Hands, Mind, and HeartWhat started as a handful of passionate enthusiasts has developed into a major force—and a significant component—of the aircraft industry.
Setting Up Shop
By Tony Bingelis (originally published in EAA Sport Aviation, July 1990)
HOMEBUILTS have been built in spacious workshops, in one and two car garages, carports, basements, attics, front porches, in bedrooms and aboard merchant ships. In short, just about every kind of enclosure or sheltered space has served, at one time or another, as a workshop for some determined builder.
However, unless you aspire to make the Guinness Book of World Records, I'm sure you are not interested in adding to that list of exotic homebuilder workshop locations.
Actually, most homebuilders are building their aircraft in two car garages, although quite a few seem to have access to a fairly large shop . . . and that isn't bad at all.
But, alas, it seems there are those who have to make do with the equivalent of a single car garage space even though their home does have a two car garage (guess whose car stays in the other stall?). For those individuals I would say be patient . . . it is said that once you get your foot in the door, you're in.
By the way, don't envy the builder who does have a hangar for a workshop, or has access to a large shop away from his home. That builder will be wasting a lot of good building time commuting to and from. On the other hand, because your shop, crowded as it may be, is at home, all you have to do is to step out the door and immediately go to work on your project. Guess which builder will be flying first?
What Shop Equipment?
Of course, you can build an airplane with a minimum number of small hand tools and a hand held electric drill.
However, adding a few select power tools will make your work ever so much easier. But, that is not all . . . power tools help reduce building time also. This is especially true if you are building an airplane from scratch, that is, without kits. In that case, having the proper power tools will, undoubtedly, enable you to shorten your building time by as much as one year.
Just what shop equipment can make such a difference? Ask any builder and regardless of the type of aircraft he is building, he will most likely name all five of the tools listed below. Listed in order of the most frequent use:
1. A drill press
2. A bandsaw
3. A large vise
4. A sanding disc/belt sander
5. A bench grinder
If you have not yet decided on a project and simply want to get your workshop set up for one, the equipment listed is the place to start. It matters little whether your project is to be an all-metal aircraft, a composite, a tube and fabric design or a wood aircraft . . . all of these tools and equipment should be considered as essential equipment for your shop.
The Drill Press
If you can only have but one of the five workshop pieces of equipment named, take the drill press.
There is no doubt that the very first shop power tool you acquire should be a drill press with a Jacobs key chuck. And, if possible, a floor model.
A bench mounted drill press is O. K. but you'd have to mount it on a solid stand anyway . . . and that stand would probably take up more space than a standard floor model would.
What about putting the drill press on the bench? Don't do that - it will only become a space robber and cheat you of valuable bench space.
The drill press you select should have a solid cast iron or forged table. Don't waste your money on a puny lightweight drill press that has a stamped sheet metal table, because it will not be rigid enough for accurate drilling in metal.
As your project develops you will find many, many uses for your drill press. This versatile tool, in addition to precision drilling, can be used to start taps squarely (you have to turn the chuck by hand), do accurate reaming, surface grinding and abrasive disc cutting of steel or aluminum parts.
Using a drill press guarantees that the drill bit will be held unwaveringly and maintained in square alignment with your work. It also enables you to obtain a powerful mechanical advantage for applying drilling pressure. This is very important when drilling hardened steel parts.
As frequently as you will be using the bandsaw, you should consider investing in a good model having a 14" or larger throat opening and a capacity for sawing material up to 6" thick. Although a somewhat smaller 10" or 12" bench model bandsaw would not have as large a capacity, it could still be a worthwhile addition to your shop.
The smaller shop model bandsaws are usually mounted on a steel stand designed to position its table surface at a comfortable elbow height. This, fortunately for you, rules out the idea of mounting the bandsaw workbench because that would raise the work table too high for comfortable cutting.
Your bandsaw will probably be equipped with a constant speed 1725 rpm motor. This, coupled with the correct size wheels, causes the cutting blade to travel at a rate of 3000' per minute or somewhat less.
The blade traveling at this speed is excellent for cutting wood and other non-metallic materials. Builders are often surprised to learn that this same bandsaw speed can be used for cutting aluminum. That's right . . . all you need to do is install a metal cutting blade.
Of course, if you want to cut steel with your bandsaw and it is not equipped with a built-in speed reduction unit, you'll have to find some way to step down the blade rpm.
Try to locate your bandsaw centrally against a wall.
The Bench Vise
A heavy duty vise with 4" wide jaws, securely bolted to a solid workbench, is exactly the type of vise you should have.
A smaller type vise that clamps to the edge of a table or bench is better than nothing, of course, but it will not be adequate for much of the bending and hammering work you may need to do.
Before you buy the vise, open the jaws an inch or so and try wiggling and jiggling the moveable jaw up and down and sideways. Some play or movement is necessary but there should not be a lot of slop in the assembly.
Many large imported vises, although inexpensive, are often made of a poor quality cast iron. They won't stand much abuse.
A second-hand "Wilton" would be a good buy should you happen to run across one in a pawn shop or at some garage sale.
The Sanding Disc/Belt Sander
Just about any size disc sander is worth having in your shop. Sears has a good combination 6" disc/belt sander, as have a number of building and supply outlets. A disc sander fitted with pressure sensitive (self-adhesive) aluminum oxide or silicone carbide sanding discs becomes an extremely versatile tool.
It will true the edges of wood or aluminum parts, debur, clean and trim metal, make chamfers and bevels, and perform a variety of sanding and smoothing operations. The more you use it the more uses you find for it.
The Bench Grinder
Almost every homeowner, "do it yourselfer" and tinkerer is apt to have a bench grinder. If you don't already have one, I would recommend you buy a good quality 6" new or used grinder.
Most cheaper models may look very nice and efficient but probably lack the power to do much more than sharpen knives.
Most likely they will have a plastic housing and poorly retained grinding wheels that are not suited for heavier grinding chores.
Instead of having sealed ball bearings that are lubricated for life, cheap grinders have sleeve bearings which must be lubricated periodically and have a characteristically poor longevity record.
Most good grinders are equipped with a double-ended armature shaft which will permit you to mount two 6" abrasive wheels of different grits. If you prefer, you could mount a wire brush wheel on one side and a coarse grit wheel on the other.
Let There Be Light
Good lighting is essential. If you can't see what you are doing clearly, the quality of your work will suffer. You may not even be aware that you can't see your work clearly until one day you suddenly realize that those little goofs were not due to your carelessness, but due to inaccurate marking and cutting because of poor lighting.
Good lighting for your shop may be obtained by installing several of those economical 48" fluorescent light units sold through most building and supply outlets and lumber companies.
These units are often highly discounted and currently are selling for about $10 to $12 during sales promotions.
To make a quickie installation you can hang these units from the shop ceiling or from the rafters and plug them into the nearest electrical outlet with an extension cord.
Naturally, if you want to make them a permanent installation they could be wired into the electrical system and be fitted with individual switches. Otherwise, you will have to unplug them to turn them off.
I have 8 of these units in my shop and have a couple more mounted vertically on portable 6' tall wood stands. These I can move around to wherever I need the most light.
If you are rewiring your proposed work area just for your project, consider placing electrical outlets all around the shop at 6' to 8' intervals. It seems that there are never enough convenient places to plug in portable electrical tools.
Electrical outlets should be positioned high enough to clear the work benches and whatever assembly tables you plan to have.
If rewiring the workshop area is out of the question, consider using multiple plug-in adapters, or power strips at each location where you do have an electrical outlet.
It is not likely that you will overload the wiring because you will be using only one tool at a time. The exception might be where you already have a unit operating with a high current draw (bench saw and air compressor, for example).
Benches and Tables
Heavy Duty Work Bench - You will need one heavy work bench approximately 8' x 24" made of 2x4s and heavier timbers. This bench should be fastened to the floor or to the wall because you will want to mount your bench vise at one end. Installed in this manner, you should be able to use that vise for heavy hammering and bending work.
Assembly Bench/Table - How large an assembly bench you will need depends on the aircraft you are building. For example, if you are building one of the VanGrunsven RV designs, all you will need is a solid 4' x 8' table surfaced with a good sheet of 3/4" plywood mounted on a rigid frame. To increase its usefulness, add a couple of full width shelves to provide valuable storage space below for your long pieces and for the aluminum sheets.
Other kinds of aircraft projects, on the other hand, might need a much longer narrow table for assembling a cantilever wing spar and wing. Check with other builders and compare notes.
You will probably have long pieces of wood or metal to store until you are ready to use them. Several shelf brackets fastened along the wall about 12" below the ceiling will get the stuff out of the way without having to sacrifice valuable floor space.
Consider building a large storage shelf, about 4' x 6', in one corner where you can safely store all of your fiberglass components and other odd shaped parts.
The Air Compressor
This is another expensive piece of equipment, one you may or may not need urgently.
Naturally, if you are building a metal airplane, you will need compressed air for the rivet gun and air drill. You can even use it to air the tires on your car or truck, blow away the dust and dirt from your bandsaw, drill press, work bench, dust yourself off, etc.
If you are planning to paint your own airplane, a heavy duty compressor will be essential. A 3 horsepower unit capable of providing about 8 cu. ft. of air per minute would make a good shop compressor provided it had a 20 gallon, or larger, capacity tank. Anything much smaller than that would make spray painting difficult because the compressor will not be able to keep up with the spray gun.
Small Hand Tools
Most of us have a variety of small hand tools like wrench sets, electric drill, electric screwdrivers, etc., so there is no need to attempt to enumerate all the small tools that may be needed for a particular project. Anyway, these can be acquired locally as the need arises without expending a lot of money.
For Wood Aircraft Builders . . .
What additional equipment would be useful in building a wood aircraft? How about a 10" Bench Saw? Anyone building a wood aircraft without a pre-cut wood kit should have access to a 10" bench saw. Equip it with a 10" combination saw blade and it will make those nice smooth cuts you need for gluing.
You will use the bench saw frequently to rip longerons, spare stock, and capstrips as well as for sizing other wood parts.
A Router/Jig Saw. A router or a jig saw might be very useful if the project has plywood ribs with lightening holes that have to be cut. Other than for that specialized use, it really may not be useful for any other aircraft work.
Bar Clamps. Several bar clamps will be needed along with a variety of C Clamp sizes. How many? Start with a dozen . . . you never have enough of the things when you need them.
Staple Gun (electric or air driven). If the wings are to be plywood covered, invest in an air-driven staple gun, and some fine-wire staples. You'll need the staple gun to secure the many "nailing" strips used when attaching plywood skins.
For Tube and Fabric Builders
The big extra piece of equipment needed by the steel tube builder is an oxy-acetylene welding rig. Obtain the smallest lightest torch you can find for welding that thin wall tubing.
You may have to rent the oxygen and acetylene "bottles" if you cannot arrange to buy your own.
Of course, there are other more expensive welding systems you could check into.
For The Metal Builders . . .
Perhaps the most effective tool a metal builder can have is a long throat dimpling arbor.
Anyone working with aluminum should also acquire a Scotch Brite Cutting and Polishing Unitized Wheel for his bench grinder. It is superb for smoothing and polishing aluminum parts without ever clogging the wheel. You simply cannot grind aluminum or other soft metals on a regular grit wheel without ruining it.
For Composite Builders . . .
Perhaps the most useful addition would be an Epoxy Ratio Pump. It will save you time and money, and eliminate the messy and sometimes inaccurate hand mixing of epoxy resins. Furthermore, accurate measuring of the resin and hardener will be assured.
Words of Encouragement
Sure, you can invest a lot of money in the 5 basic shop tools and the other large equipment just described, but it may help to keep this in mind. After you have completed your project you can always sell off the tools you no longer want to keep.
The better the equality of this equipment, the better the price you can get.
There is always a good market for used shop tools and equipment as you will quickly learn when you first try to shop around for used equipment for your own shop.