Workshop assessment and kit inventory

I met with Stu over the weekend to figure out where and how we’d set up the spar assemblies. I was concerned about the lack of any long workbenches in his shop. He’s primarily set up for building cabinets, and most of his work tables are smaller, low to the ground, and on casters. As it turns out, one of the tables has folding extensions that make it 9 or 10 feet long. The top is very thick, heavy, rigid, and very flat — he uses it to mount rails and a sled for a router to flatten large slabs of wood. He put threaded inserts on the edges of the table where a set of heavy welded steel rails can be attached. With those installed, there will be a built-in straight edge for blocking and clamping the spar caps. It’s not something I would have thought of; the “normal” practice is to lay out a chalk line and nail wood blocks to locate the spar caps during assembly. I think, however, that this setup will be more than adequate for spar construction. I may need to build a matched-height extension for the wing assembly, but that’s a decision for another day.

The wing kit contains no hardware at all. Fortunately it looks like all of the hardware required is made from readily available material and requires simple manufacturing. It’s all flat aluminum stock, some 4130 tubing for bushings, aluminum tubing for aileron torque tubes, and so on. No brake, lathe, welder, etc. required yet. Some of the material I may already have on hand, in fact. The rest can be ordered or even found locally.

While I was there, I grabbed a few pieces of rib capstrip so I could finish off the last of the false ribs. I made two on Sunday, and set up two more this morning.

A kickstart, I hope

Yesterday (9/16/23) we drove to St. Charles, MO. Normally I wouldn’t do such a thing, but a guy had advertised a Celebrity wing kit and plans on Barnstormers. Apparently the original owner of the kit never had a chance to start building before age took its toll, so I was able to pick up all of the wing parts for less than it would have cost me to buy just the spruce for the spar caps. I’ve really been kind of stalled up until now because I just couldn’t get past the cost of buying the wood from ACS, then paying truck freight go get some oversized but very lightweight pieces of wood shipped here. The total cost of our trip was less than the shipping cost for just the longer spar pieces, and I’ve got all of the pre-cut plywood parts as well. Rib nose pieces, trailing edge stock, aileron ends, spar reinforcements, all of it. I’ve also got a second complete set of plans and documents that I can put up for sale, since they have never been used and I don’t need two.

The other thing that has kept me at a standstill has been the lack of a suitable place to work. My garage has, unfortunately, been occupied for the past few years with a “project” car that I probably never should have bought. My own fault, but is it better to have one project stalled, or two? I had plans at one time to put a sheet of MDF on top of the island in our basement to build the tail surfaces, but that is now part of a very busy sewing room. Zero complaints about that, of course! It just means I can’t work in there.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I was talking about the airplane with my friend Stu. He’s been building cabinets for the past couple of decades and has a large woodworking shop next to his house. Not only is it well equipped, but it’s also climate controlled and well lit. Quite frankly, it would be the envy of most people who would want to build stuff – certainly myself included.

Stu offered to let me use his shop and help with the build. I doubt he’ll ever want to fly in the finished airplane, but he thinks the idea of building an entire airplane out of wood is pretty cool. I can understand that; I think so too. When we got back from the road trip yesterday we unloaded the crate at Stu’s shop. It was late, so all we did was pop the top off and have a quick look, and grab the Fisher assembly video DVDs that were in there.

I’m pretty pumped, to be honest. This means I’ve now got everything I need to complete all four wings and the horizontal stabilizer & elevator, and a place to do it. I’m hoping to get the last few of the false ribs knocked out this week and lay out the pieces to assemble the main and rear spars.

Generic update

Yeah, it’s been a long time, no updates, and so on. I bought a few more pieces of capstrip from ACS to finish out the last of the false ribs, but honestly the lack of any place to assemble wings or build the tail surfaces — or really any other parts of the plane — has had me less than enthused about getting much done. I’ve got a tall stack of full wing ribs and an almost-as-tall stack of false ribs sitting on a bench on my basement, doing nothing.

From time to time I check Barnstormers to see if another Celebrity pops up for sale. Occasionally one does. The two that really gnaw at me? A gorgeous, Rotec radial powered Kitplanes Magazine article centerfold that was advertised for probably less than the engine would cost me, and one a couple hours’ drive from here with no engine that was listed at about $5K or so. In both cases the timing just was not right (hell having not frozen over quite yet).

Now I’m contemplating a run down to St. Louis. The purchaser of Celebrity serial number CE165 – one later than mine – had apparently never started building, and a crate with the complete wing kit is for sale. The seller is asking a fraction of the cost of a new kit, and it appears to be complete. I did some plotting, and even just ordering the wood for the wing spars – not the entire wings, mind you, just the spars — would cost more than he’s asking plus my gas for the trip, and that’s before I pay LTL freight costs to have it shipped from Aircraft Spruce. Plus it’s a complete wing kit, with all the pre-cut plywood pieces, laminating strips for the wingtip bows, trailing edge pieces, all of the bits that would add cost and time and aggravation to a scratch build. I can’t pass it up. I’d also have a full set of plans that I could sell to help defray a little of the cost.

A friend with a large woodworking shop has offered to let me continue building there in his shop — heated, air conditioned, lots of space, plenty of power tools, and this all feels almost too good to be true. I’ve just got to make a 13-14 hour round trip with a pocket full of cash.

Stay tuned, I guess.

A few more false ribs

I glued up two more last night, and will do two more tonight. That will make 18 down, with 20 19 more to go. I’ll typically take some time at lunch to cut out the cross brace pieces and get everything set up. Then after work I’ll mix up some T88 and glue the ribs up, then let the glue cure overnight. By the next morning I can pull them out of the jigs and start again.

I’ve run out of cross-brace stock that’s been sanded down to 3/32″, so I’ll have to stop while I retrieve the small shop vacuum from the project house where it is now and run some more 1/8″ stock through the drum sander. It’s a pain, yes, but it has to be done.

I’m already debating where to go from here, once all of the false ribs are finished in a few weeks (maybe). I could start on the tail, but that will require a 4 x 8 work surface. The wing spars will require a longer bench, at least 12′ long. I may instead start working on cutting out the large number of nose ribs that will be needed, and the other high volume plywood parts. It’s awfully tempting to set up my CNC router again for that part, but I doubt that I will. I’d have to translate the outline from the printed plans into G-code for the router, and quite frankly I think by the time I got that right I could cut them all out by hand. I’ve seen a couple of guys use a router and a flush cutter to route the nose ribs from a pattern. I’m a little concerned about the radius on the inside corners where the nose rib glues to the false spar. I figure I could either sand a matching radius there, or touch up the corners of the nose ribs with a bandsaw or something. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Spar web update

For anyone else who might be in the same predicament, the fine folks at Homebuilt Airplanes came up with a couple more sources. B&D International carries 5′ x 5′ sheets of Finnish birch aircraft plywood, and will cut and ship UPS. Boulter doesn’t carry as wide a variety, but might be good if you’re closer to the east coast than the west.

The price at B&D is higher than Aircraft Spruce. If you price it by the square foot, it’s not terribly higher. 13%, on the 1/8″ sheet I need. Not terrible.

Spar webs

The plans and BOM call for plywood spar webs, cross-cut, 60″ long. The webs are butt-spliced mid-wing, with what seem to me to be fairly narrow blocks of spruce on either side.

Problem is, you can’t buy 60″ wide sheets of aircraft plywood in the US. Aircraft Spruce has ONE size, and not a size I need. Everything else I’ve found is in 48″ wide sheets. And since the web needs to be crosscut, it’s not as simple as just buying a 4′ x 8′ sheet. I’ve contacted Fisher Flying Products as well as another supplier in Canada. Fisher’s tab will be roughly $340, the other place was pretty reasonable for the plywood but wanted over $500 for crating and shipping. To put that in perspective, ACS will sell me the plywood I need for about $100, delivered.

The question is, can I make 48″ long spar webs work in a way that is at least as good, or preferably stonger and better, than the original design? I am no engineer. Especially a mechanical engineer. I’m certainly not qualified to make such a call. Fortunately, I have someone local who is an engineer, and is qualified to help make that decision and recommend another way to do it — if there is one. I’ll be taking the wing plans to the February EAA chapter meeting to go over them with him and see what we can figure out.

If that doesn’t work out, Spruce does sell 5/32 ply in 61″ x 61″ sheets. The spar webs are specified as 1/8″ for the main spar, and 1/16″ for the rear spar. I could just make both webs 5/32 with a slight weight penalty. The plywood would weigh 3 to 5 pounds more, but I’d probably also need to trim 1/32 to 3/32 from the spruce stiffeners, so that might make up for some of it. Again, I’ll need to consult with a real engineer to see if that wold work or not. Ending up with a plane that’s a couple pounds heavier but significantly stronger is OK. Ending up with a plane that is in any way less strong or less safe is absolutely not. And if the ribs need to be modified a little to clear a beefier spar — I’m OK with that.

Tempus fugit

Another year draws quickly to a close, with what feels like not a lot of progress on this project. I have a tall stack of ribs, but really nothing else. I had hoped to have a good start on the tail surfaces by now, but haven’t even started on them. We’ll need the basement for a family Christmas party, so no laying a 4×8 sheet of MDF over the island down there to start laminating pine. No worries, though. I have located some nice clear pine boards at Menard’s that will rip down nicely into 10′ long lamination strips. I have an order of Finnish birch ply queued up on Aircraft Spruce’s web site, ready to place the order once I’m sure I have all the stuff on there that’s going to be expensive to ship. As soon as we’re finished with the post-party cleanup, I’ll have the basement available to work in through the rest of the winter since the garage will just be a bit too cold for epoxy.

I also got a great idea from one of the guys on the Biplane Forum. I’ve been pondering how to store the wing ribs. I think I’ll build short pieces of main and rear spars out of pine and non-certified plywood, just to assemble all the ribs and clamp them together. That way I can surface sand them all together, and maybe if I’m lucky use that assembly to run them through the table saw for trimming as well. Maybe.


Haven’t done much in the past few days, mostly because I’ve had the workbench cleared off to fix a recalcitrant robot vacuum.  I did unroll some of the plans and take a good long look at the tail surface sheet.  Sixteen feet or so of paper, mind you…  not the easiest thing to manage on a 6′ countertop!  I wish that had been split into two sheets. 

It looks like I can build the entire fin and rudder out of pine and plywood, so that’s my next project, I think.  I’ll go look for a suitable 10′ length of pine at Menard’s that can be ripped down into decent quality lamination strips.  Once the saw is set up for that I’ll make as many as I can, since I’ll have a bunch of other laminations to do as well for the wingtips and fuelage.  Then I’ll look at what to do for the elevator and stabilizer spars. 

Minor milestone – the last full rib

Sitting in the rib jigs right now are the last aileron rib (#16 of 16), and the sixth false rib.  After the glue cures on these, I’ll modify the second jig to fit as many false ribs as possible.  I think I can fit three on it for sure, possibly four – but that’s doubtful.  I’d like to start cranking out four false ribs at a time.

So I guess it’s time to go start shopping for the best plank or two of white pine I can find to get started on the laminations for the tail surfaces.  Pretty sure Menard’s will be my source for those; the stuff I find at the other big box stores is more suited for a dog house or the pulp mill than anything else.