Mastering the Art of Building Model Airplane - Part One


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After a lifetime of building and designing model airplanes, I could be considered an expert on the subject. But, as dear old dad was prone to say, an expert is just an extra spurt away from home. Well, I kinda think of the Internet as my home away from home, so I will just establish my expertness and take it from there.

I don't even remember when my model making actually started but I know it at a very young age. I can remember going to the dime store (can you imagine that . . . a DIME store?) and spending hours looking at all the model kits that were available. After a long while, I finally chose just the perfect one. Speaking of my dad, he as a small plane pilot and I generally chose a kit that mirrored one of the full sized airplane that he flew. That was well before I, too, learned to fly the big planes.

Dad never was into the heavies and normally flew Piper Cubs, Taylorcrafts, Aeronaca, to name a few. So, I was really excited when I found complete kit of a Piper Cub. And, modeling buddies, it was a kit. Nothing in the kit was in a finished state, except maybe the propeller and wheels. Well, on second thought, I now remember that the first kits with which I was involved sported a “rough cut" propeller of balsa wood. These first propeller required careful trimming, sanding and finish with a sealing paint. Through the middle of the prop, I was required to insert a thin wire with a hook on the end that held the prop to the rubber band. By the way, a twisted rubber band created the motive power as it unwound. If that sound confusing, it was really simple.

As a sidebar, later models that I constructed sometimes had several rubber bands, mounted in the model in parallel, increased the torque of my model airplane. Some made flight of hundreds of feet on my “football field" flying range. But enough about the now.

As I opened up each kit that I purchased, I found inside a confusing mass of balsa sheets, balsa sticks and a set of instructions. Most of the earlier model kits were very simplistic, and required that all the ribs be ‘hand’ cut. The instruction sheet delimited all the myriad of parts, such as ribs for the wings. It was required that I trace the shapes of the various parts with a sheet of carbon paper. Probably children today are not familiar with carbon paper but it is, simply, a thin sheet of some sort of paper that was coated on one side with a transferable carbon medium. No always in possession of the ready made carbon paper, I soon learned to make my own transfer sheet by coating a piece of paper with a liberal coating of graphic from a pencil with a soft lead. It worked just fine.

In the beginning, all these transferred parts needed to be cut out of the sheet of thin balsa wood. My earlier model building came before the advent of craftsman knives, which was eventually called an Xacto knife. That has come to be called several types of knives for craftsmen and, like a coke, does not refer to a brand name. No, no, no . . . I did not have the use of any kind of craftsman knife but just had a double-edged razor blade. Yes, double-edged blades that were used by grownups to shave. I can remember how my hands and finger featured an unbearable series of cuts and nicks from the act of cutting out the small pieces of my models.

The next step after cutting out the pieces was the construction of the fuselage. The normal procedure required placing the instruction sheet on a soft wooden board. Generally a soft piece of pine, then I could pin the longitudinal strips that came in the kit to the printed pattern of the shape of the fuselage. As I learned more and more about model making, I soon discovered that I should place a piece of oil paper that I got from the kitchen. Usually easy to see through, that both protected my instructions and kept my fuselage from sticking to the bottom sheet when I applied glue to the joints.

This is generally how all the basic construction was accomplished. Both sides of the fuselage were built in this manner and then carefully connected together with cross members, also of the same balsa strips. Same with the wings, rudder and elevator. Details like wheel struts and other parts followed. When all the parts were assembled in what was beginning to look like a real airplane, the rubber band motor was included. A sturdy metal wire hook finished the installation, and it was time to try the motor. Really exciting to wind the rubber bands opposite the proper direction of the propeller.

At this point in construction, the very pleasurable task was covering the fragile framework of balsa cutout parts and slender sticks is required. Also in the kit was a large sheet of very thin paper. This was to make up the covering of the model airplane. Small pieces of the covering was rough cut to the shape of the fuselage, the rudder, the elevator and the wings. Each piece of covering paper was glued to the proper location, carefully trimmed to fit perfectly.

After gluing all covering pieces with stinky model airplane glue, it was time to apply the final touch. This amazing covering had a special ability to shrink, when a very fine mist of water was applied, to begin resembling a real airplane. It was always critical that just enough moisture, and not too much, be applied to give the tiny plane the right appearance.

Incidentally, speaking of the stinky airplane glue, some children in later years discovered that sniffing and snuffling too much glue was source for a new experience. When this started happening, this particular glue was taken from the shop's shelf and now must be requested before you can purchase. Really hate this got out of control.

For more details of Model Airplane Secrets, click this link. Also, there will be another article on Mastering the Art of Building Model Airplane - Part Two . . . watch for it.

Dale R Smith
Career spent in teaching and training, both as a civilian and military trainer. Mr Smith has been a teacher in public schools, college and university and both the US Army and US Navy. A graphic artist and photographer with many prize winning designs


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