A successful first flight with a new model is one of the great pleasures in aeromodeling. From the moment a photo or drawing captures the imagination, the mind inevitably springs to some version of a warm spring day with a light breeze down the runway and its wheels tickling the grass as that airplane floats off into the blue for the first time.
To make that moment even sweeter, many enthusiasts still prefer building their own models and the increased emotional investment that process provides.
I have enjoyed assembling and flying countless models throughout the years, building my knowledge base and skills along the way. Yet when it comes time to clean out my workshop and make some room for new projects, the models that I have glued together, sanded smooth, and carefully covered myself, are the ones most likely to keep their spot while others are entrusted to a new owner.
Where Do We Get Them?
“But no one is making kits anymore.” Fortunately, that often-heard lament isn’t true. Ignore the doom and gloom about building being a lost art—and hobby shop shelves full of the latest ARFs. There are actually quite a few balsa kits readily available.
Sure, the passage of time will inevitably mandate manufacturer changes and attrition. Despite this, some of the classic kit companies are still with us, along with a new generation of companies founded by younger designers to share their dreams.
I grew up pouring over the Sig Manufacturing catalog like it was the Sears and Roebuck Christmas Wish Book (remember those?), dreaming of next summer’s great adventures. While my 35-plus years in the hobby seem like a long time to me, Sig is now well into its seventh decade of operation, alive and well under the passionate leadership of new owners. A quick visit to the company’s website reveals a large number of kits for Free Flight, Control Line, and RC builders.
Hobbico continues to offer a range of kits, including several large World War II warbirds and sport models from which to choose under the Top Flite and Great Planes umbrellas. They should be available through your local hobby shop, even if they aren’t on its shelves.
It seems you can’t go to a major event, or sometimes even the local field, without somebody showing up with a 1/4-scale Piper Cub or World War I fighter built from a Balsa USA kit. The company’s current lineup features a great selection of larger, fast-building sport scale models that make fantastic everyday fliers.
Don’t be scared by their vintage outlines. The handling characteristics are suitable for anyone comfortable with a traditional four-channel aerobatic sport flier.
The first large model I built, or so it seemed at the time, was a 100-inch wingspan Balsa USA Nomad sailplane that now awaits restoration in my parents’ barn. If memory serves, it was delivered to my door for $19.95 when I was in high school, and I had a lot of fun flying it after it was built.
Equally important to my enjoyment of the hobby were the lessons I learned as I carefully built the Nomad. I remember crawling out my bedroom window onto our flat kitchen roof one spring Saturday to profile the balsa block wingtips with my Dremel tool and keep the balsa “snow” out of my room.
I later spent the better part of a day carefully aligning the wings of the fully assembled skeleton, using our Ping-Pong table as a reference surface. It may be my aging vision, but even today those wingtips still look pretty good to me.
For a more-detailed scale kit of a classic vintage flyer, don’t overlook Proctor Enterprises. I have two of the company’s kits awaiting my attention. One, the Antic biplane, isn’t actually a scale model, but it seems as though it could, or should, be. Its traditional construction and appearance will make it a great warm-up for my Curtiss Jenny.
Perhaps you want something a little less ambitious? There are several smaller kit companies such as Manzano Laser Works, Mountain Models, Park Scale Models, Stevens AeroModel, and others, that offer a variety of sport and scale models in the small to midsize range.
Typically electric powered, these models all benefit from modern laser cutting. When completed, they will be equally at home at your local schoolyard or club field. I have built and flown several of these kits and each has been a joy.
Custom and Vintage Kits
I would venture that the names I’ve mentioned are less than 10% of the North American vendors selling kits today, with offerings that span the full history of flight. Ask at your local club, flip through the ads in this and other model magazines, and search online to find others that suit your specific tastes.
What if you can’t find a kit for that classic design you’ve dreamed of for years? As long as you have plans, there are companies that will be happy to custom-cut the kit for you. I have no personal experience on which to base a recommendation, but asking others or doing some online research should quickly turn up several options.
Another well-known source is other modeling enthusiasts. Endlessly dreaming about our next award-winning build can foster a bit of “buy it now” fever, and many of us have a few—or more—untouched kits that we bought long ago with the best of intentions. Local and regional swap meets are a great place to find some treasures as priorities change.
I took some models to our club’s annual sell/swap meeting last fall, hoping to generate sufficient funds for next year’s dues. My efforts were successful, but what I didn’t see coming was a chance to pick up three kits I had long sought. So much for clearing out my workshop!
When your family and friends get wind of your passion, they too can turn up some surprising finds. I have received a variety of kits as birthday and Christmas gifts over the years, including everything from original Old-Timer Gas and Rubber Free Flight kits, on up to a Balsa USA 1/3-scale Sopwith Pup.
The latter came from a family friend aware of my passion for early aviation, and whose grandfather had spent some time in the full-scale version back in his day. I guess a few inadvertent comments at Old Rhinebeck one fall afternoon were not cast on deaf ears!
Build Something New
I know you won’t be reading this until early spring, but there is still time to get a project on and off your bench before flying season. It doesn’t have to be a grand masterpiece, especially if you haven’t actually built and covered a model in a while, if ever. Trust me, any wrinkles in the covering or glue fingerprints on the canopy will be invisible in flight, and will be more than made up for by the knowledge that you did it yourself.
The key is to just give it a go, and remind yourself how gratifying building your own model can be.
Manzano Laser Works
Zeke’s Park Scale Models
Sig Manufacturing Co., Inc.