These days many beginners enter the hobby with an ARTF (almost ready to fly) model aircraft, they are often reluctant to build their first model airplane, thinking the building will be difficult, the tools complex and they will need a large area to set up a workshop and will need to invest a large sum of money.
Nothing could be further from the truth, there are advanced modellers who have devoted entire rooms or have erected workshops in which to enjoy their hobby, but the basic model airplane can easily be built in a corner of any home.
I personally have built many models myself on a board on the kitchen table. When I built my first model all those years ago I did not have a clue, it was built on an old dining room table without a building board and the parts were held in place while the glue (balsa cement in those days) dried by window glazing tacks knocked in with a small hammer, luckily as I said the table was old and I lived to tell the tale.
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However, I hope this article will guide a beginner through the setting up of a simple but adequately equipped model workshop, sufficient for the construction of most model kits and many scratch built models as well. Where possible, I will show how some common household items and a few basic tools available in the larger DIY store can substitute for more expensive modelling tools.
Where specialised tools are available or desirable, hopefully, this article will help in choosing which of several tools will give the biggest value.
The minimum space needed to build the average R/C trainer is an area of about 5 feet by 5 feet. While it might be useful to have a larger area, this space will be adequate to construct most free flight,control line and radio controlled model airplanes, a place near an electrical socket and well lighted being the main points to consider, also it needs to be somewhere where it would not be a problem if wood scraps, sanding dust or glue ended up on the floor and can easily be cleaned up. A large carpet remnant or an old rug under the worktable would prove helpful here.
The Building Board
A good flat building board is the most important and basic tool; fortunately, it is also one of the least expensive. Although there are factory-made building boards available, thousands of models have been built on a standard drawing board. A good store bought alternative is a cheap cork faced notice board from a local store.
To keep the building board straight and free of warps, bows or twists, the building board should be laminated to a sheet of 3/4″ Medium Density Fiberboard (“MDF”) Ply or Melamine faced chipboard could also be used. Such a laminated building board can be easily picked up and moved out of sight if the workspace needs to be cleared for other activities. This is what I use personally glued together with PVA wood glue and screwed around the frame; the frame can be removed from the notice board if you wish, should it get in the way.
A worktable will also be needed to set the building board upon. Many modellers have discovered that a card table set up in a corner is a perfectly adequate workbench for building smaller models. Others have used a kitchen or dining room table, but this can be a source of annoyance for other family members. Ideally, there will be a corner of a room where a workbench can be set up on a semi-permanent basis, and if there is room, a hollow core door resting on strips of wood screwed to the wall makes a very nice, sturdy and stable modelling workbench.
If a built-in workbench is not possible, but space is available, setting a door on top of a couple of trestles works well
If a hollow core door is used as a bench top, be aware that the quality of these doors varies. The cheapest of the hollow core doors have a cardboard honeycomb core, which does not adequately support the outer veneer layers. It is best to shop around for a better quality door with a wood lattice core. These tend to stay flat over time. Ideally, the worktable should be sturdy enough that a person can sit on it without damaging it, but with a portable worktable this may not be possible.
If a permanent workshop is set up, an L or U-shaped set of work tables along two or three adjoining walls makes an excellent family craft centre where two or more people can work together, or on separate projects. These tables can be made out of hollow core doors or doubled layers of particle board, or MDF, supported by wooden stips screwed to the wall and 2″x2″ softwood legs.
The workbench or table must be stable and provide a flat, clear space where the building board can be set up and left undisturbed.
To get started with nearly every model airplane kit, some basic tools will be needed. These are the tools a builder must have before starting to build.
Dressmaker’s pins will be needed to pin parts together and to pin them to the building board. They come in several sizes, and in packages of 50 or 100. The smaller ones will be better for pinning the parts together. Bigger ones will work better for pinning large parts down to the building board. Since they are quite cheap, the best thing to do is get a package each of large and small.
Hobby Knife or Utility Knife
Most of the cutting required to build the average R/C trainer can be done with a hardware store utility knife. The STANLEY 99E retractable utility knife comes with enough spare blades to finish a scale model aircraft. Both the knife and the blades are readily available at variety and hardware stores.
An X-Acto knife handle, and a supply of #11 blades is nice to have as a second knife, but the blades are more expensive and sometimes hard to find. Swan-Morton produce a flat handle modelling knife that won’t roll away, and both the knife and blades are reasonably cheap, Modern kits have many pre-cut parts, so an official hobby knife is not mandatory, and the utility knife will come in handy for many household chores as well. A cutting board will also be needed and usually, I use a hardboard offcut.
An assortment of sandpaper will be needed. An assortment of five sheets that has Very Fine (220) Fine (150) and Medium (100). One of these packages and a package of coarse (60) should be bought.
A good sanding block can be made from a piece of scrap softwood.
A twelve-inch ruler is a necessity. A grade school ruler is sufficient, but a good quality steel ruler is much preferred. It is also very useful to have a steel yardstick, which does double duty as an accurate straightedge. An architect’s or engineer’s scale, the triangular kind, will come in handy for later models.
It is possible to buy clamps especially for model use, but for the most part, you can get by with a good supply of rubber bands and some clothes pegs
A stock of several types of glue should be kept. These are the types commonly and traditionally used for model building
PVA or woodworking glue works very well for building model airplanes. It has the advantage of being water based and therefore less toxic. Also, PVA Glue is slow drying and less likely to cause warps and does a good job of glueing the woods used in model airplanes. For most purposes, white PVA glue is stronger than the woods used and is easy to clean up. The yellow glues tack up and dry more quickly, but they are more expensive and more difficult to clean up.
Thirty-Minute Epoxy Glue is traditionally used to glue firewalls to fuselages, install landing gear mounts and join together wing halves. It is fuel proof and very strong.
Cyanoacrylate glues are sometimes called CA or Super Glue. CA comes in three varieties; regular, sometimes called thin, medium, and thick. CA is very fast setting, and strong. It is also relatively expensive.
To use CA, the joint must be fabricated very carefully, and the parts are clamped or held tightly together. A drop of CA is placed on the joint, which is almost instantly welded together. This is convenient, however, if is care is not taken, the glue will penetrate through the pores of the wood and stick clamps or fingers to the model airplane.
CA gives off a fine, smoky mist that can really sting eyes and noses. These fumes can cause severe allergic reactions. Some people build up a heightened chemical sensitivity to CA over time. It is important to have good air circulation in the building area if any possibly toxic glue is used, but this is especially important with CA.
Most beginning modellers will cover airplanes with plastic iron on, heat shrink film. This is the cheapest and fastest way to get a nice, fuel proof finish on models. If a lot of planes are going to be built, the builder will want to get a specially made hobby iron and also a hobby heat gun. However, a plain laundry iron can be used in a pinch, and is fine for the first plane. Inexpensive irons can be bought at a thrift store by those on a tight budget. I personally use a small travelling iron obtained fro Argos
Secondary Building Tools
There are some other tools that may be needed to finish an airplane. They may not be needed right away, but they will come in handy before construction is complete.
A six-inch combination square is very useful to line up the pieces as everything is glued together. A combination square has a steel ruler that slides back and forth. It will help in making accurate 45-degree and 90-degree corners, and to mark out repeated measurements. If a six-inch combination square cannot be found, a 12-inch can be used, but this will be awkward to use on model airplanes.
The plain, school variety of protractor in the familiar semi-circular shape is all that is required for laying out and measuring angles.
Compass or Dividers
The school type compass is adequate for laying out circles and arcs. However, a set of good quality wing dividers also does a nice job of transferring measurements from drawings to wood when building more advanced models.
Although these are not strictly necessary, they are very helpful to line up parts and for making sketches of assemblies. Standard 45-degree and 30-60 degree triangles are very useful in all types of layouts.
The razor saw is another tool that is not strictly necessary, A razor saw makes much faster straight, or angle cuts in balsa and hardwood stock.you can get a razor saw blade that fits the STANLEY knife mentioned above
A coping saw is also not strictly necessary, but for sawing out irregular shapes in thick balsa or in aircraft plywood, it is much faster than using a knife.
Both straight and Phillips tips will be needed. Small Allen keys may also be needed, Over time, builders will probably acquire a set of miniature or jeweller’s screwdrivers and other miniature tools for fastening nuts, bolts and screws.
A set of heavy-duty pliers does a variety of jobs in the model airplane shop, from bending landing gear to forming pushrod ends. The best quality sets will have a diagonal cutter that is strong enough to cut music wire up to 3/32″.
Long Nose Pliers
Long nose pliers are very useful for reaching into tight model airplane spaces.
Everyone needs one good vice. For models, a small machinist’s or blacksmith’s vice with three-inch jaws and a small anvil is great for forming and shaping light metal parts. I have found a good source of model tools to be Squires Tools who supply tools for both models and crafts http://www.squirestools.com/ who can supply everything listed here plus lots more
A drill is very nearly a necessity, but will probably only be needed for a few holes on the first scale model aircraft. It is placed in this category because the builder suffices by borrowing one. Eventually, however, the builder will want to get a variable speed reversing drill. A corded type will work, as will the higher voltage cordless drills, but a small low voltage cordless one is very convenient and is designed for the modeller and craftsperson. Hand powered drills will work too, but good ones are getting hard to find, and are awkward to use and quite expensive.
A 13 drill bit assortment, in sizes from 1/16″ to 1/4″ will probably handle every hole on the first airplane.
You may at a later date depending on your circumstances wish to add power tools and Taps and a Tap wrench, Dies, a palm sander and so on.
One item that as become quite popular is the Dremel Moto-Tool, these handheld motors can drive a variety of attachments from drill bits to cut off wheels, grinders and sanding attachments and are ideal for the model maker.
A builder’s budget guides how the shop is set up but many championship models have been built on card tables with a minimum kit of hand tools.
This is a slightly updated version of an article originally published on “Flying Model Review” – flyingmodelreview.com