There are five materials most often used to build experimental aircraft: wood, steel tubing, fabric, sheet metal, and composites. Most custom-built planes use two or more of these materials. Once you’ve selected a specific plan or kit you’ll have little choice of materials you’ll use, so it’s a good idea to know what you’re getting into.
Many of the older designs use wood for the main airframe and the wings because wood’s easy to work with. The wood frame is then covered with a fabric followed by a stiffener, called dope. Finally, the surface is painted.
Wing Tips Where can you get your aircraft construction materials? Check Resources on this site as well as ads in homebuilt aircraft publications. The largest suppliers include Aircraft Spruce & Specialty Co., Wag-Aero Group, and Wicks Aircraft Supply.
Newer aircraft designs use steel tubing for the airframe followed by a covering of sheet metal riveted in place. Some models mix mediums by using sheet metal to cover the fuselage and fabric for the wings and tail.
Some of the newest designs use what are called composite materials for the skin. These typically are a combination of foam and fiberglass to make a strong and smooth surface that is more aerodynamic.
What is the better material for custom aircraft? They all have their advantages and disadvantages. If you’re building from plans, wood and fabric is preferred by many because they’re easier for amateur builders to use. If you’re an excellent welder or have a small machine shop you might prefer to work with steel tubing and sheet metal. If you have experience with fiberglass molding, composites might be your best choice. Economically, wood and fabric are cheaper materials than metals, but they might not last as long. Composites typically are the most expensive, but offer lower wind resistance.
Which material should you use to build your custom aircraft? Whatever the manufacturer uses or recommends. If your heart is set on using a specific material or combination, you’ll need to shop for plans or kits that use it.
Remember to include the cost of any special tools required for your project. You might need wood, metal, or composite tools to build your plane. Make sure a comprehensive list of needed tools is included with the plan or kit information package.
The EAA offers “Sport Air Workshops,” weekend training courses that teach you about the various building materials and allow you to work with them. These workshops let you sample before you buy.