Watch Master Carpenters Restore SF’s Historic Cable Car Fleet!

Jamie Ferrell Jamie Ferrell

Watch Master Carpenters Restore SF’s Historic Cable Car Fleet!

These cable cars date back to the late 1800s and have National Landmark Status.


Woods Division Carpentry Shop is always buzzing with  the responsibility of restoring San Francisco’s fleet of iconic cable cars. You can actually watch the expert carpenters carry out their craft in a bus yard at 1040 Minnesota Street in the Dogpatch district. Take a peek through the windows or wire fencing sometime before 2:30pm to see these historic cars being restored right before your eyes.

[Image: Jeremy Whiteman, @talesoftherails]

We talked to Andrew McCarron, the carpenter supervisor at Woods Division. He has over 40 years of experience in the carpentry industry and has worked 24 of them with the city of San Francisco.

It’s very important to us to get them as spot on as when the cars were originally built,” said McCarron. “Our goal is to restore them. We try to save as much as possible but obviously over a hundred years, there’s certain things that are just worn out.”

[Image: Jeremy Whiteman, @talesoftherails]

Restoration process

It’s essential to give the cable cars an in-depth inspection before beginning the restoration process. This inspection checks for safety features, loose paneling, and material quality. Cars are restored both at Woods Division and at the Cable Car Barn at 1201 Mason Street.

McCarron and the carpentry team strive to make the cars as accurate as possible with the help of photos from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency database and the work of SFMTA photographer Jeremy Menzies. By digitizing many of these old photos, the carpenters can actually zoom in on intricate wood detailing and replicate it as closely as possible.

[Image: Jeremy Whiteman, @talesoftherails]

“The cars are basically built the same way they were built 100 years ago,” said McCarron. “The one advantage is we have more technical tools we can use but nothing’s really changed on the car itself.”

All cars are constructed from white oak, and the ceilings are made from Alaskan cedar. The first cable car was installed in 1873, and carpenters follow historic blueprints that haven’t changed much since then – their last update simply added structural reinforcement in the late 1970s.

[Image: Jeremy Whiteman, @talesoftherails]

There are 2 types of historic cable cars in service in San Francisco today: 12 California cars, which are larger and may be operated from both ends; and 28 Powell cars, which are slightly smaller and operational from one end only.


“When we get a cable car over here it depends on how tired it is,” McCarron said. “Restorations will take anywhere from about 2 to 3 years, depending on the damage that’s done and wear and tear and everything.” 

The Covid-19 pandemic has halted cable car service in the city, which is a shame for SF residents and tourists but a blessing in disguise for the Woods Division and Cable Car Barn. It gives them a chance to perform smaller improvements and repairs such as replacing cracked windows and fine-tuning details. “We’ve gotten a lot of little projects done,” said McCarron.

[Image: Jeremy Whiteman, @talesoftherails]

Time capsule

The average cable car passenger might not know it, but each car contains a traditional hidden time capsule within the paneling.

“We always put a photo in of the whole crew,” McCarron explained. “We throw in other little items, like maybe some money for good luck, that’s a tradition. And some little odds and ends of what’s happening in the world and our time.”

[Image: Courtesy of Andrew McCarron]

Once, they took apart a car and discovered a scrawled message from the late 1920s: “This panel was kicked in by a mule,” it read. These pieces of history also appear in the form of loose change and small objects dropped behind the seats dozens of years prior.

The carpenters all sign the car before adding the last panel, with the hope that future workers will discover a piece of history when the time comes to perform more repairs. 

[Image: Jeremy Whiteman, @talesoftherails]

The iconic cable cars of San Francisco would be nothing without the hard work of the professionals at Woods Division Carpentry Shop and the Cable Car Barn.

Be sure to peek in the windows at 1040 Minnesota Street in San Francisco to see history being made.


[Featured Image: Jeremy Whiteman, @talesoftherails]

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