Instructables

Building a Gypsy Wagon

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Picture of Building a Gypsy Wagon
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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.

Really cool little trailer. I am thinking of building a small camper myself. Do you notice having the flat "front" of the trailer impacting the towability or fuel economy? It seems like most other small campers have some kind of aerodynamics, but a simple box is much more appealing to me as easier to build.

paleotool (author)  sprocketscientist21 hours ago
I drew up many designs. All the early ones had more aerodynamics but the bottom line is that a living space works better if it is "boxy". Also, building a box is easy compared to hemispherical shapes. In the end, working from the inside out, the goal was to make the bed space comfortable, the seating and table a pleasant area to be and plenty of room for storage all around.

I'm sure it affects gas mileage but I only really feel it in a big headwind. The truck, at least, partially masks the front profile of the trailer so it's not as bad as you may think.
hankyknot23 hours 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)  hankyknot23 hours 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.
aroowoofyesterday

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)  aroowoofyesterday

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...

Nicely done, thanks for sharing!

MrNathann4 days ago

My wife and I like this design very much. Did you find the support for the floor to enough or do you think a little more would have been better? Also, do you know what the finish weight is?

Great build, this would be a blast to take around the country...

paleotool (author)  MrNathann4 days ago
Certainly no problem with the floor. No flex if that's what you are asking. 1" plywood bolted to steel cross-members with 7/8" oak laid over the top.

Just curious, what would prompt that question? Does something seem amiss in the build?
kretzlord26 days ago

absolutely lovely

delabodge28 days ago

absolutely inspirational, thank you very much for posting.

Wulbert made it!2 months ago

Hi Paleo,

Your wagon is a great inspiration to me. Your standard of work is very high and the aesthetic has real integrity. I'm building my own wagon, based loosely on the "Shepherd Hut" theme, using a recycled caravan chassis. It won't be for touring, the wheels are just to make it easier to get to move around and to save money. An old trailer is an excellent, cheap "foundation" for a hut. Thanks for sharing your work.

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Hi Wulbert, I'd be keen to see how your project progressed. I'm even further north than you, on edge of Cairngorms, and am keen to give my wagon a more Scottish feel. I was thinking of larch boards in a 'scotch lap' style. And, of course, I'd be keen to know how your insulation etc was done to fend off Scottish winters!

Hello heilan' laddie. Thanks for your interest. It's still not finished. I opted for 50mm rigid insulation in the floors and walls. Not the "greenest" but thin and light and good performance. I used the 450 wide roofing size and set my studs at 500mm centres to avoid cutting the insulation. Sadly this size doesn't tie in very well with 8ft x 4ft sheets, so a bit of wastage. Roof has 90mm of recycled glass wool, in wall "batts" semi-rigid designed for stud walls, easier to handle than the fluffy stuff and water repellant. I fancied sheep's wool but was put off by tales of rot and moths. Larch sounds good, pretty durable. Folk say scottish larch is not as good as Siberian but in reality it will last a very long time, especially with a good roof overhang. What is "scotch-lap"?

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Hi Wulbert. Thanks for info, that's along the lines I was thinking. What I call Scotch lap is the vertical cladding you see old barns done in. Wide, vertically placed boards with thinner batons placed over the joins. There's maybe a more technical term for them. Also, how do you bend your wriggly tin?? That's the look I was hoping for too but I've never tried it.

Hi, I think that style is sometimes called "board & batton", or "batton on board". It's what I used because I like it too. It also allows you to leave a range of gaps between the wider boards, handy when you get close to a corner or window and need to make small adjustments. The curved tin came from Cladco in Glasgow and they will bend it to whatever radius you want, (although I think my 1.6m radius may be close to the limit because the tin is very slightly creased along the curved edge) You may find a supplier locally who can supply it because farmers use the stuff for pig arcs. Or you could buy it flat and have it bent by a blacksmith. There are on-line calculators that will let you work out your span, rise and radius. Remember to leave a generous overhang. I only just covered the battons with the roof, I forgot they add another 15mm each side to the wall width, and I thought I'd allowed a very good overhang.

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rstorm11 month ago
This is truly inspiring I love it and want one!!!
maxpower491 month ago

Great build and I was just wondering what size beds you used.

Wulbert2 months ago

Paleo,

I like your roof, and I may make my next hut using a single sheet like you did. This would have a few advantages (cost, ease of fixing, wind damage resistance), also I like the slight "Airstream" look it gives. Were you just lucky that the corrugations on your sheet steel lined up perfectly with your wagon's eaves, or did you plan the roof circumference based on the sheets dimensions?

I am in Glasgow, Scotland, (Northern U.K.), so insulation is a must here. Hence the need for a "double" skin roof. I wanted to copy your exposed purlin look though, so I made extra work for myself. I copied your method of 3.5mm ply bent over the purlins. It works very well and saves loads of time. Most of my timber is Scottish, but sadly plywood must be imported from China, although its all FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) approved.

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paleotool (author)  Wulbert2 months ago
Best of luck on your build! My corrugations were a bit of dumb luck but I could have let them hang off a bit if needed. Also, the lower, closer corrugations make for a stiff roof.
spylock2 months ago

I really like it,I wouldve stained the outside of course I rarely paint wood unless its really bad,youve done alot to get that stove right,so I doubt youd wanna change it,but check out the wood stoves @ Sportsman's Guide,they have a few stoves thats a little smaller one for I think around $100.00.I wouldve also put a small window on either side,if nothing else,big enough to fire a weapon from.Why the "T" where the stove pipe comes out instead of an "L" ? Really nice job,and most men could live in it,I could with no problem.Again,awesome job.

paleotool (author)  spylock2 months ago

Spylock. Thanks for the comments. I looked at your link but didn't see any more appropriate stoves and certainly not for the price you mentioned. The Colorado Cylinder stove is the closest thing to what I have currently (Four Dog Brand). The T connection is just how stoves, in my experience are plumbed out of a wall. This allows access the the "up" pipe for inspection and cleaning.

The exterior has undergone some changes since this Instructable was made and I'll try to post some photos soon.

What do you build?

spylock paleotool2 months ago

OK,I found the stove I was talking about,but Im not able to send a link.I googled "Camping wood stove with legs" then select images,and its the third stove in the third row,if you then select the photo it will take you to ebay where they are for sell for $80.00;the legs would have to be reconfigured,and I dont know as to the quality,but you can give it a look see.Oh,and "What do I build?" My last project was a water feature that turned out nice,but Ive never posted anything to Instructables yet,but I will find something thats maybe worthy as soon as this sorry ass weather breaks.Also I look forward to seeing photos of your new work to your rig.

spylock paleotool2 months ago
Yeah,sorry about that,the stove I was talking about isnt there anymore,I wish I had have remembered the name,and maybe it could be found it somewhere else,of course S.G. may just be out of stock.I will do some checking because the stove Im talking about would be perfect for your rig,and it was if Im not badly mistaking $109.00 plus shipping cause when I saw the stove in your rig it was the first thing to pop into my head.On the "T" at the bottom,Ive never saw one piped like that,but it makes real good sense.I will get back with you on the stove,Id really like you to see one.
virefi3 months ago
Tks. I Like it. nice dream for a weekend out.
junkrigsailor7 months ago
First rule of trailers: All existing trailer lights and wiring harnesses are ratty, :(
User17 months ago
Beautiful job on the creation and great work putting together the instructable! I just love the interior too!

Thank you and I wish you the best. :-)
Texasrose537 months ago
Is there a way I can get the list of materials?
that would be so great.
Gregbot8 months ago
this is awesome!!!!!!
camperdamper8 months ago
I love this build very detailed but I have just one question do you know how much it weighs as I may try and build one but I drive a car
thinkthank9 months ago
Great job nice work
Kris T.11 months ago
Gypsy wagons and VW Beetles are similar in that you can paint them any and all crazy colors and they still look awesome. Thanks for posting!
PaddyODill11 months ago
Do you have a bill of materials that I can get? email me at Peter@Scho-Lan.com

Thanks

Peter
gypsynana12 months ago
I think you did a great job! I would love to do something like this to my old (seen it's better days) ''74 Chevy Motorhome.
dizzle9761 year ago
your awesome drafting skills disgust me as mine look like a dizzy 3rd grader got hold of a crayon. how does it handle with the wind while towing?
paleotool (author)  dizzle9761 year ago
She is so light that she handles fine. With my heavy Ford truck I hardly felt it when I lost a wheel even. My Tacoma, I only notice in a severe cross-wind. Never an issue yet and I live on the Plains!
fringetree1 year ago
As I am getting older, I want a Vardo for SCA events. Your plans give me a starting place. Now I have to figure out how to make a fold-down one as I do not want the wind drag when I'm driving to an event 600 miles away. Excellent photos and information. Would appreciate a materials list so I have a rough idea of expense. Already have the trailer and a lot of things to put in it since I already use a tent about 12 times a year and one of those times is an 8 day camp.
krimini1 year ago
Thank you for sharing your drawings and all the info on how to build this Wagon... as I mentioned in my other post, due to an unexpected major accident it is highly unlikely I will ever be able to have one lie this for travel, but I think the plans could still be invaluable in setting up the perfect, stairless, land based Wagon on a small piece of family lake front property that always seemed to tiny to build any type of real place to stay, so I have always just made do with a simple tent set up for weeks, even months while out there. Not super comfy, but fun, but with my new ability issues, and need for real support when sleeping, etc. I believe this could be the perfect solution as it is a very narrow strip of land with only a small clearing a land regulations for that region do not allow the removal of any trees. This means I have about a 10x12 ft sized fully cleared region to build, and this seems to be the perfect solution... especially with the wood stove because living in the Pacific Northwest has also meant I don't get to spend nearly as much time at the lake, away from everything else... not with only a tent for protection, and when I can't even get my van down there! With one of these wagons built there, without the need for wheels, and with most of the stove pipe inside and foam board insulation to increase the warmth all year long, I might finally be able to enjoy getting away from my daily city life much more easily, and as often as I want! Thank you for opening up another door in my life which now deals with many more closed doors than I ever knew existed prior to being the victim of a hit and run left with over 100 broken bones, including 3 in my neck. Thus my odd request in any help in making my van, more wagon like, or efficient. One last query... If I really wanted to go for the unique look of Gypsy Wagon using a VW van, would it be at all possible to actually add wood sides to the body, and shutters to the outside of the windows? At the very least, the shutters, but ones that actually open and close... It may be a strange hybrid, but then I could come as close to my Gypsy Wagon as I may ever get. Thank you for your patience, and I truly hope you, or your followers have some ideas to help me adapt my van.
krimini1 year ago
I have what may be a couple of truly strange questions , but any and all feedback would be greatly appreciated. I have a 1984, fully camperized, pop top VW Westfalia. Over the years I have found many ways to make it more and more homey, but some things I just never really figured out. Seeing the usage of space and such in this fabulous Gypsy Wagon will help that to some degree already. Here is where the odd sounding part potentially comes in. I have always wanted to find a way to get rid of the back lift up back door and replace it with two doors that open outwards. Easier fir me, as I have had an accident leaving me with various, permanent disabilities. I am also wondering about 2 other ideas... Is there any way to convert the fridge and stove from propane to solar? Second, and probably craziest sounding, is if it would be possible to have it so that the main bed can actually slide out the back of the van, have a couple legs that snap down for support and allow me the option of sleeping outside, under the stars. I never would have thought of it until I recently saw a photo of the new VW Transporter that already does this. More info on the Transporter can be found at http://amzn.to/XIb3Jw I always wanted a Gypsy Wagon, and often thought of building one, I even set my van up as much as possible, using storage and decorating ideas from research on them. Due to the extent of my recently acquired disabilities though, I suspect my van may end being what I need to work with instead as stairs, a bunk style bed, and many other even minor aspects would now be great barriers for me to try to overcome day in and out. Thus my desire to try to work with what I have. What was intended to be a temporary option looks like it may now need to become a long term one. So any and all ideas regarding the changes I would like to make would be immensely appreciated! Thank you, eve if it is a bit off topic... BTW if you were to mount solar lanterns (not unlike those used to light up ones garden or walkway) you would then have easy lighting to come and go day or night with no reliance on anything but Nature! I have two on the outside of the van (mounted with those rolling holders intended for mops or brooms), and a few in easy access of light inside during the day, and they not only provide plenty of light for anything, even reading at night, and a decent set can last for ages... Mine are now entering into their 8th year and since they were fine all last year, I am gonna guess I will get at least one more year out of them!
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