Introduction: Tiny House, Gypsy Wagon - You Can Build One Too!


It all started when I moved to the swamp in North Carolina. I moved back to NC to take care of my grandpa, a very grumpy old man who had gone through heart surgery and needed a little help. He had an old home-built utility trailer stored in his shed, and i asked if i could have it. I guess he appreciated the help, And i found myself the proud owner of an (untitled, rusty) Utility trailer!


The moral of the story is, be nice to old people. changing catheter bags pays off eventually.

I love to create, make and invent, and my lack of construction experience (i built a chicken coop once) didn't worry me too much. I trust my ability to reason through problems and engineer things, or know when something is beyond me. Most people have these abilities, they just need to learn to trust themselves.

I looked at pictures, mostly other instructables. especially helpful were the ones by paleotool and paleopunk. if you are seriously considering building one of these, be sure and look at ALL the instructables about vardos. my vardo is different in that it is intended to be a full time residence for two adults who have few wants, and no desire for a mortgage.

from here i made a few rough sketches regarding dimensions. there was an old metal cage welded to my trailer, we removed most of it with a grinder but kept the front and back pieces, as well as some vertical pieces to serve as part of the bed. the rest of the trailer had to be sanded, rust dissolved, and oil based metal paint applied to all nooks and crannies. make sure whatever trailer you use is free from rust and protected from growing any.

Step 1: Dimensions, Plans, and Building the Base.

My trailer had a steel cage welded on and a solid metal floor. yours may not. often trailers can be had for a song, provided you are willing to look and do a little work. while my plans are based on my trailer and its' quirks, you will have to tailor your plans accordingly. this is meant to show the way i solved problems, not a rigid process.

for reference, my trailers starting dimensions were 9' x6'3'' bed, with 2'' steel tubing welded onto all 4 corners. the cage was 5'3'' tall, and there was a steel lip all around the base 2'' high.

you can use a grinder to remove any metal parts on a re-purposed trailer that are not useful.

you should find your trailer, then use graph paper to get a rough idea of the external dimensions you want. remember, the taller it is, the harder it will be to tow. think about utility as well as aesthetics. in order to be street legal, it must be less than 12 feet high, although i would recommend no higher than 8feet. it must also be less than 8'3'' wide at its widest point. i made mine wider than many people because mine is for living in.

my finished vardo is 7'10'' tall, and 7'11'' wide at its widest.

start by building the base, many people with a bare trailer build a sturdy 4 sided box structure from wood and mount it to the bed, then build from there. we had the steel posts and wanted ours really sturdy, so we used

2 treated 2x4s, and

2 pieces of 2 inch thick hardwood boards.

we fastened them between the steel posts by drilling holes and sinking 6'' long lag screws, 2 into each end of each board. they are also glued with gorilla glue.

Step 2: Building the Ledge

In order to have a ledge vardo, you have to have a ledge. this part is important. first get the boards that will become the 'shelves'. they need to be strong and free of blemishes. i used 3/4 inch thick by 11'' wide pine 'shelf board'. you could use hardwood for this too, for extra durability.

now make the ledge supports. remember that these are load bearing, and will hold the weight of everything on top of them except the roof. i used 2 inch thick hardwood. to figure out the dimensions, use the measurement of the full length of the 'shelf' board, and at least 3/4 of the length of the 'box' (vertical) board. set these two measurements at a 90 degree angle. then, draw a curve between them, making sure that the width of both ends can hold a screw.

the best way to economize on wood is to lay it out as shown. cut the squares out first, preferably with a radial saw, then cut the curve shapes with a band saw (if you are lucky) or a jigsaw.

use a carpenters square to measure and draw straight lines on the vertical pieces. make sure everything is flush, especially the tops, then make your boyfriend hold them in line while you screw them in. i wound up with 6 supports on each side, for a 9 foot long shelf. err on the side of too many.

now apply wood or gorilla glue to all upward facing surfaces, and set your shelf board on top, and clamp it or weigh it down with blocks. when the glue is dry screw the shelf to the supports below.

note: always drill out holes before sinking screws. it keeps the integrity of the wood.

Step 3: Now You Need Walls, Math Is Helpful.

Before you start slicing and chopping walls, you need a template for the curvature of the roof. in order to figure that out, you need three numbers: how tall you want the walls at the EDGE of the roof, and how tall you want the APEX of the roof. remember, the apex should be comfortable standing height, but the height of the walls where they meet the edges of the roof can be pretty short, because thats where furniture and suchlike will go. you dont need to be able to stand up straight.

armed with these two numbers, lay out flat paper or cardboard. subtract the lesser height from the greater one. look at the difference. now make that distance the height of the cardboard.

for example, lets say i want the edge of the roof to be 5 feet, and the apex to be 6.5. the difference is 1.5 feet. my template will be 1.5 feet high.

now you need to figure out how wide you want the front of your vardo to be, at the broadest point. this is the same as the distance from the outside edge of one shelf to the outside edge of the other. now divide this number in half. this is how long your template will be.

for example: the vardo is 7' wide. therefore my template will be 3.5' x 1.5 feet.

now, take a flexible tape measure and pin or tack it to the very bottom corner of your template. arrange the tape measure into a nice looking, evenly sloped arc. the end of the arc should be at the top corner of the template. WRITE DOWN the measurement of the arc for later, it is important. thats why you used a tape measure. now draw the arc and cut it out.

this is the best way to get a good roof template if you dont have fancy lazer equipment or good math skills.

Step 4: The Actual Walls

you need to figure out what the walls are made of. people use different materials and methods. Treated wood and plywood are nasty. they off-gas formaldehyde and other things you dont want to breath. if you are only using the trailer occasionally as a camper, i would not worry about it as most of the off-gassing happens when you are not near it. if it is a tiny home, and you cant afford solid wood for walls (me), here are things you can do:

buy plywood MADE IN AMERICA. imported plywood is WAY more full of toxic glues.

use old recycled plywood that has mostly off-gassed already. if plywood is held in heat (90+ degrees f) for a while it off-gasses very quickly.

you should chose American made, aged/recycled 3/4'' ply if you have a steep budget, or if you have limited time/ carpentry skills.

you will need to trim the walls down to size. first, use a table saw or circular saw to cut each piece to be half the width of the widest part of the vardo. then measure the height of the lowest part of the wall. mark a line here and make sure it is square. now lay the template down, with the bottom even with the line you drew. use it to mark out the ark of the roof. cut with a jigsaw. make four pieces all alike and you have the front and back walls. now just measure and cut the opening for the door anywhere you like it on one pair of boards. also cut the squares out of the bottom where the shelf is.

i bolted the walls directly to the steel cage, attached to the bed. you could build a frame of 2x4s, attached to the interior of the box and the floor, and proceed in a similar way. examine this step in construction on some other projects if you cannot engineer a solution that suits you.

Also, you may need a boyfriend or a really strong lady friend to help lift walls. they are heavy.

Step 5: The Bed/ Loft

this part was very straightforward.

i used existing steel cage, braced it with untreated spruce 2x4, framed the inside with the same spruce. cut 1/2'' ply to the width of your trailer, minus one inch. center it on the framework. in retrospect, i should have screwed sliced-in-half 2x4's along the short edges of the ply before screwing it down, it would make it easier to attach it to the side walls later.

Step 6: More Walls

Measure the side walls. they should sit on top of the shelf, and butt up to the end walls. basically they fit inside the box you have made out of the shelf and end walls. i laminated 1/2'' ply together. basically i cut pieces into a patchwork the size of the wall. i covered the patches in gorilla glue and placed a bigger patch on top. when it was dry i flipped the whole wall over and repeated the process. the way you laminate/ construct the wall depends entirely on how far from an 8x4 piece of plywood your dimensions stray.

Step 7: Hang the Side Walls

its nice if a helper can help you pop these in place and hold em where you want em. My boyfriend held them flush in place on the outside while i attached them to sliced lengthwise 2x4 strips with screws from the inside. basically screw both walls to a strip of something on the inside to brace them and keep them in place. then brace the side walls with the bed structure.

Step 8: You Need Something Good to Stand On.

If your trailer does not have a solid floor, you would obviously alter these instructions to do the floor (or at least the sub floor) first.

the subfloor is thin plywood, covering the metal. it was simply cut to size and put down with copious gorilla glue. you could use liquid nails too.

i wanted the beauty and durability of a wood floor, without the cost. we had 50 square feet, but with manufactured wood floor at $2-5 a square foot, this was not in the budget at all, especially since you have to buy minimum 100 sq ft at a lot of places. the habitat ReStore had some partial cases, but it was still around $1.50 a sq ft and not to pretty either. so my solution was this: we bought locally milled untreated pine lumber, it was something like 3/4''x3x12. we got the grade with knotholes in it (i think they look cool and its cheaper). it worked out to 39 cents a sq foot and it looks fantastic!

you have to cut it yourself, but it isnt as hard as you might think. all you need to do is know how wide the floor is. then you just divide this number into 3 DIFFERENT length sections, that equal the total length. then you can mix up the order as you lay them down, and that makes a very nice looking floor indeed.

Example: if your floor is 6 feet across, you could cut the pieces into one, two, and three foot lengths, because 1+2+3=6. then you could lay a variety of different patterns: 123, 312, 231, 222, 33, 111111, 1113, 1131, 2112, etc.

measure, cut, lay them down with gorilla glue or liquid nails. tap them sideways with a hammer as you put them in so they fit very snug.

when the glue is dry, sand em. sand em again. sand em some more. i made my own extremely cheap non toxic stain which turned out a gorgeous honey color. stain if you want, and put down a few layers of polyurethane.

Step 9: Cabinets... for Free!

we found two old shipping crates and re-purposed them as cabinets.

Remember that boyfriend i keep mentioning? well, he was responsible for this bit.

they were made of untreated pine or spruce, and surprisingly sturdy.

first we cut out the sides, so that the inside of the cabinets would not be divided on the inside.

next, we measured how we wanted them to fit onto the ledge, taking into account the fact that we wanted them up off the floor on legs for extra storage underneath. we cut out the corners.

then the front spaces were cut out, plywood was cut to fit in the spaces as doors, and we installed cabinet hinges. i removed the crate lids, and put down plywood onto half of the crates and hardwood board onto the other half. more about the cabinets/ kitchen later.

we attached everything securely with screws through the wall.

Step 10: Get the Rafters on Straight, Get the Ceiling on Tight

Lets revisit the roof arch template. remember how you wrote down how many inches the arc was? well, whip out that number and multiply it by two. add an two inches. now multiply that number by the length of your trailer, this will give you the area of the ceiling. now you can plan out how much plywood to buy and how it should be put on.

for instance, say the template arc was 3'6''. 3'6''x2= 7', so my first number would be 7'2''. the trailer is 8' back to front. now you can draw out how much plywood you need. i know i need 2 pieces of ply.

you can also use the 7' measurement to figure out how many rafters you need, you should have one every 12'' at minimum. more is better, but one per foot should be fine. put one along the top of each side wall, and space them evenly across the rest of the arch. think of how long you want your rafters, they must be close to the same length as the total length of the roof. there should be tiny or no overhang of the roof in the front (hitch end) of the trailer, but you can have a few inches or a foot or so in the back.

my trailer is 9 feet long from front wall to back wall, the rafters are 10'6'' long because my roof has an overhang in the back.

the rafters are made from untreated 2x4s sliced in half lengthwise with a table saw. you must do a few test pieces to get them EXACTLY in half. if you can't use a table saw you will need to find something else to use, there are many other possibilities, but i think a halved 2x4 is as small as you can safely go.

once all your points are measured exactly along the top arch of the wall, you can balance a rafter on top so that the center of the rafter is over the mark on both walls. have a friend hold it in place. now take a short length of the same dimension material the rafter is made of, and press it up to the rafter against the inside of the wall. trace around this lower piece. now you have a template with the same angle on both sides. do this on both walls for every space a rafter needs to go. drill out the bottom corners, and cut carefully with a jigsaw. err on the side of too small, the rafters need to fit SNUG.

once the holes are cut, coat the insides with gorilla glue. set each rafter into it's hole in the final position it needs to be. tap it in with a hammer if you need to. sink long wood screws down through the top and into the wall beneath.

now you can put on the ceiling. you can use 1/4'' plywood or luan. i used luan and it seems to be holding up fine. when you go to put it on, start at one wall and drill holes in each corner. attach with roofing nails. bend it over as flat as possible, securing again in the middle and again on the far corners. each ceiling will be different, but use as FEW NAILS as possible, you don't want them getting in the way later when you screw on the roof.

now put on lengths of tar paper, draping them so that they overlap each other an inch or two, and the short ends are attached at the top of each side wall with more roofing nails.

Step 11: Raise the Roof!

the roof is made of factory painted/ finished roofing steel. it usually comes in two or three foot widths, you can order any length you want. we used three three foot by 12 foot pieces. you should order a light color if you are in a warm climate so you can minimize heat transfer. you can probably work it out so that you can overlap sheets in a way that eliminates the need to trim them. KEEP IN MIND, though, you should NOT have a 'seam' where sheets overlap at the highest point of the roof, it will leak. no bueno.

you need a little bit of overhang along the side walls, i have 3 inches on either side.

the ribs of the steel are perfectly straight and that makes it very easy to line it up on the rafters correctly. think about how water flows. you need to make sure the top piece is sitting on top of the side pieces.


you will need a chalk line (or regular twine), a drill or impact driver, and self tapping screws. these have weird ends that 'pre drill' their own holes, and a gasket washer thing on them that makes them watertight. a hammer and a sturdy nail really help a lot too.

get the metal placed where it needs to go. now use the chalk line to mark where the center of the rafters are. alternately you could put a little nail in either end of each rafter, centered, and stretch string between them really tightly as a guide. YOU DO NOT WANT TO MISS A RAFTER. now start at one end, and tap a hole or dent in the metal with the hammer and nail, this makes the screw stay where you want it. now go to town with the self tapping screw. sink one every foot and a half or so along every rafter. i eyeballed it.

ta da. you have a roof over your head :)

Step 12: I Personally Added a Tongue Box

I had to do a little angle math. it wasnt pretty but i got it.

the top part of the box is accessed from the inside of the loft, the bottom shelves are accessed from the big fold down door, which by the way doubles as a picknick table when you rest it on the tongue, or an outside work surface. our tiny tool shed.

we cut a spare sheet of roof metal with a grinder and attached it in the same way as the actual roof.

Step 13: Make It Pretty, Get the Interior How You Like It.

i based my color scheme on a lichen i found while walking in the swamp :)

we painted the outside with oil based exterior paint. there are two ways to save on paint: get premixed 'outbuilding' paint which comes in limited colors, or shop frequently for 'mistint' paint. there is usually a discount paint shelf of these mistints. another option is habitat for humanity stores, they can have great deals on gallons. if you get several partial cans of the same type of paint (oil, latex, alkyd) you can mix them together for a unique color.

anyway i painted the trim, and got the interior squared away.

besides the shipping crate counters, we bought an old built-in cabinet from the habitat ReStore for $35. we cut it up and it became our bookshelf, our cabinet doors on the bench storage and the toilet, and the half wall that divides the loft from the kitchen. always look around for things that you can make what you need from with a low cost.

Step 14: Utilities, Fixtures, AkA How You Really Save Cash.

SINK: we decided to save space and headache by not installing a sink. instead, we used copper pipe and lead free pipe fittings and created a faucet with a drip guard underneath. although there is no drain, it is more versatile than a sink. i just slide a washtub underneath to do dishes. we used a potable water hose to hook it up to an outdoor faucet, alternatively we could install an outdoor tank if we wanted off grid water storage for a semi permanent location. soldering copper pipe is actually easy, just practice a bit first.

STOVE: we got a movable cast iron, two burner affair for fairly cheap online. it hooks up to a small propane cylinder outside, that sits under the 'ledge'. the hose comes up through a hole in the ledge and another hole in the countertop and hooks to the stove. you could do the same setup with a coleman type grill, you just have to buy their special regulator attachment thing to use those stoves with a proper LP cylinder. We store the cylinder in the tongue box when not in use.

CLIMATE CONTROL: we live in the southeast. hot summers with just a few months of cold winter. the space is so small there is no need for insulation. the windows are strategically placed to create a strong cross breeze over the bed. we placed the windows with the prevailing breeze and were fine all summer. we have a mini fridge that fits on the woodstove shelf in summer when food spoils fast in heat.

in winter, we swap the fridge for the woodstove. we got the tiny steel 'camping' woodstove on ebay for around $100. it has two regulators and came with a tiny water heater. it came with its own 2.75'' pipe and tools. we fit it with regular 3" stove pipe and made the wall thimble from silicon and two lids of #10 cans. its not super efficient or artfully constructed, but it works fine for the small space and packs down small in summer.

ELECTRICAL: minimalist. there is a hole in the shelf under the bed that allows an extension cord through (from grid power). it is plugged to a power strip. we have a dedicated light with an led bulb in the center of the ceiling, which has a fixed cord that plugs into the power strip. there is room in the tongue box for a deep-cycle battery bank, this winter we will switch to a small stand alone solar panel that can charge batteries.

STORAGE: see pictures. most items under bed. pantry= shelves over kitchen, cabinets = dishes and appliance storage. spare tire in tongue box, light but bulky items hung from rafters.

BED: is a futon i made myself, and it is the best sleep iv ever had. its a heavy canvas shell with layers of blankets, old foam toppers, mattress pads, etc. simple. i store bulky winter comforter and linens inside the bed!

I made a canvas awning that attaches to hooks outside. this makes either a side porch or outdoor kitchen area in summer. yes, i batik-ed it with the tree of Gondor.

WINDOWS: made of a material called lexan. it is lightweight and durable, and easy to cut to size.

Step 15: The End, to Read Before You Begin.

we LOVE living in our wagon home.

in all, it cost around $ 2,000 to build, and probably 50-100 hours of time. it was so worth it. with no mortgage, and very little for the space and utilities, it has already paid for itself after only 6 months.

the more time you spend locating used/ cheap/ free materials, the less money you spend.

the more simply you can live, the less money you will spend.

the more tools you borrow, the less you spend. here is a mostly complete list of tools you could realistically build a similar tiny home with. this represents the minimum:

a jigsaw, a circular saw with a guide arm attachment (for straight rip cuts), an electric drill with full set of bits, an impact driver, a chalk line, a hammer, a square, a metal grinder, c- clamps.

a note on where to live: you can pay pretty much anyone to park and live, if you dont have your own property. try to blend in with surroundings, be neat and respectful of others, and dont live in a ritzy pretentious neighborhood. youll be breaking the code in most areas, but its a complaint driven system, and the code is often technically unenforceable. chances are you will be a-ok. Get to know the neighbors. in some cases you may not even have to pay rent and utilities, for example if you park on an old person's property who just wants someone to get groceries and mow the lawn in trade. maybe you find someone with kids who will trade hours of childcare per week for rent. anything is possible!

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