The process of carving a wooden rocket.
PHOTO: ROBERT BIRKBY
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
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.
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
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 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!