How to Build a Model Plane That Flies

Written by matt coker
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How to Build a Model Plane That Flies
Ready for take off. (Model Airplane image by Sydney van Rensburg from

Choices abound when it comes to model aeroplanes that fly. Gliders soar after being thrown like paper aeroplanes. Rubber band-powered, propeller-driven aviation is one option, and motorised aeronautics is another. Models can remain airborne thanks to guide wires, remote control or engines that cut off in mid-air (known as "free-flight"). Motors run on gas or electricity. Required assembly ranges from none (ready to fly or RTF) to some (almost ready to fly or ARF) to extensive (scratch built). All come in different costs and sizes, but the same general building rules apply.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging

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Things you need

  • Plastic model aeroplanes:
  • Model aeroplane kit
  • Adhesive for plastics
  • X-Acto knife
  • Model paint
  • Model paint brush
  • Spray paint (if exposed pieces are unfinished)
  • * * *
  • Wood planes:
  • Model aeroplane plans
  • Balsa wood
  • Tissue paper
  • Adhesive for wood
  • X-Acto knife
  • Builder board
  • Straight pins
  • Fine-grade sandpaper
  • Airplane dope

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    Plastic Model Airplanes

  1. 1

    Choose a work area with good lighting, a comfortable height for standing or sitting for long periods, and a table top you don't mind abusing.

  2. 2

    Read the kit's instructions from beginning to end to get an idea what you are in for. Keep the instructions off to the side, close enough to read but far enough away so they are not in the way.

  3. 3

    Match the parts mentioned and diagrammed in the instructions with the parts inside the box. If something is missing, take the kit back to the shop and start over with a new one.

  4. 4

    Estimate how long it will take to complete the section you are working on, and if you don't have the time to finish the section completely, come back to the project when you can, keeping in mind some steps can be done in minutes while others will take hours.

  5. 5

    Follow the instructions, in order. Round up all pieces needed in the section you are working on. Trim only the die cut parts you'll be using rather than cutting all out at once.

  6. 6

    Make sure glue and paint have completely dried on the part of the plane you just finished if that part of the plane is needed in the next section of the instructions.

  7. 7

    Once the plane is built, painted and dried, and decals have been applied, start flying!

    Wooden Model Airplanes

  1. 1

    Follow Step 1 under Plastic Model Airplanes.

  2. 2

    Add a layer of building board on top of your work area as this is easier to stick straight pins into than wooden table tops. After reading the plans all the way through, lay them over the building board as parts of the plane, like the frame, are going to be built directly over the plans. Cover the plans with waxed paper so adhesives do not stick to the paper. Pin the waxed paper and plans to the building board at the four corners.

  3. 3

    The plans reveal the lengths and thicknesses of the balsa wood required for each building section. Gather the pieces necessary for the section being worked on. Glue pieces together as indicated but be miserly with the glue because any excess is going to have to be trimmed off after drying.

  4. 4

    Sand and paint the fuselage and rudder as indicated. Cover the wing frames with tissue paper but have the paper extend far enough past the frame edges so that the paper can be pinned down to the building board. Apply thin, even layers of dope to the paper. Remove wrinkles that form with light mists of water. Wrinkles disappear as the wing dries.

  5. 5

    If the plane is propeller-driven and motorised, the plans indicat this assembly area near the front of the plane. The same area has timers that cut off fuel to the engine of "free-flight" planes. Mount all accordingly, let everything dry, fuel up, find an open area and start flying!

Tips and warnings

  • Read instructions twice before beginning to really understand what the project entails.
  • Trim off the die-cut parts you will need for each section, but leave the others attached as that will make them easier to locate when you need them.
  • Choose an adhesive that fits your building experience. Newbies should stick to slow-drying glues so goofs can be corrected, while experts can get away with fast-curing "super glues."
  • Lighter is better for wooden planes, so sand away and thin your dope with 50 per cent water.
  • Many kits are designed with natural breaking points between steps to allow projects to dry overnight.
  • Some model planes are composed of a combination of materials, such as wood and fibreglass, something to keep in mind when choosing the correct adhesives, paints and dopes.
  • Do not trim off all die-cut parts in the kit before starting as this increases the chances of loss and breakage.
  • Crashes, and resulting damage, are inevitable when flying model planes. The more difficult the plane was to build (from scratch), the easier it generally is to repair and fly again.

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