Build your first flying scale model - Chapter 1 - Tools you will need

One of the nice things about this hobby is that you don't actually need that many tools to get started. Here are the essentials:

A sharp knife

There are plenty of options here, but my weapon of choice is a brass Swann Morton knife used with their excellent scalpel blades. Mine is what they call the No.3 handle. My preferred blade type is the 10A, but other shapes are available. The No.11 blades are also rather good, being somewhat more slender and "pointy". These knives and blades are available to buy in most art shops. A cheaper alternative are those knives with the retractable long blades where you snap off the tip when it gets blunt to reveal a new point. You get about 15 chances to change your tip before you have to buy a new one.

There is no point in trying to carry on with a blunt blade - the balsa can crush or tear, and it is simply not fun any more, so make sure you keep some spares in stock.

Steel rule

Very useful for keeping straight lines when cutting out balsa parts, also for stripping your own wood from sheet.


You need these for holding the parts in place over the plan on the building board. Special modellers pins are available with wide heads to hold parts down securely, but I just use standard plastic headed ones. The finer the pins, the less likely they are to split the wood if you push them through.


A pair of needle nosed pliers will be needed for any wire bending you have to do - nothing fancy though, and you will probably have a pair in the house somewhere anyway.

Needle files

A set containing several different shapes is a good investment - they are handy for filing small openings, such as holes for thrust buttons, motor pegs etc.

Sandpaper/Emery paper

One of the most useful tools you can have can be picked up cheaply in packs of 10 at your local chemist or drug store. I am talking about emery boards, which some people actually use for filing their fingernails. These are ideal for general sanding work on model airframes, especially as they have a coarse and a fine side. I also keep a some sheets of wet and dry paper handy in 360 and 600 grit sizes - the 600 being good for final finishing.

Razor saw

Perhaps not absolutely essential, but you will find this a very useful tool whenever you have to cut up a balsa block (not easy with a scalpel). The deeper the blade, the thicker block of balsa you can tackle. If you only use it on balsa, this could be a once-only purchase, as the amount of times you use it, it should not get blunt.

Cutting mat

OK, you can get away without using one of these, but it does save the kitchen table from damage, and the one in the picture above only cost me 2 from a local market stall. If you use an old piece of wood or something to cut on, the danger is that the knife blade will tend to follow the grain of the wood rather than the part outline you are trying to follow.

Building board

Plenty of possible options here. How big you go will depend on the the length of the biggest model you are likely to build. My trusty board consists of a piece of fibreboard glued to an old chipboard shelf, The fibreboard is soft enough to push pins into easily, and the shelf keeps it flat. I know some people use cork floor tiles or noticeboards, and others use ceiling tiles. Have a wander round your local DIY superstore and see what you can find. Alternatively, you can buy magnetic building boards, complete with small steel blocks to hold parts in place. I have never tried one myself,but if you click here you can read about John Ernst's experience of using one.


Below is a picture of my current selection.

Taking each type in turn:

  • Aliphatic wood glue. You can see a couple of brands in the photo. This water-based adhesive is what I use for 90% of my airframe construction. It is similar to the traditional white wood glue, but does not dry rubbery, so you can sand it. It is usually tinted a yellowish shade by the manufacturers. It is relatively slow drying, giving time to adjust joins, and does not shrink like balsa cement, so delicate structures are unlikely to be distorted.

  • Balsa cement. Traditional solvent based glue as used by generations of balsa modellers. The smell when opening a tube still takes me back to my early forays into the hobby when I was about 10. Humbrol and Ambroid are two well-known brands. One advantage of balsa cement is its quick drying time, which I find useful when applying fuselage stringers, for instance. Often you only have to hold the stringer in place for less than a minute, and it will stay there. Pre-gluing will strengthen a balsa cement join considerably, especially when gluing end grain (e.g. a fuselage cross member). Just put a smear on the ends first and let it soak into the wood. When it is dry, apply a second coat and install the part. balsa cement is also useful for attaching wire parts to balsa, in conjunction with a thread wrapping. (peeling the glue off your fingers afterwards is part of the pleasure).

  • Cyanoacrylate (Superglue). Now please remember that this is a personal opinion, but I really hate this stuff, and only use it when there is no alternative. Why? Well, the fumes are noxious, it is heavy, joins can be brittle and it sticks far more readily to your fingers than anything else. It does have its uses however, such as gluing in aluminium or brass tube bushings, attaching ply facings to balsa and of course urgent field repairs, so I always keep some to hand. The bottle shown features a brush applicator, which I find quite handy.

  • Pacer Formula 560 Canopy glue. I would not be without a bottle of this now, as it is the best thing I have come across for attaching canopies - basically it does what it says on the bottle! It looks like a normal white wood glue, and is water soluble, but there must be some special additives in there, because it sticks like crazy. It also dries completely clear, so any residue is virtually invisible. Most good model shops should stock it, as the R/C boys use it for their canopies too.

  • UHU general purpose adhesive. The big plus of the UHU glue in the yellow tube is that you can use it to stick paper fillets and panels onto your airframes without causing them to swell (with water-based adhesives), or distort as they dry (as can happen with balsa cement as it shrinks). The disadvantage is that you tend to get a few strings here and there, and the glue always remains rubbery, so there is no chance of sanding it.

  • Glue stick. I only use these very rarely when building my models, but many of my friends (especially in the US) use them all the time. Their chief use is to attach tissue to airframes, and stick cut-out paper or tissue markings onto the covered airframe. The adhesive can be reactivated using a trim iron to ensure edges are firmly fixed down. You can also buy restickable glue sticks, which amongst other things can be used for sticking paper patterns onto balsa before you cut them out (apply the glue to the paper, and you should be left with no residue on the balsa). Also for temporarily sticking pairs of balsa parts together, so they can be sanded to exactly the same shape.

    Noxious fluids

    Below you can see my collection of doubtless extremely hazardous chemical liquids.

    In more detail:

  • Dope. This is used to seal the tissue after it has been water-shrunk, and add a degree of waterproofing. There are several types on the market, and it is important to know the differences. On the left there is standard nitrate shrinking dope - similar to the Humbrol type I have used since the year dot. It is getting harder to find now, and I wonder if it is only a matter of time before the government stops letting modellers buy such nice smelling products. I tend to use nitrate shrinking dope now just as an adhesive when applying tissue - but you can read more about that later. In the centre is non-shrinking nitrate dope which is what now I usually finish my models with, thinned 50/50 with cellulose thinners. On the right is Butyrate dope, which can be useful because it is less flammable than nitrate dope. This could be an advantage for Jetex or Rapier powered planes. It is not as sticky as nitrate dope, so not as suitable for adhering tissue. It shrinks less than standard nitrate dope, but I understand it can carry on shrinking for longer.

  • Thinners. Called Cellulose thinners in the UK, but probably just dope thinners everywhere else, you have to have some of this to dilute your dope with. The thinners are very volatile, and contain harmful chemicals, so best to use outdoors, or at least in a well ventilated room. It is better to to get the more expensive high grade version if you can, as this will be less prone to giving a "bloom" on the tissue as it evaporates. I am told car restoration workshops are a good place to get hold of this stuff relatively cheaply - if you buy from the model trade you tend to pay through the nose.

  • Krylon Crystal Clear. This is the finishing medium of choice over the pond in the USA, especially in households where the rest of the family will not tolerate the smell of dope. Very convenient to apply from the aerosol can as well. Unfortunately you cannot buy it in the UK (if you know better, please let me know!). I brought mine back from holiday with me. Crystal Clear has an acrylic formulation, so there may be something equivalent over here - if anyone has done any experimenting, I would love to hear from you.

  • Sanding sealer. This is basically dope with a mineral filler added, and it is used to prepare a bare balsa surface before final finishing. The powder will help to fill the grain, and after sanding, a smooth surface will be obtained (it may take several coats). If you cannot find it in the shops, just add some talcum powder to normal dope.

    Right - I reckon that is enough to be going on with - any other stuff that might be needed will be described if and when it comes up during the build.

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