The Vardo Journey Begins

I think I’ve mentioned wanting to build a Vardo before. My plan was originally to do a remake of the trailer we used for the trip to Alaska when I was a kid. My grandfather built that trailer with my dad and it was a sweet little micro-camper before micro-campers were popular. We pulled it with a Rambler station wagon over the Alaskan Highway when the highway was still a rough, all gravel road.

The trailer on the way to Alaska.

The trailer on the way to Alaska.

Yep, that’s me at the table.

Searching the webs for construction ideas and alternate possibilities after a friend suggested a teardrop trailer, I was inspired by Paleotool’s “The Vardo” postings. Since my first visit a couple years ago he’s posted additional pictures, more information, links to other Vardos being built, and received great discussion in the comments section. At that time I began looking for a trailer I could get cheap to strip down for this project. I intend to use his pictures, along with those of other builders, to construct mine. Just a few weeks ago, my neighbor gave me his old trailer. Last weekend I stripped it down to the frame:

My trailer, stripped down to the metal frame. Notice the horseshoe?

My trailer, stripped down to the metal frame. Notice the horseshoe? You’ll have to zoom in.

I love the use of that horseshoe at the axle to support the tongue tube. I don’t know if it was originally used for luck, convenience, or both. I’m going to go with “both” and hope the luck this trailer has had continues. It was, after all, good luck that brought this trailer to me.

Originally a plywood-sided box utility trailer, having stripped it down this far it looks like the frame is pretty solid, well, maybe not “pretty”. Clearly, I have some rust removal to do. I’ll also need to replace the wheel bearings, according to the previous owner, but that’s simple and straight-forward work that I’ve done before. Then I can start building my Vardo.

I had planned to make a metal framework that would bolt onto the existing trailer frame to serve as a way of extending my “foundation” from 4’x8’ to something closer to a 5’x8’ base. The original construction accomplished this through the use of 2”x4” wooden cross members bolted to the frame in the above picture. Nailed to that was tongue and groove 1”x4” laid out lengthwise and finished with 1/4” plywood fastened on top of that. I’d rather have a metal framework extending the base than rely on wood for that purpose. After talking with BS (my brother-in-law) I’ve decided to weld whatever metal framework I decide on to the existing frame instead of using bolts. According to him that would be more solid than bolting. I hadn’t thought of a single sheet of metal as the base, which a good friend suggested, but I like the idea it’d protect the wood from underneath. I might combine the two ideas: metal cross-members welded to the frame to extend the width topped by a thin layer of sheet metal. That would provide me the larger support to my flooring and let me use a thinner piece of sheet metal to provide the wanted protection underneath the wood.

Then on top of that I could lay my flooring frame, bolting it to the sheet metal with brackets. I’m thinking of doing a tongue-and-groove floor on top of the floor framing, but I think I’ll still need a plywood subfloor for a solid feel to the floor itself. A lot depends on the spacing of my floor’s framing, naturally. Or I may even get lazy and just go with a nice, finished plywood floor, period.

So much to think about while doing the boring rust removal. That’s part of the fun, too, though: dreaming of my ideal little camper, what I’ll build into it, and what I’ll be doing with it when it’s done.

All in all, this should be a fun project and I’ll be getting some exercise outdoors. Mostly I figure I’ll be working on this on the weekends, but I’m hoping to have at least something I can camp in by the end of summer. Even if that’s only four walls, a floor, and a roof I’ll consider that goal met. It’ll be so nice to go to, say, Leslie Gulch, and not have to waste too much time 😉 setting up camp for crashing after a long astrophotography session. It’ll be nice, too, to be able to just finish up the photography, temporarily put things inside the Vardo, and just go to bed instead of driving out.

Hopefully, too, it’ll induce my wife to join me on more of these outings since she’ll have a comfortable place to sleep while I’m up taking pictures or observing through the telescope.

And of course, it’ll also be a nice way to get away from home for some writing in expansive surroundings and luxurious comfort. Or going fishing. Or helping with ham radio events away from home. Or….

Can you tell I’m looking forward to the time spent on this project? And afterward!

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5 Responses to “The Vardo Journey Begins”

  1. Linda Says:

    Oh, boy! I had no idea you had this bug, too! I’ve been following vardo builds online for some time, and being Scadian, I’ve had a chance to walk through a few as well. There are quite a few build blogs out there, and not just for medieval or gypsy style vardos. There’s an outfit called Tiny Houses (I think that’s the name) that has some fabulous plans for trailer frames. When I get home, I’ll see if I can dig up the URL’s. Meantime, I’m popping some popcorn so I can live vicariously.

    Have fun with this, Bill! Oh, I know you will…


  2. Julie H. Kirk Says:

    This is a tedious and somewhat difficult process, so be prepared to have space, time and patience. Most trailers are just sheets of overlapped aluminum sheet goods, so you will need to obtain the proper gauge and colored sheet goods to start with. Many have square drive screws, so if yours has rivets, I would suggest being prepared to drill them out and replace with good quality stainless screws. The frame of the trailer is really just a steel box, so carefully remove the damaged skins by removing or drilling out the old screws and rivets. Use the old sheets as templates to cut the new. Carefully replace them methodically throughout the trailer, using weatherstrip and waterproof sealants as needed at all seams. Always overlap seams downward (like siding) and rearward so that wind driven rain flows naturally down and aft, not into the seams. If your trailer is in really bad shape, you are probably better of just selling it and getting new. Also, you may find that just putting a new lower panel over or under (cut out perforated piece and place new under flap) the good pieces will work. You could also do this using thinner aluminum diamond plate for a nicer look. My trailer just had rot down low so that’s what I did then repainted the faded upper. Good luck!


    • Bill Says:

      This particular trailer was just a utility trailer, with no top and plywood sides. So, it was really easy to strip down to the frame, which is just the platform over the axle. That’s a good point about the overlapping downward and rearward, even with the shiplap joints I will be using on my wooden sides.


  3. Dale O. Wilder Says:

    No, you need to go with something like 2×8’s. You could have went with expanded metal but your crossmembers are too far apart, 2′ centers would make it sag alot. The wood will not sag. You can load up 5,000 pound vehicles on 2×8’s and it won’t sag. This is a typical setup on utility trailers even with that same space between the crossmembers and you can load up pretty much anything. Even with 5,200 pound tractors often the crossmembers are still 16″ apart even on top of the axle, often 18″ elsewhere. As far as the wood adding strength like that one post said, I’m not too sure about that. Typically utility trailers are made so that the front and rear are sandwiched in and the middle of the boards are loose. You can screw them down if you want but it’s a pain, but even then, it’s not going to add strength to the trailer itself, your strength must come from the frame and crossmember construction. If you go with wood, which I recommend, you need to go with treated lumber. Water will collect around where the wood touches the metal, especially on the rear if you use a cap over the end, and untreated wood will rot within a couple of years if left out in the rain. The problem is that the typical construction requires that you whip out the grinder and cut off the end caps to replace the boards then weld it back on, so you might as well do them all at the same time insteaad of one at a time like that other post said. Anyway, I used to be a trailer dealer so if you have any more questions I’ll try to help.


    • Bill Says:

      Thanks for the reply and advice, Dale. I’ll definitely keep that in mind when I start construction after getting all the rust, etc. off and repainting the frame.


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