Introduction: Bow Top Conestoga Gypsy Vardo
Well it is done. It felt like it would take forever, but it is finally finished . And it has certainly not been one of the most profitable projects we have worked on, but it has also not been the least...
This being the second of these bow top gypsy vardos my partner and I have made, everything had to be done just right, and so it actually took longer than the first one. We finally figured out the optimal roof design, including trailerablility, so now it has large eve's and a bonet for travel. The door latches took a little fenagaling, but the brass hardware is perfect and the cabin latch and turn latch are back woods class.
Some advice for whoever would build one of these:
use stable straight grain wood for the door and window batten material. I used salvage old redwood, which is super beautiful, but it warped and bowed and I had to refit everything many times.
Buy a quality trailer. Ours wasn't really up to the job it was rated for, cause it was affordable, and so it has been welded three times where it was breaking. The tongue once broke clean in half actually. Now it is beefy as all get out, but possibly better to buy something heavy duty with a box frame tongue or weld it before you use it.
A clear vinyl tarp will make a great roof, but it won't breath, so sew vinyl to sunforger canvas and you will have the best of both worlds.
That's all I can think of at the moment, it's been an amazing traveling home for us, but we sold it to move to Maine, best of experiences if you build one yourself....
Step 1: Design Considerations and Materials
So, this wagon is bigger than the first wagon, 10 feet long, v's 8 feet, 7 feet wide and tall v's 6' 6".
I could only get hold of ten foot plywood in 1/2inch thickness, so I glued and screwed two sheets together, as I like my floors at least 1" thick. Most of the materials I purchased at Home Depot, Lowes, or a Local Hardware store in the North SF bay. The framing material is 2x3's kiln dried from HD. The tongue and groove (T&G) is also from there. The ply from Lowes, but neither store stocks the inch & 5/8th star drive screws I love so much.
The EMT (electrical metal tubing) can be bought most anywhere. The trailer was a China cheappy, 5x8 feet. The canvas was ordered online, as it is hard to find locally. The vinyl for the roof was from Sailright and is UV treated for outdoor use. The trim wood was from old salvaged redwood logs from where we live, which I however do not recommend, as the wood lacks the straightness or stability desirable in trim wood. Other trim used was some brazilian hardwood, species I am not sure, but we already had it so it was free!
You can make this design with various widths and heights, so whatever size you decide on, measure it out on a flat surface, and use a string to arc it out. then measure up from the floor with board widths, 5" in this case and mark them off, as in the picture. Then you can measure the WIDEST part of each board and make up an accurate materials list. The hardware stores near me only had 8' and 12' T&G so I had to work with that. I would however recommend ordering your material in the sizes you need from a lumber yard. Also, the boards available at HD are only planned on one side, so it was a lot of work smoothing the other side, planing and sanding. And the groove is cut much to deep on these boards, weakening the slot significantly more than necessary. If you can find it order T&G with a shallower slot.
Step 2: Floor, End Walls and Cutting Doors/windows
I made the wagon first, on beams, and then slid it onto the floor box. It was tricky. You can make it much easier by building the floor box first and then building the wagon directly onto it. The box has another ten foot 1/2" sheet of ply under it, and 2x4's framing it out into 10 2x2' sections. Next build the walls by cutting the groove off of the first board so that it sits flush on the floor, then screw it flush to the bottom of the studs, using the inch and 5/8th star drive finish screws. These have a small head and have a subtle presence in the wood, while being very strong.
The studs have two feet between the center two, for the doors and windows, the next two are aligned with the edge of the floor, but with space for the side walls to attach to the edge of the floor, and the last two are placed closer to the side walls, to make it more rigid. Look at the pictures if unsure, they are more accurate then my memory. If you can't tell what I did, from the pictures or my writing, then you will have to figure it out on your own. I did and you can too!
So you should now have two end walls and one middle half wall and you are now ready to mark and cut the doors and win-door. I chose the heights of these extremely useful cutouts by measuring my standing and crawling heights and ensuring that I could fit comfortably through them all. These heights have worked great for me, and I am about as large a human as you get these days, 6'6". Feel free to copy my measurements from the pictures, or use your own.
A pencil attached to a string works great again for making the nice smooth curves, and a decent jigsaw works great for cutting them. I cut these as a 45% angle and i highly recommend this method. Before you cut, screw temporary braces to the door panels and they will hold the cut pieces together and aligned one with another until you frame them into doors.
Step 3: Side Walls & Bed
For the side walls, again cut off the groove, this time at an angle so that it sits flush on the floor. Next pre-drill and screw it up through the floor, with 3" screws every foot or so. Then pre-drill and screw it to the end walls and the middle half-wall preferably with wide flat headed 2.5 inch screws.
Because Home D only stocks 8' and 12' T&G boards, I bought 12'ers and overhung them around the door, making a little enclosed porch which was matched by the roof.
The bed is framed on 2x3's screwed to the studs, 4 to be exact. A sheet of 3/4" plywood makes for a solid sleeping surface. On this wagon we ran the side walls up a board higher than the bed, which was framed across at the widest point, as in the first wagon.
Step 4: Kitchen, Bench, and Wood Stove in the Hold
The kitchen is pretty straight forward. Counter and two shelves made with sanded and polyurethaned plywood, and framed with laminated 1x2's made from pine and hardwood. For the extensive rounding done all over this wagon I used an old antique jack-plane. It is heavy, sharp and a joy to use, and it is silent.
I under-mounted the sink, for that modern look, and dropped a plum-bob down the drain to mark where to drill the hole for the sink drain through the shelves and the floor box. We considered stoves extensively, looking into units mounted into the counter, but settled on a two burner camping propane model because of its ability to be easily removed and used to cook outside, as was the gypsy way in the past.
The bench was simple, just make it a comfortable hight and width for sitting, maybe measured from your favorite chair.. . Underneath there is room for a small pantry with a hinged door, or better two doors with magnets and latches.
We used a basket drawer under the counter for utensils and small things.
We bought a hose to connect the stove to a 20lb propane tank, saving $30+ a gal on fuel v's the little green bottles.
Under the bed we installed a wood stove I made myself from mostly scrap materials. It has been an incredible source of heat in the winter and on cold mornings in generals. Due to the thinness of the metal used, the stove heats up so fast I generally don't even need to get dressed when I get up on a California winter morning, as the initial radiation from a blazing kindling fire keeps me warm until the tiny space of the hold heats up to coziness. Soon the heat billowing out of the hold heats the whole wagon and I start making breakfast. This stove design ejects the smoke out the back, keeping the circular top of the stove available for cooking on. This is generally the stove I use to heat water for coffee or tea in the morning, and by the time the water is hot the wagon is often warm, at least standing in-front of the stove.
So for cooking and general easy access this stove is placed just inside the hold door. Next to it I attached vertical rails from the bed rafter to the floor to hold a stack of wood. This stack of wood drys as the fires burn, a great feature when you can't find any fully dry wood, a situation I loath. Also, above the stove I put a full-size oven rack to really dry wood quickly, such as for kindling which needs to be bone-dry. We also keep warm drinks up on this rack, to guess what, keep them warm!
Another rad stove feature is one of those Coleman camp ovens. $30 from Walmart and now we have a wood fired oven under our bed!
Because the hold is such a small well insulated space, when we hang a blanket down over the doorway with the fire raging it heats up to 160 degrees fast, making a little sauna for up to four people (two comfortably) with its own escape door out the back.
The stove making is its own instructable, or it will be one soon. In brief, it is a design I have been working on since the first wagon needed heat two years ago. In its current incarnation it uses two metal buckets, used is great but make sure they are not rusted out, as that will shorten the stoves life, obviously.
The first bucket has a door hole cut out of the front, and a hole cut in the top at the back for the chimney, as the picture, using metal shears, aka tin snips. part of the second bucket makes a door larger than the opening in the first bucket with folded over double thick edges. The bottom of the second bucket is cut out with a jigsaw, or snips if you prefer, then installed inside the first bucket as a baffle sending the fire/smoke to the front of the stove before letting it exit out the back. This simple feature keeps a lot more of the heat in the stove, and a lot less of the flames in the stack.
I would never install a stove, even one this small in a space as tight as the hold on a wagon, without a heat shield. And I recon neither should you. Luckily what remains of the second bucket is just the right size for a heat shield for the sides and back of the stove, where the stove gets close to the walls of the wagon. Copper trim, slider air vent, and legs made of bolts to get it up off the floor are great, as is a sheet of metal for under and around the stove protecting the floor. A circular piece of copper gets the stack through the wall, using about a 1/4 inch thick layer of high temp silicone stove sealant to insulate the wall from the stack.
Be safe, cautious, keep your eye on it and investigate any strange smells. A fire extinguisher is most highly recommended...
Step 5: Rafters, Metal Paint, Doors, Copper Trim/banding Etc.
EMT makes excellent rafters, and at $7 a stick, you can't beat it on price. Metal paint or similar will hoogle it up a lot. We mixed our own colors out of Rustoleum red, blue and yellow. The rafters are set into holes drilled into the studs, using a 30 millimeter Forstner bit. This was the closest bit I could find for a snug fit, inch and 1/8th being a little too small, and inch and a quarter too big.
Once you have mixed a range of beautiful colors, you might as well paint all the rest of the metal on the wagon, starting with the trailer, wheel wells, wheels, the fire extinguisher, and propane tank.....
The doors were trimmed with beautiful dark old redwood, used because of its beauty and availability. However, I recommend using a stable and straight wood for this purpose, and also do it immediately as you cut the wood out of the walls, as it might expand, shift or generally just get out of whack with time, mine did anyway. You won't find much in the way of hinges at a hardware store, I recommend ordering online from an antique hardware company.
Copper banding tacked and nailed around the corners, and every 2.5 feet along the wagon will protect it and make it stronger.
Step 6: The Roofs, Trailering, and Where We Go From Here...
We ordered a vinyl tarp online, 12x14 feet to provide plenty of overhand over both ends. It took a LONNNNNG time to arrive, so plan ahead, but is a great transparent roof. We also ordered Sunforger 12oz canvas online and UV treated 20 mil vinyl for a skylight down the middle. We used a temperamental 1918 singer sewing machine. To sew something this big you need a BIG table. We made one out of two sheets of plywood, one with a section cut out to sit in. The ply was screwed to 16ft 2x4s and they to two burro brand saw horses (highly recommended).
Happily, our table happened to be on a slight slope, giving the material a super convenient out-feed feature, allowing one person to sew without help. A sleeve with a tube of EMT in it allows the roof to be fastened down (great in high wind) as well as giving something to roll it up around when you want to open one side up and let the view in unobstructed.
The rafters are all removable, so the roof can come off completely giving an unobstructed view of the sky.
We made another design of roof, using separate longer rafters, ours made out of little fir trees, and waxed canvas. A picture of this roof on the little wagon is above.
The third roof design was just tested during the last rain storm. The 14x12 vinyl tarp is help up away from the end walls with a 3/4" pic pipe bent into a hoop. Pictures later.
I took this wagon to the desert recently, Saline valley in fact. I didn't have a camera (sad) because I took it down some ROUGH roads. Rocks, ruts, 20 miles of meaty washboards, I drove it by myself, mostly in low gears, with my little '89 toyota 4x4 truck with a 2.4l engine.
Needless to say, I had as much weight as practical in the truck, I aired the tires down to 20psi and I crawled along whenever the road got rough. It held up to the abuse without complaint. At the end of the trip I took it down a few miles of the old wagon road in Panamint valley. The Nadeau Trail is one of the roughest roads I have driven on, I had to get out and scout the road frequently, moving rocks and checking departure angles going into and out of washes, etc. At one point I had to drag it over a ten inch tall rock (the trailer wheels are only 21inches). No damages sustained.
I recon it weighs about 1500-1700lbs and I feel it on hills, sometimes on STEEP passes like the 155 up from lake Issabella I got into low gears, all the way down to 1st and it took all the power my truck has to get it going.
On the highway it slows my small truck down, I rarely use 5th gear due to the wind resistance and I intend to make a wagon shaped ferrule for the top of the truck camper shell to deflect the wind before we take it over to the East Coast.
It was great to have in the desert, the rounded shape did well in the wind storms and having a quickly heatable space to come home to after walking in 15 degree nights was unlike any camping I have done before. I put up tapestries over the rafters under the vinyl in the day to keep the sun out of the kitchen, while leaving the bed skylight open to see the stars at night. Rolling a side up made for some epic views and I was treated to a new-for-me experience of sleeping on a heated bed with the roof rolled up in 25 degree nights. Warm, crisp, cozy and gorgeous.
This is as far as it has gotten, due to us working on the little first wagon recently to get it ready to sell. But I will post pictures as it is finished up and travels across the country in the next few months (hoogle time of course).
There are maybe more pictures and other information on both wagons on our website:
and the auction currently happening (it is the middle of March) is on fb here:
So, any building related questions in the comments will be answered, I will pretend I don't see anything off topic.
We live in ours full time, in sunny California where we spend most of our time outside. Most people would probably use one more as an adventure wagon, festivals, glamping, three season use, guest accommodations, etc. I know in this country big is generally seen as better, but even current 'tiny' houses are far larger than what english gypsies generally lived in, the canvas covered bow top generally running about 10 feet long. How they did this with kids and all their possessions I do not know, but for two people who prefer spending most of their time out of walls, toilet included, it works wonderfully. We bath with sponge baths and during saunas when over-heated it feels good washing off outside.
For us in cold places two or more layers of roofs maybe with polyfill insulation would keep it much warmer, especially after the stove goes out.
BTW, the wood stove has been by far the most reliable stove we have used so far. On cold mornings the propane works sporadically, if at all. With dry wood a wood stove will heat down to, I don't know, maybe -200 degrees. OK, i have no idea and I am tired of writing now so I am done.
Good luck, and remember, in life the only destination is the journey.
Step 7: Some Improvements
These are a few things I have been wanting to finish up for a while. The copper lip around the stove stops the sheep fleece from sliding upto the stove, something I have never been totally comfortable with. The little shelf is for a dedicated space to charge a tablet and phone so they don't get damaged on the bench or bed. It includes a 12 volt auto plug in the wall with a triple USB charger. The plug is connected through a charge controller to a couple of 19Ah batteries so they can only be discharged so far before it cuts off. The same charge controller limits the electricity coming in from the solar panel to a maximum of 14.4 volts to avoid boiling the cells. I figured a 50 watt panel would be good for my two little batteries, incase it is placed in a location without direct sun. It is hinged for collapsablilty, but I ran out of time so I screwed it in with a 45 for now.
The hoops are 1/2 inch PVC and hold the clear vinyl out from the ends of the wagon about 22 inches, which should offer it ample protection during the sometimes long Oregon winters, where we are in the mountains it has been known to rain for 40 days and 40 nights before.
The clear vinyl is great for seeing the stars and trees, but in direct sun it is far to warm, and privacy is nill, so I bought a bag of clips and hung fabric over the rafters..
We are off traveling for a while now, and may be gone a year or more, so that is as far as it will get for a while. Good luck little wagon, see you when we see you!!
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