Stone carving shenanigans: The saga of the homemade lifting hoist


There I was, in a crouched position with an awkward-shaped, 200-pound metal shop crane balanced precariously between my shoulders and the back of my trailer. “There must be a better way,” I thought to myself as I felt the eventual collision of either a hernia or torn back muscles racing my way. Thankfully, gravity eventually won before any injuries could take the prize.

The Challenge

“I’m not lazy; I’m in energy-saving mode.”

It was a classic case of needing to move a big rock and not having the right tools for the job. The problem is the right tools are expensive. I’m a beginning craftsman that is cash flowing my passion of stone carving through the profits of my daytime job, all while supporting a wife and child. What’s a guy to do??

While it would be nice to have a brand-new full-sized truck with a heavy-duty trailer and an accompanying skid steer, that kind of better equipment will come in time. For now, I will settle at this stage in life with my ’04 Ford Ranger (which sometimes even has all four cylinders firing!), a nearly free 7-foot trailer, and the hope that my hyper fixation will kick in long enough to see a new project through.

And frankly, as a fledgling stone carver, carbide-tipped chisels are sexier to buy than chains and pulleys.

Such was the leadup for what I affectionately am calling the poor man’s crane – a traditional tripod lifting hoist that was brought together with some trial, error, and a couple of healthy trips to Harbor Freight.

The First Attempt

“Behind every successful person is a substantial amount of coffee.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the necessity here was a need to have a transportable yet tough, cheap, and simple method to raise a very heavy field stone in and out of my small but mighty trailer. The tool needed to be operated solo and used in a wide variety of terrains.

I have long admired the beautiful industrial lifting tripods for their simplicity and inherent strength. The tripods of which I speak are often used for lifting pieces vertically and, in the world of stone carving, helping to orient large stones for carving or transport. A cool five grand will get you a very nice tripod hoist, complete with all the bells and whistles like extendable legs and spiked feet. I decided to head towards the same end goal with what I could conjure up from around the Penhorwood homestead.

There I set my eyes on some old galvanized steel tubing from a collapsible canopy shed the wind had demolished years before. Many of the bones of the structure were still good. I figured that using these parts along with a tripod lashing knot (a pretty nifty thing to know) and ratchet straps to keep the legs from spreading, then we’d be in business! I mean it could probably hold that weight, right?

Those pieces were in place – now for the lifting apparatus itself. I had been looking into the chain fall lift hoists for awhile and Harbor Freight was running a deal on their 2-ton variety, so off I went. I also grabbed a six foot lifting sling and a d-ring shackle. Now keep in mind that I have plenty of lifting slings and lines for use with my shop crane, but this was meant to be a whole new system to go where the tripod goes – at least that’s what I was telling myself as I was pouring money out of one of my budget envelopes into another to make up for the Harbor Freight-induced shortfall.

Back to the prototype tripod. It stood proudly as planned with the legs held firmly in configuration with the lashing at the top and the new chain hoist hanging immediately below.

Learning From Failure

“If at first, you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.”

All of this work coincided with the transportation of a ~500 pound stone from a client’s garden that was sitting in my trailer. It got there through my shop crane being mobilized by myself, and leading me to the realization that there indeed was a better way.

My hopes were high as I set the tripod legs in place over the stone and affixed the hook to the stone’s straps. I slowly started hauling it up (now with extra ratchet straps holding the legs together at the top and bottom following an initial test that showed the legs wanting to slip toward one side as more weight was put on the apparatus).

The weight started to slowly come up as I saw the trailer begin to give up the rock. Then suddenly, in the slowest catastrophic failure of all time, one galvanized tube turned into spaghetti and gave up the ghost, bending inward at its extension joint.

Darn.

Frankly though, I wasn’t heartbroken. The pieces were all pre-fabricated and couldn’t be easily replicated in the need for a replacement. If I’m going to make a new piece of trusty equipment, I want it to be continuously improved upon.

Where do we go in such moments of failure? Yes, that’s right, down the YouTube vortex. I had already gained quite a bit of inspiration for this project through the many paths that were laid before me – but many had another piece in common for a truly heavy-duty workload. Wood legs and a metal crossbeam holding them together.

Success with Wooden Poles

“I lift heavy rocks to make my life feel lighter.”

A quick look around the Penhorwood homestead and to what did my wondering eyes appear, but three long forgotten square wooden poles set aside when the back deck to our home was built. All three were a bit over 14 feet in length and seemed hand-picked for the job.

One more quick run to town found me in possession of a foot-long piece of 3/4” all thread plus nuts and washers.

Night was upon us by this time, but it was no time to call it quits. The work lights were made for such occasions, and I fashioned a few 1” holes in the top of each pole, connecting them with the metal bar, weaving the lifting sling into the situation.

It was beautiful. Now to get it up and get it lifting.

A couple of moments of trial and error and a stressed back later and I realized the best method for getting this monster of a tripod up by myself was not stepping it up like a sailboat mast. Instead, I laid out the outside two legs to one side and the middle leg pointing the other direction – lifting up in the middle to a point where the friction of the feet on the ground was greater than the outward force of the legs. It was standing! From there, I needed only push the lone “middle” leg toward the other two and it naturally went vertical. A quick adjustment of one leg at a time and the pipe dream was a reality. The sling held the chain fall hoist in place like magic and the legs were wide enough for the trailer to fit underneath it completely. It was an impressive sight to behold.

Careful adjustment of each leg one-by-one while there’s no weight on the press allows me to adjust the hoist’s location over the object in question. I ensure the pull is as directly vertical as possible and well within the imaginary line drawn between each leg’s foot. As YouTube informed me, should the weight go past that imaginary boundary, expect the tripod to tip over. If you stay within it, you’re safe.

Lifting Heavy Things is Fun

“I’m not arguing, I’m just explaining why I’m right.”

It was late, the stars were out, the trailer backed up under the tripod, and a rock was lifted without much excitement (a good thing). I was quite proud of this little homemade achievement (which at about 14 feet tall, isn’t so little) and had my wonderful wife Katie take it for a spin as well. The chain lift hoist is one of my favorite pieces of equipment to date thanks to its ease-of-use and satisfying clickity-clack of slow but steady progress. Combined with this new system in place which was transportable via the top of my trailer thanks to a bit of an overhang, a piece of the puzzle has finally been solved for the time being. Retrieving and delivering stones solo and without a major investment in new equipment has not only passed a hurdle physically, but helped a barrier in my mind and has set the stage for more progress as a craftsman in the near future.

Lessons learned? Creativity and resourcefulness, combined with a healthy amount of research and hardheadedness, can overcome challenges – even on a budget.

So cheers – here’s to lifting heavy things with a bit of old-school ingenuity.

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