Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


Caught Up in the Moment


All of life does not have to be built to full-scale.

We get enough drama and angst just from driving from home to work…or to the local library.  To say nothing of figuring out relationships and how best to keep an apparently wayward child in “line.”  (Hint, hint…with children it is best to make the saw cuts well outside your “line.”  The “wood” in question is very likely to “move” over the course of coming days, weeks, months and years—just my humble observation.)

Which brings me to the latest quirk in my imagination.

Regardless of what you might think of the Boy Scouts of America, their Pinewood Derby also offer an opportunity to share woodworking skills with a future craftsperson.  (I don’t know if the Girl Scouts have taken on a similar venture…one of you probably can answer that question—hopefully to the positive.)  

Here’s what you get with a Pinewood Derby car: a chance to draw plans, cut pine, use a plane, spoke shave, sandpaper, drill a couple of holes, and pass along talents honed in the shop.   

The rules are fairly simple:

Car Dimension:

 The overall length of the car shall not exceed 7 inches.

 The overall width of the car shall not exceed 2 ¾ inches.

 The car must have 1 ¾” clearance between the wheels.

 The car must have 3/8” clearance underneath the body so it does not rub on the track.

 The car shall not exceed 5.0 ounces.

Nothing too complicated so far.  Until you do a little more research.  Turns out the Pinewood Derby crews have their own source of coping saws, primer, filler and glue.  With all the attention set on balance and weight, this should not be surprising…very much like one of us contemplating materials required for a box, chair, or gypsy trailer. (While I maybe pushing it on the latter, as Amber Shelley-Harris makes clear in her blog on building same, the impact of highway speeds suggests a close an eye to detail. Leaving me to conclude Pinewood Derby cars and Radio Flyer wagon-sized boats are more my forte.)

In any case, building the car is just a first step.  Having now demonstrated a skill for working with wood, you get the next challenge.  A proper race course.   

For this I am relying on the experts…so, in short…they suggest:

 Most tracks have between two and six lanes.

 The most common building material for a derby track is pine. Pine is lightweight and durable enough to make a decent pinewood derby track. Typical wood tracks are 32 feet plus a landing zone. Some tracks extend to 40 feet to make the race longer.

 The starting gate of the track should be four feet high.

 The slope of the track should start at 30 degrees at the starting gate, changing gradually to 0 degrees by about 12 feet from the start. The rest of the track should be flat.

Blueprints for all of this are on-line.  My point is simply to highlight how our hobby can allure another generation.

That said, I will say the race track itself is a work of planing, sanding and varnish your significant other will soon expect of the dining room table.    (As the old saying goes: Be careful of what you wish for, or demonstrate a talent to accomplish.)

And with that we come back to my opening…all of life does not have to be accomplished at full scale—or in complete seriousness—to be interesting.

Once caught up in the moment, you, as a craftsperson, have a chance to pass along skills and a sense of humor that can be educational and entertaining for a whole new generation.  Go race those Pinewood Derby cars!

Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard. A new resident of Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.