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Squire Whipple

Truss Bridge
Build the simple span that launched the great age of iron bridge building.
Written by William Gurstelle
Gregory Hayes

and the


COST: $10$15

Like all mechanical, civil, and aerospace engineers, I learned how to analyze structures early in my engineering education. Determining the size and direction of compressive or tensile forces acting on each piece of a construction is called statics. With this basic bit of knowledge, we can figure out the right sizes, shapes, and thicknesses to use in building things.
In statics, we learn about architectural elements such as arches, beams, buttresses, trusses, and vaults. The truss is one of the most important, and its widely used in construction. In its simplest form, a truss is a rigid framework of bolted-together triangles. Triangles are inherently strong and stable, and structures made out of them are also strong, rigid, and lightweight.

Brooklyn Bridge


Brooklyn Bridge

Who rst gured out the truss? Its clear that the classical Greeks, for all their genius, knew little or nothing about building BROOKLYN Brooklyn Bridge Quebec Bridge BRIDGE with triangle trusses. The Romans dabbled, but examples of Roman structures that use trusses are few and far between. Whirlpool Bridge Medieval cathedral and church architects understood the technique empirically, if not scientically; in plenty of early European buildings, wooden triangular trusses hold up the roof. Still, the best-known use of trusses is in building bridges. For that, we can thank New York civil engineer Squire Whipple (18041888), who developed the rst scientic method for analyzing and designing trusses. In 1847, Whipple published A Work on Bridge Building, which revolutionized civil engineering. Brooklyn Quebec Bridge No longer would builders use rules Bridge of thumb to guess at how big to make a strut or girder. Because of Whipples work, they Whirlpool Bridge QUEBEC BRIDGE knew exactly. Whipple gured out how to analyze trusses with Navajo Bridge a graphical method of lining up force vectors that he called Whirlpool Bridge the polygon of forces. This allowed engineers to safely and economically design viable truss bridges without knowing even a bit of calculus or trigonometry. Whipples Bowstring Arch bridge, made with cast-iron trusses, became the standard for bridges over the Erie Canal. For his contributions, the Society of American Civil Engineers declared Whipple the father of American iron bridge building. Whipples book set off a boom in civil engineering. Soon, the great age of iron bridge building was in full swing. The triangle structure is obvious in the beautiful spans of the Navajo Bridge Navajo Bridge WHIRLPOOL BRIDGE Bridge over the Colorado River, theWhirlpool Whirlpool Rapids Bridge over Niagara Falls, and the Quebec Bridge over the St. Lawrence River. But hidden trusses are also important parts of suspension and cantilevered bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge.

James Burke

Craft sticks or tongue depressors, 6"0" (100) Bricks, standard, 2"3"8" (2) Balsa wood sheet, 1"4"16"


Utility knife Ruler Hot glue gun and glue Plate weights or concrete blocks (optional) for testing structure



The Warren Truss

The simplest truss bridges are the Howe, the Pratt, and the Warren, named for the engineers who devised them. In 1848, English engineer James Warren designed the rst truss bridge consisting solely of equilateral triangles connected side by side, each triangle inverted in relation to the next. Structural engineering doesnt get much simpler. The Warren truss is tried and true, providing a bridge thats easy to build, strong, and relatively lightweight. In 1850, Squire Whipple designed the rst Warren truss bridge in America. In this project, well make a model Warren truss bridge. Light and strong, it can hold more than 100 pounds.





1. Cut the gusset plates.
Gunther Kirsch William Gurstelle

Build a Warren Truss Bridge

Use the utility knife to cut the balsa wood into 14 squares measuring 2" on a side (Figure A).

2. Build 2 trusses.
Begin by taping 7 gusset plates to your work surface as shown. Hot-glue the craft sticks to the gussets. Take care to make the glued connections neat, aligning the craft sticks to form tidy equilateral triangles (Figure B). Once the glue sets, ip over the truss and attach craft sticks to the other side in the same fashion, for double strength. Build a second truss in the same way (Figure C). The long top and bottom members of the truss are called chords. The slanted members that tie the chords together are webs. If you use Squire Whipples polygon of forces to analyze each member, youll nd that the greatest forces in your truss are in the top and bottom chords, at the center of the bridge. If you wish, attach an extra craft stick at those points for reinforcement.

3. Add struts and braces.

Place the bricks on your work surface 4" apart and make certain the long sides are parallel. Stand each truss vertically against a brick, and tape 3 of its web members to the brick. Then glue the struts and braces across the top and bottom, as shown in Figures D and E. (Struts are braces that meet the chords at 90 angles.) Its essential that the trusses are exactly vertical, perfectly perpendicular to the struts and braces. Even a small amount of leaning will cause your bridge to fail prematurely. Finally, add braces across either end of the bridge (Figure D).

Test Your Truss Bridge

1. Place the bricks 14" apart on the oor. 2. Place the ends of your bridge on the bricks (Figure E). 3. Load er up! You can use concrete blocks, barbell weights,
buckets of water, or anything else at and heavy (Figure F). Add weight slowly and incrementally, and keep ngers and toes away from the area underneath the bridge. Distributing the weight evenly will allow you to add more weight before the structure fails. 4. Its your bridge, so you can either add weight until it eventually fails, or paint and display it as proof of your engineering abilities.

William Gurstelle is a contributing editor of MAKE. The new and expanded edition of his book Backyard Ballistics is now available in the Maker Shed (makershed.com).