DIY Dorkdad

12 Jun

t’s summer time, and that means we’ve got to keep the kids entertained. For my money it also means it’s time to try some crazy DIY projects I’ve been ruminating on over the past year. Now I am by no means a “handyman” – at least in the manner that I would define the word. But I am comfortable around power-tools, and my professional life requires a certain degree of competency in mechanical engineering. Needless to say, whenever there is a new piece of furniture in the house to assembled, the responsibility is mine. In truth, I look forward to that sort of stuff, especially when the project is big enough that I have to call my dad in and we get to spend the better part of a day working on something together.

As maddening as it may be when they try to “help”, it’s important to me that my kids feel like they’re part of any project like that. As they move through life they need to have some basic handyman skills. They need to know the difference between a Phillips-head and flathead screwdriver. They need to know the difference between a crescent and allen-wrench. They need to know the right way to use a hammer, and they need to be comfortable with a power drill. These are skills that will carry them through their lives – and if they’re working on a project with me, hopefully they’ll carry some memories with them too.

Takin’ my son to the place of worship.

In that light I’d like to present two summertime DIY projects they recently “helped” me with, with the hopes that some of you readers will use/steal the ideas to share with your own kids this summer.

They’re “helping”. Quotes very much intended.


When Episode V and I were picking up his sister from kindergarten he told one of the waiting mommies “My daddy is building me a zip-line in my backyard!” The mom looked at me with disbelief and said,

“Oh my goodness. If my kid asked me to build a zip-line in the backyard I would have no idea what to do. I’m just not that person. Are you that person?” she said to another dad who was nearby.

“I’m not that person” he said putting his hands up in the air.

Taking flight.

I’m here to tell you, there really is no “that person” involved. It’s as simple as fixing a line from point A to point B, making it as taut as possible, and putting a pully, PVC pipe and a few carabiners together with a little rope to make a handle. Now most blogs would give you step by step directions on how to build it yourself. I’ll spare you the details. If there’s something you can’t figure out from the pictures I’d love to give you the step-by-step. Email me at for the details. But I will pass on a few bits of knowledge to save you a trip or two to the hardware store:

1)      Don’t use climbing rope for your line. It’s made to stretch (if you fall off a cliff), so you can never get it taut enough for a zipline. It winds up sagging and your kids bottom out on the grass before they get far enough. Use vinyl coated 3/8” wire line instead. At $0.35 a foot it’s the most expensive part of the project, but it doesn’t stretch to avoid sagging, and the vinyl coating protects from corrosion and frayed wire splinters.

2)      You can’t rely on muscle-power to get the line taut enough. When you’re getting supplies buy some luggage racheting tie-downs (you only need one). Use mechanical advantage of a lever to your advantage. (c:

Better than duct tape.

3)      Most of the hardware you’ll need is rated for about 250-500 lbs of tension (except the tie-downs and wire line of course). For my part, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with a kid weighing more than about 55 lbs on this rig. Adults (and kids), ride at your own risk.

When you’re all done and your kids think they’ve done everything they can with the zip-line, throw a sprinkler under there on a hot day and take plenty of pictures that will humiliate them when they’re teenagers. This weekend is supposed to be especially hot. We just got a new backyard blow-up pool. I’m gonna put that thing at the end of the line for some splash-down action.

I feed my son, I swear.


On the surface this one looks like it takes a M.A. in engineering to put together. Not even close. If you can buy some 4” PVC pipe at the hardware store, the appropriate adhesive, and if you’ve got a tire-pump in the garage, you can do this.

pump it up

My son and I recently had the opportunity to do this project at his friend’s birthday party. I give serious credit to the boy’s father who was running the project, who is of Middle-Eastern descent. When a man of Middle-Eastern descent is teaching a bunch of 4-year-old boys how to build high-pressure backyard rockets, there is just no way to avoid the Dept. of Homeland Security jokes. Instead of being touchy about it he embraced it, and had all the other dads in stitches the entire time:

“OK folks, gather around. This one is straight out of the little-terrorist’s handbook”.

It all starts out with tape.

“Now watch this. Here’s how we build the warhead… er, um, I mean nosecone”.

Warhead… er, um… nosecone.

“There needs to be some weight in the nose, so we’re going to pack it with play-doh, unless you happen to have some Uranium-237 lying around”.

I let my child play with Uranium-237

“If anyone wants the schematics, we hacked them off of the NASA mainframe”.


Actually he was only partially kidding about that last part. This project was originally put together by NASA engineers to be a fun, very kid-friendly, backyard-level project to do at Space Camp (a program from which I am a proud alumnus… class of 1988). The schematics are freely available for download in PDF format. Click right here if you want to download it.

Where are those transmissions you intercepted? What have you done with those plans?!

Ultimately the concept here is to build an airtight vessel, build up the pressure (with the bicycle pump), and suddenly release all the pressure at once through a valve and out a nozzle which pushes the rocket up into the air. A couple of suggestions that don’t add any more difficulty if you want to go all Tim “the tool-man” Taylor on it:

1)      You’ll notice the NASA/Space Camp schematics have a manual valve at the very end of the pressure vessel to release the pressure and launch the rocket. For that to work you need to kneel down next to the pressurized vessel and manually “open the gate” by twisting the valve into the right position. With the simple addition of an automatic sprinkler valve, a 9 volt battery, and a button switch from Radioshack you can very easily adapt the rig to launch from a distance at the push of a button. It makes for a little more drama, and adds another dummy-proof layer of cool-factor.

Oh this is SOOOOO Adam and Jamie.

2)      If the bicycle pump isn’t doing it for you, the vessel can be pressurized in a fraction of the time by a gas/electric air compressor. I mean really – if you’re going to go badass, you might as well go all the way.


And there you have it: two dork-a-licious ways to scratch your inner Mythbuster this summer. Just remember when you’re done to let your kids play too.

…now who wants to take bets on how long it’s going to take Homeland Security to put this blog on the suspect list after the next time one of their agents Google’s “Uranium-237”.

-Dork Dad

3 Responses to “DIY Dorkdad”

  1. Grandma JuJu Rhoads May 27, 2014 at 4:02 am #

    Thanks for the zip line pictures. I have 5 and 6 year old grandsons and I’ve promised them that grandma is going to make them a zip line this summer. My plan is to start it from our tree house and end it at the chicken house. What I keep picturing is them smacking into the chicken house. Maybe it sags enough that they hit the ground before they hit the stoping point. Could you explain or post a picture of how it ends. ps Sounds like you are a fun dad.

    • dorkdad June 1, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

      I fully endorse the “sag before it ends” strategy. I was all about safety on t his one… that means not too fast, and not too high.


  1. Pixar!!! | - June 27, 2013

    […] picks up a broom stick and “flies” it around. We’re getting creative with camera angles, the zip-line I built last year and a leaf blower to pass off certain illusions. We’ve even got one of her dolls dressed […]

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