This summer marks my 36th year of building model airplanes. My first projects were plan-built, based on magazine articles. Inevitably I moved on and bought a few kits, but I’ve always enjoyed turning raw stock and a set of drawings into a completed flying model. Truth be told, many of the kits that I could afford as a young teen were close to plan-built anyway.
A steak knife doesn’t cut balsa well, so it doesn’t take long to want some specialized tools. New builders will need an X-Acto knife and should purchase a dedicated cutting mat. Yes, it is that important. A modern, laser-cut kit might not require pinning a structure down when building, but you should protect your working surface while trimming scrap wood or covering material. Case in point:
While having dinner at my brother’s house a few years ago, I suddenly recognized the fuselage outline of Kevin Flynn’s Merlin sailplane in the patina of his dining table. We had grown up around this rustic farmhouse relic and I recall quite a “discussion” with mom shortly after shaping those parts.
How was I supposed to know that a layer of newspaper wouldn’t stop an enthusiastic X-Acto blade? It seemed strange at the time that my father didn’t have much to say in the matter. Now that I have a young son myself, I realize that he was probably pleased to see me making something, and less concerned about me carving up an antique table.
Amusing anecdotes aside, I still have several pieces from my first X-Acto knife set. I’ve also added an innumerable parade of purchased and shop-made hand and power tools along the way.
Save the actual gluing of pieces together, nearly all steps of framing a new model can be distilled into cutting and sanding. Both processes can be done with hand or power tools, with distinct advantages to each. Hand tools are inevitably less expensive, while power tools usually make faster progress.
In addition to X-Acto’s stalwart hobby knife, a few other basics make quick work of cutting tasks. Zona is well known for its various sizes of coping and razor saws. Don’t forget a sharp razor plane for shaping LEs, TEs, or blocks. Master Airscrew offers an affordable one that works well for our needs.
A woodworker’s small block plane can also be used, as long as you hone the blade to a fine edge for softer woods. I will admit that power tools handle a good percentage of my basic cutting tasks these days.
Conversely, I do a lot of hand sanding. Sometimes nothing can beat a simple strip of sandpaper glued to a scrap of wood. Put coarse paper on one side and fine on the other. You may not need it now, but I guarantee you will reach for that tool in the future.
The next time you are at your local hobby shop, give the Great Planes Easy-Touch Bar Sander a try. Extruded from lightweight aluminum, they measure 21/8 inches wide and come in four sizes from 51/2 to 33 inches long. A comfortable contour and readily available rolls of self-adhesive sandpaper make using these tools a pleasure. The hard, flat surface is excellent for supporting the paper when you want to sand glue seams without leaving ridges.
Sometimes you want softer support for the abrasive. It is tempting to use a folded sheet of paper when contouring convex curves, but better results will come with a foam sanding pad.
Don’t be tempted to try the pads seen at automotive supply shops. They are too soft for our purposes. Look to Stevens AeroModel for a better solution. The company’s sanding pads appear similar, but are custom made with a denser foam core that provides better support when sanding inconsistent surfaces. This reduces the tendency for wavy results. The pads are light and dual surfaced with 120-grit paper on one face and 240 on the other.
I have two power tools that are indispensable when framing a new model. One is a 10-inch disk sander I bought from Micro-Mark roughly 20 years ago. It is relatively quiet, vibration free, and turns slowly, making it easy to finesse the edge of a hand-cut part right up to its target outline. This is the same sander that I used to bevel stock for scarf joints discussed in the June 2014 MA feature, “Perfect Scarf Joints.”
Keeping an inexpensive machinist square nearby makes it easy to realign the table and miter gauge whenever I have been sanding non-square angles. This sander features a vacuum port for capturing the sawdust and I plug both the sander and shop vacuum into a switched outlet for easy dust control.
Working primarily with balsa ensures a long life for the self-adhesive sanding disks, while plywood, hardwood, and metal eventually take their toll. I keep a couple of spare disks on hand.
Even more used than the sander is my 4-inch bench-top table saw from Byrnes Model Machines. Made in America, this marvelous saw allows me to work with precision far beyond what typical wood structures require. Although readily portable, I find it so useful that I rarely move it from the end of my primary workbench.
Its accurate indexing miter gauge is also infinitely adjustable when I need an odd angle in between. In those cases I align the loosened gauge to either my working plans or an assembled structure, lock in the desired angle, and then move it back to the saw. The procedure goes almost as fast as simply reading about it and works so well that I rarely have to reset the gauge to try again.
The saw’s rip fence rides on two ground rails and consistently locks parallel to the blade. If nudging it isn’t good enough, an accessory micrometer head allows you to precisely adjust the fence. Just for fun, I have shaved a few pieces .005 thick from balsa blocks. And yes, they are thin enough to read through.
Don’t worry about having all the latest and greatest tools. As much as I use my disc sander and table saw, I find myself reaching for a favorite hand tool as often. The most important thing is to keep your projects moving forward and keep smiling.