Introduction: 100-Yard Paper Rocket Launcher

Picture of 100-Yard Paper Rocket Launcher

This is my take on the compressed air paper rocket launcher. Enjoy!

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Intro Video

Step 1: Materials List

Picture of Materials List

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Tools for the air pressure chamber:

Materials for the air pressure chamber:

Electric Trigger mechanism (buy these parts and wire a simple circuit to power the sprinkler valve, or purcahse the pre-fabricated assembly from the link below)

Or, purchase a pre-assembled button from

For the base:

  • 12" cable ties
  • PVC elbow joints (x2)
  • 12" piece of PVC with two holes drilled about 4" apart (x2)
  • 8" piece of PVC

The total cost is about $70, excluding all tools and solvent weld. In my line of work, it is well worth the initial investment because the paper rocket activity is very cheap, less than $0.15 per student.

For paper rockets:

Step 2: Make the Launcher

Picture of Make the Launcher

This launcher works up to 60psi. You can wire in a second 9V battery to get the launcher up to 100+psi. 60psi is enough to achieve spectacular results. Pressures above 60psi dramatically increase the risk of exploding the rocket.

(and by the way, you might want to protect your work surface a bit better than I did)

Step 3: Make the Rocket

Picture of Make the Rocket

All you need is cardstock, tape and scissors.

It's easy to build a rocket that can reach a distance of 50 feet. However, making an ultra-high-performing rocket is actually quite challenging because all aspects need to be designed to near perfection. At high speeds, tiny imperfections are quickly blown out of proportion because the forces acting upon the rocket are intensified. For example, a nosecone that leans slightly to one side may not significantly influence the rocket's performance at 40psi, however at 60psi that nosecone may create an imbalance of friction created by the air rushing by, causing the rocket to turn sharply and tumble to the ground.

For this reason, take your time while creating & attaching each part of the rocket. And with that in mind, here's how to make a high-performing rocket:

Step 4: How the Valve System Works

Step 5: Safety, Tips, and Troubleshooting

Picture of Safety, Tips, and Troubleshooting

Follow these safety precautions regardless of whether the chamber is pressurized or loaded with a rocket.

  • Never allow students to use the launcher unsupervised. Disable the launcher by removing the battery (or pump or launch tube) if you have to leave the launcher unsupervised.
  • Never allow anyone to put their face near the launch tube. Air expelled from the tube, if forced into someone's nose or mouth, is powerful enough to cause the lungs to rupture. This is very serious. Tell your students about this and they will be frightened enough to never get near the tip of the launch tube.
  • Never stand directly in front of the launcher, even if a rocket is not loaded. At point blank, a rocket shot from the launcher can cause serious injury.
  • The student holding the button should keep his/her trigger finger off of the button until the final countdown is initiated. The button is sensitive and can easily misfire.
  • Use a bright rope to define a safety zone that the students may never cross, even while loading their rocket.
  • Have a countdown before each launch as a way to alert people in the area (and to make each launch more exciting!)

Common design flaws

  • Fins that are not attached straight, or the leading tip of the fin is not secured, will cause the rocket to tumble at high speeds.
  • Fins that are too big create too much lift and/or drag.
  • Fins that are too small may not provide enough stability.
  • Fins that extend too far from the fuselage are prone to wobbling in the wind, causing instability.
  • Nosecones that are not secured well enough will explode off of the rocket.

Tips and troubleshooting

  • Rockets tend to explode at pressures above 60psi. If you choose to mod the button with a second 9V battery, have the students tape up every seam many times over.
  • Inspect the rocket before each flight and use your hands to straighten out the fins and nosecone, which will inevitably become bent over time.
  • I usually refrain from interfering with students' designs, however if a student has created a poorly built fuselage I will step in and help them. Making a new fuselage after attaching everything else can be a hassle.
  • Young students (grades 3 and below) may have a hard time rolling a tube of cardstock, so I usually do that step as part of my prep.
  • If you don't have access to a huge open space, you can set up targets like stacked cardboard boxes and aim for those. Be extra cautious here.
  • When storing the launcher, remove the 9V battery, or at least make sure the button is uncompressed or else the battery will quickly drain.


Lovely Phil made it! (author)2017-07-05

Thanks for your instructions! Got the class building their rockets today! Very exciting stuff. I've wired in a key overide to prevent anyone launching when their not meant to (work in a referral unit so that will happen) and the addition of flashing
Lights and the air raid siren will make sure everyone knows what's coming! Not quite got to the 100yard mark but may just need to shorten the launch pipe.

LanceMakes (author)Lovely Phil 2017-07-05

Whoa, that's quite an improvement! I hope this inspires other makers to take this rocket launcher design idea to the next level!

Lovely Phil (author)LanceMakes2017-07-06

Cheers Lance! Might look fancy but still not getting over 50ft- any ideas? What psi have you gone up to?

LanceMakes (author)Lovely Phil 2017-07-06

I typically use about 60-70 PSI. A shorter launch tube may help a little bit.

It looks like your compression chamber is pretty large, which can make it challenging to build up sufficient pressure.

You can also try wiring up two 9V batteries to the launch button, which will help release the valve at higher pressures.

The way the rockets are made is also just as important to the distance traveled. Use card stock (not copy paper), and emphasize attaching at least 3 fins that are equally spaced and as straight as possible. Very small imperfections in the rockets can cause significant reductions in performance.

Lovely Phil (author)LanceMakes2017-07-06

Ah great thank you! I'll get
On it tomorrow - thanks for your help!

Cats Science Club (author)2017-04-04

Great work. Could this be used with water bottle rockets?

Yes! 1/2" PVC pipe fits perfected through the neck of most standard plastic bottles.

Masher007 (author)2014-04-28

This is not spam, but a warning. PVC will fail suddenly after a while. This was band member that hurt badly by a T-Shirt launcher explosion.

See the pictures and never use PVC to hold air, Please.

RDmaniac (author)Masher0072015-05-20

What SHOULD be used then? does CPVC fare better?

Masher007 (author)RDmaniac2017-03-13

They use metal tanks, from aluminum or steel fire extinguishers, to regular pressure cylinders. As cheap as PVC and Safer.

Masher007 (author)RDmaniac2015-05-21

No PVC, ABS, CPVC or plastic should ever be used. The cycling to pressure, down to zero, up to pressure, back to zero, makes it fail. It is unsafe to pressure test with air even when new. HDPE can be used, but it has to heat welded, and it cannot be glued. There are lots of metal choices. CO2 tanks, paintball tanks, retired medical or industrial gas cylinders, that used to handle pressures of thousands of pounds, can handle 100 PSI indefinitely. Empty fire extinguishers. Even empty propane tanks and bottles, are designed for pressure, and cycling, up to 250 PSI. One does have to watch for rust or corrosion with disposable tanks, as they are intended to be thrown away before they can rust through. Pressure vessels are also designed to split and vent when do fail, without any risk of shrapnel.

Goodluck (author)2016-08-21

Oh, one more thing i thought of after builing: if the launch tube were made about 5 feet long, only adults would be able to get their eyes/head above it. Of course that would probably reduce range.

Goodluck made it! (author)2016-08-21

I built one of these today to entertain my kids for a bit. About the only deviation is that i installed a regular 2 prong lamp plug and socket between the sprinkler solenoid and launch handle. I could then simply unplug the launch handle and hold onto it to keep anyone from unexpextedly launching. Just buy a cheap extension cord and cut it. I put the female plug on the solenoid end so no one would plug it into the wall and fry it. The launch handle, well... hopefully no one will do that and it is small enough to easily put out of reach/hide. Since radio shack no longer exists, i was unable to source 9v battery connectors locally. I just used electrical tape to tape wires to the batteries.

JeffR107 made it! (author)2016-05-10

Built it and it was awsome fun to use. Highly recommended project!

MikeB46 (author)2015-06-26

Some safety suggestions.

Fiber reinforced packing tape instead of duct tape wrapped around all the PVC parts. The fiberglass reinforcing threads are stronger that the fiber backing in duct tape and is much more likely to contain any loose parts. Make sure to tape around every pressurized part including lengthwise and around for all the piping. Still, having the whole thing inside a strong cloth bag would be safer still.

Not only use a second arming switch in series with the fire switch, but put it on a second cord and only let the adult supervising the launch have it. Lights and buzzers or alarms are a great addition. Even inside a burlap sack a string of red LEDs along the storage pipe and launcher would look good and alert everyone to be extra careful.

Add an extra 'T' fitting between the storage tube and the valve. Add a 3/4" male thread to it. Using 1" tubing make a short "T" handle about 6" across and 6" upright. You should be able to glue the 1" tubing at the bottom of the T around the 3/4" cap piece. Now you have a removable safety plug. If you have to leave the launcher, the handle should make it easy to unscrew the cap piece and now it is impossible to build pressure in the launcher or fire off a rocket. If already pressurized make the first turn slowly to bleed the pressure off. You may need to rubber gasket to improve the seal. A water house gasket might fit.

If you are willing to spend an extra $14, amazon among many other places sells an adjustable air pressure relief valve. Add that to the pressurized portion of the launcher and then even if a kid gets over enthusiastic and tries to pump past the limit it will simply vent the extra. Most also can be manually actuated to safely depressurize the launcher without pressing the fire button.

I have played with one of these but not yet made one. I would like to add it to my list of fun toys.

marshall.hird (author)2015-01-27

hi , so i put everything together and have a problem the valve seems to release very slow. No sudden burst of air to shoot a rocket off. Is it a bad valve?

Try a higher voltage, if it doesnt work, then it may be a bad valve/solinoid

full_court_baller101 (author)2015-05-21

exactly what i want. THX\

The_42nd_Paradox (author)2015-05-19

I might end up doing this with lower pressures, like 10-20 psi and nerf darts to make a rifle. At that pressure would it be safe to use a ball valve?

That or large home made pool noodle darts.

741741452 (author)2015-01-23

i like it!!

741741452 (author)2015-01-23

i like it!!

makeminefun (author)2014-11-02

Our Scout group had one of these lying around, which I very happily inherited and started playing with immediately. Of course, I tried to break it, which I did.

I have to agree with DanTDM and Masher007 -- and many thanks for the warnings; this can explode and potentially hurt bystanders or operators.

The device that failed on me was a couple of years old, and worked well until I pushed it past 40psi. Then then end cap blew off and sent shrapnel 40-50'. Thankfully I had laid a thick wool Scout blanket over the unit, so neither me nor my 3 year old son standing nearby were hurt.

I was operating the device in about 10 degrees Celsius (50 F) and had successfully launched it about a dozen times with 40psi charges, which resulted in flights over 200 feet.

So, be careful. Wrap the device in a heavy blanket or a shield that will contain any potential shrapnel. I really don't think duct tape is sufficient; it can fail too. This is especially important if the device is a few years old. It was the pipe cap that failed, not the glue, and I think the point of failure was where the inflating nozzle entered the cap; i.e., the hole that was drilled weakened the integrity of the PVC pipe cap.

A future improvement might be to add a gasket on the inside of the cap with the nozzle so that there is more support around the weak point.

Super fun project when it works, potentially very not fun when it fails. Take precautions and be dangerous safely.

OrigamiAirEnforcer (author)2012-02-22

I believe the addition of a streamer or something may improve visual recognition for students and other observers.

The rockets are pretty easy to see in real life, though it's really quite challenging to capture a paper rocket on video. Streamers might look fun, but I think it would create too much drag. Perhaps a longer rocket would be more visible (and fun!)

Understandable, on both accounts. My experience has been that even paper airplanes which are comparably slow can be difficult to see. As for drag, I also know of the potential for drag in the streamers. Such decorations would involve those types of sacrifices.

A fun idea would be to affix some sort of smoke-emitting device inside the rocket for a realistic trail! Anyone who figures out how to do this will be held in the highest regard. I'll give away a 3-month pro membership, too.

Mayfairkid (author)LanceMakes2014-09-24

Use a thin piece of paper or saran wrap over the top of the tub and fill the nose cone with a white or colored poweder? The presure from the launch should puncture the barrier, and release the powder as the rocket launches...

schreibwy (author)LanceMakes2012-02-26

Talc coul be your smoke. Perhaps in the nose cone you could mount a a small tapered tune containing talk. A large, relatively, opening in the front that would apply pressure to the talk and force it out a small exit at the back. Just a thought.

hmcbart made it! (author)2014-09-21

I made a few modifications to the original design and used it with my Cub Scouts at a kick off event.. Mostly cosmetic. I used the on/off switches from an old vacum cleaner. Wired in a re-purposed industrial fire alarm. Used about 20ft of wire to launch from a distance. The 1st switch is labeled ARM, it turns on the alarm to alert everyone that a launch is happening. The 2nd switch is labeled FIRE and it launches the rockets. It was a huge success and the kids loved it. The rockets (when sealed correctly) easily would withstand up to 70psi, the max we tested was 90psi, after the kids had all left (safety first). The rockets averaged about 75 yards (had to keep adjusting the launch angle). I had pre-printed rocket templates for them to cut out and decorate. Awesome idea, thanks for the instructable!

DanTDM (author)2014-05-10



diver dad (author)2014-05-01

PVC explosions are half the fun!

Thekellygang (author)2012-10-29

I would really like to make this rocket, but cannot find a solenoid. I searched the itsablast website and could not find one anywhere. i also searched ebay and the internet in general, but only found motorbike starters. Please help.

mtelesha (author)Thekellygang2013-10-20

YOu buy a water sprinkler valve at Lowes or Home Depot for $13.

LanceMakes (author)Thekellygang2012-10-29

Hi there,

The solenoid is included when you purchase the modified valve. The valve that I used in this design can be bought here.

Have fun!

Thekellygang (author)LanceMakes2012-10-31


Captain Robert (author)2013-10-14

I'm looking forward to running this project with my middle-schoolers!

Here's an easy math extension: if launched at 45°, the ballistic trajectory reduces to a simple equation that can give you the average velocity of your paper rocket (ignoring air resistance) as follows:

SQRT(Distance x Gravity) = Velocity

So if your rocket travels 27 meters: (27m x 9.8m/s2)0.5 = 16m/s

If you've got the right math crew, you can also show how the equation yields m/s from m and m/s2. Or, if you're using feet, how taking the square root of the distance in feet multiplied by 32 ft/s2 gives you ft/s

legoman111 (author)2013-04-04

Cool! Exploding rocket!

bhavesh1440 (author)2013-02-13

what is the difference between modified valve and air actuated valve? and which we use in doing this paper rocket lancher?

Fast React (author)2012-12-25

If i use a bigger persure chamber and more presure whould i go farther ?

LanceMakes (author)Fast React2012-12-26

I don't think so. A bigger chamber just takes more time to fill up to the max PSI.

Fast React (author)LanceMakes2012-12-26

Tanks for the il just use the regular chamber

tbrockert (author)2012-06-13

This is a wonderful project that worked just perfectly! The kids were very impressed by how far the double launcher worked.

I have some troubleshooting I was hoping I can get help with. After leaving the launcher alone for about a month, I tried it out again with some difficulties. Beyond the pressure of 30-40 psi the trigger won't work properly and won't expel the air from the barrel. Only after loosening the trigger from the chamber, will the air escape through the pvc. I don't know if this has occurred before in any of your models, but if so or not, do you have any tips?

LanceMakes (author)tbrockert2012-06-13

Great to hear that! If the trigger won't work as well as before, try replacing the battery. If the battery is low then it won't have the power to activate the solenoid and release the valve.

tbrockert (author)LanceMakes2012-06-14

That was it! The 9v had only 75% of the max charge, which I guess wasn't enough to pull the trigger fully under high pressure. Much thanks! Now I can use this even more!

ryanmudry (author)2012-04-21

How is the "modified sprinkler valve" different from a home depot sprinkler valve?

LanceMakes (author)ryanmudry2012-04-21

I don't know exactly how to mod a valve, but I do know that the valve is modded to allow the air to escape more rapidly.

minecraftplayer123 (author)2012-04-07

hm you need this device to shoot the rocket darn!

SoakedinVancouver (author)2012-03-13

You should try a whistle in the cone...

maintann (author)2012-02-26

A serious suggestion - put a safety switch in the circuit - perhaps a toggle switch with a flip up cover. This way firing requires three actions ,flip cover, toggle circuit on , press fire button. It's never too early to impress safety on kids

About This Instructable




Bio: I'm a writer, maker, and educator who's on a mission to better the world through hands-on engineering projects. Pledge on
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