Monday, September 25, 2017

Making a Toy Airplane (P26 Peashooter)


This toy came together with a great 1930's vibe and the iconic "Yellow Wing" look of interwar US aircraft. I had wanted to make a version of this airplane for quite awhile. I think what held me back was trying to make it a bit too complicated. I'm finally beginning to learn my lesson that simple is better especially with toys.

So a little history on the P-26. It was made by Boeing in the early 1930's and was the first US Army Air Corps all metal monoplane fighter. Only about 150 were made and even though they were obsolete by the start of World War Two, they did see action against the Japanese when flown by Chinese Nationalists and Filipino pilots. There are only two original P-26s still in existence. I'm lucky enough to live near the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and it's amazing collection of aircraft. A P-26 that had been sold to Guatemala was returned and is on display there.

I love airplanes but hadn't made many wooden toy ones that weren't kits. Norm Marshall's Great All-American Wooden Toy Book has several great airplanes in it, three of which represent historic aircraft. I built the P-40 in the book and it looked great with one exception (more on that later.) His instructions for creating the fuselage are what I followed but with a P-26 outline instead.

I got my line drawings for the P-26 from one of my favorite reference site - The-Blueprints.com. The vast majority of the drawing are available for free. I found one I liked and then sized the image in PowerPoint until it came out to about 1/32 scale and printed it out. (Wings 10 1/2", fuselage not including cowling and tail about 7") I used a spray adhesive on the wood, let it set up for a few minutes and then applied the paper templates. The tail surfaces were then cut out on the bandsaw. I used a 2x4 for the fuselage, 1/4" surprisingly hard pine for the tail surfaces and 3/8" wine crate wood for the wing.

One thing about the P-26 is that the wing goes through the fuselage as opposed to the fuselage sitting on top of the wing. I wanted to capture that look and I did by cutting a mortise in the body before I shaped it. I used a scrap of the wing material to match the size. 1/4" wing may have been closer to scale but, I'm making a toy, not a model and it needs to be sturdy.

I gotta tell you, although in the end it came out great, it was a lot of work without the proper sized and sharpened chisels or a true mortiser handy. I used a scroll saw for the initial cut and then had a lot of file work to get a good fit. It may be simpler in the future to make this a low wing plane instead...NAH! Why make it simple when you can make it complex?! (Also note that I drilled a hole for my propeller shaft and cowling connection at the front while it was still one large block of wood. It is easier and safer to drill into it when it is a solid block..

The fuselage shaping was remarkably simple. You can do this to create the general shape of any airplane you want to make. First make the long vertical cuts along the length of the fuselage template. Just follow the contours. I used my bandsaw but you could use a coping saw. The engine cowling and the tail are separate pieces that will be attached later.


Then, here is the "trick." Reattach those sawn off parts with tape to reform the block. Then set the block on its side and follow the contours to make the horizontal cuts.


In the picture here I'm about halfway done. I cut a 1/4" notch where the horizontal tail wing is going to sit. Be careful not to take too big a divot that you can't sand the top of the fuselage back to blend in with the tail. Also, as pieces fall off, you can re-tape them to give you the support you need until all your cuts are done.


I decided to include a pilot. The history guy in me was worrying that a goofy wooden peg pilot would "ruin" this toy. Luckily one of my daughters gently reminded me that "IT'S A TOY!" and kids love little people to fly and drive various things. I used a 5/8" Forstner bit to drill all the way down through to where my wing mortise is. It caused some split out but this is hidden by the wing. No worries.


I removed the template and any tape still attached and then it was off to my friend "Bob The Belt Sander" to clean up the wiggles and sharp edges and get my general shape in order. I used a palm and detail sander to finish it up after the other parts were attached.

The P-26 has a large hump/headrest as an identifying feature. I felt like I couldn't get the shape right using one large piece of wood. So what I did was cut the hump off, sanded it to the profile I wanted and then reattached it to the fuselage with glue later. I decided to leave the windscreen off. I could have done the same thing and maybe painted it white but it seemed too fiddly and destined to break off.

The rudder and tail are very straight forward. Basically, you just want to make sure the horizontal stabilizer is going to sit flush on the fuselage where the notch was cut out. I set it up on this little jig and drilled a 1/8" hole through the horizontal stabilizer and into the fuselage. This is so I can peg it and glue it later using a 1/8" dowel.

The rudder needs to fit vertically on the tail and tuck unto the gap between the horizontal stabilizer. Since I already had a hole drilled in the stabilizer, I lined up the tail and drilled into it using the other hole as a guide. (In the picture you are looking at the underside of the assembly.)

The fit was checked... and checked... and checked. Sometimes, I need to give it rest. This isn't intended to actually fly. Just saying.

I paint my pieces pre-assembled as much as I can to get crisp lines. This is during final assembly and out of sequence but you can see the peg that will go into the fuselage and then have the tail sit on top of it. Everything is glued and it ended up being very solid.



The piece I wasn't thrilled with on the P-40 was the landing gear. They were pretty solid and looked good but seemed clunky. I also didn't like using metal screws to attach the wheels. One of the things that attracted me to the P-26 as a toy was the spatted landing gear. Besides having a cool retro look, they would also be solid and wouldn't have any metal parts.

I used the template from the line drawing just to get the general shape of the spats. You aren't cutting the spat at this point, but rather an over sized block. I used an awl to mark where the axle for the wheel should be. (I did this twice for each spatted wheel. Remember to "mirror" them so they will line up correctly.)

Then I used a Forstner bit to drill about 1/8" into my 3/8" think wine crate wood. The idea is to make a sandwich with a large enough recess for a wheel to be housed inside that will still be able to spin freely and contact the ground. (7/8" Forstner bit, 3/4" round wheel, 3/16" thick with a 1/8"axle hole.)

Rather then show every step, let me just walk you through and show the finished product.

  • Cut out the blocks of wood that will be the spats.
  • Drill 1/8" holes through the small pilot holes made by the Forstner bit.
  • Insert a 1/8" dowel and sandwich the sides together lining up the wheel wells. (Double faced tape will hold them togther.)
  • Draw your spats pattern and then cut out your shape.
  • Later, open it up, remove the tape and then sand, paint and glue as desired.




I made a quick template out of 1/8" plywood and used it to mark and then drill two 1/8" holes into the top of each spat. The holes are offset to put one into each side of the spat. These need to 90 degree holes so I used the drill press and clamped the pieces in place.

My wing wasn't painted but I lined it up to be sure it was centered properly. I then used the same template to mark and drill corresponding holes on the undersides of the wings. These holes are about 1/4" deep. The wing is made from 3/8 wine crate wood and was cut out using the line drawing as a template.

The fit on the spats was tried several times. There was some slight trimming of the 1/8" dowels to get a tight fit between the tops of the landing gear and the bottom of the wing.

Later when the wings and spats were painted, I lined everything back up and drilled 1/8" holes through the under side of the fuselage and into the wing. 1/8" dowels then secured the wing and I didn't have any messy glue push out from pushing the wing into the mortise.

Okay, last bit of cutting is the very distinctive engine cowling.
This was crazy simple. I used a 1 3/8" Forstner bit (which is actually a common size used in cabinet making. Who knew?) to drill indentations a little under 1/8" deep into a 1/2" thick board.

Then I lined up a 1 3/4" hole saw  (which is actually a common size used in toy airplane cowling making. Who knew?) on the same holes and drilled about 2/3rds of the way through the board. Having a way for the saw dust to exit the cut really speeds this up and reduces how hot the cutter will get.

Flip the board over and finish the cut to eliminate tear-out and then off to the belt sander for final shaping, especially the rounded off back edge. I ended up using some very surprisingly hard pine IKEA bed slats for this that were a little thick but I hit the finished cowlings on the belt sander to get them close enough. I made two at a time in case I messed one up.

A 1/4" dowel was used as the propeller shaft and to help secure the cowling to the fuselage. I free formed the prop. Pretty sure I used a paint stirrer. I shaped it on the disk and belt sander. The hole in the prop was just a little larger than the shaft. An axle cap keeps the prop in place. I did add a smaller disk (painted blue in the photo) that was a little thicker than the recess in the cowling to give the prop clearance over the cowling edges.

Next was painting and final assembly. Without a doubt the biggest hassle with this was the rudder with its 7 red and 6 white strips (representing Old Glory and the 13 original states.) I originally tried using a color printed piece of paper but the results were poor. I should have used thicker paper stock and a real laser printer but, hey, live and learn. Ultimately I used painters tape, a tiny brush and most of my limited supply of patience to finish it up.

From 1919 to the very early part of our involvement in WW2, the US Army Air Corps roundels had a very classy look. I printed mine with a deskjet on regular paper, cut them out, used white glue to attach them to the wings and then hit them with a coat of  gloss spray acrylic. Unfortunately, this classic design had a red circle at the center of the star. In combat it could be mistaken for just a moment as the Japanese Hinomaru (the red sun symbol used on Japanese aircraft and flags) and was discontinued in May of 1942.

I added a headrest made out of a scrap of 1/8" clementine box wood and glued everything up and coated it all with gloss spray acrylic.

Last thing was some pilots.



The young boy this toy was built for is African American. And yes... I KNOW THE USAAC WASN'T INTEGRATED IN THE 1930s! However, I'm not gonna let that stand in the way of this special little guy having a pilot for his toy that looks like him. So I painted up a nice little batch of pilots, two of whom are destined for the next airplane.

All in all it came together really well. A lot of steps but all of them were easy. Several years in the thinking and a couple of weekends in the making. I gave this to his grandmother (who is a fantastic colleague and a wonderful person.) I was super happy to hear how much he likes playing with it. Totally worth it.







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This project was completed under the watchful eye of Teddy.
All parts were thoroughly tested to be 100% mouse free
and fully compliant with the laws of gravity.

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While we don’t necessarily need more objects, we just might benefit from more making.
- John Dunnigan

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Regular guy who likes to make stuff who lives with a very patient wife, three daughters and three cats.