Introduction: Make a Beer Can Cable Car

About: I love the design and ambition of vintage technology, and the usability and potential of new - my passion is bringing the two together.

I made this model cable car out of beer cans as a souvenir of our recent holiday to Austria. It's made from aluminium cans cut, folded and riveted together, including photos of our friends looking out of the windows. Having recently become obsessed with these elegant vehicles I just had to make one!

Step 1: Gondola Style

While in Zell am See we rode on cable cars every day, and were amazed by the variety of these unusual machines - some were small pods like a Jurassic Park Gyrosphere and others could fit up to forty people. The souvenir shop wanted £35 for their models (yikes) so I decided I'd make my own.

I got my first inspiration from the Modell Gondeln flickr site - they have excellent downloadable .pdfs of lots of different cable cars, for you to print & make a papercraft model. I chose one similar to the large ones we'd used and started by printing it on sturdy paper.

It wasn't exactly the same as the ones we'd been on however, so I made a few changes here and there to the design, cutting out the outline and windows with a craft knife.

Step 2: Raw Mat-beerials

The papercraft version came out OK, but I wanted to make one for our friends so it had to be a bit more sturdy. What I needed was a pliable and plentiful raw material - beer cans, eureka! The aluminium inside of the can was also conveniently a perfect match for the fancy Porsche-designed cable car that was one of our favourites.

To get a flat sheet of aluminium I first cut off the top and bottom of the can with scissors, then slid the sheet back & forth over the edge of the workbench at an angle a few times until it was reasonably flat. It's a bit tricky at first but you get the knack quite quickly. And you can always get more beer if you mess up. I should state the obvious at this point that the edges of a cut can are really sharp so be careful! As I was making a larger model I stuck to using pint cans, for the extra surface area you understand.

I began by sticking the cut-out paper template to the label side of the can, tracing the edges with a Sharpie. Next I used a craft knife and metal rule to carefully cut along the lines I'd made. This took a while but again got quicker with practice, the holes aren't super-neat but it's surprising how accurate you can be with just basic tools.

Step 3: Riveting Progress

I managed to get the base and sides of the model out of a single can, but had to design my own roof as this wasn't included in the papercraft plans. To make this a single piece I needed to join two smaller sections together, which puzzled me for a while. I'd intended to use nuts & bolts for the construction but then remembered a pop-rivet gun that my Dad had left me and I'd never used - this turned out to be perfect for the job.

The next problem was how to make neat holes for the rivets, I experimented with drilling but always left a ragged hole and bent the thin metal around it. Digging around I found a heavy duty hole punch, the kind you use on belts, and this worked really well, one of its settings was just bigger than the diameter of a rivet.

I first made the holes in the roof then test-fitted it, marking out where I needed to punch holes in the sides to fit the two pieces together. Rather than riveting these straightaway I bolted them together temporarily, so that I could mark out all of the other holes accurately and still take the thing apart for decoration.

Step 4: Triangular Dangler

With the roof complete and the other construction holes punched I just needed to make an assembly to suspend the cable car from its wire, a dangler. I made this by cutting two triangular sections of can, chopping a hole in the middle and folding & riveting the edges together. At the top I made a curled-over piece so that it could hang happily on a piece of string or wire and swivel around a single rivet. The dangler was then riveted securely to the roof from the inside to make a nice neat join.

Step 5: Passengers & Branding

I'd always planned to include photos of our friends looking out of the cable car windows, just to give it a personal touch. I imagined I would achieve this by printing their photos onto inkjet transparency paper, thereby making clear windows as well, but this just didn't look right and the print quality made them barely recognisable. In the end I just chose a mountain background from our trip and pasted in their images so that they'd match the holes in the side of the car.

Looking through the holiday snaps I also found some photos of a cable car we'd been on together, and was able to lift its logo for the images at the front and back of the car.

I fixed the photos to the inside of the model with strips of double-sided tape then gave them a few dabs of hot glue for good measure - knowing it would be riveted together I didn't want them falling off!

Step 6: Assembly

With the photos stuck firmly all that remained was to put the model together and pop in the rivets. Up to this point the individual pieces had seemed very bendy and fragile, but as each rivet went in it became much more stable.

Step 7: Mountain-Ready

This was a fun little build, using materials and techniques I've not tried before, I'll definitely be using them again in future projects - though taking more time to make the fiddly edges and folds a bit neater. The final product is a bit rough around the edges (literally) but I'm pleased with it, it's a cool reminder of our holiday and I think they'll like it.

Next step is to build some smaller ones and a working circuit for them to cruise around - maybe lighting up the cars from inside and controlling the movement with a Raspberry Pi and motors - cue the Where Eagles Dare music!