How to Apply Japanese Silk to a Model Airplane

Written by larry simmons
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How to Apply Japanese Silk to a Model Airplane
A Japanese silk covered aeroplane in flight. (avion modele reduit image by jerome scalvini from

Covering a model aeroplane with Japanese silk is a building method that predates World War II. Model aeroplanes made largely with Balsa wood require a covering to allow them to fly. This covering must be lightweight and unflawed, containing no wrinkles that can interfere with the flight characteristics of the aircraft. Japanese silk meets these requirements. It's lightweight and goes on smoothly, providing a strong covering that can withstand the rigours of flight as well as rough terrain take-offs and landings. It's a difficult material to work with, requiring that you stretch the wet silk into place over the aeroplane parts.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • 400-grit sandpaper
  • Sanding block
  • Shop-vacuum with brush attachment
  • Clear butyrate dope
  • Dope thinner
  • Natural bristle brush
  • Clamps
  • Japanese silk
  • Mist sprayer

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  1. 1

    Prepare the model aeroplane part for the application of the Japanese silk by finish sanding the surface to create a smooth base. Use 400-grit sandpaper attached to a sanding block to sand all sections of the part smooth. Remove any sanding residue using a shop-vacuum with a brush attachment.

  2. 2

    Seal the aeroplane part with a layer of clear butyrate dope where you're applying the silk to close the pores of the wood. The dope helps to create a waterproof surface beneath the silk as well as making the surface easier to stretch the silk over. Thin the dope with dope thinner until you can brush it across the surface of the wood with a natural bristle brush. Brush the part one side at a time, allowing the dope to dry before applying it to the other side of the part. Apply the dope around the interiors of any hatches or holes in the part as well, such as fuel line holes or landing gear hatches.

  3. 3

    Sand down any wood grain raised by the dope application with fine-grit sandpaper until the part is smooth. Wipe the part smooth with a clean cloth and then apply another coat of dope. Allow it to dry and feel for roughness due to wood grain. Sand the roughness away again with the sandpaper if present and apply another layer of dope. Use a shop vacuum to remove any sanding residue from the part.

  4. 4

    Place the part onto a flat surface where you can clamp it securely without deforming the surface.

  5. 5

    Drape the Japanese silk over the aeroplane part. Larger parts such as wings may require several strips of the silk to cover. Overlap the pieces where they meet by one inch. Cut the silk with a pair of scissors so that the weave of the cloth aligns with the edges of the part and so the silk drapes over all sides of the part 1 ½-inch. Stretch the silk along the part to provide as much coverage as possible.

  6. 6

    Wet the silk on the part using a mist prayer. Begin at one end of the part and work your way to the other, pulling the silk tautly over the part as you wet it down. Pull smooth any large wrinkled areas as you progress along the surface of the part. Maintain the alignment of the weave as you pull, keeping the silk weave going straight across the part's surface. For parts containing two silk pieces, such as wings, begin with the wing tips, and cover about 1/3 of each silk piece, then skip to the overlapping centre joint and pull the silk taunt, working towards the tips.

  7. 7

    Continue pulling the silk across the surface of the part, keeping the material wet with the mister as your work. Examine the part after completion for any remaining wrinkles or any misalignment of the weave. Make corrections as needed.

  8. 8

    Apply a layer of dope to the edges of the part to secure the silk in place. Brush the dope through the silk onto the edges of the wood of the part. The applied dope slightly dissolves the dope on the wood from sealing and binds together, keeping the stretched silk in place. Wait about 15 minutes for the dope to dry and then apply a second layer to the part edges.

  9. 9

    Check for any mistakes in the silk application, like wrinkles or a bad weave line and make corrections. Pull the doped silk up from the wood, correct any problems and then press the silk back into place. Rub the silk in place to mesh the dope on the cloth with the dope on the wood.

  10. 10

    Remove any excess silk from the edges of the piece by folding the silk over the edge and then sanding along the fold line with fine grit sandpaper. Flip the part over and repeat the silkening process on the other side for complete coverage.

Tips and warnings

  • Work only in a well-ventilated area as dope fumes can be hazardous to your health.

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