Structure Building Tools and Equipment

The following sections will help you when you start choosing the things you want to build with and on.

Work Area - Where to build your structure.

Construction Aids - Things that will help you assemble your structure.

Cutting Tools and Surfaces - How do I cut the balsa?

Other Tools and Equipment - Others items you may wish to use


Work Area

The ideal work area is a location that can be dedicated to building a structure. The area should be well lit and well ventilated since many glues give off fumes that might irritate eyes. Good lighting is essential. If room lights are not sufficient you may want to use desk lamps.

A sturdy table that does not rock is important. The kitchen table at the team manager's house is probably not the best location to build structures because it is inevitable that glue or razor saw marks will end up in a location that the team manager's spouse will not appreciate. If there is no option other than the team manager's table then the team manager may want to purchase a piece of 1/8" or 1/4" hardboard (Masonite) to cover the table while the team works.

Since building structures creates dust and wood scraps it is better if the floor in the work area has a hard surface instead of carpet so that cleanup is easier. Also, some glues will melt some carpet fibers and spills will happen.

It is important to keep your work area dust free. Dust floating around in the air can get into your glue and affect its performance. Always cleanup dust and scraps before you start assembling your structure.

Construction Aids

There are many tools available at hardware stores that can aid in the Construction of your structure. Tools for making sure things are aligned, or to help you determine if you have constructed something square. Most the model suppliers listed on the Additional Links page carry various modeling tools that are useful to structure teams. Pitsco and Micro-Mark also sell tools that can be used by structure teams.

Construction Aids

  • Carpenters or Framing Square to help in squaring things or measuring the height of a structure. (Carpenter's and framing squares are not always 100% square since they are designed primarily for rough carpentry. They are probably accurate enough for most structure teams since no one can build perfectly anyway. However, the obsessive structure builder may want to invest in an Engineer's square. These are more expensive that the carpenter's and framing squares.)
  • Clamps to hold things in place (most hobby shops carry some type of model clamps.) Most home improvement centers carry clamps that are small enough for structure teams to use.
  • Triangles - to assist in drawing and setting up jigs
  • Hat Pins or Safety pins (can be used to hold materials in place on a jig)
  • Masking Tape (to hold things in place)

You can find many uses for these tools. For instance, assume you would like to mark several pieces of wood in the exact same place. You could measure each piece individually or you could use a carpenter's square and framing square to do it all at once.

In the photo on the right you can see that I have taped a framing square to a piece of glass and have laid several pieces of wood flush against the framing square. The piece of wood on the far right with a blue dot is my marking template. By placing the carpenter's square flush against the side of the framing and lining it up with my marking template I can draw a light line across all of the pieces I wish to mark. If you do this use a soft lead pencil. A hard lead pencil or ballpoint pin will indent the wood.

When you start constructing your structure you may want to have a construction surface that you keep clear of glue scrapes and cut marks. Here are some materials that work well as construction surfaces.

Surfaces to build on

  • Glass
  • Plastic
  • Plastic Laminate
  • Hardboard

Glass is a good surface to work on because it is flat, non-porous and glue can be easily removed from the surface with a razor blade scraper. If you know someone in the construction industry ask them to ask one of their glass subcontractors to give them old glass samples. Glass samples are usually 12" x 12" in size. Add some rubber feet to one side and you have a great work surface. If you do not know anyone in the construction industry check with some local glass shops. They may have some glass samples that they would be willing to donate.

Some plastics also make good surfaces to work on. However, you may need to test the surfaces because some glues will react with the plastics and melt them creating a surface that is no longer smooth.

Plastic laminate is another surface to consider. You can find plastic laminate (or melamine) shelves at most home improvement centers. Test them with the glues that you are using. It is possible that glue that dries on the surface will remove the laminate when you try to clean it off.

1/8" or 1/4" hardboard (sometimes called Masonite) is another surface you can consider.  Most hardboard has a smooth surface on one side that is a good building surface.  You can purchase hardboard in 2'x2' or 2'x4' pieces of hardboard at most home improvement centers.  You can ask them to cut it into 12" x 12" squares.  It can be difficult to clean dried glue off of hardboard without damaging the surface of the hardboard.  Promptly wipeup any spills to keep your worksurface smooth.

Other Aids

  • Notebook - for recording notes and results
  • Digital camera - for "as built" documentation of the structure
  • Digital video camera - for recording testing and documenting failure of the structure
  • Calculator or computer spread sheets - for planning how much the structure might weigh
  • First Aid Kit (aneseptic and bandages)


Cutting Tools and Surfaces

There are many different types of tools that are available to use for the construction of your structure.  These tools generally fall into 2 categories - cutting tools and shaping tools.


Cutting tools include this such as:


Razor blades are generally only good for cutting balsa wood to a thickness of about 3/16". When the material being cut is other than balsa wood or balsa wood larger than 3/16" the team may need to consider using a Razor Saw. Razor Saws are generally used in conjunction with a miter box. The miter box helps insure that the cut is square. Razor saws come in a variety of sizes and teeth configurations. You may have to test several saws to find the saw that works best for the material you are cutting.

The "Timber Cutter" from Pitsco is a tool designed specifically for cutting 1/8" x 1/8" wood at a 90 degree angle with a single edged razor blade. The design is such that the razor blade is kept away from fingers. Pitsco also sells another cutting device called the "Chopper III" that makes angle cuts on larger material. The blade on this cutter is exposed.


Shaping Tools

There may come a time that you need to make a small adjustment to your structure whether it be too much glue dried in a spot and it keeps you from placing a piece of wood properly or you have to make a piece just a "little bit" shorter to fit. Shaping tools are what you need for this.

  • Sandpaper (Various Grits)
  • Files
  • Emory boards

Cutting Surfaces

When cutting you will need to have something sturdy underneath the piece of wood that you are cutting.  Preferably not the kitchen table.  I recommend that you get a separate surface for cutting on even if you have covered your kitchen table with hardboard for protection.

One surface to consider is the self healing cutting mats available from hobby shops. Another option is to use 1" x 12" lumber cut into 12" to 24" sections. Most home improvement centers will cut lumber into pieces for a small additional charge.

It is important to remember that if you are using glass, plastic or plastic laminate for a building surface, you should not cut on these surfaces. You might scratch the surface (thus making it harder to cleanup) and you will be dulling your cutting tools when the contact the hard surface.

Notes about cutting wood

When cutting with razor blades a slight rocking back and forth motion (parallel with the blade) produces a cleaner cut than just pressing straight down with the blade.

When cutting with a razor saw make sure that you are using the saw to "saw" the wood with a smooth back and forth motion. Do not try to "cut" the wood with the saw.  Let the saw do the work.

When you cut wood you damage or crush the cells in the end of the wood. This can have an impact on how the wood performs. Many of you have done the experiment where you roll up a piece of copy paper, hold it in place with a rubber band and are able to support a book or several books on the rolled up tube. Now think of what happens when you bend or crush one end of the tube - it no longer supports as much weight. You may want to brainstorm ways to reduce this damage to the wood.

Other Tools and Equipment

Other Useful Equipment

Using a scale helps the team to select the wood that they want to use. They also can use the scale to make sure they meet the specifications of the challenge. An accurate scale helps to keep track of your structures weight at all steps during the construction process.

Levels are useful for determining if surfaces that are designed to be level are actually level. Levels can also be used to make sure your structure tester is setting level.

I recommend that structure teams have their own structure tester or at least have ready access to a structure tester. A structure tester is the best way for testing your designs. Most teams do not spend enough time practicing and working with weights, weight placement and the structure tester. A team should not show up a tournament without having practiced with a structure tester at least a few times. Information on constructing a structure tester is available here: How To Build a Tester.

Destination ImagiNation® tournaments use Olympic Style weights. There are a variety of styles of Olympic weights - each with different edge details. Some weights might have a straight edge like a washer, others may have very wide edge details and some edge details may be rounded like a bagel. Click here to see a close up of a couple of types of edge details. Note that the silver 45 pound weight has a much wider edge detail than the black weight. The sliver weight is more difficult to grip since the edge rim is so wide. Tournament Directors generally have little or no control over the specific types of Olympic weights that will be used at the tournament so it is important that a team have been exposed to a variety of the types so they can develop a strategy for the different weight styles they might see.