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May 02, 2015

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Airfield Models ( to Save Money and Buy the Right Stuff

Because I'm me I can't say from an objective viewpoint how other people view me.  I'm guessing most people perusing this site think I'm fairly well off as evidenced by the amount of stuff I've got.

The fact is I live comfortably but I also live paycheck to paycheck.  I don't have a lot of surplus funding.  I'd be better off financially without this hobby but I'd also be insane because I need a creative release.  Without one my mental health enters a black hole.  That's a whole different discussion though.

I build a lot but have to do it on a limited budget.  The way I accomplish it is the result of several factors.  I want to build the best models I can.  I can't afford to build large models having the same quality equipment as the models I build so I build what I can afford to equip with quality stuff.  That means smaller models.

Next, I'm a pack rat.  That's not actually true.  What I mean is that I take care of my stuff as much as possible so that I'm not replacing things just because they were mistreated.  That way when I have money to spend I can buy things I don't have instead of replacing things I already had.

The next thing isn't going to make me real popular because the popular opinion is that we should support our local hobby shops.  If it were up to people like me there would be no local hobby shops in business.  I simply can't afford to do what I do and pay hobby shop prices.  I would have to do much less to be more supportive of my local shops.

I've found in this hobby that many of the items that hobby outlets consider to be "hard to find" aren't.  They jack up the price to a ridiculous amount because they think that we don't know where to find the same items at a reasonable price.

I've made it a point to seek out items that are obviously made for another industry because in that industry the item in question is not "hard to find."  The price reflects this.

The thing to always ask yourself is, "did <manufacturer> make this item or are they repackaging it?"  If the answer is repackaging, then do a little research and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about.

Look in art stores, automotive refinishing suppliers, welding shops, etc.  If a company puts their name on something they don't make, then you're paying too much for it.

Because of the quantity of raw materials I consume I buy a lot of my stuff in bulk.  That includes wood, hardware and miscellaneous shop supplies.  For example I was buying boxes of 100 latex gloves at the local hardware store for about $10.00/box (plus sales tax).  I searched the web and found if I bought a case of boxes (10 boxes for a total of 1,000 gloves) I could get them for half that price shipping included.  That quantity of gloves will supply me for years so the payback is slow but real.

I buy hardware from Micro Fasteners.  The quality and service are both very good and the price is peanuts compared to buying bags of a half-dozen screws.

I purchase wood from Balsa USA and have never been disappointed with what was sent to me.  I order a lot of wood at a time not just what I need for one project.  I have never asked for hand graded wood and I have heard some sources are better about this than others.  Usually if I need a specific piece of wood that I do not have I just visit the local hobby shop. 

I also bought a case of 1 ounce mixing cups for about 1/4 what I would pay at the local hobby shop.  I have a lifetime supply of them now (5,000).  I did the same thing with pipettes.  I bought a dozen of them in Germany and wouldn't buy more because the local hobby shop was charging $6.00 for a dozen of them when I paid $0.15 each for them in Germany.  The problem then was that I was cleaning the ones I already had instead of disposing of them.  The lacquer thinner and pipe cleaners used to clean the pipettes cost more than the pipettes themselves.  I found a place online and bought 500 of them for about a nickel apiece including shipping.  It's now cheaper for me to throw them out.

I know very few people in this hobby who do what I do.  For most people buying a case of anything just wouldn't make sense because they'll never use even a portion of it.  The local hobby shop is definitely a place for a beginner to shop.  I'm pretty sure way more people start and quit this hobby than stick with it so even though per piece it costs more to shop locally it still costs less than buying in bulk and then having stuff sitting around that you'll never use.

The same goes for people who remain in the hobby but haven't devoted their lives to it.  They build a plane a year or so using minimal tools in an impromptu shop.  These folks are also better off shopping locally than warehousing cases of supplies.

Even though I don't do most of my shopping at the local hobby shop I do want them to be around because sometimes I need something right now to not get stuck on my project and it's a lot faster to drive to the shop than wait a week for it to be delivered from across the country.  I'm not doing my part to support them so I won't complain if they're not around because I know I'm part of the problem.  Again, the topic is saving money not saving hobby shops.  Let your conscience be your guide.



  • Miscellaneous Shop Supplies - Adhesives, Solvents, etc.Be frugal with your supplies.  You would be surprised what can be built on an extremely limited budget.  Mix only the amount of glue necessary, use rags that can be washed instead of disposable paper towels, and make maximum use of your wood.

  • Instead of reaching for a paper towel to wipe glue off your fingers or the structure and then tossing it away, consider keeping a bowl of water handy and use the same paper towel all day or at least until you can not find a clean spot on it.

    I noticed that my paper towels started lasting a lot longer when I made a conscious decision not to waste them.

  • If you need a non-standard size threaded rod, go to your local bicycle shop and price different styles of spokes.  In most cases they will probably be more expensive than threaded rod, but they come in a variety of materials and sizes.

  • Do not limit yourself to what you see in the local hobby shop or mail-order magazines.  There are a lot of hobbies that you can draw ideas and materials from.  I visit train shops, craft stores, art stores (real art stores), electronics stores, fabric stores, auto-refinishing suppliers, Radio Shack, etc. to check out specialty tools and materials that make my life easier.

    For example, if you have a medical supply that sells to the public, you can buy syringes for glue guns and one ounce plastic measuring cups to mix epoxy in for a much lower price than what you would pay at the local hobby shop for the same items.  Also check your local pharmacy.  They might not sell you syringes unless you can convince them that you are not a junkie, but it is worth a try.

  • Keep your eyes open whenever you visit any store for things they have that you can use.  You will find useful items in the last places you would expect.  It is really irritating to find out that a hobby manufacturer has taken a relatively inexpensive item, split it into smaller quantities and charges more for each than they paid for the larger amount.  If you look around, you can do the same thing they do get more for less.


Starting with the "Right Stuff"

I know too many people who came into the hobby and did not want to start with beginner items because they did not feel the quality was as good as what the pros use or some other reason.  Their attitude applied to models, tools, flight equipment, etc.

The problem with buying high-end equipment is there is a learning curve to everything.  Most beginners make many mistakes which is understandable.  Unfortunately, mistakes usually have a price.  The more expensive the item was the more it will cost you.

For example, a good friend of mine purchased a top of the line, four-wheel drive gas buggy as his first Radio Control vehicle.  It cost him well over $1,000 by the time he had it put together.  He had never built an R/C car before and had never run a glow engine.

My friend built the model with regular, non-removable Loctite not realizing he would never get the model disassembled again.

Another example is a glow engine.  Most beginners unintentionally abuse the heck out of their engines because they do not know how to run them properly.  They either run an ABC engine too rich and wear it out, don't clean dirt from the outside, crash it or whatever.

Learn with an economical, but well made engine not a top of the line engine like the pros use.

I have seen these types of mistakes made over and over.  I very strongly recommend that you begin with entry-level items so you can learn what you need to and save money when you make mistakes.

Experience with the item in question will teach you what you need to know so that you can move to more advanced items and get maximum benefit from them without destroying them in the process.


The Most Common Mistakes

The two most common mistakes made by persons entering the hobby are actually the same mistake in different forms.  That mistake is purchasing the wrong aircraft.

Many beginners think that flying a model airplane is easy.  Pilots of full scale aircraft are especially prone to this belief.  While flying an R/C plane may or may not be easier than full scale, they are not the same thing.  Model aircraft are "real" aircraft, but there is a big difference between being the cockpit and controlling a model remotely from the ground.  Any pilot of full size aircraft who has flown an R/C model can confirm that R/C is not as easy as it looks.

Holy Crap!  It's Toothpicks!

The point being that some people buy a P-51 Mustang or other high-performance aircraft as their first aircraft thinking that they are all the same and they are above learning with a trainer aircraft.  Sometimes the first model is well built usually it isn't.  It takes several projects for a builder to acquire the skills to build a good (and safe) model.  A new pilot flying a high performance aircraft usually sees his pride and joy splattered all over the runway soon after it's completed.  The disheartened beginner quits the hobby forever.

The second mistake is that of a person trying to get into the hobby too inexpensively.  They buy a cheap toy R/C plane from a place like Sharper Image because they don't know any better and didn't know where to go to ask questions or ignored good advice.  Then they show up at a flying field with their new toy and are disappointed because it is a marginally capable of maintaining flight or it may not fly at all.  What they find out is that they have to put the toy on a shelf and buy real equipment if they really want to fly R/C.

Also see



Costs of Getting Started With Radio Control (R/C) Airplanes and Helico
Radio Control Primary, Secondary and Performance Training Aircraft

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Copyright 2002 Paul K. Johnson