Building Your First Balsa Wood Airplane

There’s few more satisfying experiences than watching something you’ve built from scratch take to the air, whether or not you’re an experienced modeller. This guide will take you through all the steps you need for a successful launch.

Get your Kit

One of the joys of balsa modelling is that the materials are largely cheap and easily available. For a start, there are tonnes of free plans out there, ranging from a simple glider to full-blown radio controlled models.

Other than that, for a basic model you’ll need some balsa (of course!), a knife (an #11 blade is best), a cutting board or an old magazine, some modelling clay and some glue. That’s it!

Transferring the Plans

First, you’ll need to print your plans to scale. Make sure that they are clean and easily readable as you don’t want any confusion later on.

Next, it’s time to transfer them to the wood. For simple designs, either tracing the plans with a pen or pencil will be enough. A clear mark will be left in the soft wood, which you can fill in later. Alternatively, you can cut the shapes out of the plans and draw round them. Make sure you print or photocopy a second set though.

If you a making a complex design, it may be worth transferring the plans using lacquer thinner. This will print the ink directly onto the balsa, giving you even great accuracy. There are a number of good guides on how to do this available online.

Shaping the Parts

Using your knife, carefully cut out the parts. It’s best to make multiple passes rather than attempting to make a cut straight through first time, so be patient. Cutting along the grain is much easier too. Once you’re finished, sand them into shape until they are smooth to the touch, avoiding the sections that are to be glued together.

Building the Frame

If your design is particularly complex, it is worth pinning the parts to the plan to make sure everything is kept in place during the build. Don’t pin through the would though – instead use the pins to form an ‘X’ over each piece to keep it from moving.

Now, pin the first wing together to get a feel for its construction, before working through the other wings, rudder, stabilizer and other parts shown in the plans. Once you’re happy that everything is sturdy and where it should be, then you can start gluing.

Preparing for Flight

Once your model is glued together, it’s time to balance it. To do this, place it on two finger tips several inches away from the fuselage. To begin with, the plane will tilt backwards. Now add a small piece of modelling clay to the nose until it holds level.

Now it is time for your test flight! Hold the plane at shoulder height and push gently as you release it. It should fly relatively straight, but if it bombs towards the floor as it leaves your hand, then you’ll need to remove some of the weight from the nose. Likewise, if it climbs too sharply, a little more clay should be adding. Many designs also include stabilisers on each wing that can be adjusted to prevent sharp turns to the left or the right.

See other craft ideas.

Written for Enjoy Life by Hobbies, the UK’s leading retailer of balsa aircraft,
model boats and other craft and hobby items.  

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