Building scratch built handcars is not a trivial project. Beginning in the 1890s, huge factories turned out millions of handcars before their decline in the 1910s. The Sheffield Handcar Factory situated in Three Rivers Michigan was the largest of such plants. It had numerous buildings where various components were fabricated. The photos below are original drawings kept in the National Archive. In 2015 we funded the digital scanning of these images to ensure they are preserved for future generations. Click on each thumbnail to view a full-sized image.
During our early years we built handcars out of the less than ideal family garage. There wasn’t the space necessary for all the machinery needed to efficiently build handcars. During the last five years we acquired a number of antique metal working machines, and rebuilt them for our manufacturing operations. Today, we have all the machinery and specialized tooling needed to build our fleet of touring handcars. Complex tasks that require casting iron, cutting spur gears, and wheel forming are contracted out to specialized plants.
Our small factory has the equipment and tools necessary for building handcars. Our equipment includes mills, lathes, metal cutting saws, drill presses, electric welders, hydraulic presses, and a full suite of wood working equipment. While our factory is much smaller than than the Sheffield or Kalamazoo factories of the late 1800s, we still use the same tools and techniques to manufacture our handcars.
We scratch build our handcars
Our handcars are unique in that few parts found on the machine are purchased off-the-shelf. With the exception of nuts, bolts, bearings, and hydraulic brakes, we manufacture every other part found on our handcars. While this is a monumental and costly task, it ensures that our handcars are built to the highest standards.
Metal Cutting Lathes and Mills
Our two Bridgeport brand mills are used for removing metal to fabricate various parts. Our mills were built in 1977 and 1983 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. We rebuilt our early model mill with new gears, bearings, and paint. This machine is our primary workhorse we use for part production. Our 1983 model had little wear when we acquired it and is reserved for manufacturing handcar components that required precise tolerances.
Our two metal working lathes were built in Cincinnati, Ohio by the Leblond Tool Company in 1963 and 1964. One of the lathes was acquired after Cal Poly Pomona upgraded their engineering labs with newer machines. The other lathe was used for machining aircraft parts for Lockheed Skunk Works in Burbank, California. During our rebuilding project we found titanium metal shavings, leading us to believe the lathe may have been used to machine parts for the famed SR-71 Blackbird. We primarily use our lathes for machining our cast iron gear blanks before they are sent for the teeth to be cut into them.
Making Spur Gears
Our handcars do not use many off-the-shelf components. We manufacture our own cast iron gears that begin as recycled iron. Iron is poured into a sand mould that hardens into a blank. We machine the castings on our lathes, before using a specialized hobbing machine that cuts teeth into the iron. The video below shows one of our handcar gears being cut.
Wood Centered Wheel Construction
The most common question we receive is inquiring where we buy our wheels. Handcar wheels have not been manufactured in more than 70 years, so we have to make them ourselves. The wheel rims are formed from a 1/4 inch thick flat steel plate formed around a 2000 pound die using hydraulic spinning machinery. We commissioned the specialized forming die just for our handcars. Mounting holes are cut into the rim and they are plated with black zinc to resist corrosion.
If that was not complicated enough, the next step is build out the wood center that supports the wheel. The centers are made of 12 precision spokes cut from top grade hard maple. Another 12 felloes are cut from white ash that run around the outside of the wheel to sandwich the spokes in place. The steel wheel hub that attaches the wheel to the axle is machined from a solid round of steel. The video below shows how we assemble our wheels.
Engineered For Safety and Enjoyment
Our new handcar design was carefully engineered to ensure it is safe for participants. The project began as Mason’s mechanical engineering senior project and morphed into a ready-to-manufacture product. We included the video of his presentation to faculty and students at California Polytechnic University Pomona where Mason earned his mechanical engineering degree.
Our two Bridgeport mills working hard machining aluminum from the handle collars.