Age-old craftsmanship powers San Francisco’s cable cars

The cable cars hurtling down the steep hills of San Francisco are more than moving icons. They are the culmination of years of work where engineers, painters and carpenters join forces to circulate these ancient ships through the streets of the city.

From their Alaskan cedar ceilings and white oak bodies to the polished bronze bells, every car component is meticulously handcrafted.

“None of this can be bought off the shelf,” said Andrew McCarron, carpenter supervisor for Muni’s Woods Cable Car division. “We now have modern tools, planers and all, which make the job a little easier. But the guys have quite a few years of skills and techniques.

Given the varying wear and tear each car experiences, car repairs and restorations should be done periodically or every few days.

The workers follow historic plans that have remained largely unchanged since the cable car was established in 1873. Their last update, in the late 1970s, added structural reinforcements to the cars.

“It’s basically still the same as it was in (1873),” McCarron said.

Before a restoration process begins, each cable car undergoes a thorough inspection during which they are checked for safety issues, quality of materials and loose panels.

Pete Cunha, a senior carpenter, measures while carrying out restoration work on a cable car at the Cable Car Barn. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

By scanning old photos, teammates can zoom in on the intricate details of each car and reproduce them as faithfully as possible. The desire to stay true to form means full restorations typically take two to three years.

Crew members involved in the restoration of their specific car, behind the final panel, will sign the bodywork and leave hidden “Easter eggs”, usually photos of the crew and other trinkets and mementos. They hope that other workers will discover these treasures during future repairs.

“It’s a product of them and the pride they feel working on the car,” McCarron said.

Construction and restoration of the cable car begins at the Muni Cable Car Carpentry Shop in Dogpatch, on the former site of the former Tubbs Cordage Company factory. The location also houses the original blueprints of each cable car.

At the workshop, the beams, panels and slats of the cable car are formed from cedar and oak lumber, which McCarron says is ordered in a “large rough form” and then carved and hewn into shape.

Finishes, such as painting the car’s letters and trim, are done at the Cable Car Barn, which is housed in the San Francisco Cable Car Museum.

Lead painter Dan Hicks stands with some of the cable car signs he painted.  (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Lead painter Dan Hicks stands with some of the cable car signs he painted. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

McCarron, a self-proclaimed train buff and railroad fan, brought his 40 years of carpentry experience to Muni in 2017. He previously worked for the San Francisco School District, but a lateral transfer made the dream come true of McCarron to come “here to help and build cable cars,” he said.

For much of his tenure, McCarron was involved in Muni’s last project, the restoration of Powell Street Car 8.

Powell Street Car 8, which was originally built in 1893, had been partially refurbished by Muni in 1958. In 2006 deterioration of the car forced it out of service and the age-old car was sent to Dogpatch to be rebuilt.

Once the rotting wood and rusty metal was removed, only the car chassis remained, but it was quickly put into storage.

Years later, while strolling through the Boneyard, a facility that stores retired vehicles, McCarron saw the wooden frame and identified it as Powell Street Car 8.

When Muni needed to replace a cable car years later, McCarron put the restoration of the Powell Street Car 8 on the table.

“The car was retired and left in the yard for years, until we could get back to it in 2018 and do the full restoration,” McCarron said.

Powell Street Car 8 was built from the ground up, with new wheels, slats and other body parts added. Muni’s special machine shop forged brackets and metal plates for the ship.

The car’s livery resembles one of two green and cream designs that Muni employed on Powell cars from 1947 through the early 1960s.

“I’m proud of the guys and the look of the car. They did a fabulous job, McCarron said.

Powell Street Car 8 also saw some improvements, such as the inclusion of a GPS tracking device that allows public transport apps to record its arrivals and departures.

McCarron said it was “rather exciting, but also sad” to see the cars he worked on leaving the carpentry shop and being loaded onto a low-bed trailer heading for the barn. However, the mixture of feelings is replaced with excitement when he sees the cars rumbling down the street.

“I think it’s gold and I think it’s great that the San Franciscans still support this system,” he said.

Pete Cunha inspects a specially designed wooden brake pad for a cable car.  (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Pete Cunha inspects a specially designed wooden brake pad for a cable car. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

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