What Materials Are RC Airplanes Made out Of?

RC Airplane Show
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Radio-controlled (RC) model airplane hobbyists have many choices when it comes to buying a craft, everything from Big Box stores selling moderately priced fliers to specialty shops selling planes that can cost hundreds of dollars. It’s also likely that serious hobbyists will eventually want to build their own, whether from a kit or completely from scratch. In either case, it’s helpful to know what kinds of materials go into making a model RC aircraft.

The following is a list of some of the most common materials used to build the frame and coverings of model airplanes.

Balsa Wood

The standard in model airplane-building since the late 1920s, balsa wood combines the two elements necessary to a successful flight: strength and lightness. Balsa wood is also easy to cut and carve with just a good, sharp hobby knife or razor saw, so no need for heavy power tools. Because balsa wood comes in different grades, slightly heavier pieces can be used for the loadbearing parts of the structure and lighter grades for the wings and nose.

Other types of wood that can be used include paper or boxboard (yes, paper airplanes can have motors), light plywood, and wood veneers like obeche, popular, and ash.

Carbon Fiber

Sometimes called graphite fiber, carbon fiber is a lightweight polymer that is five times stronger than steel and twice as stiff. It can be used to build an entire plane, or just certain components, like the wings and fuselage.

Carbon fiber is also used in the support structure of foam or plastic models.

Polystyrene Foam

Manufactured under various brand names (like Depron or Styrofoam*) the durability and strength of polystyrene foam makes it perfect for model-building of all kinds. Because it is formed through an extrusion rather than expansion process, this material has a closed cell structure that makes it much easier to waterproof and paint than other plastics or foams.

Plastics

Hobby builders also have good luck with polycarbonate resin thermoplastics like Lexan as well as a product called Coroplast. Also known as sun board or flute board, Coroplast and other plastics like it have a corrugated sheet structure that makes them extremely lightweight. Even more important for model airplane building, they are also waterproof, shockproof, and they resist corrosion.

Films and Fabrics for Coverings

There are many ways in which to cover the structure of a model airplane and prepare it for waterproofing and painting. Again, the material should be both light and durable. Some hobbyists use a special tissue paper made for model-building while others will invest in more premium products like AeroKote, an iron-on adhesive polyester film covering, or the heat-shrink fabric known as Koverall. Popular wing materials include polyethylene thermoplastics like PET, boPET, or Mylar. Silk is also a popular option.

*Styrofoam, with a capital “s,” is a brand name for a type of extruded polystyrene owned and manufactured by Dow Chemical Company. However, many people use the word in reference to things like foam cups and packing materials, which are actually types of expanded polystyrene.

The latter might be used for some cheap RC airplanes, but it is generally not durable enough for use in modeling.

Follow up your build with some intermediate RC plane plans