Howe Truss

By on January 18, 2011 -- Modified on October 12, 2016

The Howe Truss was designed by William Howe in 1840. It used mostly wood in construction and was suitable for longer spans than the Pratt truss. Therefore, it became very popular and was considered one of the best designs for railroad bridges back in the day. Many Howe truss bridges exist in the North West United States, where wood is plentiful.

How the forces are spread out

Here are two diagrams showing how the forces are spread out when the Howe Truss is under a load. The first shows the load being applied across the entire top of the bridge. The second shows a localized load in the center of the bridge. In both cases the total load = 100. Therefore, you can take the numbers as a percentage of the total load.

Similar to all the major truss designs (Pratt, Warren, K Truss, and Howe), when the load is centered on the bridge the forces are much greater on the internal truss members than if the load is spread out along the top of the bridge. The same principle applies if the load was coming from the bottom of the bridge. I use diagrams showing the load applied to the top of the bridge, because this is how I most often test my bridges. I load my bridges from the top.

When you are designing your bridge, I recommend that you use the Bridge Designer program from JHU and plug-in your design. Load the design in the same way your bridge will be loaded as specific in the rules and guidelines you were given to build your bridge.

Howe Truss in model bridges

One thing that you have to keep in mind when thinking about the common truss designs, including the Howe, is that they were designed a long time ago. They were designed when bridges needed to fill a specific role, and for the particular resources that people had available. For instance, the Howe truss design used a lot of wood as opposed to the Pratt which used more iron. This made the Howe popular earlier on when iron was expensive to produce.

The Howe truss used wooden beams for the diagonal members, which were in compression. It used iron (and later steel) for the vertical members, which were in tension. The Pratt truss was the opposite. Thus, because the diagonal members are longer, the Howe truss used less of the more expensive iron material. It made good use of the cheap wood which was readily available.

For model bridges, we typically only use wood. Our compression and tension members are both made out of wood. If you wanted to be fancy, you could use string or metal wire for the tension members. Nonetheless, in reality, the reasons why the Howe design became popular are not applicable to model builders. It remains a solid engineering model design, but I think I would prefer the Pratt truss over the Howe.

Additional Resources

Pictures of Real Howe Truss Bridges
History of Howe Truss

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25 thoughts on “Howe Truss”

  1. Thank-you Garrett. You were very helpful, we will attempt to make this bridge. We would like to know is it possible to make the bridge longer, and how? Would we just put more of those intersection areas?

    By Yale R -- March 10, 2017
    • Hi Yale,

      Yes, it certainly is possible to make the bridge longer by continuing the truss pattern with more sections.

      By Garrett Boon -- March 10, 2017
  2. in the picture, it isn’t symmectrical, what do i do if mine isn’t symmectrical

    By Thomas -- February 27, 2017
  3. This really helped for science fair!

    By Thomas -- February 27, 2017
  4. A while back I built an HO scale Howe Truss Through bridge from a Campbell’s kit. I am now planning to scratch build a Howe Truss Deck bridge based on the plans for the Through bridge. My question concerns the vertical dimension of the upper and lower chords. On the Through bridge the lower chord has a larger dimension. From your stress diagrams I might guess the same would be true for a Deck bridge. But I am not sure.

    By Joe Beerer -- February 4, 2017
    • Hi Peter,

      I am not familiar with Campbell’s kits, but I imagine that they are probably replica kits. It seems that Model Train builders usually strive for high levels of realism and detail that comes from exact replicas. However, it seems odd to me for the bottom chord to be taller than the top chord. It might make sense if the top chord was a different shape, such as an L or T and wouldn’t need the vertical height. The top chord in both examples you give will be in compression, which means it will benefit more by being larger than the bottom chord. The bottom chord could be thinner and taller and still be strong. The benefit to this over a simple square shape is that now the joints have greater potential surface area (glue joints).

      By Garrett Boon -- February 13, 2017
  5. i would like to konw which website or software can draw the diagram of truss

    By lccas -- January 20, 2017
  6. It is a very useful .

    By S R Pandit -- December 14, 2016
  7. Can I make the Howe truss a little bigger in height?

    By Ryan H. -- October 26, 2016
  8. Mr. Boon, thank you for this wonderful resource on the howe truss bridge. I have a question. Where are the compression and tension forces distributed in the bridge? I couldn’t really see them in the diagram.

    By Happy Singh -- February 27, 2016
    • In the force diagrams above, the color red shows members in tension, and blue shows members in compression.

      By Garrett Boon -- March 1, 2016
  9. This website is so useful

    😀 thank you

    By eng.cutie -- October 28, 2013
    • It really is, especially with the project we are doing at my school that has to do with bridges.

      By Ryan H. -- October 26, 2016
  10. I have a question of the center load diagram…

    You show a black line directly above the 100 load, and also a (0 in red) and (100 in black). Does this represent that the vertical member (which would be red) has zero force?? Is the black line with black 100 measure refering to the load being applied to the top horizontal row members also??? I ask because I’m trying to solve/study a problem with different and multiple loads acting at different joints within a Howe Truss structure… all solutions point to these vertical members as “zero-force” but i’m confused as to why if the load is being applied directly at that joint with vertical member… THANKS for great site!!

    Adam

    By Adam Y -- April 4, 2012
  11. if i were to build a bridge for a project in which the requirements entail balsa wood and a load attached to the bottom of the bridge so that the bridge is set between a space on 2 separate tables and a bucket hangs onto the bottom of the bridge, which bridge design would be able to hold more while weighing less? the pratt truss bridge or the howe trust bridge?

    By ilovebridges -- March 27, 2012
  12. Can I use some of these pictures for my science fair project?

    By Laura -- February 6, 2012
    • Yes

      By Garrett Boon -- February 6, 2012
  13. epic

    By Admsp -- September 1, 2011
    • well it would be useful if there were some pictures !! of actual bridges..

      By Cerys -- October 8, 2014
  14. which would be better for a pasta bridge where the mass is directly below, howe or pratt? I’m guessing howe because the weight is more evenly distrubuted throughout the bridge.

    By ploiuy -- March 27, 2011
  15. Love this website!!! Perfect for my assignment!! 🙂 <3

    By Kerbear -- March 3, 2011
  16. why do pratt and howe trusses look the same???? 🙁

    By Keri -- March 3, 2011
    • Keri, the Pratt and Howe trusses do look very similar. But there is a very fundamental difference, and if you look closely you can figure it out.

      By Garrett Boon -- March 4, 2011
  17. why only half of the weight is taken while calculating and drawing structure of truss at joints plse reply

    By yogendra -- February 4, 2011
    • I don’t understand this question. Could you please rephrase it?

      By Garrett Boon -- February 6, 2011

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