'Car Builders' craft The City's cable cars
"Car 51, where are you?"
John Barberini’s laugh is an invitation, the sound of someone who enjoys life.
The answer is right behind the Local 22 carpenter. Cable car 51, end to end with car 26, is in the coop. Both of these venerable San Francisco cable cars are in for major retrofits at the Woods Carpenter Shop, the Municipal Transportation Agency’s repair barn for the historic vehicles. The coop, Barberini explains, is a lead-abatement enclosure, a plastic-draped frame, a shop-within-a-shop that contains the dust and debris from the heavy work on the cars.
Five union carpenters and a patternmaker, all Local 22 members, staff the main Woods shop, at the base of Potrero Hill a few blocks from Local 22.
"Part of what we do here," said Jane Koski, Woods’ Carpenter Supervisor and also a Local 22 member, "is maintain history. And not just the cable cars themselves—we’re preserving hand-crafting techniques that could be lost. Part of my job is to see they’re not lost."
Local 22 member Robert Harris has spent 29 years working on cable cars at Woods and at the car barn. He said, "Sure, we have more modern tools—routers and planers—and it may take less time with them." He pauses, standing next to two cable-car bumpers he’s shaping from huge blocks of laminated oak. "It’s all mortise and tenon, scarf joints, and there’s steaming the wood. … Well, either way it takes a long time."
Koski, a carpenter with 30 years of experience but who’s been at Woods just since December 2008, agreed. "With these cars, you can’t do the standard project-management timeline because when you open them up, you never know what you’ll find."
A window replacement, for example, may lead to new doors, too. The idea is to take care of each car, both aesthetically and physically, and keep it on the rails.
The craftspeople at Woods most recently saw their time-tested skills and techniques celebrated in Car 15, which went out the door to the Powell Street rails on June 22.
Car 15, which took about five years to build and cost $823,000, was the 12th new car the team has completed. "We build a new one only when an original car has to be taken out of service," Koski said.
Now that the media hoopla surrounding No. 15 has subsided, the shop is back to business as usual. Cars 51 and 26 are next up for major rehabs, something a car typically gets every 40 years.
Inside No. 26, Peter Cunha lowers a circular saw onto the floor, carefully removing sections of plywood so he can get a look at the condition of the car’s support system. Around him, the scratched paint and stained leather handstraps dangling from the ceiling remind a visitor of the tens of thousands of riders who enjoy these cars every year—and have since 1873 when the first ones rolled up The City’s steep hills.
Cunha built the ends for No. 15, and worked on its roof with Dave Valstad, another Local 22 carpenter, who led the efforts on that car. Local 22 carpenter Dick Schmidt also worked on car 15, although he and Valstad usually work at the cable car barn.
"Everybody learns from everybody else and their experience on these projects," Cunha said, pointing out the various aspects of No. 26, which was originally built in the late 1880s.
In a special section of the shop, patternmaker He Du, Local 22, makes all the patterns for wheels, arm-rest brackets, plaques, the bronze bells—and more—for the cars. Molds for and samples of every conceivable metal part crowd the tables and shelves, and hang from the ceiling.
Du learned the pattern-making trade from his father who owned a foundry. He’s been at Woods for two years now. "It’s still lots of fun," he said.
Out on the floor, Cunha straightens his toolbox before he leaves for the day. Cunha credits Harry Jew, as "the master craftsman" who’s taught him many of the tricks and tips of the trade. Jew has worked at Woods for 28 years, and like the others has an "aw shucks" response to compliments. "There are a lot of good carpenters here," Jew said, but he does acknowledge that the work at Woods is "a lot of crafts rolled into one. It’s the carpenter trade, but a little different, too."
The carpenters here have to know how to build the chassis, handle the I-beam undercarriage, do proper steam-bending, make a solid mortise-and-tenon or scarf joint, and so on. "We’re angling for a new title—a special classification," Cunha said. "We want to be ‘car builders.’"
This team clearly likes what they do, individually and together. "We all come with our experience and our traditions," Koski said. "There’s the mastery of intensive joinery, and knowledge of the whole system, how to use shop and mill tools, working with very close tolerances, steam-bending, there’s the special terminology—and then, occasionally, there are the new techniques that make things a little easier. We all bring something particular to the shop."
And that particular combination keeps the most famous cable cars in the world rolling down the right track, up and down The City’s vertical geography. Peter Cunha surveys the now-quiet shop. "It’s a pride and joy kind of job," he said.