How to Build RC Planes from Scratch

Posted on
3D Insider is ad supported and earns money from clicks, commissions from sales, and other ways.
DJI has just released the Mavic Air 2. See all of the specs here.

Flying radio controlled aircraft is immensely rewarding as any enthusiast will tell you. But building RC planes can be just as gratifying, and it helps the hobbyist to become a better pilot. There’s something magical about seeing a model fly that you created with your bare hands. The best news of all is that it’s much easier to do than most people think. This no-nonsense guide shows you how to start.

Scratch Building Vs. Kit Building

Scratch building is for hobbyists who prefer to build scale RC aircraft from scratch. That means they source all the parts needed individually. Scratch builders also have more control over the way the finished model turns out. With kits, all or most of what you need to build the plane is in the box. It’s convenient and prevents newbies from using incorrect parts, materials, or glues by accident.

Scratch building also allows the hobbyist to spread the cost over time. That can be useful for expensive large scale projects. Some giant-scale RC aircraft can run into 1000s of dollars.

The 3 Commitments of RC Plane Building

The three things to commit to when building an R/C model aircraft are:

  1. Schedule some spare time
  2. Have the proper tools for the job (see below)
  3. Be patient and persistent

The following sections outline the importance of the above points.

#1 Schedule some Spare Time

Building an RC plane is not a race—it’s a labor of love. It takes as long as it takes, but it’s a good idea to commit to a schedule. That could be every Sunday morning, or an hour or two on Tuesday evening, whatever. The point is to allocate some time and try to stick to the schedule. There are too many projects neglected before they’re halfway through because of the ad hoc approach.

#2 Get the Proper Tools

Using things like kitchen knives as screwdrivers and scissors as wire cutters won’t do. You must have the right tools for the job, and if you don’t, wait until you get them. Makeshift instruments will result in a botch job or broken parts. Invest in quality tools so that you only ever need to buy them once.

Here’s a breakdown of a typical RC plane builder’s toolkit:

The building board can be any functional material that can accommodate the parts. Ideally, it’s portable and ridged and mustn’t be prone to warping. You may even prefer a magnetic board, so you don’t have to pin things to softwoods or cork. You can make the board or buy a readymade one. Keep it clean as you may want to use the board to lay the plans on.

#3 Patience and Persistence

You may be keen to get your new model RC plane built and flying. I say not so fast. Buy a ready to fly (RTF) or almost ready to fly (ARF) model if you’re in a hurry. Building RC planes is not a race to the finish line. Take your time and enjoy every step of the process as your model comes together piece by piece. Patience and persistence is the key to developing building skills and a successful outcome.

Check: You’ve set aside a time schedule for your project. You have—or plan to get—a proper toolkit for the job ahead. And, you have the right mindset going forward. It’s now time to get organized.

Organize Your Work Area

To be organized is to be in control. Losing things and tripping over stuff is a sure-fire way to lose interest and quit. Don’t let that happen. There can be lots of pieces involved, some of them tiny. Create a place for everything and then make sure everything is in its place. Some RC plane builders like to mark each part or the parts container with a marker pen.

These suggestions can help you to get organized:

It takes work to maintain a tidy, organized workspace. It takes no effort at all to let it get untidy and unorganized. Form a habit so that your workspace is always clean and orderly. That means clearing up and putting stuff away after every session. Seriously, this approach can save a lot of grief. Finally, choose a well-ventilated space to work from, so that you’re not choked by adhesive fumes.

The First Step – Get a Plan

You need a plan before you can start to build your RC plane. Opt for something simple if this is your first ever project. Some aircraft are easy to make but not entry-level planes to fly. Likewise, an entry-level trainer plane might be easy to fly but difficult to build. Only you can know where you’re at and your purpose for building the model. Keep reading for tips on finding the perfect plan—for you.

Tip: Choose a high wing plane if you’re new to flying as they’re by far the most stable.

Help Choosing an R/C Plane Plan

Looking for a model plan can be great fun and educational if you take your time. It can also overwhelm those new to building, but it doesn’t need to. Radio control communities are a social bunch and more than happy to share ideas, give tips, and offer suggestions. Register with one of the RC forums, introduce yourself, and ask members for help. The response is sure to be friendly and forthcoming.

Finding R/C Model Plane Plans

There are tens of thousands of plans to choose from, either 100% free or for a nominal fee. They range from simple beginner models to intermediate and advanced projects.

The 5 sites below are all excellent resources for free R/C plans.

  1. AeroFred
  2. OuterZone
  3. Park Jets
  4. RCFB Aircraft
  5. Sky High Hobby

#1 AeroFred

AeroFred is a membership site for all things related to RC planes. There you can find over 5,500 RC plane plans that are available for free download. It’s a community of enthusiasts where the shared content comes from members for members. Each week there are new articles, videos, and plans uploaded to the site. Voluntary donations are encouraged as goodwill gestures.

#2 OuterZone

Outerzone is a UK website that’s open to everyone. It’s specific to old-timer and vintage type RC aircraft and has close to 11,000 plans. You can upload or download projects—that’s how it works. Everything is available for free, and there’s no need to register or login. The home page always displays the latest 12 plans added to the site.

Each plan opens in a new window and has an “About this Plan” section on the left side. On the right is the data file. That’s where you get to see who uploaded the plan, file size, and file format, etc. Many folks upload photos of the working model. The site has a nice feel to it and is super easy to navigate.

#3 Park Jets

Park Jets—as the name suggests—specializes in park-flyer RC jets. However, only some of the plans are free to download. Others are available to paid subscribers. There are two membership options, i.e., one week, or one year. Annual membership is about $25 and weekly is $5 at the time of writing. Either option gives full access to articles, info, and unlimited downloads.

#4 RCFB Aircraft

RCFBAircraft is a site that was created by a devoted scratch builder. Sadly, the owner has died, but his site is still up and the plans are free to download. These are mostly board and Styrofoam models. It’s a simple website that has quick dropdown menus along the top. The home page links to various aircraft from around the world. There are also links to site videos and plane building tips.

#5 Sky High Hobby

Sky High Hobby is an excellent resource for free foam or foamie RC plane plans. There are a few broken links, but the ones for RC plans were working at the last check. The site doesn’t store files. It points to places on the web where you can download free projects instead. There are also a bunch of links on the right of the home page that point to articles and videos related to foam models.

A Quick Recap

OK, it’s time to recap. Use the simple checklist below to review what we’ve covered so far:

A decision to build a model from scratch (scratch build)
Schedule time slots to build the model
Invest in a proper toolkit for the job
Pledge to self: be patient and persistent
Have a dedicated, ventilated space to work from
Prepared to keep the work area tidy and organized
Picked an R/C plane plan for the new project

Now it’s time to source the parts and materials needed to start working on your project.

What You Need to Build Your RC Plane

A simple checklist is a way to make sure you have all the parts needed to build your RC plane. Make four columns so that you can categorize all the parts and accessories:

  1. Material for the build, e.g., Styrofoam, wood, carbon fiber
  2. Airframe
  3. Electronics
  4. Tools

You can build the airframe from scratch or source readymade parts if they fit with your project. Your RC aircraft plan should provide all the specifics and potential options for the build.

A typical RC plane building list should look something like this:

MaterialAirframeElectronicsMiscellaneous Items
Expanded polystyreneFuselage
PCB board w/ holes
Pins for Arduino
Transmitter & receiver
Transmitter batteries
Motor, ESC, and battery
2 x potentiometer
RGB common anode LED
Voltage regulator switch
Wires (male to female)
Tools for the job (see above)
Airplane pushrod linkage
Hook & loop fastener
Motor mount

All parts will be specific to your model. You need some basic soldering skills, so practice a little first if you’re new to it. There are some excellent how-to tutorials online, including YouTube videos. Soldering isn’t difficult, but it does need to be precise and safe.

Time to Scratch Build Your Aircraft

It’s time to build your radio control plane once everything is in place. The how-to section below is broad and not specific to any particular model. Hopefully, you chose a plan with detailed assembly guidelines if you’re a novice scratch builder.

Step 1. Prepare the Parts

Scratch building begins by preparing the main parts. Make sure you have all the tools, materials, and plans at the ready. It starts with drawing and cutting out the aircraft’s body. Next, make the elevon sections and assemble those. You then need to cut the vertical stabilizer. Finally, make and attach the control horns to your elevons. You have now prepared the main parts and are ready to build.

Step 2. Build Your Plane

Follow the plan on how to build your plane. Some models will have slot-in parts, and others will be glue all the way. First, glue together the main body, and then attach the elevons to it. The final part of the build is to connect the model’s vertical stabilizer. It’s crucial to get the stabilizer 100% straight so that the plane doesn’t turn to one side during flight.

Step 3. Mount the Electronics

The motor goes in the nose of the plane, so make a space for it by following your plans. You can attach the propeller once it’s in position. I’d attach the prop later to avoid accidental damage, though. Now connect the receiver, speed controller, and battery pack. Position these parts carefully before you glue them as you want to maintain a level weight distribution.

Refer to your plans for the exact positioning of the aircraft’s servos. You must cut a slot for the servos if your plane is a foamie. You can secure them in place with screws and purpose glue. Now it’s time to connect them to the control horns. Ensure the servos, servo arms, pushrods, and the control horns fit well and show no looseness. Finally, keep the wiring safe and tidy by taping it down.

The Conclusion

Scratch building RC planes is immensely rewarding and more relaxed than most hesitant novices think it is. You now know the basics of how to build a radio control plane if you’ve read this guide from top to bottom. These models range from small, cheap, and simple, to large, costly, and complex. There’s something for everyone whatever your skill level, interest, and budget.

You’re bound to have questions, so don’t forget to join an online RC forum or local flying club.