On the unexpected occasion of my 60th birthday, I thought I’d write up a few of my Stories, while I can still remember (or make up) a reasonable portion of them.
I joined the Indian Princesses with my daughters in 1996. Smartest thing my wife ever talked me into. I was reticent at first, but it turned out to be, most simply, a program that won’t let you get away with forgetting to Do Things with your young daughters.
One of those Things was the annual Pinecar Derby. The first year Geneva and I built a car (1998, not shown), I tried to make it fast, as you do, and failed miserably. (My excuse: I tuned the car to go fast and straight on a laid-down mirror closet door — a perfectly flat surface. When we got to the actual races, the track was old, crummy, and warped. On the first bump in the track, my rear-weighted car started oscillating back and forth all the way down, alternately scraping the track walls, and of course, losing speed.)
From then on I fell back on my strengths: design and workmanship. Each of these are completely original designs. The only hassle is that the rest of the guys expected me to outdo myself every year, and it got to be quite a burden…
1999: Mushu Firework Rocket – This is based, obviously, on the movie “Mulan” that had just come out. Because of the overall size, we threw away the block that came with the pinecar kit, and turned the whole thing on a lathe from a chunk of redwood 4×4. (We have pretty flexible rules in our Indian Princess group.)
I retained the original wheels, axles, screws and wheelbase dimensions, to be as fair as possible, even though we’re not really there to win the race.
The “flames” at the back are just a bundle of ribbons, which were removed before the race. The Mushu on top is a birthday cake decoration.
It was a great project, and gave me a chance to teach my daughter a little about using a lathe, along with the usual sanding (“always with the grain!”), spray painting, masking, etc.
2000: Podracer – Another movie-based design, built right after “Star Wars Episode 1” came out. Frankly, I was surprised that no one else thought of it.
The pod itself is made of “Sculpey”, which is like Play-Doh, but bakes up as hard as a rock. It’s also very heavy, so the car only needed a tiny bit of lead.
The “engines” are some 3/4″ dowel, with balsa wood fins, and a pink pipe cleaner for the electrical “zap” between them (we didn’t have any purple). The original pine block was cut down and painted black to pretend that it’s invisible. I put the baling wire front “bumper” on so that the car would sit against the starting block fairly.
2001: Matterhorn Bobsled – This is based on pictures of the old bobsled design from when I was a kid — the current one wasn’t as easy to mimic. We made two of these, one by and for each daughter.
This is the first design where it occurred to me to cut the pinecar block in half, and reassemble it with a piece of dowel. (The second was the Choo-choo.) You have to be really careful to get the two halves absolutely aligned, so the car will go straight. The horizontal drill press mode of my ShopSmith makes this reasonably feasible.
We found the little bears at a craft store. It was hard to cut their little legs off, what with them looking at me that way, but I had to get them into the holes. It’s cool that they’re articulated, so they can hold their hands up like real roller coaster riders do.
2002: Choo-Choo Train – This is Geneva’s pinecar. The original block that came with the kit was cut in two, and put back together with a piece of dowel. This is, of course, a risky procedure, because if it’s reassembled out-of-square, you’ll never get it to go straight. Of course, we’re not there to win the race, but we do want to make it to the bottom of the track.
The “coal” is some weird crystalline cat litter we had, glued to a piece of paper, and spray-painted black. It was just the right scale, but I guess rock salt or something would have worked.
The second set of wheels came from another kit, which is why they don’t quite match. Only the ones with the silver hubs actually touch the ground. The “tank” is a piece of closet pole dowel. We turned the smokestack, gold “bell” thingie and the small front wheels on the lathe. The headlight is the remains of a big “snap”.
It turned out to be too heavy, so the coal car is drilled almost to oblivion from the underside.
2002: Shoolbus – This is clearly the easiest design we’ve done, but it’s what Acacia asked for, and since we had to build two cars in a short time, I took the break. To get enough height, I had to cut the original block down to get rid of the “driver’s seat” indent that they cut into them, and glue the block from another kit onto it. The wheels from the second kit came in handy for the Choo-choo train.
One useful technique: the windows, bumpers and stripes are just electrician’s tape — it was easier than trying to paint them. The headlights are thumbtacks, and the taillights are red tape, cut out with a hole punch.
It was way overweight like the Choo-choo, so there are a lot of big drill holes in the bottom, where you can’t see ’em.
2003: Caterpillar – When I asked Acacia what she wanted the car to be this year, she just said, “A caterpillar!” I don’t know where she comes up with this stuff.
Anyway, I thought up a lot of different plans to accomplish a caterpillar, and finally decided that gluing balls together was the only way it would look right. I was about to try to turn the balls myself on the lathe, when it hit me that I might be able to buy them. We went to the craft store, and bought 7 maple “doll heads”. They even already had one flat side. I flattened another side on 5 of ’em and thought I was home free.
Unfortunately, maple is *way* heavier than pine, so it was *way* over weight. I had to break the balls apart again, and try to hollow them out with a drill. I did the best I could, but we ended up having to run the race with the final ball removed.
We painted him all yellow, and sponge-painted the green. The nose is a little pom-pom, and the antennas are sparkly pipe-cleaners.
I hadn’t really thought about the “platform” he was gonna stand on until the end, but the caterpillar turned out so cute that it seemed a shame to make him stand on a black square like the pod racer. I suddenly hit on the idea of giving him some leaves to crawl on, which wasn’t as easy to do as it sounded — but it was worth it. It’s carved from the original pine block so I wouldn’t have to worry about the wheelbase or axle alignment.
2004: Flying Whale – Another movie reference, though obscure. This is from the “Pines of Rome” sequence in “Fantasia 2000”.
Acacia had the original request for just “a whale” — I came up with the idea of making him fly up out of clouds. Originally the base would have just been “water”, but everybody knows that the big whales can’t jump entirely up out of the water.
The whale itself is hand carved from balsa, based on pictures downloaded from the web. We started out by cutting the basic profile and top view into the balsa with a coping saw, and finished rounding the body with a potato peeler. (This allowed 8-year-old Acacia to do the work without any danger to herself, or risk of large unfixable mistakes.) The fins and tail are from some 1/8″ mahogany doorskin plywood scraps I had laying around.
After some Elmer’s-and-water sanding sealer and spray painting the whole thing in white, we overpainted the whale with a little sponge, dabbing the paint on to produce the texture.
The base with the axles and wheels is the only part left of the original pine block. Since the whale is balsa, it’s incredibly light, so I had to put a lot of lead on the bottom. Surprisingly, we did rather well in the race (possibly because all the weight was below the axle line?), until one of the lead pieces fell off, unnoticed until I got the car home. Ripped off!
2005: Trojan Unicorn — Acacia, like many little girls, was into unicorns big-time, and had a huge collection. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when I asked her what she wanted to build.
I first looked at rocking horses, but they’re all in an odd (for a car) splayed-legs pose, and I was afraid to attempt a fully-carved, “realistic” horse. I also looked at carousel horses, which have better legs, but are still fully-carved. Trying to think of a way to “get away” with a more primitive (so easier-to-make) horse, I thought of the Trojan Horse. That reminded me of the two-story-tall Trojan Horse “toy” that makes the entrance of the F.A.O. Schwarz toy store in the Caesar’s Mall in Las Vegas.
I found pictures of the original design for it, but since it was, again, fully-carved, I had to simplify it.
I based my proportions on the F.A.O. horse, but made the head bigger, ‘cuz that makes it cuter. The hardest part was the neck-to-body joint, and then the neck-to-head joint. I just faked those until they worked.
The only problem with the F.A.O. design is that it’s standing stock-still — all four feet planted on the ground. I thought it need to look a little more “alive”, since it’s supposed to be moving, and I thought of Leonardo’s planned (and recently (finally) built) Equestrian statue. I took the lifted front leg from him, but didn’t think it would be strong enough if I lifted the back leg, too.
To build the parts, we glued the paper plan onto the balsa wood, and my daughter cut (way) outside the lines with a coping saw. Then we brought it to the line on the disk sander, which is a little scary for her, but not very dangerous at slow speeds. That way she got to do a lot of the work.
We left our version “wood colored” (clear lacquer) to help get the Trojan Horse idea across. The “dirt” is actually crushed walnut shells for use in terrariums. The unicorn is just screwed down to the base from the underside, so after the race it can join the rest of her collection.
2006: Yellow Submarine – When Acacia was in Middle School, she was the Beatles’ biggest fan. She did her dress-up oral biography on Paul McCartney, dressed in my old Sergeant Pepper jacket. So naturally, she wanted a Yellow Submarine pinecar. (I was a big fan back in my day, and had a hand-made Submarine on my bedroom wall, so I jumped at the chance to build a “real” one.)
It was built essentially the same way as the whale from two years prior, carved out of a block of balsa. Acacia was less afraid of the sander, so she was able to get a lot closer to the finished shape before shifting to hand finishing.
I printed out the flower-like main window (?) and the little portholes with the Beatles in them on CD sticker paper from a picture I found. We used a new painting technique where you cover the regular paint with a spray-on clear coat, which also sealed the stickers down. I made the railing around the top out of some thick solder I had. And the red stripe is some pinstripe tape that I inexplicably had out in the garage.
I found an image of the “Sea of Holes”, and expanded it to be big enough to cover the base. One hole is green — the way out to the “Sea of Green”. A short piece of a mini-blind closing wand made a good transparent support pylon.
Apparently Acacia was pretty proud of the result — after the race, she took the base off and hung the submarine from the ceiling fan in the middle of her room.
Every year at the race, some of the dads would complain (either aloud or with sidelong glances) that my daughters’ cars were not strictly “child-built”. I never really got a chance to rebut that complaint by pointing out that the program was about “Father-Daughter” activities, and having your daughter build the kit while you watch the football game was even less in line with the spirit of the thing.
My take on it was that the race itself was a two hour event at the end of a three week idea, design, and build phase. That was where the real father-daughter interaction took place, even if it was just the dad doing the building while the daughter watched. Nobody’s born knowing how to work a saw, an Xacto knife, power tools, or even sandpaper, so I took these opportunities to teach my daughters about designing for build-ability, and working with the tools and techniques needed. And with each car, they absolutely did as much as they were safely able to do, at whatever age they’d reached at the time. And the parts they couldn’t do, they watched and learned about so maybe they could do those parts next year.
Did I step in to make sure that their experience was good, and that their projects turned out well? Sure. That’s what dads do.