Balsa Wood Aeroplane

Back in February, Emma bought me one of these as a present for our anniversary:

As you can see, it’s a balsa wood aeroplane.

I must admit that I had completely forgotten about balsa wood planes until I opened the box. I then remembered that back when I was about seven or eight, I built a couple of these with limited success. (Well, I built some very simple balsa wood kits. The problem was that balsa is quite soft and fragile, and so doesn’t last long when you’re a clumsy sod like me.) The kits I remember building were more like this:

Wind forward nearly twenty years, and I’m back glueing together bits of balsa, only this time with a little more success than as a nipper. The kit is significantly more complicated than the model above.

This is the first stage completed:

Here, the fuselage and wing ‘ribs’ have been glued to the main structural ‘longerons’ and then the whole structure reinforced with ‘stringers’ (the thin strips of balsa wood running horizontally along both the fuselage and wings).

Once the frames are made, they have to be sanded to remove any balsa fuzz and then sealed with a coat of either cellulose dope or a mix of PVA glue and water. I bought the dope and was intending to use it but it really needed to be done outside (to prevent the fumes turning me loopy) and so progress stalled as the weather has been rubbish lately. I then found on the internet a site which assured me I could use a PVA glue and water mix which was much more friendly so I could do it indoors.

After that comes the covering of all the pieces with tissue paper. This is done piece by piece rather than in large sheets, and again I used a 50-50 mix of PVA glue and water to adhere the paper to the frames. This left me with the pieces looking like this:

The pieces are then sprayed with a fine coat of water to shrink the tissue paper over the frames and tighten it. The tissue is then strengthened with a couple of coats of the PVA-water mix (much like papier mache) and left to dry.  After that, they are all glued together using the balsa glue from the first stage, and a card wing fillet is attached to smooth the join between wing and fuselage. After joining the major components, this is what you get:

As you can see from the second photo, I attached the undercarriage structure too. The wooden parts come with the kit; the metal parts are half a roughly straightened paperclip superglued to each ‘leg’. The wing fillets haven’t been attached at this stage, and there is still a little work to be done around the join between the tail and the fuselage. Also, before painting can begin the nose and canopy need to be glued on and masked where appropriate.

At this stage, I was very pleased with progress as there was barely a wrinkle in the tissue. The kit came with a catalogue of Guillow’s kits tucked inside, and they use customers’ own photos to illustrate the potential end result. Several that I saw had wrinkles and slack areas, and I was feeling quite pleased with myself that I had managed to avoid this so far.

Next came the attachment of the various cosmetic bits and pieces, such as the radiator and air intake on the underside of the fuselage/wing join, and I also installed the rubber band for the propeller, and therefore the engine cowling and the propeller itself. I also painted the cockpit canopy, but the instructions insist that this must be the very last thing to be attached.

Ignore Zippy and pay close attention to the white plastic pieces on the underside of the plane.

The blue stripe down the middle of the plane is the rubber band. The wheels have been attached temporarily to see how it looked.

Here’s the canopy masked and painted silver. The real canopies were painted in the colours of the camouflage scheme, but I saw a photo of this kit with a silver canopy and thought it looked pretty nice so decided to copy it.

The painting isn’t too difficult – one of the advantages of this sort of model over an injection-moulded plastic kit is the  significantly lower level of detail. After the underside was painted ‘sky’ (a strange, green-tinted beige colour), the top was given a couple of coats of brown, and the model looked like this before the green went on:

The only drawback  of this sort of model that I have discovered so far is the translucency of the tissue paper covering makes it difficult to get a solid coat of colour on without going crazy with the number of coats. As you can see, there are a couple of patches on the wing and the side of the fuselage where the paint is thinner and streakier.

After a little more painting, it looks like this:

Then, with the decals added, along with the canopy, it looks like this:

(Apologies for the slightly faded colours, there was bright sunlight streaming through the window, which has been such a rare occurrence lately that I didn’t even consider the effect on the photos.)

Essentially, that is it finished. All that remains is a test flight! I’ve had a great time building this plane, and will definitely build more. I am getting wildly ahead of myself, but I’ve seen that some people convert these to remote control…


2 thoughts on “Balsa Wood Aeroplane

  1. I’m thinking Zippy was the real mastermind behind this airplane building…

    How long did this all take in total?

    Are you being serious about being able to fly it? How would that work? And what is the next project!

    • Going by the dates on the photos, I started it back at the beginning of March, so it took over four months. That’s not to say it should have taken that long. There was a prolonged delay in the middle of the build as I was intending to use cellulose dope to attach the tissue paper to the frame, and given that dope is a nasty, don’t-breathe-this-or-you-will-die kinda chemical, I was waiting to do it outside in good weather. I then discovered you can do it with PVA and water (as I think I might have mentioned in the post) so kicked on at that point. There was also a break before the painting as I was undecided about how to go about painting onto the tissue.

      Theoretically, it should fly. Most of Guillow’s kits are designed to be flying models. Whether it will fly is another matter. Everything is so light that an unequal quantity of glue used on one wing compared to another could make a crucial difference. Effectively, it flies by winding up the propeller and launching it by hand. The propeller will only power it for a few seconds, from which point it should glide if the wings and rudder are ‘trimmed’ properly. If the weather is good over the weekend, I’ll test-fly it and get Emma to film the whole thing on my phone, and then upload the video.

      The next project will be something very similar. As I hinted at the end, I would like to try converting one of these kits to remote control, but given that (a) I have never flown a remote control plane, (b) I am not familiar with the technology, (c) the kits with the moveable control surfaces which are best for conversion are about £70 and (d) I’ve only built one like this, that’s quite a distant aim.

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