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.


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! (Coming soon)

Detailed to the Last Dollar


Not a pretty little Victorian-style caravan here today but a sturdy, well-thought-out modern living accommodation for someone looking to escape the mortgage anchor most of us have felt.

Here is an extremely well-documented van conversion into a very frugal but comfortable micro house created in 38 days from 2014-2015.  Sean (the builder) has done a remarkable job of tracking nearly every aspect of this life-changing event from the decisions that made this happen, to getting rid of everything that didn’t work in his 60 square foot dream, to purchasing and building his version of the perfect live-in rolling home.  There’s even a downloadable spreadsheet of the expenses incurred and great details for those seeking some real “how-to” guidance.

Sean’s blog takes us from the emptying and selling of THIS:


To the purchase and planning of THIS:

And through the entire build and beyond:


It’s a remarkable journey and I thank him for sharing this with the world.  If you don’t have time or want just a quick overview, watch the short video:

And the entire write-up can be found here at:

F*ck the Banks, I’ll Build My Own Damn House



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.


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.


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.


Remodel and Rebirth of the Little Green Vardo

It just seems right.

The timing,

the monetary investment,

the effort.

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.


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




A perfect rolling home.

And a place for everything!

Bundesarchiv. Bild 183-1987-1002-510 Foto 1 November 1922.

Bundesarchiv. Bild 183-1987-1002-510 Foto 1 November 1922.

The details here are remarkable including the decorative framing around the windows and planter boxes … with plants!  I believe this sits on solid rubber teeth-rattling tires.  You can probably tell from the caption but this is apparently from Germany in 1922.  I wish I knew what the function of the trailer was; workshop, spare bedroom, animals, kitchen?

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.

Simple Open Lot…

An Open Lot:Oldopenlot

This wagon is about as simple as it gets yet is obviously relatively modern judging by the running gear and the electrical tower in the background.  A classic three stone hearth lies is the focus of the children’s attention.