The Pinewood Derby requires that your cub know Pinewood Derby Axles and track if they want to win rounds. The goal with axles is to provide as little friction as possible to the wheels turning. Whether that friction comes from the wheels, axles, or even the center rail, choosing the right axle shape can mitigate the speed slowing issues with a car.
Rail Rider Axles
Rail rider style axles are a Derby Dust favorite. These axles are great because they adapt to the track your pack uses. These axles bend, and your cub can adjust the bend each race using some basic tools. This allows more flexibility in your cub’s car.
The trick with rail rider axles is that they allow for Pinewood Derby track variations. Often, the track is assembled and disassembled for each event. This means that the track and lane your cub races on are not likely to be perfectly straight. Rail riders mean the cars do not lose as much speed since they do not bounce the car back and forth on the rail.
Speed axles give better performance in a Pinewood Derby. These axles are straight, which means theoretically, they keep the wheels away from the friction of the center rail and the car body. These Pinewood Derby axles generate the best speed under ideal conditions.
Unfortunately, unless your den track assembler measures every inch of the track to perfection, there will be small variations. Once speed axles hit the center rail, they tend to bounce back and forth. This costs the car speed and possibly the race.
Grooved axles are highly specialized Pinewood Derby design. The axle starts out straight, and then machining occurs for friction reduction. The axles then receive grooves, which further reduce the friction. The slots also serve as a storage place for extra axle lubrication.
Groove axles are designed for speed in your cub’s Pinewood Derby races. However, they require special preparation for those speeds. You may need to help your cub with all the steps.
All axles require preparation before installation in your cub’s Pinewood Derby car. Before race day, you’ll need to ensure the axles are smooth and free of burrs. Typically, a light file works for this. Followed by a light wet sanding for reduced friction.
The last steps for axles depend on the rules for your local Pinewood Derby. You’ll need to add a minimal amount of grit suitable for holding the allowed lube to the axle. The final step is resealing the axles, so they don’t rust out before your cub’s Pinewood Derby day or if your cub wants to keep the car.
During the race day, your cub should observe the rules around lubrication. There may also need to be spot axle adjustments as the Pinewood Derby races continue, so keep your tools handy while you enjoy your cub’s race day.
Don’t waste cash on packaged tips and tricks until you read all of ours for free! Tuning Your Pinewood Derby Car for the WIN videos are posted on YouTube. Its posted at the very end of this article. Don’t own a treadmill? I bet you know someone that does. Buy them dinner, use it for an hour or two. Beg, Borrow, Barter. Do what it takes to get your win!
Without getting into all the fancy scientific answers, the plain and simple reason to tune a pinewood derby car is for speed! There are many different ways and theories out there. From wax paper to set screws. We like our method the best which shows your car traveling at its near top speed in a static setting. Utilizing a treadmill, you can see your car at its top speed while making all the necessary real-time adjustments. This is why a tuning board only shows half the problem.
Because a pinewood derby car is only powered by its stored gravity at the top of the track, you must tune your car so that it will use that stored energy to get the car to move down the track. If this is your first derby, or your last derby, take a few minutes to educate your self about Tuning Your Pinewood Derby Car for the WIN.
Tuning your car keeps the car moving forward. That is the ideal direction. A car that travels side to side, bumping each side of the car will not get you in the winner’s circle. A car that fish tails will not get you in the winners circle. Grandpa’s car wins becuase he puts the time in making sure the car does not do this. There is NO aftermarket part that will replace this step in building a car.
TUNING YOUR PINEWOOD DERBY for the WIN!
Setup: Install the wheels and bent axles on the car, use the gap gauge to properly gap wheels.
Right Rear – Apply axle with negative camber apply line in the 1 o’clock position.
Left Rear – Apply axle with negative camber apply line in the 11 o’clock position.
Steering axle = positive camber (opposite of rear) . Place line in 6 o’clock position. Ensure that one of the front wheels is not touch the ground prior to treadmill adjustment.
Tape the string on the center of forward kick plate of your treadmill, and tape it to dead center on the front of the car.
ABOUT Tuning Your Pinewood Derby Car for the WIN … here’s the quick and dirty.
Each AXLE has 2 positions. A camber and a toe. Visual description is at the bottom of this post. But know that each axle needs to be adjusted within a certain parameter to be correctly installed. A lot of people get it wrong. So don’t be that person. Take the time to read this post. LOOK at the visuals I provide. Your car needs to ride exactly as I show.
Adjusting the rears: Adjust the rear axles until wheel is riding head of axle. Right side will move counter- clockwise, left side clockwise. Make small adjustments. Only adjust one side at a time until it complete. Looking from the top, down the wheel will toe out slightly or point away from the body. ONLY SLIGHTLY! The wheel will never touch the car body. So rears are negative camber with a slight toe out in final position. Look below to visualize prior to adjusting.
Steering axle = positive camber. Place bend in 6 o’clock position. For steer axle on right side, adjust steer from 6 o’clock to 3 o’clock position, adjust tuning arc as desired. For steer on the left side, adjust from 6 o’clock position to 9 o’clock position. Always steer into the high wheel. Note this is NOT STEER a car left or right. It is talking about which axle is your dominant steer wheel. The steer wheel will not ride the head of the axle. Positive camber does not ride head of axle. Looking from the top, down the wheel will toe in or point toward the body. So final position for the steer is a positive camber with a toe in position. Look below to visualize prior to adjusting.
Tuning: Turn the treadmill on. 1-2mph at first. If incline is available, 1 degree would be great. Note the characteristics of the car. If it is swerving all over the place, there is a lot of work to be done. If it pulls to one direction or the other, directional tuning needs to be done to get to a slight deviation off center for a center rail rider (3 wheels) or center (4 wheels). Using pinewood derbytuning pliers, make an adjustment on a single axle turning tiny adjustments. The goal is to get your car to deviate just slight off center to make a center rail rider for fastest results
If adjustments are made and there is no change in the direction of your car, more than likely you have 4 wheels touching. Check!
If you need 4 wheel touching car:
Do the above tuning. Then do this:
Break in: Once Tuning Your Pinewood Derby Car for the WIN is complete, turn the treadmill up to as fast as it will go. Your wheels are not going to burn up! Once you are happy with the wheel play, then it is time to start building up layers of dry lube.
Add a LIBERAL amount of dry lube to all running wheels as it is traveling every 45-60 seconds. Continue this process for 10 minutes. 10 minutes at top speed should yield the equivalent of approximately 400-500 races.
This process will also yield the 20-30 second spin benchmark theory! If you have a wheel that is not performing this well, it could possibly be that it is out of balance or has a warped inner hub due to cooling during manufacturing. Replace it and start process over from beginning (SORRY!) Weight reduced wheels DO NOT YIELD 30 second spin times. They do not carry enough mass to keep the process going.
After the 10 minutes. PACK your car up, and do nothing with it until race day.
No other lubing is necessary. We have not seen any data that shows any additional lube after this point helps.
What you have done by doing this process is used the cars weight under load to “roll” multiple layers of lube on the axle and wheel. You have also Tuning Your Pinewood Derby Car for the WIN to eliminate fish-tailing and gain greater speeds for your derby car way beyond a simple dust/ finger roll job. We have decided to share our research with you. This technique does not require a “drift” board, it does not require a test track, and it does not require a great knowledge regarding polishing techniques. It does build layers of near friction less surface on both the axles and inner wheel hubs that is good for many races.
This process is very hard to describe with words, and our video will show you how simple it really is.
We will discuss how we made our axles prior to utilizing CNC cutting and proprietary nail straightening. This is how you can do it at home with very little tooling and still get great results. Substitute a drill clamped horizontal for a lathe. Using a vertical drill press can be utilized, but it is very hard to give proper pressure and control.
Making BSA axles into speed axles is an art and process. You have to have very specialized tooling to do it correctly as well as efficiently. This is the method that we followed and then tweaked to your liking. It’s a very good start, although the visuals could have been a little better. We didn’t own a go pro at the time.
To start off you are going to need 3x the amount of axles that you need. If you are making one car, then we suggest a dozen axles. If you don’t want to purchase 2 extra set of wheels and axles, then you can visit this store to get them by the dozens.
The reason being is that you only want to attempt to fix the ones that are the straightest. It seems that the axles just might be purposely bent…
File–the finer the cut the better. The key is to remove the burrs and crimps without reducing the diameter of the axle. We used this file for the longest time. I suggest a barratte file #00 cut.
Sandpaper-wet-400 grit through the sky is the limit…. we like 2000 for dry lube. 60,000 grit for oil
Metal “bucking” bar to support your sandpaper while sanding. Just anything that is hard and flat about 1/2″ in width. We prefer this method over the sawing the paper back and forth across the axle.
Baster of some sort to add water.
Bowl to catch water from wet sanding
Clean strip of cloth material to clean each stage of sanding. YES each stage needs its own cloth. You can NOT share with another stage. NOT MICROFIBER! Microfiber will grip a turning axle and cause cause harm to you. They just have too much surface area. You can even use a thick cotton string to do the trick.
Your going to need a hammer
Proper safety equipment
Some sort of drill, drill press, or lathe. NO DREMEL!!!!! Spins / removed material too aggressively.
Metal sealant/wax of some sort to keep your new polish job from rusting. Do your research to find the DIY. Most like some kind of jewelry rouge or wax based car polish. We have our own special sealant and it’s not one of those.
Tuning your car can be expensive on your pocket and on your axle polish job. Not a problem with our Super Tuner™ uprgade option. A simple cutout made on all 4 axle heads allows you make EZ fine tuning adjustment to each wheel without having to spend on $20 on a set of pliers that could damage your axle heads that you just got to a mirror polish. This is a must for those guys that plan on riding the rail or have to use BSA slots. Sure beats shimming with wax paper! Upgrade your axles to get the maximum possible performance for both speed and tuning!
FYI adding these slots to STRAIGHT axles offers ZERO ability to tune a car. Straight axles do not tune. They go with the flow. Rotating the axle on its straight axis still yields a straight axle with no deviation in its axis. You can ONLY tune BENT axles. Rotating a bent axle yeilds a different result with each adjustment, slight as it may be.
Please check your pack rules prior to purchasing. Although it does nothing to improve speed, some packs might not allow this upgrade since the head of the axle has been altered.
How does it work? Simply use a flathead screwdriver. Put a tuning mark on the head of the axle with a marker and start rotating your axle until your car is tuned to your desire.
Graphite Coated Axles – Axles which are pre-coated with graphite are a popular item today. But think twice before using them. Graphite works well as a lubricant because the graphite particles slide easily on each other. But when graphite is mixed with a binder (so that it adheres to metal), it can no longer slide freely. Thus, the lubricant power of the graphite is severely compromised. There are application where this type of product is of benefit. But in a pinewood derby race (where speed is critical, and wear and tear is not of concern) any graphite paint or spray will provide less lubrication than powdered graphite.
Highly polished steel axles lubricated with powdered graphite will generally provide better performance than pre-coated axles.
I am more than positive that we will get tons of “fan mail” from this post. Just to clarify, we can make graphite coated pinewood derby axles if that is what we intended to do. However, we believe they are just a gimmick with short term gain. Therefore, we have chosen not to offer this type of product.
For the DYI, it is a simple process same as coating bullets with moly. You FIRST have to prep the axle to the level of polish you desire. The next step is basically impacting the graphite into the pwd axle with steel tumbling media. It will require more costs to invest in getting the right equipment than the average DIY will want to spend. In this sense it will be cheaper to buy the product outright if you choose to go this route. We do not believe it is the best bang for your buck. This will coat the entire axle from tip to head….
Now if you want to do it even easier than that. This is probably the method I would do. Buy a can of Frankford Arsenal 6 oz. Aerosol Drop Out Bullet Mold Release. Place your axle in something that spins (lathe or drill). Clean the axle with some sort of solvent that will not leave residue. Spin the axle, spray it down with the mold release. VERY LIGHT COATING. DON’T DOUBLE COAT IT. You’re done … and that stuff stays on, but is not the answer.
Are the graphite coated pinewood derby axles faster than stock? Yes. How long will the graphite applied in this matter last? Usually less than 5 or 6 races. You will run this many simulated races just by spinning the wheels at home. The graphite is never applied in rotational layers needed for your car to perform at its top potential. You can review many comments on multiple sites that will tell you they are good for a few races, but loose their edge after a few runs. Since most pinewood derby cars will race at least 6 times or more to compete to the finals, think about a different way to make those axles faster than buying a gimmick. We have had great results with our treadmill tuning/break in technique. It’s FREE! Costs you NO money and is the best and easiest way to tune your car without a track or tuning board. Watch your car run in real time at its top speed!
AGAIN…. If this was the holy grail for speed, you would see it on the pro racers forum. But a highly polished axle, with a sealant or wax of some sort is the answer. Again the special sauces…. 2 coatings that ALWAYS are mentioned for graphite racers…. Lemon PLEDGE and Krytox spray on. We now offer both.
The impact graphite application for pinewood derby axles does not yield the same results as applying the graphite to the plastic wheel. Most believe since the pinewood derby speed axles are “coated” with graphite, no additional work is needed. How wrong they are! We have tested many different methods from burnishing, to high levels of polish. We have tried many different lube coatings from firearm lubes to state of the art nano-lube applications. There is really not too many applications of spray on graphite, that really work to your PWD car advantage.
Finding a sealant or wax that will reduce the co-efficient of friction of the metal axle is the key to axle lubricant. Besides the special sauces for oil… Lemon Pledge or a Krytox spray on is the key coating for graphite.
If you choose, we can seal the prepped axle with a Krytox sealing agent. Through our professional, industry leading, lubrication resources, we have found a substance that binds Krytox to metal. That’s right a metal sealing agent that has one of the most frictionless substances known to pinewood derby racing. This is NOT putting a drop krytox oil on it. This is binding Krytox to the surface of the metal. It’s like Teflon coating, but a different type of flurocarbon. It is NOT wet or appears to be dry! It is DRY and will not interfere with dry lubes as it is bonded to the surface of the metal. Dries as a white haze that can be wiped off with a tissue.
Why do you need to seal your axles? Krytox sealant is to protect the raw metal so that it does not oxidize (rust) because after all the axles are made of iron (magnetic). If you strip the zinc coating, you need to protect your axles so they will not rust. If your derby car is out in the shop, you have the potential to expose the highly polished surface to the moisture as quickly as over night. Pictured above is rust that formed within 34 hours without sealant. That axle was wiped clean with alcohol prior to testing. This moisture will rust the surface of the axle and you will no longer have that high polished axle meaning you will have an increase in friction. After you did all that work, ever wonder why your car still runs slow?. Don’t chance ruining your axle. Seal it! Believe it or not, just think about it.
Yes you will still need lube. This coating will not effect the performance of graphite-meaning it will not gum up graphite. We know the physical properties of our products.
Sorry, we can’t share our trade secret. It is not something that can be sold for the DIY. IF you would like to have your axles sealed or would rather purchase a set of our sealed axles visit our store.
When you bent your axles did you gap your axle prior to bending? If not, it is quite possible your bend will begin somewhere inside your wheel hub which will cause all sorts of chattering and aligning issues. No one addresses this important step. And you will not be able to see if it is an issue until your car is at it top speed. Unfortunately, a 6 foot tuning board can not show you this. Only a full size level track or a treadmill can.
It is near impossible to tune 3 bent axles without a treadmill in a fair amount of time. You’ll drive yourself crazy. Find you a treadmill. Take it to 10 MPH and watch what is happening.
If you have to have 4 wheels touching- Set it up as a 3 wheel car at first, then watch this video.
With a 2.5 degree bend you have basically 30 degrees of rotation or less to get it to ride on the axle heads. It’s just a really sharp bend. It way faster than 1.5 degrees, but it is going to take a little time to get it right for the first time rail riders. If you want to bend 4 axles, I like doing 3x 2.5 degree bends and 1x 1.5 degree bend This gives you the option of having a 2.5 steer for super fast setup, or you can use standard 1.5 steer. Which ever axle you don’t use, simply place on high side with the bend in the UP direction to maintain a high wheel.
You can bypass the rear bent axles with drilled axle holes at 3 degree camber with the fancy new drill station jigs.
Can you see what you are really doing to your axles?
Be careful! A recent fellow derby dad sent us a car to evaluate. He could not understand why he did not place as well as previous years. His COG for weight was appropriate at about 7/8″ in front of rear wheel. His car was mostly aerodynamic with no obvious drag designs.
The car was a 3 wheel rider with a steering axle used for tuning. Upon quick observation, I noticed one of the axles had rough edges. I figured that was the main cause of his less than expected performance. So I took off the three wheels and this is what we found. As you can see there is damage on each axle. The tooling used to install/tune each axle permanently damaged the axle by providing rough almost burr like edges that rob your car of speed needed. Every little bit of damage matters when you are talking about .001 seconds from first to second place.
This derby dad was totally surprised when I sent him my findings. He could not believe what damage he had done to his axles.
Recommendations to remedy this common pinewood derby problem
#1 First is to make sure that the bend of your axle happens outside of the area where the wheel spins. A bend in this vital area of your axle causes the wheel to bind as you can imagine the wheel is no longer rolling on a straight plain. Its path around the axle is an elliptical rotation. With each pass of the wheel, the diameter of the inner wheel hub is being wore larger which is making the car drive different with every race. This car will never run the same race twice.
#2 Notice the burrs around the edges. This is caused by improper tooling. Probably a regular set of needle nose pliers were used to adjust. Solution: Pinewood Axle Tuning Pliers
#3 What can also be seen here is that the graphite flake is too large and not soft enough as it is still on the axle without being ground down into the layers necessary to build the friction-less surface. It does matter what graphite you use. The stuff at the hobby store, might not be your best bet.
Fast winning pinewood derby car designs utilize polished speed axles.
100,000 grit Optical Finish
Take a look at our pictures of our quality work of pinewood derby axle close up pictures. They say it all! 100K axles are best used with oils such as krytox or nyoil. Can be used with graphite if you have no intentions of doing a graphite break-in process. If you are just dusting and racing, then this level of polish will give you best results.
Derby Dust has mastered the 100K OPTICAL POLISH! We have been setting track records time after time Polishing is done via CNC controlled spindles and polishing wheels to ensure that each axle has the same polishing pressure, stroke length, time on wheel to ensure a consistent quality product every single time. Polishing time is roughly 5 minutes per axle.
Our prepped have been deburred, shaped, straightened and sanded down to a 2000 grit finish. From that point, each axle goes through a buffing process up to 100,000 grit OPTICAL FINISH! We use separate buffing wheels to ensure no cross contamination. Then we seal the prepped axle with a sealing agent that uses the PTFE Krytox. We seal the surface to prevent rust and dry coats it with a white layer of Krytox. This metal sealing agent that has one of the most friction less substances known to pinewood derby racing.
With speeds of 15+ fps on the last 10 feet of the track. WITH OUR GRAPHITE DRY LUBENo reason you can’t do the same.
Axles are wrapped in rust resistant paper to ship to ensure that your axles are not scratched up during shipping process.