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Teardrop Camper Trailer

With this project I tried to recreate a 1930s-style teardrop camper trailer.

Teardrop Camper Trailer

Well, I am new on this, although I have built a couple of airplanes, worked on flight testing as a structures tech, and specialized on composites. I decided to use the "original composite," plywood (which happens to be the cheapest, too), to build a compact camper. It all started on a trip to lake McConaughy in Nebraska. We were lured by a friend who had a sailboat with the promise of a nice lake with sandy beaches, crystal clear water, and a nice camping site. Everything was true but the wind, the frogs, the huge biting flies, and a massive category-five thunderstorm that soaked us inside the tent. My wife said that she had had it with the tent and unless I found something else to camp in, she was out.

Enter the Internet. I needed something like a popup camper… hmm… search, search… wait, what was that? A teardrop camper… hmm, looks cool, a little small… I can make it a little different, for the three of us… I may be able to pull that with the car I have…

Here begins the story:

First, with my helpful neighbour (he is a veteran of Craigslist) I found a dilapidated popup camper. The thing towed nice, but (caveat emptor) when I removed the siding to inspect it, it just fell apart like a deck of cards. That made it easy; tear the whole thing apart and sell the metal to fund some of the new materials.

Steps

Step #1:

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  • First, I found an old popup trailer very cheap....
  • The old popup camper was dismantled and some parts were recycled. I got some money from the old aluminum siding and stainless steel lifting mechanism.
  • The frame was power-sanded, first with a rotary wire brush and then with 80-grit sandpaper. Then it was painted with Rust-Oleum rust preventative, and finally covered with Rust-Oleum black paint.

Step #2:

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Then I made a frame with 2x4 pine studs, with 1/8-inch Luan plywood at the bottom and 1/2-inch plywood on top. I painted it with elastomeric paint so moisture cannot damage the wood, and inserted 1.5-inch insulation foam inside the frame.

Step #3:

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  • After that, I glued and screwed on a 1/2-inch birch plywood floor, then painted it with polyurethane paint and covered it with some vinyl flooring.
  • The floor is bolted to the frame with sixteen 1/2-inch hardened bolts with nylon lock nuts and safety washers. You don't want it to move around...
  • Before I installed the floor, I ran all the electrical wiring for the trailer lights and battery charging so I didn't have to crawl underneath to do it.

Step #4:

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After that, I made a template. Be creative, people...cardboard works fine...hee hee hee...

Step #5:

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  • I made the walls following the outline of the cardboard template. Note that these are fit flush, so that later I can skin them with 1/8-inch Luan plywood and insulate the walls.
  • All the wood used was recycled from construction sites. If you ask, they are more than happy to let you rescue wood from the refuse bins because they have to pay by weight to haul it away.

Step #6:

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  • After the walls were built, I attached them to the base frame with eight 1/2-inch hardened steel lag bolts per side.
  • Make sure the walls are aligned to the frame and vertical, so you don't have problems during skinning.

Step #7:

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  • I installed interior skins and painted them with elastomeric roofing paint, to prevent dry rot. It will last for a long time.
  • I used Titebond 3 exterior wood glue and brass brads to secure the plywood to the frame. Once the glue is dry, the structure is amazingly solid.
  • Note the 2x2 pine studs used along the curve. They are crucial to making the plywood skins hold their shape.

Step #8:

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  • Next I installed the aft bulkhead, insulated with 1.5-inch styrofoam.
  • The diagonal members maintain the rigidity of the box, so it doesn't flex and deform the camper shell.
  • Then the bulkhead was covered with 1/4-inch Luan plywood glued and nailed with brass brads.
  • The bulkhead was attached with galvanized 2.5-inch deck screws through pocket holes (a Kreg jig works well here).

Step #9:

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  • Install your electrical wiring before installing the insulation, so you don't have to damage the insulation later. Insulation is installed before the skinning.
  • The sides were routed with a flush router bit (the ones with the little bearing on the tip) to cut fast and nicely the shape of the plywood skins. That way I didn't have to use a belt sander for several hours to do the same thing.

Step #10:

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  • After I ran the wiring for outlets and lights on the upper skin, I proceeded to install the exterior skins and painted them with a liberal amount of exterior-rated polyurethane varnish to seal the wood.
  • The sealing is very important to prevent moisture from entering the plywood and delaminating the structure. Make sure you start with 50/50 diluted polyurethane and mineral spirits, to soak the plywood very well, then paint it liberally until you cannot feel the wood grain. Sand between coats with 120- to 180-grit sandpaper. Some people prefer clear penetrating epoxy resin, but I went the cheap way.

Step #11:

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  • Then proceeded to build a "hatch" for the kitchen. I would recommend using oak as there may be a possibility of having the plywood skin "pulling" the frame and deforming it. Just take your time.
  • The ribs were made from 3/4" birch plywood, with horizontal pine board reinforcements, and the hatch was covered with 1/4-inch Luan plywood.

Step #12:

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The windows were made with discarded 3/8-inch plexiglass set on routed frames made of 3/4-inch thick plywood. I set them with silicone and fastened them to the frame with plastic shims (so the windows don't rattle themselves loose on the road).

Step #13:

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Once the clamshell was made, I needed to attach it to the roof using piano hinges. The piano hinges are on the top side so that the hatch opens like a trunk.

Step #14:

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  • After the hatch was attached (I used a couple of gas springs to help open it and keep it open when in use) I set up the kitchen layout with everything I needed to make it comfortable on long trips.
  • The two wires on the right side of the hatch wall are the wiring for the fan, lights and switches. I had to run two 3-wire circuits because the lights and the fan are two separate circuits controlled by two different circuit breakers.

Step #15:

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  • Inside I set up a "bunk bed" over the wheel wells. It has plenty of storage space for a catalytic heater, voltage inverter, and blankets and clothing.
  • The roof vent is very important. Make sure it's about 14.25 inches per side, so the vents can fit.

Step #16:

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  • The kitchen has a couple of drawers and one retractable drawer for the cooler. The stove-with-oven came handy; it was rescued from a derelict camper. It is gas-operated.
  • The blue container at the left is a six-gallon water container, needed for washing and drinking/cooking water.
  • My wife made me promise to write that SHE was the one who came up with the idea of the stainless steel bowl as a sink. "My wife had the excellent idea of using a nice stainless steel kitchen bowl converted to a sink." ;)

Step #17:

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  • The interior was first painted thoroughly with exterior-rated polyurethane varnish, then sanded with 180-grit sandpaper, finished with acrylic paint, and decorated by my wife. She was the one who made the curtains and chose the futon covers for the foam mattresses. They keep weight low, and homemade fixtures make it a little more personal.
  • The light switch plate has three switches; two for the lights and the third (red) for the vent fan. The lights are LEDs, which use less electricity, and they last (theoretically) for 100,000 hours.

Step #18:

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  • I have found that a powered vent is crucial if you want to sleep comfy. It creates a breeze that will take away some "camping smells." The power panel was made with aluminum, and contains a power inverter, a 110-volt outlet and a couple of 12-volt outlets. Very useful if you want to use electrical appliances, as long as they don't draw excessive power.
  • If you decide to build a trailer like this on an old trailer frame, make sure to clean and inspect the trailer's wheel bearings. If they look worn, discolored or pitted, replace them. Always check your vehicle's towing limits and install electric trailer brakes if needed. Inspect your wheels and make sure they are roadworthy. There is nothing worse than having a wheel incident on the highway or away from civilization. Always check tire pressures before any trip and make sure your tow hitch and ball are in sound mechanical condition.
  • Always check your trailer lights before attempting to travel. Having no lights at night can lead to serious accidents.

Step #19:

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  • The final trailer turned out excellent. We have gone camping several times and slept like babies. The measurements on this one are about 6x10 feet, 74.5 inches wide inside, and we sleep on the lateral axis of the trailer. The foam mattresses measure 74.5 x 58 inches for the main one and 74.5 x 28 inches for the one over the wheel wells.
  • As a rule, for safety and stability, the tongue weight should be between 10% and 15% of the total trailer weight. More than that and you can have "fish-tailing" and lose control of your trailer; less than 10% and the trailer could detach from your vehicle, or you could have problems with directional stability.

Step #20:

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  • The power inverter / battery control box was homemade. I used a 4-amp 120VAC to 9VAC step-down transformer, with a diode rectifier bridge and a capacitor to absorb the peaks. This gave me a clean 12VDC power supply. It has a toggle switch (220-volt rated) to switch between external power and battery power. The center position is "off."
  • The hatch lights are very cheap closet LED lights. They use 2 AA batteries and are the push-on/push-off type so I don't have to fumble trying to find the switch in the dark.
  • It has a pop-up breaker for every circuit; 3-amp for the lights, 7-amp for the power inverter and a 10-amp for the external power. Loads are light and I ran everything with 12AWG nylon-shielded multiple-strand copper wire, so there is no risk of getting a short circuit.

Step #21:

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  • The stove works very well, but in high-wind situations it may need a wind shield.
  • I used storm-screen latches to keep the drawers and cabinet doors from opening on the road and spilling stuff all over the kitchen (especially on rough roads).
  • The main latch is made with a modified garage door latch. I inverted the mechanism to make it "normally closed."

Step #22:

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I used vinyl banner material to make the hinge area waterproof and keep water from entering the kitchen area.

Step #23:

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  • I made the entrance with a double door because I planned on it becoming a "multipurpose trailer." When the two doors are open, I can put my tool box inside the camper for transport.
  • The shelf works very well for holding a small laptop, DVD player or a small heater. It has a snap to keep it closed when not in use, and a couple of small multipurpose canvas bags to keep small items like flashlights, toiletries, bug repellant, keys, etc.

Step #24:

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  • The secondary door has a couple of edge door latches that keep it "normally closed."
  • The window has a couple of old-style window latches. They are low-profile so they don't protrude and poke people.
  • The trailer tongue holds the battery box and the propane bottle. The gas line and battery wires run parallel under the trailer, separated by at least 8 inches for safety.

Step #25:

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  • At last, a good camping site, and peace all around.
  • Just beware of the chipmunks...they are bold.
  • I have tested the trailer at very low temperatures (-10 Fahrenheit) and with a small catalytic heater it was very comfortable. Not that you would like to camp in that kind of weather, but the insulation made it a great "emergency shelter."

Conclusion

This project can take some time depending on your skills, work space, weather, and time availability. Make sure you find a design that fits your needs, and make sure you follow safety rules around power tools. Fingers don't grow back.


Comments

  1. deckking says:

    Very useful and amazing project………

    Can you pls let us know what you used for external? Just paint or plastic wrap or something? Your trailer was in nature wood color and then suddenly changed to white. Can’t tell what you used and how to make it water/rain proof.

    Thanks a lot for sharing.

    1. I coated the plywood liberally with several coats of diluted exterior polyurethane varnish, then used Killz primer, and lastly I used Sherwin Williams marine paint, really tough finish, although I had to sand and repaint it after a couple of years outside, I guess it may last longer if it is stored in a garage, or under an awning to protect it from the UV light.

      1. harold haney says:

        do you have down loadable plans for this projects

  2. Mark L Evans says:

    Thanx, best make project to date, I have contmplated doing this and now if I do, I have a lot of ideas.

    1. If you do decide to build one, Mark, please let us know. We love to report on your progress/results.

      1. Mark L Evans says:

        Won’t be any time soon but if I do, I will!

      2. Jim Bacon says:

        starting work on my teardrop this week, last year was an ice shack out of an old pop up. learned even with Luann they can get heavy fast so thanks for the tips!!!

  3. David says:

    A trailer’s wiring plug that goes into the tow rig is often a problem. When not in use it is often hung down to not catch rain but the contacts often corrode in moist air and the plug is often dropped into puddles or mud. A matching dummy plug receptacle (NOT wired or hooked-up) similar to that on the tow rig can be mounted on the trailer out of the elements or shielded. The plug is then either in the tow rig’s socket OR in the trailer’s dummy socket, stored when not in use in it’s place out of the elements. Also, removing the plug from the storage socket is a wiggling motion which cleans the brass contacts giving better electrical contact when plugged into the tow rig.

    1. It is also helpful to spray any electrical contacts or sockets exposed to weather with a little WD-40.

      1. I use battery contact grease, they sell it in little packets at any auto parts store. keeps corrosion at bay and prevents water from damaging the connectors.

      2. DougR says:

        Just a quick note. The WD in WD40 stands for Water Displacement and although it does help prevent some corrosion the heavier greases work much better for longer periods of time. WD40 is just too light, evaporates and washes away too quickly to be effective in the long run. Bulb grease from an auto parts store works great and hold up over the long run. It is pretty cheap also.

  4. Matthew says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. A question about your walls, is the round part just cut to shape plywood or did you do some kind of bending?

    1. The curved part ( basically the front, roof and hatch) is 1/4 inch Luan plywood, it required some effort to bend, I started it gluing and fastening with brass screws at the bottom then glued and nailed with brass nails to each of the “rungs” using Titebond wood glue, it has been three years of heavy use and it is holding really well.
      Werner

  5. pavetack says:

    Lovely! Is there a dedicated battery in the camper? You could put a deep cycle marine battery between the wheels for off the grid use.

    PS – A mini-bungee on your kitchen “shelf” will provide tension and keep small items from shifting around or falling out. Hang a magnet bar to act as a spoon rack and knife holder (while parked only :-). Also, check the oven specs to make sure you don’t need to put backerboard or high temp insulation. Most RV/camper ones will be ok with the insulation provided.

    1. pavetack says:

      C- for reading comprehension – just saw the battery on the hitch.

      The great thing about Make-ing is that you can see what others have done, and think about tweaking it!

  6. Janice says:

    How much did it cost you for all of the materials needed to complete the project? Your wife did a wonderful job decorating and coming up with the kitchen sink. Very creative project,

    1. My total cost was around 2000 dollars, but I recycled a lot of wood from construction sites, just ask, they have a lot of wood in their refuse bins they are more than glad to give away as they pay per pound to haul it away…If you buy what you need as required it does not hurts as much, besides, if you change something, you are not stuck with “extras” that add up to the final expense.

  7. bernadette nicholson says:

    How much was the final weight for towing?

    1. The final weight was 1640 lb, but I overbuilt it to withstand rugged ” washboard” roads, you could go down to half the weight if you forgo the insulation and “double paneling” I did.

  8. PS: Rick Setzer, why your comment sounds so hostile?…..if you don’t have anything good to say, please turn your computer off.

    1. Rick Setzer says:

      Who is hostile? I really like your project. You were the one that stated you built an inverter. Indeed you state now that you built a 12VDC power supply, which is one thing I said. My comments about the ‘inverter’ you built and the fusing associated with it were correct if you had built an inverter. Now with the added information, it sounds like you may have gotten almost everything right. One little area of concern now: those circuit breakers. Breakers designed for 400hertz do not work quite the same on 60hertz. At 60hertz you have more heating effects for the same voltage. I have many years in electrical/electronic repair, including avionics. I was concerned on reading your narrative on your ‘build’ that others may create a hazard if they did not fully understand the electrical part of it. Telling someone to turn off their computer is very childish.

      1. If you read your comment about ” bursting bubbles” and ” you really tried”….does not sound very friendly, just a heads up, it is very easy to be a “tough guy” on internet, This forum is to help people create and innovate, it is not a place to put people down with an attitude of superiority.

        1. Matthew says:

          I think it is hard a lot of times to relate “Emotion” into text which might come off the wrong way. Dont think either party was looking to start a debate in a negative way at all but one offering knowledge to help others.

  9. Dave Parker says:

    Do you have PDF off this project ready to download? I love your project and I want to start looking for an old pop up trailer to start . The Mrs. And I see this as a joint build venture. We love doing things like this together!
    In regards to your 400Hz breakers, the only problem would be make sure you do not go over the prorated current rating for both DC and 60Hz AC. It looks like the total load on each branch would be about 1.5 A. The rectified PSU seems to build well and I think would like to build this( I am an electronics Tech).
    Thanks, Werner, for this wonderful project.

  10. Hi Dave, I have a pdf of the article, but not a CAD file to work with, I just worked it out by “feel”, but I have a post on another website with step by step on how I did it, (bigger pictures):
    http://www.tnttt.com/viewtopic.php?t=40209

  11. TAPPER says:

    Great build. I am truly impressed with your time and dedication to not only your own personal build, but your instructional pictures and editorial. Thanks for a great education and read.

  12. No idea, the basic premise here ( in my opinion) is that there is a lot of people who like to tinker with stuff, sometimes you are looking for something and stumble upon something totally different than what you were looking for, and somehow it inspires you to do it, “your own way”. right now I am exploring the possibility of building a second teardrop, a little taller, because we got a dog, and I think I may need a bunk for the dog, we went camping last weekend, and even that the dog is a sweetheart and behaves very nice, she does not like to be crammed , neither do we…hehehe.

  13. Anon Yser says:

    Damn, that’s a nice camper!

  14. Danny says:

    Thank you for publishing your Tear drop project! Awesome results.
    I have recently located an old popup, your article inspired me.
    Danny

  15. Olivier Belot says:

    Félicitation très belle réalisation… J’aimerai avoir le même

  16. JaimeC says:

    Thank you for sharing. You are as generous as you are handsome!

  17. Anne Parr says:

    The camper is pretty nice, but that stainless steel bowl/sink is awesome!!!
    (girls stick together)

  18. Tyler Juno says:

    Awesome job! Your teardrop looks great. The first teardrop we made took 2 years+, but like everything in life, it gets better with practice. Shoot us any questions you might have about teardrops. We just launched our custom teardrop website http://www.junocustomteardrops.com on 6/17/13 and we are excited! We think they are the prettiest anywhere. Check it out, and share with your friends!

  19. What’s the curb weight?

    1. With everything loaded it is 1740 lb, that includes propane, battery, 6 gallons of water, assorted items in storage, silverware, etc.

  20. Many thanks to the mods to clean the comments, I appreciate your hard work! :)

  21. Robert Salthouse says:

    You are obviously very handy and ended up with a fantastic trailer. A couple of suggestions. You could install a solar powered vent (or even a couple). They are available from marine supply sites and are not very expensive. Mine has lasted for 13 years and is still going strong. Also, boat latches would probably work well. They are designed to keep cupboards from opening despite all sorts of motion. Again, really nice project!

    1. Thanks for the idea!, at the moment I use a fantastic fan, two speed ventilation fan on the vent, and I keep my battery trickle charged with a 15 watt solar panel and regulator I got on a discount store, it does the job but normally I recharge the battery after camping to keep the charge, I am gathering parts to rewire the lights and change the connector from 4 prong to 7 prong as well as installing a diode and a relay to be able to charge the battery while towing.

  22. Grandma GG says:

    I am so impressed by all your projects. You are my new hero. Have fun. BTW, I came here from Pinterest looking for the instructions for the clay pot smoker & never found it. Did I get to the wrong site or just miss it entirely. Whatever…I am so glad I visited & think I might try a project or two…the easy ones, of course. Thank you.

  23. Arun goyal says:

    Can’t thank you enough for the effort you took to share this build and each step of the process. Is helping me a LOT in my own teardrop build. Have been coming to this page dozens of times to look at how you did things.

    One question though – what do you call the attachment that goes at the bottom of the DIY bowl-sink? I have been trying to find that attachment in local stores it to make my own-bowl sink but dont even know what its called.

    Thanks,
    Arun

    1. It is called a sink trap, I recycled mine from the old popup camper that “donated” the trailer frame, they have them at RV parts stores, like this one:
      http://www.rvpartscountry.com/camperdrain.html

  24. Wow this is such an inspirational tutorial, im about to purchase an old trailer and wondered what was the length and width trailer you used? Thanks

    1. I used a 6×10 trailer, it originally was an old popup camper from long time ago falling apart, the model can be adapted to many different trailer sizes, as the profile traditionally has been was used for a 4×8 trailer.

  25. Mike Hayes says:

    How do you change the tires?

    1. wernerrudolf says:

      I normally use a hydraulic jack, and a tire iron, the tires slide out of the frame with no problems.I had a tire blow in the mountains last year and I had no issues changing the tire for a spare on the side of the road.

  26. RCH says:

    Did you have any problem getting a tag for this since you built the teardrop from a popup camper?

    1. Since the popup got destroyed in the process, and was thoroughly recycled ( got some nice cash for the aluminum and stainless steel from the lift mechanism) it was registered as an enclosed trailer, Which is true because of the doors and the size inside makes it ideal to load and travel with my tool box inside.

  27. harold haney says:

    do you have plans for the teardrop camper

  28. Sam says:

    Very nice. I like it better than those ridiculously expensive ones that make you wonder how something so small could cost so much! This is the way to camp!

    1. gumshoe4096 says:

      This project isn’t “ridiculously expensive” if you value your time at zero. (The government values your time at zero, so everything you get as wages for your time and effort is “taxable income” in their twisted view of the world. That’s an entirely different story, however.) If you value your time and can earn lots of money with another activity that you can perform better than working with tools, buying a finished product from a specialist can look economically attractive.

  29. Donald Miller says:

    I would like the plans for side of the camper the curved sections if possible thank you Donald miller

  30. Frabk says:

    If anyone needs parts for a teardrop camper or just wants the whole this please check our site at teardropcamper.com.au. We may have what you need.

  31. mkoch says:

    if I were going to buy/find supplies what all would I need? how much did you pay?

    1. in 2010 Dollars it was around 1900, you can find the list of items I used on the top right of the article.

  32. N says:

    Very cool! Happy camping!

  33. David says:

    Awesome Teardrop. Your craftsmanship is excellent and I love the idea of covering the outside of the teardrop with marine paint. Our teardrop trailer kits make building a teardrop a little easier for the non experienced builder. http://www.theteardroppers.com

  34. Your style is very unique compared to other folks I’ve read stuff from.
    I appreciate you for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I’ll just bookmark this blog.

  35. Phil Cooper says:

    It looks like much work and thought was put into this project, comparable to building a boat or kit airplane. How long did it take from the day you bought the junk pop-up trailer until you put the rebuilt trailer to first use, and how many hours do you figure you spent building it?

    1. wernerrudolf says:

      Well, I don’t have a clear number but judging that I worked on it for six months on weekends and days off, maybe 300 hours? I was thinking of it as a useful hobby, and allowed me not to spend several thousand dollars buying a prefab one, apart of the “bragging rights” of telling the story on how I have a one of a kind.

  36. just a would be rv builder says:

    I just wanted to say that I loved the site. Plan on showing my husband to try to get him into building one with me (he’s the cutter, I’m the planner). Thanks for the wonderful ideas and pictures!

  37. B says:

    Do you have a wiring diagram for the entire electrical system?

  38. jamesskaar says:

    all i can imagine that would improve it, is to make the top lift, so there’d be 6+’ headroom, a squarish bottom, shelving in the round front… dropped, it’d be the height yours is now.

  39. Sam Freeman says:

    Thanks

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