15: Putting on the External Roof, Sealing With Tar
With the interior of the trailer almost completely done, it was time to get started on the roof! Unfortunately this step wasn't very photo-genic for me (I did this entire step completely on my own and normally forgot about taking pictures until it was too late. Sorry!) The roof consists of 3 - 4'X8' sheets of 1/8" thick Lauan stretched over the roof supports and more hard foam insulation. On top of the Lauan, I put .032 gauge Aluminum sheeting for protection and zazz (it's pretty zazzy, isn't it?). The aluminum is in another step later on.
First off, I needed to attach the hard foam insulation to the outside of the ceiling layer. This step is pretty self-explanatory, more gluing and attaching!
Next, we needed to attach the Lauan sheets to the outside of the trailer. The curve of the trailer added an extra 2 feet to the length of the roof, making it 10 feet long. I left an extra foot in length on our sheets for overlaps between the 3 pieces and for cases of screw-ups. This step was time consuming, but fairly easy. I measured and dry fit the pieces of Lauan, layered the wood in contact cement, then attached the wood to the trailer. After attaching the wood, I caulked the seams between the different sheets. Then, I covered all of the screws, seams and the undercarriage of the roof in asphalt emulsion to prevent leaks. Last, I cut a hole in the roof for the ceiling fan to come through, did a dry fit of the ceiling fan, and called it a week!
The most time consuming part of this step was waiting for things to dry. The caulking, asphalt emulsion and contact cement all needed at least 24 hours to dry and cure properly, so most of my time was spent working on other parts of the trailer (like figuring out how the back hatch was going to work. Yikes!) while waiting for pieces to dry and cure.
Step 16: Applying Fiberglass Epoxy
One of the more important steps to this project was applying some sort of exterior coating to the walls of the trailer. We had gone back and forth between painting the trailer, covering the whole trailer in aluminum sheeting, using house siding, or staining the wood. We decided on using a light stain and coating the wood in fiberglass epoxy to seal the wood, give it a nice sheen, and preserve it so that it would last well in the elements.
For epoxy, we used West System's Epoxy kit, which is typically used for decks and boat hulls. The epoxy was fairly easy to apply, and we had 4 coats of epoxy on our trailer within an afternoon!
Special thanks to my brother, Matt (guy in the yellow shirt with the beard) and my good friend Brian (guy with the light gray sweatshirt).
Word of warning, after applying the epoxy, you are supposed to sand the surface you covered to smooth out any small bubbles that might have formed. Make sure that when you do that, you use a fairly fine grain of sandpaper, and it's a good idea to use a spar varnish or finisher after you sand. Otherwise the sunlight can make the wood appear cloudy after a length of time, and makes the wood look much older then it is (not in a good way).
Step 17: Building the Back Hatch
The next step in our teardrop project was building the back hatch that would open into our kitchen/storage area. This part was pretty tough, because I accidentally built our back wall a little too close to the back of the camper, so I was going to have to make our back hatch with a considerably steeper angle then I was originally planning.
I started off this section by tracing out and cutting some "ribs" that would be the frame for the back hatch. I did this by tracing an outline of the back of the side wall (from where the back wall starts to the end of the trailer), then shifting the same piece of wood forward 2 inches to trace a second line. I repeated this same step 4 times to get 4 ribs for our back hatch!
The really tough part was figuring out where and what the hinge for this hatch was going to sit on. I needed to put a wood spar in the trailer for the hinge to sit on top of (since the thin ceiling and wall wouldn't be strong enough to hold the full weight of the back hatch). The spar had to be strong so that hatch wouldn't break, but it had to be fairly small also so that the hinge would fit correctly. Since the hinge makes a T (you can see it in the close-up picture #2 above) We settled on 2- 2X2s wedged on either side of the hinge. A little fancy drilling, and we had a framework of our back hatch attached!
After attaching the ribs to our 2X2's (I put a third 2X2 on the bottom of the rib to act as the bottom cross-section), I used some scrap 1X2's to go in between the ribs, reinforcing our hatch door. Lastly, we put a piece of Lauan over the whole hatch, taking care to not put too many screws in (we don't want to put too many holes in this!).
We still had to put a piece of Lauan on the inside section of the ribs, but at this point I had run out of Lauan, and I needed to order more! So that was that for the back hatch.
Step 18: Putting on the Aluminum Sheeting!
Now that we had a roof and hatch over the entire trailer, it was time to put the aluminum sheeting on! This was definitely the most intense part of our trailer setup, in that you would only get one shot at putting on the aluminum sheeting, and we couldn't afford (money or time wise) to order more sheet metal if we ran into problems. So for this step I got the whole family to help out!
First we had to cut the sheet metal to size. We used .032 gauge aluminum, which came in 5 feet X 10 feet sheets. Since our trailer was about 6 inches wider then 5 feet (with the walls and extra layers) we had to cut the sheets to about 6 feet X 5 feet and trim off the excess after applying.
To apply the aluminum, we used the same contact cement that we used for the Lauan. You paint it on the surface you need it to stick on (in this case the roof) then paint it on the aluminum. Wait 30-60 minutes for the glue to cure, then stick it on to dry for about 5 hours.
I can't stress this enough, BE CAREFUL WHEN PUTTING ON THE ALUMINUM!! We paid the price in putting the sheet for the back hatch slightly off-center, and I almost ripped the hatch off the rest of the trailer in trying to adjust the sheet to fit correctly.
To keep the sheets together, we used #8 sheet rivets that were 1/2" long. The rivets were a little difficult to put on, but work great once they're installed!
After a panicky day of gluing, waiting, sticking, riveting, then waiting some more, we got all of our aluminum installed on the trailer! The next day, we trimmed the excess aluminum off the edges, and took an angle grinder to the edges to smooth everything down. Beautiful!
Step 19: Finishing Up the Interior and Working on the Kitchen.
With the sheet metal attached to the trailer, we were on the home stretch for this project! We decided to try and finish up the interior completely before tackling the kitchen.
First things first, we had to put a shelf on the inside of our back wall to hold clothes and other things while we're camping. This was just like any other shelf (except you can see in the picture that we hadn't repainted the section were we had to sand off some of the wood filler yet). If you put up the same type of shelf, just be sure to use screws that are smaller then 1 1/2", to avoid screwing through the whole back wall.
After putting up the shelf, we had to fit the ceiling fan into the slot we had made for it. I cut the opening in the sheet metal, trimmed off excess metal, and did a combination of fitting, grinding, and a little weeping (this step was hard!) before the ceiling fan successfully fit! We put a layer of caulking around the whole fan, then also coated the screws that we used in caulking to avoid leaks as we wired then screwed the fan into place.
Next up, the window! This was similar to our fan opening, in that it took a lot of dry-fitting, sanding and cursing (despite my fiance's beautiful smile in the picture above) to get the window to fit just right. Eventually, (a couple hours and belt sander belts later) we got the window to fit perfectly!
Next up, I had to put a latch on the back hatch so that we could lock and unlock the hatch. This back hatch latch (has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?) is similar to the types of locks you see in the back of truck tailgates and garage doors. You turn the handle, and it moves 2 rods either closer together or further apart to lock/unlock the door.
Getting the latch set at the correct angle to that the rods would be effective was more difficult then I thought it was going to be. I ended up having to attach the latch to some 2X1's to get the extra inch I needed for it to fit right. Once I had the latch on securely, I also put up some pegboard in the back for hanging hooks and pots and pans. I started to cut and fit our countertop, but didn't get a chance to finish getting it level, so we currently do not have a countertop.
Step 20: Ready for the Honeymoon!
Our trailer was road ready! And not a moment too soon, I finished the last few parts from the last step about 1 week before our first trip in the thing!
Our Nissan Versa towed the trailer like a beast, we drove just over 5000 miles on our road trip with the teardrop, and didn't have any major problems with either the trailer or the car! We drove from Omaha, Nebraska all the way to San Francisco (stopping in Colorado Springs,CO; Moab, Utah; Winnemucca, Nevada; and Yosemite National Park). We then headed North to Redwood National Forest and came back East through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and the rest of Nebraska! I posted pictures on my blog here.