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How to Make a Fast Pinewood Derby Car
By David Meade
Photographs by DK Publishing and BL readers
SAFETY FIRST: Ask an adult to help with tools you haven’t used before.
Packs around the country are preparing to hold their annual pinewood derby. There are many ways to make your pinewood derby car go faster. Here are some of them.
General Guidelines for Pinewood Derby Car Design
The possibilities are endless when it comes to picking a shape for your pinewood derby car. Before you begin, consider the following general guidelines:
Avoid designs with a pointed nose. A pointed nose will make it difficult for your pinewood derby car to rest on the pin at the starting gate. It may also cause your pinewood derby car to get bumped around when the pin drops, and it can create problems for electronic timing systems.
Leave enough wood in the rear of the pinewood derby car so you can place additional weight there. You will end up putting most of the weight in the rear of the pinewood derby car.
Make the maximum weight. Your car should weigh as much as it s allowed. In most races, that s 5 ounces. If your car weighs less than that, add coins or other weights.
Be sure that it is very clear which end of your pinewood derby car is the front and which end is the back. In many races, the race officials —- not you -— will actually place each pinewood derby car on the track. Sometimes the officials put the pinewood derby car on the track backward because they can’t tell which end is which.
Choose a design that allows the air to move over and around the pinewood derby car body in a smooth manner. Pinewood derby cars with aerodynamic profiles go faster.
Designing and Building the Ultimate Pinewood Derby Car
You don’t have to strive for the “ultimate pinewood derby car” to build a fast car and have fun competing in your pinewood derby. But if you and a helpful adult are willing to put in the extra time and effort, these tips are for you.
1. Bake the Block: Start with your block of wood, and before you do anything else, bake it in the oven at 250 degrees for around two hours to remove moisture and make it lighter. This will allow you to add weight to the rear of the car where you actually want it.
2. Create the Design: Draw the outline of your pinewood derby car on a sheet of paper, cut it out and attach it to your block of wood.
Remember, a rectangular car is not an aerodynamic design. The most basic aerodynamic design is a simple wedge. If you don t have time to design a complex car, a wedge will work just fine.
Click here to download a Pinewood Derby car template PDF to help you create your design.
3. Rough Cut the Design: Use a coping saw to cut out the rough shape of your car. You can also ask a responsible adult to make these cuts using a power tool.
4. Shape Your Car: Use sand paper to smooth your car s edges and shape it to your design. An adult can also use a rotary tool or other tool to help you.
5. Sand and Paint the Pinewood Derby Car: Make it smooth to reduce friction and paint an awesome design to make it look great.
Click here for tips on painting your Pinewood Derby car to give it a shiny finish.
6. Install Axles and Wheels: Make sure they are aligned perfectly straight. You can test the alignment of your axles by pushing your car across a smooth floor or table. It should roll smoothly in a straight line.
Make a Three-Wheeler: Raise one wheel about 1/16 inch higher so it never actually touches the track. Less friction = more speed. Rules vary from pack to pack, so make sure this is allowed in your race.
Extend the Wheelbase: The front and rear wheels should be as far apart as possible. Again, make sure this is allowed in your race.
Click here to learn about polishing axles and wheels to reduce friction.
7. Create Glue Holes: Glue the axles firmly in their holes to ensure that they stay perfectly placed, but make sure you don t get glue on your wheels.
8. Add Weight: Remember to make your car as heavy as the rules allow. In general, it s best to add weight to the rear of your pinewood derby car because a heavier rear increases speed.
Click here for scientific speed tips from a former NASA engineer
9. Lubricate the Wheel Well: Add graphite or another dry lubricant to reduce friction. The less friction between the body and wheel, the better.
And finally, remember the No. 1 rule of a pinewood derby is that it s supposed to be fun. While you should always strive to do your best, don t get caught up in winning. Just enjoy the ride.
Adapted from the book Pinewood Derby Speed Secrets, DK Publishing, $12.95 softcover.