Building a Gypsy Wagon




Introduction: Building a Gypsy Wagon

Naturalist, scientist, builder, and maker.

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.

Step 1: The Mock-up

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

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 I intended to save the wiring harness and lights but they proved to be outdated and fairly ratty.

Step 3: First Cuts

There was a huge sense of relief when I made the first cuts to create the brackets. After years of pondering, waiting, and changing plans, I felt committed. It was like I was starting an avalanche. No turning back now. I plunged into long evenings and weekends, cutting, fitting, and sawing. The base came together quickly after work one evening. Finally, the base was set on the newly painted frame and through-bolted for strength and safety.

Step 4: Walls

The walls are built like a box, not like modern stick framing. All are tongue and groove pine, the front and rear being 3/4" thick, the sides 1/4". This is why the sides have hardwood strengthening battens (1") run vertically inside and out on 1' centers. Corner posts are made from 1 1/4" pine stock. Outside corners are oak. Upright bracing around the door inside and out from poplar. Upright bracing on front wall is oak. Sub-floor is 1" salvaged plywood.

Footnote: I have since put a second layer of wood over the outside side-walls. This added some strength (and at least 40 pounds) but was primarily to add insulation for heat transfer. The walls get incredibly hot in the southwestern sun and transferred much of the heat inside. I didn't really notice a problem in the cold as the wagon is quite snug.

Step 5: Internal Structure and Roof

The bed structure ties the walls together and stiffens the entire structure. Without this, I would have to find some other way to strengthen the walls. The roof is plywood, screwed to poplar purlins. Outer and inner tops of walls are stiffened with oak band boards.

Step 6: Table, Window, and Door

The table is modeled after those in old British wagons. The window was made as a separate unit and then attached whole to the wagon body. It is oak and pine. The door is modeled after some sheep wagon styles from the western U.S. It is a "Dutch door" with a functional casement window and a wash pan holder. Not quite finished in the photo below but nearly there.

Step 7: A Trial Run and Some Finishing Touches

We took her on a 500 mile journey into the desert to test her out and figure out some interior layout issues. We got a base coat of oil paint on most of the body by the end of the week. After we returned, we added an oak floor, finished the table, and added a lot of homey touches. There ample storage under the beds, but I intend to add more outside.

Step 8: Stairs, Paint, and Shelving

Stairs were built to match wagon. Oak treads, fir risers. The paint was still proceeding slowly at this point but we had to take some time off to head to the ocean for a second "test" journey. The wagon traveled across New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California through the scorching desert to the beautiful San Diego area for a week. When we got back, she got her full coat of paint, and some more interior work. The shelves are an enormous amount of space, and can be covered by a roman shade type cover.

Roof: Although I didn't photograph this step, the roof was ultimately covered in a low profile steel that was epoxy coated in the factory. It is a light color to keep some of the radiant heat out and seems to work well. It is screwed through the roof into the purlins.

Step 9: The Stove

With autumn here I felt it was time to deal with the dreaded stove. I made a hearth area in the corner, tiled the riser with slate, covered the walls with 14 gauge flashing, covered that with fire shield board, inserted a wall thimble, and placed the pipe and stove in the wagon. In case of rough driving conditions, the stove is screwed to the deck, and two large eye screws attach it to the back wall. It is unlikely to move in anything short of a rollover. The stove is from Four Dog Stoves and is probably too big for this space. Its what I had though.

Step 10: On the Road

This is the wagon being used on the road. I have fired up the stove and have spent about three weeks worth of nights in it by the time this photo was taken. It is all I could ask for. I added three outside boxes, two pictured below, for extra space and for things that don't need to be inside. Two more boxes were added later.

Step 11: Living Space

Only with time will the wagon really take on a personality as it get lived in and things are arranged "just so". Like a ship or any small living space, a good deal of thought needs to go into every little detail, especially when it comes to storage. I think it will help me minimize and is now my real "escape pod", whether its to get to the mountains or beach, or to just someday hit the road. Here is a three photo pan to give a feel for the space.

There are a few more photos of the rig and other stuff on my weblog at under "projects" and "vardo". It will be updated as it is continually improved.

Step 12: After 9000 Miles...

Here she is after 9000+ miles and more improvements. Its a continuing process that I hope to perfect in the next decade or so. The paint is still not finished in this photo but most of the exterior construction is finished here. Thanks for looking around. More at Happy travels.

Step 13: And a 20,000 Mile Update...

New cedar siding and windows for 2014. More varnish and paint to keep things fresh and protected.

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255 Discussions

I fell in love with your design and built one from your pictures. Haven't finished the inside yet, the roof or installed the windows, but it's coming along nicely. Thank you for putting your work out there ! It sure inspired me.

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1 reply

Hey Kevin, Thanks for the comment. Your project is looking great. I can't wait to see the rest.

How much did the vardo weigh when you were done ?

how did you attach the base and how much did the supplies cost you

How did it handle the heat without any insulation? Also how did you keep food cold? Did not see a fridg or cooler.

Awesome camper! I'd love to make one of these some day :)

I'm dying to make one, but I'd like it smaller, for my Honda CR-V, and even possibly behind a motorcycle!

I love it! I'm just in the process of beginning a project myself using an old farm trailer. I don't plan tow the van anywhere but would like to think it is roadworthy if I need to. Are there any rules?

If anyone is interested, this is my project:

Hi, I have made a gypsy bow top and am now looking at trying my hand at a reading gypsy caravan on an old caravan chassis so it can be towed holiday. I'm sure I can do the main build but need some pointers on how to make a molly croft roof. Help anybody ?

I am seriously thinking of converting one of my old flatbed trailers to a sheep wagon style camper. I'm a bit concerned about the size being too small though. It's 8 foot x 10 foot. How are you coping with the size on yours, and what is the actual size?

I'll try and post a pic of the trailer here

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8 replies

I built something similar many years ago, but more like a box on wheels. The biggest problem was created by the wheels being at the four corners meant that there was enough racking to tear the box apart. I replaced the dog trailer set up with a tandem axle set up but still got a lot of racking induced problems so I ended up replacing the two axles and using a single two ton rated axle out of the front of a Hino light truck and that worked for nearly ten years with only minor cracks appearing, now the box has been removed and I have been working on one of these gypsy thingos and apart from the chassis it is all timber.

That doesn't sound safe at all. If it is coming apart there is something seriously wrong with the structure.

G'day paleotool, torsional loads applied to any structure will impart some racking to the structure, you would be surprised just how much a car body will rack when have half the weight of the vehicle is applied to one corner but cars are designed to spread the load, such as no square corners. I have worked with metal all my life but I do like the versatility of timber but have had to learn to live with timbers shortcomings as well as its appeal. I was just trying to point out to DaviR5 that if he chose to use that platform with the axles at the ends then he could have a problem, there is a reason that all caravans have the axles in the middle. I love your build and thank you for the effort that you have gone to to record and document your build.

Yes, Loskop, I think we are on the same page. I was trying to point out that it shouldn't move enough to fall to pieces. Mine has been tipped to 45 degrees and has had some extremely rough off-roading and I frequently check for cracks, movement, etc. However, I am fearful when I see some of the poor construction and poor material choices on frightfully heavy caravans. Poor building is pushing some US states to attempt to regulate construction for safety's sake. I hate to think of something like this falling apart on the road and hurting someone.

You have your axle in the centre of your trailer so that means that you would have next to no torsional load induced to the platform as the ball mount hitch on your towing vehicle doesn't resist any twisting from the uneven road surface. All custom built vehicles here in NSW have to have the construction approved by a recognised consulting engineer and dog trailer ( axle/s ) near the centre of mass is the only method permitted, 5th wheel type can have the axle/s at the end but must have either a ball hitch or double swivel plate to allow rotational movement relative to the towing vehicle. I have never seen one actually fall apart, they just become very loose, leak, have internal built ins such as cupboards beds and door break or come loose and have electrical problems where the wiring goes around the wall corners and through the junction with the roof.

It may be called something else in your neck of the woods but here racking refers to twisting. It would be like ifn you jacked up one corner of the chassis you would see a twist along the deck, and if you project that twist up to the top of your body then you will see a greatly magnified twist that will place a massive strain on the four corners where the roof meets the walls. On a semi trailer with only walls and a roof it can cause problems but with a build like this it will cause all your built ins in the interior to become braces which they weren't built for so your mobile fun palace will twist itself to bits in no time and leaks galore.

Yes, racking is when things that shouldn't move start moving. There should be NO racking in a structure like this. Even a tiny bit of movement will destroy it in no time.

Great Instructable!
I found this video about a guy who hand carves all the detail on his gypsy wagons - thought you might like it.

I live in Wyoming and I am concerned with cold weather factor of this type of construction. Does it do well enough without extra layers? I am considering a wood interior with a corrugated exoskeleton with foam insulation sandwiched in between.