Dragons & Catapults

dragons and catapultsEnter the realm of mythical beasts, sieige engines, and truly stunning Medieval headdresses…it’s time for more kid-tested product reviews! Today, Hope is taking on the Aquarellum Junior paint kit by SentoSphere (ages 7+, retails for approximately $20) and the Tabletop Catapult kit by Sterling Innovation (ages 8+, retails for approximately $25). Have at thee Hope!

Hi everyone! I’m back… and this time, with a Medieval twist! First, I’m going to review the Aquarellum kit.

aquarelleum kitOpening the box, I found four pieces of light, thin, cardboardy canvas, referred to in the instructions as “Aquarellum Board.” The face of each board had a rendering of a dragon outlined faintly on the surface. One of them looked like a Chinese dragon, and the other three were a jumble of Viking and Medieval. There was also a plastic paint palette, six watercolor paints in bottles, a paintbrush, a plastic eyedropper, and a set of instructions. Dr. Dana thought the instructions were beautiful, and their bright colors captured my attention too.

french instructionsThe instructions were a 3 page, double-sided foldout. I started reading them hoping to glean a bit of information on using the product. But the instructions were written completely in French! Scouring them, I finally found a miniscule paragraph written in English. Sadly, it offered me only a vague idea of the procedures of the project. It described the board and how to paint on it, how to mix and dilute your paints, gave a few application tips for the paints, and then… nothing. But I got the “picture” (hahaha). However, I was sad that I couldn’t read the rest of the lovely illustrated instructions. Ah well. C’est la vie!

Basically, each Aquarellum “canvas” had a picture of a dragon outlined in wax. Since the paint was water-based, any messups would be deflected by the wax. What an epically cool concept! It was almost impossible to mess up!  Choosing one of the canvases, I assembled the extra materials recommended for the project.  And I quote…

  • a blank sheet to test mixed colors on
  • absorbent paper
  • A glass of water in which to rinse your brush, dilute inks, and clean the dropper used to dose the inks
  • Direct light (sunlight or a desk lamp), allowing you to clearly see the designs, since the varnish is very pale.

Setting up the materials, I readied the brush and paints.

prepping the paintI used the plastic dropper to place the paint in the cavities of the palette, tested the mixed colors on a piece of paper, and washed the dropper and the brush off in a cup of water.

paint testsThen I started to paint. Oh! What fun!!! The colors were vibrant, the paint easy to use, and it was nearly impossible to mess up!

wax outlines I finished one dragon, and moved onto the next. I found that the paint dried super quick, which made it easy to layer more colors onto the canvas, creating new shades. It was awesome! The only downside was that the paint dried so quickly, it sometimes dried on the wax, creating smudges. Here’s a finished canvas:

finished red dragonOverall, I really enjoyed this project! It was super fun, and my results turned out beautifully, even though I am not an expert at painting. The only downsides of the product were that if you went outside the main outline of the dragon, the smudges dried so fast that they could permanently mar your art.

Also, the bulk of the instructions were in French! This was especially frustrating because the French instructions were beautifully illustrated and clearly had more detail than the paragraph written in English. Also, Dr. Dana and I could not figure out the correct way to pronounce the product name! Aquarellum? What a tongue twister!

And the Scores Are In!


PROS: Fun to use, vibrant colors, easy, entertaining, beautiful results.
CONS: Directions mostly in French, smudges dried too quickly.

SCORE: 5 OUT OF 5!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Setting aside the dragons, I turned to the weaponry….BEHOLD!  A catapult!

catapult kitOpening the box, I found a book titled The Art of the Catapult, wood pieces, wooden pegs, directions, a chunk of brown clay in a plastic baggie, metal washers, white twine, a wire, and some glue. Unfolding the directions, I discovered that they were mostly illustrated. While I liked that they were so precisely illustrated, the text directions were vague, which confused me. The directions also called for a “Healthy Snack,” which was funny, because we only had marshmallows handy (more on those later)!

I used the inventory sheet on the first page to make sure I wasn’t missing any pieces, and started building the catapult. It was pretty straightforward. Use the wooden pegs to connect the wood pieces together to construct the base of the catapult.

base of catapultHowever, some of the pegs were loose. I used some glue, which (thankfully) seemed to help. Other pegs were too tight and had to be hammered in with a piece of stone that Dr. Dana had in her office!?! It was ludicrous, but equally hilarious, to see me pounding pegs into the wood with a huge chunk of stone. Rock dust flew everywhere, and the noise… let’s just say it was painful.

hammer timeAfter I had finished building the base and support structure, I had to construct the torsion string. When I saw the word torsion I thought, “WHAAAAAAAAT?!?!” (Torsion means “to be twisted” or “the act of being twisted”).

In a nutshell, to make the torsion string, I had to coil the string several times and use a wire to thread it through two washers and two holes in the catapult base. Then I wound the ends of the string loops around two pegs (called the “tensioners”). The catapult’s swing arm was inserted in the center of the torsion string and I used the tensioners to tighten it. Dr.Dana assisted, using her knightly muscle.

torsion stringThe directions for this part definitely could’ve used more clarification. The picture/word combination was just too weak for the complexity of the task. I couldn’t figure it out, so I called in Dr. Dana, who also had to carefully inspect the directions and fiddle with the catapult. But figure it out we did!

finished catapultWe made a ball out of the clay…but there was another problem. The wooden peg on the “trigger” was too weak to hold the catapult arm back – the peg just kept popping out. So Dr. Dana reinforced it somewhat with masking tape.

taped trigger pegBut there was another problem. Now the entire trigger would flop over, releasing the catapult arm. It just wasn’t strong enough to hold the arm down. So we ignored the trigger and used our fingers to hold down catapult arm while we loaded it.

But it was fun to use! It was just so utterly entertaining to watch stuff fly through the air! First, we launched the clay ball. Later, we launched a marshmallow and a ping pong ball. The clay ball had the lowest altitude when launched, the marshmallow went the farthest distance, and the ping pong ball went the highest.

Then we decided (of course) to try to launch a marshmallow into curatorial staffer Ellen’s mouth. First, we made sure she was wearing proper head and eye gear:

ellen's awsome headgearEllen sat in a chair approximately 65” away from the catapult. We tried again and again, moving the chair all over, but missed every time! Finally, Ellen took matters into her own hands:

Needless to say, we had fun!

The kit also came with a book called The Art of the Catapult, by William Gurstelle (Sterling Innovation, 2004). The book was broken up into nine chapters. Each chapter contained at least one or two additional catapult-like projects you could build. However, they were far more complex and difficult than the catapult that came with the kit.

The rest of the book was information about the evolution and variation of catapults around the world. To me… well, some of it was cool. Alexander the Great, Saladin, and Richard the Lionheart. But the rest of the projects and history of the catapult…. frankly, it felt like too much dry detail.

In addition, the writing style seemed to change throughout the book. Sometimes it felt like an adventure novel, sometimes a history textbook, and other times, translations of ancient writings, like the Torah, Bible, or Koran. It was odd, because the book was by one author. But maybe the author’s interests were also varied, and his writing simply reflected that. It just didn’t flow very well.

The catapult kit was kind of fun, but overall it was more confusing than excellent. The directions were annoying with their briefly captioned illustrations. The project was recommended for ages 8+. Yet I had to use a rock to hammer pegs into the catapult. To me, it suggests that something is wrong. And so…

The Scores Are In!


PROS: Fun to use (because of laugh factor. It was so fun to launch marshmallows at Ellen), good excuse to eat marshmallows, sturdy materials, came with a book (yay!), built a catapult!

CONS: Confusing directions with not enough written description, aiming was hard, trigger not effective, clay projectile a bit disappointing, book was a little dry.


Postscript: Dr. Dana here! Last night, I took the catapult home to my 2 children (ages 4 and 6). For 3 straight hours, they launched ping pong balls around the house. The little catapult held up beautifully, even though the trigger never worked. We ended up removing the trigger and just using our fingers. For extra fun, use a Sharpie to draw silly faces on the ping pong balls.

One Amazing Airbrush

super sprayerA kit that turns a regular marker into an airbrush? What is this insanity!?! The moment I spotted the Crayola Marker Airbrush, I just knew that Hope, our kid tester, had to try it…

I’m back, everyone! The Crayola Marker Airbrush is a product that has always kept me wondering. It looked awesome…but would it work? So, when I learned that Dr. Dana wanted me to test it, I was ecstatic!!!!  The purpose of this product is to turn a regular Crayola marker into an airbrush, or paint sprayer. Dr. Dana, Katie and I were a little skeptical about this, and decided to work as a team to test the product. Together, we opened the box.

crayola airbrushInside, there was an 11” tall air tank with a hand pump at the top and 29” of clear plastic tubing protruding from it (to me, it looked like a detonator made of blue and green plastic). Attached to other end of the plastic tubing was the airbrush. It looked like a green glue gun with a little gray cone extending from its tip. Later, I learned this was called the “nozzle.” The nozzle was open at the top, which allows a marker to be inserted in it.

airbrush kit contentsAlso in the box: 20 blank paper sheets, two packages of markers (4 neon fabric markers and 8 washable markers), 4 stencil sheets, 20 blank paper sheets, and a small set of directions. We extracted the materials and looked at the directions.

Houston? Come in, Houston, we have a problem.

Step 1 was titled “Twist it!” and showed a marker stuck inside the airbrush nozzle. But Step 2 was titled “Inset it!” with a picture of the marker hovering above the cavity intended for the marker.  Umm…shouldn’t that happen before you twist it?

directionsConfused, we decided to put the rules of logic and practicality to good use, and “Insert it!” first, and then “Twist it!” Katie set to work doing the third direction, “Pump it!” Grabbing the air pump handle, she pulled up, pressed down, pulled up, pressed down, until the air pressure made it too hard to pump anymore. We taped a piece of white poster board to a door, I pulled the trigger, and…


A spurt of air could be heard escaping, but no ink came out!!!

Thinking that maybe the paper needed to be horizontal to work, Dr. Dana and I moved the poster board face down on a table, where we sprayed at close range, trying unsuccessfully to get a speck of ink onto it. We took the marker out, and tested it by coloring on a piece of paper. It definitely wasn’t out of ink. We put the marker back in the airbrush. Nothing. We switched markers. Nothing. We switched to a fabric marker.

pink splatterFinally! A few drips of bright pink ink!!!  But that was all. Just a small splatter on the empty tundra of a poster. Confused, we tried every method we could think of, including using the troubleshooting section of the direction sheet. Nothing worked. Eventually, I said, “Hey! How about calling Crayola? Their products sometimes have quality warranties. Maybe we could get help.” So I called.

A nice lady answered the phone. She asked for the product number and name. She looked it up and then she said, “Okay, what’s your problem?” So I told her about the lack of marker spray. She said “Did you hear the two clicks when you put the marker inside the handheld sprayer?” Whaaaaat? I was confused. The directions never mentioned “two clicks!” I replied that no, I did not even know I was supposed to hear two clicks, thanked her for her help, and hung up.

Returning to the poster board and the markers, Dr. Dana and I teamed up to shove a marker into the nozzle, determined to try until we heard two clicks. After much pushing, we heard a magical CLICK click! I pulled the trigger…AND I SPRAYED INK ALL OVER THE POSTER BOARD!

spraying“AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It wasn’t a TV marketing hoax!” I thought.  We started spraying onto the poster. It was amazingly entertaining! It was, in essence, a paint sprayer! I could spray ANYTHING onto the poster board! The airbrush was easy to hold and aim. There were no limits!

canvas 3canvas 2We decided to take advantage of the stencils included in the kit. They were fun to use. Each Stencil had a “theme”.  One was space themed, one sea themed, and the other two were fantasy/random. Cool! But the ink usually “leaked” out of the stencil, giving the resulting picture a blobby look.

stencilDr. Dana suggested that we use a stencil on my arm so we could see what would happen if a kid sprayed ink on their arm. They came out blobby/blurry. But they washed off super easy! I ran my arm underwater and they practically melted away! So no worries if some WASHABLE marker gets on your kid!

airbrush tattooBy the way, when we got out the stencils, we flipped through the paper sheets too. Inside, mixed with the paper, was another set of instructions! These instructions had the marker loading directions in the right order, which was nice. However, they didn’t mention the key two clicks. Without the clicks, the product is a total wash!

There were problems with this kit. Sometimes the ink would bubble and clog the nozzle. This was fixed by pulling out the marker and swabbing the inside with a paper towel.

pooled inkAlso, the marker could unpredictably pool, clog or change consistency as it was spraying onto to the paper (getting my hand green, purple, red, or whatever color happened to clog it). The fabric markers also seemed to run out of ink way faster than the regular markers and they splattered too.  As I mentioned above, the stencils had leaky edges. On some of the stencils, it looked cool (lightning bolt), on others, it looked messy (crab).

crabAnd then there was the pump. The pump turned out to be an Aggravating Annoyance of Frustrating Proportions. I had to stop painting in order to pump every 15-20 seconds, or ask someone to constantly pump to keep the ink going. The job befell Katie. She had to hunch over a table behind me, pumping and pumping, and wheezing, and pausing, and…getting…tired. Needless to say, the pump gave us some good exercise. But when Katie wasn’t there, I had to spray, and then pump for a while, and then spray, and pump. Spray and pump, spray and pump! UUGH! It was enough to make anyone want to explode!

pumpingTo be fair, Crayola does make a similar product for ages 3+. It’s called the “Crayola Color Wonder Mess Free Airbrush” The pump is battery operated, so it’s better for younger kids. So if you don’t want to worry about the pumping issue, maybe you should order the battery powered version.

So there was a lot of starting, stopping, wiping, pumping, and starting up again, heaving, wheezing, and arm fatigue. Or, as Dr. Dana wryly noted, you definitely have to “troubleshoot as you go”.

Overall, this product was super fun and satisfying, but the pump gave a bit of a workout, and the directions seemed to be out of order. Also, this product was recommended for ages 6+!!! I think that’s a bit young! Maybe 6+ with Adult Supervision or 8+ with Adult Supervision, but 6+? Come on! It took Dr. Dana, Katie, a phone call to the company, and me to get the product to work!

I think we have the ratings…

Crayola Marker Airbrush

Pros: Fun, Cool, Entertaining, satisfying, endless ways to use, fascinating.

Cons: Hard to use because of constant pumping, bulky, confusing directions, constant troubleshooting, bad recommended age.

Score: 4 stars out of 5!

By the way, if you’re wondering how we made the “spray the camera” photo that begins this post, Hope gets all the credit for that! She suggested we spray a piece of clear plastic with the airbrush, then shoot the image through it. Looks awesome, eh?

Nifty Neon

nifty neonTime for another post from our kid tester, Hope! Today she will be reviewing the Neon Light Writer by Thames & Kosmos. It’s intended for kids ages 8 and up, and retails for about $20.

Hello, Readers!! Upon opening the box for the Neon Light Writer, I was surprised to discover that what looked like a chic pegboard on the front of the box was really just black, 20” x 8” piece of cardboard with holes punched in it! I fished for the other items in the box and found a coil of wire, a plastic battery holder attached to the wire that had a little switch on it, a collection of 25 black plastic pegs, and a manual. I opened up the manual and saw the “Kit Contents” list. Double checking to make sure I had everything I needed, I turned the page.

kit contentsAfter reading the handy dandy instructions, I learned that the concept of the project was to insert the plastic pegs in the pegboard in a certain pattern, then thread the wire through the pegs to spell out a word. Cool! was my immediate thought.

I decided to follow the instructions and try my hand at writing the word “GEEK” as a first attempt. As I put the pegs into the cardboard, I noticed that the peg holes were a little small for the pegs. The manual said that the sign is supposed to hang from nails, though there was no kind of hanging device mounted on the back, or any nails included within the rest of the kit.

Maybe because the nails were supposed to be inside the peg holes the holes were small? It’s also a possibility that the holes were small so the pegs didn’t fall out while the sign was hanging up. It was annoying because small holes meant that the pegs had to be forced into the board. Since the pegboard was flimsy cardboard, I was afraid I would rip it.

When I was finally through painstakingly pressing in pegs, I unwound the little bundle of wire and started threading it through the pegs, which had little notches in them.

notched pegs close upIf I thought putting the pegs in was bad, then this was a pain in the tush! The wire was flexible, but moderately thick compared to the size of the peg notches. In some places, it was necessary to double the wire over because of the shape of the letters. This made it even harder to thread through the peg notches.  Another challenge was that the wire would bunch up between each peg if I didn’t keep it pulled taut as I threaded it through. If I tried to straighten it after I had put it through a peg, the peg would come out of the board. This was frustrating, as pegs popped out of the board quite a few times!

working with wireWhen it was finally finished, I turned on the little battery holder box button. The light was faint inside the bright room, so I moved to a darker room to test the magic. There we were, Katie, Dr. Dana, and I, cramped in the gallery’s storage closet, better known as “The Black Hole.” As I clicked the button the wire became illuminated with neon blue light. I said, “EPIC!! It actually works!!!” In the dark, we noticed that the blue light was sort of flecked, in a way that made it look like the wire was malfunctioning or something (more on the fleckiness later).

flecksNext, I decided to make a word of my own (“Zap!”). Instead of using paper, tape, and marker as suggested, I used the letter chart in the manual. The chart was super helpful. The letter chart showed the pegboard as a diagram, and showed you where to place pegs for each letter in the alphabet. Here’s the finished word:

zap set upWe went back into “The Black Hole,” and there were still flecks in the wire. We checked the manual (and the box) and discovered that the wire was real EL wire (Electroluminescent wire)! The manual listed the different components of EL wire (copper core, phosphor, copper wire, PVC plastic sleeve, colored outer PVC plastic sleeve, AC power source) and how it works. I thought it was very considerate to include all of the cool bonus information! That was definitely one of the best parts about the product.

Though I was excited to know I was using real EL wire, the manual didn’t “shed any light” on the whole fleckiness issue.

So, a few days later, I decided to call the company, Thames & Kosmos, and find out what was up. I talked to a very kind man, named John. He asked me to describe my issue. I informed him about the flecks in the wire. He told me that that was NOT natural! He even offered to send me a replacement wire! Great customer service! Hats off to John! He asked for my email, name, and address so he could inform me of any problems with shipping.

He told me it should arrive in 2-3 days, so I started waiting for the wire. I waited. And waited, and waited. And it wasn’t there a week and a half later! So I called John’s personal extension. I was told that the wire wasn’t in stock when they went to ship it, so they had to wait for a new order to come in. They were evidently shipping it that day. They should have emailed me! I thought.

Finally(!), the wire arrived three days later! I set up the new wire and clicked it on. Voila! A wire with no flecks, a stream of fluorescent (haha, phosphorescent!) blue! The new wire was beautiful. It was a feast for the eyes compared to the old flecky wire!

wire 1 vs wire 2All in all, this product was pretty fun, but it has its faults.

First, the directions called for extra items I didn’t actually use. Two sheets of white paper, markers, and tape. Those items were to help you write your word and place the pegs in their proper places on the board for the wire, but they were not necessary. Unless you wanted to write in cursive, or some other kind of script, you could use one of the handy letter guides inside the manual.

Also, the instructions called for black tape to cover the part of the wire between the letters. I don’t know about you, but I don’t own any black tape. Thankfully, Dr. Dana had some black masking tape handy.

The company’s customer service was excellent! However, I felt that I should have received an email about the delay of my replacement wire. That left me a bit frustrated.

Additionally, the cardboard was pretty flimsy. I mean, who wants to pay $20 for a piece of cardboard that’s supposed to be a pegboard!? The box calls the cardboard a “pegboard,” so I was expecting a sturdier base for the project. And why would you want to buy a product, not knowing how many extra materials you would need? (I checked the outside of the box for the product, but it mentions only two of the six other things you need!)

Oh, and this brings me to another pet peeve about products and books: the recommended age.

neon light writer age 8 plusThe recommended age for this product is 8+. Considering the frustration I had at age 12 signals to me that maybe the product should either A) note that adult assistance is needed, or B) it should be recommended for ages 10+.

This product was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed how it actually lit up! I was really skeptical about that! I loved how you could use the switch on the battery box to change the light mode to “Fast Blinking” or “Slow Blinking.” It was definitely a project I would recommend for science lovers or engineers-to-be!


Pros: Fun, cool that it actually lit up, educational information in manual, great customer service/friendly and helpful staff, lovely new replacement wire.

Cons: Frustrating at times, wire hard to use, pegboard a bit low quality, no email about shipping delay.


Though this product had some faults, most products do. Overall, it was a super fun little project that could double as a science lesson!