Instructables
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.
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kkastel61 year 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)  kkastel61 year 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

aroowoof4 months 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)  aroowoof4 months 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?

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jchuckjohns1 month 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)  jchuckjohns1 month 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.
sirBart2 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 sirBart2 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)  sirBart2 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)  sirBart2 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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hankyknot3 months 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)  hankyknot3 months 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?

joabyjutsu2 months ago

Gostei muito! Vou começar a desenhar um, quem sabe algum dia construo. Muito obrigado pela postagem.

billbillt2 months ago

This is about the most wonderful project I have ever seen... Fantastic job!!...

gumby_kevbo3 months ago
Good job all around, and good starting with a commercial trailer. Too many trailers built with salvaged running gear from rear of a 1978 K car or whatever, then even if the next owner has a clue what it is, good luck finding a repair part in BFE. Real RV/trailer hardware is well standardized and available in any big city, or farm and ranch supply. If you decide this needs brakes, or a heavier axle, it is a bolt- on upgrade, not starting over.
paleotool (author)  gumby_kevbo3 months ago
Too right there! I've seen some folks who want to start with a rusty, no title, homebuilt trailer to put their little dream house on. Start with a good foundation and it should last long and be fixable forever.
sirBart3 months ago

I really have to hand it to you paleotool for coming up with a very nice design. I wavered on whether or not to build one, and finally decided to take the plunge. As with anything like this there are so many many variations, but I'm trying to stick with your overall idea and look. I almost feel like I'm ripping you off, but I suppose that would be the reason you shared! I'm up to the base box now, and I'm really liking the way it's looking. Thanks for posting all the info on your Gypsy Wagon.

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paleotool (author)  sirBart3 months ago

SirBart,

That is exactly why I made the Instructable. I couldn't find information myself so it seemed right to make it. Some of the wagons it has inspired have truly outshined the original. Best of luck and keep us posted!

RedZone1333 months ago

I love your wagon and your weblog page was also very interesting.I didn't know this art-form was still alive.Thank u for sharing.

paleotool (author)  RedZone1333 months ago
Thanks so much. I didn't know it either until it just happened.
rodrigo G3 months ago

Felicitaciones

paleotool (author)  rodrigo G3 months ago
Gracias Rodrigo!

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)  sprocketscientist3 months 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.
BobbyMike4 months ago

Nicely done, thanks for sharing!

MrNathann4 months 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 months 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?
kretzlord4 months ago

absolutely lovely

delabodge4 months ago

absolutely inspirational, thank you very much for posting.

Wulbert made it!6 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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rstorm15 months ago
This is truly inspiring I love it and want one!!!
maxpower495 months ago

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

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