Introduction: Build a Custom Camper Gypsy Wagon!
Back in July 2017, I kicked off a gypsy wagon custom caravan camper build. I had previously built an award winning tiny home (Tinyhouseinthecountry). I needed a new construction challenge. The first tiny house was built super heavy and I have not moved it much. That's ok, since it was never the intent to do so. What I was looking to do now is build a much lighter, more versatile and portable gypsy wagon where no special vehicle would be needed to tow it. My goal in doing this was sell it and to be a model and proof of concept for the format. I also wanted to share the experience and create the Instructable you are viewing right now. It is my way of returning the favor since it was actually @jaylabrosse who with his really great gypsy wagon Intstructable inspired me to want to create something similar.
I was ultimately looking to incorporate my own style and really create a special custom RV that someone will explore this great country in or simply enjoy just as much sitting in their back yard. If you think that it takes some kind of construction background, special skills, or innate talent to build one of these...it does not. Be smart. Be practical. Watch a lot of YouTube videos. The information is out there. I'm documenting my build process here. I seek to outline my various steps pretty extensively figuring that more information is better than less. Find your own construction process and bring in experts where and when needed. Be safe and be meticulous. You can do this. I did. From scratch. No real plan. Just start working. Note: The first dozen steps are really all you'll need to create a highly customizable shell. All further steps are what I did to design and complete this as a luxurious small camper caravan and are purely discretionary. Final weight on this was right around 1750lbs. btw.
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My custom RV build began with a humble trailer...
Step 1: The Trailer
Every house needs a foundation. Tiny houses on wheels are no different. Instead of pouring concrete though, you simply need a trailer. Much like you wouldn't want to skimp on a regular house foundation, you don't want to do so with a tiny house either. I opted for a 2017 brand new Sure-Trac trailer for a local reseller. This is a standard utility trailer that people haul around riding mowers, motorcycles and furniture on. It's a single axle with large 15" rims. It can handle 3,000lbs and the trailer itself weighs about 750lbs with nothing on it. There is a layer of decking made of pressure treated wood. I liked the steel angle iron design as it would make it easy for me to attach things to it simply by drilling through it and bolting things onto it.
You may be tempted to get a much cheaper Harbor Freight trailer but, I would advise you not to. If you plan an moving your creation around at all, the Harbor Freight trailer will be very inadequate for that. It's got tiny wheels that are not meant to go faster than 45MPH. You don't want to spend a lot of time on the highway with that.
Step 2: Let's Get Going - Side Rails
The gypsy wagon build was ready to kick off. Monday...no better day to start something new. I had a 6 week timeline.
As eager as I was to start construction, I wound up doing a lot of painting on day one. After a few cuts of the 2x12 boards it was time to prime and paint them. I went with a glossy black to match the trailer frame. It all blended in pretty nicely. I also wanted to do some traditional (yet functional) gypsy wagon supports to go under the overhang. Ultimately, I opted not to do those since additional support was not really needed.
Once those were in place, I planned to get the 3/4" plywood panels for the front and the back of the wagon. Given the finite capacity of the axle and not wanting to get to close to the max weight, I kept track of the things I added onto the trailer. Nothing was added this first day, so there is no weight to keep track of. Actually not only was nothing added but, the back fold down gate was also removed, so in what only happened once during this build...the trailer got lighter. That gate was heavy...perhaps 100lbs? Maybe a touch more.
Step 3: Building Up From the Trailer
Front and back walls are from 4 sheets of 3/4 inch stuff. Pretty decent looking...smooth. It was $29 a sheet, so not too bad. I also picked up some 10 foot 2x4s as they will form the roof supports with about a foot of overhang on either end. Getting the measurements that the trailer required mapped out on the plywood took a bit of thought. I really didn't want to screw up the cuts on the sheets of plywood.
Total height was 81" of which some will be lost to floor and ceiling but, I will still be able to stand up in there and I'm 6'3". Once I had the first one cut out the second one was really mostly just a copy of the first cut out.
Only difference is that the back of the trailer has a channel for the ply to sit in which is roughly 2" lower, so the back had to be cut more generous on the bottom.
The front is split vertically and the back is split horizontally. I have to mount some 2x4 on the back piece to that I can put full back wall up. Note that the cut outs for the 2x4 have been made and they slot right in there. Next goal will be to get the back wall up fully and to finish mounting the side rails...basically firm it up a bit from its current state.
Step 4: Framing Roof Supports and Front and Back Walls
The back wall and the upper beams were on the agenda. I also wanted to lock on all the side boards which were still loose. I had left the back wall only half built and therefore I needed to add the top section to the horizontally split panels. To do so though, I needed to put on some back supports. This will ultimately form the rough opening of the door, so some thought was called for to figure out how wide I wanted the door to be. I opted for 26 inches. I don't want a disproportionately large door on a tiny wagon.
Had to keep everything straight. Especially true when dealing with what will be the door opening. Then I had to decide if I wanted the top beams to stick out on both ends (they are 10 foot 2x4s) by a foot or have them terminate in the front an only stick out on the back. I opted for the latter. Part of the rational was that creating a wind scoop like that in the front wouldn't help with gas mileage.
Since I already chose not to go with the flared sides, I at least wanted to keep the traditional overhang in the back typical of these kind of wagons. Up front the 2x4s end flush with the front of the plywood.
Step 5: Finishing the Framing Top Front and Back
The two side edges of the roof there are 2x4 beams that need to have a corner cut off to that the roof line can extend to the side edge of the wagon. It's a diagonal cut on the edge of the 2x4. Best suited for a table saw. Without these in place, I couldn't build up the side walls since the top beam forms both the edge of the roof and the top of the wall.
Table saw was really needed for this step to happen. You could try to do it with a circular saw but, good luck keeping all that straight and true. I also added in some more bracing for the front and back walls which starts to form the beginning of the side walls.
I used some hammer in metal strips as well for added strength.
Step 6: Side Framing and Back Door Cutout
Time to close up one side wall with some vertical 2x3s as framing. Could really do the other side without making it really hard to get in or out of the trailer. That seemed like a good time to tackle cutting out the back door. The sides had already been created by the vertically mounted 2x4s on the back wall. I took into consideration that the floor is going to come up a bit more with whatever I add for flooring. I wanted the opening 1.5 inches off of the current trailer pressure treated deck. In a trick I learned on YouTube during the building of my last tiny house, I ran screws through the points next to the existing 2x4s (from the inside out). Same thing on the other side and then up top, two screws as well. Since that will get you the shape of the door on the other side, all you have to do is chalk line the 4 screws up and you get the shape of the door that needs to be cut out.
Remove the screws and drill a somewhat bigger hole in one of the corners. Then you are ready to use a jigsaw to cut out the door rectangle. When you complete that...you have a rough opening for the door and I could frame up the other side wall.
Step 7: More Safety Measures for Strength and the Interior Ceiling
The roofing beam 2x4s were locked into place with some metal hardware that is designed for this. Safety is always the key concern and since this was meant to travel down the highway at considerable speeds, you want to build as strong as you can. In the pictures you will see the various ways this was accomplished.
At that point it was time to continue work on the roof. I did this backwards and started with the ceiling under the beams. That formed the pockets in the roof that could be filled with insulation before the roofing material was applied. On the first attempt to get one of the ceiling panels in place (luan), it promptly snapped under the stress of pushing it up and into place from the inside. Subsequent panels were more amenable to being pressed into a curve. I believe you can spray some water on one side to get a bit more flex out of these for this purpose.
Step 8: Roofing Insulation and Ceiling Lighting Wiring
I added glue under the roofing beams and used a compressed air finish nailer to attach the arched ceiling luan to those beams. Next step was to fill the cavities with foam board insulation.
There was only one problem. I wanted to spray foam these in but, I'm planning on doing some ceiling lighting with some LEDs. In order to get electricity to those I needed to run wire and drill some holes into the ceiling, so it wasn't quite time to permanently introduce the foam board yet. There are many points along the way where you have to think a ways down the road since you might be closing up a space or doing something that will make it harder for you to accomplish some other needed task later on.
I measured out 30 inches from front and back in the second roof cavity on both side and drilled four holes total.
I ran wire to all four of those holes. Ok, now I can foam in the panels.
Step 9: Final Steps on Completing the Roof
Working on the roof is hard because it's high up and hard to reach. I was lucky enough to be able to borrow some scaffolding. All of the work I did was alone so having some scaffolding was a huge help. For the roofing material I opted for aluminum panels. It's very light and all sheets weighed a total of 50lbs. I needed 3 of them (4x8) and overlapped them sufficiently to get my overall needed 10' length of coverage. I put the panels on straight the way I wanted them and affixed them with three screws.
From there the goal was to get some chalk lines onto the metal to indicate where the beams in the roof were. I did this by putting a screw into the middle of the beam on the front of the trailer and then running the line to the back end of the beam before snapping into into place. This was to make it much easier to hit the beam with mounting screws.
That was just the beginning though. I think that this was such an ordeal since it was just me to handle these sheets. There was glueing and siliconing involved as well and to do all that and get all the holes drilled in the right place took a good amount of effort. I tend to over engineer things a bit at times, so I used a lot of screws. You don't want these sheets coming off on the highway after all. They were measured out 10 inch increments to create a uniform look.
I got it all put together and I think that it looks great. I also know it's solid and will neither leak nor fly off. Love the reflection...Has a kind of aircraft feel to it. Roofing is done. Have a friend help you with this since it's painful to tackle on your own.
Step 10: Closing Up the Side Walls
I've found with this build that I really need to think a lot about the order of how I do things. Today I set out to get the walls put up but since I'm using non-pressure treated wood, I need to think about how to best protect it. Protecting it means painting it with special outdoor paint. I went with a Wedgewood blue. It would have seemed like the last thing that I would be doing in the build but it's actually pretty early on. Also when the walls go up, it's harder to drill the holes through the uprights for the wiring, so I needed to have a plan of what that would look like as well.
The sides are simply 4x8 panels of a thinner ply than what I used for the front and back walls. Always try for an exterior worthy plywood. They sell marine grade but that is likely too expensive and excessive for most people's needs. My mission was to seal everything as best I could, hence all the painting.
Step 11: Some Windows
I was at the two week mark of building and it looked like a Gypsy wagon. Between the roof, the walls, the paint and the windows, I'm pretty happy with the way it was coming together.
I marked off where the windows were to go. They needed to be up from the middle height level of the wagon, so I put them right above the 24 inch mark (1/2 way up). At that point I put a screw through the wall to mark the inside as that's where I would be cutting it from. This is the same procedure I used for the door cutout.
The windows were purchased on Amazon as shed windows (12x12). They are single pane but, the glass is tempered. They fit nicely into the existing side wall framing given their small size.
Step 12: Exterior Details
The door and awning beams needed to be sealed. I went with a 'cedar' look. Aside from that, I worked on the side trim work. It needed painting for the bottom pieces. With that in place, it allowed me to work on the vertical strips. First I took a small brush and hit all the screw heads to make them less visible on the side since not all will be covered by strips.
Step 13: Sealing Up the Front
On the front of the camper there is the top edge where roof meets front wall (over the hitch). Here the ends of the 2x4s in their respective cutouts were still exposed. I sought to cover those up. To do so, I used the remnants of the plywood I had used to cut out the wall from since it had the exact arc of the roof curve. I traced that onto a remnant piece of plywood to cut out the exact shape I needed. After making that uniformly wide and truing up the ends, it became the perfect cover for the exposed 2x4 ends.
Step 14: Front Window Cutout, Fitting and Mounting
Now for the front window I wanted something large for both light and for a means of getting out of the Vardo in an emergency. You always two means of escape. This window came from Ebay and is both a slide open as well as a pop out.
I measured out where I wanted to place it. Most importantly I figured out where the bottom would be. Working alone has some challenges and therefore I ran two screws on the bottom marker line so that the window could balance on that, which enabled me to trace the outline of the rest of the window. Drill a hole that the saw blade will fit into and start cutting. Once it was cut out, I ran some 1x3 on the inside so that there would be a more solid frame for the window. Sort of a reverse version of framing for a window.
Helpful hint: Saws can leave behind ugly marks on painted surfaces. You don't want to have to repaint something as a result of that. A way to avoid this is to put painters tape on the bottom of the saw.
The top piece that I had cut in the prior step was painted and attached. Window was ultimately mounted by drilling some holes through it exterior aluminum frame, applying liberal amounts of sealer around the edge and screwing it into place.
Step 15: Trim and Flooring
With the front window in, there was a bit more trim to do in the front. The corners of the camper I took care of with 1x3s that I painted white. That made for a good look to pull together the rest of the exterior trim that I had put on the sides. Couple more thin strips and some framing around the window, and then that was done.
Finally time to move onto some interior work. the bare floor needed to first be sealed. For that I used a thick plastic membrane which I sealed around all the edges with flashing tape. The floor itself was a click together kind but pretty high end in that it's actual oak and not plastic or something cheap. It's a small space so installation was quick and end result looks pretty impressive. Keep in mind that if you put in a floor right at the onset of interior work, you really need to take proactive steps to protect it from that point on and for me that meant using some interlocking foam tiles. It's just so easy to put in when there is nothing in your way and you don't need to make any fancy cuts.
Step 16: Getting the Door In
Full disclosure: The door you see me installing here needs to be replaced. I thought the door was solid but, reality is that the interior of the door is a kind of press board that does not play nice with water. I'll likely post an update on the replacement once I do it.
Doors can be troublesome. You want them to work right and you want them to look good. Sometimes you just have to fulfill one of those criteria but, with a door, both need to happen. That is why doors (for me) take a long time since mistakes here are a costly thing. First I did a dry fit of both of the door pieces.
The lower part will have a flat shelf area on top of it and which will also serve to keep the top part from 'going past' the bottom part. That allows you to open the top with out opening the bottom. I had to get a nice flat surface on the bottom, so I cleaned up the edge on the exterior ply.
I had also ordered some stabilizer jacks to make the trailer less bouncy and they showed up, so I popped those under the back. After cranking up the front again, it now has most of it's weight on the two jacks and the hitch crank. That leads to a much more stable trailer.
You don't want to install a door resting on the bottom, so you need to lift up the bottom of the door a bit and I did that with some spacers. These were just two small pieces of the trim I used for the exterior. Next it was time to do the hinges or more accurately create the cutouts for he hinges to rest in. I did this with a file and it's pretty labor intensive but, it gets a good and controllable result vs. using power tools.
In the end it all lined up pretty nicely. Took a long time to do this but I was happy. Tackled the smaller and lighter top half of the door next and rounded the whole thing out with some nice white trim border.
Step 17: Two More Windows in the Back
To finalize the work on the back, I needed to put in two additional windows on the sides of the door. These were the same as the ones used on the side walls. It looked a bit drab, so I carried the trim theme used elsewhere on the exterior to the back of the camper as well. Add in a couple decorative touches on the bottoms of the edge beams and that was complete too.
Step 18: Insulation and Closing Up the Walls
With the exterior in good shape, focus shifted to the interior and getting the walls sealed up. What had to happen for that to occur was that insulation needed to be put in and more importantly there needed to be a plan for the electrical. It's critical that you get a good overview of where you want things to be so that the electrical can be run effectively. This camper was always slated to get a mixed use RV panel supplying both 110V and 12V DC power. You saw me accommodate for the lighting in the ceiling panels earlier...now I needed to map out the rest of the trailer for electricity delivery. Once a wall is closed up, you can't do any of that anymore.
Step 19: AC Unit Installation
Next up was the installation of the AC unit. Originally this was slated to go into the front but, I opted to put it in the back instead. The front by the hitch seemed too risky since that where there is more wind, rocks, dirt and other stuff kicked up by the tow vehicle. The back location isn't as 'pretty' but, it made more sense from a design perspective.
I did my trusty 'send a screw through the back of the wall' method to get the point where I wanted this to go. Then I traced out the back of the AC unit onto what would become a template for the cut out. All very scientific. I did square the corners and made sure not to cut out too much. Can always cut out more.
Always scary to cut in the side of the Gypsy since there is no turning back once you do. AC unit slotted in pretty nicely. I was unsure how well it would hold in place since these are meant to be put into a window and not through a hole in some plywood. AC may not be needed for everyone but, it's good to have in the summer and certainly when traveling with this RV. Since the space is so small the AC cools it off super fast. Always want a bit of the tilt on the AC towards the outside, so that any condensation can flow away from the house.
The unit is in there rock solid and fully trimmed out. I have no concern that it might jiggle loose or similar.
Step 20: Daybed/Couch Platform Build
It took four weeks to get to this point. From the outside it looks done. On the inside, not so much yet. Goal was to forge ahead and get the bed platform done. Idea was to create a couch/daybed that could convert for both sitting and sleeping comfortably. There was also supposed to be ample storage space underneath to accommodate a composting toilet if needed or desired.
I had a hollow rectangular piece of aluminum that I wanted to incorporate. It's great in that it's really sturdy and super light at the same time. Therefore it lends itself well to this project. So I set about constructing the platform.
Everything was geared to the sizing of a twin XL mattress. That would allow me and other tall people to comfortably lie down (I'm 6'3"). I glued and screwed on the back. Had to raise it up by the thickness of the plywood to be the same size as the aluminum beam. I marked where the reinforcements were to go and drilled pilot holes to the other side to know where to send through the screws. Some liquid nails and everything came together nicely. Attaching the aluminum beam was a bit more difficult since a screw would only loosely grab the soft aluminum material. I opted to fill the beam with a piece of 2x4 where I intended to screw it in place. That works great for the ends but, what about the middle? How would I get a piece of 2x4 there? It's amazing how ideas come to us when needed. I drilled through on the back with a small drill just to the side of where I wanted the block to go. I left the drill in place and then all I needed to do was push the piece down the hollow aluminum until it hit the drill and could go no further. That way I knew it was in position. A screw through the plywood and through the aluminum set the top to the bottom and latched onto the wood block internal to the aluminum beam. Nice. I hope you can piece together what I didn't from the pictures provided.
On the inside I was originally considering hinges so that you can lift up the frame and mattress but, went for a much easier solution. I opted to have the rather rigid frame simply rest on top of some rails I created in the back. These mount like this in the back corners of the gypsy wagon.
Step 21: Close Up the Walls - Electrical Fully In
Time to fully close up all the walls. I got the wiring done. It was for two 110volt outlets. One is next to the bed/couch and the other one services the AC unit by the door. On the other side of the caravan, there will be one outlet in the kitchen area as well. There is also some low voltage wiring for the ceiling lights that leads to light switch by the door.
All the wires terminate under the bed where I intended to place the panel and battery. It's a pretty basic set up. It's a small space...there is no need to make it overly complicated. Once I finally had all that completed, I was able to put up the walls which are a tongue and groove pine board. A few cuts were needed around the windows but, it went up nicely.
Also time to paint the ceiling. Went with a dark blue/grey. It's called 'Starless Night'
Step 22: Electrical Panel Setup
The panel I opted for was this one. It's perfect for such a small space. I used one of the overhangs under the bed to house all of this. This was where I had gotten all the wires to come together from the various points in the gypsy that were being powered.
Electrical can be dangerous, so I'm not going to offer up how to do this here. Please consult a professional since no two install will be the same. Please use this only as a rough guide for what you can do and how you should approach this from a planning perspective.
With that said, I have a battery capable of powering the camper for several days in regard to lighting, fridge, and USB charging capabilities. If you added in some solar panels, it could stretch that time off grid indefinitely.
The wires that I had put into the ceiling now were put to use since I popped in the LED lighting (4x).
Step 23: Kitchen
The pictures here are not entirely in sequence but rather provided to show the various step involved. Key to the kitchen was a piece of live edge butternut that I intended for the counter top. Beyond that a frame needed to be built to hold that top in place. Furthermore holes needed to be cut into the rather thick material for both the pump faucet and the sink (a salad bowl). It was all a bit tricky given the thickness of the wood but by improvised means it all came together in the end.
There is a good amount of storage under the counter behind two doors that I custom built for the that purpose. The counter top was also smoothed down with lots of sanding going down to a 220 grit for the final smoothing of the surface. I treated the wood with a food safe butcher block restorer consisting of beeswax and other natural oils. The end result is pretty stunning. There is an outlet right by the window in the kitchen, so a hot plate (induction) can be used to cook there. Water for the sink resides in the cabinet and is pulled up via the pump tap.
Step 24: Table and Seating Area
This area is opposite the kitchen. Prep for this was raising and extending the over the wheel overhang to create a comfortable seating area. I put in some vertically slotted 2x4s to achieve the height and depth I wanted.
Table mount was a boat based removable system where the table sits in a cup integrated into the floor. That needed to be marked and drilled out and then the cup was mounted into the floor. The top of the table is a piece of live edge sycamore. After sufficient sanding and prep, I treated this with the butcher block conditioner just as the kitchen counter. Final step was to do a hinged cover for actual seat (to sit on top of the 2x4). Once that was done, all that was missing was a comfortable seating cushion which I later found at IKEA.
Step 25: Final Trim Work and Painting
At this stage I found myself dealing in lots of small projects. Some copper caps here and some door trim there. The windows all needed to be finished with some nice right angle and angle cut plastic pieces. That took a while to complete. Bottom line is that you can make this as fancy or non fancy as you want it. Whatever you do, it will be unique to you and your tastes, budget and needs. In the end I painted all the walls white as it gives the space a really clean look and makes it seem more spacious and cheery.
Step 26: Final Touches and Branding
Personally I never want to build anything generic. What I build has to be representative of me and an extension of who I am. I hope that this has been a helpful instructable for you. I'm working on producing a more in depth construction guide with video, slides and voiceover instruction. That will be coming soon. I invite you to check out TinyIndustrial.com for the latest on what I'm working on.
Please leave comments (if you have nice things to say). I'm here to help and answer questions you might have. Also taking orders for shells which will get you a trailer, four walls and a roof for you to have a head start on creating your own personal space for your own personal needs.
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