The Secrets of Silk

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Written by R.A. Benjamin
Find the entire feature on page 36 in the May 2011 issue.
Read an abridged summary and photo slideshow relating to the article.



SILKPAN IS A unique variety of tissue paper made from carefully selected plant fiber. It's the stuff from which teabags are made. At roughly the time World War II was fought, model builders got their hands on some of this material and discovered that it made an excellent covering for other airplanes.

For the little 1- or 2-foot-wingspan stick-and-tissue rubberpowered models that were built in WW II times, Japanese tissue was the best choice. It was usually included with any kit you might be lucky enough to get.

For models spanning 3-4 feet or more, the extra strength that silkspan provided made it a better choice than Japanese tissue. Real silk was best for huge models, especially FF or CL gas-powered aircraft, but it cost four to five times as much as silkspan and demanded that you use more dope to seal it and build a good finish.

In the mid-1950s, when I became aware of silkspan, a 2 x 3-foot sheet cost 15¢-25¢ at a hobby shop, depending on the weight grade/thickness you wanted. It was good stuff.

From the end of the war through the 1960s, almost any mediumsize model kit you could find had one or more sheets of silkspan tucked in with the various sheets of balsa or rolled up with the plans. You couldn’t call yourself a model builder if you couldn’t use silkspan.

It’s still good, but these days hobby shops (both walk-in and mail order) offer an impressive range of iron-on products that are designed to seal balsa surfaces, cover “open” structures such as wings, and put a color finish on your aircraft at once.

There’s no shortage of well-meaning experts who will assure you that products such as silkspan are too hard to bother with anymore. And it’s no surprise that good ol’ plain silkspan can get lost in the glitter of all those guaranteed-to-be-shiny colors.

What’s wrong with that? Maybe nothing, depending on what you want...

Read the R.A. Benjamin's introductory course to learning the secrets of silkspan on page 34 in the May 2011 issue. You may also view a slideshow of R.A. Benjamin's silkspan techniques below using a vintage 1940-1950 era aircraft.

3 comments

Beautiful plane!

Silk is such a lost artform. This story brings me back to my dad's basement. Him and his pilot buddies would built and mom would let me sneak downstairs to help out. What a great way for model pilots to cut teeth!

The article starts with "SILK" !!! A great item and a lost art. But from that point on it was all about the art of using "Silkspan" ! Truly a great product, but the silk story stops there. It might have confused a few modelers of today but not the old guys. I have covered with everything including "Bamboo paper" a thing of the past also.(1938) I have always covered Silkspan and Silk with it wet !! ( the only way )-- My first was a model built during a four month stay in I a hospital in 1932. it was covered with hospital dinner wagon napkins and a spit warped tongue depressor for a prop. Glued with Acetone Coloidian used by the doctors I am ninety and was in active in AMA until my move to Oregon in 2003. I am an AMA pioneer and a "Fellow" #4257. I still design now on CAD. Email --jesjen58@gmail.com

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