In the winter of 1972, a wandering antiques dealer came by my shop in southern New Hampshire. He was hauling a rickety old sheepherder’s wagon fixed to the frame of a Model T truck to make it roadworthy. I was enchanted: I knew that I had to someday build such a magical, mobile space for myself.
A few years later, after research into traditional sheepherder’s wagons and wainwrighting (the craft of constructing wooden carts), I designed an all-wood structure for the bed of a 1940 flat-bed pickup. It was built mostly of pine tongue-and-groove boards screwed to an oak frame to create walls and then enclosed with canvas “sailcloth” spread over steamed oak hoops.
I couldn’t stop myself from building more sheepherder-type travel trailers on the side. I studied the definitive book on the subject (The English Gypsy Caravan by Cyril Ward-Jackson and Denis Harvey) and ordered drawings of some vardos (what the Gypsies called their living wagons) published by John Thompson. It turns out that these “one-horse drawn, four-wheeled, one-room, chimneyed” vehicles were only produced for a relatively short period of time in England during the Victorian era. The Gypsies themselves rarely built their wagons — they relied on a handful of wainwright shops scattered throughout the countryside.
I built a number of these vardo-type wagons in the 1980s. Each was more refined structurally and more highly detailed in cabinetry, trim and carving work than its predecessor. Last year, I completed a bow-top.
To ensure predictable performance and durability, I had the chassis professionally built of welded steel channel and fitted with a standard trailer undercarriage and tow-bar equipment. For windshear strength, I constructed the walls by sandwiching cedar tongue-and-groove boards around a plywood torsion box. The woodworking in this wagon was, for me, the most fun of all: Except for machining the wood to dimension, I used hand planes to smooth all the surfaces; hand saws and chisels to create most of the joints; and drawknives and spokeshaves to create all the ornamentation. (No routers or power sanders were harmed in the creation of this project!)
For more details about my wagons, visit my web site at: www.jimtolpin.com or the Port Townsend School of Woodworking at www.ptwoodschool.com.