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Building Gypsy wagons in Plain

By on May 31, 2017 in Featured Homes with 0 Comments

Story by Susan Lagsdin

Photos by Donna Cassidy

OK. Ground rules.

When describing tiny houses in general, and these featured ones specifically, it is illegal to use the word “cute” more than once OR to proclaim, “I could totally live in this full time for the rest of my life!” The first is true; the second is improbable.

Andrew Campbell, builder of gypsy wagons

Andrew Campbell, builder of gypsy wagons

 Andrew Campbell, who lives in Plain with his wife Becky and three growing and grown sons, has been following the tiny house movement for years, and now he has time and tools to jump right into it by building authentic but cleverly modernized Gypsy wagons. Since 2013 he’s built three of them on his timbered property; two are available for renters and one is his own tow-able retreat.

He built his own carpentry and cabinetry shop, Beaver Hill Woodcrafters, after he built his own (surprisingly spacious) house. Business has flourished, he believes, because he strives to create whatever he believes the client really wants: “That’s just what I had in mind” brings him a certain joy.

He also thinks that drive to please and to second-guess a client’s imaginings led him from strictly commissioned work to his first Gypsy wagon — a creative project he could puzzle out just for himself.

The first wagon took him a year to build, working just on weekends, and when you consider that it’s almost all non-linear, with invented furnishings, that seems brisk. Andrew had some valuable background, though.

An early carpentry job when he first lived in Anacortes was the cabin of a V-berth boat, meaning nothing was flat; bed, shelves, and closet — their curves rivaled his learning curve. “The owner just pointed to the space and said he’d be back in two weeks,” Andrew recalled.

He did the job to his own and the owner’s satisfaction and continued boat work for years, honing his craft and eventually moving to little landlocked Plain, where since 2008 his skills have served him well.

A few close friends from Port Townsend built classic caravans that intrigued him (he also harbored a childhood fantasy of living in the wagon in Roald Dahl’s Danny and the Champion of the World) so Andrew bought himself a trailer — not a trailer house, just a sturdy, tow-able floor on wheels — and four years ago taught himself by building his very first (modern) Gypsy Wagon. “I had more enjoyment building that than anything else I have ever done,” he said.

“Gypsy wagons are really just ‘land yachts,’’ Andrew explained, “Everything about their interior is boat-like.”

He heartily dislikes conventional RVs and trailers, not just the materials but the intention. He said, “For me the aesthetics of a large house smashed down to fit on a trailer has never worked.” Any time he’s in one, he said, he wants to gut it and remodel it.

Andrew is a master craftsman and a lover of the aesthetics of wood, but even he readily acknowledges that his Gypsy wagons are darned ____ (the aforementioned “C” word) and always have been.

He cites their cultural history — they’re modeled after the 18th Century wagons pulled by Romany gypsy horses in England, though they are less ornate on the exterior. Andrew explained, “Those early caravan wagons were a way to show the Gypsys’ wealth,” but these are simpler; the shape is the same, with mostly trim, color and curve serving for decoration.

He also knows each wagon intimately. “There isn’t a single part of any of these,” he said simply, “that hasn’t passed through my hands.” No wood or metal came to him ready-to-build or cut-to-fit; every dimension was “non-stock.”

Cleverly fashioned trundles and pull-out tables extend the interior, the traditional arched “mollycroft” tops (like a clerestory window arrangement) add height and light, and hand-hewn cabinetry stows just about anything useful.

Andrew uses pieces of wood he’s hauled and stored for years, harvests his own pine trees tooled with a small mill and recycles wood whenever he can.

He imports some hard-to-find brass fittings from England or Australia but often digs through his own stock of odd antiques and accessories that somehow all fit together: marine gimbal lamps, a door repurposed from trailer flooring, tiny woodstoves that burn woodworking scraps.

All his Gypsy wagons have versions of modern technology like solar and electric power, composting toilets, running water. All are street legal with tires, brakes and lights, and they comfortably sleep two or three, just like a conventional travel trailer.

He admits, though, their looks definitely create a Pied Piper following if he drives to a populated camping spot.

The first experimental one, Red Wagon (17.5 feet, 5,200 pounds) incorporated some of Becky’s interior design ideas. Blue Wagon, its successor (at 16 feet, 4,200 pounds, a triumph of weight loss) came quickly on the heels — or wheels — of the first. It was designed with their college-bound son in mind.

The most recent one, Green Wagon (10 feet, 2,500 pounds) is the most agile, and it’s all Andrew’s. “I can pack it up, hitch it up and be out of here in a half hour,” he said. “Sometimes when I’ve got 14 projects going at once I need to just get away. I can do it really easily.”

The bigger wagons have served the family well.

The Campbells took Red traveling a bit and then parked it in a pretty spot and posted it on Airbnb (as “Mollycroft Glamping”) just to see if it appealed to overnighters. Yes, it certainly did — it’s become a favorite of the bare-bones hotel crowd that wants solace and simplicity after a day spent out of doors. “It’s so popular it’s grown roots,” Andrew said of the semi-permanent porch and fire pit.

Blue Wagon sits on a more private knoll and is available until fall. And both wagons spurred him to build an eventually-rentable ruby-red caboose, modeled after a train engineer’s living and working quarters, with a loft window that allows an unobstructed view down the tracks.

He’ll probably concoct a few more moveable houses — just because he can.

Andrew, originally from the seaside city of Durban, South Africa, had design and architecture training before coming to the United States in 1994, and he sees this current venture into the half-fantasy, half-history Gypsy wagons as a great way to bring together all his aesthetic and practical experience.

“I have always wanted to create memorable spaces,” he said. “For people to stay in these and enjoy the beauty of the surroundings, both inside and out, brings me so much joy.” (Yes, they are cute. And yes, you feel like you could live in them forever.)

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