“The Travelling Tinker” by John Burr

The Travelling Tinker

The Travelling Tinker

A painting by the Scottish artist John Burr (1831-1893).  Tinkers were originally tinsmiths or “tinners”.  One of many itinerant jobs pursued by a class of casual laborers.  These were mostly skilled and specialized crafts like basket making, shoe repair, leather work, and metal work but many poorer workers were migrant farm labor picking hops and tending the market gardens during the peak harvest.  The fellow in the image above appears to be a fairly well-off repairman mending a seam in a pot.  This from a time when new items were a rare purchase.

I love deciphering images like this for the details of domestic life.  Unlike most photos, there is real intention in what the artist chose to include or not in the painting.  The house is clearly a poor one but a freshly killed chicken hangs from a nail on the wall by some dry roots.  A handmade broom leans against the wall next to a basket that has the tradesman’s coat lying across it.  The oldest daughter tends the infant while the mother stands by the laundry basin with a toddler behind.  All the children look on while the novel worker plies his trade in a waistcoat and hobnail walking shoes.

Tinker Family in Scotland


Tinker family. Estimated date : 1920 – 1929 ©The Wick Society,

Here’s a wonderful old photograph of a “Tinker Family in Scotland.”  It is believed to be taken sometime in the 1920s but the location was not identified.  The wagon could just about pass for a western American sheep camp.  Even thought they had the wealth to own a wagon it was still a pretty tough life, often unwanted in non-traveller (sic) communities, these people have been marginalized for centuries.

I found this one while perusing the Johnston Collection on the Document Scotland webpage.  Have a look if you are interested in great images of a beautiful country.

The Tinsmiths, 1763

tinsmith_diderot_1763Stump anvils, stakes, hammers, lamps, mandrel, soldering iron, and other goodies galore.  Diderot never missed a lick and this is as good as any.  From Diderot and D’Alembert 1763 Encyclopedia of Sciences, Arts and Trades.  One of my favorite resources.


Medieval Tinsmith

Tinsmiths were the sheet metal workers of the preindustrial days in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  This almost certainly includes Africa as well but I haven’t been able to find any depictions yet.  These craftsmen created many everyday objects and mended all sorts of metal.

75-Amb-2-317-82-r.tifHere we see a smith creating a flask.  I doubt he would be whacking it from that height but old images of carpenters and smiths use this convention to show the movement.  Behind him are some of his wares including a pitcher, something shaped like a bottle, and a pile of funnels.  A stack of prepared metal sheets sits on a table next to him.

75-Amb-2-317-155-v.tifThe lantern maker has more great tools.  He is set up in front of the window for light.  His work surfaces are stumps but his bench is a fancy trestle type, not the typical tenon leg affair one normally sees from this period of history.  In this image, the smith is in the act of soldering the base onto the lantern.  This is the oldest image I have found, so far, of a soldering iron in use.  The little three-legged pot on the floor is a brazier, holding coals to heat the iron and he has a pretty nifty stake tool on the bench.  I think it’s a shears but please correct me if I’m wrong on that one.

Bear the Tinker

Bear the TinkerHere’s a man making his way in the modern world but likes being stuck in the late 18th century.  Farrier, blacksmith, storyteller, and musician living in his bowtop.

BearTinkerVidAbove is a short interview with the man himself from a few years back (opens in a new window).

Small LedgeLiving in the 21st century, he even maintains a Facebook presence, of sorts.  Click on his new little Ledge Wagon above to see what he’s up to.


The Evolution of the Vardo and where did it begin?

I think it’s time for a response to some of the correspondence generated from the Vardo known as the Snail that is chronicled on this blog.  It’s my home on the road and a big part of my life.

Safety Check!

Ready for the Road.

First of all, thanks for all the positive comments and discussions started by this odd-ball pet project of mine.  I was hesitant enough even starting it much less chronicling it on the web for all-and-sundry to see.  As far as the detractors go, I don’t really mind well-thought-out comments that criticize the wagon but needless commentary on how it “should have” been done is really a waste of space here.  I won’t compromise my design to fit someone else’s idea an RV they want to have.  Build one, show the world, we’ll all be inspired in that way.  (And no, I will not build one for you at this time.  You can buy this one or steal my plans for free).

As the vardo passed 4 years old this month and comes up to it’s 20,000 mile mark, some changes are in the works.  Nothing too major.  Just tidying up the loose ends and finishing all the bits that never happened.  It’s time to reassess.  New siding, some windows, lots of finishing touches to make it more livable.  Updates to follow.

So where did this project begin?  Long ago, while pondering the cargo trailer and pickup truck I owned and 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 design of the vardo in all it’s glory.  Unlike the BenRoys, the “slouchies” and teardrops I had considered the old fashioned “showman” or “Gypsy” vardo had a classy look and feel that a woodworker can appreciate and all the amenities of home, if rather spartan for some tastes.

From the English Gypsy Caravan.

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?  Remember, most real living is done outdoors, not confined in the house.

ReadingInt I admit, I dumbed down the 19th century workmanship to fit a modern time and financial budget but the inspiration was there.   From these drawings, my home was born.

More sketches, the evolution of the design and more of this babble can be found on the “Sketches” page or a complete photo log of the build can be seen HERE.