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Advice to the Beginner - Keep it Simple

(Originally published in Volume 5, Issue 8 - January 11, 2006)

Countless times I have had the following phone conversation: "Hi, my
son just got a pinewood derby kit, but when we opened it all we found
was a block of wood, four wheels, and some nails. What the heck are
we supposed to do with it? I expected it to have a car that looked
like the photo on the box!"

It can be very daunting to participate in your first pinewood derby
race. The event demands some woodworking skill, some understanding of
physics, and access to basic tools and supplies. For many people one,
two, or three of these requirements are missing.

So, let me share some advice for those of you that are participating
in your first race.

Unless you have some experience with woodworking and the tools of the
trade, then I suggest going with a basic wedge-type design. Not only
is it a simple shape to cut, it also simplifies sanding and finishing.
All that is needed to build a wedge is a saw and a hand drill. If you
are missing these items, then you can purchase wedges already cut and
drilled from several sources.(1)

I recommend recessing weight into the car body. With a wedge, the
easiest way to do this is to glue lead wire (2), in holes drilled into
the car (see the next section). Holes drilled into the side or back
of the car can be covered with wood plugs or with wood filler before

Note that on many kits - including BSA kits - one axle slot is closest
to the end of the block. I recommend using that closest slot as the
rear slot (the opposite of the car pictured on the BSA kit box).

To ensure that the car performs well, you will need to add weight to
bring the completed car to the maximum weight (usually 5 ounces). An
easy weight to use is lead wire. This product is 3/8 inch in diameter
and can be easily cut into pieces and reshaped. Note that this
product is not typically available in hobby shops, but is available
from some on-line stores. Generally, you will need between 2.5 and 3
ounces of weight for a wedge-shaped car.

On most tracks, best performance is attained by locating the added
weight towards the rear of the car. For a wedge-shaped car, a good
rule of thumb is to place 1/3 of the added weight behind the rear
axle, 1/3 just in front of the rear axle, and the final 1/3 about
1-1/2 inches in front of the rear axle.

If you are unfamiliar with painting models, and you are making a
simple shape (like a wedge), then consider using a Body Skin.(3)
These full body decals work well on simple cars.

If you decide to paint, then consider using Acrylic hobby paints.
They generally work well and clean up with water. Avoid getting paint
in the axle slots - use masking tape to cover the slots.

Although the wheels can be used directly from the box, some
preparation is recommended. This includes sanding the tread surface
and inside edge (with the wheel mounted on a wheel mandrel and
spinning on a drill), squaring or coning the inside wheel hub, and
polishing the bore. Tools are available from on-line stores to assist
in these preparation steps.(4) As an alternative, prepped wheels are
available from many on-line stores.(5) Just make sure to check your
local rules to find out what is allowed/disallowed in your race.

If your kit uses nail-type axles, then you certainly want to remove
the flaws by placing the nail in the chuck of a drill, point first,
and then applying a small file to the spinning axle. Next, polish the
axles with fine grit, wet sandpaper, and/or other polishing
materials.(6) As in the case of wheels, prepped axles are also
available from many sites.(7)

The wheels and axles must be lubricated. Unless restricted by your
local rules, go with graphite. It is the number one lube used, and is
readily available.(8) Be sure to work the graphite into the wheel hub
by spinning a wheel on an axle multiple times. To keep your car
clean, and to ensure a thorough lube job, I recommend lubricating the
wheels and axles before attaching them to the car.

Mount the wheels and axles onto the car by inserting the axles into
the axle slots or axle holes. The Pro-Axle Guide (9) is available to
greatly simplify this step.

The wheel hub to car body gap should be about 30 thousandths of an
inch. The Pro-Axle Guide has a built in gap gauge, and other gap
gauges are available. But in a pinch, you can use a standard credit
card as a gap gauge. Just place the credit card against the side of
the car, and insert the axle until the inside wheel hub is snug
against the credit card. Then remove the card.

With axle slots, the axles will need to be glued in place (a dab of
white glue spread over the exposed axles works well - just keep the
glue away from the wheels). However, before gluing the axles in place,
check and adjust the alignment of the car (see Volume 5, Issue 6 -
Wheel Alignment: Make It Straight!).

I hope that this break-down of the car building steps will ease your
mind as you build your first car. Just remember, take your time, make
sure your child is fully involved, and enjoy the process. Good luck!

(1) See http://www.maximum-velocity.com/kits.htm#kits
(2) See http://www.maximum-velocity.com/speed_supplies.htm#lead
(3) See http://www.maximum-velocity.com/decals_etc.htm#body_skins
(4) See http://www.maximum-velocity.com/specialty_tools.htm
(5) See http://www.maximum-velocity.com/wheels_axles.htm#bsa_speed
(6) See http://www.maximum-velocity.com/speed_supplies.htm#polishing
(7) See http://www.maximum-velocity.com/wheels_axles.htm#bsa_axles
(8) See http://www.maximum-velocity.com/speed_supplies.htm#lube
(9) See http://www.maximum-velocity.com/specialty_tools.htm#axleguide

Read More at: Pinewood Derby Times Volume 9, Issue 1

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