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The 1950s were a golden age for the curious kid builder of all things balsa, plastic, Erector, and Lionel. Everything seemed to cost $1.90. I loved building models with my friend Merle down the street.

The Revell Company had the great line of Highway Pioneers plastic car models; you had to melt the axle with a hot knife to form a little blob of plastic that held the wheels on. Balsa wood airplane kits were common; some slipped together without glue and could be instantly tossed into the air, others had propellers you’d wind with a rubber band. There were wooden battleships with metal pins for cannons, decals, and other little details.

We had a soft spot for boats, since we lived a block from Lake Michigan. We made weird-looking boats from driftwood, which we’d pull along the shore with a long tree branch and string.

One day, Merle and I fished one of those free plastic submarines out of the bottom of a cereal box. Up and down it went in a small container of water with only a pinch of baking powder to create an air bubble for buoyancy. We loved it.

Fifty years later, I wondered if I could advance the design of that baking-powder sub and inject a little more fun by adding an electric motor. The answer is an unequivocal yes! Follow along as I share some model building ideas. You might learn some new skills along the way.

Sub Systems

The Kid Sub dives and ascends like the classic cereal-box toy subs, using baking powder to create bubbles for flotation. But unlike those toys, this one’s got forward propulsion from an electric motor, rudder, and dive planes, so it can perform powered dives, ascents, and turns, like a real submarine.

The circuit’s voltage is so low (1.5V) that immersing the switch and wires does not impair the sub’s function or present any danger. What does have to be waterproofed is the motor, which is sealed in petroleum jelly and beeswax.

Like a real submarine’s ballast tanks, the bubble chamber can contain water, making the sub negatively buoyant, or air, displacing the water and making the sub positively buoyant.

The powder tube contains the sub’s secret chemical mixture for vertical propulsion: ground-up Alka-Seltzer tablets.

The resulting air bubble forces water out of the bubble chamber, increasing the sub’s buoyancy.

The sub rises to the surface, relieving water pressure on the air release lever. The lever falls forward and unstops the hole in the bubble chamber, releasing the air bubble. Water rushes back into the bubble chamber, making the sub negatively buoyant. Submerged again, the air release lever is pressed back to its closed position by the water pressure caused by forward motion. Repeat.

Parts:

Soft drink bottles, plastic: NOS Energy Drink, 22oz (3) NOS has discontinued their blue bottles, but you can use any bottle that’s similar size with thick plastic walls, such as SoBe tea or elixir, 20oz (2)

Plastic knives (6) Dixie MEDIUM weight knives or with at least a 1/8″-wide spine at the back of the blade.

Propeller, one inch Dumas, (other small 1″ plastics boat propellers ok) 

Motor, DC, 1.5V, 7/8″ diameter. Any motor will work as stock varies from these companies: American Science & Surplus sciplus.com or Electronicsurplus.com

Wire, insulated, 26 gauge, 2′ total length

Blue or Transparent RTV sealant, 1 tube available in auto parts stores

Cyanoacrylate (CA) glue aka super glue

Baking soda to accelerate the CA glue

Zap Goo flexible adhesive aka Zap-a-Dap-a-Goo

Epoxy, two-part such as J-B KwikWeld

Urethane foam, two-part expandable such as Silpak SP 328-4. Dow, Gap and Crack ( Great Stuff ) looks good too but I suggest anyone using any of these products experiment with them first to see what quantities to mix.

Mold release (Mothers) Carnuba car wax as a mold release for the urethane foam and found it works perfectly, However, be sure the inside of the mold has no edges and apply ample wax and let it dry sufficiently (to where it is dry to the touch) Silpak R-80 with a Preval Sprayer to apply it is an alternative.

Liquid styrene glue Testors Liquid Cement for Plastic Or the non-toxic version 

Battery holder, 1×AAA McMaster Carr #7712K16

Square tube, brass, 1/8″, 0.014″ wall thickness, 12″ length K&S Engineering #151

Rod or wire, brass, 0.052″ diameter, 12″ length Detail Associates #2512 or similar

Rod, brass, With an ID to match your motor shaft’s OD

Acrylic tube, clear, 3/4″ OD × 5/8″ ID, 6 foot length cut to size McMaster Carr #8532K16

Hidden hinge Sonic Tronics #SOT130 Wholesaletrains.com

Machine screws, brass, 00-90×1/2″ (7) Walthers #947-1126

Hex nuts, brass, 00-90 (7) Walthers #947-1250

Battery, AAA

Switch, SPDT toggle, micro-subminiature Allied Electronics #G12AP

Plastic tubing, clear, ¾” OD × 5/8″ ID × 6″ length Grainger #4VXH9

Plastic tubing, acrylic, clear, 2½” OD, 0.65″–0.70″ wall thickness You only need about ½” total length.

Silicone rubber, two-part for moldmaking, such as Oomoo #25 or #30

Flexible tubing, 1/8″ OD, 1″ length such as aquarium air line, heat-shrink tubing, or covering from electrical wire

Corks, #5 (2) Fisher Scientific #07-781H or similar

Alka Seltzer tablets

Monofilament fishing line, 20yds

Coin, 25 cent or metal or plastic disc of the same size

Beeswax sold in hardware stores

Styrene sheet, 2″ x 1-½× 0.030″ thick  Plastruct #SSS-103

Petroleum jelly

Bolts, stainless steel, ¼-20: ½” (2), 1″ (1), with hex nuts (8) for ballast adjustments

Decals, self-adhesive, 1″ or 2″ letters such as Hy-Ko Products #MM series

EPDM sheet, about 3 × 3″ this is the same plastic used in blister packaging

Nylon plug, threaded, 3/8″

Test tube and cap, McMaster Carr #7012A44 and #6946A16

Corks, Size 6, McMaster Carr #9566K2

Sub-miniature toggle switch, Mouser Electronics # 633-G12AP

Tools:

Soldering iron and rosin-core solder

Hobby knife with new blades

Drill and small drill bits

Stepper drill bit for stern cap hole

Cup and pan to melt beeswax

Band saw or coping saw

Files, small

3/8″ × 18 NPT tap

Michael Wernecke

Michael Wernecke

Michael Wernecke presented at the Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif., in May 2007. He creates Alfa hull kits and welcomes questions about his sub. [email protected]


  • Dave

    Very cool! How about a video!

    • Michael Wernecke

      Hello Dave
      Thanks for your interest in the amazing KID SUB
      I am working on a video of the great sub in action
      Watch for it on this site
      Mike ( Inventor of the KID SUB )

  • Perico

    Actually, no motor is needed for propulsion.
    If the submarine had the shape of a glider, (winged) the gas produced can bring nose-up bouyancy and will advance forward by itself while rising. Reaching surface, gas is released by a float valve bringing nose down and negative buoyancy propelling it forward to the bottom. By impacting the bottom, another dosage of gas production can be triggered by a lever bringing nose up buoyancy again; and the cycle repeated with maaaany dispensing dosages of AlkaSeltzer on board to travel miles if deep enough.
    Make that one ! All the thinking is to aim on releasing maaany small dosages of the chemical one at a time. As there is plenty of ballast needed, ‘fuel’ amount on board can be huge.
    I believe using a linear roll of ‘bubble wrap’ containing the chemical , advancing/piercing one every bottom touch, can work…

    • Michael Wernecke

      Great idea Perico !!!!!
      I’m taking it into consideration for future product development possiblities
      Mike ( inventor of the KID SUB )

  • https://www.facebook.com/japharl Zak Zebrowski

    Hi Mike,

    Great idea. Thanks for sharing this information. I’ve been designing (and it has sort of stalled) an autonomous air boat, and I was wondering how normal boats were modeled… Thanks! http://www.flickr.com/photos/japharl/8712286634/

    • oceantech04

      Hello Zak,
      Nice to hear from you.
      Briefly describe your autonomous air boat.
      It sounds interesting.
      Are you also wanting to make a fiberglass boat hull?
      Mike

  • oceantech04

    Great comment !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    What does it mean in English?
    Mike

  • Mohammad

    Dear Mr. Michael,

    I am very impressed by your Electro-Chemical Kid Sub project and therefore I am trying to build a similar submarine by following your step by step guide.
    I have started with the body of the submarine and used the SoBe tea bottles for that like you asked. I am strictly sticking to your comprehensive guide to get a satisfactory outcome. I am in the process of buying all the items you listed but I have a few questions about the items. Please answer the following questions:

    1) What is the Mold release (Mothers) Carnuba car wax used for? I understand the Urethane foam will be used to help the stabilise and float the submarine but I do not really see the purpose of the car wax.

    2) Do I need all the different sealant tubes? Can I just use gaps and cracks foam, super glue, Zap Goo flexible ahesive and the Epoxy?

    3) Does the Sub-miniature toggle switch serve the same function as the Switch (SPTD toggle, micro sub-miniature from Allied Electronics)? If not, please clarify the difference as I will have to buy both.

    4) Is having all the different types of tubing such as plastic clear tubing, plastic acrylic clear, flexible tubing and silicone rubber essential? Can I substitute one for all?

    5) Should I purchase all the materials you listed or is there anything I can miss out on without making my project suffer?

    6) Also can you please link me a website where I can find suitable EPDM sheet as well stainless steel Bolts.

    7) Finally, I have looked up the 26 insulated gauge wire and I am quite unsure if I should be looking for wire insulation only or an insulated wire that can carry current. Please tell me what I need.

    Your prompt reply is highly appreciated.

    Thank you so much!

    Mohammad

    P.S if you do not check this email frequently, is there any other method I could use to contact you?