Balsa wood airplanes

Today, if you want to fly an airplane, its as easy as going to a store with a toy section, and buying one. There are so many shapes and styles available, made out of Styrofoam, or plastic, or wood, or fiberglass, many with all electric engine and controls.

Not too long ago if you wanted to fly an airplane, you built it yourself. Most frequently, you built it out of balsa wood, and flew it with a gas engine. You also wired up your own servos and made your own control surfaces. Suffice to say, a lot of knowledge was required, and a lot could go wrong along the way.

Naturally, building the airplane yourself took an enormous amount of time and effort for something that could easily be destroyed in a flaming inferno a few seconds into its first flight, or at any point during any flight, for that matter. The construction process itself was very similar to how airplanes were built during the world wars, just on a smaller scale. You have forms that give the plane its aerodynamic shape, and spars that run the length of the piece that old the forms in place, then skinned over to make the plane smooth.

Real-life Spitfire construction

Running a gasoline engine was equally difficult as they require a lot of maintenance to keep running properly and a lot of knowledge to even get them running at all.

But people did it. It was a labor of love. They still do, just not as frequently with all the cheap premade-all-in-a-box options out there.

I built a balsa wood airplane on the July long weekend. All in the span of the July long weekend. I did this as a personal challenge, inspired by my Grandfather.

We recently moved my Grandfather into a retirement home, and sold his house. A sad story in and of itself, but it was ultimately necessary and for the best. When cleaning out the house, some of my Grandfather’s possessions were divided up among the family, and one thing that many seemed to express interest in was an old balsa wood airplane my Grandfather made on a vacation at the old family cottage. It was covered in tissue and still looked good for something close to 50 years old. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of it, but it looked like an old Stearman biplane. I wanted it, all of the things I wanted from my Grandparent’s old place I wanted for sentimental reasons, and as a kid I could remember him showing it off to me and being so damn proud of the thing. But it ended up going to my cousin instead.

So, I decided the next best thing would be to make one myself.

I picked a simple, learn-to-build kit from Guillow’s. The Fly Boy model. I made it a personal challenge to build it in the span of the three-day, two-night long weekend.

Building the frame was probably the most satisfying part. Out of necessity, some of it has to be done in stages, but because you use either white glue or wood glue, the drying process is only a couple hours long, so several major steps can be accomplished in a single day. It becomes a very enjoyable day when you can say “I took some wood and turned it into something that looks like and airplane”. In reality, it was about 6 hours of effort to get the frame complete. For the wing, you take the ribs (the aerodynamically-shaped pieces that give the wing its lift), pin them on the plans vertically, then glue the spars onto them to hold everything in place, pinning them down as well to hold them tight. When dry, sand, and combine. The wing was made of 3 major sections, all of which could be built at the same time, and then later assembled when dry.

Skinning the airplane is definitely a far more finicky and slow process. This model required tissue paper and diluted white glue to skin it, painted once on the frame, then again to the surface of the tissue paper that was touching the frame to ensure the glue penetrated all the way through the tissue paper and into the balsa wood frame. Again, this was a very stepwise process, but due to the diluted nature of the glue, it took a long time for the tissue paper to dry. The really neat part was that once you were done skinning, and the tissue was dry, if there were any wrinkles left in the tissue, lightly misting them with water would remove them when the water dried up. It basically tightened and stretched the imperfections out of the tissue paper.

The wing was held in place by elastics and a dowel so you could move it forward and back to balance the airplane without having to commit to gluing it in place permanently. It also makes it easier to transport the airplane when you can take the big wing off.

Threading the elastic through was definitely a test of patience. I ended up using a stretched-out coat hanger to help.

For the first flight the instructions recommended  only 25 turns of the elastic for wind up.

Here’s the pitch! I think this was the exact point I realized that if it doesn’t work I may be left with a twisted pile of balsa wood, tissue, and a spinning propeller. And a weekend’s worth of wasted effort.

Didn’t go far the first time, but it did survive the decent to the ground. I was amazed at how hard it hit and yet survived, unscathed.

Later that day, when flying the airplane again, I lost count of the number of turns I had put into the propeller winding it up, and the elastic snapped. When it snapped, the elastic recoiled and spun around manically, tearing through the tissue paper. All of which was quickly and carefully cut out and replaced, which is pretty damn cool when you consider how easy it is to repair the airplane. So long as enough of it survives, it can always be fixed and re-flown, but it also served as a reminder of just how fragile flight can be. So remember, count your turns!

One thought on “Balsa wood airplanes

  • December 31, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    Good grief young man, seeing the photos took me back to the 1940’s when I made the same air planes of Balsa and ti-shoo paper. Like you I had may failures and successes. (But I was only a kid way back then). How thrilled I was to see it actually fly a few hundred yards and to glide gracefully when the propeller stopped revolving.
    I used my dad’s hand drill to wind up the propeller, one turn of the handle of the drill meant four turns of the propeller. I stored my elastic in a jar of soft soap when the plane was not in use. This extended the life of the rubber.
    Thank you for taking me back to my youthful days.



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