Friday, January 19, 2007

The Pinewood Derby, Part I

If you're into Scouting, you know all about this. If you're not, I hope that you'll learning something from this post, so here goes.

The Pinewood Derby is, by all reports, the highlight of a Cub Scout's year. The reason I say "by all reports" is that this is our first year in Scouting, so I only can rely upon the reports of others and not personal experience.

Essentially, you're provided with a small block of wood (that has slits cut into it for the insertion of your "axles"). You're also provided with pins (to insert into the slots and which will serve as axles) and wheels. The job of the Cub Scout (and his "village") is to create a car that weighs no more than 5 ounces, that's painted, that's "neat looking" and that can win a race down a slight incline. Cars are judged on appearance, and, of course, they race.

Sounds pretty simple, along the lines of Tony Gwynn's comment regarding how he became such a good hitter. "See the ball, hit the ball", right? No problem for the dads, huh, because every man has a workshop in his house, a band saw, a coping saw, a belt sander, wood epoxy, powdered graphite, primer, hobby paint, paint tape, sandpaper, brushes, etc.?

Well, that's not really me. I'm good at fixing certain things and putting things together, but I'm not a woodworker and am not dextrous with power tools (ask me to cook a gourmet meal or make a great dessert, and I can). The Pack leadership thought ahead, though, and volunteered various pack leaders to volunteer their band saws to help cut the design from the block. I also figured that I'd check with the veteran dads about how to create this car. After all, I'm coachable, and I viewed this experience as an opportunity to learn how to create these cars in future years.

So, figuring that "it's the journey," I looked at the box and the booklet that came with the Pinewood Derby kit, talked about them with my seven year-old, designed a few favorites on graph paper, talked about them some more, and then, with a straight edge, drew the markings on the block. We created a car that looks a bit like a Formula 1 model, and then we took the block, as marked, to a pack leader, and he graciously cut our shape out of the block (and complimented my son on his choice).

Next, we had to sand down the rough edges. First, my son hand sanded the entire car, but there was a significant bump on the back that required more heavy duty sanding. We're energetic and enthusiastic, but this was a tall task, so enter my neighbor, who is a Scout master (his son is a high schooler). He whipped out his electric sander and smoothed out that edge. Then he whipped out his router to bore a space beneath the car so that we can insert the flat weights that many people deploy. My son hand sanded some more.

So now we had a smooth car. This is where it got difficult -- how to prime the car before painting it, what paint to use, how not to get paint into the slots for the pins, how to make the car shiny, how to get the wheels aligned, and, yes, how to weigh the car. Every veteran advised to weigh the car carefully, to go to the local post office before the big event, so that we can get the car as close to 5 ounces as possible.

Dizzying choices for the uninitiated, lots of other costs, and, of course, we had to remember that this is the project for a seven-year old. (We also were admonished not to buy the car "skins" that the Pinewood line offered as a car coating -- all cars had to be hand-painted). There were also suggestions of using automotive rub to make the surface shinier and perhaps using car wax.

Off I went, looking for various supplies, and I spent money at Home Depot (sand paper, primer, glossy paint), Pep Boys (rub, spray paint, nozzle for spray paint can), and A.C. Moore (dashboard supplies, tool for aligning the wheels, weights for the car). So much for an inexpensive initiative.

My son and I used the Pinewood kit primer, but it came out clear and not white and we weren't sure whether we primed the vehicle correctly. So, we whipped out the Home Depot primer (Kilz) and put on a couple more coats of primer as evenly as we could. Needless to say, my son and I got a lot of primer on our hands.

Then it was time for the paint. I was ready to use the spray paint and the black-gloss paint (for trim), but at that point (last weekend) my wife talked to the Assistant Pack Master's wife, who suggested we use a certain type of metallic paint. So, goodbye spray paint and black gloss paint; we used their paints, and the car didn't come out as bright red as we had hoped, more like a dusty red that would look better on Scarlett Johanssen than a race car, but what the heck. The black made a nice accent, and, truth be told, the car looks like a seven-year old painted it. Even with the paint tape (designed to tape over areas to prevent you from overpainting or dripping), there was still some running, but what the heck, it's the car of a seven year-old.

Sanded and painted, we needed to put the weights on the car and to attach the wheels and get them aligned. I used a kitch scale to weigh the car (which came in at about 2 ounces) and the weights, but not being a scientist I forgot about calibrations and, well, thought the car could take more weights than it really could (read on -- I'll get to that point). But then I got paralyzed, fearful that we'd create a car that wouldn't run or where the wheels would come off. What to do?

By this past Wednesday, I couldn't connect with my handy and helpful neighbor, the Assistant Scout Master, so my wife came to the rescue. She called our Den Mother to ask about how they were doing with their kids, and the Den Mother volunteered her husband, an engineer, to help with the wheels on the car. It was at that time that I had the confidence to glue weights to the undersize of the car. Out of an abundance of caution, I broke off portions of the "standard" weights sold at A.C. Moore and only glued on portions of the weights (yes, we had to spend on Krazy Glue too!). I placed the weights closer to the back wheels, as my company's Chief Scientist (also a scout dad) told me not to put the weights too close to the front, because the drag would end up pushing the car into the walls of the track and not make it hurtle down the course faster. Thanks, again, for helpful tips.

Our Den Mother's husband was terrific, and he put on the pins and aligned the wheels. He cautioned not to let my son run the car along the floor and risk re-alignment. He did an excellent job, and he suggested that I get some wood epoxy to make sure that the pins stayed in the rear axle slot. The cause of the concern was that in trying to get paint and glue out of the rear axle slot, I might have (inadvertently) widened the slot. So, the following night, my neighbor the Assistant Scout Master's son, walked over some wood epoxy and the powdered graphite for the wheels (which you deploy before the race to make them run more smoothly).

In between -- yesterday -- I brought the car, lying upside down in a Tupperware container, to work. The reason -- to use the scale in our mail room in our product development lab at work to weigh the car digitally. The scale was in grams, and, as then weighted, the car weighed about 7 grams less than 5 ounces. I also weighed various weights in grams to see what I could add, and, with that information in tow, I knew to affix one more weight to the car last night. And, about 10 p.m. last night, I glued on the final weight and put the wood epoxy over the rear axle slots. This morning, I brought the car to work and weighed it again, and, low and behold, it's about 1/2 gram below 5 ounces. Mission accomplished. Oh, sure, one of our engineers said that the machine was due for a calibration, but if the car weighs in over 5 ounces tonight at the weigh-in, I'll lop off the weight that I attached last night.

Whew! I think that we have a car ready to race. That said, there's one thing I didn't do. . .

sand down the pins to reduce the friction for the wheels. The Den Mother's husband said his kids' cars did fine without it, and my colleague the scientist said that you could do it wrong and make the wheels not work too well. But my neighbor the Assistant Scout Master said that we really should have done it, but I couldn't hook up with him to get it done. Maybe next year.

So, to recap:

Work on the car with my son and my wife. Assistance from the Pack Master (cutting the shape), Assistant Pack Master's wife (metallic paints), Den Mother's husband (wheel insertion and calibration) and neighbor (an Assistant Scout Master) (routing the space for the weights and sanding out a particularly rough spot), as well as the latter's son, an aspiring Eagle Scout, who brought over the epoxy and graphite.

Expenditures -- primer (only 1/100,000 used), spray paint (unused), spray pint nozzle (unused), fine sandpaper (used), automotive rub (not used), steering wheel/dashboard kit (not used), calibration tool (not really used), weights (1/5 used), paint kit (1/4 used).

Experience -- I hope it's priceless. We had a lot of fun doing this, and we've learned a lot, and I promise I'll practice on these this summer (have a Dremel kit, have a lot of fun). I hope you're not as exhausted from reading this as this process sometimes tired us out, but what the journey is illustrative of is that we live in a nice town with all sorts of helpful people. I'll post again with my observations on the Pinewood Derby, which will be held tonight.

I'm sure that there will be better looking cars with slicker features, but this car does look like it was painted by a seven year-old and sanded by him. Next year, I'll work with him more on tapping in the wheels and aligning them and let him do more. I don't agree with the package insert to the kit that says the average scout can build the car by himself, but I think that as our family advances through scouting my son will be able to do more and more.

Pinewood Derby here we come!


Anonymous said...

Let's see some pictures!

SportsProf said...

In my haste I neglected to take a photo of the finished product, and now the car is impounded because it's going to race in the county-wide tournament. It's not the best looking car from a paint standpoint, but it ran pretty well. When we get the car back, I'll post a photo.

Bill Fitzgerald said...

Sounds like you did great for a rookie. The Pinewood Derby has taken enough out of me to inspire two blog entries. Enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Nice post! I'm walking in your shoes currently.....the race is this coming Saturday....we'll see how it goes?!

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