Like a stereotypical nerdy kid, I liked to build model airplanes when I was young. They were the plastic kind that you glue together. My dad has always loved airplanes and flight, but I don’t think it took very much persuasion for me to become drawn to them as well.
The attraction is many layered. Flight itself has a magical quality. Then you have the attraction of machines and technology. The functionality of planes is attractive. But planes can also have a beautiful gracefulness.
Finally, there is something about the act model building that goes beyond simply picking up a readymade model or toy with the exact same shape. The process of gradually putting it together allows your imagination to really inhabit the plane (or boat, or car, or spaceship, or whatever you like to build). You get to know all of its ins and outs as you see its shape come together.
A related father-son practice from my childhood was going to air shows of remote controlled planes out by the local community college. There was a big field there were hobbyists would gather to fly their planes around. Sometimes they would also have gatherings of “free flight” models. These just cruise along with no remote control. They’re often powered by a rubber band and made out of very light materials – just tissue paper and thin sticks of balsa wood.
My dad built one of these rubber band powered stick and tissue planes when I was little. I don’t recall if it was a scale model of a historical plane, but it resembled something like a Piper Cub. Around this time, while we were attending one of those miniature air shows, a kind old man gave me a stick and tissue kit. It was a scale model of a Bf 109 – a fighter plane from WWII.
However, I was still focused on the plastic models at the time. I wasn’t sure I had the skills, dexterity, and patience required for stick and tissue models. And so the kit sat on the shelf. Several years went by. I gradually got out of the habit of building models altogether. Eventually I was finished with high school and off to Canada for university. By that time, both my dad and I had assumed that the kit had been parted out for use on other projects.
Then one December, while I was visiting home for the season, I found the box and pulled it off the shelf. It was all still there! So, naturally, I decided to give it a shot and start building
And boy, am I glad that I did. I had just stumbled into what has became a delightful new/old hobby. It rekindled my childhood enjoyment of building model airplanes. But I also found the process of building from wood and paper quite rewarding.
With stick and tissue, you are starting from raw materials. Forming the pieces yourself extends the the period where your imagination explores the shape of the plane. As it all comes together, I get a real sense of ownership and accomplishment.
Beyond the immediate experience of building a stick and tissue model, there is something interesting about the technology itself, its relationship to history, and its reproducibility.
If there was an old plastic model that is no longer in production, you are pretty much out of luck. Unless you find someone selling an unbuilt specimen on ebay, you will not be able to build that model. Once there are no more unbuilt kits left, that is it.*
But stick and tissue is different. There are kits available of course, but you can also work from plans on paper. This means that you can find plans from the 1930s or earlier and still build the model. All you have to do is supply balsa. Sites like http://www.outerzone.co.uk/ have collected thousands of scans of classic plans and made them available for free.
I’ve only made three stick and tissue planes so far. But this is definitely a hobby I will return to from time to time. I’ll post some photos of the models I’ve built so far, and the next time I start one, I will try to document the process from the beginning more thoroughly.
*Perhaps 3D printing will change this. But then again, you will still need a digital version of the original.