How to build a model airplane

How to build a model airplane

Building a model airplane is a simple pleasure for both young and old alike. Seeing something that you’ve built with your own hands flying through the air will bring endless hours of enjoyment and a deep feeling of accomplishment. Knowing a few tips can make the difference between frustration and satisfaction.

First you must decide on what type of building you wish to do. There are basically three different types – scratch built, kit built, and almost ready to fly (or ARF). Scratch built is constructed from raw materials using nothing more than blueprints and should only be attempted by a seasoned model builder. Almost ready to fly are as the name implies with most of the building and covering done for you. You only have to install hardware and assemble the main components. The kit plane supplies blueprints, instructions, covering material, and die-cut parts. I recommend starting with a kit because of the low price (ARF’s are expensive) and the building fundamentals that you will learn. Good building techniques will be invaluable if you ever have a crash and need to do repairs. You will also learn the skills required to try scratch building if you so choose.

There are three types of flying model airplanes you can choose from – rubber band powered, U-Control, and Radio Controlled (or RC). Most people want to start with an RC plane and while it’s certainly possible to do so, a better recipe for success is to start with a simple rubber band powered to gain a basic understanding of aircraft construction before investing a lot of time and money. If you enjoyed the experience then a U-Control is a good inexpensive introduction to gas-powered flight. These are flown at the end of a tether that allows you to control the elevator. Despite their simple appearance, these planes in capable hands can do wingovers, loops, and other aerobatics. After you’ve mastered these classes of aircraft, building a good flying RC model will be easier to accomplish.

Before you can begin building your plane of choice you need to assemble the right tools for the job. The most important tool is one that many model builders are not even aware of – a building board. While some well stocked hobby shops may carry them, it is more likely that you will have to mail order from one of the large hobby supply houses such as Hobby Lobby. A building board is constructed to maintain a level surface regardless of humidity and other environmental factors. A level surface is absolutely critical to building a straight airplane wing. They are made from balsa wood so that straight pins can easily be inserted and removed. Which brings us to our next tool: straight pins.

These are used to hold various pieces in place on the building board while the glue sets. Any pin will work but a T pin will be easier on your fingers. The next tool we need is the X-acto knife. This will be used to cut out the die-cut pieces as well as cut and shape stringers and other parts. Be sure and buy extra blades as woodcutting will quickly dull the knife. You’ll also want to pick up some fine grade sandpaper for doing finishing work on the completed frames.

Now you need to consider what type of glue to use. The latest rage in airplane glue is Cyanoacrylate (or CA). These glues are equivalent to the super glues” everyone is familiar with in that they cure very fast. While this may be an advantage to an experienced builder, for a novice this could be disastrous. I suggest good old fashioned Testors airplane glue. The slow curing time will allow you to check and recheck your work, making adjustments as needed.

Finally you’ll need some airplane dope, airplane dope thinner and a few brushes for applying the tissue paper skin that will cover the frames. If you want to get creative you can choose different colors of airplane dope. Many kits supply colored tissue paper so that all you will need is clear airplane dope. The hobby shop where you purchased your kit should have all the supplies you’ll need to complete your model.

Now you need to prepare for building. Choose a work area with good lighting and a comfortable height. Take the blueprints and lay them over the building board and then cover them with wax paper. This is because the model’s frames are built directly on the blueprints and you don’t want the glue to stick to the paper. Use some pins to fasten these to your building board. An important tip – before you actually begin construction you need to read the instructions from start to finish at least twice. This will give you a good overview of the project and familiarize you with the correct building sequences.

When you start building you’ll want to get all of the pieces ready for the step you are going to be working on. Trim only the die-cut parts you’ll be using rather than cutting them all out at once. Doing so makes finding the parts you need difficult and can also lead to lost or broken pieces. Some steps, like building the rudder might only take a few minutes. Others, such as building the wing or fuselage may take a few hours. Plan accordingly, as the construction of these parts usually must be completed in one sitting. Most kits will have you do a couple of steps and then stop for the day while the glue sets. These setup periods are also needed breaks for the builder and are one of the reasons I don’t recommend CA glue.

In order to build a light aircraft use your glue sparingly. I usually go in with the X-acto after everything is dry and trim out any access. Careful sanding can also help reduce weight. A light plane will be every bit as strong but will perform better than a plane that is overbuilt.

Once the frames are completed you’ll need to cover them with the tissue paper included in the kit. This is a step that most builders have trouble with but there is a technique that will make it easy and give you professional results. After you’ve applied dope to the frames and laid your tissue paper over them you’ll have what looks like a wrinkled mess. Don’t fret over this condition, simply get a small squirt bottle filled with water and spray a light mist on the tissue. As the tissue dries it will shrink leaving you with a tight, wrinkle free skin! Now you can apply dope to the tissue to strengthen it. To save weight here I recommend thinning your dope by 50% using airplane dope thinner.

When you have finally completed your model you may be reluctant to cast your hours of hard work to the wind. Fear not as these models are remarkably strong despite their delicate appearance. However, I should mention that crashing is an inevitable part of flying model airplanes, especially when you move up to the gasoline-powered craft. But with the sound building techniques that you’ve learned, I guarantee you’ll be able to easily fix any damage.

A torn skin is a simple matter of placing a tissue patch. A cracked stringer is simply cut out and replaced using the leftover scrap from the kit. While the novice who crashes his $300 ARF will be getting out his wallet and heading back to the hobby shop, you will simply spend a few hours at the workbench and be flying again the following weekend.

A torn skin

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