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.