Updated: February 2014
Where did this begin? While pondering the cargo trailer and pickup truck I owned thinking about rolling homes I read the book English Gypsy Caravan: Its Origins, Builders, Technology and Conservation by Cyril Henry Ward-Jackson and Denis E. Harvey and I thought it would be great to tow something like this behind a truck. It showed the vardo in all it’s glory. Unlike the BenRoys, the “slouchies” and teardrops I had considered the old fashioned “showman” or “Gypsy” vardo a classy look and feel that a woodworker can appreciate and all the amenities of home, if rather spartan for some tastes.
The question was: Can I make this work at highway speeds? It seemed unlikely but I am hard-headed. The internet was no help at that point as I couldn’t find anyone with a similar design online so I looked to the library. Little help there but there was plenty of information documenting old-time wagons if one were willing to chase down the leads. And so it began. The more I looked at the plans, the more I thought this could really work.
I am a firm believer in looking to the past for solutions. Maybe it’s the skeptic in me but I think most of our modern answers are based on what someone wants to sell us, not what is the right way to do something. I’m not against innovation. But how can I improve on a layout like this?
Below are some of the pages from my notebooks as they evolved over several years. Some are poor designs but maybe they’ll help someone come up with their own special design. Please excuse the quality of the scribbles. These were made during snatches of stolen time as ideas formed in my head. Seeing them sketched out helped solidify thoughts and eliminate things that simply wouldn’t work. The constraints in size, weight, money, and practicality were both difficult and helpful.
I’m a visual person. I make a lot of sketches, drawings, schematics, and mathematical notations when I’m thinking of building something. I’m not sure where the earliest sketches of the Vardo are but I’m sure they are in one of the many notebooks I have lying around. The earliest plans were all either teardrop-style campers or strictly old-time Reading or Showman’s wagons from the great book The English Gypsy Caravan.
I explored a lot of designs early in the process including Ben Roys, Tear Drops, and Canned Hams. Since money was a huge constraint in this build I limited the plans to fit the cargo frame I already owned. If money were not an object I would have likely built something about two feet longer but upon reflection, keeping it short really helped distill out the essentials and keep down the weight.
Things I didn’t need affected the plan as much as things I decided did need. id est; I don’t need electricity or plumbing inside the caravan but I do want a wood stove, a stow-away table, and lots of compartments for storage.
Forward or backward? The above design had the door opening forward as with a horse-drawn caravan. There are some advantages to this but I would want a longer tongue on the frame to clear the tailgate of the towing vehicle. Also, facing forward really forces access to one side as the tongue will always be an obstruction. Although I really love the overhanging eaves these just didn’t turn out to be practical for highway speeds. I took a lesson from Sheep Camp designs and clipped the forward-facing overhang off entirely.
The above and following sketches are very close to the final design. After a couple years of tweaking I felt I really understood what I wanted and why. This is probably not true for someone who uses an existing design or purchases a mass-produced product. For me, this became very personal.
The above design was developed to really nitpick the space, where things would be stored, and how a human or two would fit in various activities. The dimensions are quite accurate in order to estimate necessary lumber.
There is a final design, not shown here, that is far more artistic and complex as well as sightly bigger. I dropped that plan for many reasons, not the least of which was money constraints. I hope to develop it into my “perfect” vardo for when the day comes to hit the road permanently. More on that one later…