Remodel and Rebirth of the Little Green Vardo

It just seems right.

The timing,

the monetary investment,

the effort.

This is a requested repost of a series I did almost five years ago when I took my eight foot single-axle vardo caravan and reconstructed it into a 12 foot body on a robust tandem trailer.

After adding up the mileage from the log book I keep with the Vardo, I see we have clocked over 21,000 miles since she was first put to the road in February of 2010.  I have, no doubt, missed some small side trips and there are excursions I know I forgot to record, but this is, more-or-less, where we stand.  The trailer frame itself was high-mileage but well-maintained when I acquired it back around 2002 having first been owned by a university, then by a private individual before coming to me.

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My “before” photo. Rated at 2,000 lb. gross vehicle weight. It was solid and well-built but already showing some signs of age and life in the salt air of the Pacific Coast.

The real beauty of this trailer is the square tube construction and heavy-duty hitch.  Starting small was wise for me as it constrained the build and forced me to squeeze every inch out of the design.

On the way to becoming the "after" photo. The full box body nearly done.

On the way to becoming the “after” photo. The full box body nearly done.

I eventually replaced the original jack with a more heavy-duty model and replaced the jack wheel with a large foot for stability.  For safety, the tires were replaced when the trailer was re-purposed due to age, not wear.  If you missed it and want to read more about the construction of the micro house we call a vardo, GO HERE.

The Vardo; Where are we now? What do we want?

This little living wagon is great and serves it’s function well.  It’s a little beat up and showing it’s miles; living and traveling in all weather, a lot like it’s owner.  But still, it’s a little homey shelter from the elements, providing all the necessary comforts, and making travel a breeze.  With about 49.5 square feet of living space inside (4.6 sq. meters) it is spacious for one and comfortable enough for two adults who do most of their activities outdoors.  However, I have long pondered placing my vardo on a longer trailer, either to gain cargo space for tools and the like OR to extend our living space.  Sticking with the Minimalist thinking, I  decided long ago that 12 feet was about the maximum I want in a trailer.  With a standard 4 foot hitch that makes for 16 feet (4.9 meters) dragging behind the truck or about the length of a second truck.  I did the math on the new space and I liked it.

So back to it.  What do we really need?

Thinking of the many scenarios we find ourselves in, some added amenities could be handy in certain situations.  From wilderness areas in Utah to posh campgrounds in San Diego, highway rest areas in the Midwest and museum parking lots in Santa Fe, or even stealth camping on a city street, our needs are varied.  Although the vardo was built as a wilderness base camp, sometimes it feels like a miniature fortress or space station or temple of solitude.  When we’re camping in the remote west, beyond the confines of civilization and snooping gawkers, it’s not a problem spending most of our time outdoors, using a campfire or cook stove to fry up some bacon and boil some coffee, but try that in a grocery store parking lot in the city and you will only find trouble.  But we still essentially live outdoors.  We don’t need a dance floor inside.

Two thing we want that this space can supply:

  1. A simple kitchen.  By this I don’t mean a Martha Stewart style, butcher block countertop with rotating spice racks, dual ovens and a six burner ceramic-top range.  We need a dedicated space to store our cookware and food, do some prep-work, and make simple meals in any weather, beyond the prying eyes of the local gendarmerie.
  2. Secondly, we want more storage space for our personal belongings when we finally hit the long open road and don’t look back.  Tools for making things and raw materials alone take up a lot of our space.  Leather, wood, sewing supplies, fasteners, etc. all require more space than we have.  On top of this, a large, flat work surface would be a nice addition indoors.

After several (many) sketches and mock-ups… Voila!  I think we nailed it, the vardo formerly known as the Snail reborn as Nautilus 78.  Even though we know that nothing comes from nothing, our minds like to think of things as having a beginning, middle, and end.

So in that sense, here’s to our new beginning.

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The new foundation. Tandem wheels, brakes, breakaway safety system, LED lights and 7,000 GVWR. Let’s hope we’ll never need this much trailer.

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Too many badges, certificates and insignia. Still, and excellent buy I think.

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First things first. The heavy wooden floor must go.

On to PART 2

Paris Travellers

Paris, around 1900.

Paris, around 1900.

A tiny accommodation, side entry single horse style.  It is documented that the adults with this style wagon generally slept outdoors except in very bad weather.  It was a good way to confine the children and the valuables.

This is part of a series of images, mostly Romany, Irish and Scottish Travellers collected from around the internet.  Many of these historic images found on the web are without citation.  When a clear link to a source is found, I try to include it.  If a source is known, please pass it on and I will gladly include it or remove it if necessary.

Tents and the Vardo Life; What is a Bender?

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The bender tent provides shelter from the damp while keeping the living space outdoors.

Travellers in Europe and Britain have always been associated with a style tent called a bender.  This comes from the construction technique of cutting saplings and bending them into a dome, elongated dome, or half cylinder shape,  These frameworks were then covered with tarps and made watertight in the temperate damp.  The origins of this design are lost in the mists of time and are believed by archaeologists to be one of the earliest style of recognizable tent structure used by humans.

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This size bender can more than double the living space of a vardo in a matter of minutes.

Even after a certain level of affluence allowed some Romany and other Travelling folk to own living wagons, the bender continued (and continues) to be a way to extend the living space without the need for a lot more gear.

In England, Gypsy women often used their homes for fortune-telling, especially around the Gadjo (non-Gypsy) vacation centers. Image, early 20th century. Source: Romany & Traveller Family History Society.

The fact that a tent becomes the subject for a Blackpool post card shows the ongoing fascination with “Gypsy Culture,” especially in the British Isles where Travellers are simultaneously suspect and romanticized.

Fortune Teller

The front or vestibule provides a place to do business in relative privacy. Source: Romany & Traveller Family History Society.

If you have family that me be Romany, Traveller, or Fairground folk in Britain or just want to learn more, check out the Romany & Traveller Family History Society at http://rtfhs.org.uk/.

Caravans

Here’s another excellent photo of a pack of vardos (caravans) in the wild.  It looks like everyone came out and maybe even spruced themselves up for the photo.  I couldn’t find any metadata on this one but it looks fairly early, probably late nineteenth century.  These appear to be high-end models in great condition still.

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Happy travels!

Community of Wanderers

Nomads are not loners.  In fact, humans do not do well alone in any setting.  We have always been communal people, depending upon one another for help and support.  Many hands make light work and it is essential to be near others you can depend on.

1930sI have been collecting images of Traveller communities for many years and I really enjoy the gritty, homespun feel of the old encampments with peeling paint and makeshift tarpaulin shelters.  I’m sure this image was not welcome in settled communities around Europe and the shiftless nature of these wanderers led to many suspicions, both unfounded and real.

4203n Woonwagenkamp, een draaiorgel komt langsThese are not the rolling home of the wealthy showmen of idle rich but the best compromise for families destined to live on the road.

FamilyVardoThe vardos bear many differences but within fairly tight physical contraints of size, weight, needs, and technology.  It’s important to remember as well that historic travellers of most varieties didn’t design or build their own accommodations but often modified or improved that which they acquired.

Dutch1940Even though they show few relevant details of the caravans themselves these are some of my favorite images; they give us a glimpse of the people who called them home.

Although Traveller families lived (and live) on the margins of “normal” society they were (are) more like their neighbors than not.

I hope you enjoy the photos as we head into the season of Thanksgiving here in North America and give thanks for what we have.

We are at our best and worst in groups, whether that is family or friends.  Humans are social animals.

A Dog and Her Vardo

So, a vardo is a small space, especially when living with a dog. 

Stationed for maximum observation.

The old dog loved sleeping under the rig as she took her guard duties seriously but unfortunately, she is no longer with us.  The youngster, on the other hand, has no interest in that sort of nonsense and only wants to be by my side as much as possible.  She loves enclosed spaces so the vardo is a big attraction for her.  She spends much of her time under the main bed, hidden away, and often forgotten about until she decides to get under foot.  I even lost her for the better part of a day when she snuck in while I wasn’t looking, slipped into her bed, and was locked in for several hours.  When I found her, she looked content enough and came out stretching like a sleepy child.

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Making it fit.

Much of 2016-2017 I was lucky enough to spend many nights camped in the gypsy wagon with just my dog for company.  She doesn’t get on furniture inside the house but the dog has decided the floor or her bed are not good enough when she’s in the vardo.  Since she knows she not really supposed to sneak into the bed, the (too small) bench seat is often her compromise in the wagon.  She doesn’t really fit but I guess it makes her feel like one of the family.

A bed’s eye view in the morning.

A couple years ago I learned to be extra careful when sliding out of bed, especially in the dark, as she often plants herself on her favorite felted rug; right under my feet.  In this case, it also happens to be in front of the ceramic heater on a chilly morning.

Photo-bomb. She climbed out from her bed in order to not miss the action.

Even while getting ready to go to work, she seems to manage a photo-bomb; always lurking nearby and not wanting to be left behind.  Just because it’s a small space, there is still plenty of room for a dog; sort of.

 

A Perfect Vardo

Desert Dream

This is a beautiful photo of Travellers in Britain, 1950.  I came across it a while back while searching out vardo images for my own inspiration.  This one has some great details and has a distinctive Scottish feel.

There’s a flag of the Scottish Caravan Club flying on the roof and some great signage on the walls as well as the typical harness brass horse shoe on the door.  I would love to find out more about this one.  Comments?  Thoughts?

Dugald Semple and a Simple Life

I would like to re-share this older post I wrote about a caravaner, scholar, and philosopher I am quite intrigued by – Dugald Semple

Dugald Semple was a Scottish philosopher of the early 20th Century and an advocate for simple living.  After becoming and engineer he took to the woods and, for a period, a life on the road, living in a tent and in various caravans in order to write and travel and avoid the enslavement of increasingly urban society.

Semple on the beach.

His major question was always “How ought we to live?” an ancient subject for thinkers the world-over and a very important topic in Asian philosophy as well.  His teachings are interesting and he still has a serious following of vegans, fruitarians, and Christian Phlosophers around the world.  He apparently never ate meat, eggs, or cheese, and subsisted on a mostly fruit diet.  It clearly worked well-enough, as he died at the age of 79 in 1964.  Not bad, but think of all the bacon he missed!

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Of course, my interest in Dugald lies primarily in his simple lifestyle and his fondness for caravans and living in the open.  He married well.  Cathie, his wife was a widow who was independently wealthy, owning a large house and grounds.  This certainly contributed to the success of the life-long experiment in simple living.  Even as he settled down, he still philosophized and associated with his old friends who roamed the countryside and set up guilds of craftsmen (Nerrissa Wilson, Gypsies and Gentlemen).  He envisioned a new generation of skilled travelers who could pack up their trades and families and move to where the work was, thus alleviating some of the new stress of urban life.

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Semple in his summer camp.

I love this camp.  This wagon seems perfectly suited for summertime use with the fully opening sides.  Too bad his dream didn’t catch on, but he admitted that life on road could be stressful and difficult.  At least we can give it a try; even if in a limited capacity.

Joy-in-Living

As an end note, here’s a quote he is well known for on his philosophy of a vegan lifestyle:

Personally, I began rather drastically over 50 years ago by cutting out not only all meat or flesh foods, but milk, eggs, butter, tea and coffee. Cheese I have never eaten; indeed I hate the very smell of this decayed milk. Next, I adopted a diet of nuts, fruit, cereals and vegetables. On this Edenic fare I lived for some ten years, and found that my health and strength were greatly improved. Probably this was also because I lived more in the fresh air and closer to Nature. (Emphasis added by the ed.).

I just don’t know if I can fully trust a man who won’t eat cheese…

Ice Cream Cart

Looking for an attention-getting color scheme for your vardo or caravan?  Look no further than this fine little burro-powered wagon from Pakistan.

Ice Cream Cart

Kulfi Wala (Ice Cream Man) – Photo by Ane Malik.

A most cherished traditional dessert from Lahore, Pakistan, known as Kulfi, which is made with condensed milk, almonds, cardamom, and sugar is served from these little hand-built carts. The ice cream is then poured into the cone shaped moulds then and placed into traditional-styled ice containers.

The cart is decorated and painted in vibrant colors and with traditional motifs and with names of Allah and the Sufi Saints.  The emergency brake is engaged in this photo (see rock under left tire) while the motor idles.

If you would like to make this delicious treat for yourself, look for it here:

Click for a delicious Mulai Kulfi Recipe.

A View from the Vardo

Working away on a weekend day a little while back.  Enjoying time on the prairie in my little rolling home; coffee, a banjo, and connection to a HotSpot so I can get some work done.  The best of all worlds.

A reminder to myself as to how the vardo is in constant change. Little updates happen all the time and I often forget them until looking back on a photo like this one.

I don’t remember for sure but I suspect there is a dog or two laying on the floor or, more likely, under the wagon keeping an eye out for wildlife.  I’m itching to get back out on the road.

Wyoming Sheepherders

Today, it’s sheep camps from Wyoming from the Wyoming Tales and Trails webpage.  Great photos and some good information about Western history.

Note the important things; wood stove, wash pan hanging on the door, the big tub sitting outside, and a fiddle for company.  I could spend a good chunk of my life like this!

Another sheep camp, dog included.

This camp is downright crowded with two wagons.

Although the site is a bit difficult to navigate, there is a lot of information about western history to be found there.  Have a look around.

http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/

Fitting Out and Fixing Problems, Vardo Remodel Part 9

Sink, seating, and storage galore – I’m finally moving onto the luxuries that make this addition what it is meant to be; essentially moving some outdoor activities and living indoors with more amenities and easier foul-weather living.

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Copper mixing bowl drilled for a drain.

Beginning with a little sink re-purposed from an old copper mixing bowl set –  This one was the middle size and fit the area perfectly.  I’m certainly not taking credit for the idea as I took this freely from Mick’s vardo.  The bowl is a perfect size for some personal hygiene, tooth-brushing, etc. while on the road while the bigger cleaning can still be done outside with the old washtubs and in the future, with an outside shower.

Drilling the hole – I was concerned about this step as there were several things that could go wrong; hole placement, dented bottom, rough fit, and so on.  In the end I did my best to find the exact center with a tailor’s tape, from the outside, and marking the location with an awl. I then flipped the bowl over, set it up in a scrap board, and while holding it with my feet used a hand brace with a Forestner bit to slowly cut the hole.  This worked surprisingly well and required only a little sanding and smoothing before moving on.

The bowl is not very heavy copper so I was concerned about the solder strength at the joint.  There should not be much real strain on it but to ensure a larger surface area to sweat the solder, I sleeved the short pipe with a heavy coupling.  I flowed the solder deep into the sleeve before attaching to the so they should be united forever now.

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Pipe and coupling soldered in place.

Some serious tugging and testing leads me to believe this is a solid joint.

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View of the plumbing from below.

A couple elbows and a short run of pipe completed the plumbing “system” and installation was a breeze.  A small shelf to hold a couple Dr. Bronner’s bottles and a towel bar will be added soon to complete the set-up.  The storage area to the left was sized to hold the beautiful new copper cistern during travel.  The cistern will live outside in the kitchen area when encamped.

A note of caution – Although not really discussed here, the oak-framed windows are visible in some of the images.  These were recently added and are glazed with Lexan for its light weight and excellent strength.  Keeping the weight low is still a major priority, even in the addition and, if you are building something like this, remember: EVERY SINGLE POUND COUNTS!  Fasteners, glass, hardware, accoutrements; they all add up and will be paid for in the final weight.  If I could build everything with oak and walnut and hickory for durability, I would.  However, the weight will add danger in towing, lower the fuel efficiency and have a cumulative effect on the overall structure.

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Looking down the drain.

The sink was fitted into place and a outflow pipe seated in the hole drilled by the same Forestner bit used in the bowl.  This counter is a re-purposed old office desk top from the 1930s or 40s that I’ve had for many years.  It is a white oak laminate over a red-oak core (when things were built to last).  A couple passes through the planer yielded a beautiful and sturdy surface to work with.  The rest of the desk top was turned into the large counter on the starboard side that will be included in the next post.

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The Samovar in position for washing and the shaving mirror in it’s new place.

This old Samovar was a lucky find for us and fits the location perfectly.  It’s high pedestal provides clearance that would otherwise need to be created with some sort of shelf.  Otherwise, it’s simply a beautiful and functional piece.

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The new bench and a smattering of varnish.

The next step was to create a small bench with the idea that this would give room when two or more people were inside as the floor space is limited in the main cabin.  This area will serve as something of a mud room for the rest of wagon.  The hinges were an Ebay find of solid brass under a hundred or more years of varnish and tarnish.  I think Stacey really enjoyed making these shine again.  This wood is some very solid pine reclaimed from an antique child’s desk and again, a planer made short work of cleaning it up for use.

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Side bench.

I would have preferred the seat to be a little deeper for comfort but didn’t want to interfere with the traffic-way through the door.  Nobody wants a shin-buster in such a small space.

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There cannot be enough storage space in such a small accommodation.

The bench provides another small storage compartment for items that may need to be readily accessible; it’s not large but every bit counts.

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An overview of the new area.

It’s always difficult to get a clear picture of arrangements in such a small space but this shot from the main cabin gives a general impression of the area and the relative size the new window.

For Part 1 of the rebuild/addition then CLICK HERE.

On to Part 10! (Coming soon)

A Vardo Build Recap

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Conception. After years of doodles and illustration, mock-up a few models and decide what works best.

This post is a re-cap of the Vardo build.  I get questions about this project at least three times per week and I think it has inspired a few other people to make the leap.  I still consider it a work in progress even though it is four years old and has 18,000 miles under it.  New and improved ideas are being added right now but maybe this will help somebody get started.

DSC_0046After the sketch-up, start making parts.  This was a momentous occasion for me.

DSC_0083 Assembly begins.  Mild panic sets in; “will this work?” and “am I crazy to dive into this?”

DSC_0086At this point, I took some time to ponder.  “Is the size and layout really going to work?”

DSC_0089 copyAttaching the ledge to the prepared frame.

DSC_0102 copyBuild, build, build.  Using a window of good weather in January.

DSC_0093Even relatively easy details, like door placement and size, were still up for change.

DSC_0109Finally, I can get a real sense of scale.

DSC_0121I fell in love with the design once the box was built.

DSC_0161Working alone means lots of clamps.

DSC_0155Gawkers were willing to take pictures.

DSC_0122The bed framing becomes integral to the structure.

DSC_0125Seats were designed and tested for size and functionality.

DSC_0126The first storage is done.

DSC_0182Wood is good!

DSC_0169The shell becomes complete.

DSC_0189 copyNow for the details.

DSC_0289Temporary window inserted for a quick trip to the desert.

DSC_0108-2Quick coat of paint and off we went.

DSCN2446A little living helped bring together the details.

DSC_0404Spending time in the space gives an idea of where things are needed.

DSC_0399Finish work is a process, not an event.

SternThe Vardo becomes a home.

DSC_0814A safe and cozy nest on the road.

DSC_0743Still far from done, I took her cross-country anyway.

DSC_0700Things began to come together after a few thousand miles travel.

DSC_0198Finishing touches are added constantly.

closedAs are safety details.

DSC_0066DSC_0064Still making changes and additions four years down the road.

More big changes are happening and I hope to get up some new information very soon.  I think an important fact that this project showed was that, for a relatively low-budget, and a little patience, a little home can be built over time but still be usable along the way.  I didn’t wait for every last detail to be completed before putting this house to good use or I’d still be waiting today.