Intro: A Spiral Rainbow Kite Tail From Scratch
I have been wanting to make a tail for my kite for some time now. I fly a Prism Quantum stunt kite which - at 84 inches across the wingspan - is a pretty impressive kite, which means it needs a pretty impressive tail. When I first started flying a little over a year ago I bought a tail at the same time I bought the kite. It was 75 feet long and banded black and white along its entire length. It was certainly impressive, but I've always wanted something a bit more colorful. I came up with the idea of a kite tail in the six primary and secondary colors of the rainbow - red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. But I didn't want bands of color - I wanted the colors to run the entire length of the tail. Not only that, but I wanted them to be spiraling down the tail. I searched long and hard but came up empty on a tail that long with colors like that, so if I really wanted one, the only option I had was to make it myself.
I had begun to make the tail last year but had gotten involved in a number of other projects and put it on the back burner over the winter. Then, when Instructables came up with a Make It Fly contest, my wife suggested I ought to finish the tail and enter it into the contest. But I'm primarily a woodworker - she's the one who does the sewing around our house - and I wasn't about to ask her to sew a 75 foot long kite tail for me. This was outside of my normal skill set, so I had been kind of dragging my feet on getting it done.
Then several things happened pretty much all at once. First, I lost both my kite and its black and white tail. Long story, but they were both gone. For good. I ordered a new kite, but if I was going to have another tail, I wanted it to be the one I had been thinking of making.
Then Instructables posted a Rainbow contest. A perfect contest for my rainbow kite tail. At the same time, they posted a Beyond the Comfort Zone contest. And sewing is certainly way beyond my comfort zone. Now I am not one to argue when the undeniably free-form workings of the universe smacks me in the face with the obvious - and here I was, faced with needing to replace my lost kite tail, equipped with the notion that I wanted to try making my own rainbow-striped tail...and suddenly being presented with the opportunity to enter not one, not two - but three Instructables contests for which the project would be an absolute natural. Do you really think I had any other choice?
Step 1: Designing the Tail
Fortunately, I had examined my black and white tail to produce my basic ideas long before I lost it. It was 75 feet long and tubular in construction, with the circumference of the tube being about 8 1/2 inches - diameter roughly 2.7 inches. This meant that if I wanted six colors running the length of the tail, each would be about 1 1/2 inches in width. The tail was made of ripstop nylon - light weight and sturdy. That was sort of a no-brainer. There was a metal ring at the opening where the tail attached to the kite by means of three heavy strings tied together in a knot. At the far end of the tail was a string that could be loosened to empty any sand or other stuff that got swallowed up by the kite tail and then gathered again to close the end and collect air for flight. It was obviously made by sewing together alternating strips of black and white nylon, then joining them along the long edge to form a loop. Pretty simple construction - but of course I wanted to do something a bit different. Of course. Sigh!
Like I said, I wanted a six color tail where the colors would spiral continuously down the entire length of the tail. How in the world was I going to do that?
First, I realized that this was going to involve a lot more seams than the tail I had. My black and white tail had a seam about every foot where the fabric alternated from black to white, but only one seam running the entire length of the tail. My tail would have six seams running the entire length, which would mean it would have considerably more weight than the original tail. For that reason, I decided from the outset to scale back the length a bit in order to compensate for the extra weight gained in seaming. So I figured that 65 feet would still make a very impressive tail and being ten feet shorter would be lighter than the first tail, even with the additional seams. But how was I going to get the spiral effect I wanted?
After many hours of trying to tape paper strips together to make a spiral tube, I suddenly stumbled over one of those Duh! moments - I realized that it would not be necessary to figure out all sorts of bizarre angles to cut everything...all I had to do was to make six very long strips of colored fabric, stitch them all together, then -before stitching the last piece of fabric to the first piece to form the tube - offset the edges a few inches and this would automatically cause the design to spiral around the circumference of the tube! I had bruised my brain on this for way too many hours before suddenly realizing how simple the solution would be, and I have to confess that it was more than a little bit embarrassing. The pictures of the paper mock-up show this: Figure 1 shows six strips joined together. In Figure 2, the first and last strip are joined with an offset of a few inches. Figure 3 shows that doing the offset causes the strips to spiral down the length of the tube. Simple.
Then I spent way too much time searching for a lightweight metal ring the right size for the mouth of the tail (now there's a weird phrase you don't want to dwell on for very long) before abandoning hope of finding anything ready made. I figure I ought to be able to make a ring out of a piece of coat hanger wire.
The ring will be fit onto the end of the tube, the tube turned inside out, and the ring sewn in place. There will be three holes cut into the fabric surrounding the ring and strings will be attached in those places and joined together to attach to the kite. But of course - and once again - just knotting the strings together and tying them to the kite wouldn't do. I'm hoping to give the tail enough freedom to revolve as it flies, so I'll want to attach the strings to some sort of swivel to permit that to happen. A swivel for fishing line should do the job. We'll see.
Step 2: Cutting - and Cutting - and Cutting the Fabric
First I needed to figure out how much fabric I would need. I wanted the six primary and secondary colors for my rainbow kite tail. The circumference was about 8 1/2 inches. Dividing that by six, each color would be roughly 1.4 inches wide, with an extra quarter inch on each side to sew the strips together, so each strip of color needs to be roughly 2 inches wide. The tail is going to be 65 feet long and since it would be ridiculous to buy 22 yards of six different colors of fabric to come up with six 2 inch strips, I knew I was going to have to cut a bunch of 2 inch strips across the width of the fabric and stitch them together to make 65 foot long pieces. The fabric would turn out to be 60 inches wide, so that meant I would need 13 two inch wide pieces of each color to make 65 foot strips so I would need 1 yard of each color of fabric to make the tail. No wonder good kite tails are expensive.
My wife has spent many moons within the confines of the local JoAnn Fabrics store, but now it was my turn. Fortunately, they had ripstop nylon in - you guessed it - every color of the rainbow. I even had several choices of shades for such colors as blue, green and yellow. Several trips to JoAnn Fabrics later, I had all the colors I needed. A special note here: JoAnn Fabrics ALWAYS has sales going on. You can find coupons online every week, usually for either 40% or 50% off any one item. On top of that, they have a seniors day every week when seniors (such as myself) get an additional 20% off. So if you buy only one piece at a time and you're a geezer, you can get it all at 60 to 70 percent off retail. If you know this and don't do it you are out of your ever-lovin' mind.
I laid out the fabric, marked 2 inch wide strips across the width and began cutting strips with pinking shears. I fly an 84" wide stunt kite in winds up to 20 miles per hour. This generates LOTS of force - enough to nearly pull me off the ground at times - and lots of stress on the tail, so the seams will need to be strong. Thus the pinking shears to scallop the edges of the cuts and make them as resistant to fraying as possible. You could use a line of fabric glue along each raw edge I suppose, but that would wind up adding weight - and you don't want the tail to be any heavier than absolutely necessary.
A Life Lesson Learned: I have a life-long habit of collecting interesting and usually useless bits of trivial information that is fairly legendary within my family. I picked up a brand new one in the process of making this kite tail - never (nevernevernever) use pinking shears to cut paper. It dulls them pretty much INSTANTLY. I did not know that. Surprisingly, neither did my wife, who has been sewing on a fairly regular basis for most of her life. Cutting paper with pinking shears will dull them. In fact, I have come to believe that if you even let pinking shears get a sideways glance at paper it will dull them. And I know of no way to sharpen pinking shears. Trust me on this. Cut some paper with pinking shears and you will no longer have pinking shears - you will have, well, something that looks like pinking shears, but will no longer cut anything. Other than paper. This project cost me a brand new (very expensive) pair of pinking shears for my wife. If I ever forget this, I am certain you will find engraved upon my tombstone "He Used My Pinking Shears to Cut Paper".
Step 3: Sewing - and Sewing - and Sewing the Fabric
Stitching the strips together will require a bit of precision in order to produce a tail with a consistent diameter along its length, so my wife let me use her magical disappearing ink fabric marking pen to mark where I needed to stitch. I needed to mark each strip so that it would have a center width of 1.4 inches and a 1/4 inch seam allowance on either side. She had shown me how to do the basic stitch on the sewing machine to join the width-cut pieces into six long strips. So now I set about marking and pinning the first two pieces all the way down their length in preparation for sewing. Since this is all well outside my comfort zone, I am not the fastest marker or sewer (Sewer? That can't be right, can it? Seamster? Sewperson? Stitcher-upper? Never mind) in the world, this process took a while. Her magical disappearing ink marking pen says that the marks will disappear within 24 hours. But by the time I got two edges marked and pinned and began sewing, the marking had already disappeared. Sheesh! Now technically speaking, twenty minutes or so is in fact "within 24 hours". But the magical disappearing act had occurred just a wee bit faster than I had expected. So now I had to go back and mark two pieces - a few feet at a time - then pin them, then sew them together before my marks disappeared. And then mark a few more feet. And pin them. And sew them together, And mark again. And pin again. And sew again. Whose idea was it to make this thing 65 feet long in the first place. Oh, that's right - it was my idea. Sixty-five feet of marking and pinning and sewing. Times six. A very colorful - and very long - pile of fabric (Figure 4). I have begun to seriously miss woodworking. Figure 5 shows all 6 strips joined together prior to sewing the first strip to the last strip.
Step 4: The Final Stitch to Form the Spiral
And now comes the little trick that will - I hope - produce the spiral effect I was aiming for. The last stitch will join the first strip to the last one to make the tube. I'll make this so the tube will be inside out and then turn the right side out when I'm all done. BUT - if I simply lined the two edges up evenly I would wind up with a striped tube rather than a spiral. So I will instead join the beginning of the first strip to a point several inches down the edge of the last strip. This offset should produce a spiraling pattern the entire length of the tail. Figure 6 shows that it actually worked!
Step 5: The Mouth of the Tail (there's That Phrase Again)
I decided that a fairly lightweight coat hanger should work for the mouth opening, so I cut a piece slightly longer than necessary, sanded the coating off the ends, tightly twisted the ends together to form a circle, sanded the cut ends smooth, and used epoxy glue to hold it securely together at the twist (Figure 7). With the tail still inside-out, I folded the fabric over and stitched it together to hide the raw edge. Then I inserted the fabric through the ring and folded the fabric back over the ring, and stitched the fabric together around the metal circle to enclose it in the fabric. Next, I cut three small holes in the fabric to access the wire circle and tied a piece of strong string to the metal circle at each of these points (Figure 8). Then I slipped a fishing line swivel clasp onto the strings and tied the three strings together in a knot (Figure 9). The fishing line swivel will attach to the bottom center of the kite and should allow the tail to rotate freely as the wind affects it.
Step 6: The Tail of the Tail
Similar to the end with the metal ring, I first folded the end over and stitched it to hide the raw edge. Then I folded it and stitched it again about 1/4 of an inch down to form a channel for the string. I left a small area unstitched and ran the string through the channel I had created. Finally, I put both ends of the string through a spring clasp so I could open and close the end of the tail (Figure 10).
Step 7: A 3D Problem
There was one respect in which I found my original store-bought black and white tail to be not completely satisfactory. It was tubular in construction, designed to fill with wind and puff up as it flew. But it came rolled up tightly in a bag for storage, and after using it, you rolled it up tightly again and put it back in the bag. This of course flattened the tail out, and I quickly found that even in a strong wind the tail did not fill with air as it was meant to do, but remained flat throughout most of its length. Since the design I was making would hopefully turn as it flew and produce a bit of spiraling effect, causing it to flatten out would be detrimental to achieving this, so I wanted to figure out a way - if possible - to encourage it to become more tubular in flight. Toward that end, I came up with the idea of using some sort of tube a bit smaller in diameter than the tail. When I'm done flying for the day, I will take the tail and push it down over the tube, gathering it as I go, until the entire tail is scrunched down over the tube (Figure 11). This, I hope, will encourage the tail to adopt a tubular shape as it takes to the air. I discovered I had a long piece of 1 1/4" thick cardboard tubing (I had used some of it previously for my Woven Wood Cross Instructable) that would work perfectly. It took about 3 feet of the cardboard tube to store the entire tail, which takes up considerably more space than just tightly winding it into a ball, but it will be worth it if the tail will maintain its tubular aspect by storing it this way.
Step 8: Here's the Scoop
Early on the morning of the first test flight I suddenly had a brain drizzle (I don't get brainstorms anymore - just drizzles). I've been concerned all along about figuring out how to keep the tail tubular in flight rather than having it flatten out, as I think that will show off the colors better and give it a chance to actually spin in flight. I was thinking of how I might be able to force some more air through the tail to keep it inflated as I was taking the recycling out for pickup in the morning. There was a clear two liter soda bottle in the recycling bin and it hit me that I could make sort of an air scoop out of the upper part of the bottle. Back to the workbench. I cut the bottle near the top end where the diameter was just a bit smaller than that of the tail. From there the bottle flared out and I cut it near the end of its flare, giving me a conical shape a couple of inches long. Next, I undid the strings from the tail's ring, drilled three small holes near the narrow end of the scoop and ran the strings through the scoop and retied them to the ring. I then put a knot in each string right down next to the scoop to keep it in place right at the mouth of the tail. Then I ran the strings back through the swivel and tied it on. Finally, I put a drop of CA glue on every knot to keep them from coming loose. The tail now has a transparent scoop that will - I hope - force more air into it as it flies. Figure 12 shows the resulting air scoop.
Step 9: Test Flight
We had a window of a few hours today with bright skies and decent winds, so it was off to the field south of town where I regularly fly my kite. I laid the kite out on the grass and attached the unreeled strings. I clipped the tail onto the center post of the kite and walked back across the field to pick up the strings. My wife came along and stood by my side with the camera ready. I held my breath a bit, gave the strings a good tug, and...
SUCCESS!!! Wow! The kite shot into the air with a rainbow streak rising behind it. For the next hour I put the kite and tail through their paces, looping and dodging across the sky. My wife snapped picture after picture, not knowing for sure if she was getting anything worthwhile or not - but in that moment it didn't really matter - the tail looked and behaved even better than either of us had dreamed it would! It was fully cylindrical throughout its entire length, the colors were glowing in the afternoon sun, and although it can't be captured in a still photo, the entire tail revolved, twisting colors continuously through the flight. Not spinning rapidly, but leisurely rotating so that the rainbow colors appeared to be turning down the length of the tail as it flew. My guess is that the seam edges on the interior of the tail are acting a bit like the blades of a fan as the air passes through the tail, causing it to spin. The additional air gathered by the scoop - as well as the fact that I used a ball-bearing swivel for attaching the tail to the kite - all act together to produce the turning effect I had hoped but not actually expected to achieve.
My wife wound up taking dozens of stunning pictures and I'm going to put a bunch of them up here that I hope you'll take the time to view. When most of the pictures only contain sky, clouds, kite and tail, it's a bit difficult to keep the scale of what you're looking at in mind. Just remember that the kite itself has a wingspan of a full seven feet and use that to gauge what you're looking at. I've included some pictures that try to give an idea of the tremendous length of this thing, but the ones that really show it off - where it's following the loops the kite has just done - tend to diminish the sense of its length.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I'll be entering this project in three different Instructables contests, but to be absolutely honest, at this moment I really don't care if I win anything or not - in that every single thing I hoped this kite tail might be has proven out - and more. I don't own a video camera but am trying to find one I can borrow so I can take some video of the tail in action. As soon as I am able to do that I will add a video to the Instructable.
Thanks for taking the time to visit my Instructable, and...
June 9: I DID IT!!! I put together my very first video ever and added it to this Instructable! Our daughter came over yesterday and shot some footage of the kite tail in action and an evening's worth of educating myself on Windows Movie Maker later - I had an honest-to-no-kidding video assembled! Hope you like it.