A yellow undercarriage with spoked wheels supports this 13-foot-long Ledge wagon, which Denise Harris built by hand using drawings from the book Making Model Gypsy Caravans. (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times/TNS)

Handcrafted backyard caravan is community labor (1,700 hours) of love

BAINGBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. — Know what we need? We need a soundtrack. We need Van Morrison, and “Caravan.” Know why? Because if you’ve heard that song (and really; you should), it will loop in your noggin for hours, and then days, once you lay eyes on the magnificently marvelous creation in Denise Harris’ backyard.

Denise lives in a fantastic off-the-beaten-path home on Bainbridge Island that she shared with her husband, Bob Cederwall, until his death in 2013.

Blessed with an amazing array of artistic skills (Denise is fluent in embossed serigraphs, printmaking, colored-pencil drawing, stained glass and jewelry-making), the couple really harmonized over woodworking. Bob cut trees from their property and milled them in his shop, and Denise creatively carved art.

“I’d say, ‘Bob, I need a piece of maple,’ ” Denise says.

Then Denise spoke the innocent-sounding words that led to 1,700 hours of labor (three or four hours a day in the shop of co-builder Dave Sutter, for three years); an islandwide collaboration of love and talent; and, ultimately, the 13-foot-long mobile masterpiece in her backyard: “I said it’d really be neat to build a Gypsy wagon.”

Inspiration arose naturally from the couple’s love of “carnivals, carousels, color and woodcarving,” Denise says; instruction was a little harder to come by.

“In ‘Making Model Gypsy Caravans’ by John Thompson, he made models of wagons,” Denise says. “He talks about types and materials. He did incredibly detailed drawings; we used those. That book — this is all we had to work from: drawings and pictures.”

Those were models, mind you. This is a full-size, usable, amazing caravan based on drawings of a Ledge wagon built in England by Dunton and Sons around 1910.

“They all had names,” Denise says. “This one has a ledge overhang. There are other types; the Bowtop wagon is the easiest. But what’s neat about the Ledge is there’s more room inside of it.”

Her roomy, super-authentic wagon was built “entirely by hand, from the wheels up,” she says, out of yellow and red cedar, locust and locally cut and milled wood.

“Once we got into it, it was like, ‘God, this is a lot of work,’ ” she says. “What made this difficult is that it’s all angles. Every piece of wood on it had to have angles. That was certainly stupid.”

The details are brilliant — decorative wooden buttons, painted gold; a comedy mask on the front, with tragedy in back; four lions on the corners (rainwater runs out their mouths) — and the colors rich and melodious: yellow undercarriage, red platform and stair trim, burgundy, pops of blue and green.

On the other side of the Dutch door (stained glass on top, wood panels on the bottom): a closet and cupboard on one side; a dresser on the other; and, in back, a bed that pulls out to queen size. Blue etched glass centers a curved fir ceiling. The white part of a high-up moon glows in the dark, and the lamp is set on a timer to glow on its own. “It’s really nice from the house,” Denise says.

In nice weather, the caravan nestles in a grove of trees as a one-of-a-kind guest room, Denise says; in winter, it’s painstakingly wheeled back into the shed. Those spoked wheels have hit the road, too: Bainbridge Performing Arts borrowed the caravan for a home tour, it’s shared annually at the fall harvest fair, and Ranger and the “Re-Arrangers” used it as a backdrop for a Gypsy jazz album.

It’s a community caravan, for sure (when we told the Bainbridge homeowners we visited right after Denise that we’d just come from a house with a caravan in back, they said: “You mean Denise Harris?”), and a community helped create it.

“Bob knew everyone,” Denise says. “Things got done because he was connected.”

In addition to shipbuilder/woodworker/master cabinetmaker Sutter, Denise credits “the exquisite fabric work of Janie Ekberg” and Mesolini Glass Studio (which built windows from Denise’s designs), along with nine other contributors (including “an inheritance from my Aunt Eleanor”).

Sing it, Van: “And the caravan has all my friends. It will stay with me until the end.”

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