The Vardo - The Problem!
To start in the middle of the story -- here's the problem: My garage is too short!
Jumping back to the beginning -- I've been doing internet tarot readings for nearly ten years. I've been toying with the
idea of performing them at a Renaissance Festival, but never took the step.
Well, a new festival is starting up near Austin (I'm in Houston) -- and I
figured this would be a good time to give it a try. Okay -- I'll need to build some sort of "booth" ... because I refuse
to set up a card table underneath a picnic canopy!
My first plan was to build a permanent (non-movable) version of a Ledge-style gypsy wagon -- then found out the festival
organizers wanted my booth set up in a "Gypsy" tent circle ... with no permanent structures. Okay, I'll look into making
a pavillion tent instead.
Got the tent mostly put together, then decided I didn't like it and really wanted a wagon. Did some researching and
found Tim Lemke's Bow Top Vardo -- this is almost exactly what I want.
Bought his book (highly recommended), his large-sized detailed construction manual (recommended, but not as highly), and
his full-sized plans (not recommended. They're okay, but you have so many measurements from the book and construction
manual that you can really draw your own).
The vardo is basically two plywood "half-circles" for the front and back (even though they're not really half-circles)
connected by stringers and topped with a "tarp". I'm using a heavy poly/cotton blend trigger that I've sewed together.
It sits on a 4 x 8 foot trailer and expands to a touch over 6 feet wide at the middle.
All sounded fine -- until I measured the height of my garage door!
The Vardo - The Problem Continued!
The vardo is about 6 and a half-feet tall. Sitting on top of the trailer (with 12" wheels) makes it too tall to
construct inside my garage -- much less trying to get it out of the door!
Building it on the ground and lifting it to the trailer when complete was out of the question -- as was building it
You see, my neighborhood is plagued by neighborhood Nazi's'; one lives just down the street from me. Whenever you do
anything that's slightly against the neighborhood rules, you get a nastygram the next day from the zoning committee. For
instance, I had my carpet replaced -- the installers set my old carpet outside at the curb during the morning. When they
finished that same day, they loaded up the old carpet and hauled it away. The next day -- a "nastygram" from the Nazi's
dunning me for having the carpet at the curb.
I have a little British Austin-Healey Sprite. The top (like all English cars) leaks when it rains -- so I have a tonneau
cover I put on it when I park it outside. First time (and every time since) I did so, another "nastygram" for having a
"tarp" covering a car -- even though not a tarp, it's a standard half-tonneau.
Anyway, even though the wagon only takes a few days of work to complete, I knew it might take me a couple of months to
total up those few days. Having the wagon outside during that time would draw a "nastygram" and since I'd go over the
"30 days to remedy the situation", I'd end out fighting them in court. Didn't want that hassle.
Reviewing the plans, I noted that the build was essentially a top part and a bottom part. I'm not going to be taking
this wagon out frequently -- when I do take it out, I'll set it up and it'll stay at a festival site for several weeks. So -- why
not make it a "pop up"? I'll build the bottom half in the garage, then arrange the top part so that it folds up for set
The Vardo - Half Measures!
So -- that's what I did! Means some changes, of course -- but some of these make construction easier. For instance,
since the "top" of the wagon will now be open when I tow it, I'll wrap it in a tarp. This will block the wind and
protect the lower body covering -- which means I won't need the extended stringers in the original plan.
The original plan extends the stringers out about four inches or so on the "windward" end of the wagon. A low bow
"clamps" to the underneath, locking the tarp covering in place to keep it from blowing off.
That won't be a problem for me, so I ended out cutting the stringers flush with both end walls for the bottom half. This
makes it appear a little cleaner, plus simplifies construction. (Well, it would have simplified construction if I'd have thought of it before I put it together!)
You can see in the prior picture how I folded the covering over and stapled (and construction glued) it in place.
Unprotected, it might blow off at highway speeds, but the tarp I'll have covering it will secure it in place.
Another change I made was lowering the bottom sill on the door. The original plans had a 11 1/2" "sill" -- pretty much
guaranteeing folks will trip over it. I lowered mine to about 5 inches -- and could have made it lower still.
I'm also skipping the "bows" called for in the original plans. Couldn't think of a good way to make them "pop up", so
decided to leave them off. I'm using 1 x 2 poplar stringers on the top, so am hoping they won't bend inwards. If they
do, I'll set up some bracing in the middle.
I also changed the upper stringer on the bottom half to a 1 x 6. Realized I had to lower the bed a bit to allow for
folding the end walls down -- so used a wider stringer to accomodate.
The rest of the bottom pretty much followed the plans. I added some 90 degree angle braces to help secure the side to
the floor just to play it safe. I'm also going to front my "bedroom" with curtains rather than build a cabinet-looking
front to save weight.
The covering is a "sandwich" of some cotton tartan shirting I found, a thin layer of reflective insulation wrap (think
thin mylar bubble wrap), and my poly-cotton "tarp".
The Vardo - The Painting!
Didn't use a lot of thought on the paint scheme -- blue and yellow were what I found at the paint store!
One thing that drew me to the vardo idea was the wonderful decorative painting! My wife and daughter are both incredibly
gifted artists -- my skills are more in the "stick figure" arena. I had planned on having them do the decoration for me.
Well, you know what they say about "plans" -- time was drawing short and neither one looked like they were going to
actually do anything.
Then, was scrolling through the channels on TV and found a Donna Dewberry "painting" show. Sure looked easy -- I figured
"I can do this"! She was showing how she painted leaves, vines, and roses.
Could hardly wait -- ran to the store, bought a flat brush and some paint, then ran out to the garage. Here's the
Oh well, it impressed me (but I'm easily impressed)! I added some roses you'll see a little later. By the way, that's
all I know how to paint -- Leaves, Roses, and Vines. Need to watch another Dewberry show for more.
The Vardo - The Snag!
King Posts. That's really the whole problem.
The original plan calls for two six foot long 2 x 4 (ish) "King Posts" at each end of the vardo. These support the end
walls (top and bottom halves), plus provide beaucoup strength. Unfortunately, my garage was too short for the King Posts
I could make them fold over too -- but never could find a mechanism I liked enough. Didn't like all the arrangements for
hinges on the end wall halves, either.
Finally thought, "Why do I care about having the end walls fold over? The folding part is just convenience -- I'm not
going to be doing it that often. Why not just lift the end walls in place and secure the King Post halves intead?"
Talk about simplifying things! The walls aren't heavy -- I can easily lift them in place. Once there, I'm securing the
King Post halves with a metal plate and screws. I was going to have to secure the King Post pieces anyway, so all I'm
really doing is eliminating the folding/hinged part. Lifting the wall and screwing in the metal plate takes only minutes
-- so I don't think I'm costing myself much setup time either.
The metal plates works so well that I think I'm going to eliminate the plates on the inner side of the doorway. The end
walls will also be secured by the stringers -- but the end wall halves are surprisingly sturdy as they are!
The Vardo - The Stringers
Here's a peek at the stringers. I cut dados in both the stringers and in the plywood end walls, so they just slip in
place like Lincoln Logs (do they still make those?)
I later placed some bolts underneath the stringer dadoes on the end walls. I'll "tie" the stringers off to those bolts
just to help secure them in heavy winds -- although I don't think I'll really need to since the upper covering will be
tied in place. Better safe than wet and cold and chasing a top blowing through the woods, I always say.
I'm not posting any construction photos of the bottom half -- several other folks have already done so (Ex: My Gypsy Caravan) ... they're EXCELLENT references for attempting a bow top.
My trailer frame is a Harbor Freight 4 x 8; I waited and got it on special for about $280. (They do it a couple times a
year). My son put it together for me (word for the day -- Air Ratchet!) It doesn't have raised edges to attach the
wagon on, so I'm using bolts and U-bolts to tie the wagon to the trailer. Ought to work fine (especially with the
lowered center of gravity of a "pop up").
As you can see, I hadn't cut the end window yet.
The Vardo - More Painting!
Really not that much left to do -- I cut windows and an upper doorway on one end wall, then painted some more vines,
leaves, and roses.
I'm leaving the windows open. The original plans call for a sliding shutter -- I've taken the end pieces that I removed
for the windows, put a handle on them, and I can just set them back in the window frame to "close" the windows. Am
securing that with a bunjee. Not fancy, but it'll work.
Was going to put a "screen" on the windows, but I had decided I wanted a dutch-type door (bottom and top halves). Later
decided to eliminte the top half and will use a beaded curtain instead. Figured if I was going to do that, then window
screens wouldn't accomplish anything.
You can see my dadoes for the stringers pretty clearly here. I only messed them up a little. "Measure twice, cut once
... then go to the store and buy more wood because you messed it up anyway!"
I also added a top 2 x 4 to "frame" the doorway. Don't know why, it just looked right.
The Vardo - And More Painting!
Here's my "Dutch Door" -- I decorated the inside as well (leaves, vines, and roses, of course)!
I've tested raising the end walls several times -- they're easy, and it's a smooth one-man job. I had thought they'd be
trouble in wind, but haven't had any so far.
I figure if the wind is blowing when I try and set them in place, I'll use a quick-clamp to secure the metal plate on the
King Post, then will screw them in. There's a red 1 x 4 that runs across the bottom of each upper end wall (with a gap
for the doorway, of course). This covers half of each end wall (it overhangs the edge by about 2 inches) and actually
helps "lock" the end walls in place when you set them down. It's glued and screwed to the upper end wall; I use a few
screws to attach it to the lower end wall after I've secured the King Posts.
I need to set some weatherstripping inside the door. I'll use a gate-type latch on the outside (that I can lock with a
padlock) and a hook-and-eye latch on the inside.
The upper door will work just like the windows -- I'll have a plywood cut-out that I'll set in place (I'll only do this
at night or when I leave the wagon unattended.)
The Vardo - Test Fitting!
Not so bad -- my upper covering didn't give me much trouble. The covering has "pockets" on the rear of the wagon; the
stringers slip into these pockets. I'm tying the cover to the stringers in the front (although I have clamps in the
The covering overhangs the bottom sides by about six inches -- I'm then tying the covering down with a rope that passes
through grommets on the upper fabric and around hooks underneath the sides.
Everything's bright and cheery inside the wagon because I haven't set the upper tartan or the upper insulation wrap in
place. Wanted to make sure the upper fabric fit first.
Had a bit of a slip-up on the tartan -- I ran out! When I went to buy more, I couldn't find the same pattern! I found a
similar pattern (still red-and-green tartan, just smaller print) that I'll use. It'll bother me -- but not that much. I
don't know that anyone else will care.
I'm going to either staple or tack the upper tartan in place. Doesn't need to be strong, just don't want it to shift.
Then will place the insulation wrap over the tartan. The wrap is 4 feet wide, so I'll use three strips to do this -- I
want an overlap in the middle since this is my "rainproofing". Will also tape the edges of the strips with sealing tape.
Curiously, Duct Tape didn't stick (even the "Monster" brands) that well to the insulation -- but strapping tape did.
The insulation wrap blanket will hang over the upper edges a few inches. I'll probably tape these down -- not for
strength, just to keep them from shifting.
Then -- I'll place the upper fabric in place and will tie it taut. This will secure the inner layers (tartan,
insulation) in place.
By the way -- had to build some steps, too! Was wondering about a hand rail, but it turns out that the door (when open)
acts as a great handrail!
The Vardo - Tied Stringer!
The rear fabric has five "pockets" that the overhanging stringers slip into. They're pretty tight, so I may end out
ripping the seams and resewing them. Haven't decided yet. Still, using pockets means that they're not adjustable -- I
can't loosen them or tighten them as needed.
So, will rely on the front stringers to do so. I've inserted grommets in my front leading edge and have drilled a hole
in each stringer. A short cord links the grommet to the hole -- I can pull it tight if needed for adjusting. Actually,
the clamps I had temporarily in place worked pretty well -- if I have time, I might build some rustic looking clamps to
use instead of tie downs.
I'm leaving the few bare inches at the end of the stringer -- I still haven't decided if I'm going to attach an awning.
If I do, I'll "hook" it on to these upper stringers.
The Vardo - The Rear View!
A quick shot from the rear. Have cut the window, but not completed it. I've just reinserted the cut piece for now --
plan to build some sort of shutter (hinged at right and left ends) for the window covering. Time shortages may mean a
frame and insert like the front windows, though.
More leaves and vines and roses. They don't show as well on the blue background, though. The lighting angle makes them
look dim, too. They're actually a bit brighter than they appear in the picture.
The Vardo - The End!
And here's the (almost) completed vardo! Note how I've "closed" the windows with the inserts.
About the only other thing I agonized over during the construction was the mattress. There aren't too many 72" long
mattresses around (My wife and I are not that tall, so 72" is fine for us). Even RV mattresses are a bit too long.
Was looking at making a custom mattress -- buying a custom made one was going to run in the $500 area! Then, stumbled
across "SUV" air mattresses!
These are smaller sized air mattresses designed to fit in the back of an SUV with the seats down! They have pickup truck
bed mattresses, too -- air mattresses designed to fit in the bed of a pickup truck! Found an SUV mattress that's almost
exactly the right size. Found a full-sized mattress pad (the bed area is a "full") to help with the comfort angle, too.
Was concerned about losing heat from the mattress sitting on a sheet of plywood ... so, found some heavy 3 x 4 foot rugs
with rubber bases. Two of them cover the 6 foot by 4 foot bed plywood -- and should provide some insulation help!
BTW, the top covering is actually pretty taut. That "poofy" you see on the side is from a piece of wood that's leaning against the fabric.
Once I take everything down and "wrap up" the bottom for towing, I'll post another picture!
New! The Vardo Now Has Hinges!
Read more here -- the story continues!