Regardless of the type of model you want to create, there are many similar building tasks and assembly techniques. Here are some of basics that I’ve used over the years, which will help you speed up your builds and improve your skills. And remember, a workshop is what you make it: A basic folding table and a few tools are all you need to get started.
A big dust maker is the belt sander, so be sure to have a Shop-Vac nearby to clean up with.
1 INVEST IN POWER TOOLS
Here’s my building board on top of my workbench. The supply shelf on the wall helps keep building supplies within easy reach.
It is true that you can build any model using just hand tools. But for me, the investment in basic power tools is a good thing because they speed building and increase accuracy. Plus, you can use them for other, nonhobby-related tasks, as well. I am constantly using my 14-inch band saw, my horizontal freestanding belt sander, and my drill press. You don’t, however, have to spend a lot of money. Reasonably priced shop equipment is available at places like Home Depot and Harbor Freight. If you have the room, locate your big equipment away from your model-building area to keep your work surfaces cleaner and less crowded. And remember, you can’t build properly if you can’t see. Before we get into how you should set up your workshop, the first thing to do is to install adequate overhead lighting.
2. USE BUILDING BOARDS
The bandsaw is a real workhorse in any workshop. Note that I also have a clip-on light attached to mine.
Proper overhead lighting is a must. These inexpensive fluorescent light fixtures are available at most home-improvement stores.
I don’t build directly on top of my workbench. I use a cork-covered building-board surface. My building board is made out of particleboard with ½-inch-thick cork on top. It is about 48 inches long and 20 inches wide, and has lengths of aluminum angle under it to keep it straight. You can also make your own. Use a piece of 2-inch-thick foam-insulation board or even a 2-foot-wide by 4-foot-long ceiling tile. These materials remain flat, and it’s easy to push modeling pins into your parts to hold them in place. The important thing is to keep your building surface flat and straight. If you use foam-insulation board, you can use some spray adhesive to tack it to the top of your workbench to keep it straight. Use just a little bit so that when it gets worn out, you can pop it off with a long knife or a saw blade and replace it. Also, don’t actually cut things on your building surface. I built my workbench so that it is about 8 to 10 inches wider than my building board. This provides a handy wood surface next to the board to use for a cutting area and work surface. Keep your building board clean and neat, and it will last a long time. Some shelving on the wall above the building board comes in handy, too.
3. PROTECT YOUR PLANS
I often tape important sections of my building plans on the wall so that they don’t eat up space on the workbench.
Your model plans should be flattened out and placed on your building board. I cut the plans into sections so that only the details that I need are used, and I tape the sections in place. I then protect the plans from the glue with clear Plans Protector material from Great Planes (less than $10 for 25 feet); the clear backing sheet from regular MonoKote covering material also works. The Plans Protector speeds building as there’s no paper glued to the bottom of your parts that has to be sanded away for a smooth surface. You can also tape detail views from the plans on your wall so that you can view them without taking up workspace.
4. AVOID “HANGAR RASH”
No matter how neat you are, “hangar rash” is a common problem. Placing delicate wood parts and structures on top of hard things, like pins, screws, and nuts, causes dents, cuts, and dings. Clean up scrap and waste from work sessions as soon as possible. You don’t have to do it after every single task, but when you call it quits for the night, clean up everything. Put away your tools, and sweep up the dust and chips. I find a roll-away toolbox with large drawers handy for storing my hand tools. For most of my screws, nuts, and washers, I use products from RTL Fasteners (rtlfasteners.com); the company has lots of excellent hardware and handy organizer boxes to store everything. The amount of time needed to fix hangar rash is always greater than the time it takes to clean up.
When it comes to building model airplanes, always protect the plans with clear plastic. It prevents the parts from being glued to the paper plans.
Staying organized helps speed construction and lessens the chances of “hangar rash.” I love the storage boxes from RTL Fasteners.
I can’t function without my roll-around toolboxes. All tools are easily available when needed and easy to stow away when not.
5. BE TASK SPECIFIC
Divide your building sessions so that you have only the parts and tools that you need for the task at hand. If you are soldering landing gear, you don’t need to have formers or fuselage sides and engine mounts on the bench; they’ll only get in the way. Breaking down your project into smaller tasks also provides you with that satisfying “got it done” feeling more quickly. When you accomplish of all these smaller tasks, you’ll find that, before you know it, your model is complete!
Be task specific. If you have to solder something, there’s no need for other tools and supplies to clutter up your workbench.
6. INSTALL HINGES PROPERLY
I think properly installing hinges is one of the most important tasks that you can learn. I use Du-Bro (dubro.com) flat, pinned hinges, sized according to the airplane that I am building. Du-Bro also has specialty tools to make installing its hinges easier. Mark the locations for your hinges on the control surfaces, and keep them centered and aligned with one another. Using the forked slot-cutting tool, wiggle it back and forth to form the hinge slot. Use the picker tool to remove the waste material from the slot; work slowly so that you don’t widen the slot. Use a hobby knife to recess the control-surface edge so that the hinge barrel sets down a little. When the surfaces are brought together, this recess helps minimize the hinge-line gap between the two control surfaces. I use Pacer’s Formula 560 Canopy adhesive to glue the hinges in place. It is water-based, so the wood swells a little as it dries to form a tight bond. You can clean away excess glue from the hinge pins with water and a paper towel.
I use Du-Bro hinges for most of my models. I also use the hinging tools from Du-Bro to install them.
The forked end tool easily forms the basic hinge slot. The waste material is then removed with the picker tool.
Cutting a recess at the hinge slot allows the control surfaces to be hinged together with a minimal hinge-line gap.
Always start your hinging jobs by clearly marking the hinge-slot locations.
7 MAKE SQUARE HOLES
To make a firewall with hardwood rails, you first need to mark the locations of the square openings. Measure the engine to get the spacing correct.
The best way to remove the unwanted material is with a Forstner bit. It is best to do this with a drill press.
After removing the waste material, I place the plywood firewall in a vise and use a coarse file to dress up the opening.
Here you see the finished squared and dressed opening and the other still needing some time with the file.
I know it sounds weird, but making square holes in plywood formers and firewalls is important. This is for installing hardwood motor mounts or servo rails, which are extremely strong and help strengthen your installations. Start by marking out the locations for your openings, and use a drill to remove most of the material from inside the area; a wide Forstner bit works well in this situation. Place the wood part in a bench vise, then use a file to flatten the four sides of the opening. Use your hardwood mounting rail as a fit guide as you slowly enlarge the opening. The more precise the fit, the less glue that you’ll need to create a strong bond.
8 CREATE A SMOOTH SEAM
A common way to strengthen a wing’s center joint is to wrap it with fiberglass tape and glue it in place with epoxy. To help make the job easier and reduce the amount of sanding needed for a smooth finish, mix the epoxy with some denatured alcohol. The ratio is one part A, one part B, and one part denatured alcohol. Mix well, and apply a little epoxy to the center seam. Lay the fiberglass tape in place, and smooth out the wrinkles. Apply enough epoxy to fill the weave, and spread the epoxy out evenly. Wrap some of the Plans Protector around the tape. Tape the edges of the plastic down, then use a playing card to squeegee out the epoxy from the edges of the tape; set aside until the epoxy fully cures. Peel away the plastic and you have a glass-smooth epoxy coating that blends the fiberglass into the surface of the wing—nearly no sanding is needed.
By wrapping the fiberglass and resin with clear plastic, you can spread out and smooth the resin before it cures.
Here, you see the finished wing center section with the cured fiberglass and resin. Virtually no sanding is required.
Mixing the resin and alcohol together in the proper ratio is easy with a graduated mixing cup.
9. USE THROTTLE CABLES
When installing an engine, it is difficult to use a stiff piece of music wire to make the throttle linkage. Because the servo arm and the throttle arm on the engine move, the geometry changes at different power settings, and this can cause it to bind. I use Sullivan Cable-Type Gold-N-Rod tubing and braided metal cable. Instead of soldering clevises to the ends of the cable, simply attach Du-Bro Kwik Grip E/Z Connectors to the servo and throttle arms. Slip the cable into place, and tighten the setscrews. It’s quick and easy to adjust for proper length.
The throttle cable is secured at both ends with E/Z Connectors. No soldering is required, and it’s easy to adjust the length.
10. LINE IT ALL UP
A straight airplane flies better and requires less trimming to make it perform properly. While building your fuselage, mark the centerline on each of the formers and on the firewall, then use a straight line on your plans (or draw one on your workbench with a yardstick) as an alignment guide. Use a square or triangle to align the firewall with the guideline, and shift the assembly so that all the formers line up with the guideline. Pin the fuselage in place, and glue everything together.
Building straight structures like a fuselage is easy when you use a straight reference line.
A clear plastic drafting triangle is a good aid for aligning the firewall’s centerline with the reference line drawn on the plans.
11 DRILL PILOT HOLES
To minimize the chance of drilling a hole in the wrong spot and to help prevent the bit from grabbing the part being drilled, drill a small pilot hole. Mark the locations, and drill a small-diameter hole first. Switch to a larger drill, and repeat the process. For large holes, use a couple of pilot drills, and work up the hole diameter a little at a time until you reach the final diameter.
You can avoid drilling mislocated holes by carefully marking their locations and then starting with a small pilot drill bit.
Here, the engine is properly secured to the mount rails with 6-32 machine screws and lock nuts and washers.
12. CREATE A QUICK LINKAGE
The easiest and quickest way to make perfectly sized control linkages is to make them directly on your airplane. Clamp some scrap wood to your control surface to hold them straight in the neutral position. Turn on your radio to center the servo in its neutral position. Slip a solder clevis onto the servo arm, and attach a threaded clevis and a jam nut onto the pushrod wire. Attach the threaded clevis to the control horn at the surface, then mark and cut the wire to length so that it slips into the solder clevis. Apply some solder flux, and quickly apply heat so that the solder flows into the clevis joint. Don’t move anything until the solder cools off. Remove the control linkage, clean off the flux residue, and reattach the linkage. Check the position of your control surface, tighten the jam nut, and you’re finished.
Here you see the finished elevator control linkage.
Clamping some scrap wood to the control surfaces keeps them properly aligned and centered.
13. CUT CAP STRIPS EFFICIENTLY
Instead of using a long, unwieldy length of 1/4-inch-wide cap-strip material and then cutting each piece to fit your wing rib, cut a full-width sheet of balsa to the approximate length needed. Using a straight edge, slice off all the 1/4-inch-wide strips you need. This saves time and reduces waste.
I prefer to cut my rib’s cap strips from short pieces of sheeting cut close to the required length.
Here, I am cutting the cap strip to length on the wing.
14. CREATE SQUARE TAIL SURFACES
For your plane to perform properly, you have to glue the tail surfaces on so that they are square to each other.
An old but important part of proper airplane building is to build and install your tail surfaces so that they are straight, warp-free, and square. The fin and the horizontal stabilizer should be at 90 degrees to each other. I use a drafting triangle for this. If part of the fuselage is in the way of the triangle, pin a straight piece of wood to the fin and place the triangle against it. Glue your stabilizer into place first. When the glue has dried, use the triangle to check the fin and then glue it into place.
15. USE METAL STRAPS
When it’s time to attach your landing gear to your model, use metal attachment straps instead of the plastic ones that come with the kit. They’re stronger, and they don’t wear out. I use Du-Bro metal straps and sheet-metal screws threaded into pilot holes drilled into the hardwood gear blocks. When you install the straps, be sure to place them against the gear struts. This helps prevent the landing gear from moving side to side.
As with everything else in life, it takes practice to develop your skills. Don’t start out with a big, complicated warbird as your first building project. Begin with a simple sport model, and develop your skills over time. Start any build with the simple tasks and then work up to the bigger, more involved ones. Before you know it, your model will be built and ready to fly.
Lots of great stuff there, thanks Gerry! Cleaning up my workshop regularly isn’t something I like to do but it always reveals stuff I thought was gone and dies really reduce hangar rash.
One of my most used tools when building is a laser line like you would use in home construction.
Fantastic article! This is the sort of information I expect from such a good magazine! Thanks!
Why are the photos so small? This article is great, but would be 10x more useful if the photos could really be seen in detail.
This is some of the best information I have seen. I am 76 and like to build model planes. my skill at flying is less each year but my joy at building increases each year. great information “good work”
I have had my gear sitting on the shelf for ~14 years and my son whom is now 5 has convinced me its time to get back into something that was once an addiction/passion from puberty till my divorce with my ex wife. I am getting back into things (but wow how the hobby has changed…everything I own is airtronics based and is a bugger to get parts to support) and flying again, loving it and actually contemplating designing/building an AT Texan from scratch so my son can fly his buddy Dusty Crop Hopper till his heart is content. your advice is 100% credible and if followed will bring one delight to their finished product. Its been a lot of year since I finished a plane but I remember that nothing pleases me more than a finished model prior to skinning and finishing!!
Great stuff Gerry. Finally cleaned my shop after about 3 years – found 5 hand tools and enough nuts & bolts stuff to fit out the next plane
RTL does have some great organizer boxes. I buy the lure boxes at wallyworld and use them for all kinds of small parts. I currently have six of them full and working on the seventh. One power tool I use a lot is the small scroll saw made by Dremel, I have found it indispensable in making replacement bulkheads and other small parts I need to repair a crash or do a little kit bashing.
qreat tips and hows Thank you Sir. will put them to practice. Happy landings.
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