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16 Steps to Build a Winning Cub Scout Pinewood Derby Car

Lightning Joe's Suggestions:

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Sixteen steps to building a fast Pinewood Derby Car. Here is a step-by-step process that we've developed and tweaked for building winning Cub Scout Pinewood Derby cars over the years. Please DON'T waste your money on the books and manuals that claim "their" way of building the fastest car is the greatest development since night baseball! There are a host of free tips out here on the web and by purchasing information, you'll be handing over money to people who exploit Cub Scouting for personal gain! Besides, part of scouting is sharing information and by freely passing on tips and tools we can all be winners! How do you put a price tag on that? We'd all do well to remember the motto we learned as Tiger Cubs... Search, Discover, Share!

Here are the steps we (Lightning Joe, Grant and Pastor Scott) have used to build cars that have taken the checkered flag at many derbies over the years:

1. First and foremost, make this a FUN project! Scouting is about discovery, growth and having FUN!

2. Keep it simple. Especially if you're a beginner. There's nothing wrong with a simple wedge-shaped car. Besides, a "wedgie" can be modified beyond the "boring" look and design by adding decals, racing stipes, a driver and other accessories (as the rules allow, of course).

3. Trace out your car design onto the wood block and cut it with a jigsaw or scrollsaw (we've actually cut the block down by hand with a coping saw, but it took a lot longer). SAFETY FIRST... Please follow the safety guidelines for using power tools and ensure that Parents and Helpers AND Scouts wear safety glasses while cutting and smoothing the block (soon it will be a car). Take your time and have fun with your design... get creative!

4. Once the car is "rough cut", you can begin smoothing it down with a file or rasp and then work your way up the scale from coarse grit sandpaper, to fine grit sandpaper. Lighting Joe recommends placing the car in a wood vise and making sure you pad it with cloth (an old towel) so the jaws of the vise don't bite into the soft pine wood.

5. Once you have sanded your block smooth and to your liking, it's time to add weight. There is a 5 oz. weight limit rule for most PWDs... so you want to get your car as close to 5 oz. as possible. We usually take a Dremel tool with a cutting disk and burrow a shallow basin into the bottom of the car, approximately midway back to insert weight. Purchasing the flat squares of lead from a hobby shop or scout store work best... they're easily pliable and attach nicely to the underside of the car... make sure you countersink the weight to prevent drag on the track. That would be a drag on race day!

6. Take your car (with the wheels and axles) to the local Post Office and weigh it on a postal scale (unless you have access to one). This scale may not be exactly calibrated exactly to the scale at the derby, but it should be close enough for government work and get you in the ballpark. You can add or remove lead weights from the bottom of the car in order to stay within the 5oz. maximum (most PWDs have this weight limit).

7. Once you get back home, it's time to begin painting the car. Lighting Joe likes to hang the car from fishing line suspended from the workbench in the garage. Make sure you cover all surfaces with newspaper to catch the overspray. Joe prefers automobile primer or flat white spray paint for a primer coat and once that's dry, you can begin applying topcoats. When spray painting, remember that MANY LIGHT coats are more effective than one or two heavy coats (plus your car will dry quicker between coats). You may want to sand your car with extra fine grit sandpaper between coats to get a cleaner finish. After your final topcoat, you're ready to decorate your car with decals and accessories. Please make sure you follow the rules for your PWD when adding accessories.

8. This is THE crucial step. We have always found that axle preparation is without a doubt, THE most important aspect of building a fast car. First, we take the axles and a small fine round file (you can get these at a hobby shop or hardware store) and file the casting burr from where the nail shaft meets the head. This may seem tedious, but it really makes a difference. Next, we place the axle (pointed end first) into the chuck of a cordless drill or Dremel tool. Take a piece of medium or fine grit sandpaper and tear it into 1/4" wide strips. While the scout holds the drill (don't forget your safety glasses), the parent/helper bows the sandpaper in a semi-circle around the axle. As the drill turns the axle, the sandpaper smooths it down. It's important that the axle is centered in the chuck of the drill to maintain accuracy and roundness. Don't apply too much pressure to the sandpaper or it'll snap in half. Trial and error is the best advice for this step. Next, move to finer sandpaper and repeat the process. Repeat this process with coarse steel wool, then fine steel wool and finally, ultra fine steel wool (you may have to clean off the steel wool fibers that get wound around the axle between steps). Finally, the axle should be fairly well polished, but we're not quite finished... the final step involves taking a 1/4"x4" strip of CLEAN cotton cloth and applying some car wax (or chrome polish) to it. Repeat the same process as with the sandpaper and steel wool until the axle is buffed to a high gloss. Use a clean, dry cloth to remove any wax residue from the axle. This may seem painstaking, but it WILL make a difference at the Finish Line!

9. When you have finished polishing all 4 axles, it's time to check the wheels. We use #0000 ultra fine steel wool to lightly sand the surface of the wheels smooth. Be careful not to press too hard or the wheel will come out off-center. The little burrs to look for on the surface of the wheel are caused by the molding process and need to be smoothed off.

10. Pair up an axle with a wheel and apply black graphite dry lubricant (you can pick this up at hobby and craft stores or any hardware store that sells locks and keys). Most PWD rules allow the use of graphite, so check your pack's. Don't be stingy with the graphite... it may be a little messy, but neatness doesn't count at this point!

11. Hold the pointed end of the axle and give the wheel a spin (with the nail head side down). Wheels *should* spin for a minimum of 30 seconds. If they don't, don't worry, your axles may need to be re-polished. Tweeking is all part of the process. Do what works best for you.

12. This is another important step... inserting the axles/wheels to the chassis. When you push the axles into the chassis, ensure that you push them in as STRAIGHT as you possibly can. There's little room for play and little margin for error... the parent/helper should probably perform this step. We've mucked up many a car by not inserting the axle properly and by not taking our time. Precision counts! Push the axle into the slot so that about 1/16" of axle is between the inside of the wheel and the car chassis. One "trick" we've learned over the years is that it takes less force to drive three wheels down the track than it does four. You may want to offset one of the axles so the wheel does not have contact with the track. This technique is legal in SOME scouting PWD competitions and we prefer using the right front wheel for this purpose.

13. So by now your car's lookin' pretty spiffy and it should be pretty fast. There are a few modifications you can make at this point... first, roll your car on a CLEAN surface. We use a 4' long piece of 2x6 "ramp" set up at a very slight angle (you can use your scout book to prop up the ramp at one end). Make sure your car rolls fairly straight and there's not much wheel wobble when it's in motion. If your car gets wobbly, adjust the axles and roll it again. You should also add more graphite to ALL areas around the axles and wheels to ensure you get good lubrication.

14. Store your car in a safe, cool, dry place until weigh-ins or race day. It's important that you roll your car ONLY on the track (or test track) and ONLY after ensuring that the track is clean. Some packs use furniture polish on their tracks to keep them clean and dust-free, but you certainly don't want your winning racer to have gunked up wheels!

15. Race day... you've done your best to build a fast car and you're ready to race. Good sportsmanship is key on race day. When you win (and you will win), win with grace... when you lose, lose with grace as well! No one likes a gloating winner or a sore loser. After each race, whether you win or lose, shake the other scout's hand and tell him "good race". Have fun, get excited, allow the festivities of the day to keep ya racin'! Many packs go to great lengths to provide a fair and fun Pinewood Derby. Be sure to thank your Cubmaster and all who have helped with the derby for making it a rewarding occassion in your Cub Scouting experience!

16. Remember the most important step in this process... go back and re-read Step #1!!!!!!

If you have questions or comments, feel free to email Lightning Joe or Pastor Scott at

We'd especially like to hear how you made out on race day and would appreciate any pictures you may have of your cars or events.

"One man practicing sportsmanship is better than a hundred teaching it" - Knute Rockne

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