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Creations by a Pinewood Derby Master Builder

My journey with Pinewood Derby started like many other young Scouters. Like me, my older brothers had their hand in building several cars with our dad. I can’t speak for all dads out there, but understandably, most have been known to take over a build when steps are less kid-friendly or if the Scout loses interest. Art, design, and woodworking were typical in my family. My brothers were both Scouts in the 70’s and were able to experience the last of the true vintage derby kits. Back then, the style of the Pinewood Derby car was greatly influenced by the racers of the early age of Grand Prix. Eventually, as time passed, Pinewood Derby cars started taking on many styles: the traditional wedge, the wafer car, and unique, fun themes ushered in creativity over speed.

My first cars in early '80s:

Two pinewood derby cars from early 1980s on a wood top table

As the father of two young boys, a den leader, and a Cub Master, I have been a “derby dad” myself. When Pinewood Derby time rolled around, we always got a head start on our cars. As a professional graphic designer, sculptor, and avid lover of cars of all eras, I’ve found that influence and inspiration have been everywhere over the years.

Futuristic pinewood derby car with a black body, white wheels silver canopy and pink acrylic accents.
Futuristic pinewood derby car with pink wheels, silver canopy and yellow acrylic accents

Whether designing and building for speed or just creating for looks, it’s hard to get the best of both worlds.  Every once in a while, a sleek aerodynamic body, the magical placement of the weight, and the prep of the wheels and axles all work in perfect harmony, proving that the time and effort put into a car can pay off.

A pinewood derby car based on a 1930s era Mercedes race car.  Silver body with black wheels and silver hubcabs.

Now that both of my sons have aged out of Scouts, I still find myself heading into the shop to build a "dad car" just for the mere act of creating. There's something about taking a raw pine block and making something cool. Before I start, I usually check out Pinterest for inspiration, as it helps me hone in on a particular style or personality that I want the car to have. From there, color comes into play. It's usually a color that's appropriate for the car. There are not many 50s-styled cars that are neon, but if it's a futuristic, concept-looking car, bright colors fit the theme.

A pinewood derby car built like a 1950s hot rod.  Pale blue with a black top and black stripes.  Four chrome pipes sticking out of hood.  Black tires with large white sidewalls.
Pinewood Derby car built like a 1950s hot rod pickup truck.  A white body with black top and red flame accents and a flaming skull on the hood.  Chrome exhaust pipes coming out of side.  Red hub caps with large white wall tires.

Build progress of a 1930s inspired pinewood derby car.

I've always liked the custom bubble-topped cars of the 70s. They had a funky, spacey look to them. It's the out-of-the-box thinking that I like. My take on this is to incorporate spoons as a bubble top. The handles were ground off, lead was melted into the dome, and the "bubble" was epoxied into place (the cheap guy's tungsten canopy weight). Doing this allows you to dial in the proper placement for speed, plus they look unique enough to stand out. Sometimes, it's the hunt for the right shape and size of spoon that helps make the look of the car. I also have a collection of defective sunglasses lenses and different samples of colored acrylic for use in windshields, fins, and styling elements. If it's a hot rod, I'll customize a set of white wheels. I use a wide black magic marker (like the ones for big posters). I spin them in a drill press using a wheel mandrel until I get a smooth, black tread. Then, I top them off with a circular cutout using a Cricut vinyl cutter that fits perfectly over the existing face of the BSA wheel, making a nearly flawless and straightforward, period-looking whitewall tire.

Build progress of a pinewood derby car with double canopies.  Green with light green stipe and white wheels.
A 1950s hot rod pinewood derby car with tail lights and rear exhaust pipes.  Blue hubcaps and large whitewall tires.

Over the past five years, I’ve probably created 50-60 cars. Some of my adult builds are merely shelf pieces. Not all are fast, but most are unique. Not all of them follow the official rules of the derby, as some use a little longer wheelbase than the rules require, and some are just a hair lower to improve their stance. For me, it’s about the wow factor. It’s like Gas Monkey Garage meets Pinewood Derby.

Pinewood derby car fashioned after 1930s race cars with a teal green body, silver canopy and white and black accents.
Pinewood derby car fashioned after 1930s race cars with a red body, silver canopy and white accent stripes.
Pinewood derby car fashioned after 1930s race cars with a wood body, black canopy and a green accent stripe.  Yellow acrylic accents.  Green wheels.

I’ve built wedges, hollow-body wafer cars, hot rods, and futuristic cars, but lately, I’ve circled back to the roots of the derby–the early pioneers of the Grand Prix. I found that building my 1930s-inspired racers in two pieces (the base and the body) allows me to have more control over the shaping of the car and worry less about taping and painting. Although not exact recreations of those racers, I tend to subscribe to a vintage-modern direction when I build them.

Three 1930s inspired pinewood derby cars.
Three 1950s hotrod inspired pinewood derby cars.

I enjoy clean, simple, and well-thought-out design as a graphic designer. Things that make good visual sense speak to me, and I incorporate that philosophy into almost everything I do. With so many aspects of building a Pinewood Derby car, creating a fast car is a pretty fantastic’s always a great feeling to see yours out front, but what I enjoy the most is the process of creating. The art and design of a car reflect the passion and craft of the person who built it. For me, these little cars are like sculptures on wheels!

Dan Shuster

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