Choosing your first set of building plans

A few guys have emailed me asking what would be a good plane to start with, as 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 any more 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, Sig and Great Planes for an assortment of nice kits that you can use for learning.  Sig has the Kadet Senior or Seniorita, which are legendary trainers.  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.  And Great Planes still sells the PT-40 trainer kit, which is a classic, as well as the PT-20 and PT-60.

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.  The editors wanted to make sure their plans were of high quality, so the designers were expected to conduct flight tests, refine the design if necessary, and deliver a good product.

In the digital age, I am still a big enthusiast of magazine plans.  You can still buy the plans from all of these catalogs, now online.  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 also has a great catalog, as do Model Airplane News, and Model Builder.  All of the aforementioned catalogs offer high quality designs that will not leave you wondering about important details.

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 there is a risk to the beginner because some of the plans are terrible.  If you’re not an expert, you would probably be better off obtaining a good set of plans that you can count on from one of the classic RC plans catalogs, and then if you want to download plans for free later you’ll know what you’re doing.  I really think you will gain valuable knowledge by seeing a good set of plans first.  That way you will know when you see a terrible one.  If you are interested in free downloads, check out Outerzone.  This site has tons of vintage magazine plans, which can be printed at a local print shop.

Assuming you are going to buy or download a set of plans, how do you decide which one to get?  The first factor to consider is the date on the plans.  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 in the 1970s 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.

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.  There were a few other 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 and you can’t go wrong. 

If you 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.