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|So, you want to build an
airplane but you don't have a collection of fancy building tools.
Having nice tools is a good thing, but it doesn't take a lot of fancy
tools to build a balsa airplane from scratch. This is especially
true if you're building a simple airplane, which is convenient because
that's what you would typically start with. As you move along to
more complicated designs, you'll tend to expand your collection at the
same time by buying tools as you need them.
There are a few basic items that are generally considered essential to
any balsa builder's toolbox. You can build a plane and do a good
job with nothing more than a flat surface and what's shown in this
photo. Don't be afraid to start small.
First and foremost is the X-Acto knife, more specifically a #11 blade
and holder. There's no sense fooling around when it comes to this
basic tool. Get a box of a hundred #11 blades and a handle like
the one in the photo. You turn the end of the knife to clamp the
blade instead of turning the part right next to the blade. This
knife also has a six sided collar that keeps it from rolling off the
The X-Acto knife's best friend is a metal ruler. Not much to say
about that other than you won't regret getting one.
The next most basic tool is the sanding block. If you build a
plane or two with just sandpaper, then you get a block, you'll wonder
how you ever built anything without it. You can see two blocks in
the photo, a wooden one that uses a quarter sheet, and an aluminum one
that uses adhesive strips. Take your pick, but get a block of
One of the greatest innovations ever made in model building is
cyanoacrylate (CA) glue. It allows you to build a good straight
airplane without even pinning anything to the table. Most things
I build in .20 size and smaller don't involve any adhesive other than
CA. Realistically, both CA and epoxy are stronger than the
materials they are applied to, so don't sweat it. CA is a bit
brittle for firewall and landing gear applications in larger planes,
though, so I tend to use epoxy there.
Of course you'll also want a square. For my first 12 years of
building airplanes I used CD cases, but the square in the photo is a
lot better. You can get them in hobby stores, and they even have
balsa thickness and wire size gauges built in.
The other thing you really need is a saw to cut plywood
bulkheads. If you build only square airplanes to start with you
can use a razor saw, but as soon as you build a plane with a rounded
top deck you'll need a coping saw or power scroll saw to cut out a
firewall and bulkheads.
The only other truly necessary tool for building a plane is a
drill. Mine was a bit large for the photo, so you'll have to use
your imagination. (You know what a drill looks like,
right?) Anyway, you'll need one.
Once you officially become an airplane building enthusiast, you'll want
to expand your tool collection. Here's my best bet for your
second stage tool list.
The Dremel tool should be pretty high on your list. I don't use
mine for much besides cutting off landing gear wire and drilling 1/16"
holes for servo mounting, but I wouldn't want to do without it.
Now that I think about it, I also use it for installing strip ailerons,
and probably a few other things....
You would think that instant glue is fast enough, but sometimes
accelerator comes in really handy.
I mostly use the planer for rough trimming of control surface leading
edges before moving on to the sanding block to make the V shaped
edges. You'll find that it comes in handy for lots of
You wouldn't think about it at first, but foot-long drill bits are
pretty handy, especially for wing mounting holes.
The strange looking tool next to the planer is a T-pin pusher. My
preference for a building board is a hollow core door, and this tool is
the best way to push those pins into the semi-hard surface. It
has a magnet in it for holding the pin, and little slots for pulling
them back out. I don't know where you'd find one of these, but if
you see one, buy it.
If you're going to build balsa airplanes and you want to buy a really
handy tool, get a power scroll saw. A lot of guys use them to cut
out wing ribs, and you just can't beat it for cutting out plywood
parts. But the point of this article is to assure you that you
really don't need a lot of fancy gear if you want to try your hand at
building a plane. Just start small and work your way up.
You can do it, and it's a lot of fun!