While materials like foam, carbon, fibreglass and plastic are becoming more common in building model aeroplanes, the most common material used is still balsa wood. Balsa wood is extremely light, but for its weight it is stronger than steel. Building an aeroplane from balsa that will perform well means adhering to a proven plan, taking measures to keep weight down and building sound structures that will not warp and will withstand the abuse that comes with aerial flight.
- Skill level:
Things you need
- Balsa: strips, sheets or blocks as your plan requires
- Glue (wood glue, balsa cement, or super glue)
- Covering (Esaki tissue available from speciality stores for rubber-powered models, heat-shrink coverings available from hobby shops for electric- or gas powered models)
- A building board (a ceiling tile purchased from a home improvement store is ideal)
- Waxed paper
- Modelling knife
Select a plan. Decide on a plan that suits your needs. Model aeroplane plans available on the Internet range from tiny rubber-powered, free-flight models meant to be flown indoors, to large-scale, radio-controlled (RC) model jets that use large, ducted fans for thrust. Select a plan appropriate to your skill and experience in building models. If you are a beginner, select a plan intended for beginners or you will simply be baffled and frustrated.
Lay out the plans on the building board. Cover the plan with waxed paper. Hold everything down with pins or tape around the edges.
Begin by building the tail. Unless the plan indicates that you should start somewhere else, it's usually best to start with the tail surfaces, as they tend to be the easiest to build.
Cut the parts out for the structure you are building using appropriately sized balsa. Balsa sticks should be cut very precisely: Sticks that are too short will leave gaps that may cause weakness or require excessive glue, adding to the weight, while sticks that are too long can warp.
Assemble the pieces on the board. Place the pieces you cut out directly on the plan and use pins to hold them in place. Never pin directly through the balsa as you can crack or damage it. Dry fit all pieces together before gluing. Then, removing one piece at a time, apply glue to the surfaces that will join other pieces and put it back into place.
Build the wing. Besides being much larger, wings have airfoils and dihedral which makes their construction more complex than tail surfaces. Take your time. Cut out all the parts before you begin. Use pins to hold ribs upright, being sure they are perfectly square. Select the straightest balsa strips for the wing's leading and trailing edges.
Build the fuselage. Fuselages are the toughest structures to build out of balsa. Typically, a box-type balsa fuselage will have two identical sides joined together by balsa sticks. Make sure your two sides are identical to each other to prevent warping or twisting. Prop sides up using balsa blocks and pins and align things so they are perfectly square.
Cover the model. The completed frame will be covered with a material appropriate to its size and function. Use tissue for rubber powered planes, and iron-on coverings such as Monokote for larger planes. Be careful not to introduce warps in the covering process.
Tips and warnings
- When cutting parts out of sheet balsa, it's best to press lightly with the modelling knife and make several passes as pressing too hard can crush or crack the balsa.
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