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Manufacturing Handcars

Mason is 22 years old, but he has been manufacturing handcars since he was twelve.  Building these machines is not a trivial exercise.  Handcars have complicated wood joints and contain numerous metal components that need to be fabricated from raw steel.  Mason taught himself the wood working and machining skills using Youtube.  Today, he has the skills of a master woodworker, and his machining skills are on the level of an experienced machinist.  Here are some photos from the past decade showing various handcars and construction photos. 

This is Mason’s handcar collection at age 16.  The two yellow handcars found customers, however, the red handcar in front has a place in Mason’s permanent collection.

Mason at age twelve posing in front of his first handcar frame.

Mason’s posing on his first handcar at age 14.  To make room for new handcars, this machine was sold to the owner of the largest egg farm on the west coast.  The farm is so large that it has its own railroad for moving chicken feed cars.  The new owner uses the handcar for transporting guests around the ranch.

This handcar was commissioned by a Bay Area railroad for publicity purposes.  

Mason prefers to paint lettering, rather than using decals.  A stencil is cut from vinyl and sign paint is rolled across the side placard.

Handcars wheels have not been manufactured since the 1950s.  In our early years we scoured the country in search of salvaged handcar wheels.  We once drove more than 2000 miles to pickup a nearly new set of wheels.  We refurbished the wheels by sandblasting, zinc plating, and painting to return to service.  When handcar orders outstripped our supply, we moved into manufacturing our own wheels.

This beefy looking structure was the frame for a railroad push car.  This vehicle was intended for track maintenance and is designed to carry thousands of pounds of materials. 

This handcar was one of most difficult handcars to produce.  A Vancouver, Canadian developer ordered  a special handcar designed for static outdoor display. Domestic hardwood is not suitable for long term outdoor use, so the car was fabricated from exotic South American Ipe lumber. The wheels are from an early 1900s Kalamazoo brand handcar. This wood is among the toughest species and requires special equipment to machine.  The metal components were zinc plated, and stainless steel fasteners were used throughout to enable the car to weather decades of service.

We paint most components using automotive polyurethane paints. Here Mason paints gears for the new touring handcar at a licensed paint facility in Los Angeles.

Wood centered wheel construction requires time and patience. We found wood centered wheels to be superior over their steel centered counterparts.  They dampen ride vibration, are quieter, and are lighter weight.  Building out a single wheel center requires about ten hours of labor. We are working on a new assembly system to shave off two hours from the process. 

Each wheel is made up of 24 pieces of lumber.  All fit together with a high degree of precision to ensure the wheel retains its round shape.  Spaces between pieces will result in movement and eventual breakage.

Finished wheel installed on a handcar vehicle. The spokes are machined from hard maple, and the outer rim is from white ash.

For large part production we send out components to be made at specialized shops.  However, for short runs and prototyping we will cast our own parts.  In this photo we are casting a bronze builder plaque to place on our touring handcar.  Bronze is made from a combination of copper (90%) and tin (10%).  The metals are melted in our propane furnace and poured into sand moulds to create the part.  

The pattern was 3d printed in plastic and then the shape is used to make an impression in specialized foundry sand.  When the metal is poured into the cavity, the resulting plaque is created.

After completing a handcar the next task is to arrange for delivery.  Sometimes it is easy, like this photo showing a handcar destined for France being dropped off at an automotive exporter.  The car was simply rolled into a shipping container and sent on its ocean voyage.

However, most of the time the car is required to be crated and shipped by common carrier.  We have gotten quite proficient at crating handcars.