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Telegraph Velocipede Rebuild Project

n February 2014 I received an email from a Minnesota homeowner that recently purchase a home from the estate of a recently deceased auctioneer. In the barn they found a railroad velocipede and were looking to find a home for it. The velocipede was in poor condition, missing several parts including the original outrigger, seats, brake system, and some castings were broken. However, through all the dirt and grime I recognized this as perhaps one of the rarest velocipedes, with no known intact survivors.

In the 1800's telegraph lines followed established rail lines. These lines needed to be maintained, but due to the light nature of the work, a large heavy handcar was not required. What was needed was a lightweight vehicle that could carry three men and small compliment of hand tools. These vehicles proved so versatile that the US Geodetic Survey used telegraph cars to survey the United States. By the early 1900's motorized track cars led to the retirement of telegraph cars.

Sheffield catalog image from the 1892 catalog. My velocipede is a bit newer, probably circa 1900-1910.

In the early 1900's the US Geodetic Survey used a fleet of telegraph cars to map the United States. NOAA Photo

The owner accepted my offer of $1500 for the car. He helped us out by completely disassembling the car and shipping the contents in five boxes that were delivered to us by FedEx. A detailed inspection revealed that while most of the frame was original wood, the outrigger was a poorly fabricated stand in that needed to be replaced. The outrigger wheel was not original, but luckily I had purchased an orphaned wheel a year earlier that came off of another velocipede.

This particular velocipede was built from what appears to be rock elm, a common lumber used for vehicle construction until about 1910 when the species was almost entirely logged out. After evaluating the condition of the wood I opted to perform a complete rebuild of the vehicle. As it was I would be building new seats, outrigger, and wheel centers so I felt that it wasn't worth trying to salvage the somewhat cracked and bent lumber that made up the car.

I went to work cutting the main beams from ash as had been used for velocipedes after about 1910. I tried to locate some rock elm lumber, but I was unable to acquire it and decided it wasn't worth delaying the project further. Early velocipedes had fancy wood turnings and I replicated the design with my replacements using my lathe.

I quickly learned that rebuilding a velocipede is a bit more challenging than building a typical handcar. Velocipedes typically were carried by wood centered wheels. This kept the car light, while insulating the wheels so that they do not shunt electrical railroad signal circuits that were becoming common in the late 1800's. These wheels contained an intricate, multi-spoked assembly that provided strength while being someone durable. Velocipede manufactures tended to use hard maple for spokes. Maple is a dense wood and it tends not swell and shrink as much as other wood making it better suited for wheel spokes. While hard maple offers strength its downfall is it tends to chip and crack which of course is not desirable.

The wheels need to be perfectly cut so that they fit snuggly into the rim. Loose spokes will cause the rim to deform and the added stress of vibration may lead to the hard maple cracking. The procedure for making wooden spokes is an article by itself. Let me say it is very difficult and it took three attempts before I found a system to properly manufacture them.

The other huge challenge was steam bending. As built the telegraph car had two outrigger beams that needed to be bent. My dad built me a wood steam box that I used to steam 8/4 lumber for several hours. Once taken out of the box we only have a few minutes to have it set in the shaping jig before it takes on the new shape.

Steaming box on range. Two thermometers at the far end assist us to ensure that the internal temperature is above 200F degrees.

I made several steam bending attempts and finally figured out how to do it after steaming a half dozen beams. The most important thing is you need to use green lumber that hasn't already dried out. I found an urban lumberjack out of the midwest that mills backyard trees into dimensioned lumber. He sold me a large green ash beam that was had a moisture level of 15%. I was able to soak it up to 20%, and after a few hours in the steam box it was bendable.

Bending jig

Frame almost complete

Wheel spokes before being cut. Notice the direction of the grain. By positioning them at an angle maximizes strength.

I built a custom turning jig that uses a router attached to an adjustable vice that was stationary while the wood wheel rotates on a bearing.

Hard maple spokes. Looking closely you will see I arranged the grain slightly offset for strength.

Wheel parts with fresh polyurethane. To further strengthen the pieces from cracking I used a penetrating epoxy coating under the polyurethane.

Drilling the centers on a nearly finished wheel.

Applying penetrating epoxy sealer to the frame prior to painting.

This car was missing the connection loops so I fabricated three by welding. Original ones were hand forged.

Preparing the polyurethane.

Applying paint.

Frame all painted. Next comes assembly.

The finished car.

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Copyright 2015, Mason Clark