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‘Accelerated’ push to rehab cable cars puts expert carpenters in spotlight

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Carpenter Joe Byrne works to re-craft a cable car at the SFMTA Woods Division carpentry shop. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Mechanical saws buzz in short spurts, intensifying the smell of sawdust. A carpenter in tan overalls looks over a freshly cut curved slab of wood, running a finger along its edge to verify its smoothness.

At the Woods Division Carpentry Shop in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, wood is nearly always being shaven, drilled or cleaved, with one purpose:

To rebuild The City’s cable car fleet.

Cable cars have been a beloved San Francisco staple since the 1870s. Both tourists and locals alike board the Hyde, Mason and California cable car lines every day, click-clacking up San Francisco’s hills.

Made almost entirely of wood fixed atop a steel and wood undercarriage, the vehicles are under almost constant repair.

Though that process is always ongoing, capital funding documents from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency point to a needed “accelerated” overhaul of Muni’s cable car fleet priced at $42 million, starting this year and stretching to 2038.

It may not sound “accelerated” in common terms, but rebuilding a cable car is a meticulous task: Each cable car takes a year to overhaul, said Ed Cobean, senior operations manager of the SFMTA cable car division. The proposed capital plan calls for more funding for more back-to-back repairs.

That multi-decade, multi-million dollar effort starts and ends at the Woods Division Carpentry Shop. On a recent tour of the shop, two cable cars sat half-finished — empty wooden frames laid bare without front panels, sporting new wooden benches that looked freshly sanded.

And those major overhauls of cable cars only occur once every 50 to 60 years.

“Every component of the car is handmade here in San Francisco,” he said.

There are some caveats: minor metal railing pieces are produced at a foundry in nearby Richmond, Cobean said, but the 40 cable cars in The City’s fleet are almost entirely handcrafted at SFMTA, right down to the textured windows.

About 28 of those cable cars are in active service at any one time, and others undergo minor repairs at the Cable Car Barn at 1201 Mason St. But the carpentry shop is where the SFMTA fully overhauls its vehicles.

That requires wood — and expert carpenters who craft it.

“We’ll make a lot of patterns and templates,” said Andrew McCarron, who supervises carpenters at Woods Division. He swept his arm past the half-assembled cable cars to a stack of blueprints dating as far back as the 1970s.

The blueprints — and partially assembled cable cars — reveal construction secrets the public rarely sees.

Carpenter Todd Hurley cuts wood to use for crafting a cable car at the SFMTA Woods Division carpentry shop. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

McCarron pointed to the top of a California cable car. Though most other cable cars in San Francisco are constructed to let rain slip off their roofs, cars on the California line are engineered with gutters, which route rainwater down through the handlebars to the ground.

“This is the downspout,” he said, motioning where a handlebar will soon be installed.

Joe Byrne is one of Woods Divisions’ six carpenters, an elite crew of woodworkers who reconstruct The City’s iconic cable cars. He’s also a San Francisco native who attended Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory High School.

Byrne said he delights in the “messages” he finds in the work of cable car carpenters past.

To reconstruct the cable cars, Byrne said, the carpenters have to pull them apart piece by piece to “see how the guys built it.”

Yet there’s almost a language to that construction, he said. Even in the smallest pieces, he said, the techniques used and the way it was carved tell a story other carpenters can read like a book, even 100 years after the roving icons were first crafted.

“They were built with pride,” Byrne said.

Luis Ferreira, another cable car carpenter, noted his historic predecessors accomplished their craft without modern tools, but with plenty of ingenuity. Some of the wood, he guessed, was steamed first to bend into the classic curved roof designed by the Mahoney Bros., the carpenters credited with building San Francisco’s first cable cars in 1885. The steamed wood then stiffened when dried.

Carpenter Joe Byrne works to re-craft a cable car at the SFMTA Woods Division carpentry shop. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

That’s no simple task — the roofs are constructed with white oak, which Ferreira described as “one of the hardest woods that exist.” He traced his fingers across the roof, which remained unpainted and bare. The white oak is so stiff, he said, it blunts the blades of their saws far faster than any other material they use.

“We have better tools than what they had back then,” Ferreira said. “Yet they were amazing craft carpenters.”

Ferreira would know. He first came to San Francisco from Portugal in 1986. His father and aunt were both carpenters, and he’s honed his craft for more than 30 years.

“It’s in the blood,” Ferreira said of woodworking.

Carpentry runs in Bryant Cao’s family, too. Cao — one of the shop’s lead carpenters — “grew up” in his father’s furniture shop in Vietnam, which helped him develop a simple ethos.

“When people sit they should be comfortable. Comfortable and safe,” Cao said — especially when rolling up some of San Francisco’s steepest hills.

McCarron, the carpenter shop supervisor, said his team often keeps an eye to history.

Once, he said, “the guys took off the front of a car, and inside, scribbled, they found a message saying ‘this end has been kicked in by a mule’ and gave a date” from the early 1900s.

With legacy in mind, McCarron said when a final panel for a cable car is completed, the carpenters drop a photo in there “like a time capsule.”

But Byrne, the carpenter who is also from The City, knows that photo or not, the story of San Francisco’s cable cars will live on in the wood they craft.

“Being that we’re from San Francisco, pay it forward,” Byrne said, with craftsmanship that will last “hopefully for another 100 years.”

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