A Basic Tool Set

There is a misconception that building a model aeroplane from plans is a difficult and complex undertaking, requiring a vast collection of expensive, specialist tools. Whilst this might well be true for the sort of scale masterpieces seen at model airshows, it is certainly not the case for all plan-built models. If we take a relatively straight forward design such as Jemima from Nuviation, only a small selection of simple and inexpensive tools will be required to complete the model. You may already have many of these tools in your possession, left over from DIY or craft activities. What follows is a description of the bare minimum requirement – the essential toolkit. After that we’ll look at the nice to have tools that can make some jobs that little bit easier.

  1. The modelling knife.

The basic modelling knife is, to the aeromodeller, what the chainsaw is to the tree surgeon or what the spade is to the gardener – it is the tool of the trade, without which no real work can be done. If you are planning on buying your tools in stages – only buying each new tool as you reach the stage in your model when that tool is required – I would say that a modelling knife ought to be the very first thing you look for. It needs to be extremely sharp, light and easy to handle. My personal preference is for the Swann Morton range of flat metal handles. They are well made, inexpensive and last practically forever. Each handle can take a range of blades which are extremely sharp and easily replaced as they become blunt. The blades are also extremely inexpensive, being supplied in packets of five costing just a few pennies each. The handles are not as comfortable to hold as some brands, whose knife handles have a cylindrical shape making them more ergonomic, however an important consideration here is that a flat knife handle will not roll off the workbench and into your knees. For my money, the Swann Morton Number 3 handle is the one to go for, some builders swear by the Number 4 but for me it is just a little too long.

In use, the blade will become blunt and need replacing. After a bit of practice you will get a feeling for when a blade is nearing the end of its life and this is the time to replace it – before it becomes noticeably blunt.

It goes without saying, of course, that these scalpels are extremely dangerous in the wrong hands and absolutely must be kept well away from children at all times.

2. The Stanley knife.

The modelling knife, described above, is unbeatable for fine work such as cutting thin sheet or strip but for thicker material (1/4″ balsa strip and thicker) you will quickly render your scalpel blade blunt and so a Stanley type knife is a better bet at these times. Available for very little money with both fixed and retractable blades, a Stanley Knife will come in handy for cutting a multitude of materials including balsa strip, plywood and even small diameter brass tube (although this will blunt the blades quite quickly.)

3. The steel ruler.

When cutting shapes out of sheet material using a modelling knife, curves will need to be cut freehand but straight lines will only be accurate if a ruler is used to guide the blade. A plastic or wooden ruler would be no good as the blade will cut into it far too easily. Not only does this lead to a wobbly line, it is also dangerous as the knife can easily make contact with your fingers causing a painful cut. For most jobs a six inch ruler will suffice but occasionally you will need longer so get a twelve inch ruler from the outset and it will last you for many years (I still use the 12″ steel ruler that my father bought in his aeromodelling youth many, many years ago. Its only limitation is that it has no metric markings!)

4. A cutting mat.

When using your knives to cut through sheet or strip material, you do not want to be resting on your work bench – especially if your workbench is also the dining table! Some sort of protective mat is essential to prevent damage. Self healing cutting mats are perfect for this job and are available quite cheaply, and in various sizes, from stationery suppliers. A cheap alternative is to use old magazines, although if you do this you will quickly find thin shreds of magazine pages littering your floor – and of course you must remember to replace the magazine before it gets cut into so many pieces that it no longer serves its protective purpose. You can also use offcuts of suitable sheet material such as old shelves or cupboard doors, but whatever you use make sure it doesn’t have any grain to it as the tip of your knife will try to follow the grain and resist the direction that you want it to go, often resulting in a less than perfect cut.

5. A small saw.

The two knives described above will cater for the vast majority of aeromodelling tasks but just occasionally you will need to cut through heavier material than either of them can manage – an obvious example here would be the wing spars which are often made from obeche, cyparis or spruce and upwards of 1/4″ thick. For this job you really need a small saw. A junior hacksaw will often work well although for my money you can’t beat a good razor saw. With finer teeth and a stiffer blade than a junior hacksaw, a razor saw will make a neater job, but if you are looking to save a few pounds on your tool shopping and you already have a junior hacksaw, that will be fine.

6. A building board.

Having cut out your parts using the tools described, you will need to assemble them somehow and you simply cannot do this accurately without a building board. As we shall see in a later article, you will glue the pieces together while they are pinned down flat and for this we need a board of some sort. You can buy boards, specially designed for the job, from your local model shop or online and of all the tools described in this section, the board is likely to be the most expensive. However, you can build your own if you feel so inclined. For many years I used a home made building board that consisted of an old shelf topped with cork floor tiles. Some builders have had good results using plasterboard instead of the cork. Whether you buy or build your board, it must have three essential characteristics – it must be flat, it must be able to have a dressmaker’s pin pressed into it and it must be large enough for the job, by which I mean that it must be at least large enough to accommodate the single largest piece of your model – usually the fuselage but occasionally a wing if you are building a glider or similar. (When considering this last statement, bear in mind that most models are built in sections – your building board does not need to accommodate the entire wing in one go, just the largest of the sections. Jemima, for instance, has a wingspan of 54″ but the largest section – the centre part of the wing – is only 44″ inches long and the two tip pieces are joined to this much later on.) When buying or building your own board, it is always a good idea to think ahead a little – your first model may be quite small but you may want to build larger models later and it would be good to avoid having to buy a new board for every, slightly larger, new model.

7. Modelling pins.

While each assembly is drying on the building board it will need holding firmly in position and for this we use pins, pressed through or across the material being used and into the building board. Dress makers’ pins are fine as long as they have a bead (glass or plastic) at the top – the all metal type with narrow heads are not really suitable as your fingers will quickly grow sore from pushing them in. Some modelling suppliers also sell pins with bent heads in a T shape – these work well too.

8. Small pliers.

It is debatable whether a small pair of pliers should be considered essential or just nice to have – their main function will be to assist in pushing pins into the building board or removing them from it. Building boards come in varying degrees of firmness and you may find it perfectly easy to insert and remove pins with your fingers however even the softest board will leave you with aching fingertips after a lot of pinning around a complex part. If you are looking to economise on your tool budget you could leave the pliers off the list for now and see how you get on – if you get sore fingers you can always buy the pliers at that point. I prefer the type that have a bend in the jaws as they make it very easy to grip the shaft of the pin, but any needle nose pliers will fit the bill.

9. Clear plastic sheet.

When we are building parts on the board we need to make sure that the parts are glued only to each other and not to the board itself. One way to achieve this is to take a wax candle and rub it generously over all the joints on the plan – this should prevent any glue from seeping through the joints and adhering to the paper. Although this method does work, I highly recommend covering the entire plan in a sheet of clear plastic. My local hardware store sells stout, clear polythene sheet for barely more than a few pence per metre and a single sheet of it can be reused a few times before the number of pin holes becomes intolerable.

10. Adhesives.

Not so very long ago, the majority of model aircraft were built using balsa cement. These days, balsa cement is increasingly hard to get hold of – if you ask for it in your local model shop the owner is likely to get all misty eyed and sentimental and there is a good chance that you won’t be able to leave for at least twenty minutes while he gives you a blow by blow account of the beloved control liner he built back in ’76. Adhesives have come on a lot since then and there is an array of products these days that can leave the beginner somewhat confused.

For my money, the very best glue, to be used wherever and whenever possible, is aliphatic resin or cabinet makers’ glue. It looks a lot like PVA but has a colour that ranges from pale cream to almost yellow, depending on the brand. It dries quite slowly, allowing plenty of time to reposition parts if required, but once set it provides a strong yet very slightly flexible joint. Try to find a bottle with a reasonably fine nozzle so that you don’t get messy squirts of glue all over the place and remember to close the bottle after use or the glue will go off over time.

Of course, the problem with slow setting glues is that they set slowly! While this is, at times, a bonus, it can be a nuisance as the parts must be held together while the glue sets. In many cases, this simply means pinning them together on the building board and leaving them overnight for the glue to work its magic, but where this is not possible, cyanoacrylate adhesive (commonly referred to as cyano) is the preferred option. Available under various trade names and in various viscosities (generally, the thicker the viscosity the slower the glue sets – thick cyano may take up to a minute to set while very thin cyano is almost instant). I find it handy to have two types on the bench, one medium viscosity, one thin. The difference in use is that, with medium cyano I would normally apply the glue to the parts and then press them together, whereas with thin cyano I would generally hold the parts together and apply the glue to the joint. This latter use of thin cyano is also a very effective way of reinforcing a joint which has already been made with slower setting glue such as aliphatic – a carefully applied line of thin cyano wicking into the joint in any areas where the resin has not quite reached.

If you can, buy a small bottle of medium and another of thin cyano. You won’t use much of it so a small bottle of each will suffice.

It is possible to build the entire model with cyano – and plenty of builders do just this – but for me, the ability to reposition a joint made with aliphatic resin, in a way that is just not possible with cyano, makes aliphatic my first choice where possible, resorting to cyano only when I need the joint to grab more or less instantly.

A note of caution when using cyanoacrylate adhesives – they were invented as a means of joining skin on wounded soldiers where stitches or sutures weren’t available or practical and they were very effective in this because they really do bond skin and eyes in seconds, just as the warning label on the bottle will tell you! Gluing your fingertip to your model with a small blob of cyano can make for a painful detachment process – doing the same with a large blob may well require a hospital visit to separate you from your latest creation! Sooner or later you will glue yourself to your model – we all have – but you have been warned!

11. Sand paper and sanding blocks.

It cannot have escaped your notice that we are working with wood here and to get a good, smooth finish to the model we will need sandpaper. Perfectly acceptable products can be found in your local DIY store – bear in mind that balsa is a soft wood (although it is classed as a “hardwood”, interestingly) and so you only need to buy a few sheets of fine sandpaper, definitely not the coarse stuff. A block to wrap the paper around is essential for many jobs, this might be one of the custom made cork blocks or it could be something as simple as a suitable offcut of timber. If it fits comfortably in your hand and supports the paper with just a little bit of give, it will suffice.

The Rolls-Royce of sanding tools are made by Perma Grit. Available in a range of shapes and sizes, these tungsten carbide tools are fantastic to use and last practically forever. Although significantly more expensive than a sheet of sandpaper and sanding block, the extra money will be more than repaid over the life of the tool as you will not need to replace the abrasive. If I had to have just two Perma Grit tools I would pick the 280mm sanding block and a swop block holder with fine abrasive sheet. These two items are rarely more than arm’s length away from me and see more use than pretty much everything else in my workshop.

So, these 11 items are what I would consider the essentials. You may already own many of them, and those that you need to buy can often be picked up for very little outlay and will last for a good few years, if not more or less indefinitely. For the “nice to have” tool list, click on the link from the drop down menu.


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