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How Long Can a Paper Boat Float?

Are you ready for another boat building and floating challenge? Let’s see how long you can get a paper boat to float in water before it turns mushy and/or sinks. Although this is called “Bathtub Buoyancy,” I expect you probably would want to carry out the experiment in a bowl of water or other container that could be easily set aside. This might tie up your bathtub for a day or two 🙂


  • Variety of paper products, such as oaktag, printer paper, construction paper, even newsprint
  • Test container to hold water, big enough to accommodate your floating boats (Note:  I’m sure you know to always watch small children around water, even little amounts.)
  • Optional:  clock, paper and pencil to record results

Instructions: Build some paper boats of different materials, using roughly similar designs. Set them in water and then watch how long they float. You may want to check back every hour or so for boats that are well crafted, others may go down in minutes. Think of ways to make paper boats that float even longer. Yes, you may coat the boats with paint or other waterproof coatings, but not aluminum foil. Then let me know what you find out from your experiments and once again, I’ll post the results in a week or so.

Actually, making a boat out of paper isn’t as crazy as it sounds. For an absolutely fascinating history of paper boats, check out The American Boats... It's dense reading, but well worth the effort. I'll talk more about it in the upcoming results post. Hope you have fun.

For a more modern take on paper boats, see this giant paper boat made by an artist at the DailyMail. (You might want to check this website for appropriateness before showing children).

Example of Paper Boat Folding Instructions

Edit: For results


Do you remember the challenge, to propel a homemade boat across a bathtub without using your hands to touch it, batteries or electricity? We came up with six ways to do this. Did you come with any that we didn't? Let us know!

1.    Wind or air movement
Probably the most obvious way to propel a boat without touching it is to use air movement or wind. We tried both creating a sail and blowing on it and also using a fan to create air. Both were effective, although somewhat slow and hard to steer.

2.    The classic balloon boat –

You may have seen instructions for these or tried out a kit. I found some available for sale on the Internet (see Resources below) or you can make your own. Check these fun instructions to build a balloon boat from ZOOM, the PBS TV show.

Note:  Please be careful using balloons, and always have adult supervision. Children under 8 years can choke or suffocate on uninflated or broken balloons.

3.    Wind-up propeller
My son took a wind-up propeller from a balsa wood airplane and modified it to propel a flat wooden boat. The stretched rubber band creates the potential energy which is then transferred to kinetic energy. It is fast for short distances.

See the red propeller on the right, rubber band across the center and nail holding it on the left.

4.    Magnet Repulsion
Okay this one was my idea. I remembered moving train cars in a wooden train set by reversing the magnets. It works with an egg carton boat, too. I think this type of boat has the best steering once you get the hang of it.

Here is a short video showing one of our trials. Bear with us, we're still learning video technology 🙂

5.    Detergent Power / Soap propulsion

You may have seen instructions for a soap boat that actually moves. We created one using a top of a Styrofoam egg carton and a squirt of dish detergent. This is not technically a chemical reaction, the movement has to do with the surface tension of the water.

Instructions for a soap-propelled boat from CSIRO.

We simplified the technique a bit by just adding the dish detergent to an egg carton boat and it still seemed to work.

6.    Chemical reactions

My dad told me that as a kid he had a boat that ran on Alka Seltzer tablets. You can also make boats propelled by baking soda and water, or vinegar.

ZOOM has instructions for a Soda Bottle Boat

Good luck and I hope you try some of these. They were fun and we learned a lot too.

Resources for Further Explorations (Affiliate links to Amazon):

Balloon Powered Wooden Boat

Rubber Band Paddle Boat

Let's Try It Out in the Water : Hands-On Early-Learning Science Activities by Seymour Simon, Nicole Fauteux, Doug Cushman (Illustrator)

Teaching Chemistry with TOYS by Jerry Sarquis, Mickey Sarquis , and John Williams

Science in Seconds with Toys: Over 100 Experiments You Can Do in Ten Minutes or Less by Jean Potter

Magnetic Boats in the Tub