It’s that time of year again, and you have to build a car from a small block of wood. If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking oh darn…maybe not. Me and my son competed in our first Pinewood Derby Car race when he was 6, and we placed 3rd overall (out of about 32 cars). Hopefully, this article will help you avoid the stress I faced as I was towing 2 kids through the Home Depot, trying to figure out which tools I need. Read on for the heavily guarded tips I uncovered (it’s extremely competitive in the world of father/son pinewood derby racing).
Our second year, we weren’t as successful in the YMCA Guides race in which I spent a week building the car, and it looked just like a corvette to me (the blue car). But that same year, we had a Pinewood Derby for Cub Scouts also. We spent 2-3 hours on the whole thing the night before, and we won 2 big first place trophies (one for his age group, the other for the entire pack). It was shaped like a doorstop, painted yellow, with electrical tape stripes to make it look like a bumblebee. Go figure.
- Block of Pine
- 2 Dowels for Wheels
- 4 Screws for Axles
- 4 Wheels
- Lead weight with 2 screws
- Paint – I used spray paint (primer and black); but you can pick up some acrylic paint and small brushes to give it a more rustic look (read “painted by your child”)
- Hack Saw – for cutting big straight lines
- Band Saw – a nice table saw perfect for this; but kind of expensive for one piece of wood annually
- Dremel – this is the tool that saved me
- Read the Pinewood Derby Rules and Regulations. It will tell you the maximum weight of the car, the minimum width of the wheels needed to fit on the track, the minimum height restrictions. These are important; one year I cut out wheel wells in my car only to find out my wheels were too close together for the track, and I had to start over.
- Draw the car shape you want, on each side of the wood, with a pencil or pen.
- Cut the wood using your drawn lines to get the approximate shape. It doesn’t have to be perfect, since you’ll be using the dremel to provide a better guide in preparation for sanding.
- Use the dremel to get the shape of the car to your intended design.
- Now start sanding using progressively finer grains. Spend a lot of time sanding to get the surfaces really smooth. This will help when you paint it.
- Before painting, determine how you’re going to attach the lead weights to get the total car weight as close to the maximum regulation weight as possible. You can drill holes to insert the weights in; or use 2-sided tape, etc. I’ll cut out the indents or drill holes before painting. I attach the weights after the paints dried.
- Use a primer and then one or several color spray paints. I prefer to use quick drying, high gloss spray paint; but there are no limitations.
- Lightly sand the wheels to remove any pieces sticking out from the molding production. You can also sand the axles (nails) down with extremely fine wet sandpaper and/or pumice (there’s a lot of debate whether this works).
- Attach wheels trying to get everything perfectly aligned. There are different approaches to attaching wheels, such as angled in, angled out, only 3 wheels touching the surface to reduce friction. I’ve tried it all, and I don’t see any consistent performance advantage. But then again, I’ve only done it for 3 years.
- The Dremel is your best friend. Nothing beats this bad boy when it comes to shaping a piece of wood with sports car-like curves.
- Don’t use a coping saw; cutting straight curves along a 2-4 inch with of wood is nearly impossible. Find a friend who has a band saw to cut the shape; it will save you hours.
- Once you’ve assembled and painted the car, go to the post office to use their scale. They usually have one in the lobby; and you can just grind down the lead weight on the sidewalk until you’ve reached the perfect weight.
- Know how long it takes for the paint to dry. I’ve used paint that takes 1-2 days to dry, but I wanted to add a few coats. Unfortunately, I started the night before, and I left finger prints in a very high gloss paint.
- The Pinewood Derby Rules and Regulations identifies the maximum weight of the car, the minimum width of the wheels needed to fit on the track, the minimum height restrictions. These are important; one year I cut out wheel wells in my car only to find out my wheels were too close together for the track, and I had to start over.