Buying hardware for scratch built planes

The main focus of this website is the construction and flying of balsa airplanes as it was done from the 1970s to 1990s.  I don’t talk much about carbon fiber or electric motors, which are popular in modern times, or bamboo, silk and dope, push button radios, or free flight planes, which were popular from the 1930s to the 1960s.  I’ve limited my focus to the era when a model airplane was made of balsa, covered with iron-on film, guided by a simple digital proportional radio, and powered by a glow engine, mainly because this is what I feel comfortable talking about.  Because this niche is a little bit nostalgic, or one might say outdated, when you decide to build such a plane you might find that the plan shows some components that may not be readily available in today’s market, even though they were very common at the time of publication.

One of the things that a lot of builders are stumped about nowadays is the generic sheet aluminum landing gear depicted on old magazine plans.  Like many other model airplane accessories, aluminum landing gear started out as something one would make at home from a piece of aluminum obtained from a local metal shop.  Later RC companies started supplying blanks that the hobbyist would bend to the correct shape.  Later still, various companies supplied pre-bent landing gear in several standard sizes for building planes from 1/2A size up to 60 size, and even giant scale.  During this golden age a balsa builder could go to the local hobby store and buy all of the wood and various hardware needed for his latest project, including a generic pre-bent aluminum gear in whatever size was needed.  Those were good times.

Balsa builders belong to a rare breed in today’s world.  Nowadays most RC fliers simply buy airplanes to fly, and those who like to build tend to use foam board.  As a result of the smaller market for balsa airplane accessories, most of the landing gear makers have gone away.  DuBro still makes a generic 40 to 60 size landing gear, and there is a carbon landing gear of similar size available from Graves RC.

There are still a couple of companies that provide a large assortment of products for balsa builders, the main one being Sig.  Sig sells aluminum landing gear in various sizes, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at their website.  The website is kind of a mess.  The trick is to go to the menu at the top of the page and look where it says “CATALOGS”.  Download the PDF of Sig’s product catalog, and you’ll find the secret stash of landing gear in the section called “ACCESSORIES”.  They list all of the landing gears made specifically for their kits and ARFs, as well as a few generic landing gears.  The dimensions are noted for all of these products.  Thanks to the guys on RC Groups for directing me to this catalog.

The RC Groups community also directed me to Extreme RC for large landing gear, and Twisted Hobbys and Precision Aerobatics for very small carbon fiber landing gear.

If you still don’t find a landing gear to match your current building project, you can always go to a local metal shop and buy a piece of aluminum.  Model airplane builders used to do it that way in the old days, so you could still do it today.

Another common question I get from readers is where to find a canopy for whatever model is on the workbench at the moment.  There are lots of plans that show really tidy looking canopies.  For example, look at the canopy on the Bandito Grande.

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That’s a great looking canopy on a great looking plane.  Not only does it look good, it also keeps dust and oil out of the cockpit.  (You may have noticed the generic pre-bent landing gear and commercially made wheel pants also found on this plane.)  Fortunately, Sig still makes bubble canopies and WWII canopies in various sizes from small to large and several in between.  These can be cut to fit a huge variety of airplanes, and you can get through most of your projects with Sig canopies.  Off the top of my head, I’m suspicious that the Bandito Grande may be a bit too big for Sig’s largest canopy, though you’ll want to call Sig to be sure.  If you don’t think you can make a Sig canopy fit your next project, you may be able to find exactly what you’re looking for by searching for replacement parts for ARFs or kits that are currently available from Sig, Graves, Extreme, or other vendors.  This is a hit-and-miss process, and you probably need to know some dimensions to help you make an educated guess regarding whether the available replacement part will fit whatever plane you’re building.  If all else fails, you may just have to go back to the stone age.  Build a form out of balsa blocks, enlist the help of a friend, and use four hands to pull a bottle or sheet of plastic over the form while heating it with a heat gun.

Fortunately, most of the other common items are still available, including landing gear straps, tail wheel and nose gear brackets, screws, clevises, and control horns.  If you can’t find the correct inchworm style clips to hold your landing gear in place, you can make your own from a tin can.  There used to be a lot of brands of fuel tanks available, but the number has dwindled significantly.  You can still buy commercial fuel tanks, but if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for you can make one out of a plastic bottle, just like they used to do in the old days.

You can find a lot of stuff on the web, but sometimes you have to think creatively to come up with the correct search terms.  If all else fails, just pretend it’s 1965 and figure out how to make it yourself.