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Home-Built Funicular on Make: Projects

Make: Projects community member Jeff Johnson is putting the fun back in funicular with his awesome people/firewood/beer-moving tram built to get from their family lake house down to the dock 147 feet below. Looking for a big summer project? Jeff shared his entire build notes and photos with us in Make: Projects (thanks Jeff!), so you can get cracking on your very own. With Father’s Day coming up this weekend, we can’t miss the opportunity to mention that Jeff’s father, Charlie Johnson, helped out on the controls and motors. Jeff writes:

When Holly and I first decided to have a tram built, we found a local fabricator, gave him a deposit, and waited for his design. A few weeks later he sent us back our check and said he accepted a gig in Idaho and wouldn’t be able to make our lift. Dad asked where we were in the project, and I had to tell him that it was canceled. Three days later, he emails me with a design, and says “We’ll do it ourselves!” He runs an industrial panel shop in Chattanooga so the control part was right down his alley.

At first I was skeptical, but as he and I discussed how to do it, it became more and more believable. My wife doubted it to the very end until it was done, and we were extremely pleased with ourselves. It’s fun to watch boats stop and watch our cart climb the hill. Did I mention we did it for half what the other guy was going to charge? The total cost was around $5,000. Comparable systems cost about $30K plus installation.

I was blessed with two great parents, and a father that was willing to share his interests with me and to take an interest in mine. He’s the first person I go to with an idea, and I always know I’ll get honest feedback, and in many cases an improvement in my idea. He taught me that if you don’t know how something works, find out, and tell somebody else about it. It’s a curiosity that still brings out the little kid in me.

Dad has always been there to show me that making things is easy if you just put your mind to it and get started. Paper is good, but doing the work is where the real satisfaction comes.

You’re blessed indeed, Jeff! Check out this video of the the funicular in action, scope the project in Make: Projects, take a 360 virtual tour, and look for a write-up of Jeff’s build in an upcoming issue of MAKE.

Goli Mohammadi

I’m senior editor at MAKE and have worked on MAKE magazine since the first issue. I’m a word nerd who particularly loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon as a whole. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for the ideal alpine lake or hunting for snow to feed my inner snowboard addict.

The maker movement provides me with endless inspiration, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. The specific beat I cover is art, and I’m a huge proponent of STEAM (as opposed to STEM). After all, the first thing most of us ever made was art.

Contact me at goli (at) makermedia (dot) com.


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Comments

  1. Alex Camilo says:

    awesome

  2. I’m absolutely astounded by this ambitious project and the thorough documentation. All that at a $5,000 budget makes me even more impressed. Thanks for sharing, Jeff!

    1. Jeff Johnson says:

      Thanks.  It was a fun project and I appreciate all the nice comments.  We are on our 4th wheel design, BTW.  Casters wear out too quickly.  I think the latest wheels should suffice.

  3. Garrett Mace says:

    The nod to safety is having two cable systems and no track brakes…but one system might fail in an undetectable way until the other system fails. The result would be pretty disastrous for anyone on the cart or below it. Testing both systems separately once a week would reduce the risk a bit. And I’d suggest that kids not be allowed to use it, as they might freeze up and hang on to the cart instead of quickly jumping to the ground before it gets too fast. What might be useful is a braking system that is normally active, requiring the operator to push on a button or handle to allow the cart to move. When the operator lets go, strong brakes clamp on the rails. Maybe it could send a signal to the motors above to stop turning.

    1. Jeff Johnson says:

      What you are mentioning with the hand held brake is called a deadman, and it wouldn’t work in this situation because when 12 of us are going up from the boat, we send up 3-4 people at a time, thus sending it down empty with no one to hold onto the deadman.

      There are definitely some points of failure that can lead to disaster.  The coupling, gearbox or motorshaft could fail allowing a potential freespool.
      The KISS model I am looking at right now is running a counterweight down the middle that is heavier than the cart.  If those items break, the system would just come to a balanced stop, with resistance of the spools probably just holding it still.  This would also reduce the power draw/dump and allow me to get it up to full speed (its now limited to 2/3 full speed). 

      Thanks.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Pretty neat!

    I was thinking a bit about auto-activating brakes, which would release when there was tension on the cable, but activate when the cable went slack.  I think that’s how elevator brakes work. It should be an easy retrofit. 

    And as Garrett suggests, a deadman switch that needs to be held for the cart to move would be a good idea, too.

    1. Jeff Johnson says:

      We have considered something like that, but my concern was if the coupling above broke, and it was dragging the stiff cable down, would there be enough slack to activate the brakes?  Plus, having 3 inch pipe has a drawback in that there is not a good place to “grab” with decent friction.  We are looking at a counterweight approach.

  5. Bill Porter says:

    But what would Mike Holmes say?

    Just kidding, cool project!

  6. I bet a large part of the $30K quoted vs. the $5K spent would be for some type of braking system and litigation avoidance.
    I agree that a normally active braking system is surely needed.  Something like airbrakes on tractor-trailers, or a ratchet-pawl system that is released by tension on the cables.  Great design though!

    1. Jeff Johnson says:

      Agreed on the 30K cost.  They are also certified and have a overspeed protection, which is something that I haven’t been able to build with home depot and mcmaster.com parts.  A counterweight should solve many of the concerns.

  7. K Parker says:

    Very cool project. It looks safer than many of the funiculars I’ve ridden in Valparaiso, Chile! I do think a counterweight would be a good idea, adding a measure of safety and reducing the load on the winch (and probably extending its life).

  8. Now all it needs is a looping corkscrew on the trip down. Weeeeeee!

  9. Nice build!  As others, including yourself, have already mentioned some kind of normally on breaking system/counterweight system would be a good idea. 

    Also, you may want to think about something like metal pipe fitting railings.  Personally, as a reasonably big guy, I could see myself going though your existing railing pretty easily if I tripped or something.  This is especially true after the wood has had a few years to age.  Also, if your counterweight idea works the way I understand from the way you’ve described it, it will hit a reasonably high speed before finally slowing down.  That might increase the momentum with which riders slam into the railings.

    1. Jeff Johnson says:

      If I understand your railing question correctly, you may be looking at a very old video that doesn’t have any pickets on the cart.  The current cart does have pickets which are fairly sturdy.  They are all pressure treated lumber and I inspect it fairly regularly.  Look at 360 virtual tour which is less than a year old.

      The CW system I may incorporate would have a cable counter-winded on one of the drums so the drum would either be full from the cart cable or the CW cable.  This would provide enough tension to keep it still, and would also allow me to put more weight in it than the cart itself weighs, so if something breaks the cart should go up, or if loaded go down very slowly.

  10. Nice build!  As others, including yourself, have already mentioned some kind of normally on breaking system/counterweight system would be a good idea. 

    Also, you may want to think about something like metal pipe fitting railings.  Personally, as a reasonably big guy, I could see myself going though your existing railing pretty easily if I tripped or something.  This is especially true after the wood has had a few years to age.  Also, if your counterweight idea works the way I understand from the way you’ve described it, it will hit a reasonably high speed before finally slowing down.  That might increase the momentum with which riders slam into the railings.

  11. Dave smith says:

    Great Project!!! thank you for you thorough documentation and notes!
    I am wondering if there is anyway you could post a general cost breakdown.how much u spent on say, lumber, metal, motor,cable etc, If you happen to have that available.
    Thank you very much!

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