The Cheese Whizz

The Pinewood Derby is one of the greatest Cub Scout activities in the world! It can be a very emotional and intense race, bringing out the best and worst in some people.

Right now you’re probably thinking of that family who goes crazy every year, regardless of whether their car won or not, or the parent who won’t let their son or daughter touch the car before the race for fear they will mess up the car they just spent all night making. Even with all this drama it can still be a great event.

I have made several Pinewood Derby cars through the years and have enjoyed it each time. Similar to how kids start thinking of what they want to be for Halloween months in advance, I have found myself thinking of fun and challenging cars to design and make for the Pinewood Derby Race. It is always amazing to see how many different designs can come from a block of wood, four nails and four tires. 

Canoe car

In this article I want to cover some helpful hints and tips for designing and shaping your car. This can be helpful for a parent who wants to help their child or for the parent that is making their own car in an open class race.

My cars aren’t always the fastest cars, but they do look nice. To see a few more of the cars I have built in the past, here is an article I wrote back in 2009. If you are looking for tips on speed, there are other articles you can read on that. I will just focus on some basics to help you get going on the design and shaping. You can use hand tools to cut, shape and sand the car, but I will focus on utilizing some power tools to get the car cut and sanded in a more efficient and precise way.

Note: Please read the Guide to Safe Scouting and the Age Appropriate Guidelines for Scouting Activities for using power tools. Scouts are not allowed to use power tools (such as power saws), so this must be done by an adult who is experienced in operating these types of tools. If you are inexperienced you should contact someone who is familiar and skilled in operating power tools, to avoid accidents and injury.

Design

Step 1: Place the block of wood on its side and trace the outline onto a piece of graph paper. Make sure you are tracing the side and not the top or bottom. Also be sure you mark the slots for the axles (nails); this will be important as you start to design your car. Be sure to mark what end you would like to be the front. Whoever is designing the car should then draw the design in the outlined area. Please note that you must keep at least ½” and preferably ¾” or more on all sides of the slot for the axle otherwise it will split out when you are putting the wheels in (and that is really disappointing when that happens). 

Step 2: Once the side design is complete, cut out the outline shape on the graph paper, making a template. Place it on the block of wood and with a pencil trace the outline onto the side of the car.

Shaping

Step 1: Once again, make sure the person operating the power saw is familiar with using it and is experienced in using it safely. I like to begin by cutting all the straight cuts on the car.

Step 2: Once all those cuts have been made you can begin to follow the traced lines to remove the excess pieces of wood. In some cases where there are tight corners, rounded edges, or long cuts, it is beneficial to use relief cuts. Relief cuts are made by making a series of straight cuts almost up to the pattern line, then back out of the cut. Here is an article on how relief cuts are used if you need more help.

Close up of relief cuts
Continue making relief cuts

You will find that using relief cuts can help you get the desired shape with a little less headache. Carefully begin cutting along your pattern line and remove the pieces that come off as you cut.

You may even choose to use some of these pieces for a spoiler or some other cool looking add on for the car, so it is good to keep them in a little pile off to the side.
Typically I use a band saw for cutting Pinewood Derby cars, but if you don’t have access to a band saw you could try using this handy benchtop saw called the BladeRunner by WORX. I used this saw for cutting my car for this article and found the following pros and cons.

Pros: 

  • Lightweight portable design makes it easy to carry from one location to another
  • Low profile and rubber grip feet hold it in place for use on any sturdy surface
  • Cuts wood easily
  • Quick to set up and change blades
  • Assortment of blades for cutting different materials: wood, steel, aluminum, ceramic tile, etc.

Cons:

  • Since it works like an inverted jigsaw, it vibrates the piece of wood you’re cutting and makes it want to jump around a little bit unlike a bandsaw where the blade is turning in a constant downward motion that naturally holds the workpiece down. There is a special guard on the BladeRunner that is designed to hold the workpiece down to assist the operator. After a few practice cuts you can become accustomed to how it handles and shape the wood in the way you intended.

My overall impressions of the BladeRunner is that it would be a good alternative power saw to use if you don’t have a bandsaw available. Plus it is lightweight and super easy to move unlike a table top bandsaw. This tool could also be used for a number of other home improvement projects.


Step 3: After the cutting is done, it is time to get to work sanding the car to a nice smooth finish. Sanding by hand is always a great Cub Scout activity. If you choose to use a power tool to assist in the sanding process, it is important to choose the right one for the job. I have a large belt sander in my woodshop (pictured below) that I use on many of my projects, but it is not ideal for sanding Pinewood Derby cars due the large size of the sander for a small wooden block.

When you use a big sander for small pieces you run the risk of injury, because your hand and fingers are closer to the moving belt. Also, a big sander can grab small workpieces and destroy them. I have had the unfortunate experience of sanding small items on my belt sander and having my hand slip and sanding the tip of my finger off…that was not a good day. So please use good judgment and proper precautions.
Detailed sanding requires tools that can get into tight places. If all you have is a belt sander I would recommend sanding by hand or checking out one of these hand held power tools to give you a maximum control while sanding. Here are some tools that I tested out on sanding on my Pinewood Derby car: the Sonicrafter F50 Oscillating made by Rockwell tool and or the 20V Sandeck 5-IN-1-Multi-Sander made by Worx.

Both these tools worked great and made sanding a breeze. Here are some of the pros and cons I found with each one of these tools.

The Sonicrafter oscillating multi-tool

Pros:

  • Able to get into tight areas for detailed sanding
  • Easy to grip in your hand and control
  • Comes with 26 assorted sanding sheets
  • Multipurpose tool that can be used for several other projects around the house. With all the attachments and blades that come in the kit it is as versatile as a Swiss Army Knife and a must have item for DIY projects.

Con:

  • This model is corded, so you may need an extension cord depending on the location of your work area.

The Sandeck 5-IN-1 Multisander

Pros:

  • Cordless tool, easy to hold and control
  • Five sanding attachments and five sanding speeds
  • Dust collection bag
  • Battery pack is part of WORX Power Share and can be used on other electric cordless tools by WORX

Cons:

  • Not all sanding attachments are ideal for working on Pinewood Derby
  • If you are planning on doing a bit of sanding you may need to have a spare battery on hand, but one fully charged battery should be sufficient.

Overall I was happy with the tools I tried and had a fun time making this Pinewood Derby car.

In the comments below I would be interested to hear your Pinewood Derby experiences. What makes this event fun for you? What tips and hints do you have for making Pinewood Derby cars? What tools have you found to be most helpful in shaping Pinewood Derby cars?

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Andrew Olsen
covers gear for outdoor adventures and projects around the house and other interesting things. He worked professionally for the BSA for 10 years in Colorado, Nebraska, Alaska, and Utah and currently works for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is a DIY guy and loves to take on new challenges. He and his wife live in Utah and have two amazing kids.

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