Introduction: Pinewood Derby Car Detailing Ideas

About: I am a mom. I do mom things. But now I am a cool mom because I made an instructable.

Some kids (or parents) could care less about a fast car. For them, it's all about style...

In this instructable, I will share the tricks I used during my first experience decorating pinewood derby cars with my boys. My car wasn't the fastest in the heat, but it looked sweet, and that is all that really mattered to me. :)

*Disclaimer - Parents, don't paint your kid's car for them! Get your own car! Most cub scout packs have a parent and sibling heat that you can race in. If not, suggest it!

Step 1: Custom License Plates

Custom license plates are easy!

You need:

  • Pie pan with smooth bottom and/or sides
  • a pencil
  • a stylus, a nail set or embossing tool. Something with a blunt end that won't scratch the aluminum. I used a clay carving tool for today's project. I used a nail set on the ones for the cars in the photos. An old ballpoint pen that is out of ink works too.
  • a mousepad, piece of cardboard, or something with a little give to protect your table and to assist in embossing.
  • Scissors you don't care about cutting pie pan with.
  • paint (Optional)


  1. Cut out a rectangular piece of pie pan a little larger than you need. My finished size is about 1" x 1.5"
  2. Decide which sides you want to be the back and front of the plate.
  3. Lay your plate on the mousepad or cardboard. On the back of the plate, write your letters backwards and in reverse order. Don't press too hard in this step. Use enough pressure to barely show the letters on the front. Block letters and numbers work best.
  4. Flip it over and check that you wrote the letters correctly. If you need to correct a mistake, just rub the plate smooth again with your embosser or a plastic bread tag and try again.
  5. If the letters are good to go, return to the back side and go over your letters again, this time press hard. Don't worry if the letters aren't the same size, you can adjust them while you work.
  6. Flip your plate to the front. This time you are going to emboss around the raised areas. Press down the centers of zeros and letters with spaces in them like A, O, B, P, Q, etc...
  7. Keep embossing font to back this way, defining points and curves, until you are satisfied with the look.
  8. On the back of the plate, draw a rectangle around your words or letters to frame them. Emboss over your pencil marks and flip the plate over and define the embossing on the front.
  9. Trim your plate and if you like, you can file the edges of the aluminum. Filling in one direction toward the back can cause the edge to curl and that will give it a nice finish.


I had a hard time getting paint to stick to the aluminum. I think I ended up using oil based enamels (model paints). Acrylics scratched off easily and sharpie didn't show well.

Now you can get your mini license plate production line going.... :D

Step 2: Bling Bling!

  • Aluminum pie pans are a great source to make "chrome" trim and custom license plates for your car. Some pans are smooth on the bottom, and some are textured. Pie pans can be easily cut with utility scissors or cheap school scissors that you don't care about. Pro Tip: Do not use your momma's fabric scissors. I mean it.

Aluminum will add little weight to your car and since it is easily shapeable you can make:

    • grills
    • fins
    • spoilers
    • trim
    • fenders
    • bumpers
    • license plates
    • vents
  • Cheap plastic buttons can be a source for many parts for your car. Fabric stores sell bags of variety buttons. look for chrome colored ones if you really want some bling. The shanks on plastic buttons can be snipped off with wire cutters or nail clippers and sanded down with an emery board or metal file. Buttons are great for:
    • steering wheels
    • hood ornaments
    • emblems
    • headlights
    • side mirrors (watch width restrictions! Nothing may stick out further than the wheels.)
    • upholstery
    • spot lights
    • roof lights
  • A variety of wood shapes can be applied to give extra dimension.
    • rear window louvers
    • running boards (again watch the width!)
    • angel wing shapes painted white give a car a distinct Super Mario feel
  • Use wire to make
    • a bullbar or grill bar
    • windshield wipers
    • roof rack
    • antenna
    • bumpers

Branding an item with a product logo - When creating the Weiner Mobile, I suggested to my son to use a label from the product itself so he wouldn't have to paint one on. We had the best luck getting a label that was on plastic packaging. Don't try to pull a sticker label off if you can avoid it. We got the Oscar Meyer label from a package of bologna because it was on plastic. Clean out the inside of the container and cut the label out while still attached to the plastic. Try not to get the paper part of the sticker wet. I had my son heat up the plastic label with a hair dryer so that it would stay bent to the curve of the Weiner Mobile while it was affixed with elmer's glue.

There are more tips in my photo notes.

Step 3: Painting and Sticking Stuff On


We used tempera paints. They are cheap, and easy to clean up. Use a primer if you have one as the pinewood cars soak up a lot of paint. We had to put on many, many coats of yellow just to get a nice opaque color. I sealed my paint with a high gloss water-based acrylic. Pro tip: styrofoam meat trays make great disposable paint trays.

If you want to spend less time painting, use spray paints. They go on quickly, dry faster than temperas and have a nice finish. You can do detail work with model paints or acrylics on top of that. Younger kids might need supervision and guidance with spray paints.

Pro-tip! Use a hair dryer to speed up the paint process! If you are drying small, lightweight parts, use a diffuser on your hair dryer to keep them from blowing away.

Glue Dots are Your Friend

Because Pinewood Derby Cars must meet weight, height and width restrictions at check-in, sometimes nonessential trims and decorations must come off. Glue dots are great for these parts. After the race is over by all means, permanently glue on those parts for display. If your son places to go to the District race after his pack race, wait to glue. District judges may be more strict with their rules.

The good and the bad about glue dots:

  • Dots can be trimmed to fit into small spaces
  • Dots can be used in the axel groove to fix a loose axel (we had mixed luck with this. It worked long enough to get him through the race but it was not good for long term display.)
  • Dots have a memory, so they tend to shift a bit. If you put something on a dot crooked, it's going to stay that way.
  • Dots and gravity aren't a good mix. I don't recommend dots for sticking weights to the bottom of the car, though they will work in a pinch!
  • Dots are sensitive... if you handle them too much, they lose their stickiness.
  • Dots will stick to wood, paint, aluminum, pewter, paper and plastic.
  • Dots may mar your paint job if you remove them. This was not always the case for me. But if you're putting the pieces back on with glue, it won't show anyway.


  • Hot glue - quick and easy, is paintable. older boys can use, but it can cause burns. Also it sets up uneven or raised.
  • Super glue - sets up fast. can ruin your paint job. Not ideal for children to use.
  • School glue - dries clear, is paintable, but takes forever to dry. Not recommended
  • E6000 - dries clear, won't wreck your skin, sticks to most anything, doesn't dry super fast so it gives you a little time to adjust things.

Step 4: Adding Wheel Wells

On race day, two hours before weigh-in, my 8 year old woke me up crying that he didn't like his pinewood derby car! The car he worked on so hard to paint. What was wrong with it? The wheels stuck out. So at 6:45 in the morning, I was cutting cardboard strips for him to paint...

To make wheel wells you need

  • cardboard - cereal box weight
  • scissors
  • ruler - for making straight lines
  • quilling tool - or something like a fat pencil or even the handle of a butter knife
  • glue of choice - I used E6000. It doesn't wreck your fingers like super glue does.
  • paint of choice - we used tempera paints.

Official BSA Pinewood Derby Car wheels are approximately 3/8" wide. In order for the car to be "legal" on race day, nothing can protrude past the wheels, so you will need to cut strips of cardboard that are narrower than the wheels. I made my son's 2/8" wide.

  1. Using a ruler, mark out 2/8" wide strips of cardboard and cut them out.
  2. Cut the strips to the desired length needed to go over the wheels. My son's are 2 1/2" long
  3. Using a quilling tool or other rounded object, bend the strips until they have a nice arc in them. It's not important to make them half round. They will easily take the shape you glue them in.
  4. Give them a coat or two of paint. Using a diffuser on a hair dryer will dry them quickly without blowing them off the table.
  5. Glue them to the vehicle!

You can make running boards this way too. The running boards in my photos are made of wood though.