Instructables
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Picture of Building a Gypsy Wagon
Vardo2.jpg
For many years I have been interested in Gypsy Wagons or "vardos" and western sheepherder wagons. As it isn't practical for me to have an authentic, horse-drawn lifestyle I decided to make a version towable at highway speeds. After reading just about every book I could find on wagons, caravans, old-school RV construction and trailers, a model began to take shape in my head. For me, it needed to be short and maneuverable, sleep two to three people, and still have the air of old world craftsmanship. This meant not looking like a modern RV. My secondary goal was that it should cost as little as possible without sacrificing sturdiness or basic comfort. Finally, I decided on wood as the primary building material as that is what I am familiar with and is definitely a very cozy and comfortable medium for a living space.

Most of the actual work was performed with a table saw, band saw, drill, and a slew of hand tools as I found time around my day job. Although I don't really consider it "done", it is complete enough to use and is currently on the road.
 
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Step 1: The Mock-up

Picture of The Mock-up
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After about fifty sketches and lots of graph paper renderings, I decided I needed to visualize this in three dimensions. Here is my cardboard mock-up of the final design. An earlier version is visible behind it but this one had a lot of appeal for me. My requirements were 7' width for sleeping cross-ways, 8-10' long, and enough height to stand up in. A collapsible bed and table allow for a shorter overall wagon. The first drawing above probably gives the most accurate dimensions for the final product. You can see some changes in design even as I approached the final product.

Step 2: Trailer Conversion

Picture of Trailer Conversion
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I found a sturdy little cargo trailer with a heavy duty frame and tongue. The first step was to cut off the box with a reciprocating saw and grinder. I intended to save the wiring harness and lights but they proved to be outdated and fairly ratty.
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RussPNW made it!6 months ago

Very nice! I made (am making) one of these in Washington State.

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paleotool (author)  RussPNW3 months ago
Looks awesome! I love the mollycroft.
pneumatist made it!7 months ago
See what you started.
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paleotool (author)  pneumatist 3 months ago
Awesome stuff. The more the merrier! Hope we all cross paths down the road sometime too.
KyleJ51 month ago

This looks awesome! I do have a couple questions though. What size trailer did you build this on? Would this be doable on a 4x8 foot harbor freight trailer? Do you have any idea on the weight? How is it driving? Any problems with cross winds or aerodynamics?

paleotool (author)  KyleJ527 days ago

Y\Of course you can build on any trailer you choose to match your design. I would want something sturdier than a Harbor Freight trailer or would reinforce it a lot. It's about 1500# empty and can vary a lot with what is packed inside. No problems pulling it with either a full-sized Ford truck or a smaller Tacoma with a towing package. With a cargo box on the roof of the truck there is no real wind issues. You do feel it in a heavy front wind otherwise. It certainly isn't streamlined but that is part of her charm.

GregR529 days ago

Howdy!

I love this design! I was wondering if you had experienced any issues with moisture related problems? We live in the Phoenix area, and I've noticed that my current camping trailer, really a kitchen and a storage unit for our gear, made out of plywood, suffers a great deal when we head up to the White Mountains in summer. It seems that the wood that is so dry down here in the desert sucks up the moisture from the summer afternoon thunderstorms, and suddenly doors don't want to shut or open, and things seem to warp. I'm very interested in this design, and was wondering if you had any experience or advice you may be able to send my way!

Thanks for the design and the inspiration!

Greg

paleotool (author)  GregR527 days ago

Greg,

All little campers have moisture and air-exchange issues. Even after air-drying the wood I still had issues, more with shrinkage than expansion. Lots of varnish and paint help as does a high volume solar-powered air exchanger (the type for ventilating a cabin or engine room for a yacht). It has stabilized now and I have taken it from the Mexican border to Canada. There are still times when it is extremely wet when I need to make sure the door shuts though.

There have been some uninformed comments about this wagon and others on this site and various forums about making it "air-tight". This is very foolish from a construction and living point of view. You will get bad air and mold very quickly as well as direct damage from moisture in a small space. A lesson that many amateur tiny house builder is learning the hard way right now. Very small spaces need more ventilation, not less. They are so easy to heat, that a little loss is of no consequense.

RowanCant29 days ago
I grew up in a house truck and I have to say, if you had put a push out bay on each side you would have doubled the size!
I really like the bunk bed idea. I wonder if a double on the bottom would work with a slanted wall for reduced wind resistance towing it.
paleotool (author)  RowanCant27 days ago
Yes indeed, those things work but from my point of view it would them morph into another type of RV altogether. There is some historical ties here I was looking for and it suits us very well. Thanks for the comment.

What a great inspiration. Last year I bought an old 17ft 5th wheel and I've been taking it apart wondering what I want to do. It came to me, A gypsy wagon. I love the Vardo style.

TheGreyWolfe3 months ago

Hi Paleo, I've been looking at your plans and I'm looking to modify them for my needs. Up at the beginning you mentioned reading a lot of books on the subject of Vardo's and I wondered if you could recommend some for me.

paleotool (author)  TheGreyWolfe3 months ago
Hello GreyWolfe. I hope I didn't imply there were a "lot" of books out there on Gypsy wagons. There are only a few specific to the Caravan but others on classic campers, teardrops, and old time wagons helped inform my design.

I read everything I could find. The first, and I think the best, for understanding both history and design variations in "The English Gypsy Caravan" by C. H. Ward-Jackson. This was the only thing I could find initially and when I was planning, there was almost nothing at all on the internet other than some old images. The next best to get is "Gypsies and Gentlemen" by Nerissa Wilson. This is a great book. Although a bit more difficult to get your hands on it is worth it. "Caravanning and Camping Out" by Harris Stone is another great one written in the heyday of the new caravan movement showing many alternative designs by people actually using their wagon as a full or part time home. It is available free online. "Gypsy Horses" is a beautiful book, mostly good for images of wagons of various types. "Les Roulottes, Une Invitation au Voyage" is another one for ideas. Very artsy weekend-type caravans for the most part but good stuff none the less. I found stuff on sheep camps as well but cannot think of titles right now. I don't own these books.

I also post links to articles, books, websites, etc. on my blog. Here is the "links" page if you are interested and haven't found some of these yet. You can also key word search my site by clicking on the appropriate links in the right hand column.

Good luck.

Thanks for the answer right away. I'd love to get the first one, but it'll probably have to wait a little bit. I also have the link to your blog now saved so I can revisit it later. With what you've done here and what I've found elsewhere and a few of the books you mentioned above, I should be able to build what i'm looking for. I'm planning on using a 12' trailer and making a 10' Vardo on it, and keeping the last 2 feet for a porch. Once I get started I'll do an instructable with pictures for it.

paleotool (author)  TheGreyWolfe3 months ago

That's a very livable size. I'm always wavering as to the "perfect" size wagon but my next will definitely have a porch. Good luck, I can't wait to see the build.

paleotool (author) 3 months ago
My "link" didn't take: http://paleotool.com/vardo-links/
Try it again!
paleotool (author) 4 months ago
Oh yeah, maybe you haven't read on to the part where is it covered in epoxy-coated steel?
nilef4 months ago

Thank you for your inspirations! Regarding the roof, I saw that you used felt and canvas. Although the the canvas is waterproof, have you experienced any mold or deterioration? Also, did you consider other materials prior to this particular selection? Thank you

paleotool (author)  nilef4 months ago
No problems yet. I worked to keep it breathable, hence the roofing felt and canvas. The low ridge metal (hopefully) will allow for enough breathing to vent any trapped water. If I ever move to the northwest, who knows?

It's beautiful! Do you know what the hitch weight is? I would love to have something similar someday.

I found a thin insulation with a great R rating. It looks like silver bubble wrap that is somewhat rigid. I used it at a ceiling in my shop and it keeps it toasty without taking up any space. Reflectix 48" x 25' rolls. I want to make one of these wagons so badly. Good luck everyone!

quinault7 months ago

Amazing! Super well done. Incredible

paleotool (author) 7 months ago

Wonderful work Pneumatist! I'd love to see more photos. Maybe you'd let me put a few up on my blog.

TracyC18 months ago

I would just like to say what a wonderful piece of work you have created and written so well too. I grew up near a Gypsy camp in England and they were always so very pretty and I think you have captured there essence in your little wagon. Its wonderful to see people are still wanting to hand build these mobile creative wonders. Thank you

kkastel62 years ago
Just want to say, you've done a great job on this wagon. A total inspiration. Am building one over the next couple months. Am curious to know if you did install another window for iimproved ventilation as well as vent above bed?. Also in the discussion below, you said you added another layer of wood to side walls to keep wagon cooler in heat. Did you add insulation between? As to floor, did you insulate or use marine ply? I work up in the Gila 85 mi from T or C 9 months out of the year & intend to use my wagon for off time exploration in the SW & elsewhere. Thanks,
paleotool (author)  kkastel62 years ago
There is NO INSULATION, in the modern sense, anywhere in the wagon. No new windows yet but hope to make the decision over the winter, when it's easiest to work outside here. There is a solar powered vent over the bay window which make a world of difference in circulating the air. There is a 1" dead-air gap between the inner and outer walls that works well to insulate, but I may break down and fill with rigid foam someday based on some good advice from a builder friend. The floor is 1" exterior plywood underlayment covered with 3/4" oak planking.

I love the Gila and I wish you well on your build.

Updates to the wagon are documented on the blog site as I consider it an ongoing process, evolving with my needs, whims, and cash flow.

Speaking of the Bay window...Lol....how do you build a bay window? Any plans?

Thanks

aroowoof1 year ago

Hi, I'm considering a trailer for a project like yours. It is 12' long and has a 5000lb axle with leaf springs, but no brakes. Do you think having no brakes is okay considering how relatively light your wagon design is, or should I keep looking?

paleotool (author)  aroowoof1 year ago

It sounds like a heavy trailer.

If you found the right trailer for your wagon, it is fairly simple to have brakes installed. The tow vehicle, it's hauling capacity, weight, and it's brakes will make a difference too. You should decide whether you are going to take it on frequent long trips or just leave it mostly in one place and move it only occasionally. Get brakes if you can.

I've found out that it's required to have brakes with a heavy-duty axle. I was quoted a price of $775 to $875 for parts and labor to install brakes. Also, because it is a home-made trailer, it will need to be titled, which involves an insurance company and a policy for the next three years. So, not such a good deal after all (the guy was asking $600 for a 7 X 12).

Finding a trailer, new or used or home-made, that has a heavy-duty axle is not easy. The trailer companies in town don't stock single heavy-duty axles, only-light duty. Is a trailer with a 3,500lb axle adequate? For example, I can get a new single 3,500lb axle 6 X 10 trailer with a payload capacity of 2,775lb for $1895. Otherwise, there's a craigslist 7 X 15 dual axle for $1400 or a craigslist 5 X 14 dual axle for $1800. I want to build small and light like you've shown can be done, so if I had a longer trailer, I'd still build 10' long, then have a nice porch. Although, I'm betting there are trailer-loading rules (load placement in relation to the wheels) that might need to be considered?

I'm a neophyte when it comes to trailers, although I've built a number of cabins. If I could just get past this unfamiliar hurdle of acquiring the right trailer, I'll be off and running. I want to do this project to give our 15 year old son a job this summer, to keep him out of trouble and to teach him good skills. We'll either keep it for ourselves or sell it. Another reason for the project is to learn skills to later build a tiny house with and for our 19 year old son. But first things first, I need a trailer for a gypsy wagon...

Hi,

I'm Dave and I'm building my first bowtop. I had this tandem axle trailer custom built. It's 6 x 12 with 3500lbs axles. 15" rims/tires with brakes on BOTH axles. I'm towing it with my 1990 Mercedes 560SEL.

Thanks for posting your build.

And I enjoy reading everyones questions. I have a good friend in Peru IN who has built 2 bowtops. I'm thankful I have his to examine.

My question how does one seal T & G so it doesn't leak? Or has not anyone had a problem with it?

Spare tire.jpg6 x 12 tandem custom trailer 3500axles.jpgrear trailer LED lights.jpgfront trailer.jpg
jchuckjohns10 months ago

I'm about 12 years out from retirement and something like this seems like a perfect solution for a low cost traveling home. Have you actually put some miles on one of these? I'm thinking cross country distances. How'd it hold up? What kind of maintenance was involved? Inquiring minds need to know! ;)

paleotool (author)  jchuckjohns10 months ago
Well, if you build well it should last a long time. My vardo has about 20,000 miles now. Most of the maintenance has been to the paint.
sirBart11 months ago

Oh! oh! I have a question!

I'm raising the walls on mine now, and I'd like to make sure the end walls will provide enough stability to make sure the side walls stay in place. I'm worried about the door, and how to transfer stress from one side to the other. It doesn't look as though there is any one piece of wood that goes from one side of the wagon to the other at the top of the back wall. Do you have a plywood brace on the inside above the door? Or does the roof take up the stress?

You are right about the bed -- the structure added by that should help a lot with stabilizing the side walls.

sirBart sirBart11 months ago

I just saw that one of your photos has a view of the inside of the door, and there is no bracing there, but you have the thinnest sliver of one of the tongue-and-groove boards that makes it over the top to both of the oak side braces next to the door. The roof must be helping too.

paleotool (author)  sirBart11 months ago
Again, I think the outer arc of oak helps a lot. The purlins tie it all together, like a good oriental rug : )
paleotool (author)  sirBart11 months ago
There is an arc of oak outside at the top of the wall for rigidity and to provide screw space. There are hardwood verticals through-bolted to matching uprights on either side of the door. Here are a couple pics showing the uprights.
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hankyknot1 year ago

First off I have to say that this is truly beautiful but I have a question.

While I understand the reasons for the differing thicknesses of lumber I'd like to know why you chose the different species of wood. Is there a technical reason to choose spruce or oak or pine, was it an aesthetic choice or purely a case of what you had on hand that fit the design?

paleotool (author)  hankyknot1 year ago
A little of both, but mostly about the right material for the use. Oak for flooring and hard structural corners. I used poplar for the purlins as that is a relatively hard wood but fairly light. Also, it is readily available and stable. Yellow pine is very strong but heavy so limited to end walls, etc.

So I finally stopped procrastinating, broke out the tools, picked up some lumber and started to build. As you can imagine this has prompted a few questions, one of which is "how do you attach the walls to the "ledge"?

I'm familiar with stick framing and having a base plate that you mount your uprights on before raising the wall into place but of course you didn't do it that way, at least not that I can see from the pictures. The end walls in your case are pretty straight forward as you can start running the uprights right up from the floor level but on the sides how do you start the wall?

Do you screw up through the ledge into the bottom piece and through the side of the post into the ledge or did you do something else?

I'm planning to insulate mine to get as much use out of it as possible, so could I use 2x3 pine on edge and frame it as I would a typical wall or will that be too heavy? And how do you know if its too heavy or not?

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