Choosing your first building plan

A few guys have emailed me asking to recommend a plan for a first project to build with balsa wood.

The best place to start has always been a kit.  Before the Chinese started building everything for us, hobbyists used to build a lot of planes from kits.  There just aren’t as many kits now because of decreased demand, but there are still a few out there, and I still think that’s the best place to start if you want to learn how to build.  Check out Balsa USA and Sig for an assortment of nice kits that you can use for learning.  Sig has the Kadet Senior or Seniorita, which are legendary trainers.  If you want less sanding and fewer sticks, try the Kadet LT 40 or LT 25.  These are widely regarded as top notch kits, and they will teach you how to build.  Balsa USA has a plane called the Student Trainer which is specifically designed to teach new builders.  They also have a basic trainer called the Stick 40.  You just can’t go wrong with a Balsa USA Stick 40.

After you build a kit, or if you want to skip the kit, then how do you choose a plan to build?  You don’t want to get a super complicated plan and find that you’re in over your head.  Another danger is that you might get an inferior plan that doesn’t include enough information for a beginner.

Before the internet was such a big thing people used to read hobby magazines.  There isn’t much use for magazines any more, but there is one thing I miss about them.  Most RC magazines used to feature construction articles every month, and they published a catalog where you could buy copies of all of their plans.  To make sure their plans were of high quality, the editors required designers to conduct flight tests, refine the design if necessary, and deliver a good product.  My favorite plans resource has always been RCM.  I have nearly a hundred different RCM plans, and they’ve all been good.  Some have been better than good!  Unfortunately the magazine and catalog are no more, but fortunately almost all of the RCM plans have been uploaded and can be found in internet archives such as  Model Aviation still sells the plans that have been published in their magazine, along with plans acquired from other catalogs such as Model Builder.  Go to their website if you want to buy.  Whichever source you use, you can’t go wrong with magazine plans because they always include the important details that new builders really need.

Sooner or later you’ll find those cheap CDs on eBay with ten billion plans on one disc.  These can be a good resource, but I’m not in favor for two reasons.  For one, there is a risk to the beginner because some of the plans are terrible.  If you’re not an expert, you would definitely be better off buying or downloading a classic magazine plan first…. which brings us to the second reason.  Thousands of good, high quality magazine plans are available for free download, in many cases the very same plans you wanted to buy from ebay.  If you are interested in free downloads, check out Outerzone.  This site has everything from old to new, all of which can be printed at a local print shop.  You can use the advanced search function to sort by publisher, wingspan, and even tags such as trainer, biplane, etc.  It’s a great website.

You may have noticed that I still haven’t told you which plane to build.  If you’re a beginner, that’s probably why you’re reading this in the first place.  So let’s get to the real info.  The first factor to consider is the publication date.  Back in the old days the designs were more complicated.  Fuselage bulkheads often had so many cutouts they looked like jigsaw puzzle pieces.  Engines were mounted on hardwood rails.  Wings frequently were built with sheet wood spars, and the ribs had lots of cutouts and notches.  Some time around 1970 designers started simplifying the designs quite a lot.  Engines are now mounted on nylon mounts, wing spars are square and the top one usually lines up with the bottom one, fuselage bulkheads are usually simple shapes with few notches.  So get a new-style plan to start with and you’ll be a lot happier.

There were several innovative designers who changed the state of the art of model building from the older, more complicated style to the modern, simple style.  The most prolific of them were Joe Bridi, Fred Reese, and Ken Willard.  Also, Dick Tichenor and Bob Wallace designed a lot of good looking, easy to build planes.  Look for planes by these designers for a straightforward, sensible learning experience.

If I had to recommend one plane for a beginning builder, you just can’t go wrong with the Q-Tee, designed by Lee Renaud.  It’s simple, it’s easy to build, it flies great, and it’s a really good looking plane.  If you want to learn how to build, this is one of the best projects you can choose to start with.  

If you have specific trainer requirements as outlined in my Trainer Selection article, and are looking for a specific size or style of plane to start with, send me an email and I’ll see if I can help you get pointed in the right direction.