Homebuilder: Building Your Own

Last edited: 29 March 2021, 11:17am

Words & Images: Dave Edmunds

There is a belief, which I share, that it is necessary for a homebuilder to build at least two aircraft.

You build the first one to learn how to build an aircraft and then knowing that, you build another.

If you approach homebuilding from this point of view, it determines to some extent what you choose for your first attempt.

Before going any further, it is important to point out that homebuilding is unlikely to save you any money. If you wish to home build, do it because you want the challenge or experience.

I have done some work in fiberglass and built an aluminium aircraft but have no experience at all in wood, except for building a deck out of Merbau, which I don’t think counts. Steel frame and fabric is also a surprisingly good option.

I love the finish you can get from fiberglass and composites, but hate working with it. I find the sanding interminable and the dust irritating. You don’t have to sand aluminium nor do you have to wait for it to cure.

Your next decision is whether to build from plans or a kit. My strong advice for your first build is to go for a partial kit at least. There is little saving for the inexperienced builder in buying your own bits and pieces and it takes a vast amount of time to source material. The postage cost for parts imported from the US is also a surprising impost. You also have to add in the not insignificant amount of time and money required to build jigs. Most kits now come with matched-hole drilled components. This means if you assemble things carefully the components will automatically align and probably more accurately than you can do otherwise.

Scratch building is attractive, because it allows you to spend as you need to and as your finances allow, but it is not usually enough to compensate for all the other pitfalls and costs.

Tools are another issue. Both timber and aluminium aircraft building from scratch require large expensive tools. For aluminium, you will need a bending brake and guillotine, both ideally with a 2.5 metre capacity. These require a lot of space. I did hand cut a lot of aluminium, but it does show. There is some bending you can do without a bending brake, but it is tricky and far from optimal. I used a fabrication shop for some bending and cutting jobs, but this was not their core business and they did it more as a favour to me.

You only require a few hundred dollars’ worth of tools to build an aircraft from an aluminium kit. Typically, you will need a drill, riveter, files, shears, measures and clecos.

Wiring will require a few cheap electrical fabrication tools. Other more elaborate tools will help a bit but are not really essential. I am a great believer in compressed air pop riveters. You can buy one together with the compressor for under $300, and they make a very satisfying noise.

The big question is whether you want to build a two-seat or single-seat aircraft, but the decision may be a bit counterintuitive.

Sonex is a good place to start looking. They have been around for many years and produce a range of aircraft kits in a range of different stages of completion.

The two-seat Sonex airframe kit costs US$16,495 and the one-seat Onex is US$14,495 (What a pity you didn’t buy last year). You will roughly double these costs to get the aircraft into the air.

The problem here is that the resale value of the Onex is way less than the Sonex. There is much more demand for two-seat aircraft. And given that the Onex is basically a scaled down Sonex, the build difficulty is pretty much the same. Both aircraft are designed to use the company’s VW-derived Aeroconversions engine, so the performance of the Onex is better than the Sonex.

For some comparison, have a look at the Rans Coyote. This is a steel-framed fabric-covered aircraft. It is more expensive than the Sonex, but possibly may go together more quickly. I have a soft spot for these, having flown briefly in one belonging to a friend.

I fly a factory-built Jabiru and am very happy with it. If I was attracted to building in composites I would look first to Jabiru.

You are vastly better off if you can build your aircraft at home. It saves travelling time and therefore money. You do not have to duplicate tools you might need at home and you always have the chance to sneak in a couple of hours when the travel time to a workshop elsewhere is not worthwhile. And one more issue. I found it takes considerable concentration to do even simple things right the first time. After a long day at work, perhaps a few bedtime stories and a bit more work, I was not able to do justice to my aircraft building.

I guess this is why so many builders have grey hair. Their thirty-year old children no longer want bedtime stories. However, the time is never right to start building, you really just have to bite the bullet and get going. Buying a kit in sections is one way to do this. Just build the tail, for example, then do more as time and money allow.

In a previous article I suggested any would-be builder go to Oshkosh first. This remains my number one recommendation to any homebuilder.

This article was originally published in SportPilot Issue 43 | March 2015.

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