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How to Make a Gypsy Vardo Roof

Ruth de Jauregui

The vardo was used from the 1800s to the early 20th century by the English Romany, also known as Gypsies. There are six primary styles of the vardos: the Bow Top, Brush, Burton, Ledge, Open Lot and Reading. This project builds a Bow Top. The Bow Top vardo wagon is the classic style often recreated by gypsy enthusiasts.

A vintage image of children peeking out of a gypsy vardo as the police deliver census forms.

With its rounded top and elaborately painted decorations, it evokes the romantic image of the legendary gypsy lifestyle.

  1. Measure the base of the vardo -- length, width and depth. Generally, the bottom walls of the modern Bow Top vardo are between 12 and 24 inches tall, depending on the plans selected. By using 24-inch sidewalls, your roof will be 6 feet tall, an adequate height for the average person. Adjust the height of the base walls if necessary to provide more interior height.

  2. Mark the width of the base on the 8-foot side of both 3/4-inch sheets of plywood. Measure and mark the center point. Using a string and pencil, tack one end of the string to the center mark. Extend the string to the top edge of the plywood. Tie the pencil to the string. Use as a compass, drawing the curve of the roofline onto the plywood. These become the end walls of the vardo and the curve determines the curve of the roofline.

  3. Cut the plywood following the curve of the penciled line, using a jigsaw. Cut out a 3 1/2-inch wide by 1 1/2-inch deep notch at the top point of both end walls. At the bottom corners of each, cut out a 3 1/2-inch by 1 1/2-inch notch, with the long side on the bottom edge of the plywood.

  4. Cut two more notches on each side of the end wall, 2 1/2-inch wide by 1 1/2-inch deep, equidistant between the top-center and bottom-corner notches.

  5. Cut the doorway into the back wall, measuring carefully to align with the door opening in the vardo base.

  6. Apply construction glue to the bottom-corner notches of the front wall. Insert the 2-by-4 boards into the notches, flush with face of the plywood. Have your helpers hold the wall on its side while you predrill and then drive the 2 1/2-inch screws through the short side of the board and into the plywood. Rotate and repeat on the opposite corner. These 2-by-4 boards become the side rails, securing the roof to the vardo base.

  7. Cut a 2-by-4 board to fit between the two inset boards, against the wall. Draw a bead of construction glue on the inside of the wall. Align the bottoms of the wall, the 2-by-4 board and the side rails. Predrill and screw through the wall and into the 2-by-4 board using the 2 1/2-inch screws.

  8. Adjust the position of the back wall on the side rails to fit the length of the vardo base. Allowing the side rails to extend past the wall will provide a roof overhang for the door. Predrill, glue and screw together as described in Step 6. Measure and cut two pieces of 2-by-4 to fit between the side rails and the doorframe. Predrill, glue and screw together using the 2 1/2-inch screws.

  9. Insert the last 2-by-4 board into the top-center notch, flush with the front wall. Apply construction glue, predrill and screw to the plywood.

  10. Apply construction glue to the remaining notches and insert the 2-by-3 boards. Predrill and screw to the plywood using the 2 1/2-inch screws.

  11. Measure the length of the wall, along the curve, from the center top to the middle of the bottom side rail. Cut the poplar lath to this length. Measure and mark the side boards at 24, 48 and 72 inches.

  12. Apply a line of construction glue to the top edge of the front sidewall. Starting at the center top attach the first piece of poplar lath flush to the front wall. Predrill and screw down using the 1/2-inch screws every 12 inches, starting with the top center. Repeat on the opposite side of the vardo. Then add a poplar lath at each mark -- 24, 48 and 72 inches. Predrill, glue and screw to the side boards. Add an extra set of lath supports over the plywood if the roof extends past the back wall.

  13. Lift the roof onto the vardo base using several helpers. Align the roof to the base and screw through the side rails into the top of the sidewalls, using the 3-inch screws. Attach a piece of poplar lath with glue and screws along the bottom edge of the roof, flush with the bottoms of the vertical lath and covering the seam between the roof and base.

  14. Apply construction glue to the roof framework. Carefully adhere the first sheet of 1/8-inch plywood to the top of the vardo, offsetting it by 18 inches. Tab down with finishing nails, tapping flush with the plywood with the nail set. Measure and cut the 1/8-inch plywood to fit on each side of the roof, covering the horizontal piece of lath. Press it tightly against the top piece of plywood, glue and nail down. Repeat on the other side.

  15. Center the top piece of 1/8-inch plywood and mark the edges. Remove and measure the sides. Cut two pieces of 1/8-inch plywood to fit. Roll a coat of contact cement over the entire roof. Roll a coat of contact cement onto all three pieces of plywood. Allow to dry according to the package directions.

  16. Align the 4-by-8-foot plywood onto the roof carefully and press down. You will need your helper to do this properly. Screw down along the outside edges, using the 1/2-inch screws. Then align the side pieces and press firmly against the top piece. Screw around the outside edges.

  17. Allow the contact cement to dry completely before caulking and painting. Caulk every edge of the roof, inside and out, and over all the screws. Smooth with a damp finger for a slick finish. Allow to dry completely before proceeding to paint.

  18. Paint the entire roof using a good-quality exterior latex primer. Allow to dry completely, then add at least two coats of exterior latex paint.

  19. Tip

    Recruit friends and family to help you. Adjust the roof size and curve according to your personal needs and the size of the base trailer. Predrill all holes before screwing together; doing so prevents the wood and plywood from splitting. When in doubt, add another screw. Remember that you will be towing this down the road. For an authentic look at events, make a painted canvas topper to go over the roof. Attach with hooks or snaps.


    Use safety equipment such as gloves and safety glasses.

    Open windows and use fans when applying contact cement and paint.

    Do not leave a canvas topper on the vardo roof when driving to or from an event as it may blow off.