Howdy neighbor! Nice pile of dirt you've got sitting out behind your house! Looks like you're halfway to a softball field. The plastic flamingoes are a nice touch over by the moldy kiddie pool . . .
Here's are a few questions and we want you to answer honestly:
Is your back yard totally lame?
Is it loaded with a bunch of stupid crap?
Are you a creative person with some handy skills and a flare the dramatic?
Then it's time to get your life together, reclaim your property, and build your family a backyard roller coaster!
A backyard WHAT-er coaster?
Oh yes. You read that correctly. Backyard roller coasters are just like regular roller coasters except in your backyard. Most are built with simple lumber for the framing and PVC pipes for the rails. They're small enough to even fit in urban back yards and powerful enough to create years worth of memories for your kids.
Right about now you're probably thinking, "OMG that's the coolest thing I've ever seen." And also maybe, "How and why would anyone ever build such a ridiculous contraption in their backyard?"
Well answering the "why" question is easy. It only takes three words: BACKYARD ROLLER COASTER! C'mon, try to tell us you don't want to build one of these and officially win the Parent of the Millenium award . . .
The "how" question is, well, slightly more complicated. Building a backyard roller coaster is a fairly complex process and some top home coaster builders are engineers with decades of design experience under their belts. Shoddy workmanship or poor design features could make this project mega-dangerous, so it's worth taking the time to do a ton of research. You'll need a solid plan before getting out there with the hammer and nails.
The good news is building a backyard rollercoaster is totally doable! There are many great resources out there with collected knowledge from home coaster builders around the country that can help you get through the (ahem) ups and downs of this project. No two backyard roller coasters are alike, but in this article, we'll share some key concepts you'll need to know to build a home coaster of your very own. Here are some topics we'll hit:
Phase 1: Planning, Planning, and More Planning
Phase 2: Let's Get to Work!
A Roller Coaster? In MY Backyard?
If you can believe it, that's the idea.
Backyard roller coasters use the same general principles as theme park coasters, but everything is scaled down. Unless you're Kim and Kanye, you probably don't have enough space in your backyard for a full-sized Space Mountain. This may sound obvious, but there's actually some science involved here.
All roller coasters use potential energy built climbing up the first hill for propulsion throughout the whole ride. Think of it like Yeezy building up to that beat drop. The difference with a backyard roller coaster is there's a much smaller initial hill to climb, less potential energy, and way less track to ride. So what does that mean in English?
Well, first and foremost it means that a DIY coaster will probably be smaller and slower. It will also probably be constructed out of consumer-grade materials. All this means that it likely won't have some of the gnarliest features you'd find on full-size coasters. But it will have some things you won't find at Six Flags.
Come to think of it, your backyard roller coaster will have ALL things you won't find at Six Flags. Wanna know why? Because it will be one of a kind. You'll be the chief designer on this project from top to bottom. This means you're only limited by our own imagination. Well, also your budget. And the size of your backyard. And there's gravity too. BUT it's your design, and that's not the only benefit.
Probably the sweetest thing about having a roller coaster in your backyard is, well, having a roller coaster in your backyard. Do you know what's not in your backyard? A line with 1,000 screaming middle schoolers. Or a bunch of surly ride attendants. It's you, your crew, and one sweet ride.
A Little Coast Through History
As human beings, we're generally kind of nuts. Despite the many fair warnings that the world gives us about imminent danger, we're still pretty down to try risky stuff. Like, for example, roller coasters. These days coasters are very safe, but let's just say the early days were a bit unpredictable.
The Way Back Machine
The earliest roller coasters trace their roots back to ice sleds that were created in 16th and 17th century Russia. These were huge wooden scaffolds that rose as high as 70 feet and would launch unsuspecting Russian kids at totally inappropriate speeds. Safety measures were slight, broken legs we plentiful, and dreams of even crazier thrill rides were born.
Hopping the Pond
Leave it to good old American ingenuity to create a better and faster way to scare the crap out of people . . .
The first example of a mechanized roller coaster appeared in rural Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s. An outdoor elevator for a mining operation had been decommissioned but still worked well enough to carry people uphill for what the owners called a "nature ride." As it turned out, the death-defying ride back down was what people actually remembered, and Voila! Steel-track coasters were born. But improvements were on the way . . .
Boom Times, Baby.
The roller coasters we know and love today really came into their own in the 1970s and 1980s. While wooden coasters have existed across the world since the 19th century, modern technology in the last 50 years has truly pushed coasters ahead. With better safety standard, computer design methods, and automatic fabrication practices, today's coasters are just better. Is that why we still love them so much? Well, good question.
Yep. Roller Coasters Still Got It!
What's more American than roller coasters? Don't say apple pie. The Dutch have that covered. Roller coasters have captured the imagination of Americans since that first rickety Pennslyvania ride and they continue to thrive as an emblem of American recreation. But why and how do coasters resonate so personally with the American public?
In America, we go big. What's better than stopping to see the world's largest thimble at some random roadside diner? There's no way to make a small coaster. Even if you're just building a backyard roller coaster, you should be ready to forfeit your whole yard. But that's the point, right? It's awesome to have a big, honking contraption on your land. Especially if it looks cool . . .
American's love huge stuff, but we also love innovation. Every coaster is a little different, but they are all designed with exacting specifications that adhere to real science, like physics or something. It's sometimes hard to believe that roller coasters actually work, but they do. And there's some geeky genius out there dreaming one up right now.
They're Strong (Like Bull)
Part of what's so fun about roller coasters is that they place riders under increased gravitational (or G) forces. You know that classic feeling when your stomach is about to end up in your mouth? Thank G forces for that. It takes a serious contraption to not only create the kind of G's we experience but also do it safely. With a backyard roller coaster, you can pull some serious G's at home. But how safe are we really talking?
Backyard Roller Coaster? That Sounds Dangerous . . .
Before we go any further, let's talk safety. Building a backyard roller coaster can be extremely safe if you know what you're doing. That's where things get tricky. This is very seriously NOT a project for kids to try when they're bored with a tree house. DIY coaster building requires tremendous throughout the entire process and it's honestly best left to professional engineers that know how to build. Here are some things to consider:
You Can't Trick Gravity
It's imperative that you have a highly scrutinized plan for your home coaster before even thinking about buying supplies and cutting branches off your neighbor's oak tree. Roller coasters are one of the world's greatest uses for the laws of physics, but you really can't break these laws. If you track requires too much energy than you just won't go anywhere. If your car has too much energy on the track, WELP, hang on tight my friend.
This Ain't Lincoln Logs
Building a DIY roller coaster is complicated and you're going to need some skills. Do you actually know how to build? Would you be willing to bet your kid's life on your construction chops? If the answer is "maybe," or "no," then we'd recommend starting with a sandbox.
Get Ready for Lots (and Lots, and Lots) of Chores
So let's say you're good with numbers and have some handyman skills. Great! That mean's you've probably got what it takes for this project. At least to start. A backyard roller coaster can be very safe it's well designed and well built, but it's also got to be well maintained. Think twice if you're pulling down 80-hour work weeks.
Coaster Tycoon (but in Real Life!)
OK, so we know that engineers and physicists with a background in construction make the best backyard roller coaster builders, but what do they know? No, really, what do they actually know that's so useful? And what will you need to know in order to build a coaster that's both rad and safe?
Must-Have Skills for Home Roller Coaster Builds
Strong Physics Skills
You don't need to have a Ph.D. in astrophysics, but you should have experience using physics in the real world. If you're a total newbie, then consider starting with some smaller scale experiments to build confidence as you take your number crunching into the real world.
3D Design Skills
Early coaster designers certainly didn't use AutoCAD, but they probably would have if given the choice. Using quality 3D modeling software will give you the ability to plug in very specific angles and vectors that you could never obtain with hand-drawn notes.
Pro-Grade Building Skills
If you plan to build a backyard roller coaster you'll want to use power tools. Hand tools are theoretically possible, but the cuts may end up uneven and sketchy. Get comfortable using a circular saw, compound miter saw, nail gun and drill at the bare minimum. If steel tracks are in your future, you'll also need welding skills.
Lots of Patience
Most epic projects have a few epic fails. Expect these when building a roller coaster. You'll probably need to tweak your initial design substantially before it's the right fit for your yard. You'll also probably make mistakes in the building process. Embrace these not as failures but learning opportunities. And remember, you're building a roller coaster!
Building a backyard roller coasters aren't all just math and power tools! You'll also need to get your creative juices flowing. How do you want your coaster to look and feel? Do you have specific aesthetic requirements for it? And how the hell are you going to fit this thing into your backyard?
Building your own DIY roller coaster will certainly require a lot of skills. But that's only part of the fun. There's also the logistics . . .
It Doesn't Have to be Walley World . . .
One of the best parts about designing a backyard roller coaster is that you can work with what you have. Live on a farm in Oklahoma? Then you've got enough space for the next Top Thrill Dragster. Only have an acre to spare? That'll work! Only a few hundred feet? Oh yeah, you got this.
The logistics involved in building a backyard roller coaster can be overwhelming, but you might be surprised how flexible they can be.
Small But Mighty
There's no set amount of space you'll need to build a DIY roller coaster. There are award-winning home builds that span as many as ten acres. But don't think you're out of luck if you don't live on a farm. Even a small, urban outdoor space can be enough for a DIY coaster if you consider an "out-and-back" design instead of something lots of twists and turns.
Budgets for DIY roller coasters can also vary widely. If you've already got a lot of tools and good quality scrap wood on hand, then you may be able to build a coaster for as little as $50. Want to go big? Get ready to dig deep. Welding equipment, steel rails, motorized chain lifts, and custom cars can cost tens of thousands of dollars. OK, sorry. Take a breath. You'll have some time to make the payments.
Relax, This Could Take a While . . .
If you're going to build a backyard roller coaster you've got to do it right. And doing it right will take time. Most DIY builders with engineering backgrounds take months (if not years) to design and build their first coasters. There is, of course, a learning curve and you'll get faster with experience. But just remember you can't cut any corners. Even if you design corners that are silky smooth and lightning fast.
Rollin' Out a Game Plan
Close your eyes and picture it. Death-defying drops and heart-pounding curves all starting right from your own deck! It's one thing to have a vision, but it's another to bring that baby to life. By now you know that a great design is key for building a backyard roller coaster. Let's take a look at some things to consider when starting the design process.
Let the Space do the Work
While you shouldn't give up just because you have a small backyard, you should let that inform your design. If, for example, you have a long narrow space for your coaster then consider maximizing height at both the beginning and end of the ride. If your yard is wide, then maybe you'll have the space for a few twists and turns. Whatever you do, work with what you've got and don't force it!
Study up, G!
Though everything on your coaster may be scaled down, don't think it will be a snooze fest. Tighter angles, faster drops, and smaller curls can, in fact, create more intense G forces. Be very careful when calculating your angles not to get too aggressive. At some point, you'll actually want to ride this thing . . .
Don't Skimp on Style
Safety and rider comfort is always most important when making a backyard roller coaster, but don't cheap out when it comes to looks. Chances are this sucker is completely going to take over your back yard. Unless you're cool with the big pile of dirt that's already there, why not make an upgrade? Think about how your coaster can best work with the space including your material choices and colors.
And ya know, let's talk about materials while we're at it.
So you've a flawless design, enough tools to build a small city, and plans to bring you new backyard roller coaster into perfect harmony with those poison ivy plants by the shed. It's time to hit the hardware store! There are a lot of different building materials you could use for this project. Let's consider a couple viable options.
Wood: The All-Time Classic
The starting place for most DIY coaster builders is simple lumber. It's cheap, readily, available, easy to work with, and it can even double as a bonfire if you get sick of the project! Kidding aside, good quality lumber from any hardware store is a good choice for your frame. We highly recommend adding wood glue in addition to screws, just like Grampa would've done.
PVC for You and Me
While 2x4s will work well as the frame for your coaster, they are not a great choice for the rails. The most common option for new builders is PVC pipe like the stuff you'll find in the plumbing section. PVC strength is graded in a series of schedules, which is weird, but you'll want to do some research to ensure that you're getting strong enough stuff. Just remember it will also need to bend.
You Into Heavy Metal?
If you know how to weld, then another option is to fabric both the frame and the tracks out of steel. The downside to this is that you really need to know how to weld. It's not something you can B.S. your way through. If you've got the welding thing down though, there are some major upsides to a steel construction for your coaster:
Despite the big-time benefits to steel, there is a reason wooden coasters still dominate theme parks all over the country. They're fun, nostalgic, and really, who can resist that clackity-clackity sound? Best of all, it's quick and easy when construction day comes . . .
If You Build It . . .
Today's the day!
You just cleared out the local lumber yard and now you've got a massive pile of 2x4s and PVC pipe in your backyard (not to mention about 10,000 wood screws). Yikes.
Fear not my fellow coaster-lover. This build isn't going to be as hard as it looks. Think we're kidding?
Let's Frame This Picture
Now's the time to bring those construction skills out to play and the first step is constructing the frame. If you're familiar with simple post-and-beam, you're not too far off. Use the schematic you already created in AutoCad as the template and follow these general steps:
Measure and cut vertical support beams
Attach vertical support beams to baseboards to displace weight on the ground
Measure and cut horizontal rails that will connect vertical support beams
Cut cross beams to connect in between the horizontal rails
Connect left and right lateral support rails with cross beams in small sections no more than ten feet.
Attach each section of the track frame to the vertical support beams
Once your backyard roller coaster is completely framed out, you'll need to prepare the PVC pipe tracking for installation.
Getting on (Bent) Track
Your backyard rollercoaster won't be very interesting with straight tracks now will it? To get your PVC rails into the right shape for attachment to the frame, you'll need to warm the pipes up and gently bend them to the right contour. Sounds like a lot of work right? It's actually not that bad.
Method 1: The Torch Approach
With this method, the PVC pipe is exposed to heat from the outside with a heat source like a blow torch (sweeeet) or a heat gun. Don't apply the flame or heat flow directly to the pipe because it will turn into a puddle. Instead, gently wave the heat near the pipe so it accepts the radiant heat. When the pipe is hot gently bend it to the desired curve. Once cooled the pipe will retain its new shape. Nice!
Method 2: The `Ol Sand Bagger
This is an improved method that is way better for your PVC rails, but could be messy. Set your kitchen oven to preheat at a medium level. Let's say 350 degrees. Now run out to the hardware store and pick up a few bags of sand. When you get home, heat up said sand in your newly warmed up. Once the sand it hot, pour it into the PVC pipes and let the pipes warm up from the inside. Once they're pliable, pour out the sand, bend them to shape, and let them cool. Clever eh?
Now you're ready to mount your newly bent PVC rails onto the sides of your track frame. But don't forget, we've still got finishing to do!
Seal the Deal!
Once you've got the frame constructed and PVC rails added to your backyard roller coaster, it's time to party cause you're totally done!
NOPE. JUST KIDDING. HAHA.
As with any wood structure like a deck or porch you'll need to paint and seal both the frame and PVC rails. This will not only help them fight off mold and mildew from rain but also protect them from harsh UV rays. These are nasty little buggers and they can turn your PVC rails as brittle as uncooked spaghetti. Now that doesn't sound very safe, does it?
Do the Safety Dance
Building a backyard roller coaster will probably make your kids love you more and make you the envy of your neighborhood. But DIY coasters only rule if they're really, truly, safe. Paul Gregg, a retired aerospace engineer and preeminent DIY builder, adheres to a few ironclad rules to keep things safe on his creations. Let's sum a few of them up:
These safety rules are great advice from a true expert who is taking backyard roller coaster building to a new level. Now we've got a few more pro-tips.
Take These Tips to Heart
There's a ton to think about when you're planning to build your first DIY roller coaster. Out of everything to keep in mind, you should remember these three things above all else:
Do Your Homework. All of It.
Yep, that's right. This is the moment when we get all naggy on you. But seriously, if you want your backyard roller coaster to be fun and safe you've got to do the math and do it correctly. Heck, even do it twice. The last thing you want is to be blasting around a curve and realized that you place misplaced and decimal and you're about to go air born.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
Ugh, sorry, more nagging we know.
This old adage is really meant as a cautionary message about not screwing up. In this case take it as a message about building slowly, carefully, and with quality. Make all your cuts straight, don't strip any screws, use wood glue, and just enjoy the process in general. You'll end up with a tougher, safer, and higher performance coaster.
Keep and Eye on the Kiddos!
Do not, we repeat, DO NOT get lazy and let your kids just ride this thing whenever they want. A backyard roller coaster is a fun family project, but there is some inherent danger. Always have an adult supervisor when the coaster in use. Honestly, it should be the person that designed and built the darn thing. So, uhh, that means you.
Hot tips, huh? Guess what. We've also got a few things you should avoid.
This Project Rules. These Mistakes Really Don't.
Backyard roller coaster building is still a fairly new art form and there's not a lot of them out there. With that said, there are some common pitfalls out there that you should look out for if you're a new builder.
OK . . . Here. We. Go!
Roller coasters are just the best, aren't they? These giant wood and steel beasts are the embodiment of our big, fun, crazy, scary, and ingenious country. With new information about backyard roller coasters hitting the web every day, there's no reason to let the thrill die when you leave the theme park. So fire up your design software, pull out the power tools, pick up some supplies, and get to work. Your new backyard roller coaster is just a dream away.