Hands, Mind, and Heart

What started as a handful of passionate enthusiasts has developed into a major force—and a significant component—of the aircraft industry.

The Building Situation

By Budd Davisson (originally published in EAA AeroCrafter 6th Edition)

The importance of the right workshop and the right environment cannot be underestimated. Two to four years of your life are going to be spent in this environment and its effect on you can actually make or break the project. If it is a dingy, left over space between bicycles and garden rakes, where you are constantly fighting the elements, the family, and the spiders, it is an uphill battle to keep your spirits up. If it is a nicely organized, bright, well lit area that is dedicated to you and your airplane, then the only obstacles are inside your head.

For the above reasons, it will actually speed up the building process if you forget about what airplane you are going to build and concentrate on giving yourself the best building environment you can, within the limitations of your physical set-up and finances. Building an airplane isn’t an inexpensive proposition and putting a few bucks into the work environment will not only save you money by helping guarantee the completion of the project, but the shop will always be there for other projects.

It has often been said there is no such thing as too much space when building airplanes, but for our purposes, that’s not entirely true. Yes, there is an absolute lower limit, but there is a practical upper one, too. The space has to be lit and heated, which can be expensive, and you are constantly transiting from one tool to another and, if those distances are relatively large, it can get tiresome.

If a huge amount of space is available, the best way to use it is to designate a ‘live’ work station area that is of convenient size for the largest component, generally the fuselage, to be worked on. All the tools and benches would congregate in that area making for an efficient traffic pattern. The rest of the space can be used for storage and the old saying absolutely applies to storage... there is never too much.

Coincidentally, for the size of airplanes we are usually building, a work station generally winds up being about the size of a double garage, 24 ft. by 24 ft. Granted, another ten feet in each direction would be nice, but don’t let that stop you. Double garages have spawned thousands of airplanes and will continue to do so long after we’re not around.

A single garage, 16 ft. by 22 ft., is a rock bottom minimum for building airplanes and, even then, extra storage space for completed components would be nice. Lots of airplanes have been built in back bedrooms and living rooms and I know of a T-6 being restored in a third story loft in downtown Manhattan, but that’s the hard way to do things. If you are constantly wedging between the wall and a wingtip to get to tools, building is going to become a chore.

More important than space is the workshop location. A gorgeous workspace a block away might as well be across the state, in terms of the obstacles it presents. Everything humanly possible must be done to bolster the psychological aspect of building an airplane and proximity to the project is one of the primary factors. A workshop that is separated from the house by as little as 20 feet will see less activity than one that is in the basement. And the basement one will see less activity than a workshop on the same floor as the kitchen and living room. It has to be easy to get up from the dinner table and amble into the workshop without worrying about putting on a coat or climbing into the car or slogging through snow/rain/wind. In many cases we’re only talking a difference of seconds in travel time, but it is the mental effort required to overcome the after-dinner-blahs that counts.

The fantasy workshop situation would be one which is worked into the house while the house is still under construction. The shop would be about 30' X 40' (tack on a few feet here and there for personal taste) and during construction it would be treated just as if it was another room in the house. The finishing crew would sheet rock, paint and trim it like it was a giant living room. The floor would be a good grade of plywood finished in urethane or epoxy, with the top layer of ply designed to be taken up and replaced whenever it got too beat up. Wood floors in workshops are great because they are easier on the feet, warmer and can be nailed into for jiggling purposes. With this kind of workshop, a builder could go padding right into the shop in his bathrobe and slippers and feel perfectly comfortable. It would have a ‘real room’ feel, rather than the cluttered, dungeon look most workshops eventually develop.

On the subject of wood floors - one of the nicest building situations seen recently was a T-hanger in which the builder constructed a floor of plywood over a 2 X 4 joist framework laid on the floor. Not only was it a "soft" feeling floor that eliminated the cold concrete, but his heating was piped through the framing which warmed the entire floor. He cut floor vents wherever he needed more heat. Great idea and not expensive!

Although a minor point, it is worth it to sheetrock the ceiling of basement shops for several reasons. First, it brightens the space considerably because it reflects light and does away with a dingy overhead. Second, it forms a vapor barrier which not only can be sealed to keep out fumes, but is a fire barrier as well. Never done any sheetrocking? Nothing to it, but get a friend to help because the stuff is heavy and awkward.

Ranking right up there with proximity is light. Workshops need light. Lots of it. In fact, if enough light is used, it often makes up for other shortcomings, such as scroungy walls or less than enough space. And light is relatively cheap, at least in metropolitan areas. This is true because the penny-saver resale magazines given away in grocery stores almost always have used florescent fixtures listed of sale. Remodeling companies and industrial contractors are also excellent sources, since when they rehab a building, they seldom reuse the lighting fixtures. The ideal fixtures are the two tube, eight footers, but that’s not imperative. Just get what’s available.

There are a number of really ingenious new heater designs which include gas and oil wall heaters 
capable of perking up a garage and require only a vent cut in a wall and a feeder line. Most oil supply companies know what’s available.

A less expensive way to insure plenty of heat is to lay your hands on a used hot air furnace, preferably oil fired. Any heating contractor can point out units he has removed that are often to be had for the taking. Others are listed in the penny-saver ads. Make sure it wasn’t removed because it was defective because some of them are hard to repair.

An oil fired, hot air furnace only needs to be set up on blocks in the corner of the shop, a vent run through a wall, an oil line run to it and plugged in. It can be wired with a thermostat, but many builders just plug or unplug it to control the heat. No fancy duct work is needed, just a sheet metal plenum, which is generally attached to the heater when you get it. Even the smallest ones throw out more heat than is needed, so don’t put a 150,000 BTU unit in or you’ll be able to fry eggs on the windows.

Insulation, of course, is another bummer in the north. Insulating the walls presents no mysteries, but the traditional garage door is often approached wrong. Besides the fact that the average overhead door leaks like a sieve, they practically have a negative R value. They may keep out the wind, but the cold comes right through. The average unheated garage, with the usual overhead door, will go down to within a few degrees of the outside air, but a proper set of insulated doors will keep it above freezing almost regardless.

Construct the doors using 2x4’s for framing, preferably fir or pine since they are lighter. Skin the frame on both sides with 1/4" luan plywood. Plan the framing 16" or 24" on center, to use normal fiberglass insulation. If you’re sensitive to appearance, the outsides of the doors can be treated in a number of ways, including diagonal cedar siding, etc. Much lighter doors can be made using 2" styrofoam insulation, 2x2 framing and the same 1/4" skin.

As with light, there is no such thing as too many tools, but it is easy to get carried away and buy expensive items not really needed. An airplane is not a complicated machine, so you don’t need a machine shop. In fact, many airplanes have been built with nothing more than a hacksaw and power drill. The key is to buy the stuff you’ll use and hire out the work needing a lathe, and the like.

So, what should be on your Christmas list for this year? Assuming you already have most of the standard hand tools, number one should be a good drill press. Check any you buy for movement in the quill shaft (the part that moves up and down with the chuck), as a few of the imports are too loose. Also, don’t get a bench-mounted unit unless you are planning on putting it on its own stand. One of the key ingredients of a homebuilt aircraft shop is flexibility, and bench mounted tools work against that. The tools should be such that they can be moved around to rearrange the shop to fit a particular job so the tools should be freestanding wherever possible.

Another necessity, although it doesn’t sound like it until you’ve worked with one for awhile, is the stationary belt sander. The most common size uses a 6" x 48" belt and usually has a disc on the side, which isn’t really needed. This little beauty cleans and trues up fittings and edges so fast you’ll wonder how you ever got along without one. Combine this with a power hacksaw and a few files and your shop won’t need a milling machine (very few actually do need one, anyway).

If any steel is used at all, one of the import power hacksaws is worth its weight in gold. Although primarily designed as horizontal cut-off saws, they all come with table 
attachments to use them as regular vertical bandsaws and they work great. Granted, they don’t work as well as a Do-All bandsaw, but for a couple hundred bucks they save hours of groaning and sawing. With a 14 tooth blade, they even work as wood saws, although that isn’t their forte. Make one fitting on one of these things and you’ll run right out and buy one.

Another goody everyone should own, although it shouldn’t be used even once on the airplane, is a high quality power screwdriver like a Milwaukee "screw-gun", although a rechargeable variable speed 3/8" drill will do a similar job. When combined with hardened screws, a screwgun is the handiest shop and jig assembly tool in the world. If not familiar with the tulip headed, hardened screws, they are basically and outgrowth of sheet rock screws. They are hardened and double threaded, so no guide hole is needed and they pull themselves flush with the surface and are available at every lumberyard. Using a screwgun and these screws, everything from sawhorses to shelving and benches will go together lightning fast. After discovering this combination, most folks forget where they left their hammer and nails.

After getting all your tooling together, go buy a dozen four-way outlet boxes and matching outlets, wiring nuts, and 12-3 romex cable, and set about running electrical outlets all over the place. Save two of the four way boxes to make a couple of 25 foot extension cords with four outlets on the end.

For several reasons, an exhaust fan should also be part of your equipment list. If the shop is part of the house, the fan will be needed to carry fumes away from the rest of the family and, in so doing, insure domestic tranquility. Some of us like the smell of butyrate or polyester, few spouses do.

The fan will also be needed if any amount of serious painting is going to be done. If that is the case, an explosive proof fan should be considered. These things are so expensive you’d think they were part of the space shuttle, but they are well worth it for the peace of mind. A large one isn’t needed. If it is direct drive, a 20" fan will practically suck the doors off the average size garage so even a 14" fan will suffice.

"Stuff" accumulates. It is a law of nature that we as a species, engage in activities that generate stuff. All of which needs to be stored. In a workshop, the trick is to store the stuff in such a way it doesn’t eat up precious floor space, but to do that takes a certain amount of planning.

Stuff comes in a couple of categories: stuff that is needed often; stuff we seldom need; and stuff we never use but can’t bear to throw away. The last category goes out of the shop and up into the attic the instant a decision is made to build an airplane. A workshop should have no place for dead storage. It is a working, living space and all of it’s space has to work for it.

Since floor space is critical, that means the equipment and benches which have to occupy floor space should be mounted so their bases provide storage. This is especially true of benches. Any other storage should be hung on the walls in the form of shelves and cabinets. Again, the penny-saver ads have used kitchen cabinets that are invaluable for shop storage.

Watch the ads for the small kitchen base cabinets that are about a foot or so wide. They make excellent work station mountings for benchgrinders, vises, etc. and are very portable so they can be moved around the airplane.

Your work benches are at least as important as any piece of equipment in the shop. They form the datum, the benchmark around which everything is built. Whether steel tube, composite, aluminum or wood, whatever the material, they are constructed on work benches or in jigs which are a form of work bench.

The ideal work bench is one which is perfectly flat, level and square, weighs nothing so it can be moved when necessary, yet it is absolutely stable and is expandable to handle different sized jobs. Oh yes, and the surface is unfazed by welding torches, epoxy and dopes/paints. This is the mythical work bench that gave birth to the equally mythical 300mph, aerobatic amphibian we mentioned in the last installment.

Everybody has an idea of a work bench in their minds already. It is usually a bunch of 2x4’s, nailed to 4x4 legs with a heavy plywood top. And that probably covers 90% of the work benches in existence. But in building airplanes we need less brute strength and more flexibility than is demanded of most work benches. For one thing, we need different sized work benches for different parts of the project. For instance, we need a bench that is about 16 feet long but only a couple of feet wide to do a Pitts fuselage. Then we need a bench five or six feet wide, but only eight feet long to do the Pitts wings and tail surfaces.

Every project needs different sized benches to handle different parts of the project. Also, when finished with a space consuming assembly bench, you might want to either get rid of it or convert it into a more useful size.

Keeping in mind that airplane parts weigh next to nothing, we designed a bench that has served us well for years. The original concept sprung from our habit of making temporary benches out of factory second, birch faced doors. Because these were so thin, they had to be faced with 1/4" ply for durability, but this gave an endless variety of bench widths and they were all light.

The next step was to custom build a "door" type bench top. Doors work so well for benchtops because they are not only light, but extremely stiff and retain their shape because they are essentially plywood skinned, monocoque panels. But they aren’t quite rugged enough. Our "doors" are constructed of 1 x 3 fir and 1/4" luan plywood.

To build in flexibility, the benches are made in sections that can be bolted together, the size of which would be determined by the project. A tubing airplane, for instance, would use benches built in 2x8 modules which would be bolted together to make 4x8 or 2x16 benches. Other birds would need larger or different sized panels, but the concept remains the same.

In addition to the above benches, each shop needs at least one normal work bench for general use. Industry standard width for that type of application would be 30’s.

The benches are a cross between a wooden airplane and a wood butchers festival because they do use a lot of airplane style construction. The 1/4" skins are all glued and tacked and framing is glued and screwed using 3" number 8 hardened screws.

Liberal use of gussetting and carpenter’s glue produces an incredibly stiff work bench that can still be picked up and moved by one man. In fact, rollers can be built into one set of legs to allow the bench to be moved like a wheelbarrow.

These work benches go together much faster than you would think and they present some interesting challenges to the would-be airplane builder. For instance, the top frames must be constructed exactly square, so the pieces have to be cut accurately and the frame should be checked for equal diagonal measurements before skinning. Also, after putting on the first skin, the entire assembly has to be double-checked and possibly jigged to make sure it is flat before attaching the second skin. When finished, you will have built your first low aspect ratio, 20 G wing with rectangular leading edges.

The top frames of all units must have matching holes to allow the insertion of bolts when the benches are bolted together.

Each bench receives an additional layer of 1/4" skin on the top, which serves as an ablation shield. It is tacked in place lightly so it can be ripped off and replaced when it gets too scarred up.

Each bench has a series of racks or shelves built under it for storage. This is the perfect place for fiberglass rolls, tubing storage, etc.

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