Moving Big Stuff Without The Tears
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Moving Big Stuff Without The Tears

Nov 28, 2023

It's something that has probably happened to more than one of us over the years, there's an unmissable opportunity at the machinery auction or on eBay, with the small snag that it weighs a ton and requires a flatbed truck to transport. A big lathe, a bandsaw, or the like.

The sensible option would be to hire a crane or a forklift to do the job, but cash is tight so at the appointed hour the truck turns up at the end of your driveway to meet you and as big a group of your friends as you could muster. You’re going to shift this thing with pure muscle power! If you grow up around any form of workshop-based small business it's something you’ll no doubt be familiar with. Craftsmen seem to have a network for such moments, so just as the blacksmith might find himself helping the woodworker unload a huge saw bench, so might they both spend an unexpected afternoon at the engineering shop manhandling a lathe.

It came as a shock in a casual hackerspace conversation to realise how many times I’d been involved in such maneuvers at home, for friends, or at hackerspaces, and how that experience in doing so safely isn't necessarily something that's universal. Maybe it's time to tell the story of moving big machines on limited resources. This is something that starts by thinking ahead and planning what you’ll need and where you’ll need it.

The armory of the shifting crew consists of a varied array of boards, blocks, wedges, thin pieces of wood, and long levers and crowbars, with jacks, ropes, straps, tensioners, and even the occasional chain hoist or winch if you have one. The key to success is not to plan the grand move in which somehow everything pivots instantly into place, but instead to perform a succession of achievable small moves. This way even the heaviest of equipment can be moved, maybe not with ease, but certainly in an achievable manner.

If you take a moment to imagine a typical truck with a machine on it, it's a flat platform several feet off the ground. Getting the machine off the truck by hand is a task for a hefty wooden ramp and a lot of pulling and swearing with more than a hint of danger, so here's the moment when it's a smart move to forgo the muscles and make sure the truck you use comes with a loading crane. If this sounds odd when writing about moving things without cranes or similar then it's worth remembering that this is about moving things when you don't have the means to hire in extra mechanical help rather than forgoing it by choice.

Making sure your haulier has a loading crane is a smart choice that saves a lot of bother, and shouldn't cost a huge amount more than one without. Even if you don't have a loading crane all isn't entirely lost, growing up on a farm I’ve seen more than one heavy load moved by suspending it from a tractor foreloader, or from an excavator jib. A friend even suggests getting in a tow truck for the job as they have a capable crane and are surprisingly inexpensive if hired for a short time, but maybe that's something to discuss with your towing company.

A machine on the ground is just like any other heavy item that needs moving; it's unwieldy, solidly wedded by gravity to the whatever it's sitting on, and with a curious reluctance to move. If you have any sense you unloaded it onto a couple of planks over which you can slide it, but otherwise or if it's something that's sat for years in a forgotten corner of a yard, it’ll need lifting up to get something underneath. Easy with a crane, but still possible to do safely with ingenuity and simple equipment.

The key to lifting a heavy item off the ground lies in it being relatively easy to lift up one of its corners by a few millimetres with a lever or a jack, and then in repeatedly doing this on all corners while inserting thin wooden packing pieces to lift it off the ground bit by bit. Eventually a stack of the thin pieces can be replaced by a single block, and whatever planks, dolly, or other moving equipment can be slid underneath. It's very important to remember never to put feet or other body parts under any large object lifted into the air in this way, something I once discovered the hard way by dropping an Austin 1300 on my foot. (It hurt a lot but by some miracle nothing was broken.)

Moving a heavy machine sideways without wheels comes back to those achievable small moves. Having got it resting on some planks, the key is then to lay a trackway of planks not unlike a crude railway, and lever the machine forward inch by inch sliding it along the planks.

My dad would do this by running straps from his building stanchions, then using an old-fashioned lever tensioner to shorten the strap by a small amount to move the load bit by bit. This is the point at which having all your friends over is a great idea, and you’ll be amazed how easy it can be to move a machine an inch forward when there are five of you.

Slopes can be negotiated with more levers and wedges to raise and guide onto fresh planks, and when the destination is reached the whole thing can be lifted into the air with wedges and blocks just enough to move the planks. The Shenzhen-based maker and YouTuber [Naomi Wu] posted an excellent video last year showing the whole process performed by a group of neighbourhood "uncles", as they expertly moved her laser cutter from the street into her house.

It might seem an awful lot of effort to go to, but having the skills to safely move heavy machinery without extra drama can save a huge amount of bother and expense when equipping a workshop. It's also handy for the reason my dad and all those other craftsmen found themselves handling large machinery in the first place, as people with an eye for a machinery auction bargain they knew that a very capable and useful machine can go for not a lot at the machinery auction if it's old and heavy and looks too difficult to move. Perhaps it's worth keeping a few planks and ropes handy, just in case.

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