Putt Putt Boat craft project

Recently my two young boys (2 and 4) were watching a movie called Ponyo.  I’d never seen it and was actually half dozing on the couch with them when a toy boat in the movie caught my attention.  I Googled “Ponyo boat” and discovered that it is a type of child’s toy steam engine called a Pop Pop Boat or Putt Putt boat among other names.  I was amazed to find that although this type of toy has been around for over a hundred years I’ve never heard of it.  I’m not saying I’m any type of expert in toys but I am constantly looking for cool science based toy projects to work on and play with my kids.  Somehow this one escaped me.

Anway, after looking at many store bought versions I finally discovered several websites with instructions on how to build your own.  I narrowed these down to my favorite at sciencetoymaker.org here.  The instructions are very simple, although the actual building process is more suitable to an age range of  8 or so.  My kids were a little to young for this one so I ended up doing most of the project myself but they definitely loved the results.

Basically, a Pop Pop boat is a miniature steam engine with no moving parts.  A birthday candle is used to heat the small diaphragm boiler engine.  Pressure builds inside the engine due to a build up of steam at which point water is expelled through the exhaust tubes and the boat is propelled forward with it’s distinctive rapid pop-pop-pop sound.  There are many articles regarding the science behind the process (why the boat doesn’t just go back and forth as water is pumped in and out of the engine) so I won’t get into all those details.  Instead I will focus on a few details that should help you get it right the first time, unlike me which took two tries to really get it going.

First plan on about 2 hours to build your first boat.  You may be a little quicker than me but the process is a little tricky at times and the instructions are very detailed and slow.  This is a good thing because it really does make the process very simple and easy.  I’ve added a couple of suggestions below that will help you avoid the two issues I had and insure you get it right the first time.  Here is a summary of the tools and materials  you will need.  These are from sciencetoymaker.org and before you begin you will want to print out the full .pdf list from their site but this will give you an idea of what you are in for.

  • Epoxy – Titebond Quickset Epoxy* or similar
  • Bendable Straws*
  • Computer with Internet Access and a Printer to print patterns from sciencetoymaker.org
  • Aluminum Soda Can
  • Glue Gun – Small 10W version or you will melt your straws
  • Scissors
  • Utility Knife or Razor Blade
  • Ruler
  • Toothpicks
  • 2 Quart Paper Carton
  • Birthday Candles
  • Tape

That’s pretty much it but there are a couple of things you should know before you begin to save you having to start over like I did.  Note the * above.  The first issue I had was in my choice of epoxy.  The store I used had only one brand (Gorilla Glue) which is a great epoxy but for a project like this too far to long to set.  I ended up using the Loctite QuickSet epoxy for my 2nd attempt and this made a huge difference.  In fact I started working on the boat while the engine set up and by the time I was finished it was set and ready for the next step.  Next, make sure you have good Bendable Straws.  The straws need to bend back on themselves at about the angle of a capital “A” without collapsing.  This was my first issue but since I didn’t realize this until I was well into the project my impatience overcame my logic and I used what I had.  Although they didn’t collapse completely they did seriously deform and my first engine was pretty weak and sporadic.

Ready to go. Not painted and lacking a deck and cabin but they work!

Ready to go. Not painted and lacking a deck and cabin but they work!

Finally, this is a very cool and relatively simple project to work on with your kids.  It is a toy reminiscent of times past where not everything was digital, touch screen and automatic and in my opinion where something of the wonder is lost.  While the science within a smart phone or tablet is unbelievably more advanced, this simple toy is somehow able to better capture a child’s imagination.  The simple technological process is fairly easy to explain and better yet, they can build it (with your supervision of course).  What better purpose could a toy have than to inspire scientific curiosity, encourage creative activity and result in a wonderful play thing that shouts out your success with each Pop, Pop, Pop?I’d like to recognize ScienceToyMaker.org for the time and effort that went into researching and developing the plans for their version of the Putt Putt boat.  My kids and I loved the process and are definitely enjoying the finished results.  Now it’s time to start experimenting with different designs, better looking boats (even just adding the deck and cabin), or the copper tube type.  I hope you and your kids enjoy the process as well.


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