Pinewood Derby Racing: A Great Parent/Child Project

Geek Culture

My Pinewood Derby RacerMy Pinewood Derby Racer

This last weekend my neighbor and his son (age 7) invited my son, Decker (almost 5), to come and watch his Cub Scout Pinewood Derby race. If you’re not familiar with this event, the Cub Scouts host a race every year where the participants take a standard block of wood and four plastic wheels and turn it into a pure racing machine… or something else. It’s been over 30 years for me, but I still remember my dad taking me out into the workshop and helping me use his bandsaw and sander to carve up my own car, #87. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was mine. It still sits on a bookshelf in my office as a reminder of not only the race but also the time I spent with my dad at a very young age, learning to use some basic woodworking tools.

Row of RacersRow of Racers

Decker isn’t quite old enough yet for the Cub Scouts, but he absolutely loved looking at the 100+ cars sitting on display for the judges to examine and weigh. All cars must weigh less than 5 ounces, but racers try to hit as close to 5 ounces as possible because the weight of the car affects its speed when it is released on the downward-pointing ramp. There were a lot of interesting solutions to getting the cars up in weight (the block weighs about 1.4 ounces and the wheels and paint add enough to bring it up to about 4.3 ounces… so there’s some wiggle room for embellishment and personalization of a racer’s vehicle.)

Races this day were performed 4 cars at a time. To ensure fairness, multiple races were performed with each car racing on a different track (1, 2, 3, or 4); I’m guessing this is done because maybe one or more tracks run faster or have a better/smoother surface. Whatever the reasons, each scout gets to see his car race multiple times. Awards were given out for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finishes for different troops/ages as well as some design awards.

In addition to taking my son, I also took along a set of 4 books provided to me by Fox Chapel Publishing that relate to the Pinewood Derby. I passed the books around to the various scouts and parents, letting them take a look at the information that I’d already read and discovered about creating a great racer.

Getting Started Pinewood DerbyGetting Started Pinewood Derby

The first book, Getting Started in Pinewood Derby by Troy Thorne, is the clear choice for the beginning scout. It’s a full-color book with some really detailed photos showing how to cut, carve, paint, and decorate your racer. There’s advice on safety, tips on making the wheels run faster and smoother, help with getting your car to the proper weight, and a great little documentation section at the back for recording information about your racer such as race times and taping in some photos. You’ll also find a small number of templates that can be cut out (or photocopied) and taped over the block of wood, helping you make the proper cuts to shape your block of wood into some really cool designs.

Hands down, this is one of the best little books I’ve seen on basic woodworking skills, and I’m very impressed with the cartoon character of Dash Derby who provides tips and advice throughout the book on improving your racer’s odds in the final race. The actual instructions in the book are written for a young reader, and I’m very happy to see that Thorne wrote the book not for the parent, but for the scout — simple language and short sentences for each full color photo make it easy to follow along and tweak your racer’s wheel alignment, decal placement and many other racer details. The book follows loosely the format of a comic book in many sections, with balloon windows showing a step and POW BANG BAP sound effect graphics added for fun. This 96 page book is the perfect gift for any new Cub Scout, but honestly… the book is pure fun and would make a great parent/child project for any weekend.

I’m already planning on visiting the scout supply store here in Atlanta and obtaining the block/wheels kit because Decker asked after the event if we could make a car. Actually, I plan on buying two kits… one for him and one for me. Why my own kit? Because of the next book.

Designs and Patterns bookDesigns and Patterns book

Pinewood Derby Designs & Patterns is another book by Troy Thorne. This 118 page book follows a similar format as the previously mentioned book, but this one is all about variety. It does have some additional woodworking tips and advice, but these are scattered throughout the book and picked up depending on the type of racer you wish to create. The racers in the Getting Started in Pinewood Derby book are great, but if you’ve got a child looking to create a real eye-catching racer, this is the companion book you’ll want to grab. I’m not kidding — some of the designs in this book are almost unbelievable given that they all start with a single small block of wood. And the painting and decal applying tips are much more advanced in this book, but still within the skill range of any young child with some adult supervision. Much of the design work in this book is done using a Dremel or similar rotary powered tool, and one look at some of the car shapes in its pages will tell you that a small coping saw won’t be enough. That said, you can still do all the major cuts with a basic saw and then switch to the rotary tool for the more detailed shaping.

At the back of the book you’ll once again get some templates for a variety of designs including a Mini Cooper, a NASCAR stock car vehicle, an Army Jeep, a Ferrari, and a couple of classic jalopies. (The Stock Car and Army Jeep are unbelievable in their details, but just take a look at the cover to see the #37 Red Racer with exposed carburetors and exhaust to get an idea of just how crazy this book takes the subject of design.) But let me repeat my earlier statement — after reading through this entire book, there is nothing in here that a scout couldn’t do with help from a parent. Kids age 7 or 8 and up should be able to do much of the work themselves if they read the instructions carefully and have an adult on hand to help with the more dangerous tools. And by the way, the section on applying decals is excellent — I’ve always wondered how one might go about applying custom color designs and the information on the use of tape, wax paper, and a few other tools is well worth the price of the book alone.

Speed Secrets bookSpeed Secrets book

The third book turned out to be the most popular — I had a lot of parents and kids writing down the title and a few asking if they could borrow it for a few days. It’s titled Pinewood Derby Speed Secrets and it’s written by David Meade (and illustrated by Troy Thorne). This book is all about the competition, but it’s got some really amazing bonus items such as a great little essay in the front on the history of the Pinewood Derby. It’s so cool to see photos of the early days of this event as well as the typical design and look of the earlier racers. There’s also some great advice for parents early in the book about working with your child, teaching them concepts of racing (such as aerodynamics, potential energy, friction, and inertia) and discussing some pros and cons of design. (I never really gave much thought to the shape of the nose, but the author makes a solid point in explaining why you don’t want a tapered nose on your car — lesson learned.)

The first project in the book is called The Winning Car and it’s a beautifully shaped vehicle that looks almost like my original car so many years ago (it’s the red racer in the back on the cover. It’s a tapered design and I believe most kids would be able to build this racer on their own. What’s nice is that this basic racer is used to teach so many tool and woodworking techniques that are then used again throughout the book. Two additional racers (The Champion Car in the middle on the cover and The Ultimate Car, the yellow vehicle at the front on the cover) are covered in detail and then additional chapters cover wheel and axle preparation. This book, however, has the ultimate tips and advice on wheel prep in my opinion, and I’m blown away by the time spent on prepping the wheels to run smoother and faster and the techniques used. The book finishes up with some great full-color examples of other racers as well as a handful of new templates that can be copied and glued onto a block for cutting and shaping.


Finally, the last book I shared with the parents and scouts was the Pinewood Derby Workbook & Logbook by Troy Thorne. This short 32 page book is a real eye-catcher. Full color photos of some car ideas adorn the inside cover and then the book offers up a variety of workbook pages that allow your young racer to document things such as their prototype design sketches using some graph paper templates. Other templates allow you to transfer your side and top prototype designs to a wraparound templates that can be cut out and taped or glued to the block for the actual cutting and shaping part of the project. There are templates for designing the car’s color and decal placement (the back inside cover has a large assortment of full-color patterns for the car’s color scheme) and a really useful page for recording the weights of all the individual pieces prior to assembly — shaped and painted block, four wheels, four axles — so you can determine the amount of extra weight you need to add to bring the car up to 5 ounces.

Then the workbook moves on to pages that allow you to troubleshoot alignment by recording various test runs and writing down your observations about the car’s behavior. The book finishes up by providing some Race Day logs for recording the Lane # and the Time and Position of your racer. Some tips and reminders for race day are included in a small checklist so you don’t forget things like glue, graphite, screwdriver, tape, camera, and pen or pencil. The last few pages includes a place to glue or tape in photos of your car in the various building stages and record details about your car, your friends’ cars, and the race results of the day and, of course, your favorite memories about the event. A nice big page offers a place for a larger photo of your final vehicle.

If you’ve got a Cub Scout or a young boy who will be joining the Cub Scouts soon, you’re going to be swamped with information about all the events this organization puts together. But the Pinewood Derby event is one of the most memorable ones… at least to my memory. It’s not about winning, of course, but I have to admit that it’s awfully fun to have a car that can really put on some speed and a good showing. Any of these books would make a great gift for a young scout or really any young child. Boy or girl, building a racer with your child is one of those projects that can be done in an afternoon and will be memorable to all involved. Even if you’re not involved in the Cub Scouts, there’s nothing to prevent you from designing a few racers and having your own race — there are instructions and vendors all over the Internet for putting together your own track, so don’t let that stop you.

Decker’s not letting up on his request to build a racer, so I’ve got to get over to the scout supply store sometime this week so we can start on a couple of racers this weekend. I think I’m looking forward to it even more than he is… not the final racer, but the time spent together.

I’d like to thank Traci at Fox Chapel Publishing for the review copies provided.

Getting Started in Pinewood Derby

Pinewood Derby Designs & Patterns

Pinewood Derby Speed Secrets

Pinewood Derby Workook & Logbook

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