What is a Dumbwaiter?

Most commonly used in restaurants, cafes, hotels and other hospitality settings, dumbwaiter lifts are also popular in large residences with multiple floors, in hospitals and scientific settings, or any other setting where goods need to be quickly and seamlessly transported between floors. While some goods lifts, like platform lifts, can be used to transport users and goods, dumbwaiters are much smaller than passenger lifts, and so should only ever be used for lightweight to mid-weight goods.

The basic technology behind dumbwaiter lifts has actually been around for thousands of years, with the earliest recorded use of dumbwaiter lifts being recorded by an architect in 200BC! Today’s dumbwaiters are considerably more sophisticated than these early designs, but the basic technology is still the same. Dumbwaiters consist of a movable frame inside a shaft, dropped by a rope on a pulley and guided by rails inside the lift shaft. 


As a rule, dumbwaiters have a smaller shaft, cart, and capacity than passenger elevators, usually anywhere between 45 and 450 kg (100 to 992 lbs). A dumbwaiter was first developed as a simple human-powered device, looping a rope around a pulley or rafter that was controlled manually, but of course, today’s dumbwaiters are powered by electricity.

Dumbwaiters were controlled manually by ropes on pulleys before electric motors were developed in the 1920s. Fireproof walls and self-closing fireproof doors were often required in early 20th century building codes (when dumbwaiters were increasing significantly in popularity) and other features, such as buttons for controlling cart movement between floors and locks to prevent doors from opening unless the cart was at a specific floor, were often included. Today, there are many different features available that can be added to modern dumbwaiter lifts for safety, security and convenience, and to customise your service lift to meet the needs of your building.


Why Are They Called Dumbwaiters?

The word “dumbwaiter” is one that became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and refers to the lift’s ability to transport goods quickly and quietly. This allowed homeowners and diners to be distanced from the loud noises, heat and smells from the kitchen and to have a more comfortable dining experience. In stately homes and large residences with their own waiters and cooks, this led to the use of the term dumbwaiter as a silent server, rather than the actual waiters having to walk up and down the stairs to and from the kitchen.

Over the years, dumbwaiters have remained incredibly popular for these reasons, but have also seen lots of different applications in businesses, including:

  • Transporting food and laundry in hotels
  • Transporting food, drinks, supplies and dishes in restaurants, pubs and bars
  • Transporting medical supplies, medications and tools from specialist storage or to be cleaned in hospitals
  • Carrying correspondence and documents in large office buildings
  • Moving big and bulky items in homes or apartment buildings
  • Moving goods between floors in shops and department stores
  • In factories, manufacturing and industrial plants, to move goods

How Does a Dumbwaiter Work?

Early dumbwaiters worked very simply – which is one of the reasons the design has remained so popular over the years. Early dumbwaiters used a system of pulleys that could be activated from the top or bottom of the shaft. By pulling on the ropes by hand, users could move the dumbwaiter box from floor to floor, while the pulley system helped to alleviate some of the weight, making it easier to move. However, for all their benefits, early dumbwaiters relied on a rope that was prone to stretching, snagging and tearing, and it wasn’t uncommon for the wheels of the lift to be pushed off the track and slip!

Of course, today’s dumbwaiters have addressed all of these concerns, and now use electric motors, automatic moving systems, more secure tracks and wheels, improved lifting capabilities and much more.

Dumbwaiter Shelves

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FAQs about Dumbwaiters and Automatic Service Lifts

The cost of a dumbwaiter lift will vary considerably based on the shape, size and weight requirements of your dumbwaiter lift, as well as any additional features your lift needs to have. The number of floors and the number of stopping points your dumbwaiter needs to cover is generally one of the biggest factors that impact the overall cost of your dumbwaiter lift, however other factors such as the finishes and features of your lift can also make a difference to the overall price.

While early dumbwaiters were often restricted by how much a user could pull up (with the help of a pulley system), today’s dumbwaiters and automatic service lifts can carry heavy loads from floor to floor. In general though, most modern dumbwaiters can carry anywhere from 45kgs to 450kgs, and can be easily customised to the needs of your business! Whether it’s a small service lift in hospitality, or a larger goods lift in an industrial setting, the team at Sheridan Lifts can help you to find the right lift for your business, and are always on hand to assist you throughout the lift installation process.

The biggest difference between a dumbwaiter lift and a passenger elevator is that dumbwaiters are not designed to carry passengers, and this is obvious in the design of dumbwaiter lifts. The controls for most dumbwaiters are external to the lift carriage, and the shape and size of the carriage are considerably smaller than in a passenger lift. There are also no internal lights or similar user-friendly features, as they are not designed for passenger use. The main lifting mechanism of a dumbwaiter lift is usually different when compared to passenger lifts or platform lifts.

No, dumbwaiters should never be used to transport people. While the safety of dumbwaiters has improved significantly in recent years, they are not designed for passenger use, and should only ever be used to carry goods.

At Sheridan Lifts, we have been installing top-of-the-line dumbwaiter and automatic service lifts for our clients for many years now, and we are one of the UK’s largest independent installers of dumbwaiter and service lifts. To find out more about dumbwaiter lifts, to see if a dumbwaiter or automatic service lift is right for your organisation, or to get a quote and book your installation with the expert lift engineers at Sheridan Lifts, please don’t hesitate to get in touch via our website or give our team a call!

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