Build Your Own Custom Elevator

There are a lot of things in our everyday life that are holdovers from an earlier time that we continue to use simply because of inertia even if they don’t make a lot of sense in modern times. Examples include a 60 Hz power grid, the spacing between railroad tracks, and of course the self-contained attic ladder which is made to fit in between standard spaced ceiling joists. It’s not wide enough to get big or heavy stuff into an attic, and building standards won’t change just for this one inconvenience, so if you want to turn that space into something more usable you’re going to need to build a custom elevator.

This attic elevator comes to us from [Brian] who recently moved into a home with about half the square footage as his previous home, but still needed to hold all of his stuff. That means clever ways of using the available space. For the elevator he constructed a platform out of 2x lumber held together with bolts and steel supports. The carriage runs up and down on a track made out 1 5/8″ super strut and is hoisted by a winch motor rated for 550 pounds, which is more than enough to hoist up most household items including a large toolbox.

The only thing that we would have liked to have seen in the video is how the opening was made. Presumably this would have involved cutting into a ceiling joist to make the opening wider than the standard attic ladder, and care would have needed to be taken to ensure the ceiling/floor wasn’t weakened. Either way, this is a great solution to a common problem, and could perhaps be made to work on more than two levels with a custom controller.

Thanks to [Jake] for the tip!

60 thoughts on “Build Your Own Custom Elevator

  1. haha i thought i believed that unistrut is infinitely strong but this article forced me to acknowledge that there are limits to my faith! i just see that kind of triangle loading as being too much for the inside rolled edges.

    that said, i love it and still want to build an elevator in one of my closets..

    1. An inspector for a house sale is mostly looking for deferred maintenance. They’ll occasionally catch modifications that can harm the structure of the home, but it isn’t their job to know if something is permitted.

      If a permit inspector called in for something else saw it though, that could lead to some followup.

  2. Assuming that winch has a safety shutoff for when the disc before the hook reaches it, he should raise the height of the disc to the proper level where it should shut off at the elevator’s top of travel.

    1. It’s probably going to be the old “local distribution should be low voltage DC” argument.

      (It fails on having to convert voltages anyways, no arc suppression in switches, and high cable losses)

          1. Yeah, was a really silly comment to make. OK you might be able to argue about 50 Hz vs 60 Hz but what, DC? 400 HZ? DC lost in the current wars for good reason. And high frequency has it’s drawbacks as a power transmission method (skin effect, Corona losses etc)

      1. All new electronics hobbyists are legally required to believe 12v is the future. It’s like the hardware equivalent of writing your own backup software or text editor and convincing yourself it’s better than the common ones….

        The one time where I’m pretty sure they’re totally right is lighting. The way we do lighting now is a hack based on incandescent tech, and we should have standard modular drivers and LED modules, as separate pieces.

        1. Yes, except you won’t get rid of the “hack” either way, because you still have desk and floor lamps, and other lights that plug to standard wall sockets that carry 60 Hz AC. Then you’d have two competing standards.

          And what for? A correctly designed LED lamp should last 25 years, right? It shouldn’t matter if it’s special, because the next time you need to buy another, the whole system is due for an overhaul anyways. Buy the box for spares and they should last the life of the house.

          1. I went that way with a faucet, after finding that the replaceable cartridges in my previous one were discontinued. Fine then, I’ll plan on none of these new models you’ve got here being repairable in 15 years either, and take that lifetime sealed one.

        2. Noobs assume that engineers and inventors are complete idiots. IMHO it is more a psychological projection and trivalization of technology. Most of the easy picking low hanging fruits are gone. It gets very rare to come up with something out of the left field as something that was overlooked.

        3. As an electrician I encounter the “Why can’t I just have USB plugs everywhere” people all the time. I am eagerly awaiting the day when they can show me their USB vacuum cleaner. In reference to the 12 volt lighting, I don’t see it happening any time soon. The electrical codes are quick to add new rules, but slow to remove old ones. You will also run into voltage drop problems fairly quickly in larger houses at 12 volts. Even in a residential setting I have run circuits that necessitated an upgrade in wire gauge due to the length of the run (and that is at 120 volts)

          1. Whoever wants USB outlets, can just get them (installed). I think the major manufacturers already sell them, though i haven’t yet seen them in diy stores.
            Personally, i would like one for the one i use for my fone – but only if they come with a switch for if the psu shits the bed. I’ve seen too many molten or otherwise popped USB psus.

          2. USB outlets (either the “regular outlet plus USB ports” or “just USB ports”) are readily available in big-box stores and online from a multitude of sources. My normal warning to everyone who feels the urge to install one is to make sure there’s a UL (or CSA, or other test lab) certification on it before you wire it up, and stick to brands with experience making outlet recepticals (the first batch I installed still work great for USB charging, but the contacts on the 120V receptical bent and made it impossible to plug into).

            And “12V outlets” (or “19V outlets” or “24V outlets”) become a reality once USB-C+USB-PD (at higher power levels) start becoming a thing at cost+heat levels compatible with “stick it in an outlet” use. :)

          3. My advice would be to avoid the USB outlet – they tend to be very loud with transformer noise in my experience (though I have sensitive hearing). Which unlike a noisy plugged in device that can just be replaced (or swapped – put the noisy ones in the kitchen etc) its a much bigger pain to replace them – might be some good ones out there, and not everyone can hear the higher frequencies to be bothered by it. But it really bothers me.

            A USB powered vacuum cleaner really isn’t as impossible as it once was – USB PD and QC allows for very high wattage now (Can’t say I’m a huge fan of the mess USB is becoming, but it really can do high power applications with the right USB power-source).

            The DC only home isn’t a silly idea either, it comes with different challenges – but in theory can be really very efficient inside the home, while getting rid of lots of huge power bricks, as almost all the devices in the home actually function on DC internally – if all your devices motors etc where actually using the AC phase shifting to run however…
            Certainly is the only thing that makes sense for houseboats, caravan, mobile homes any anybody trying to be off grid – and has been done successfully many times.

      1. Accidentally coming in contact with 240v is far more dangerous than 120v, though. I vote we have 240v dedicated only to devices that require more than ~2kW, and wire 120v to everything else.

        1. Because 60 Hz makes fluorescent lighting and cheap LEDs less stroboscopic, it makes grid-synchronized clocks simpler, it makes for smoother DC when rectified (easier to filter), it makes ground-fault interrupters and safety relays react 20% faster, it requires less iron in transformers…

          Before the frequencies were standardized, household power could be up to 133 Hz because high frequency was favored for steady lighting and the ease of transforming it between voltages, while electric motors such as for the industry and railways were run at low frequencies down to 16-30 Hz because large induction motors are more difficult to start with a high frequency.

          AEG standardized on 50 Hz because it was the lowest frequency where incandescent lightbulbs would not be seen to “pulse” annoyingly. Westinghouse set the frequency to 60 Hz so arc lighting would operate more smoothly. Both were a compromise between motor and lighting operations.

          Nowadays when we have variable frequency drives for all the larger motors, and BLDC or other servo type drives for all the smaller motors, there’s no need to maintain 50 or 60 Hz anymore, and in fact most household appliances really don’t care which one you have.

          1. I’ve used incandescent lightbulbs on 15ish Hz and they didn’t flicker noticably (while I’m super edgy on flickering LED’s). I think the problem with flicker in low frequencies is more pronounced in arc lamps.

            http://electrical-science.blogspot.com/2009/12/history-of-power-frequency.html lists the decision to go with 50Hz being made in 1891, which was 13 years after Edison’s first practical incandescent lamp and 9 years after he found the bamboo lamp – but I can’t find useful info on whether that was enough time to let incandescent bulb be the dominant way of electric lighting (over carbon arc lamps). Fluorescent lamps were still being invented at the time, and LED was still a century away to be used as lighting.

        2. Who is on 240V/50Hz? In the UK we have had 230V/50Hz for quite some time, because the EU is on 220V/50Hz and we could claim 230V as being within the allowed 6% tolerance of 220V, and hence EU-compliant. Whether this will change after Brexit and revert to “British Bulldog” 240V, who knows?

  3. Your local building authorities will not be amused. Any injuries and your homeowners insurance won’t pay. These things require permits and inspections. That hoist is not suitable. No safety switches or fall protection. Accessible to children? Sorry to be a wet blanket but some things are just a bad idea.

    1. Indeed. I won’t say I’ve never built anything with as few apparent concessions to safety, but I unplug them and take them apart after they fulfill their one-off purpose. This looks kinda like a “device for amateur amputation of limbs” as much as an elevator.

      1. Some projects are better left “undocumented”. You probably accept just as much real risk driving around in a car every day of your life than you would occasionally using this thing.

        You can amputate your limbs with plenty of tools that have every government-sanctioned “I” dotted and permit fee paid–and you can be responsibly cautious with this thing/leave it powered off when not in use/not let kids play with it etc.

      2. I was hoping all through the video to see some type of safety features, and they really are easier to put in and use than recovering from an elevator accident. When working in the semiconductor service industry I had a customer with the issue of moving big vacuum pumps to the pump shop (only place for the shop was 2nd floor, the pumps push and or exceed 1000 pounds. The maintenance engineers built an elevator to move the pumps it had 3 basic safety systems : 1. it was for equipment only no personnel the unit had 3 3/4 height walls located well away from the carriage and interlocked doors to load equipment only with all doors shut would it move and when moving all doors automatically locked until the carriage was stopped, only 2 persons and the head of building services had a key to the unit. 2. the hoist motor was on the cross beam on the top of the car frame the cable went up around a stationary pulley and attached to the other end of the same frame the winch sat on. This made maintaining the lift motor and cable inspections easy and put any problems right in eye sight so issues could be seen before they allowed a critical problem. 3: they had a ratchet / pawl setup like an old bumper jack or some free standing shop lifts have, the lever was on the carriage and was manually set for up or down the way the staff explained the system was the one lever ran 4 independent safety catches if the cable did break the car would never fall more than a few inches. Granted they spent money on this thing but the only option would have been a complete addition to the building to add the required shop space! It had the inspection and certification the law required, and they sure as can be met OSHA and insurance rules. AS LONG AS IT WAS EQUIPMENT ONLY! however as a guy who hates heights and sweats in elevators I would ride it!

  4. And not one person mentioned the 2 attic supports he cut though – my bet is that all the stuff in the storage ends up back in the garage before he realized how a truss cord gets its strength to hold up the roof. He can have the best intentions to use some more space – but he cant thow toolboxes up there and pack it to the ceiling and expect maybe a 2×4 bottom cord of a truss that was designed to hold up a piece of drywall to survive through the winter….

    1. I can’t see exactly what he did there. Typical ways to handle that are to double the trusses and use a header across the cutoff that is at least same dimensions of them to spread it across. I see some 2×4 there but might be to square up the hole and fit as a frame for trim and/or drywall not the only thing that’s there. Who knows though, if you wanna do it right, look it up.

      1. The carpentry work to make the hole is really the heart of the project, not the business of making the platform go up and down. It isn’t just satisfying code for codes sake, but having an attic with a structural design that is not compromised.

      2. Doesn’t look like trusses in the attic, looks like rafters. If he’s actually going through joists, and he captured the one he cut through, he’s good. (If he went through trusses, he’s so very, very screwed, but that’s just as true without the elevator because of the amount of weight he moved up there.)

        I’m not saying there’s a structural problem. I’m not saying there isn’t a structural problem. I’m not licensed in Minnesota, so it doesn’t matter what I think anyway.

  5. What kind of safety cut-out is appropriate here?
    1) light beam around the horizontal perimeter of the base, an inch or so above the platform level.
    2) light curtain around 3 open vertical virtual walls of elevator, between platform level and hole level.
    3) something else?

  6. It’s a dumbwaiter. Apartment buildings in the pre-elevator age often had them. Ones which are not for human occupancy may have different rules under building codes. But I remember a woman who worked at the Dayton airport and, I read, was crushed while attempting to unjam a luggage elevator.

    1. A place that I worked had a dumbwaiter left in the building from a previous owner and it required all the county elevator inspection signoffs. Maybe the rules were different, but it still required inspection.

  7. I don’t think he has had to modify the trusses to fit that in. The trusses run left to right and that platform looks like it is no wider than what I would expect the trusses to be.

    As for safety issues it’s just a platform attached to a winch to pull large items up. Personnel access is still via the ladder in front of it.

    It’s infinitely safer than trying to push a box into the ceiling space up the ladder.

    1. “As for safety issues it’s just a platform attached to a winch to pull large items up. Personnel access is still via the ladder in front of it.”

      Well you clearly didn’t watch the video. In fact, the ONLY thing in the video that rode the lift into the attic was people.

  8. What’s the point of a lift without an Igor to wind the handle? All proper lifts have a little room or hut at the top for Igors to live and work in.

    This is an offence to all hard working Igors. Someone should make a stand (perhaps a hunched one).

    Over the years, using lightning, one gets to know lots of Igors. Natural lightning is far better than man made lightning.

  9. Safety wise, this requires:
    1. Brakes that are disengaged when lifting up/down
    2. A dumb but reliable sensor to stop the motor when it’s reaching the top floor
    3. A dumb but reliable sensor to prevent the motor from running if the platform space is busy on the first floor
    4. A dumb but reliable sensor to stop the motor if it’s sensing too much lifting force (in case of legs hanging from the platform)
    5. A mesh or a system to prevent someone from falling from the top floor when the platform is open

    So:
    If I were him, I would put a plank on the underneath of the platform (so that, once up, it touch the ceiling) and put a horizontal sensor bar (the same you can find on any garage door to sense if something is in the way when closing) on this plank. The sensor should be used as a motor shutoff switch. That would prevent the motor engaging with anything hanging on the platform (legs, tools…)
    Use the same horizontal bar sensor on the bottom of the plank too, and the motor will shut itself off when reaching the bottom floor or anything underneath.

    And for the brake, well, it’s not too high, I guess you won’t get hurt that much if you fall from it.

    For the mesh, he can put a another plank that’s attached to the top floor motor’s support with a rotating joint. The plank will rest at 45° to the top floor like this: |\__

    So when the platform is there, the platform push the plank up, like this:
    /
    | |_ __

    and it’s safe to exit the platform. When it’s not here, the plank closes itself automatically, preventing anyone from falling in the hole.

  10. Why do so many people leave drywall half finished? Afraid of commitment? Just sand the joints and paint! Even if your joints aren’t perfect, it will still look better (and protect the drywall far better) than what you see in this article’s photos.

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