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

Caravan Family

During the heyday of Caravan living it is important to remember that these were rarely the dwelling of a loner. The Caravan was the hub of the nuclear family and groups of wagons represented larger, extended family groups and allies.

We are social creatures that thrive in community.

Traveller Life

Every traveler has a campfire has the center of daily life. The hearth has been our home for 1.5 – 2 million years now. No wonder it fascinates us and brings so much comfort.

Nomads in a stationary culture are often tolerated at best and left only marginal space to congregate. This will probably never change.

These high-end vardos with fancy covers are probably “gentlemen travelers,” the antecedents to modern RVers.

Yes, I know that Traveller has two Ls in our title but since we’re looking at Britain and the Continent that’s how we’re spelling it.

Interview Time

Well this is exciting. I got interviewed at winter count near Florence, Arizona back in February.

It’s heavily edited from a much longer discussion but I don’t think I sound too stupid here talking about the Vardo.  The interview is very close-up and tight but you can get a feel for the interior layout. There is a lot of good stuff on the Cheap RV Living website and I’ve been a reader for a very long time.  Check it out.


https://youtu.be/ktkXcXmR96Q

Classic Liquid Fuel Stoves

A look at the origins and evolution of our favorite camp stove…

This post was going to be a few words about the Primus stoves we all love and some images I’ve collected from around the web.  As usual, I found myself rambling all over the topic without a clear direction but here is a bit of an overview of liquid fuel stoves and how they have evolved over the past 150 years.  Clicking the image will link to a larger version in most cases.

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Primus advertisement 1899. Image found on the Classic Camp Stove Forum.

Outdoor cooking has become something of a lost art for those of us raised in the industrial world, but not too long ago, what we think of as camp cooking was just plain cooking.   Several major advances made in the 19th and early 20th centuries resonate in our lives without a second thought from most of us.  Most of our grandparents or great-grandparents cooked with solid fuel (mostly wood, peat, manure, or charcoal) and their grandparents may have felt fortunate to even be able to cook indoors in bad weather. Much of the world still cooks this way and it is an eye-opener for those raised in the more industrialized countries if and when they travel abroad.

In the 19th century, the Caravan Craze, global expansionism, and long-distance campaign warfare sent massive numbers of otherwise “civilized” people back to the outdoors; often with high expectations about the board-of-fare.  Although we, as a species, have cooked over campfires for many thousands of years, this is not always convenient or desirable; whether for speed, lack of fuel, or need for a low profile in the hedgerows.  An early response to this need was the brazier or hibachi-type grill reinvented on numerous occasions in various parts of the world.  These  stoves can use small wood or charcoal but are heavy, smoky, and need large volumes of solid fuel for sustained use.  Not a good option for the traveller (sic).  When coal oil and kerosene became common, liquid fuel appeared to be the answer.

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Tea at the Caravan with the Classic Svea Stove.

Although common now, liquid fuel stoves have not always been a good or safe choice for cooking on the road or in camp.  Early portable stoves used a wick and some variety of coal oil for the fuel.  The flame created with a wick is relatively low-temperature, causing incomplete combustion.

In fact, the early instructions for safe stove use are nearly the same as that of fireworks. 

“LAY ON GROUND. LIGHT FUSE. GET AWAY! – USE OUTDOORS ONLY – UNDER ADULT SUPERVISION.”

Another feature of the earliest wick stoves, due to their relatively low burning temperature, is that they exude fumes and soot, like a low-quality oil lamp. This sooting and smoke make them unpleasant at best, especially in confined spaces.  Though not a terrible option for the 1850s, they are nothing as good as what would come in the next generation.

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Soyer stove.

The advancements of Alexis Soyer – The contraption above is one of the many inventions given to us by Alexis Soyer, celebrity chef and cooking guru of mid-19th century Britain.  Many of his cookbooks are still referenced and can be found for free on the web.  He was, by the way, born a Frenchman but we can forgive him this oversight for his many wonderful contributions to the world of food.

Not only did Mssr. Soyer invent several useful contraptions for cooking, but he is credited with organizing the first Soup Kitchen to help the starving Irish during the Famine.

As a further claim to fame, the large unit stove he developed for the British army during the Crimean War was such and excellent design it was still regular issue 120 years later.  But I digress from our theme.

Soyer_StoveSeen in use above, this little stove was revolutionary for the time but still left much to be desired, especially if one wanted to cook with it indoors.  I don’t believe you’d catch a sane cook using something of this sort on an actual tablecloth unless it was made from asbestos but it seemed like a good idea for the advertisement.  In the 19th century, both camp and home cookery were beginning to change drastically; up to this time the two were not very different.  Along with improvements in stoves, better cooking pots, and roasting pans, other kitchen gadgets were being developed to help make cooking better and easier.  A humble and often overlooked kitchen appliance was invented in this period…

The wind-up cooking timer –

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Soyer’s Alarum.

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This little beauty is something that all modern cooks take for granted.  It seems obvious now, but Soyer realized that mothers, chefs, and camp cooks have many things to attend to at once.  He wisely decided that a dinging countdown timer timer could take some of the strain away from cooking and make for better prepared meals.

The coming of the pressurized stove – The Crimean war, the Raj in India, and other colonial ventures undertaken during Queen Victoria’s reign spurred on great advances in campaign living and long-term camping.  The East India Company and the regular military encouraged officers to bring the comforts of home as whole careers were spent thousands of miles from home creating and running an empire.  From this period, the Brits gave us great folding furniture, camp bedding, portable furnishings, and the Gypsy caravan but it took a Swede to take us to the next level, and camp technology has never looked back.

The pressurized kerosene stove –

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Image 1914.

From the Wikipedia Entry as of October 2014:

The Primus stove, the first pressurized-burner kerosene (paraffin) stove, was developed in 1892 by Frans Wilhelm Lindqvist, a factory mechanic in Stockholm, Sweden. The stove was based on the design of the hand-held blowtorch;

From this...

The origins of the camp stove!

Lindqvist’s patent covered the burner, which was turned upward on the stove instead of outward as on the blowtorch.

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Improvements and variations came quickly after their introduction.

…The Primus No. 1 stove, made of brass, consists of a fuel tank at the base, above which is a “rising tube” and the burner assembly. A steel top ring on which to set a pot is held above the burner by three support legs. Other Primus-style stoves may be larger or smaller, but have the same basic design. The No. 1 stove weighs about 2½ pounds, and measures about 8½ inches high with an overall diameter of just under 7 inches. The tank, about 3½ inches high, holds a little over two pints of kerosene and will burn for about four hours on a full tank.

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We think of this type stove as a camp stove but they were marketed far and wide for household use as well.

…Prior to the introduction of the Primus, kerosene stoves were constructed in the same manner as oil lamps, which use a wick to draw fuel from the tank to the burner and which produce a great deal of soot due to incomplete combustion.

The Primus stove’s design, which uses pressure and heat to vapourize the kerosene before ignition, results in a hotter, more efficient stove that does not soot.  Because it did not use a wick and did not produce soot, the Primus stove was advertised as the first “sootless” and “wickless” stove.

sverige270These stoves are still celebrated worldwide and are in use on every corner of the planet.  They are a labor-saving device that frees their owners from fuel collection and actually lower airborne pollutants in the immediate area.  They are also credited with limiting the natural deforestation that accompanies humans living in concentrated communities.

The ads give a hint as to how far and wide the Primus stove reached around the globe.

This Radius ad is interesting as it shows the kinship or reapplication of technology from blow torch to stove with only a little modification by the engineers.  Below, this advertisement for an aftermarket pressure cap shows the need for improvement as stoves could easily become clogged and explode as a pressurized bomb.  I narrowly escaped this hazard myself when my stove nozzle became clogged on an outing.  A chemical fire-extinguisher is never a bad Idea to have handy living on the road.

The designers continually improved this simple device with, among other features, a safety cap that intentionally failed at a lower pressure than that which would have caused the stove to turn into a brass grenade.  Although safety features were invented to reduce the number of serious accidents, I suspect these little contraptions are responsible for a fair number of burns and the loss of more than a few homes, autos, and RVs.

As with any successful product, there were and are many imitators of this relatively simple design and many still on the market models come from former Soviet Union, China, and India.

Judging by the marketing, they bring nothing but bliss and happiness to the laboring mother… but seriously, these devices were probably a huge boon to the housewife no longer in need of wood or dung for cooking fuel.

The switch to gasoline –

Although introduced in the early 20th Century, the Second World War and subsequent decade saw widespread popularity of the gasoline stove for military use.  Unlike kerosene, gasoline (or purified “white gas”) is truly explosive, not just flammable.  Placed under high pressure, these are potentially bombs.  However, gasoline or derivatives can now be found almost anywhere on earth with the spread of the internal combustion engine, making this a fuel of choice for international travelers.  As per usual with us humans, we chose practicality and convenience over safety.

The iconic early stove of this design is the Svea 123 as it it is a beautiful combination of design features including simplicity of construction, easy field repair, and heating power.

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Classic Svea 123 and a close cousin.

Here’s a link to lighting the Svea 123 (and a little info about why they are so cool):  “DEMYSTIFYING THE SVEA 123

n.b. The original link was dead when I last checked but I have saved an archive copy here with credit to the author.

Variations on the theme are endless, from the Svea 123 (gasoline) to the Ultra-Primus double burner home range (kerosene).  The various designs proved themselves in kitchens, on river trips, mountain tops, and in virtually every modern backpacker’s gear in one form or another.  For much of the world, this style stove is still the centerpiece of kitchen cooking.

A different spin on the basic Svea design. The main feature of the 71 is it's convenient packaging.

A different spin on the basic Svea design. The main feature of the 71 is it’s convenient packaging for the traveller.

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Summitting  Everest, a pretty great endorsement.

As a side note to history, the design was so successful that many other companies copied the essential design.  Here are just a few ads for the Optimus line of stoves and lamps, another spin-off, from their own website showing a wide range of related products over the last century.

The modern era of the camp stove –

In my lifetime, liquid fuel backpacking stoves have undergone some serious refinements but overall, the system for liquid fuel stoves is essentially the same.  Safety has been a big issue, of course, but size (decrease) and fuel capacity (increase) are probably the biggest changes.  Many stoves use canister fuel (butane or propane), alcohol, or solid fuel pellets; but I won’t get into those as they are beyond our scope and interest here.

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A new era; the MSR XGK multi-fuel stove.

The final round of changes came from Mountain Safety Research and its later competitors.  The big innovation was to separate the fuel tank from the burner assembly and add a pressurizing system to the tank.  Small but efficient details were added like the self-lighting sparker, self-cleaning tube, and the inclusion of a lightweight wind screen.  I have used one of these for used with pretty good success but I still find myself choosing the Svea 123 for many journeys.

Links and Further Information –

This post is woefully inadequate in so many ways but it is meant as a quick overview of the pressurized liquid fuel stove we all love so much.  Here are some links to some great information on the web.

And my all time favorite, the Svea 123. We have been friends for many years.

The Base Camp is a specialist equipment internet retailer based in Littlehampton, Southern England since 1986.  They stock classic stoves and have an excellent selection of obsolete parts.

A H Packstoves Supplies and Parts – is an online seller with a wide variety.  He always has good stuff and some hard to find parts.

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The Fettle Box is a good source for pieces and parts for your classic stove. I have had good luck with them.

Finally, the Classic Camp Stoves Forum.  Several images above were found here.  Information about virtually every kind of stove available.  History, art, repairs, tutorials, and reprints are all available on the Forum.

Click here for the mother load of information about Classic Stoves.

More stove ramblings to come…

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/

A Story of an Old Time Sheepherder

It was a lonely life on the range.  “Even if a herder does not particularly care for reading, he will be driven to it in self-defense.”  I wanted to re-share a good story about sheepherding life.  Gilfillan was a shepherd for 20 years and went on to become a well-known humorist, author, and speaker.

Archie Gilfillan was South Dakota’s sagebrush philosopher. His prairie wit en­tertained people in the ranching areas of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and South Dakota through the Great Depression.”

As to why he never married,

“You profess sincere and unbounded admiration for the beauties of the opposite sex and you practically lay your heart at their collective feet; and then you meet some individual who combines the poorer qualities of a mama wildcat and a bitch wolf, with a voice like a buzz saw, the temper of a slapped hornet, and a dis­position that would curdle the milk in four adjoining counties. And then you have to revise your opinion of the sex all over again –– and downward.” In short, he never met a woman he liked who would have him as a husband.

The full article can be found here in South Dakota magazine.

 

A Fine Old Sheepherder Wagon

I love these the old sheepherder camps.  I’ve seen quite a few parked on ranches from Colorado to Idaho and even a few in Arizona.  I know they aren’t highway capable but it seems they could provide a real housing alternative for low-income minimalists who have access to land.  Far better than a housing complex or apartment for sure if you can deal with a small footprint.

Originally designed on a narrow wagon box, the builders took advantage of every square inch of space.  Since weight wasn’t really an issue, many have large stoves like the one above for heating and cooking.  As most of these wagons were homes for ranch workers in the western U.S., they needed to be prepared for extreme cold and windy environments.  When I was building my vardo, I took a fair amount of design inspiration from these wagons, adding their vibe to the more European designs I was ingesting.  My stove is small and I envy this one above; at least the cook top.

Off-the-shelf or build it yourself?  It’s the details of hand-built structures that make them stand out and this chimney cap is no exception.  This looks far more interesting to me than the local hardware store option.

The photos are from Ken Griswold’s Tiny House Blog.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ve been a fan of his site for a long time now and recommend it for anyone with an interest in Tiny Homes.  Here’s a link to the full article about Lorna’s wagon.

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Yet Another Sheepherder…

(from the Paleotool vault)

I love these things.  I saw quite a few parked on ranches from Colorado to Idaho last week.  I know they aren’t highway capable but it seems they could provide a real housing alternative for low-income minimalists.  Way better than a housing complex or apartment for sure.  The photos link to Ken Griswold’s Tiny House Blog.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a fan of his site.

I took a fair amount of design inspiration from these wagons but added a bit of class along the way.  I wouldn’t mind having a cook stove like this one though.

Off-the-shelf or build it yourself?  I love these details in hand-built structures.  This looks way better to me than the local hardware store option.

Have a look at Lorna’s old wagon here.

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A Guest Vardo

I always appreciate getting mail and comments on the blog; especially when someone is able to take information away and create something of their own.  I recently received some fine photos from Kevin with his own Vardo build.  I emailed back for more information but haven’t heard anything yet.

The wagon is a lovely and familiar design and it’s great to see it out in public alongside the more normal modern camp setting.Kevin also builds beautiful coolers that I hope to see more of in the near future.  One is visible next to the vardo in the image above. Here’s the email I received and I hope to hear (and see) more from Kevin soon:

George:
Hello.  I have been following your blog for a few years.  I’m writing to you directly as I want to share some photos of the Vardo that I built, using yours (and a few others) for much of the inspiration.  I wasn’t sure how to go about posting the photos to your blog, so I figured I would send them directly to you.
I live near Houston and own property in Buffalo Wyoming, home to a historical population of Basque sheepherders, and many currently rolling sheep wagons.  Living in two extremes, I have had some issues with changes in humidity affecting the performance of the wagon and would likely do a few things differently, if I were to do it all over again (but wouldn’t we all).
I haven’t seen any updates on your Vardo-make-over in quite a while.  Hopefully there’s more coming.  I know the work on mine is never done.  There are always items hanging around on the list of future improvements.
Let me know if you have any questions about the construction and performance of the wagon.  I’m happy to carry on a discussion if your interested, and willing to send more photos if you request. You’ll notice in the photos some glimpses of one of my hand made coolers.  They’re marine fiberglass coated wood on the inside, and out; built sort of like a cedar strip canoe. I built the chuck-box in the first photo as well.  It travels in the rear of the wagon to be set out for camp cooking. I figured these were both items that might interest you.
Kevin

It looks great Kevin.  I can’t wait to see more.

~GTC

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A Sheepherder in South Dakota Magazine…

(from the Paleotool vault)

A lonely life on the range.  “Even if a herder does not particularly care for reading, he will be driven to it in self-defense”.  This is a good story about sheepherding life.  Gilfillan was a shepherd for 20 years and went on to become a humorist, author, and speaker.

“Archie Gilfillan was South Dakota’s sagebrush philosopher. His prairie wit en­tertained people in the ranching areas of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and South Dakota through the Great Depression.”  The full article can be found here.

 

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Wyoming Sheepherders Again

 (from the Paleotool vault)

Sheep camps from Wyoming from the Wyoming Tales and Trails webpage.  Great photos and some good information concerning everything “western.”

I could spend much of my life like this!

A self-contained base camp in a sheep wagon provides a cozy home on the prairie.

A beautiful culmination of cultures a innovations created this iconic American living arrangement.  We can learn a lot from these designs today.

The Wyoming Tails and Trails website contains a lot of other information about western history along with more than 100 photos.  Have a look around and get a feel for the old west.

http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/

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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)

Door and Frame, Vardo Remodel Part 8

Every home needs a door.  It’s a tricky bit that must fit well, open and close easily, provide some security, and hopefully, look good doing it.  

We found a mahogany, two-panel door at the Habitat Re-Store in Lubbock a couple months ago and since the price was right ($10), we bought it.  It was clearly well-made and I suspect it ended up at Habitat due to a largish scratch near the bottom on one of the rails.  The only down-side for me was it’s height.  At 94″ (2.38 m), it was far too tall for a simple,  tiny vardo.  I knew I had to cut it down and was willing to risk the $10 as it went to a good cause either way.  I suspected the panels were solid but, as is usual with this type of door, the rails and styles would be laminate over pine (or similar).  I had not initially considered a professionally made door but the final selling point was the nice arch-shape to the top of the upper panel.  It was an arc that I could match when came to finishing the door.

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Some stressful cutting; 20 inches removed.

The circular saw seemed the obvious choice for a long, straight cut like this so I set up a board as a guide and went at it, taking a full 20 inches out of the middle.

Matching the glue surface.

Matching the glue surface.

The top was then folded down for planing to get a precise fit for gluing surface.  This part took a lot of fidgeting and tweaking to get it correct over the entire run, but I achieved it in the end with only a little frustration and some muttering.

Clamping it back together.

Clamping it back together.

To hold it all together, I decided to use polyurethane Gorilla Glue. I don’t use this for much but it can make an extremely strong and waterproof bond.  A couple very long screw completed the hillbilly engineering and I was confident with the result.  With the loss of 20 inches from the middle, the grain no longer lined up perfectly, but at a short distance, it isn’t very noticeable.  Hey, it’s a $10 solid mahogany door after all.  Talk about some good and frugal recycling.

Top arc is cut and the glue line looks pretty clear here. It's a lot less noticeable in real life.

Top arc is cut and the glue line looks pretty clear here. It’s less noticeable in real life and will be less so as the door darkens with age.

I cut the top of the door to match the arc of the inset panel and I think it’s a great match for the curves of the wagon.  But now, it came down to making a door frame, after the fact, to match the new door shape, compound arc and all.

Square hole, round door.

Square hole, rounded  door.  A scrap of wood was secured to hold the door in position while fitting and marking for the frame.

Obviously, the hole for the frame was the next step; requiring another stressful free-hand cutting job.

Matching the arc in the opening.

Matching the arc in the opening.  There is hope for the new door.

Cutting and sanding complete, it was time to build up the frame from oak to provide stiffness and stops to seal the interior.  Fortunately, outside of a couple fierce storms, the weather has been extremely clement this winter, making for good working conditions.

Mortising for the hinge.

Mortising for the hinge.

A smattering of new and old hardware.

A smattering of new and old hardware.

I both got lucky and splurged a bit on new hardware.  The hinges are real beauties and very sturdily built. There is no perceptible play in them whatsoever and they operate very smoothly.  I went with a 19th century Eastlake pattern from House of Antique Hardware in Portland, Oregon.  Great stuff, great service, just too much to choose from.

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The door is nearly fitted into it’s final position in this photo. High quality hinges not only look nice but function so much better than the cheap, temporary ones they replaced.

I’ll admit that this tricky bit of framing isn’t perfect but is far better than I could have hoped for and suits us fine.  A small speakeasy grill will complete the door and even serve as a small vent when necessary.

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Eastlake style.  Notice the beauty of the natural mahogany next to the oak.

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Test-fitting the new hinge mortises.  I just couldn’t pass these beauties up.  Still some finishing work to be done on the door but without an indoor shop, something had to be in place.

There are lots of small steps that still need to happen but at least there a door in the hole.

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Piecing together the door jamb and frame.

There is a lot more to report and I’ll get it posted as soon as I can.  Great things are afoot and I can even see a distant light at the end of the tunnel.

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

Or on to PART 9.

Progress is slow but steady, Vardo Remodel Part 7

The weekend was cold, I was tired (read lazy), and other things had to be attended to so this update is just baby steps in the big scheme.

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Inspired by the true pinnacle of Victorian wagon design.

Although mine is a purely pragmatic build, I wanted an homage to the classic Dunton Reading wagon.

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Taking a plain profile and giving it simple compass curves jazzes up the entire look, or so I hope.  If you notice the roof, there is a seam.  This is not a measuring error but the result of switching to off-the-shelf roofing steel.

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Sanding and finishing still required.

We wanted large windows for light and ventilation in the new room.  This one looks big enough to sell tacos and coffee from.

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I think I am liking where this is going.

I plan to take a day off work this coming week for important business in the afternoon.  However, if the weather holds, I should get a few hours under my belt for significant progressWe made what I think is an interesting decision about cabinetry which may be surprising.  Also, I am re-purposing a couple old desk tops as counters and I hope they look as good as I imagine they will.

Dreaming of travels to come...

Dreaming of travels to come…

If you are looking for Part 1 of the rebuild/addition then CLICK HERE.

On to Part 8!

Tying it all together, Vardo Remodel Part 5

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Diving into the next stage of construction.

All earthly structures begin with a foundation of some sort, even living wagons. In our case, the trailer frame is the earth, the ledge and subfloor serve as the foundation upon which, all is built.  I proposed to attach the new section pretty much the same way and addition is connected to a house, by supplementing the structure at the joining lines and creating “nailers” to provide fastening surfaces for the new wood.

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With an afternoon that included a 30 degree temperature drop, an unexpected rain shower changing to freezing rain changing to snow we had to switch gears, tarp up the project, and retreat indoors. New Mexico in the winter!

Going back to the day job for the week left me with only limited work times.  No real workshop means no light and submitting to the ever-changing weather.  This became the perfect time to make lumber from the piles of miscellaneous scrap and recycled boards I have been hoarding the past couple years.  This is boring work and requires a lot of noisy time with the table saw and planer but yields a lots of free, well-seasoned lumber for building great things.

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Building up the back wall.

It’s satisfying to begin seeing real progress, even if it’s only just a shell going up.  Pre-cut tongue-and-groove pine makes for easy work at this stage.  The sad old door is being kept in place to help shelter the interior from unforeseen weather.  We hope to get the bedroom area cleaned up, repairs made, and some re-varnishing done in the coming weekend.

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Framing out the plan.

Corner posts were secured and, unlike the first edition of the build, framed walls were created and await their double layer skin.  I took this opportunity to mock-up the arch from plywood and test fitted it against the existing wall.  Finally, it feels like real progress.

If you are looking for Part 1 of the rebuild/addition then CLICK HERE.

On to Part 6!

“Give me a long enough lever and a place to stand and I will move the Earth” Remodeling the Vardo, Part 4

I had a plan, and it involved leverage.

I had a plan, and it involved leverage.

Taking the Biggest Step of All; Transferring the old vardo to the new trailer.

Now that I was confident that the box was going to hold up under the stress of the transfer I was ready to slip the trailer under the body.  It was a whole lot less dramatic than I was afraid it would be, and that was a good thing.

And here we are; naked, and a little afraid.

And here we are again; naked, and a little afraid.

With the vardo teetering on it’s blocks we prepared to slide the trailer under it. For safety sake, we did this by hand to decrease the chance of bumping the structure or blocks.  Because of the layout of the tail light assembly and fenders we couldn’t just suspend the entire body and make the transfer in one run.

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Taking the strain with the Hi-Lift jack in order to move the blocks around the frame.

I used the Hi-Lift jack to easily support the body while we shifted the blocks around.  I wanted to get the trailer as far under as possible to ease the final move.

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Step three, after moving the blocks around the light assembly.

I was feeling pretty accomplished at this point and we were nearly ready for the final push.

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As far as it goes.

Since there were only two of us, we greased the rails under the vardo body to limit the friction while pushing.  This made a huge difference and allowed us to slide it into place with relative ease.

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Looking on in slight amazement that it actually worked.

You can see that everything possible was stripped off the body to lighten the weight including the metal roof, stove-pipe, and door.  Bolts were used to secure the body to the frame but I’ll likely add a couple more steel straps as we near completion.

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Ready to move on.

I intend to make the addition look as seamless as possible and to keep the same aesthetic in the addition.  For me, it’s a modern living accommodation informed and inspired by the late Nineteenth Century caravans and Sheepherder wagons.  They were ultra-modern in their time but had a certain warmth, comfort, and hand-made quality that most modern day RVs lack.  Even on a small budget, a solid, warm, and safe home can be built by nearly anyone.

If you are looking for Part 1 of the rebuild/addition then CLICK HERE.

Onward to Part 5!

Naked and Afraid! Remodel of the Little Green Vardo, Part 3

Caution – suggested nudity, implied whiskey, and some old-fashioned Scottish engineering to liven up the day.

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K.O. Munson – “Just a case of Excellent Scotch” – November 1946 Artist Sketch Pad Calendar

Now that I have your attention:

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Last day in the “before” stage. Lucky for all of you, I’m not naked, just afraid of the BIG move.

Saturday morning came and it was time to start stripping down to the bare essentials (hence the first part of the title, suggested by SB).

After an evening of pulling everything out of the wagon (the first time it has been absolutely bare in over five years) it was time to commence preparations for the move onto the new trailer.  This afforded me an opportunity to really look over the entire structure for movement, wear, water damage, etc. and to make changes if necessary.  Happily, the structure has held up quite well considering the many thousands of miles and the extensive off-roading I have put it through.  Examining the roof, walls, and under sides, the only water marks discovered were those from some seepage through the tongue-and-groove on the front wall from several years back.  High-speed driving through torrential downpours really test the tightness of any wooden vessel.  As I already knew about this, there were no surprises.

Disassembling parts of the structure that were not meant to be removed become complicated puzzles.

Disassembling parts of the structure that were not meant to be removed become complicated puzzles.

The exterior ledge bracing, storage boxes, and some trim pieces had to be removed to facilitate the fit on the new trailer bed.  Stacey hunkered down and puzzled out how they were all connected and spent several hours turning nuts, removing bolts, and unscrewing screws, forming a mighty pile of wood, filling buckets with hardware, and pitching out old fasteners.

After removing the boxes and tie-downs, there were holes to be filled and a fresh coat of paint was in order.

After removing the boxes and tie-downs, a fresh coat of paint was in order.

After a thorough examination for wear and damage (we found none), screw holes were filled and a fresh coat of oil paint was applied to the nether regions as some parts will become difficult to access once on the new trailer.

The beginnings of attachment; I sprinkled a half dozen Simpson Strong Ties around for security.

The beginnings of attachment.

I sprinkled a half dozen Simpson Strong Ties around the frame for strength and safety; all recycled from the original wagon and an old barn project.  The vardo will be fastened directly to the steel frame as well but when it comes to this sort of safety “too much is never enough.”

It was an opportune time to deal with many little scars, dings, and damaged bits.

It was an opportune time to deal with many little scars, dings, and damaged bits.

Although no major injuries were discovered in the 20,000 mile check-up, a lot of little issues were dealt with while we had the opportunity.  It really drove home to me how much of the original build was done with salvaged lumber and recycled hardware.  I have been slowly replacing standard fasteners with stainless, especially below the water-line; this gave me the opportunity to continue this practice (expensive but far-sighted).

While Stacey continued her exterior work, I crawled around underneath disconnecting bolts and steel straps to dismount from the frame.  A handful of these could no longer be accessed from inside and had to be persuaded with a Sawzall.

Separating the rear portion of the frame.

Separating the rear portion of the frame.

How did I remove the frame?  Not owning a forklift or other heavy machinery I used the simplest method I could think of.  By using the tongue jack and some concrete blocks I was able to first lower the front, thus raising the rear-end.  While the rear was up high, I stuffed the blocks and wood under the body to hold it at an appropriate height.  Raising the front then disconnected the frame from the rear and allowed blocks to be placed under the front.  My only fears revolved around the overall strength and stiffness of the body; would it take the stress in places the appropriate places?  As I lowered the unit down, freeing the trailer, I was relieved to hear no creaks or see any flex anywhere.

Using the leveling jack to separate the from portion of the frame.

Using the leveling jack to separate the front portion of the frame.

Now for the Eureka moment…

Over the past couple weeks I have racked my waking brain for an easy and safe way to move the box from one frame to the other.  It was at 3:30 in the morning a few days before the move when it came to me.  Knowing my wagon fairly intimately, I knew that it was very close to neutrally balanced (i.e., the balance point was very near the center of the body) and this might be used to my advantage.  If I could load the back end with enough weight to counterbalance the structure, the body could be cantilevered by 50% or more, like a big kid on a see-saw.  The only concern I had then was the overall strength of the vardo body after the steel frame was removed.  The fulcrum point would bear a lot of strain.

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Envisioning weight distribution.

To sum up this rambling explanation, YES, it dis indeed work!

Voila! I felt like a stage magician levitating his beautiful assistant for an audience full of suckers; in this case, a dog, cat, and a slew of poultry.

My floating vardo body, waiting for it’s new trailer.

Voila! I felt like a stage magician levitating his beautiful assistant for an audience full of suckers; in this case, a dog, cat, and a slew of poultry.  The old trailer was pulled away to be sold on Craigslist.

And here we are; naked, and a little afraid.

And here we are; naked, and a little afraid.

I secured about 400 pounds of weight near the door allowing the front end to float while we prepared to maneuver the new gear into place.

With the early winter sunset I decided the next step would have to wait for morning.  Don’t worry, I re-jacked the front end overnight for safety sake.  I didn’t want a crushed dog should the worst occur.

If you are looking for Part 1 of the rebuild/addition then CLICK HERE.

PART 4, coming up…

Remodel of the Little Green Vardo, Part 2

Preparing the trailer and laying the foundation for the Vardo.

A couple of issues had to be addressed before any real construction could begin.  Unfortunately, a day job and early sunsets dictate my work hours so I only have a short time each night to get something done throughout the week.  Here’s the summary:

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The fresh slate, as delivered from the factory.

The trailer arrived at about 990 pounds.  I liked the floor but the extra weight was not desirable.  I was going to need to lift the old ledge body about 1 1/2″ anyway (to get the current ledges over the welded rails) so I decided to replace the original floor with a wooden frame to provide the proper height.  Does anybody want to buy some 2 x 8s for cheap?

Unnecessary floorboards removed.

Unnecessary floorboards removed.

A half hour of work, after locating the proper T40 screw driver head for the drill, and the boards were free.  Removing the floor boards from the flatbed relieved us of 209 unnecessary pounds, bringing the trailer down to about 780 pounds.  That weight-savings can be better used elsewhere and we already have a plan for it.

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Test fitting the treated lumber under-framing to build upon.

I’m not a fan of the chemicals in treated lumber but I bow to it’s remarkable ability to survive some pretty harsh treatment.  My desired dimensions overhang this trailer by a couple of inches and this was a pretty good way to support that plan without compromising any length.  Every inch counts, right?  Before you ask, the asymmetrical layout is due to old habits of building on standard centers (16″ in this case).  It will only really benefit the laying down of the sub-floor but it saved me some arithmetic.  It’s comforting to slip back into zen construction mind.

The coming weekend will hopefully yield some real progress as we are now coming into the difficult bit… moving the old vardo onto the new frame.

If you are looking for Part 1 of the rebuild/addition then CLICK HERE.

ON TO PART 3

A Classic Sheep Wagon in a Modern Setting

Classic sheep wagon; Dutch door, wash pan hanging out of the way but handy, and an offset door.

I love these old sheep camps.  There are many on ranches from New Mexico to Idaho and beyond in old sheep and cattle country.  They aren’t highway capable but it seems they could provide a real housing alternative for low-income minimalists.  For many of us, living this way would be far better than a housing complex or apartment.

Cook stove and kitchen box.

I took a fair amount of design inspiration from these wagons but added a bit of class along the way.  I wouldn’t mind having a cook stove like this one though.

A nice stove cap. I need to make something classy like this some time.

Off-the-shelf or build it yourself?  I love these details in hand-built structures.  This stove pipe cap has a classy look.

A double bed, cooking area, and a place to relax out of the weather. The essentials are covered.

A double bed, cooking area, and a place to relax out of the weather. The essentials are covered.

A short piece about Lorna’s wagon can be found here on the Tiny House Blog.

Sheepherders’ Camps

Here are a few classic Sheep Camps from the Wyoming Tales and Trails webpage. There are some great photos and some good information on their web page.  I personally took a lot of inspiration from these resourceful and low-cost housing solutions.

Fiddling on the prairie.  I could spend much of my life like this!

Out on the range. Looking at my Vardo, you can see my inspiration for the offset door and stove.

Again, the offset door. I get asked about this a lot. It gives a large amount of room on one side.

There’s a lot of other information and photos of western history here too.  Have a look around.

http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/

Sheep Camps are Alive and Well in the West

I have posted quite a few images and links to classic old-time sheep camps here over the years.   If you travel the small byways of the Mountain West you will still see plenty of old sheep camps in use or parked around ranch houses today.  But the sheep camp isn’t just a thing of a past generation, they are still being rebuilt, restored, or made in shops for modern use.

2012-11-09-09-30-54If you aren’t sure how this differs from a modern RV, you may not be alone.  However, there are some subtle but significant differences.  First of all, the sheep camps tend to be built much more sturdily than their recreational cousins and almost always have a wood stove for heat due their use in remote mountains.  The over-built bodies and heavy-duty frames allow them to be dragged into all sorts off-road locations without damage.  As a working accommodation they tend to be more spartan than many new RVs.

img_3415Note the traditional wheel arrangement on the model above. This type of running gear allows the wagon to be pulled into any location and is always set-up.  No need for jacks if you can find a relatively level patch of ground.  However, if the wagon is to be primarily pulled on the highway, a more modern configuration adds to their towability as seen below.

img_3844legend-outlinedThe layout is classic (I modeled my layout, in part, on this style wagon) with the bed across the back and a stowaway table.  The people at Timberline Range Camps, who create the wagons pictured here, have preserved the classic features in a fully modern “camp”.

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I get no endorsement from them but please go and check out their work.

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Tiny sink, lots of storage, and a two burner stove are perfect for a couple working folks or an cold weather hunting camp.img_3360_0

Nothing fancy required in an off-grid home like this.img_3365Although the wagons have grown in size to accommodate the modern worker I appreciate their dedication to simplicity.  One of the coolest features, I think, is the bed-under-the-bed.

img_3368The lower bunk slides in and out as a drawer to completely stow away with a minimum of wasted space when not needed.  If you want the vardo-caravan-sheep camp lifestyle but cannot bring yourself to build it, explore the many options of the modern builders.  This is just a small sample of what they offer, check out their web page and blog to see many more photos: http://sheepcamps.com/

Vardo Plans: Reading Caravan

Many considerations concerning floor plans and general layout have come my way over the years.  I am compiling as many as possible to post here.  To start things off, here is the iconic Reading Waggon by Dunton’s (note: two “g’s” in the older British spelling).

ReadingExtThis design is truly the classic.  When one sees this, it cries of the open road and Gypsy Wagons.  It is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden cabin on wheels.  The wide rear axle and narrow front carriage was the best of compromise for agility, weight, and worthiness on and off road.  This design is worth a potential builder scrutinizing in detail for it’s perfection of design.  A mollycroft roof, high clearance, well-proportioned windows, and solid design make this ideal for the rolling home.

DSC_0197On the downside, kite walls (out-sloping) add some difficulty when working on interior shelves and cabinets.  Also, as noted for over a hundred years, the mollycroft can weaken the roof and ultimately increase the chance of leaks.  A small price to pay maybe but something to keep in consideration.

ReadingFloorThe classic caravan at this period included a full chest of drawers and a fairly large stove, limiting seating to a largish space on the stove side and a small dressing seat next to the dresser.  Although we read of dozens of children being born and raise in this design, the real layout seems to be based on the couple.  Kids will make due.

All images above are taken from The English Gypsy Caravan, currently out of print.

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.