Weekndr Project: How to Make a Balsa Wood Airplane

The Weekndr workshop turned into an aeronautical studio today for an inspired project building a balsa wood glider from scratch. Ours turned out a lot like the ones you buy at the toy store, only since we started with raw materials and used our own tools we came up with a fun wing design.

The inspiration for this family woodworking project was the new scroll saw we acquired a few weeks ago from cheapo tool maker Harbor Freight. For $69 we can now cut precise curves and delicate wood parts. That’s incredibly inexpensive for a scroll saw, but you get what you pay for. It’s actually a pretty wonky tool – the table is made from thin flimsy steel and the blade guard wobbles loose after a minute of use from the vibration of saw. I knew what I was getting though, and I managed to trick out the tool with a new table and blade guard, and now it cuts pretty well.

Without it, we couldn’t have made this:

The glider is made from a single thin sheet of balsa wood. Using a ruler and pencil each part is drawn on the balsa wood and cut to shape with the scroll saw. The edges are shaped and smoothed with sandpaper.

To attach the wings to the body of the glider the parts are assembled with joining notches. We devised a unique design for the tail wing assembly that features two rudder fins to accommodate this joinery technique.

To prevent the glider from tumbling through the air with each throw, we weighted the nose of the glider with three screws – not too many and not too few. It gave the glider just the right balance and they came with an added benefit: the screws protected the nose of the plane from crushing on impact.

And impact it made. Over and over all morning the kids tossed the glider off the front stoop and into the driveway. Parts broke off regularly as it crash landed again and again. But with the hanger nearby and a stock of balsa wood scraps at the ready, we were able to repair or replace each broken piece and get the glider back in flight in minutes.