How to Carve a Shingle into a Wooden Rocket

A wooden rocket? Sure! You can make one yourself out of a wooden shingle.
By Robert Birkby
March/April 1980
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The process of carving a wooden rocket.
PHOTO: ROBERT BIRKBY
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Back in the days when the Iowa plains were covered with prairie grass rather than corn, pioneer children used to fling wooden rockets into the sky and then run screaming around the countryside ... waitin' for the missiles to come a-whizzin' back down and stick in the footprints they'd just vacated. 

My granddaddy (who was one of those rascals) taught me all the secrets of the pioneer projectiles. So—even if you've never touched a knife to wood in your life—get hold of a wooden shake and a half-hour of easy whittlin' time, and I'll tell you how to make yourself an "intercontinental ballistic shingle" ... and have a skill to pass on to your grandkin.

Carve It Out  

Any kind of wooden shingle will do . . . as long as it's thicker at one end than the other. The clerk at my local lumberyard gives me "seconds" (new shingles with flaws in them), and—when I see an old barn or shed being torn down—I ask the building's owner to let me salvage whatever rocket material I can gather for myself. Also, when you split your own cedar roofing shakes, watch for those that diminish in thickness from one end to the other. (Since they're heavier than the storebought variety, homemade shingles make the best flyers of all!)

Once you have your "raw material" in hand, use a sharp knife to carve it into an arrow shape, making sure the point is at the thick end of the shake, and the fin is at the thin end. The wooden "fletching" should take up one-third of the total length of the toy and be about 3 1/2" wide while the shaft—which ought to be about an inch in width—will use up the remaining two-thirds.

Since shingle wood splits easily, I've found it's best to cut from the back toward the point of the missile. (That way, there's less danger of accidentally slicing off the fin.)

After your rocket has taken shape, find its "center of gravity" by balancing the high flyer horizontally on your finger. Then whittle a 3/8"-deep notch at that "central" point, angling the cut about 45° toward the nose of the craft. Again, be careful not to split the wood.

Minutes to Countdown

Next, you'll need a rocket launcher to blast your creation into the clouds. For this task, I use a stick that's about two feet long and an inch thick. (If the wood is green—say, a good springy branch of ash or oak—it'll give the shingle more kick.) Then tie an 18" length of strong cord (3/16" nylon clothesline works pretty well) near one end of the wand, and loop a tight overhand knot into the free end of the line.

Before the corn gets knee-high here in Iowa, we have plenty of wide open fields for firing ranges, though any pasture or uncongested playground will do. But until you get the hang of aiming your shots, it's wise to practice away from greenhouses, beehives, and the patch with that prize melon you plan to take (unperforated) to the county fair.

Make your final preparations for blastoff by grasping the launcher in one hand as if it were a fishing pole. Hold the rocket (with its point away from you and the notch on top) in the other hand, and slide the cord across the notch until the knot is snugged up tight against the missile.

The launch itself involves a motion similar to that of hurling a pailful of cool water over your own head on a hot July day. With your arms straight out, swing the rocket and launcher back like that water bucket, then whip them forward and up in a smooth arc . . . letting go of the wooden arrow the instant the launcher is directly over your head. A good throw will sling a shingle missile two or three hundred feet straight up, where it'll hang for a moment . . . and then come blasting back to earth (ssswah-THUD!).

A Last Word of Warning

You can, of course, modify your own missiles by creating different shapes, sizes, and weights ... but whatever the configuration, make sure you're quick on your feet! "If you don't make the point of the rocket too sharp, there's no real danger," my granddaddy assured me, "but once that thing's airborne, run like an Iowa tornado's about to drop down on you! 'Course, that's the fun of the game . . . havin' a little uncertainty hanging over your head. Gets the adrenalin pumpin' and makes you live longer."

And—if anyone needs proof of his claim—Granddaddy's been running loose under shingle rockets for nigh onto 83 years!


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