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Written by Robert Van Devender
Skills that transcend modeling

I have contended, throughout my life, that model airplane building and flying teaches a young person more essential skills than perhaps any other hobby. This would be true if model building and flying were still done as they were in the 1940s and 1950s, and if the modeling hobby extended to RC versions.

In the early days of RC modeling, we built our transmitters and receivers, obtaining permission to operate these homemade units, with an original Class D Citizens Band license. I had the 124th Citizens Band license issued in the state of Mississippi for this purpose, number 8W0124 (circa 1956).

It seems a tug to the imagination, here to be in my 82nd year on my birthday, February 18, 2017, to remember what building a model airplane was like, when I was nine years old in 1944.

In those days, in Meridian, Mississippi, a child either walked, or caught a bus downtown, to a sporting goods store that stood across 8th Street from the Temple theater. You took your quarter with you and bought either a Guillow’s or a Comet Speedomatic model plane. Most of the kits of that time cost only pennies.

You also bought a tube of Testor’s household cement, and caught the same bus back home on a transfer token. You spent the next week or two in a child’s effort to build such a complex challenge, sometimes, with very little help in figuring any of it out.

A model kit during World War II was different from later kits, simply because balsa wood was mostly unobtainable for the purpose, having to be imported from Latin America. A model kit in those days was mostly cardboard, with a surprising number of construction ideas for making a model from this basic material.

Wings, built-up structures, fuselage stringers, on that size of model usually were either 1/16-inch square or 1/16 x 1/8-inch “longerons” and they came on a 1/16-inch thick sheet of white pine that was strip sawed in rows, of the appropriate width, except for a narrow uncut strip at the end of the sheets, to hold the sticks together until used.

It is kind of hard to stick a straight pin through a pine stick, especially a 1/16-inch square pine stick, building up assemblies on top of plans, but we did it. The fuselage of some of these models comprised a paper tube upon which thin cardboard formers were cemented in a row, and then the 1/16-inch stringers were cemented to the square notches on the outer perimeter of the formers. It made a really convincing model fuselage, which really was made with little more than cardboard for a building material.

It really is a grab to think of a 9-year-old child doing complex construction such as that, but we quickly learned to do it, and to build the crutch construction of the wings and tail sections. Manual skills were quickly learned in the process.

Now, roughly 70 years later, the scarcities still exist but for different reasons, mostly because of cost. When you are on a senior's slim budget, balsa wood has mostly priced itself out of the market.

In thinking back on those skills from so long ago, it brings a memory of a friend and I buying a model plane kit, and building it during a vacation Bible school session at our local church. It was during the depths of a devastating war, when very few manufactured items of any kind were available for purchase. The theme of that Bible school was “Do the best you can, with what you have, for the sake of the Lord.” How that slogan has been a guiding light throughout my life.

The sticks used in this aft section of the construction were of the pretty white hardwood, ripped from 1/18-inch thick paint-stirring sticks.

Following the same sort of challenge, I wondered how many useful things I could build, using little more than the simple, unpainted yardsticks and paint stirring sticks from a building supply store. Using a vintage 1950s-era Dremel Moto Shop table saw, I cut the yardsticks and paint sticks into appropriate dimensions, and then used them to build parts of a Miss America kit, in place of the fragile balsa sticks that did not look strong enough to survive even the lightest of crashes.

Since doing that model construction, I have continued to see, just as a challenge, how many useful things I could make, just using these unfinished yardsticks and paint sticks for a building material.

I have a very large yard, heavily covered with trees. Raking and disposing of the leaves in the spring time is quite a chore. I have stretched bags over a garbage can to start filling it with leaves, and it is worrisome when the bags stick and won’t come out of the can. I hit on the idea of seeing if I could make a bag frame, using nothing but yardsticks for a building material.

Lawn leaf bag holding frame, built from yardsticks, using early model building skills, before painting and placing in use.

This might appear to be a complicated challenge, but if you spent a lot of time as a child, building model airplane structures, its development did not even require a plan. You just sort of start framing it up, and modifying each succeeding step until you have a finished assembly. The frame took little intial planning.

Another yardstick project served to help with senior discomfort. With a neck and shoulder becoming painful for sitting at my computer, I needed a change-up activity of some sort. I have a Samsung tablet that measures 7 x 9 inches. It is plenty big enough to watch a YouTube movie for entertainment. The problem is that you have to hold it. The engineer who designed it left the outlet for the charging cable on its left side, which points down. It's difficult to watch the movie with the charging cable in place. It is also tiring just to sit and hold a tablet to watch a full movie.

I designed a “tablet viewing easel.” There were some design challenges, but I was able to make it mostly from yardsticks, cut in pieces on the super-handy 1950s-era Dremel Moto Shop table saw.

One view of the tablet-viewing easel under construction, showing yardstick materials, and a steel print shaft tail weight for balance.

Among the challenges was making the easel tray high enough to allow the charging cable to come out the bottom of the tablet while viewing. It was also necessary to split the easel tray so that the card could escape out the bottom of the tablet.

I did some experiments with the tablet and learned that it has to be held nearly vertical in order to watch it without its having annoying reflections on the screen from nearby lights. It was challenging to make an easel to hold the tablet safely in place, while nearly vertical.

Another view of the tablet-viewing easel under construction, showing yardstick materials, and a steel print shaft tail weight for balance.

Some of the old model airplane formulas also crossed over into real flying, in the days of planning weight and balance problems for flying and passing an FAA written test. Weight distributions are handled by weight applied to “moments” from some datum point, or center of gravity.

Trimming a model airplane for good flight is challenging. You either do it right or it does not fly—at least not for very long. If you grew up and got into full-scale flying, you discovered the same childhood principles also apply to a real plane, made much more important, in that you and others might be riding in the thing.

The little tablet easel presented some of the same problems, when the tablet was placed on the tray and it fell over when you had the thing anywhere near vertical enough for good viewing without annoying light reflections on the screen.

The problem became how deep you could make the easel, and have it tail-heavy like a model with too much weight aft of the center of gravity. We used to have a lot of lead around the shop in junk boxes, old wheel weights, etc. It seems that lead has become so expensive you don’t even find it in the junk box any more.

What would be heavy enough to make the easel tail-heavy enough to hold it where the tablet would not be pitching forward on its face and possibly damaged?

A collage showing the design and construction details of a tablet-viewing easel. This project was made easy, simply by falling back on lifetime design concepts and skills learned in early model building experiences.

The old formula of moments came to mind, both for trimming a model and figuring weight and balance on a full-scale airplane: “Weight times distance equals distance times weight.” (If you don’t have a lot of weight to work with, stick it way out on a long moment arm and it provides the same leverage.)

I extended the tail of the easel out long enough in the back to held a section of a steel typewriter print shaft as a tail weight. It provided a nice moment, and made the entire assembly with the tablet sitting on it, quite stable with no tendency to pitch forward.

I sawed a strip for the tray, and one to cement on the front of the tray, to keep the tablet from sliding off the front of the tray. I made the tray wide enough to allow some leaning adjustment of the tablet, if needed for correct viewing.

Two views of tablet viewing easel under construction, showing yardstick materials, and print shaft steel tail weight for balance.

I still hold to my thesis that model building and flying in early childhood (if the child actually builds the things) teaches and grooms more innate technical skills in a child than nearly any other activities.

—Robert B. Van Devender
Union, Mississippi
Academy of Model Aeronautics No. 31315
From circa 1959 (when occasionally renewed)

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