Building from Plans

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Written by Mark Lanterman
Take the Road Less Traveled
As seen in the October 2013 issue of Model Aviation.

If you have a few minutes, let me take you on a trip down a well-worn aeromodeling path that isn’t traveled much anymore. The path I have in mind has many similarities to an actual US road: Route 66, which was once a major thoroughfare for anyone venturing westward, but it eventually became all but forgotten when faster, more direct highways were opened.
    The path we’re about to travel was also once the way to build a model—building from plans. Throughout decades, there have been hundreds of thousands of plans published, covering any type of aircraft you can imagine—Scale, Pattern, Pylon, gliders, Combat, trainers, and sport models of all sizes and shapes. However, in today’s instant-gratification world, modeling has switched its focus to ARFs and RTF models. Even kit building is becoming a thing of the past—like Route 66.
    So buckle in and let me show you a few things that will hopefully spark an interest in you to give building from plans a try. It’s not for everyone—certainly not for those who have never before assembled a wood-and-balsa airplane from a kit. This path is rewarding because you’ll end up with a model that you have built. 
    Your first plans-built model doesn’t need to be a Giant Scale monster. I encourage you to start with something small such as a Hand-Launched Glider, a FF model, or a small park flyer to get a feel for the entire process.
    Now that we’re buckled in, let’s define what building from plans actually involves. It is simply starting off with a set of detailed construction drawings that came from a magazine or a plans service. 
    These drawings will show, at minimum, the side and top of the fuselage, one of the wings, the vertical fin, and the horizontal stabilizer. Some plans are more detailed than others and might show both halves of the wings, both sides of the fuselage, cross sections of the fuselage and wing, and more detail in specific areas.
    Rarely will plans include anything remotely close to step-by-step instructions detailing how everything goes together. However, plans published in a magazine will likely have helpful building tips in the accompanying construction article.
    After you have the plans, you will supply everything else needed to build the model—the wood, the hardware, and the accessories. This affords you the opportunity to use your preferred brands of hardware and types of accessories. 

There are many kit-cutting services available. National Balsa offers a complete laser-cut kit of Wendell Hostetler’s Mr. Mulligan. It is faster and far more accurate than cutting by hand.
There are many kit-cutting services available. National Balsa offers a complete laser-cut kit of Wendell Hostetler’s Mr. Mulligan. It is faster and far more accurate than cutting by hand.
plans services
    You have control over the wood selection. You can select lightweight balsa where appropriate and have a finished model with significant weight savings and you won’t be stuck with sheeting and wood strips that are so warped they resemble hockey sticks!
    I often hear, “Why should I build from plans when there are so many ARFs and kits on the market?” There’s nothing wrong with either of those options, but what about having something unique? What about building something that doesn’t look exactly the same as the other airplanes at the field? Building from plans gives you that opportunity to choose a subject that is distinctive, rarely modeled, or even wacky!
    Now that you have an idea of what you’re in for, let’s travel down this path and look for something that catches your eye. As on Route 66 with all of its roadside attractions, signs, beautiful scenery, and wonderful zaniness, the subjects available for a plans build are vaster than you can imagine.
    The AMA Plans Service is a combination of every construction article printed since Model Aviation started back in 1975, plus other plans that AMA has acquired throughout the years—more than 16,000 plans covering FF, CL, and RC. 
    Add to that the number of plans printed in all of the other aeromodeling magazines throughout the decades, foreign and domestic, and the number of available plans grows by leaps and bounds.
    There are many other plans services to consider including Vintage R/C Plans, Brian Taylor, Don Smith, Jerry Bates, Meister Scale, Mick Reeves, Nick Ziroli, Roy Vaillancourt, Wendell Hostetler, and others. And don’t forget about online sources, many of which are free. A quick Internet search will provide dozens of other sources.
    My plans choice, and the inspiration of this article, was a Mr. Mulligan (Howard DGA-6) from Wendell Hostetler’s plans. This 1/4-scale, 50cc design has a 98.8-inch wingspan and a projected weight of 22-26 pounds. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Golden Era racers.

When framing any plans build, utilize angle brackets and improvise weights to hold everything in position as the glue cures.
When framing any plans build, utilize angle brackets and improvise weights to hold everything in position as the glue cures.

    I plan to fly the Mr. Mulligan in Scale competition, and I need to have exact scale outlines. I found several areas that needed to be changed, adjusted, etc. These plans weren’t drawn to withstand the level of scrutiny that a model undergoes during static Scale judging.
    Regardless of the subject you choose, the rest of our plans building ride will be a series of ups and downs, but worth the journey.
    This next point is normally an afterthought when building an ARF, but it is crucial when building from plans: a place to build. If your family is anything like mine, you can’t do a proper build on your kitchen table or on a television stand in your living room. Plans building can take time (I’ve put in seven months building the Mr. Mulligan as I write this), so you need a workbench that’s large enough to accommodate your project, and is in a spot where it can be left for long periods of time.
    I build in a portion of my basement and my workbench is a simple table I made from 2 x 4s and a large interior door I found at the local home improvement store. I covered the door with a sheet of standard drywall, which makes a nice, flat, work surface that holds pins well and I can tape plans to. Because it’s out of the way, I can leave everything where it is when life gets in the way and come back to where I was when I have the opportunity to build again.
    Now that your plans and a place to build have been addressed, the next decision is whether you will buy and cut all of your own wood pieces, or utilize the services of a kit cutter. Cutting your own pieces is inexpensive and helps you become familiar with the various parts of the model you’ll be assembling. Most plans include a materials listing, so use this when ordering your wood, but always get extra.

With any plans build you’ll typically need to determine the proper way to mount your gear and wheel pants. Using a pair of Sig’s wheel pant mounts for each wheel pant worked on the Mr. Mulligan build.
With any plans build you’ll typically need to determine the proper way to mount your gear and wheel pants. Using a pair of Sig’s wheel pant mounts for each wheel pant worked on the Mr. Mulligan build.

fuel tank mount
laser-cutting services

    To begin cutting your own wood, trace all of the pieces you need (ribs, formers, dihedral braces, etc.) onto the proper size and type of wood, then cut them out using hand tools or power tools. Pay attention to the wood grain so your pieces will be the proper strength. Most plans note the grain direction for all parts.
    For the Mr. Mulligan, I chose the kit-cutter route and selected National Balsa. The company supplied me with all of the formers and ribs precut with a laser-cutting system. Also included was the wood needed to finish the kit, all the wood strips, balsa sheeting, and plywood parts. As good as I might think I am at cutting and fitting pieces together, nothing beats the accuracy and repeatability of a laser-cut kit.
    Let’s store the plans and wood in the trunk and drive farther down the road to figure out the types of glue or adhesives that we’ll need. This topic is complex enough to require its own article, but I will lightly touch on it. 
    The adhesives you will need will vary widely depending on the type of model you choose and the kind of wood you are joining. CA is good for soft balsa ribs glued to wing spars. Epoxy is needed for hardwood motor mounts that are subject to vibration, and other high-strength areas such as dihedral braces and landing gear supports.
    Most FF models never need epoxy, so a few viscosities of CA glue will do nicely. CL and smaller RC models need CA, as well as epoxy on critical areas. Larger models, such as my 50cc Mr. Mulligan, need many types of adhesives—lots of thin, medium, and thick CA, as well as plenty of 5-, 15-, and 30-minute epoxy. 
    There are many brands, but I chose to use the Mercury Adhesives line sold by Atlanta Hobby. The company has a full range of glues made in the US that carry a great unconditional warranty.
    The next stop down the road is to pick up the necessary hardware. Perhaps in your past experiences of putting kits or ARFs together, you’ve run across hardware that didn’t meet your expectations. In a plans build, you’re free to choose anything you want. 
    If you like hex-head screws, buy those. If you don’t like CA-type hinges, choose some proper hinge points or plastic hinges. Find the motor mount, fuel tank, wheels, pushrods, etc. that fit your comfort level and are the proper size and strength for your model.
    For the Mr. Mulligan, Du-Bro supplied a great deal of the hardware, hinges, tubing, etc. I choose to use a fuel tank from J&L Power Products called the RotoFlow. It’s a great premade tank system (clunk installed).
    Another consideration is fiberglass parts such as the cowl and/or wheel pants. More ambitious modelers than I simply create molds and make their own parts. I purchased a completed cowl and wheel pants from Fibertech N More. These were created specifically for this Mr. Mulligan so it was a great timesaver.
    The last stop on our trip is tool selection. If you have constructed a few built-up wood models from a kit, you should have nearly everything you need. At a minimum, you’ll need a hobby knife with extra blades, a small handsaw, clamps of various sizes, sandpaper, a drill and bits, and a rotary tool with a few cutting/grinding/sanding accessory bits.
    I don’t use many power tools for my builds, but I have found that a small jigsaw, a drill press, and a 12-inch rotary disc sander are invaluable additions to my shop. I bought these at my local Harbor Freight store. My rotary tool (currently a Dremel 4200) is probably the most-used tool in my shop!
    Some modelers also utilize jigs when building. They guarantee a straight, true airframe when correctly used. I’ve never used one, but there have been times when a jig would have been easier than any rigged-up system I’ve invented to hold something in place. If your budget allows it, jigs are a good addition to your shop.

    We’ve gone a long way down this road and now it’s time to start putting all of the goodies we’ve gathered along the way to good use. Clear off your workbench, tape down your plans, cover them with wax paper, and take a good long look at them. 
    Take a really long look at each part of the plans. Step away from them, and come back later to study them more. Familiarize yourself with these plans because, as I mentioned earlier, there are no instructions. You need to rely on your past experience in kit building and your common sense to make sure everything is put together in the same manner as the kit’s designer had in mind. 
    This is one of the most important steps in the entire plans-building process. I like to think of it as getting inside the designer’s mind and I’ll usually spend several days studying new plans before diving in.
    When I begin building, I normally start with an easy section to get up to speed. In the case of the Mr. Mulligan, I first constructed the elevator and stabilizer halves. I decided to use a new technique to control the elevator halves which required building the servos into the stabilizer. This change eliminated long pushrods and ugly control horns detracting from the scale look I wanted.
    As you become more comfortable in reading the plans, move on to more complicated sections. Again, take your time and study everything carefully. It’s a good idea to dry-fit parts together to make sure everything is in the proper place and fits as it should.
    One of the things I found that has helped me the most when building from plans is to take my time. Don’t be afraid to step away from the build if you encounter something you can’t quite understand. 
    I’ve often found that if I come back a day or two later, I can see the situation with fresh eyes and find solutions I couldn’t see before when I was frustrated. There will be times when you are stuck and can’t figure something out. That’s where the Internet can help. 
    Search the Web and see if you can find modelers who have posted builds, as I’ve done with the Mr. Mulligan. It is likely that someone has come across your problem and found a solution.
    The same goes for steps that require building skills you might not have encountered or mastered. Maybe you’ve never sheeted the forward section of a rounded fuselage such as the Mr. Mulligan, or maybe you’ve never used a specific type of covering to finish your model. There’s help available online, at a local club, or even your local hobby shop. Don’t be afraid to ask. 
    Here we are at the end of our trip down this road to building a model airplane. I hope that my overview has inspired you to try something different and build a model that’s all your own. 
    Building something yourself will reinforce your existing skills and allow you to learn new ones. I find it a great way to spend a few relaxing hours after a hectic day. With a little effort, you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing a pile of wood come together and take to the sky. That’s a great feeling!
    Don’t let me have all the fun. Get out there and build something. Although most dermatologists probably won’t agree with me, I think a little balsa dust is good for any modeler’s complexion!  

The Mr. Mulligan has the framing completed. It still needs the final sanding, but everything is in place. It weighs 22 pounds with the engine and servos installed for these pictures.

—Mark Lanterman

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